One of the government’s key policies has come under attack from the body that scrutinises public spending. A new report [pdf] from the National Audit Office (NAO) has torn the benefits sanctions regime to shreds.
Benefit sanctions are widely criticised for being arbitrary, and for disproportionately [pdf] affecting the youngest and most vulnerable citizens. And this report by a government department is a damning indictment of the system.
Sanctions are supposed to be used when claimants are deemed to have failed to comply with conditions attached to their benefits. But they have been used to sanction people for missing an appointment through going into premature labour or being in hospital for two weeks after being hit by a car. And not filling in a job search form on Christmas Day could also be sanctionable.
Being sanctioned on Jobseeker’s Allowance means that payments can be suspended between four weeks and three years. This means that people who already struggle to get by on benefits are plunged deeper into poverty. And there is evidence [pdf] that not only do sanctions disproportionately affect the youngest and most vulnerable, the stress they cause is contributing to mental health problems.
One man described how his mental health deteriorated after being sanctioned:
My mental health (which was already vulnerable after months of unemployed stagnation) deteriorated rapidly and challenging the decision was incredibly difficult.
During 2015, 800,000 people [pdf] were referred for sanctions and 400,000 sanctions applied. But as the NAO point out:
the fact that sanctions are widespread does not mean they are well designed, fairly administered or effective.
The report [pdf] also found that the way benefit sanctions are applied is a postcode lottery. Different people receive different sanctions from different Jobcentres. For example, the report states:
some Work Programme providers make more than twice as many sanction referrals as other providers supporting similar people in the same area.
And if further found that:
The Department has not used sanctions consistently. Referral rates vary substantially across jobcentres and providers, and have risen and fallen over time in ways that cannot be explained by changes in claimant compliance.
Evaluation, what evaluation?
Additionally, the NAO said the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is not properly evaluating the way sanctions are used, the effectiveness of their use, or whether they are providing value for money.
In particular, the findings of the report conclude [pdf] that the DWP did not:
- use its own data to evaluate the impact of sanctions in the UK;
- support wider work to improve understanding of sanction outcomes;
- track the costs and benefits of sanctions.
Essentially, it appears from the report that a policy which has led to immense hardship for so many people has been implemented without any thought, or any basic project management techniques.
Value for money?
And it’s not as though the misery caused for so many people is actually saving the government any money. According to the NAO figures, the DWP spent £30-£50m [pdf] a year applying sanctions and £200m monitoring them. But only £132m was saved in benefit payments.
Despite this, Jobcentre advisers are being put under pressure to sanction claimants regardless of whether or not it is appropriate. According to the PCS union, staff were told that giving them the figures enabled them to:
see how their performance translates into monetary savings for the country.
Private member’s bill
Hopefully, this report will add weight to the private member’s bill currently being brought by SNP MP Mhairi Black. Although Black would like to get rid of sanctions altogether, her pragmatic bill aims at reforming the sanctions regime by introducing a “formal code of conduct” for the way sanctions are imposed. Black stated:
Instead of vague guidelines, have a formal code which job centres must meet. They have to take into account someone’s housing situation, their physical and mental health and their caring responsibilities. And only then, can a sanction be applied. Hopefully this will stop anyone being left absolutely destitute as we have experienced so many times.
The only conclusion that can be drawn from this report is that the government is implementing a policy which has no other purpose other than to punish the poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Black’s bill is a good start, but we all need to start taking action to demand the end of all sanctions.
– If you want to get involved in the public consultation over this bill, visit the SNP website.
– Support Disabled People Against the Cuts.
Featured image via Flickr
We need your help to keep speaking the truth
Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.
Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.
We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.
In return, you get:
* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop
Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.
With your help we can continue:
* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do
We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?