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Disability Rights UK submission to the Work and Pensions Select Committee Inquiry into benefits sanctions policy

December 2014

Introduction

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) is a pan disability membership organisation led by disabled people seeking change. Our membership includes individual disabled people and also organisations working on their behalf including disabled people led organisations (DPULOs). Amongst our membership are over three hundred organisations that give advice directly to disabled people, particularly in respect of benefit issues. DR UK run a second tier advice line where we assist their front line advice workers with supportive information and advice.

In framing our response to this consultation we have drawn on our members views. In addition we carried news of our intention to produce this response via our website and social media and this also produced further testimony. We expect this submission to be of value to the committee’s work but we would also welcome any opportunity to appear before the committee and provide additional evidence.

Question 1

To what extent are sanctions justified solely as a means of ensuring the unemployed benefit claimants fulfil the conditions of benefit entitlement?

Key to the success of any relationship is trust and this is recognised in many areas of Government, for example the digital inclusion strategy published by the Government on the 4th of December 2014 lists the issue of trust as one of four reasons why people are not internet connected. The Government also recognises the value of that trust, the same strategy says the value to the UK economy of everyone being on line who can be is some £63 billion per annum. However trust is in scarce supply in welfare to work with statistics suggesting that there is a huge scepticism towards claimant’s statements and claimants themselves losing trust is a system that is more likely to sanction them than broker a job outcome for them. This is confirmed in Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s latest annual, “Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion.” The report says that for the last two years since the Work programme has been fully established the number of JSA claimants sanctioned for non-attendance has been higher than those finding work through it. For example in the most recent quarter 40,000 JSA claimants found work through the Work Programme, 26,000 less than the number sanctioned. DR UK believes that restoring trust means stopping almost all sanctions. The reward for the Government would be more “engaged” jobseekers and fewer “disengaged” claimants. The reward for providers would be more job outcomes and the dividend for the Government would in more tax receipts.

A further question arises over the justification for sanctions when the figures for successful appeals are looked at and the reasons behind these successful appeals.

“The number of people in Wales having their ESA sanctioned more than doubled over the past year – this is concerning. With nearly half of reviewed sanctions being found in favour of the claimant, there are serious questions the DWP needs to answer about the way they are being applied.” Lesley Griffiths, Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, Welsh Assembly.

“We have also seen people with literacy problems getting sanctioned and this can be because they are embarrassed to ask for additional help or simply cannot understand what actions they need to take.” Disability North, The Dene Centre.

Question 2

What evidence is there that benefit sanctions also encourage claimants to engage more actively in job seeking and ultimately move into employment? How could this be measured?

 “We have seen no evidence to suggest that sanctions would lead to more claimants being more engaged in actively seeking employment due to the threat of sanctions. On the contrary we think it would be more likely that claimants would be less trusting of the benefits system and lead to less motivated jobseeker.” Disability North, The Dene Centre. 

Question 3

What are the wider implications of sanctions in terms of their impacts on claimants?

DR UK believe this is not well understood but whilst some may dispute whether there is a causal link there has been a rise in disabled people making use of food banks, taking loans and having to make difficult choices between spending money on heating or eating. It is likely that many of those disabled people sanctioned will feature in the following statistics:

Energy- - There are 835,000 fuel poor households containing someone with a long term illness or disability, DfE.&C.C.2011.

Debt - In 2010/11, C.A.B. provided advice to more than 72,000 disabled people with debt problems, in September 2013,  CAB’s quarterly report noted that rent arrears to social landlords continue to rise and one third of landlord clients advised on possession/eviction were disabled or had a long term health condition.

Food - In July of 2013, research by Papworth Trust noted that nine out of ten disabled people were being forced to cut back on food or paying household bills after being refused emergency housing payments to help them pay the bedroom tax. A Disability Benefit Consortium survey quoted in the Times (17/12/13) found that 12% of disabled people were making use of food banks

Question 4 (a)

What are the current alternatives to the sanctions regimes? For example: how might the current system of financial sanctions be altered to make it more appropriate?

