In many ways, benefit sanctions offer the holy grail of public policy: the opportunity to find small changes that make a big difference, at little or no cost to the public purse. In its belated response to the Work and Pensions Committee’s report on sanctions in March of this year, the government has outlined a number of such policy changes. These include the trialling of a new system to give claimants a warning notice of the intention to sanction, and changes around hardship payments so that they can be claimed earlier and, in some cases, without a separate application process.
Our research, in partnership with the Church of England, Trussell Trust and Oxfam, into the drivers of food bank use last year found sanctions to be a significant contributing factor. Between 20 and 30 per cent of clients at three food banks were there because their benefits had been reduced or stopped because of a sanction. Only a small minority had been awarded hardship payments (18% in Durham and 1 of 28 and 2 of 28 in Epsom and Ewell and Tower Hamlets respectively), and under half knew that they were able to apply for them. The operation of the sanctions regime is therefore something that concerns us, and we believe that a few relatively small changes could make a big difference.
One of the things we have called for repeatedly is wider hardship payment availability. In our evidence to the Committee, CPAG argued that hardship payments should be made available to all claimants in the first 14 days of a sanction, rather than many groups having to wait until then to submit a claim. We therefore welcome the government’s commitment in accepting in principle a recommendation from the Committee to this effect, and promising to consider allowing hardship payments in the first 14 days for a wider group of claimants (page 19). We believe that this should be made available to all claimants, and in particular to parents of children over 16 (children under 16 are already covered).
We also argued for a decision on hardship payments to be made at the same time as a decision to sanction, and the government’s decision to accept in principle that ‘a Decision Maker should instigate the initial appointment for hardship where a claimant is either vulnerable or has dependent children’ (page 20) is welcome. They qualify this, however, by stating that they will ‘need to conduct some further work on the feasibility of this recommendation’.
Given that CPAG was one of many to point to the sheer scale of erroneous sanctions, regularly encountered in its work, the piloting of a 14 day warning period before applying sanctions (page 5) is a positive development. In our evidence, we argued that benefits should not be suspended while a sanction is reconsidered, and called for a 14 day period after notification during which the claimant may challenge the decision. Hopefully, the government’s trial will allow this warning period to be used by claimants to provide evidence of good reason before a final decision to sanction is made. The government’s response did not, however, comment on recommendations the Committee made for piloting non-financial sanctions, and no mention was made of the previously-mooted ‘yellow card’ system.
When it comes to the broader principle of sanctions, the government’s response is less open. There are repeated assertions that sanctions not only work, but that it is ‘widely accepted’ that they do so. Indeed, in the introduction, the government assert that ‘it is widely accepted that a conditionality system is the most effective way of offering support’. This paves the way for a non-acceptance of the Committee’s key recommendation, that a broad, independent review of benefit conditionality and sanctions be commissioned, the Oakley Review having had a narrow remit, around issues of communication and understanding, and being limited to only around a third of jobseekers sanctioned or at risk of being sanctioned. This refusal extended to recommendations to pilot different approaches, to evaluate the efficacy and impacts of four-week minimum sanction periods, or to consider the clarity and coherence of the legislative framework for benefit sanctions policy as a whole.
The government’s response overall is a step forward, and both the opportunity to provide evidence after being warned of an intention to sanction, and measures to increase access to hardship payments, have the potential to make a significant difference to the lives of many benefit claimants. Unfortunately, the government’s unwillingness to evaluate its approach, or to submit it to independent review, suggest that sanctions will continue to cause substantial suffering for some time to come.