Record levels of JSA sanctions: before the regime gets really tough
Much of the discussion of welfare reform, from us and others, centres on the headline changes - for instance, the introduction of the bedroom tax or the benefit cap. Much less is written about the increasing number of conditions attached to those eligible. But this rise in “conditionality” is a significant change in the benefit system, as a look at the number of Job Seeker's Allowance recipients who have been “sanctioned” – had their benefit stopped or reduced – shows quite clearly.
Sanctions regimes are nothing new. David Webster, in his fascinating written evidence to the House of Commons Work & Pensions Committee, shows the levels of sanctions applied, going all the way back to the 1920s. It’s worth bearing in mind, then, when politicians talk of docking the benefits of people who decline the offer of work, that the means of doing just that has existed for a long time. A sanction can be applied for a number of reasons; if a claimant does not take up an offer of work or training, or doesn't make themselves available for such offers or refuses to take part in the Work Programme.
Sanctions can be of fixed or variable length: under the Labour administration, most sanctions were of variable length, whereas under the current regime the majority are of fixed duration. The figures for the most recent sanctions regime are not yet available (more on this later), but we can look at figures up to August of last year. The data allows us to analyse the trend back to the beginning of the last decade: that trend is telling enough.
The graph below shows the number of referrals for sanctions and the number where the decision on the referral actually resulted in a sanction. You can look at both the number of referrals and sanctions and this number as a proportion of all JSA claims by clicking on the relevant button at the top of the graph.
We'll start off by looking at the numbers. In the decade to May 2010, the number of referrals sanctions fluctuated between 40,000 and 70,000 per month. On average, there were 60,000 referrals per month, of which around 25,000 would result in an actual sanction. Numbers rose in 2009, as the total number of people claiming JSA rose in the recession. There was then a further rise between May 2010 and August 2012, to an average of 125,000 referrals per month, of which around 65,000 resulted in a sanction.
Note: this change in 2010 is actually Labour policy implemented on the Coalition's watch. The fact that it happens when the nrew government takes over is coincidental. The change was to make non- attendance at a Job Centre Plus interview a sanctionable offence.
Looking at these numbers in terms of the proportion of people claiming, the average in the years to May 2010, monthly referrals amounted to 6.3% of those receiving JSA, and actual sanctions 2.7%. Since then, referrals as a proportion of claimants have risen to 8.9%, with 4.3% receiving an actual sanction. So since 2010 there has been more than a doubling in the number of sanctions applied and a 50% increase in sanctions as a proportion of all JSA claimants. However you measure it, the post- 2010 regime was much stricter than the previous one.
The dip in 2011 coincides with the beginning of the Work Programme. It took some months for the Work Programme to become fully established, and to become a source of a significant number of sanctions. By the middle of last year around 50,000 people a month were referred for sanctions for not attending the Work Programme, around one third of which (around 15,000) received an actual sanction. Up to October last year, the number of people who found work through the Work Programme never reached this monthly level. More people were sanctioned for not attending the Work Programme than found work through it.
These figures only take us up to late 2012, when the new sanctions regime came in. Despite planning torelease the figures in May of this year, DWP have sufficient concerns about the quality of the statistics to postpone their release. Currently there is no date for the release of these new, quality assured statistics.
It is hard to look at the figures in the graph above and conclude that a more punitive regime is needed. By 2012, sanctions were already at record levels. At the very, very least, the previous, post 2010 regime, was given little or no time to prove itself. The work programme, the source of so many referrals, was only introduced in 2011.
The political language on sanctions, in keeping with that regarding benefits in general, has become more stern in recent years. Even the white paper that introduces the new regime of sanctions refers to it as “tough”. But introducing a new, harsher regime after two years where the number of people sanctioned had doubled, is not just “tough”. In a time when the main welfare to work programme is performing well below expectations and unemployment remains above 2.5 million, bringing in a whole new set of penalties for not finding work seems a lot like blaming unemployed people for the lousy state of the job market.