The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has just announced that Jobcentres will remain open during the latest coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdown. While this is not new, the devil is in the detail. Because the DWP has not publicly said whether it is suspending sanctions or not, like it did in March 2020. But now, The Canary has received confirmation that the DWP will continue to impose sanctions on claimants in some circumstances.
DWP Jobcentres: remaining open
On Wednesday 6 January, the DWP issued updated guidance about Jobcentres. It said that they:
will remain open, as they have throughout this pandemic, to provide essential services and support to those who we cannot help in any other way.
The DWP also noted that:
We will ensure that this support continues to be delivered in line with the latest government and PHE guidance – such as maintaining social distancing and rigorous cleaning regimes – keeping our colleagues and customers safe.
This approach from the DWP is not new.
Back to March 2020
People receiving benefits do not have to attend jobcentre appointments for at least 3 months, starting from Thursday 19 March 2020. People will continue to receive their benefits as normal, but all requirements to attend the jobcentre in person are suspended.
Now, it appears that the DWP is continuing with this approach. But compared to March 2020 other parts of its guidance are not so specific.
Previously it stated the following:
- “people who need to claim ESA or Universal Credit because of coronavirus will not be required to produce a fit note”.
- “when claimants tell us in good time that they are staying at home or that they have been diagnosed with coronavirus, they will not be sanctioned – we will review their conditionality requirements in their claimant commitment, to ensure they are reasonable”.
- “claimants who are staying at home as a result of coronavirus will have their mandatory work search and work availability requirements removed to account for a period of sickness”.
But the new guidance does not give details on the above points, most notably conditionality, which is covered in points two and three above.
In July 2020, the DWP started to phase back in so-called conditionality. It said at the time:
We don’t want to sanction anyone. These are difficult, uncertain times for many people and we want to do everything we can to help them find work or increase hours, where that is possible for them. No sanction will be used until the claimant has an up-to-date Claimant Commitment in place. After that, a sanction will only be used where a claimant has not provided good reason for meeting the agreed requirements in the Claimant Commitment. Claimants who are shielding, have childcare responsibilities because of COVID restrictions, etc. will have their Claimant Commitment tailored to reflect their circumstances and will not be asked to do anything unreasonable.
failing to comply with a claimant commitment means you can be sanctioned.
A sanction is where the DWP stops a person’s benefit money.
Then in November, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request forced the department to publish its latest internal guidance on conditionality. It is called the Sanction Assurance Framework. The document gives DWP staff guidance on when and why to apply conditionality.
Factoring in coronavirus?
For example, it states that sanctions can still be applied if a claimant doesn’t look for enough work. The guidance does state:
When considering a possible sanction referral, the work coach must gather evidence and review any changes in the claimant’s circumstances taking into account… pandemic (for example, COVID-19)
This suggests that, if a person can’t complete a work search due to self-isolation, then the DWP must take that into account.
But this is not the same as the previous blanket ban on sanctions. And it may still leave some people vulnerable to having their money stopped – even when coronavirus and the circumstances it has left them in is to blame for non-compliance with their claimant commitment.
The DWP says…
The Canary asked the DWP for further information on its 6 January announcement. We specifically wanted to know if it would reintroduce the easements relating to conditionality and sanctions that it previously put in place last March. A spokesperson would not give us a comment for publication. But they did outline that essentially the same rules it brought in in July 2020 were remaining in place. Of note is that the DWP took 22 hours to finally give The Canary a definitive response.
While some restrictions in sanctions are to be welcomed, historically DWP data shows that it has to overturn nearly a third of its decisions to apply a sanction. The rates of sanctions did fall after last March, when the DWP restricted their use. But it’s own data shows it still sanctioned nearly 20,000 claimants in August 2020 alone.
Slow to act
Universal Credit, and DWP staff in particular, have received praise from various quarters, including in recent reports from the Work and Pensions Committee and the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee. It has been noted that the digital and automated structure of the benefit, combined with the temporary changes made by the DWP, has enabled the system to withstand a sudden increase in demand where legacy systems may have struggled.
So, you’d think the DWP would react in the same way it did last March. This is now all the more pressing, given that since February 2020 the number of people on Universal Credit has increased by nearly three million, to just over 5.8 million people. Yet, it now appears that the DWP is keeping the same sanctions regime that was in place last summer, when the country was under barely any coronavirus restrictions. This approach is dangerous – and could potentially cause catastrophe for countless claimants.
Has the DWP sanctioned you during the coronavirus pandemic? Did you feel it was unfair? Then get in touch with us. You can contact The Canary securely via our Tip Offs page, here.
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