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Benefit sanctions

Jobcentre staff are being set targets for sanctioning claimants, and are encouraged to employ methods that are more likely to result in sanctionable behaviour.  That’s the news coming out that many who work on behalf of social security recipients will not be surprised to read.  Normally it is pleasing to be confirmed in one’s suspicions but in situations where one suspects the worst it is always preferable to be proved wrong.

The news first appeared via a leaked letter from Walthamstow.  Walthamstow had sanctioned only 6 claimants in the past week.  The author of the letter did not want to ‘do this to death,’ but clearly having only 6 people engage in sanctionable behaviour was not acceptable.  There needed to be 25.  “The 5% target is one thing, the fact we are seeing over 300 people a week and only submitting 6 of them for possible doubts is simply not quite credible.”  A separate leaked letter from Malvern also refers to a 5% target; “Overall performance should be around at least 5% of the live load.”

What concerns me about this is the assumption that 5% is the correct amount to sanction; the assumption that there is no way claimants are doing what is required to the extent that only 2% are not fulfilling the Jobseekers conditions.  It isn’t credible that 98% of claimants are doing what is expected.  It isn’t credible that the reason only 2% of claimants are sanctioned is that only 2% of claimants are engaging in sanctionable behaviour.  It must be the case that there is at least another 3% who aren’t trying hard enough.

People are either engaging in sanctionable behaviour or they are not.  That people routinely engage in such behaviour at the rate of 5% of the claimant caseload each week at each benefit centre is ludicrous.

Why is this even being promoted?  Why is there any sort of target for sanctions?  Other than to please the public by appearing tough, is getting staff focussed on reasons to sanction not counter-productive to the aim of getting people into work?  You can’t simultaneously focus on finding reasons to sanction claimants and focus on getting them in to jobs.  One is about not getting them into a job – deliberately finding reasons to claim that the claimant isn’t looking – and one is about getting them in to jobs.  Surely the whole point of the JobCentre is to assist, as well as monitor, jobseeker’s job-seeking activity?

Staff are being encouraged to catch claimants out – told “we really need to up the game here.”  ‘Tell-tale phrases’ such as “I pick up the kids” suggest the claimant is not fully available for work.  But if you’re not currently in work, why would you not pick your children up from school?  The fact that you pick up your children on a day when you’re not in work doesn’t mean that you won’t or can’t make other arrangements for days when you are in work.  It just means that you are saving money – a good thing surely from a ‘tax-payers’ point of view – on days when you do not need someone else to look after your children.

Yet staff can even suggest that if the claimant has informal shared custody of children, then he or she is not fully available for work.

Or staff are told to set a Jobseeker’s Direction – this is an ‘easy win,’ as, if the customer does not comply, you can ‘action the direction.’

I can understand that there may be objections if a claimant specifically refuses to work on a particular day ‘because that’s when I like to do my shopping.’  But until and unless a claimant specifically refuses a job on the grounds of unavailability, there is no credibility to the assumption that the claimant is unavailable for work.

Now imagine you sanction 5% of your claimants in a week.  Those people are then off benefits for four weeks.[1]  So for the next four weeks, each 5% is a new set of people.  Over four weeks you will have sanctioned 20% of your claimants.  You could then meet your next four weeks of targets by sanctioning the same people again (a second failure), so you remain at 20% of your total caseload.  But now those 20% are off benefits for 13 weeks.  So the next 13 weeks will have to be a new 5% each week – 65% of your total caseload.  After that, assuming no-one gets a higher-level sanction more than once, you can stick at sanctioning the same 85%.

This is a crazy number.  I hope and assume that when ‘John’ wants around 25 referrals for sanction out of 300 claimants per week, the majority of that 8% won’t get sanctions.  I also hope that the 5% target is not meant to be 5% of a week’s caseload but 5% of at least a month, as the Malvern letter implies.  But with the DWP denying knowledge of targets, and two benefit centres appearing to interpret that target differently, I have no confidence in the validity of the sanctions being set.

[1] Sanction length depends on level of sanction and whether it is a first, second or third+ failure.  Sanctions can be 4, 13, 26 or 152 weeks long.  I have chosen 4 weeks as a minimum estimate for total sanctions.

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