Wednesday, 25 March 2015

A fair chance? Sanctions and vulnerability

This week saw the release of a significant report by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee - Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review. The report contains a number of welcome recommendations, including that the next government should conduct a broad, independent review of the way sanctions are used plus how vulnerable claimants can be protected and, crucially, identified. DrugScope submitted evidence jointly with Homeless Link – you can find our submission here.

We’ve long been concerned that sanctions put vulnerable people at risk of financial hardship, as my colleague Sam Thomas has blogged about before, and that some proposed changes may increase that risk, as DrugScope’s Director of Policy Andrew Brown recently blogged about. We weren’t able to tell much about people with needs relating to drug and alcohol misuse from the official statistical releases, other than that the number of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants sanctioned has increased substantially over the last few years. What we know from some other sources gave cause for concern, though.

Several evidence reviews have highlighted the risk of people with vulnerabilities being disproportionately affected by sanctions. For example, this from the Scottish Government:

“The literature suggests that those who are particularly vulnerable to sanctions are also the most disadvantaged. This includes people that lack work experience or who face practical barriers to work, such as not having access to a car; or those with health problems, including drug and alcohol dependencies; and those with mental health difficulties.”

This from the Social Security Advisory Committee, writing about conditionality and Universal Credit:

“The evidence suggests that many vulnerable claimants do not set out to be noncompliant but they often lead chaotic lifestyles, have poor organisational skills and frequently forget the conditions they are supposed to fulfil. A recent study of offender employment services also referred to the chaotic lifestyles of many offenders and their inability to understand the sanctioning regime, and questioned the utility of sanctions as a mechanism for generating behaviour change amongst certain groups.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published an evidence review making similar observations, and the problems faced by vulnerable groups in particular was highlighted by the independent Oakley Review of communication around JSA sanctions, published in 2014.

So far, so worrying. There is additional evidence that illustrates the risk to vulnerable groups. A response by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to a Freedom of Information Request suggests that while ESA claimants with a primary medical condition (PMC) of a mental or behavioural disorder make up around 45% of the ESA caseload, they account for around 60% of ESA sanctions.

Research by academics on behalf of homelessness charity Crisis found that while it was difficult, using administrative data, to make a direct connection between homelessness and the risk of being sanctioned, there was fairly persuasive circumstantial evidence that:

“Homeless people, then, may face a ‘double whammy’: disproportionally sanctioned by virtue of belonging to groups overrepresented in the sanctions statistics (young, male), but also more likely to experience barriers to complying with the new conditionality regime.”

They also pointed to research by Homeless Link which found that sanctioning rates were exceptionally high for homeless people, with people who misuse drugs and/or alcohol at particular risk.

DrugScope’s own State of the Sector 2014-15 found that while some elements of welfare reform had affected more people, no individual reform had had such strongly negative impact than the post-2012 sanctions regime:

Source: DrugScope, State of the Sector 2014-15

ESA, drug and alcohol misuse and sanctions

A picture is emerging, albeit one informed by somewhat peripheral evidence. We were keen to learn more. There are problems with some of the data around drugs, alcohol and benefits. While there is a marker on LMS (DWP’s Jobcentre IT system), it’s used very inconsistently. On the other hand, claimants in the ESA Support Group are effectively excluded from conditionality. That leaves the ESA Work Related Activity Group, or WRAG. As part of the claim and assessment process, claimants are assigned a PMC, which for a small number of claimants, can be alcohol misuse or drug misuse.

We submitted a request to DWP in December, which they responded to this week. The numbers provided are illuminating. Firstly, the number of people with a PMC of drug or alcohol misuse receiving a sanction seems quite volatile:

However, this should be seen in the context of an overall ESA sanctioning rate that is itself volatile:

Source: Dr David Webster, University of Glasgow

There’s not very much one can tell from looking at those two charts. What we have done with the response from DWP sheds a little more light. We have calculated the proportion of ESA WRAG claimants with a PMC of drug/alcohol misuse out of all claimants. We have also calculated the proportion of people with a PMC of drug/alcohol misuse sanctioned out of all people sanctioned, and have then compared the two figures.

Like people with a PMC of a mental or behavioural disorder, it appears that people with a PMC of drug or alcohol misuse are disproportionately likely to be sanctioned, and have been fairly consistently so – the new ESA sanctions regime introduced in late 2012 doesn’t seem to have made a difference as far as the proportion of people being sanctioned is concerned:


As alluded to above, there are several limitations to what we’ve done. These include:

-          Not everyone with needs relating to drug and/or alcohol misuse will be recorded as having a PMC of drug or alcohol misuse. For example, an intravenous drug user who has caused themselves nerve damage that limits their mobility may well be recorded as having a different PMC. The same might apply to someone with impaired liver function as a consequence of alcohol misuse, or someone with coexisting mental ill health and substance misuse needs.

-          In the context of the overall number of JSA and ESA sanctions, we’re talking about a relatively small number of people. Seen against almost 900,000 JSA claimants sanctioned between April 2013 and March 2014, the numbers aren’t huge: 8,399 ESA claimants with a PMC of drug/alcohol misuse sanctioned over 6 years, split pretty evenly between drugs and alcohol. That is still a large number of people who will have experienced financial hardship, but due to this and the reason above, we can be certain that we’re only getting part of the picture.

-          Finally, while we have long been concerned that the conditionality and sanctions regime is being used punitively, may not be achieving its stated aims and may actually be counter-productive, the numbers alone don’t tell us anything about how fairly these sanctions have been applied, how proportionate they are, if they comply with policy and guidance and so on.

To conclude

We now have what appears to be some clear evidence that, at least for Employment and Support Allowance claimants in the Work Related Activity Group, people with a primary medical condition of drug and alcohol misuse are at a disproportionate risk of receiving a sanction, much as claimants with a primary medical condition of a mental or behavioural disorder are. Couple that with the findings from DrugScope’s State of the Sector, research by Homeless Link and Crisis and literature reviews by the Social Security Advisory Committee and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and a picture emerges of a system that appears to not protect the most vulnerable in society and may, in fact, be placing them at risk of considerable financial hardship.

The Work and Pensions Committee appears to think the same way. Hopefully, whatever the outcome on 7 May, the next government will accept their recommendations and make addressing them a priority.

Posted by Paul Anders

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