Friday, 15 August 2014

Rise in benefits sanctions: an incentive or a punishment?

New figures from the Department of Work and Pensions out this week show a sharp increase in the number of people being sanctioned – that is, having their benefits temporarily withdrawn.  (Thanks to my colleague Paul Anders for drawing my attention to them).

The most dramatic increase is among those claiming Employment Support Allowance (ESA), which supports people who are unable to work, or need support to work, due to illness or disability. Sanctions are applied (as I'll explain in more detail) where someone has failed to comply with the requirements that come with claiming their benefit.

How much has sanctioning increased?

The figures are stark: in the first quarter of 2013, 3,574 people on ESA were sanctioned; the figure for Q1 of 2014 is 15,955. That’s an increase of 346% – and understandably, this dramatic surge has drawn critical comment from Crisis and others.

The sanctions regime for ESA was significantly toughened in December 2012, meaning claimants could lose more of their allowance for less flexible – and potentially longer – periods of time. Since then, the number of people being sanctioned has steadily increased:

Before we jump to any conclusions, the first thing to look at is the number of claimants. Can the increase be accounted for by greater numbers of people claiming ESA?

The ESA caseload in February 2013 was about 1.6 million. It’s been increasing steadily since the benefit was introduced in late 2008, and in February of this year hit the 2 million mark:

However, that's only an increase of 31% over the year - clearly nowhere near enough to account for the rise in sanctioning during the same time.

So, why are more people being sanctioned?

Everyone claiming ESA is assessed for their ability to work. (This is generally done through Work Capability Assessments, which have come in for criticism, not least from our partner Mind, who are campaigning for them to be improved.) If you’re assessed as being in the “work-related activity” group – DWP jargon meaning you’re able to take steps towards future employment – you’re required to do two things: attend interviews with a Work Programme adviser, and “participate in work-related activity”.

Looking at the data, the proportion of sanctions that are applied for failing to attend an interview is falling, while that for not participating in work-related activity is rising. Usually, the latter will mean failure to meet a “jobseeker’s direction” – a request that might include attending a training course or updating a CV (it’s worth noting that no-one on ESA is required to apply or interview for a job).

So, we know that more people are failing to meet the conditions laid down, beyond the basic requirement to attend an interview. What we don’t know, however, is whether the directions being given are appropriate considering claimants’ health and personal circumstances. If they're not, the increase in sanctions could reflect a failure to recognise the needs of claimants.

Should we be worried?

A recent survey of service providers we carried out jointly with Mind, Homeless Link and Clinks showed that sanctions were of overwhelming concern to organisations working with people experiencing multiple needs – for example, those with combined substance misuse and mental health problems. Combine that with evidence from our partner Homeless Link that sanctions are affecting many vulnerable people – particularly those with mental health and learning difficulties – and we need to ask hard questions about why so many more are being applied.

Over the coming months, Voices from the Frontline – the project I’m running – will be helping service users and professionals to discuss their experience of the benefits system. It’ll be interesting to see what this tells us about the requirements attached to ESA, and whether they’re changing in a way that explains the rise in sanctions.

Few dispute that an effective welfare system needs to incentivise people to move closer to the job market, but it's worth remembering that ESA is designed to help people who will need support (and sometimes quite intensive support) to do that. Given the scale of the increases we're seeing, sanctions for ESA are starting to look less like an incentive and more like a punishment.

Sam Thomas is the programme manager for Voices from the Frontline, a new project to bring the voices of people with multiple needs and those who support them to the heart of the policy debate. He works with a team based across the Making Every Adult Matter coalition (Clinks, DrugScope, Homeless Link and Mind).

You can follow him on Twitter at @iamsamthomas.

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