Thrive received funding from Comic Relief to deliver a two year project to empower sanction claimants and address the issue of job centre sanctions and consequent hardship.
The scale and depth of benefit sanctions have been causing financial hardship, emotional turmoil and ill health for many who have been sanctioned over the past few years.
It is accepted that there is a need for a „conditions‟ to be attached to the entitlement of benefits and in order to be eligible for JSA, a claimant would need to be available for work and actively seeking work. The Claimant Commitment is a record of responsibilities and requirements the claimant agrees to (numbers of jobs to apply for, meetings to attend..) and benefits are conditional on completing these requirements. If a claimant fails to agree or does not comply with their claimant commitment their benefits could be sanctioned and stopped for a period of time, usually a month, but potentially up to three years
There are numerous reports and collated evidence (The Oakley Review 2014, Benefit Sanctions Policy: Beyond the Oakley Review, Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions, Church Action on Poverty et al 2014, Welfare Sanctions and Conditionality, Joseph Rowntree Foundation etc) raising concerns and the perceived injustice associated with the current sanctions regime and in particular, have highlighted:
- The impact on peoples lives – and the controversy in relation to the withholding of subsistence level benefit payments from people who may have little or no other income.
- The fairness and appropriateness of the need to administer a sanction or put forward a referral for a sanction – asking are they fair and proportionate to the mistakes that have occurred?
- The lack of information available to claimants regarding the possibility they may be sanctioned or if they are sanctioned, the impact on other benefits and their right to apply for a hardship payment.
- The length of time sanctioned claimants wait for a hardship payment or reversal of a sanctioned decision.
- The variable evidence that questions the effectiveness of the sanction (i.e do sanctions improve people‟s job seeking behaviour and move them closer to the labour market?)
Statistics and testimonies from people who have been sanctioned would question the fairness of the current sanction regime.
- There is still a high number of JSA sanctions being overturned nationally and locally (80,600 nationally in the 12 months leading up to March 2015 and for Stockton, it averaged at 34.4% between the 3 month period – Dec 2014 and March 2015)
- A high proportion of people accessing the services of Thrive, Stockton District Advice Service and Stockton Welfare Rights have not appealed and many were unaware that they had the right to appeal the decision made.
- The numbers of people who have been referred to foodbanks through Thrive has increased. Many of people Thrive refer have been sanctioned by the job centre.
- A high proportion of sanctioned claimants in Stockton have been sanctioned for a „first non-compliance‟ action and reasons such as – missed appointments, late for appointment, not applying for a specific number of jobs, having conflicting appointment times… These sanctioned claimants ‘are actively seeking work’ but have evidenced a minor infringement of the jobseeking conditionality
- A high proportion of people accessing the services of Thrive, „do not fully understand‟ their Claimant Commitment and have agreed to responsibilities and requirements as set out by their work coach advisor. In the words of one claimant, „I would have signed anything just to get out of there..they make you feel so small..I can‟t even sleep the night before my appointment at the job centre‟
Sanctions are often disproportionate to the mistakes that they punish.
The penalties attached to sanctions often do not appear proportionate to the „failure‟ that has occurred. If a similar system operated in a workplace – were pay was immediately removed for a month for being late for a meeting or not achieving a weekly target – we might reasonably expect action to be taken against an employer (Time to rethink Benefit Sanctions: A report by Church Action on Poverty et al). Testimonies from people accessing the services of Thrive have noted that decisions to sanction have been: “after securing 14 hours work a week, the job centre said I still had to apply for the same number of jobs set out in my claimant commitment, I wasn‟t able to do this so I was sanctioned..I‟m doing my best as a single parent and it obviously wasn‟t good enough”…. “my phone broke and I didn‟t have enough money to buy a new one… the job centre changed my appointment time and I didn‟t get the message so I was sanctioned for not turning up at the right time..I tried to explain they said I should have told them I lost my phone.. I was sanctioned for 4 weeks..”
Who is sanctioned?
Thrive have found that many of the people who access support following a sanction are often unable to comply with conditions rather than unwilling
There is a direct correlation between areas of deprivation and sanctions within the borough of Stockton. Sanctions are mainly concentrated in the centre of the Borough and deprived wards. People accessing support from advice agencies following a sanction are generally representative of the vulnerable members of our community. They have a range of mental health issues, long term disabilities, are isolated, have literacy problems and face a range of difficulties on a daily basis.
People are without money for weeks or months/ resorting to foodbanks and „are going without sufficient food…to maintain their health‟ (Dr Katie Garthwaite, Durham University). Thrive are now referring more people who have been sanctioned to the local foodbanks. People are talking about the strain on their families. Their immediate family are not in a position to support them financially and it is putting a strain on household budgets and family relationships
Effectiveness of sanctions
There is variable evidence in relation to financial sanctions and their effectiveness with regards changing behaviour and improving people‟s ability to gain and sustain full employment. If it is effective in moving people to employment, this employment is generally poorer quality, temporary or unstable (Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2010). Within the Church Action on Poverty et al report „Time to rethink Benefit Sanctions 2014, they analysed national statistics to ascertain whether or not sanctions get people into work. It was noted that recent UK data indicates, „for every 100 sanctions imposed, 42 people will leave benefits but only 7 will enter work. There is not a clear picture of how the 35 leave benefit manage financially‟. Also there is „over a million people are unemployed and not claiming benefits (see Baumberg 2012)
Recent updates / further evidence & support to make changes to the current sanctions regime:
‘Concluding Observations’ issued at the United Nations in Geneva on the 24th June
produced after broad consultation with more than 115 civil society organisations, and a constructive dialogue with a delegation sent by the UK, Scottish, and Welsh governments.
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights calls upon the UK – in the strongest possible terms – to revisit a number of its social security policies. It notes that it is ‘deeply concerned’ by some of the changes that have been made in recent years. The current system of welfare conditionality („benefit sanctions‟) is singled out for attention. Two aspects – the „extent‟ of sanctioning, and the „absence of due process and access to justice‟ – are condemned by the independent expert members of the Committee (para 40).
The Committee‟s comments, and indeed the Committee itself, are grounded in international law; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (to which the UK voluntarily became a party in 1976). As such, these recommendations effectively put the UK „on notice‟ and act as a warning to all parts of the UK State (but especially central government), that it is likely to be violating international law.