Tag: Dr David Webster

Benefit sanctions: Britain’s secret penal system – Dr David Webster

Benefits claimants are subjected to an ‘amateurish, secret penal system which is more severe than the mainstream judicial system’, writes Dr David Webster of the University of Glasgow.

Few people know that the number of financial penalties (‘sanctions’) imposed on benefit claimants by the Department of Work and Pensions now exceeds the number of fines imposed by the courts. In Great Britain in 2013, there were 1,046,398 sanctions on Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants, 32,128 on Employment and Support Allowance claimants, and approximately 44,000 on lone parent recipients of Income Support. By contrast, Magistrates’ and Sheriff courts imposed a total of only 849,000 fines.

Sanctioned benefit claimants are treated much worse than those fined in the courts. The scale of penalties is more severe (£286.80 – £11,185.20 compared to £200 – £10,000). Most sanctions are applied to poor people and involve total loss of benefit income.

Although there is a system of discretionary ‘hardship payments’, claimants are often reduced to hunger and destitution by the ban on application for the first two weeks and by lack of information about the payments and the complexity of the application process. The hardship payment system itself is designed to clean people out of resources; all savings or other sources of assistance must be used up before help is given.

Decisions on guilt are made in secret by officials who have no independent responsibility to act lawfully; since the Social Security Act 1998 they have been mere agents of the Secretary of State. These officials are currently subject to constant management pressure to maximise penalties, and as in any secret system there is a lot of error, misconduct, dishonesty and abuse.

The claimant is not present when the decision on guilt is made and is not legally represented. While offenders processed in the court system cannot be punished before a hearing, and if fined are given time to pay, the claimant’s punishment is applied immediately. Unlike a magistrate or sheriff, the official deciding the case does not vary the penalty in the light of its likely impact on them or their family. If the claimant gets a hearing (and even before the new system of ‘Mandatory Reconsideration’ only 3 per cent of sanctioned claimants were doing so), then it is months later, when the damage has been done.

‘Mandatory reconsideration’, introduced in October 2013, denies access to an independent Tribunal until the claimant has been rung up at home twice and forced to discuss their case with a DWP official in the absence of any adviser – a system which is open to abuse and has caused a collapse in cases going to Tribunal.

Yet the ‘transgressions’ (DWP’s own word) which are punished by this system are almost exclusively very minor matters, such as missing a single interview with a Jobcentre or Work Programme contractor, or not making quite as many token job applications as the Jobcentre adviser demands.

How did we get to this situation? Until the later 1980s, the social security system saw very little use of anything that could be called a sanction. Unemployment benefits were seen as part of an insurance scheme, with insurance-style conditions. Any decision on ‘disqualification’ (as it was called) from unemployment benefit was made by an independent Adjudication Service, with unrestricted right of appeal to an independent Tribunal. The maximum disqualification was 6 weeks, and those disqualified had a right to a reduced rate of Supplementary Benefit assessed on the normal rules.

‘Sanctions’ are almost entirely a development of the last 25 years.

[“Conditionality” has been a part of welfare to some degree since its inception. However, the Coalition made sanctions a key part of welfare conditionality as a part of their welfare “reforms in 2012, considerably increasing their severity, timescale and frequency. My insert. KSJ].

The British political class has come to believe that benefit claimants must be punished to make them look for work in ways the state thinks are a good idea. Yet the evidence to justify this does not exist. A handful of academic papers, mostly from overseas regimes with milder sanctions, suggest that sanctions may produce small positive effects on employment. But other research shows that their main effect is to drive people off benefits but not into work, and that where they do raise employment, they push people into low quality, unsustainable jobs.

This research, and a torrent of evidence from Britain’s voluntary sector, also shows a wide range of adverse effects. Sanctions undermine physical and mental health, cause hardship for family and friends, damage relationships, create homelessness and drive people to Food Banks and payday lenders, and to crime. They also often make it harder to look for work. Taking these negatives into account, they cannot be justified.

Benefit sanctions are an amateurish, secret penal system which is more severe than the mainstream judicial system, but lacks its safeguards. It is time for everyone concerned for the rights of the citizen to demand their abolition. 


David Webster’s written and oral evidence to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into Benefit Sanctions beyond the Oakley Review is available on the Parliament.uk website and and his other papers on sanctions are available via Child Poverty Action Group.

This article first appeared on Monday, 26 January, 2015 on the  Centre for Crime and Justice Studies site. You can read the original here

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As predicted, Mandatory Review has effectively destroyed independent Tribunals

IDS_nSection 102 and Schedule 11 of the Welfare Reform Act, (Clause 99) is the (State) power to require revision before appeal. People who wish to challenge a benefit decision will no longer be allowed to lodge an appeal immediately. Instead, the government introduced mandatory revision or review stage, during which a different Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) decision maker will reconsider the original decision and the evidence and, if necessary, send for more information.

Many of us have campaigned since 2012 to raise awareness of Clause 99. During the Consultation period, I wrote a set of responses to the government’s proposals, which many people used as a template for their own responses.  I remember that we ALL RAISED THE SAME CONCERNS.

