Fact Check: do job centres have a target for ‘benefit sanctions’?

Policing the jobless. Andy Rain/EPA

There’s a deliberate target, for no matter what your behaviour, you will get sanctioned by the job centre. You don’t then find out about it until you go to the hole in the wall in the bank … to get your money out. You go there, you get no money, you go to a high street money lender that you can’t afford, or you go to a food bank because you can’t feed your kids. It’s utterly unacceptable.

Jim Murphy, Labour leader in Scotland, BBC Scottish Leaders Debate.

Jim Murphy’s comments on job centres led to a heated exchange between him and Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, who said he was lying. To check out the veracity of Murphy’s comment – which the Labour party confirmed to The Conversation refers to the whole of the UK, not just Scotland – we need to look back at the history of how and when benefits are taken away from people.

Benefit sanctions – or the cessation of payments for a period where claimants fail to meet a range of jobsearch conditions – have been part of Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) regime since it was introduced in 1996. The stringency of JSA sanctions regime increased under the Labour government. In its third term for example, Labour introduced worksearch requirements for lone parents whose youngest child was aged over 12, subsequently reducing this age threshold to seven.

Under the coalition government, both the severity of sanctions and the opportunities for falling foul of the conditionality regime have increased. Following the Welfare Reform Act 2012, claimants can be required to undertake a greater number and greater range of actions to find work.

The graph below shows the number of JSA sanctions made by JobCentre Plus offices each month since April 2000 (left hand axis and red dashed line) and expresses these as a proportion of all JSA claimants (right-hand axis, dark blue line).

Left-hand axis shows number of ‘adverse’ sanctions, i.e. decisions found against the claimant (not the number of claimants sanctioned) Source: DWP. Right-hand axis shows sanctions as a proportion of claimants in each month. Note that there is a lag between a claimant being referred for a sanction decision, and the decision being taken. This lag can range from a few weeks to several months, depending on appeals. Data here is likely to underestimate very slightly the sanctions as a proportion of JSA claimants. Source: DWP and NOMIS, Author provided

Sanctions have risen in both numbers and proportion terms from the late 2000s. The temporary fall in the proportion of sanctions during the recession was, according to the National Audit Office, due to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) relaxing service requirements to cope with increased claimant numbers and limited resources.

Sanctions increased under the coalition government, particularly following the introduction of the new sanctions regime in October 2012. It has been suggested that the fall in sanctions in 2011-12 may reflect the introduction of the Work Programme in June 2011.

The Work Programme involves the contracting out of some jobcentre activity to private and third sector organisations. These organisations cannot impose sanctions, but report compliance doubts to DWP, who may then decide to impose a sanction. Thus the introduction of the Work Programme may have resulted in a temporary reduction in the number of sanctions issued. Evidence suggests that the young and vulnerable groups are particularly likely to be sanctioned.

The sanctions regime now also affects an increasing number of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants – who are too ill or disabled to work currently, but whom the DWP consider will be capable of work at some time in the future.

Implicit targets?

In regards to Murphy’s specific allegation about a target, there is no official target for the number of JSA sanctions achieved, either nationally or for individual JobCentrePlus (JCP) offices. However, concerns have been expressed in relation to both the JCP’s performance framework, and whether JCP advisers face an implicit target relating to sanctions. The Scottish Labour party pointed The Conversation towards a report by parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee, published in March 2015, highlighting the issue and calling for a review.

Since its new performance monitoring regime was introduced in April 2011, JCP’s performance is primarily measured by the proportion of claimants who have left benefit, regardless as to whether the claimant entered employment or not. The Work and Pensions Select Committee raised concerns in paragraph 92 of its report that Jobcentre staff might see sanctioning as a route to achieving some performance targets.

In addition, in evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee (paragraph 89), the PCS union – which represents Jobcentre staff – reported that JCP advisers were being put under pressure by management to increase sanctioning rates. PCS argues that the DWP had “expectations” about the appropriate level of sanctioning, that these were “targets by another name”, and that Jobcentre staff whose sanctioning rates were not meeting expectations were subject to an “improvement plan”. The DWP denied the existence of any national or local targets for sanctioning in its evidence to the committee.

In the dark

What about Jim Murphy’s point that claimants sometimes don’t know that they have been sanctioned until they try to withdraw money? In fact, this point was made in the 2014 Oakley Review into the operation of JSA sanctions. It reported that there were cases in which: “the first that claimants knew of adverse decisions was when they tried to get their benefit payment out of a cash point but could not”.

There is an ongoing debate around the likely effectiveness of a stricter sanctions regime in getting people into work, as opposed to simply reducing benefit spending. This is particularly the case given that the increased use of sanctions has coincided with a reduction in other forms of support for jobseekers. The Work and Pensions Committee notes that evidence on the effectiveness of financial sanctions in getting people into work is “very limited and far from clear-cut”. Short-term benefits in getting people off benefits may hide less favourable long-term outcomes on employment retention, health, and financial circumstances.

Verdict

Jim Murphy was arguably somewhat disingenuous in implying that there is a target for the number of sanctions made by job centres. However, there is some evidence that the publication of statistics on sanctions, together with a pressure to reduce welfare spending, creates the sense among advisers that there is an implicit target. Furthermore, the JCP performance framework may create perverse incentives for benefit off-flow, partly induced by sanctions, to be perceived as a positive outcome.

Review

It seems very clear to me that there are no centrally imposed targets for sanctions: certainly the legislation and regulations do not specify targets, and I am happy to take DWP at their word when they say that they do not set targets for Job Centre Plus.

On the other hand, the PCS union have presented evidence to MPs that show that sanction rates are monitored at the level of the adviser, the team, the office and the district, and that some individual managers take action with their staff if sanction rates are “too low”. This seems to be to be evidence that (at least) some managers do have implicit targets; what we don’t know for sure, though, is how widespread is this practice within Jobcentre Plus. – Mike Brewer

The Conversation is fact checking political statements in the lead-up to the May UK general election. Statements are checked by an academic with expertise in the area. A second academic expert reviews an anonymous copy of the article.

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