The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been caught out over benefit sanctions. New evidence has uncovered a major discrepancy in the DWP’s sanctions figures, and campaigners have accused the department of “fiddling” and “cheating”.
The DWP: cooking the books?
The work and pensions select committee has written [pdf] to employment minister Alok Sharma over benefit sanctions. It forms part of the committee’s ongoing inquiry into the sanctions regime. But its chair, Labour’s Frank Field, appears to have uncovered a major discrepancy between the number of sanctions the DWP claims are being applied and the actual figure.
This is because the DWP has been taking off sanctions that are overturned at the appeal stage. This means its official figures massively under-report the true scale of the number of sanctions being applied.
The amount of ‘missed off’ sanctions is staggering. The committee’s own figures [pdf, p4] combine Universal Credit, Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) pre- and post-appeal sanctions figures. NB: the final column in the table below says “JSA”; this should be “ESA”. It shows that between August 2016 and January 2018, tens of thousands of sanctions were not declared by the DWP. The percentage difference between the rate of sanctions the DWP declared and the actual number hit a peak of 57% in one month:
“Fiddling, lying, cheating… incompetent… negligent”
Field accused [pdf, p3] the DWP of “poor decision-making” in relation to sanctions. But Bob Ellard from campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) went further. He told The Canary:
Pretty much every day another revelation comes along about DWP ministers and top civil servants being caught fiddling, lying, cheating, being incompetent or wilfully negligent.
Cheater-in-chief Esther McVey needs to be sacked and then there needs to be a wholesale clearout at the top levels of the DWP. Staff should replaced by workers with at least a basic minimum standard of ethics and professionalism.
A DWP spokesperson told The Canary:
A wide range of data about sanctions is available, including information about appeals. Only a small proportion of sanction decisions are appealed and in the cases where they are overturned, the claimant’s payments are backdated.
Marred by scandal
The DWP’s sanctions regime is entrenched in scandal.
For example, the National Audit Office (NAO) said in November 2016 that the DWP was “not doing enough” to monitor the effect of sanctions on claimants. It also said the DWP couldn’t quantify the regime’s impact on public finances.
Fast forward to 15 June this year, and the NAO again criticised sanctions – this time in terms of Universal Credit. It noted [pdf, p74] that the rates of DWP sanctions being overturned at appeals suggested: “decisions are not always correct”. The DWP’s own data qualifies this.
As The Canary previously reported, between 1 August 2015 and 31 January 2018, 29% of Universal Credit mandatory reconsiderations ended in the sanction decision being overturned. At appeals, this figure was 83%.
In May 2018, the Economic and Social Research Council funded a five-year study on sanctions by six universities. It found that, for disabled and homeless people, lone parents, job seekers and those on Universal Credit, sanctions invariably did “very little”, were “largely ineffective” or had mixed outcomes. The report specifically noted that the DWP’s “threat of sanction” wasn’t necessary to get people back into work.
The report concluded [pdf, p1] that:
The ethical legitimacy of welfare conditionality [making welfare conditional on certain behaviours]… is further undermined by its ineffectiveness in helping people enter and maintain paid work…
With the weight of evidence against sanctions becoming overwhelming, any rational government department would immediately put a moratorium in place until the system was fixed. Any rational political party would scrap the policy altogether. But this is the DWP and the Conservatives we’re dealing with. So any sense of rationality is virtually non-existent.