A rethink on benefit sanctions is long overdue
Last week, we published our report examining the trends in benefit sanctions over the last number of years. There were 686,000 in 2014, the vast majority of which for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). This is down on the 970,000 sanctions in 2013, but most of this fall is because there were fewer claimants to sanction. The 2014 figure is also still substantially above the number of sanctions handed out annually before 2010. This rise in sanctioning coincides with those handed out for JSA and ESA becoming more severe from 2012.
The report also looks at who is sanctioned and why. Over a quarter of those receiving JSA sanctions were either disabled or a lone parent and therefore potentially more vulnerable, and much of the increase in sanctioning was driven by the Work Programme. We find the average duration of a JSA sanction to be around 8 weeks, which implies a potential income loss of £530.
All of this together means we have a sanction system that: affects far more claimants than the old regime; tends to be harsher and is creating real hardship; and is affecting lots of people who are potentially vulnerable. It has also been poorly administered, with the Oakley Review finding evidence of poor communication to claimants and instances of housing benefit being cancelled as a result of a sanction. There are also the persistent news stories about expectations placed on Jobcentres to sanction people, suggesting an arbitrary system as well as an inept one. Together this is a vicious combination.
There was also no compelling reason to change the sanctions regime in this way. The evidence base for sanctions improving employment outcomes is quite old and was undertaken when the labour market and reasons for people getting sanctioned looked quite different, as David Webster argues. He also notes that the regime is internationally and historically rather severe. It is quite clear, for example, that a much less stringent sanction regime was no obstacle to similarly high employment rates in the past.
Future prospects may also be worrying. Under Universal Credit, it is planned that conditionality will be extended to many of those not earning the equivalent of 35 hours at the minimum wage (£227 per week at the moment). Sanctions for those currently in work are a new departure for the social security system, with a range of moral and practical concerns. In the former category are problems such as potentially penalising those in work at a time of high underemployment; in the latter requiring jobcentres to take an interest in the affairs of an extra one million people. The current operation of the system does not inspire confidence in a much broader scope for sanctions.
So a rethink on how the system is currently working and how it is planned to operate in the future is required. Frank Field was elected as Chair of the Work and Pensions committee last week, standing on a platform of re-examining sanctions. He should be wished luck in doing so, because as it stands, the social safety net is becoming increasingly unworthy of the name.