Follow me on Twitter

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

New sanctions figures out on in February

The number of unemployed people in Brighton being punished for not finding a job is going up, despite the number of people out of work going down, figures uncovered by Hit the Donkey, can reveal.

Job Centre staff across Sussex ordered the removal of people’s benefits on more than 7,000 occasions between October 2012 and June 2013, the latest period for which figures are available from the Department for Work and Pensions.

(Ed - Up-to-date figures are due to be released by the DWP in February. Watch this space for an update).

The department’s increased focus on attaching ‘conditions’ to people’s unemployment benefit resulted in the number of sanctions dished out, by Brighton Job Centre, leap by more than 400% in a single month between October and November 2012. Similar increases occurred at job centres elsewhere in the area and the level of sanctions has stayed roughly stable ever since, the figures show.

Brighton Pavillion MP, Caroline Lucas, has previously called on the coalition and
Labour opposition, who are both committed to sanctions, to agree to a proper review after listening to residents detail a catalogue of bizarre and often callous justifications for issuing sanctions in the first place.

Speaking in Parliament in March last year she told the story of a 58-year-old female constituent, who had been unemployed for seven months and told me she would be sanctioned because she could not afford the cost of a 21-mile round trip to work for a charity shop in Worthing. The woman offered to work in the same shop in Brighton, but the Job Centre would not allow it.

Lesley Ashley (Donkey passim), 27, a Chef who lives between Brighton and London, was sanctioned at Christmas last year (2012). As a consequence of his Employment Support Allowance (ESA) being cut, his housing benefit was cut as well. The job centre did not inform him that the sanction could affect his housing benefit too.

In and out of zero-hours contract work Leslie was sanctioned after he didn’t receive a letter from his Work Programme provider A4E and, as a result, missed an appointment.
After six weeks the job centre agreed to overturn the sanction, he got his housing benefit restored and had his arrears cleared.

He said: “The sanction had been applied wrongly, which I told them, but although it was not my fault I was warned ‘don’t to do it again’.”

Music - ClikFunK pt iii (microhouse, electronica)

Monday, 27 January 2014

'Rogue sanctions' and the invisible 'rogue sanctioneers' who sanction them

The UK government’s policy of sanctioning the benefits of the unemployed depends for its legitimacy on the public’s belief that sanctions are a fair last resort.
The debate about poverty is so toxic right now, therefore it's inevitable that most people believe sanctions are reasonable and that the government's policy of punishing people, by taking their benefit away, is legitimate.
Back in November 2013, the Department for Work and Pensions Works Services Director, Neil Couling, told MPs from the Work and Pensions Select Committee that his department monitored its job centre staff closely in order to guard against ‘rogue sanctions.’
It was a turn of phrase I'd never heard before.
The implication here was that a category of sanctions existed that was so out of the ordinary (in terms of justification, malice or effect for example) as to be considered 'rogue'.
His aim in uttering this phrase was to shore up MP's and, by implication, the public's confidence in the policy of sanctioning and to set up the idea that, overall, the decisions to sanction claimants were well grounded and fair (only a few bad apples). Mr Couling's evidence included the suggestion that 'rogue sanctions' were the result of mistakes made by job centre staff.
His argument must be set against the fact that most sanctions that are challenged, are subsequently overturned by DWP staff (50-53 per cent of all reconsidered sanctions) because they were unreasonable or wrong in the first place. A similar proportion of sanctions challenged at independent tribunal are, likewise, struck off.
The facts would suggest that, far from being 'rogue' these sanctions are, in fact, the norm.
Nonetheless, Mr Couling told lawmakers that his department monitored the sanctioning activity of job centre staff to guard against 'rogues'. He added, pointedly, that this type of monitoring was important in order to keep the public’s trust (if you want to hear the evidence yourself, scroll forward to approx 11.30 am here).
‘I don’t want to create an oppressive regime here, but to find out if there are rogue sanctions going on. We don’t want the sanctions system falling into disrepute,’ he said.
With this mind I decided to put a series of questions to the DWP under the Freedom of Information Act, to get a clearer idea of precisely how the department deals with these 'rogue sanctions', who these 'rogue sanctioneers' are and to get the department to elaborate a little on what it is doing to stamp the whole thing out.
Among other questions (full FOI transcript here) I asked:
  • How many times has the DWP taken action against staff who consistently recommend sanctions, a high proportion of which are subsequently overturned? 
  • What does the action taken against these staff consist of?
  • How many times has DWP taken action against staff for refusing to refer JSA claimants for sanction, or for not sanctioning enough? 
  • What does the action against DWP staff, who refused to refer JSA claimants for sanction, or did not refer enough, consist of?
The department could not give a single example of action against a member of staff for issuing rogue sanctions.
The department could not give details of what any such action against staff could consist of.
The department could not say how many times, if any, it had taken action against staff for refusing to sanction claimants. Nor could it say how many times it had taken action against staff for sanctioning too many claimants.
Finally, the department could not say how many times it had taken action against staff who had not issued the expected number of sanctions.

