Labour MP Frank Field has called on the government to conduct a survey into the circumstances of those hundreds of thousands of citizens whose benefit income is withdrawn each year under the current harsh sanctioning regime.
Mr Field, who also chairs the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, carried out a forensic audit of the government’s welfare reform programme – Fixing Broken Britain? An audit of working-age welfare reform since 2010, which is to be published today (18 January 2016) by Civitas and co-authored by Andrew Forsey.
Worryingly, the research found that the whereabouts of 1.5 million people leaving the welfare records each year is “a mystery.” The authors also raise concern that the wellbeing of at least a third of those who have been sanctioned “is anybody’s guess.” It’s not the first time these concerns have been raised.
It emerged in 2014, during an inquiry which was instigated by the parliamentary Work and Pensions Select Committee, that research conducted by Professor David Stuckler shows more than 500,000 Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimants have disappeared from unemployment statistics, without finding work, since the sanctions regime was toughened in October, 2012.
This means that in August 2014, the claimant count – which is used to gauge unemployment – is likely to be very much higher than the 970,000 figure that the government is claiming, if those who have been sanctioned are included.
The research finding confirms what many of us already knew.
Professor Stuckler, who has analysed data from 375 local authorities, said:
“The data clearly show that many people are not leaving Job Seekers Allowance for work but appear to be being pushed off in unprecedented numbers in association with sanctions.”
The Work and Pensions Committee decided to conduct a further in depth inquiry into benefit sanctions policy at the time, following the findings of the research. This inquiry considered aspects of sanctions policy which were outside the remit of the Oakley Review. (You can see the terms of reference for the inquiry, and submissions were invited, all details of which are here – Committee launch inquiry into benefit sanctions.)
Labour MP Debbie Abrahams said:
“Sanctions are being applied unfairly to job-seekers, as well as the sick and disabled.
The reason the Government is doing this is that it gets them off the JSA claimant figures, so it looks like there are fewer people unemployed.”
Mrs Abraham added:
“Hundreds of thousands of people have had their benefits stopped for a minimum of four weeks and then approximately a quarter of these people, from the research that I’ve seen, are disappearing.
They are leaving and we don’t know where they are going. That’s an absolute indictment of this policy and it’s a little bit worrying if we’re trying to tout this internationally as a real success story.”
The MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, and shadow disability minister memorably added:
“People have died after being sanctioned, Minister.”
The Government claims that sanctioned claimants who leave the benefit system are going into work – they also claim that their punitive sanctions regime “works”. But the Oxford study found this is untrue in a “majority” of cases. At the time, the government were accused of massaging unemployment figures via benefit sanctions.
Frank Field and Andrew Forsey write:
“The number of sanctions was halved in the year leading up to the 2015 election, but it still remained at half a million. Sanctions are therefore being applied at a scale unknown since the Second World War, and the operation of sanctions on this scale makes for a most significant change in the social security system as it has existed in the post-war period.
A number of people – we know not how large a number – are being totally disconnected from both work and welfare, and risk being exposed to destitution.
Justice calls for a major survey of what happens to the hundreds of thousands of people thrown off the welfare rolls each year through the sanctioning process. It is unacceptable, not only for this government but for its predecessor and those who will follow, to take away benefit from a mass of people each year and not trouble themselves with how this army of people survive. For that is what is happening under the government’s sanctions policy. The ability to track the wellbeing of the whole population is now a part of being a grown up government, let alone a ‘One Nation’ government.”
In the report, Field and Forsey call for four safeguarding reforms, “to restore greater fairness and transparency to the sanctions regime.” They:
- Propose that the government must forthwith begin a survey so that they can answer the simple but crucial question of what happens to those citizens expelled from the welfare rolls who appear not to find work.
- Welcome the government’s decision to trial a Yellow Card early warning system, but suggest that should it fail to prevent injustices from occurring, the government should supplement this policy with the option for Jobcentre Plus staff of issuing a non-financial sanction for a claimant’s first failure to meet the terms of their Claimant Commitment.
- Recommend that the Department for Work and Pensions trials a ‘grace period’ for vulnerable claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance, during which the requirements placed upon them are eased at times of transition or acute difficulty.
- Request information from the government showing how much expenditure is withdrawn through its policy of sanctioning claimants.
Last year year, the Work and Pensions Select Committee heard independent estimates that since late 2012 sanctions had resulted in at least £275m being withheld from benefit claimants (the comparable figure for 2010 was £50m). Committee member Debbie Abrahams MP said that the Department for Work and Pensions will not give or does not have actual figures.
However, it’s truly remarkable that the government somehow manage to pull numbers out of their secret Thunderball when they believe it’s in their own interests to do so. The latest “employment” figures, for example. How likely is it that those numbers are remotely accurate when we have a government that happily presides over the disappearance of many thousands of sanctioned people every year from their accounts?
This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.