Benefits sanctions: what should happen when guidelines and reality are at odds with each other?

Benefits-welfareBack in April, I wrote about how the overuse of benefits sanctions appeared to be at odds with the Department of Work and Pensions guidance which was actually quite reasonable and gave decision makers some flexibility to take things like poor mental health into consideration.

Both the use and the penalty for even a minor infringement of the rules have been dramatically increased in the last couple of years. It’s worth noting that the minimum period of benefit loss is now 4 weeks. Given that the maximum help you can get from a food bank is 3 days’ food, 3 times a year, you can just imagine how much incredible hardship this can cause. You would think that a decision maker would take very seriously the consequences  of imposing a sanction and only do it when the circumstances were clear cut.

Here’s what the official DWP guidance has to say on mental health:

34236 Claimants may have good reason if they lose or leave work or fail to carry out tasks or participate in relevant activities if they were experiencing poor mental health which meant that

1. they were not able to comply with a reasonable request or

2. complying with the request in question would put their mental health at risk or

3. complying with the request would have put the health of other people at risk.

Note: The consideration at 3. would apply to any situation where the claimant was involved with others, for example their mental health may involve unprovoked violent episodes or may mean they cannot concentrate fully and so could not drive or operate machinery around others or their mental state may be such that spending time with them could result in others feeling stressed.

34237 The DM should consider each individual case on its own merits taking into consideration all the facts and evidence and whether the claimant understood what was required of them and their reasons for the failure taking into account in particular their mental health.

According to an article by Polly Toynbee in yesterday’s Guardian, the reality is not so reasonable, with staff being put under pressure to impose sanctions. Compare and contrast with the guidelines:

A high proportion on employment and support allowance have mental illnesses or learning difficulties. The department denies there are targets, but she showed me a printed sheet of what are called “spinning plates”, red for missed, green for hit. They just missed their 50.5% target for “off flows”, getting people off ESA. They have been told to “disrupt and upset” them – in other words, bullying. That’s officially described, in Orwellian fashion, as “offering further support”. As all ESA claimants approach the target deadline of 65 weeks on benefits – advisers are told to report them all to the fraud department for maximum pressure. In this manager’s area 16% are “sanctioned” or cut off benefits.

Of course it’s not written down anywhere, but it’s in the development plans of individual advisers or “work coaches”. Managers repeatedly question them on why more people haven’t been sanctioned. Letters are sent to the vulnerable who don’t legally have to come in, but in such ambiguous wording that they look like an order to attend. Tricks are played: those ending their contributory entitlement to a year on ESA need to fill in a form for income-based ESA. But jobcentres are forbidden to stock those forms. These ill people’s benefits are suddenly stopped without explanation: if they call, they’re told to collect a form from the jobcentre, which doesn’t stock them either.

Even if you are well, treatment like that would make the system harsh, unforgiving and difficult to negotiate. Imagine what it must be like if you are ill, physically or mentally.

This can’t be dismissed as Polly Toynbee having a go. Her article chimes with everything I have read and heard about over the past year or so. The culture for employees within job centres must be absolutely toxic – and they can’t get respite if they don’t get it because sickness absence is “managed” with similar levels of compassion.

That this should be happening on our watch is concerning. I would like to see our ministers making a tangible change to this regime in the time that they have left.

I get so annoyed by these failures to follow official guidelines. As an MP’s caseworker during the last government, I saw various Home Office policies on the treatment of visa applicants and asylum seekers treated as optional extras. I did wonder if there should be some accountability, just like nurses and doctors have, on civil servants to do what their guidelines and policies say with the heaviest penalties falling on those with most power within the organisation. There are obvious practical problems and it could be a legal minefield, but people have the right to expect fair treatment from the state and its agencies. We Liberal Democrats are there to protect vulnerable people from the excesses of the powerful. We clearly need to do a lot better when it comes to benefits claimants.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Jul '14 - 10:58am

    Can’t argue with any of that. I do think there needs to be some sort of sanctions if people are clearly infringing the rules but it needs to be clear, fair and beyond reproach. What is happening at the moment is about as far from that as you can get. It’s simply not acceptable.

  • Joshua Dixon 9th Jul '14 - 11:00am

    I was sanctioned for going to a job interview instead of a meeting with an employer at the job centre. The former was a real opportunity for me to find employment, the latter was merely a kind of Q&A with no clarity on whether the prospect of a job would lie ahead.

