Sanctions, Evidence and Impacts  

by Ken Gibb

Yesterday morning the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee published a report on its work concerning benefit sanctions policy. Here I report the main findings of the committee’s inquiry and reflect on their recommendations, particularly with respect to evidence and the need for future research.

The Committee notes that unemployment benefits have always been conditional and that forms of benefit sanctions have been with us for four decades. They recognise also that the stringency has greatly increased in recent years but that such ‘active’ labour market policies are the norm internationally. The report summary argues that ‘despite the apparent political consensus, sanctions are controversial, because they withhold subsistence-level benefit payments from people who may have little or no other income’.

They go on to say that ‘we agree that benefit conditionality is appropriate and necessary, but it is essential that any system draws on robust evidence on the efficacy and impacts of sanctions, has clear and coherent rules, has strong safeguards to protect the vulnerable, is fair and proportionate, and effectively mitigates the risks of severe financial hardship. The sanctions regime, as currently applied, does not always achieve this…’.

The Committee’s work takes place in the context of the earlier Oakley Review of JSA sanctions. Reporting in July 2014, Oakley focused mainly on Work Programme sanction schemes. The Review found that while ‘not fundamentally broken’, several flaws were identified in terms of how the system was explained and communicated and that more had to be done to help vulnerable clients.

The UK Government responded to the 17 Oakley Review recommendations and accepted them all to different degrees. However, several months later and having heard one of the evidence providers to the House of Commons committee (David Webster) map out the nature and impact of the JSA sanctions system including how appeals work (or not), one is struck by how little reliable evidence there really is. Unless, that is, you undertake the stentorian efforts that an individual researcher like David Webster has had to do in order to collect meaningful numbers.

It is in this context that I want to focus on certain recommendations (8 out of 26) made by the Committee in their report yesterday. I think they speak volumes.

Recommendation 8 says that we need an evidence base to assess the efficacy and impacts of longer minimum sanction periods compared to shorter ones. There is also very limited evidence on the deterrent effect of financial sanctions. There needs to be evidence to assess whether or not the ‘use of sanctions is purely punitive’.

Recommendation 10 argues that DWP should use the implementation of universal credit to implement systems to allow it to monitor the onward journey of sanctioned clients, particularly those at risk of destitution.

Recommendation 17 follows the evidence of professionals in the field the committee argues that the sanctions regime should be much more targeted at the sub set of clients for whom the requirement for behaviour or attitudinal change is evidenced. This would also protect the more determined to get work and the more vulnerable. The committee recommends a pilot to trial this approach.

Recommendation 20 concludes that there is a strong case to review the underlying legislative framework so that sanctions are clearly defined and vulnerable groups protected.

Recommendation 22 notes that there remains a lack of evidence that financial penalties through sanctions move people with long term health conditions and disabilities closer to work. The Committee believes voluntary programmes are evidenced as being more appropriate and should be piloted as part of the DWP’s willingness to experiment with different models.

Recommendation 24 argues that people are not applying for hardship payments and discretionary hardship payments are not preventing people from experiencing severe financial hardship, in part because it takes 15 days of a sanctions period before they become available. The Committee therefore recommends better communications of these payments availability.

Recommendation 25. goes on to conclude that hardship payments should be made available from day one of a sanctions period. This is a particular issue where there are dependent children or other vulnerable groups involved.

Recommendation 26 is about suicides. The committee acknowledge the work being done by DWP to better understand individual cases but recommends that a body similar to the police complaints commission should be established to conduct reviews where an individual in receipt of an out of work working age benefit dies – and that lessons can be learned at every stage of policy and policy delivery by all agencies involved. The Committee notes that suicide is multi causal but that since February 2012 there have been 49 peer reviews of individual cases, 33 of which resulted in recommendations for further consideration.

To put these recommendations in other more direct terms – we don’t know what the effects are of longer-term sanctions. We do not know, second, what happens to people after they become sanctioned. Third, there is a profession/practice concern that the sanctions regime is blunt and untargeted catching many of the vulnerable and genuine job searchers: so much so that the underlying legal framework should be fundamentally reviewed. Fourth, there is little evidence that sanctions around ESA help get people closer to employment. Fifth, the system for the provision of hardship payments appears to have multiple flaws and should be available sooner. Finally, there is a need to do more to better understand and act upon suicides that may be linked to the sanctions regime.

We seem in conclusion to be a long way from the Committee’s definition of what a well-functioning sanctions/conditionality regime would look like. But to be honest, I found this to be a thoroughly depressing account of what is a massively disproportionate conditionality regime, which profoundly lacks evidence on its impacts, weak safeguards and wider consequences. To paraphrase Gandhi when he was asked what he thought about Western Civilization he replied to the effect that a civilized west would be a good idea.