Evidence shows benefit sanctions are not fit for purpose

Responding to today’s (30 November) report on benefit sanctions by the National Audit Office Chris Goulden, Deputy Director of Policy and Research at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said:

“The sanctions system is in urgent need of reform. The Government’s changes to the system are aimed at helping people into work and reducing the amount the country spends on social security, but this new evidence shows that the rules around benefit sanctions are not fit for purpose.

“Sanctions are pushing people into destitution and extreme financial hardship, with many people who rely on benefits living in fear of being sanctioned unfairly and unpredictably. A lack of evidence on the impact of sanctions means that it is impossible to say what long-term effect this has on public spending or employment rates, with some evidence showing that sanctions are as likely to force people out of the system as they are to encourage them to find work.

“JRF’s research into how benefit sanctions have been impacting people over recent years, including first-hand evidence from people who have experienced the system, supports the NAO’s opinion that the system is in urgent need of review. To bring the system in line with the Government’s aims, Job Centres should be reformed so that their focus is on higher long-term employment and earnings, rather than on simply moving people off benefits as soon as possible.”

To make the system work for the people who rely on it, JRF is calling for:

  • In the short term, sanctions should move to a stepped approach with early warnings, clear communication and improved access to hardship payments for those receiving a sanction.  A system of warnings is currently being trialled in Scotland, but should be accompanied by work on with non-financial sanctions and urgent action to bring down the frequency and severity of benefit sanctions.
  • Final sanctions should be less severe and should not result in destitution.
  • JobCentres should be reformed so that they can consider the quality of jobs which people go into when they find work.
  • The government is looking at how to support people on Universal Credit to progress in work, and considering the role conditionality and sanctions might play in this. Supporting people already in work will need Job Centres to provide complex careers advice and coaching, as well as a good grasp of local labour market intelligence and an ability to engage with employers.  This is an area where little is known about what works and government should look at using incentives as well as conditionality. Careful testing of different approaches is needed before decisions are made.
  • To make the social security system work better for people who are living in poverty, reform of benefit sanctions needs to come alongside action to make Universal Credit a poverty reduction tool and provide more support for parents, carers and disabled people. Driving down poverty will also require action from Government, employers and citizens to increase productivity, provide more high-quality jobs and increase pay.

JRF’s recommendations on changes to the social security system are from We can solve poverty in the UK, the first comprehensive strategy to solve UK poverty.