Up the sanction - Welfare Reform's teeth could bite itself

20 May 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Jul 2015

DWP says sanctions are a "last resort" and encouragement to work - but some reported examples make that description look laughable, and could make them the biggest danger to Welfare Reform. Scope takes a look.

Numerous sources are hinting at or warning about the danger that Stormont will collapse soon – with the fatal wound perhaps coming as soon next week.

The House on the Hill is familiar with such sabre rattling, talking up the fragility of Northern Ireland’s administration is a staple tactic many of our politicians will use when they think they can gain an advantage, but this time is different. Collapse is a real possibility.

Welfare Reform is the issue. Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey will bring the bill back to Stormont next week, following its unexpected defeat in March.

The potential ramifications for local society are huge. Although there seems to be a strong desire for devolution to continue, and attempts to resurrect an equivalent NI parliament would likely happen, a legislature that cannot function is worth little - leaving nothing certain, at least in the short- and medium-term.

Of course, one thing that would not be in doubt would be welfare reform. Letting Stormont fall might even hasten the process (and forget about any small exemptions already secured from Westminster).

Therefore Scope will continue to look at what the future holds for local social security, keeping a keen eye on parts of the UK where it is already in train.

Sanctions

Last week we published a piece highlighting some of the central points from two reports into the consequences of Welfare Reform, both of which were negative. Coming soon we will have a piece putting forward the rationale behind the changes and arguing that they are in the best interests of us all.

The issue of sanctions was a noted omission from the former, for reasons that will be made clear.

Sanctions are a reduction in benefit – which can mean smaller payments, or a complete suspension for some period of time – that are applied to individuals if they do not adhere to the conditions of the benefit in question.

Examples of conditions include an expectation that someone will look for work and be available for work if they are in receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance or Universal Credit, or attendance at specified medical examinations if someone is in receipt of disability payments.

In theory placing some conditions on social security, placing an appropriate onus on people to do what they can relative to the benefit, seems sensible.

However, numerous sources have accused the application of sanctions of being anything from heavy handed to ludicrous to downright heartless.

Reported examples include:

Bereavement seems to be a common theme in sanctions: one man was sanctioned for missing a job centre appointment on the day his brother died unexpectedly (despite even having the foresight to call and leave a message, which was never relayed to its intended recipient); another for missing an appointment while he was at hospital with his partner, who had just had a stillborn child; a third requested to miss an appointment to attend his best friend’s funeral, was denied permission, and was sanctioned when he went anyway.

And all that is before the possible effect of sanctions is examined.

There have also been reported instances of sanctions actually hindering the efforts of individuals to get back to work, by removing funds that are necessary for this, for example by removing the means to pay for public transport.

All this comes under the spectre of accusations that sanctions are not a “last resort” - as DWP (the Department for Work and Pensions) has repeatedly said, and still maintains - but are in fact a target-led initiative.

A DWP-commissioned report into sanctions, published in July last year, which said “While [it is] found that the system is not fundamentally broken, there are a number of areas where improvements need to be made, particularly for more vulnerable individuals.”

Omission

It should be obvious why sanctions have their own piece. Our previous analysis looked at some reports assessing the outworkings of welfare reform.

Those reports may have reached negative conclusions, and so the article reflects that, however it still deals with matters that lie in the ground of valid debate – and Scope will soon be hearing about the upsides of restructured social security.

Some view Welfare Reform as punishment for the vulnerable and an impediment to social mobility, some as an incentive to aspiration and attempt to make work pay, while many also might take the view that the reasons for and consequences of these moves are complicated and that there is some truth to both those positions.

With sanctions, things are different: either there is significant substance to the allegations outlined above, or there is not.

If it is the former, then the implementation of sanctions thus far has shown an ability to reach high farce. Moreover, for those who champion Welfare Reform, it represents the greatest threat to public support for these changes.

It is easy to forget that WR is something that has not really happened yet – if we get to the stage where people across the UK read in their local paper about a neighbour who lost his disability payments because he had a heart attack during the health assessment, or missed out because she was at her father’s funeral instead of the JobCentre, DWP will feel the pressure.

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