    Finding out about the interview late meant it was not possible for me to tell my advisor I’d miss the meeting. This was difficult because my advisor had not given me a direct number to contact him on or to reach him through. When explaining the situation he immediately cut off my JSA. What was most shocking was I was not given any time to prove my case. If I had been given a week to prove I was telling the truth it would have been ok, but I was only given this chance AFTER my benefits had already been cut off.

    Thankfully I found employment a week or so later but even then my advisor was less than congratulatory and even seemed to question whether I was telling the truth! Never again.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Jul '14 - 11:06am

    Josh, that is a terrible experience and an example of exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. Thank you for sharing it. I don’t know anyone who has contact with either Home Office of DWP who feels that they get treated like a human being.
    That’s not just a recent problem – it’s been endemic in the system for years and has to change.

  • Stephen Campbell 9th Jul '14 - 11:25am

    “That this should be happening on our watch is concerning.”

    Some of us have been shouting about this since the beginning of the coalition and we weren’t believed. On this very site I read as posters pleaded with the Liberal Democrats to use their position in government to do something about this. There have been several people who posted here about sanctions and the way this government is treating the disabled and mentally ill who claim benefits. Those who sounded the alarm were told they were “scaremongering”, were accused for lying, had their posts moderated or were called names such as “Labour trolls” (which, funnily enough, weren’t moderated). That’s no way to treat vulnerable people.

    “We Liberal Democrats are there to protect vulnerable people from the excesses of the powerful.”

    The people who are in power right now are YOU. Disabled and vulnerable people begged YOUR PARTY to protect them when the coalition was formed and when the Welfare Reform Bill went through Parliament. You didn’t. Your MPs didn’t even try as they by and large voted for this. You say one of your party’s reasons for existing is to “protect vulnerable people from the excesses of the powerful.” But YOU are now the powerful who the vulnerable need protecting from. Your party is partly to blame for this happening.

    I think an apology from this party is in order. As well as a reason as to why you either didn’t believe those who tried to bring this to your attention years ago or called them names such as trolls.

  • matt (Bristol) 9th Jul '14 - 11:30am

    And, of course, contact with one ‘toxic’ worker or team or agency or govt department risks breeding contempt for and distrust of the entire welfare / public health / local government system, and makes the individual’s relationship with the next person they interact with so much more difficult, whether they be a social worker, district nurse, benefits advisor or housing officer’s of whoever, whether they work for central government or local government.

    Imagine a job where you’re working with or dependant on information from someone who’s convinced you’re going to stitch them up because the last guy did, and therefore is either constantly challenging you to disprove this, or tends to read everything you do in this light?

    No government agency is an island.

  • Liverpool has actually submitted a motion on this topic for Autumn conference.

  • You don’t see such a dramatic change in the way an organisation behaves unless that change is driven from the top. It is the politicians that have instigated this punitive and spiteful regime. What exactly have Lib Dem ministers been doing?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Jul '14 - 12:05pm

    That’s good to hear, Paula. Let’s hope it gets selected for debate.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Jul '14 - 1:20pm

    Actually, Stephen, you’ll find quite a lot of criticism of the welfare reforms an related issues on this site over the years. Much of it written by me.

  • Kevin White 9th Jul '14 - 3:21pm

    Yes, I hope that the FPC will recognise that the Party needs to debate this issue at Glasgow.

  • Norman Fraser 9th Jul '14 - 3:35pm

    A very good post Caron. I must stress, however, that while some Jobcentre Plus staff are uncaring, the majority are trying their best for their customers. All DWP staff are being forced to implement sanctions which are driven from the top but never put in writing anywhere. Staff work in a bullying culture where disciplinary action may result if they do not apply these wicked measures. Matt is quite right when he says this prejudices relationships between staff and customers and can lead to distress, acrimony and violence in local offices. This is a regime of fear for both staff and claimants and it is in everyone’s interest that it is ended.

  • Kevin White 9th Jul '14 - 4:08pm

    I would also ask why our lead person at the DWP has allowed the Tories to get away with imposing measures which constitute an attack on our belief that no one shall be enslaved by poverty. He has supported IDS straight down the line.

  • Other than the fact that Polly Toynbee goes on incessantly about what Labour should do (or David Owen, in his heyday, of course), I fail to understand why so many contributors see her so negatively here. I would have thought the “new politics” would have embraced non-tribalism, and where, as Caron says here her instincts are the same as those deriving from our party’s constitution, then we should welcome her comments in many cases. Instead, some here criticise merely because she may criticise Lib Dems centrally (and let’s face it, there’s a lot to criticise!)

