Government to overhaul benefits sanctions process
Independent report shows systematic failings in the way benefit sanctions are communicated and processed.
The government is to overhaul the way it treats benefit recipients threatened by sanctions, after an independent report it commissioned showed systematic failings in the process, including disproportionate burdens placed on the most vulnerable.
The report found that the way in which the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) communicated with claimants was legalistic, unclear and confusing. The most vulnerable claimants were often left at a loss as to why their benefits were stopped and frequently they were not informed about hardship payments to which they were entitled, the report said.
It also revealed serious flaws in how sanctions were imposed; providers of the government’s work programme were required to bring in sanctions when they knew the claimants had done nothing wrong, leaving those people “sent from pillar to post”.
The independent report was written for the DWP by Matthew Oakley, a respected welfare expert who has worked as an economic adviser for the Treasury and for the centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange.
The report was completed some weeks ago, but publication of its 17 reform proposals was delayed.
Oakley said that the system was not fundamentally broken, but his criticism was all the more damaging for a government that has consistently described the benefit sanctions regime as fair.
The DWP responded to the report by saying it would be altering the way it talked to benefit claimants, setting up a specialist team to look at all communications, including claimant letters.
The sanctions regime, and the confusing way in which it is administered, has been one reason behind the growth in the public’s use of food banks.
In a new commitment, the DWP promised that if vulnerable claimants claimed for hardship on or before their signing day, they would receive a hardship payment at their normal payment date.
The department also promised it would take steps to ensure local authorities did not dock housing benefit and that they gave claimants a clear chance to comply with sanctions, and that there was consideration over whether work programme providers could be empowered to make decisions on sanction referrals.
Oakley’s report said: “No matter what system of social security is in place, if it is communicated poorly, if claimants do not understand the system and their responsibilities, and if they are not empowered to challenge decisions they believe to be incorrect and seek redress, then it will not fulfil its purpose. It will be neither fair nor effective.”
His terms of reference, he said, were about the way sanctions were administered on mandatory back-to-work schemes (covering a third of those claimants at risk of being sanctioned), but the proposed reforms would be relevant to the entire benefits system.
The report said sanction letters “were, on the whole, found to be complex and difficult to understand”.
It added that partly owing to the legal requirements the department had to fulfil when it wrote to claimants, the letters were overly long and legalistic in their tone and content; they lacked personalised explanations of the reason for sanction referrals; and they were not always clear about the possibility of, and process surrounding, appeals or applications for hardship payments. The letters were particularly hard to understand for the most vulnerable claimants – so those most in need of the hardship system “were the least likely to be able to access it”.
The report said: “Actual and sample letters that the review team saw were hard to understand (even for those working in the area), unclear as to why someone was being sanctioned and confusingly laid out.”
The review found that many people “expressed concerns that the first that claimants knew of adverse decisions was when they tried to get their benefit payment out of a cash point but could not”.
The report also said that Jobcentre advisers had highlighted the damage that sanctions imposed on the most vulnerable.
It stated: “Many advisers also highlighted the difficulties of communicating with particular groups of claimants. In particular, many advisers identified a ‘vulnerable’ group who tended to be sanctioned more than the others because they struggled to navigate the system. This concern for the vulnerable claimants was consistent throughout the visits.
“For these groups, particular difficulties were highlighted around the length of time it could take to ensure some claimants fully understood what was required of them, and in conveying that a ‘sanction’ could entail the loss of benefit for a prolonged period of time.”
The report also criticised the failure of Jobcentres to highlight hardship payments. It said: “A more specific concern surrounding the hardship system was that only those claimants that asked about help in Jobcentre Plus were told about the hardship system. Advisers, decision-makers and advocate groups argued that this meant that groups with poorer understanding of the system were less likely to gain access.
“Since, on the whole, more vulnerable claimants are those with the poorest understanding of the system, this suggests that some of those most in need are also those least able to access hardship.”
The report also found that providers of mandatory work schemes were unable to make legal decisions about claimants’ reasons for missing appointments and so had to impose sanctions.
“This means that they have to refer all claimants who fail to attend a mandatory interview to a decision-maker even if the claimant has provided them with what would ordinarily count as good reason, in Jobcentre Plus.
“This situation results in confusion as the claimant does not understand why they are being referred for a sanction. A very high proportion of referrals for sanctions from mandatory back-to-work schemes are subsequently cancelled or judged to be non-adverse.”
- The Guardian,