In a statement the DWP said:
‘We do not have a set expectation for how many referrals are appropriate for each office. The information which is gathered regarding the number of sanctions referrals made for each office is collected purely for monitoring purposes. This is to ensure that all offices are following the policy and raising a doubt with a Decision Maker where a doubt exists. Should a member of staff be found to be using sanctions inappropriately, or not using them at all, this should be raised by their Line Manager as part of their ongoing performance. This may identify a training need, or where appropriate, the need for a member of staff to be put on a Personal Improvement Plan. We are committed to ensuring that all sanctions referrals made within our Jobcentres are made appropriately and it is for this reason that we collect the data referred to by Mr Couling to the Select Committee.’
Leaving aside whether or not such a thing as a 'rogue sanction' actually exists. The fact that so many sanctions are applied unlawfully suggests these sanctions are not exceptional, not 'rogue' at all, but normal.
It is also significant that the DWP insists such sanctions be considered a consequence of mistaken or wrong decisions on the part of job centre staff, the fault of 'rogue sanctioneers' if you like.
But this argument has to be set against the fact that the department cannot provide any details of a single case in which it took action against an overzealous job centre sanctioneer.
It is significant because, in putting the blame on 'rogue sanctions', 'rogue sanctioneers' or other phantoms, the DWP obscures from public scrutiny the real issue here: the discussion of the legitimacy of sanctions as a policy in and of itself. There are no 'rogue sanctions', there are no 'rogue sanctioneers'.

It is the policy of sanctioning that is rogue.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Tenants housing benefit hit by double-whammy effect of sanctions

Tenants who have their unemployment benefit taken away as part of the government policy of ‘sanctioning’ are finding their housing benefit has been cut too.
The number of sanctions against claimants deemed not to be doing enough to find work increased to 860,000 in the year to June 2013, the highest for any 12-month period since statistics began to be recorded in their present form.
But, whilst believing it not to be an intentional part of government policy, charities have confirmed a significant rise in the number of sanctioned claimants reporting that their housing benefit (HB) has been cut as a result of their Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) or Employment Support Allowance (ESA) being sanctioned.
Housing associations are also starting to see anecdotal evidence of sanctioned tenants who may have fallen into arrears as a consequence of the knock-on effect of sanctioning.  Charities, including Homeless Link and Crisis have raised the issue with the DWP. Former Policy Exchange economist, Matthew Oakley, is carrying out an ‘independent’ review of the way sanctions are communicated, for the DWP.
Leslie Ashley, 27, (to hear the full interview with Ashley click here) lives between London and Brighton and was sanctioned shortly before Christmas 2012.  A local authority tenant, the first indication he had that his housing benefit had been stopped was when his landlord contacted him.
‘I didn’t know that my housing benefit was stopped until I got a letter stating that I owed over three hundred pounds rent,’ he said.
‘It was about two or three weeks into my sanction. The council contacted me to say I was in arrears. The housing benefit people had obviously been informed, but my landlord hadn’t. Although I got the sanction overturned, it took nearly six weeks before I got my ESA and housing benefit sorted out.’
Katharine Sacks-Jones, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Crisis, said the knock-on effect of sanctioning on housing benefit was not an intended part of DWP policy, however, the problem was real and a growing one for people who find themselves sanctioned.
She said: ‘Housing benefit can be automatically stopped when someone’s JSA or ESA is sanctioned. People are not being advised that their housing benefit will be affected and that they may need to re-apply for it. Often they only realise there’s a problem when they are in arrears or facing eviction.
‘There needs to be clear communication between the different benefit departments to prevent people’s housing benefit being affected by sanctions.’
In its evidence to the Oakley review, Homeless Link called on the DWP to ensure that the potential impact of a sanction on a claimant’s housing benefit be explained when the sanction is imposed.
Richard Henderson, Chief Executive of Homeless Link, added that the charity had raised the issue with the DWP after its own research confirmed that sanctioning was causing problems for vulnerable people.
A spokesperson for Circle Housing Group confirmed they were starting to see ‘anecdotal’ of problems as a result of sanctions being robustly applied.
He said: ‘There is a continued need to communicate the changes about welfare benefit clearly to those affected to help manage the impact.’
A further housing association source confirmed that it was starting to see tenant’s housing benefit claims affected by sanctions but it could not yet assess the impact it was having on arrears.
A DWP spokesperson confirmed that sanctions should not affect claimants housing benefit, but advised that any claimant who had a problem with their HB should contact their local authority.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Benefit Street: who are the real victims of this Poverty Porn?

