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Benefit sanctions

A benefit sanction – ie withdrawal of benefit or a reduction in the amount of benefit paid for a certain period – may be imposed if a claimant is deemed not to have complied with a condition for receiving the benefit in question. Benefit sanctions are not a new feature of the social security system, but there is widespread concern among welfare rights and pressure groups about the incidence and impact of sanctioning, particularly since new “conditionality” regimes for Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance claimants were introduced in late 2012. 

The latest statistics show that between October 2012 – when the new JSA regime was introduced – and June 2015, over 1.8 million sanctions were imposed on JSA claimants.  Between December 2012 and June 2015, 70,452 sanctions were imposed on ESA claimants.

In 2013 the previous Government appointed an Independent Reviewer to look at the clarity of communications between Jobcentre Plus and claimants in relation to JSA conditionality and sanctions, the availability of hardship payments to those who are sanctioned, and the clarity of the review and appeals process. The report by the Independent Reviewer – Matthew Oakley – was published in July 2014 and the Government accepted, either fully or in principle, all of its 17 recommendations.

In March 2015 the Work and Pensions Committee published a report, Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review, which recommended, among other things, that the Government take urgent steps implement fully the outstanding recommendations from the Oakley Report.  Other recommendations included a series of evaluations to increase the evidence base around the efficacy and impacts of the new sanctions regime; better training for Jobcentre staff on the lone parent flexibilities; developing guidance to assist staff to identify vulnerable claimants and tailor conditionality according to the claimant’s individual circumstances, expediting the evaluation of the JSA “claimant commitment”, including a review of the appropriate use of jobseeker directions; a small-scale pilot to test the efficacy of a more targeted approach to sanctions based on “segmentation” of claimants by their attitudes and motivations; and a review of ESA sanctioning within the Work Programme.  The Committee also recommended changes to hardship provision, including making all hardship payments available from the start of sanctions periods, and putting the onus on the Department to initiate the hardship process for vulnerable claimants and those with children.

In its response to the Committee published in October, the Government made a series of announcements including its intention to trial a “yellow card” waring system whereby claimants would be given 14 days to provide evidence of “good reason” before imposition of a sanction; reintroducing automated JSA sanction notifications; new guidance to jobcentre plus staff to improve awareness of vulnerability and how conditionality can be varied; and changes to hardship provision including accepting in principle that payments should be available from day one, removing the necessity of a separate application process for vulnerable claimants and those with children, and extending the definition of groups considered “at risk” for hardship purposes to include homeless people and those with mental health conditions.  The Government did not however accept the Committee’s recommendation that it establish a “broad independent review of benefit conditionality and sanctions” to investigate whether sanctions are being applied “appropriately, fairly and proportionately, in accordance with the relevant Regulations and guidance.”

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