  • Good post,
    Personally think a lot of this down tof IDS’s mixture of malice and in incompetence . I also suspect that had key Lib Dems known where many of the welfare reforms were going they would not have supported them.
    I’m not a supporter of sanctions in most cases because the benefits system is a lifeline for all sorts of vulnerable people not just the disabled.

  • Caron

    “I get so annoyed by these failures to follow official guidelines”

    Last year I took someone on incapacity benefit for their medical assessment at the local job centre and then recently took them for their appeal. The staff at the job centre and the appeals centre were all perfectly fine – no problems at all. It was the guidelines that were the problem – please get a copy and have a look at them – they are savage to say the least. There is no doubt Duncan Smith has managed to achieve what he wanted, but do ministers like Steve Webb have to praise him so much?

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Jul '14 - 8:02pm

    Yes, these are serious problems (although it’s a bit rich for Toynbee to be ranting about them since it’s her darling Labour party who created them). I have been saying for years that we need to get serious about engaging with these real problems, rather than obsessing over other nonsense. Look very closely at what the problem is here: there is a clear written policy from the government not to do these things, and then there are individuals on the front line whose instructions clearly say to do these things. Somewhere in between these two places there is some number of people who I can only describe as “the culprits”, as their desks are the place where one set of instructions got translated into the other. I want to know who they are and when they are getting sacked.

    While I have no love for Duncan Smith, from everything I can find out it looks like his only crime here has been to neglect to deal with this issue. He’s clearly not the culprit here, and replacing him isn’t going to get rid of the people who made this mess happen, nor is rewriting the rules going to have any effect when the rules are being blatantly ignored in this manner. (You might argue that he has little motivation to fix this long-standing problem, and I’m not inclined to defend him on this point)

  • How is this mess not down to the Minister in charge? He’s had 4 years in charge and your still blaming Labour. Unbelieveable.

  • Guidelines should be in line with reality if the Government wants to cut benefits be honest say this is what can be afforded and stop being unreasonable.

    However good luck with the LibDem party looking clean when people don’t like the reforms it’s a consequence of power happens on your watch your guilty. Even if more than half the electorate agree with the intentions impossible to please everyone

  • The DWP/JobCentre can be very bad over reconsideration/appeals of sanctioning decisions. They are so slow that there is effectively no chance or reconsideration within the period of a 4 week sanction. Funnily enough, I don;t see any obvious disciplinary action against individual decisionmakers who get things wrong again and again, causing havoc with people’s lives.

  • I think the most constructive approach is asking what the liberal democrats could or should do if they had the power. For example

    A. Claimants with mental health issues should be referred for primary mental health care and wait for confirmation that a person’s return to work will do no further harm to their mental health.
    B. Reverse the sanctions regime which has been introduced for lone mothers under this government. This is the regime which targets mothers with kids from the age of 4. No sanctions should be applied in areas where local gov. Admits there is a paucity of affordable childcare
    C. Give councils responsibility for the Work Programme. I privately think many issues in difficulty finding employment can be linked to housing. Local government in partnership with housing providers can work together to overcome some external barriers
    D. Total transparency over the targets regime used by jobcentre plus. There has been years of denial over a regime everyone knows exists.
    E. There should be an independent review into the attitudes of jobcentre plus staff. I think there is a problem of deep set prejudices by some staff leading to odd outcomes which end up going to tribunals costing the taxpayers lots of money.

    I’m sure others may think of much more. I was v unhappy in how I was “supported” by jobcentre plus recently. They admitted the bureaucracy stifles them, staff reduced to working on paper and bizarre monitoring and policing of staff working in jobcentres.

    I’m beginning to believe the dwp should be scrapped in the next government, while jobcentre plus’s status should be reviewed. I believe the entire institutional structure is too broke to be fixed.

  • Jayne Mansfield 10th Jul '14 - 6:18pm

    Might a change from ‘Benefits’ to Social Security or Social Protection cause people to think differently?

    Language is important to how we think, and ‘Benefit’ seems to have become a loaded word that seems to shape , in a negative way, how many people now think and behave towards members of our society who need support at certain times in their life.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jul '14 - 6:33pm

    On the topic of benefit sanctions: I think Lib Dems should be against turning people’s benefits off entirely. It is subject to mistakes, like the death penalty, and seems too harsh. I think we can afford not to switch them off entirely.


  • Shirley Campbell 11th Jul '14 - 7:49am

    Well if posting a comment on LibDem Voice is such an insurmountable task then I shall butt out together with my membership and subscription. Forget me as I shall forget you. Oh, have I already said that!

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