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24 March 2015

People looking for work need support, not sanctions

The DWP's sanctions regime puts the most vulnerable at risk. The next government - of whatever hue - must do better.

By James Bolton

Imagine getting to work and being told by your boss that you’ve been sanctioned – he’s not going to pay you for the next four weeks because you went to hospital and missed your meeting. He also sanctioned you last year after you refused to take a job doing night shifts because you couldn’t find anyone to look after your daughter. If you know to ask, he’ll start giving you ‘hardship’ payments in two weeks, which are about half your pay. But until then you and your daughter will get nothing.

Shocking, isn’t it? Surely that could never happen today? While perhaps the exception, this does happen and these examples are real – the only difference here is that the ‘boss’ is actually a Jobcentre advisor, there to help people find work. For many unemployed people, desperate to find a job, the fear of their Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) being sanctioned is their daily life.

Today the Work and Pensions Committee released their report into benefit sanctions, calling for a ‘full independent review’. The committee’s chair, Anne Begg stated that the system should ‘avoid causing severe financial hardship’, but that it ‘does not always achieve this’.

If you or I were on JSA and unfairly sanctioned, we’d simply have to wait and hope that the sanction eventually got removed on appeal, giving back our £72.40 per week. If we had to take out a payday loan to pay for essentials like children’s clothes, we’d be saddled with the interest. Perhaps we wouldn’t be able to afford to top up the electricity meter to heat our homes. We’d go cold, be in debt and have to rely on food banks to feed our families. This isn’t ‘what if’ – it’s real life for many. 

‘It is not reasonable to expect people to live without and source of income for 2 weeks’, Begg stated. Unfortunately, this is simply the reality for many of the three million people who claimed JSA in 2013-14. Over half a million people were sanctioned during that time – 18% of people claiming. 35,170 were sanctioned three times. In 2008-9, just 10% of claimants were sanctioned.

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“The system must also be capable of identifying and protecting vulnerable people, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities”, Begg said. For the system to truly protect vulnerable people, it must be redesigned, and sanctions must be a genuine last resort. Just as important is ensuring that staff understand how to support people.

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Nothing shows this need better than the unbelievable – yet true – story of a man who was on JSA, wanted a job, and went to the Jobcentre for help. He couldn’t use a computer because of his learning disability, which he told his advisor. He applied for jobs by post and showed his advisor the list of jobs he’d applied for. His advisor sanctioned him because he hadn’t applied for the jobs on a computer. 

The advisor didn’t understand his needs or how to support him, instead falling back on all too familiar sanctions. A charity advisor helped him have this sanction removed and secured fairer goals, including applying for some jobs on paper and others on a computer.  He still gets questioned as to why he hasn’t applied for more jobs on a computer and has to explain, time and again, that he can only use a computer when the charity supports him. The Jobcentre won’t provide this support.

Living on £72.40 per week JSA (or just £57.35 if you’re under 25) is difficult enough. Forcing people to survive with no money for two weeks and then on £43.44 per week hardship payments, sometimes for up to three years, is a symptom of a broken system that needs to be redesigned. The first step is Begg’s full independent review. I hope that the next government commits to it. 

With the rhetoric that constantly gets thrown around – skivers vs strivers springs to mind – it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that most people just want support to get a job. Put simply, people looking for work need support, not sanctions.