In a word – safeguarding

Safeguards are included in Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Work Programme Provider (WPP) guidance to ensure that people with mental health conditions, learning disabilities, or conditions affecting cognition are safeguarded before any decision is taken to stop their benefit.  We welcome the inclusion of these safeguards in DWP and WPP guidance but feel that there are still serious failings in the scope and application of the safeguards, meaning that tragic cases like that of David Clapson are not prevented.

The safeguards were introduced in 2000 following the death of a man suffering from schizophrenia.  Mike Wood MP described how, in a case similar to that of David Clapson, his constituent “had starved himself to death with 9p in his pocket. When his body was discovered some weeks later, a scribbled note that lay nearby suggested that he believed that the authorities had killed him”.   The coroner found that neglect by the Benefits Agency had contributed to the death and suggested that the Benefits Agency should have special rules for those suffering from mental illness.   Since then special safeguards for claimants have been written into guidance for DWP staff and their sub-contractors.

 The current version of these principles are included in ESA Guidance for Jobcentres and JCP Core Visit Referral Guidance. The guidance states that clients with a condition affecting their ability to understand and comply with conditionality must be visited before any decision is taken to stop their benefit or refer them for sanction and the procedures must be followed before each decision to stop benefit. 

There are 3 core features of the DWP safeguarding process:

1)    A visit to the claimant at home must be arranged before any sanction decision is considered.  This should take place each time a decision is taken to safeguard claimants with fluctuating mental health conditions.  The purpose of the visit is to explain the claimant’s responsibility to comply with conditionality and to determine whether they understand their responsibilities.  The visit will be carried out by DWP Visiting Service. There must be two attempts to visit the claimant.

2)    If it is not possible to visit the claimant or the attempted visits are unsuccessful then the DWP says that it has a ‘moral obligation’ to make organisations aware of potential incidents around vulnerable claimants.  As such, they must attempt to contact the following sources to establish the claimant’s welfare:

  1. Claimant’s appointee/power of attorney/next of kin
  2. Claimant’s community psychiatric nurse
  3. Social services
  4. Police

3)    Only after these steps have been taken should the DWP consider a sanction. 

Work Programme Providers and their sub-contractors are only responsible for the initial visiting stage of this process.  WPP Guidance says that a face to face discussion about a claimant’s non-compliance with a mandatory activity is a “‘high level’ must do”.  WPPs must make ‘every effort’ (including visiting the claimant at home) to do this.   WPPs should consider whether the claimant’s health condition may be a reason for their failure to comply before raising a compliance doubt.

 If the DWP stop benefit for a customer without applying Mental Health Safeguards then, according to the guidance, they must reinstate benefit.  If the DWP do not have information about the customer’s mental health at the time that they stop benefit but later receive this information then they must reinstate benefit.

The safeguards are an important protection for ESA claimants with mental health problems, learning disabilities, and conditions affecting cognition.  However, there are a number of problems with the safeguards:

  1. The safeguards do not apply to Jobseeker’s Allowance.  JSA claimants with a mental health condition will not be protected by the safeguards.  The Government’s Oakley Review found that many JCP advisers thought there was a “vulnerable” group of people, including people with learning disabilities, who tended to be sanctioned more than the others because they struggled to navigate the system.  The Oakley Review, which was limited only to JSA claimants, also stated that recent estimates from one prime provider of the Work Programme suggest that one in three of their new customers have health issues, mental health problems or a learning disability.
  2. DWP require claimants to evidence their mental health conditions before they will apply safeguards.  Gathering evidence of this can be difficult for people with severe mental health problems. Labour Market Decision Makers (LMDM) do not seem to be proactive in seeking information about claimants’ conditions.  Before the introduction of ESA, JCP routinely asked GPs for further information on all customers with a mental health diagnosis. Although nearly 60% of ESA claimants have a mental health diagnosis, the ESA113 form asking for further information is sent to GPs in less than 8% of cases.
  3. When Jobcentre Plus refer clients to the WPP they include minimal information about the vulnerability of a client.  This can mean that where JCP/DWP may treat a client as vulnerable the WPP may not. 
  4. The safeguards are not enshrined in legislation.  This means that the safeguards are at risk of being watered down in successive versions of guidance.  The guidance issued in 2000 dictated that sanction decisions should only be taken by DWP managers.  This is no longer a requirement.
  5. DWP records on vulnerability and mental health conditions do not seem to be accessible to all DWP/JCP staff.  They seem to be held over a variety of databases and computer systems including the JSAPS, MSRS, and LMS systems. 
  6. Once a claimant has failed to comply with a mandatory activity the current WPP guidance does not seem to give the provider any discretion over whether to raise a compliance doubt, even where there is clearly good cause.
  7. DWP Labour Market Decision Makers seem to be inconsistent in their application of the safeguards.  Of 15,955 ESA sanctions imposed between January and March 2014 there were 9,851 (60%) sanctions imposed on customers diagnosed as having a Mental or Behavioural Disorder.  It is doubtful that safeguards were fully complied with in all of these cases.
  8. Where DWP Benefit Delivery Centre staff provide direct lines for the use of advice workers issues can often be quickly resolved for vulnerable claimants before they reach crisis point.  Some Benefit Delivery Centres refuse to talk to advice workers.  This refusal to engage with advice workers makes cases like that of David Clapson more likely.

Recommendations

  1. Safeguards should be expanded to protect JSA claimants with mental health problems, learning disabilities, and conditions affecting cognition. 
  2. Where a claimant is without an income and says that they have severe mental ill health, a learning disability, or a condition affecting cognition is particularly severe the DWP should make an effort to collect safeguarding information direct from the GP.  In all cases Labour Market Decision Makers (LMDM) should be proactive in attempting to collect information about a claimant’s mental health condition rather than relying on vulnerable claimants to supply information.   
  3. DWP should ensure all relevant information about vulnerable clients is communicated between JCP and Work Programme Providers.
  4. Safeguards should be included in legislation.
  5. Information about mental health and vulnerability should be collected on one system/database and easily accessible to all relevant staff.
  6. WPPs should be given discretion over raising a compliance doubt where a vulnerable claimant clearly had good cause for not complying with a mandatory activity.
  7. DWP and JCP staff should have extra guidance and training on safeguards for claimants with mental health problems, learning disabilities, and conditions affecting cognition.  Cases should be audited to check that Labour Market Decision Makers are applying the safeguards correctly.
  8. Clear guidance should be issued to all DWP Benefit Delivery Centres that they should provide direct contact details for managers in each team at the Benefit Delivery Centre to advice professionals working in the areas they process claims for and issue updates whenever the numbers are changed. 

Question 4b

Is there a case for non-financial sanctions?

Though DR UK posed this question in seeking the views of its members no one chose to engage with the question. Consequently whilst there may be possible non-financial sanctions these could only follow from knowing whether sanctions per se were a good thing and they clearly aren’t or knowing whether a punishment was more effective than a reward in welfare to work support and this also appears unproven.

Question 4c

What form could non-financial sanctions take?

DR UK does not have an answer to this question but would suggest that the question is also reversed – what non-financial rewards could be introduced to support compliance with appropriate and relevant conditionality?

We do believe that there are answers to this question and that these answers include affordable internet connection, access to peer to peer support, additional support for people in specific situations such as people with learning difficulties or mental health conditions and particularly where these conditions have contributed for example to low levels of literacy.

Question 4d

Are there any examples of good practice from other countries?

DR UK once again would wish to see the question reversed and focus upon a system of rewards and not punishments.

Contact

Philip J Connolly

Policy and Communications Manager

Disability Rights UK

Can Mezzanine, 49-51 East Road, London, N1 6AH

Tel: 0207 250 8192

Email: Philip.connolly@disabilityrightsuk.org