In summary, the main concerns were that basic rate Employment Support Allowance was to be withdrawn during the mandatory review period, leaving sick and disabled people with no money to live on, whilst the DWP reconsidered their own “fit for work decisions” that were wrong.

I know that our consultation responses were ignored by the government. The changes were introduced anyway, despite our grave concerns. Since October 2013 people have to apply for mandatory review separately before they can lodge an appeal. We were also very worried that no time limit was established for the DWP to undertake and complete the mandatory review. Our concerns were fully justified, as it’s emerged that people are waiting 7-10 weeks for the mandatory review decision. Meanwhile, these people cannot appeal. And have no money to live on.

An added concern is that this system as it stands demands such a lot from people who may be very vulnerable, seriously ill and/or have mental health problems. Their difficulties are exacerbated by cuts in legal aid for welfare rights advice and cuts in local authority grants. There is a significant contraction of the availability of help for those who need it the most from advice agencies.

A Benefit Sanctions Briefing was released on 18 February 2015 by the Department of Work and Pensions, comprising of an update of sanctions statistics up to the end of September 2014, and for the first time it also included the outcomes of Mandatory Reviews (or sometimes called “reconsiderations.”)

Dr David Webster, Senior Research Fellow at Glasgow University, said: “The Mandatory Reconsideration system (MR), introduced on 28 October 2013, has fundamentally changed the whole appeal process, introducing additional steps and a new Jobcentre Plus structure. MR has cut the proportion of Job Seekers Allowance sanctions which are challenged by claimants from about one third (33%) to about 20-25%. Employment Support Allowance sanction challenges have returned to below their pre-MR level, at about 45%.

The independent element in the system offered by Tribunals has been effectively destroyed, completely in the case of Employment Support Allowance and almost completely for Job Seekers Allowance, where only 0.14% of sanction decisions are now being taken to a Tribunal.

MR has had no overall impact on the proportion of Job Seekers Allowance sanctions overturned, which remains at about 13%. But the proportion of Employment Support Allowance sanctions overturned has fallen from about 35% to about 20%.

The most disturbing possibility is that Employment Support Allowance claimants’ medical conditions are rendering them unable to cope effectively with the phone calls made to them by DWP officials at home during the MR process.”

He also said: “Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) Reconsiderations and Appeals: The revised DWP statistics show much lower claimant success rates at both internal DWP reconsideration and Tribunal appeal. However, success rates for the few who appeal to a Tribunal have risen and successful Tribunal appeals are at an all-time high. For a claimant prepared to go all the way in the appeal process, the probability of overturning a sanction is now 51%.

Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants have higher success rates than JSA claimants at reconsideration and appeal.

In 2013 their reconsideration success rate was 56.1% and their appeal success rate was 26.1%. A higher proportion of ESA claimants than JSA claimants ask for reconsideration. This proportion has been rising rapidly, from below 10% up to March 2011, to over 40% during 2013.

The proportion appealing to Tribunals is lower, only about 1%. In 2013 there were 8,428 reconsiderations or appeals where the claimant was successful in overturning an ESA sanction.

The big surge in ESA sanctions during 2013 was due to penalties for failure to participate in work-related activity. By December 2013 this reason accounted for 87% of ESA sanctions, the other 13% being for failure to attend a work-related interview.

This is in contrast to the experience under the Labour government, when the only reason for sanction was failure to attend an interview [without good reason], and there were no sanctions in relation to work-related activity.

Dr David Webster has submitted evidence to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee Inquiry into benefit sanctions.

Many of the key issues with the mandatory review can be seen summarised herehere and here. Sheila Gilmore and Dame Anne Begg have covered these extensively during the ongoing Work and Pensions Committee ESA inquiry, as well as during the course of the many separately tabled debates.

Clause 99 – Mandatory Review – was undoubtedly introduced to make appealing wrong decisions that we are fit for work almost impossible. Sick and disabled people are effectively being silenced by this Government, and the evidence of a brutal, dehumanising, undignified and grossly unfair system of “assessment” is being hidden.

It also hides the crass unfairness and terrible consequences of Tory draconianism – the using of behavioural modification techniques in the form of benefit sanctions that have now been integrated into welfare “conditionality” criteria, and imposed on people who are already struggling materially, some of who are sick and disabled.

Most of those people claiming benefts do so through no fault of their own. To punish people by removing all of their income – and thus their only means of meeting basic survival needs – so arbitrarily, is obscene in a so-called civilised society.

The only way for a tiny group of people to become obscenely rich is for huge masses of others to be kept chronically poor. The tories have spent five years lying to us about who “deserves” what, but the bottom line is this: almost every tory policy has intentionally resulted in money being taken from the poorest or money being handed to the [already] wealthiest and most powerful. (See: Follow the Money: Tory Ideology is all about handouts to the wealthy that are funded by the poor and ‘We are raising more money for the rich’ revisited: some thoughts.)

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430835_148211001996623_1337599952_n (1)Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for the memes.