Mar 042014

Policy Exchange published its report on sanctions yesterday. Apart from the mantra that a sanction regime is an integral part of welfare, when evidence shows that sanctions are good at driving people off benefits, but useless at helping them finding a job, a lot of attention has been focused on the number of wrongly sanctioned claimants. This number, around 70,000 people, is the number of people with a low level sanction and 1st offence, who had their sanction decisions overturned through appeal or reconsideration. Box 4.1 page 31 of the report elaborates on this.

It would have been a lot more informative to consider all overturned sanction decisions, whether at low, intermediate or high level, and to differentiate between overturned sanction decisions through appeals and through reconsiderations.  

Unfortunately, it is not presently possible to make these calculations as it seems that DWP, which is using a new statistical tool, Stat-Xplore, to allow extraction of different combination of statistics, had to remove all the data related to appeal outcomes because of ‘issues’. While the number of people who appeal a sanction decision is very small (10,362) compared to the total number of people sanctioned, it is the percentage of overturned sanction decisions through appeals compared to the total number of appealed sanction decisions which is above all indicative of the quality of decisions.

The same weight cannot be given to the outcome of a reconsideration as to the outcome of an appeal. Appeals are dealt with by independent tribunals while reconsiderations are done by DWP, and as David Webster, the Glasgow University researcher says: DWP decision makers are’mere agents of the Secretary of State and have had no independent responsibility to apply the law reasonably’.

It is interesting to note that Policy Exchange did not try to disaggregate the appeal and reconsideration figures for analysis. By doing so, the report confers undeserved credibility to the number of wrongly sanctioned claimants. 

So if the reconsideration figures have to be taken with a pinch of salt (a big pinch) and if the appeal outcomes are wrong, where does that leave us?

Feb 242014

This article draws unashamedly on David Webster’s excellent briefing following the release in February 2014 of sanction statistics for JSA and ESA claimants by DWP. David Webster, who is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Glasgow University, also presented very strong and documented evidence to inform the enquiry of the Work and Pension Committee into sanctions in March and November 2013.

The briefing on which this article is based can be found here:

It explains in great detail the trends in sanctions, in reasons for sanctions, in appeals etc. since 1997 which, for David Webster, is evidence that Iain Duncan Smith is behaving unlawfully on a large scale.

Number of sanctions: The latest figures released by DWP through its new software (Stat-Xplore) show that the number of sanctions for JSA and ESA claimants has reached unprecedented levels.  Between 22/10/2012 and 30/09/2013 (49 weeks) 527,574 JSA claimants received a sanction. The figure for ESA claimants over a complete year is 22,840, also a record number. Although the rate of sanctions for ESA claimants is much lower, it is rising and stands almost at 0.,5% per month (compared to 6% for JSA claimants in the 3 months to 30/09/2013). 

Length of sanctions: What has also changed is the length of sanctions. Although ministers claimed that hardly anyone would be subject to the new 3-year sanctions, the number of JSA claimants who had received a 3-year sanction rose to 962 by 30 September 2013, up from 700 by 30 June 2013.  Claimants’ ‘failures’ such as not attending or being late for advisory interviews,  non-availability for employment, which used to attract  1 or 2 week sanction, are now penalised with a 4 week sanction 

Reasons for sanctions: The main reasons for JSA sanctions are failure to participate in training/employment schemes and not ‘actively seeking work’ while the majority of ESA claimants are being sanctioned for not participating in work-related activity (75%), and the remainder for missing or being late for an interview.

Work Programme: The Work Programme continues to fail JSA claimants, as contractors have been responsible for twice as many sanctions on the people referred to them as they have produced job outcomes:  394,759 sanctions and 198,750 job outcomes. There is also evidence of maladministration of referral forms which has lead to a huge increase of cancelled referrals. What it means is Work Programme contractors are making mistakes in their paperwork on a big scale.

Appeals and reconsiderations:  The success rate of appeals taken to an independent tribunal is quoted as being 58%, even by the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary. This figure represents an average over 12 months, which fails to reflect the strong and clear upward trend of successful appeals. Tribunals are now upholding almost 9 out of 10 of appeals against DWP. This confirms the evidence that sanctions are applied unreasonably.

Unfortunately, only about one in 50 sanctioned claimants appeals to a Tribunal – 2.44% in the latest 3 months. The vast majority of claimants find the process too difficult.

To conclude, a note added by David Webster to his briefing regarding the role of sanctions in creating destitution:

‘There is clearly a lot of confusion about the role of sanctions in creating destitution. The current regime under which sanctioned claimants lose all their benefits and, unless in an arbitrarily defined ‘vulnerable’ group, are not allowed even to apply for discretionary ‘hardship payments’ for the first two weeks, has been in force since October 1996. What has changed dramatically in recent years is the number and length of sanctions. Prior to the Jobseekers Act 1995, sanctioned claimants were entitled to a reduced rate of Income Support or Supplementary Benefit as of right from the start, assessed on the normal rules’.