A lot has been said about Channel 4’s latest ratings success, ‘Benefits St’. It achieved 4.5 million viewers when it aired on Monday night (6 Jan). I understand this is higher than any other show broadcast by the channel during 2013.
Judging by the way the programme was trailed pre-broadcast, those 4.5 million people knew what they were going to get.
This kind of ‘Poverty Porn’, as Abigail Scott-Paul of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation describes it, isn’t new. Perhaps we should not be surprised at the reaction of some people (see #benefitsstreet) who not only ‘get off’ on this type of stuff, but burst into fits of verbal orgasm about it. It’s a problematic metaphor, but the people of James Turner St could perfectly well feel cognitively violated by the broadcast and the casual violence it incited on social media.
I also have to say that I’ve been surprised at some of the apologetics written about the show. This by, Diary of a Benefit Scrounger, is a case in point.
The two so-called scallys featured in the programme 'Danny' and 'Fungi', who are central to the programme's plot, are not blameless in helping to build the production company - OXYMORON KLAXON – 'Love Productions' caricature of what it is *like* to live in a disadvantaged community.
But who were the victims in this show?
The high street shops from whence the two, allegedly, collaborated in the theft and distribution of stolen goods? The skunk cultivator/s from whom one of them, allegedly, stole drugs? What about the protagonists themselves?
It appears likely that Danny and Fungi struggle with drink and hard drugs and, ultimately, it is this struggle, transmogrified into a failing, that is the source of the ethical outrage whipped up by the programme. It's the type of struggle (I will not call it a failing) that accompanies some, but by no means all, instances of deprivation.
But is it right that such a ‘failing’ be exploited by a ratings-chasing TV company in this way? I could be imagining it but, in the past, I'm sure Channel 4 would have done a grittier documentary than this, perhaps looking into the relationship between substance abuse and low-level crime. The access that the production company had was impressive. Why not use it to produce a socially responsible and affecting piece of work? 
And, by the way, what the hell has this got to do with benefits?

PS - Any journalists or production companies looking to cover issues relating to poverty would do well to check the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's website on 'Reporting Poverty'. The site has a wealth of info and research on perceptions about poverty, its portrayal in the media and good practice for journos looking to report this kind of thing.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Interview with a sanctioned benefit claimant (Friday 20 December 2013)

I’ve been interviewing people who have had their benefit sanctioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
First a few facts.
Between October 2012 and June 2013 the DWP:
·      Imposed 860,000 sanctions against unemployed people;
·      Sanctioned more people on its flagship Work Programme than it got in to work (307,000 to 161,860);
However, it’s not all bad news:
·      Fifty per cent of sanctions that claimants insisted be 'reconsidered' were subsequently overturned by the DWP's own appeals system after being imposed wrongly;
·      The proportion of sanctions overturned by independent tribunals has gone up to 42.2 per cent.
Leslie Ashley, 27, lives between London and Brighton and was sanctioned shortly before Christmas 2012. As a consequence of his Employment Support Allowance (ESA) being cut, his housing benefit was cut as well (It’s commonplace for DWP officials to fail to inform claimants that the sanction will affect their housing benefit).
In and out of zero-hours contract work as a chef, Leslie was sanctioned after he didn’t receive a letter from his Work Programme provider A4E and, as a result, missed an appointment. After six weeks fighting, and on the breadline with no money, he finally overturned the sanction, got his housing benefit restored and had his rent arrears cleared.
The sanction had been applied unlawfully and, though clearly not his fault, Ashley was warned 'not to do it again.'
Claimants who contest a DWP sanction have a reasonable expectation of getting it overturned, around half are subsequently wiped by the DWP. A higher proportion still are overturned at Independent Tribunal.

A full recording of my interview with Ashley is here…