Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Facing benefit sanctions: can Oakley make a difference?


 In the 1980s there was much talk in the News of sanctions against South Africa. Sanctions were about stopping the trading of goods with South Africa and thereby affecting it financially, as it was viewed as a country which oppressed its black majority population. The UK government was not keen and imposed only minor sanctions on South Africa.

Today the talk is of sanctions again. This time the UK government seems keen on imposing financial sanctions on individuals and families who are adjudged to have infringed benefit rules. Thus, sanctions today are about the immediate stopping of poverty line benefits like Jobseekers Allowance. Some PTC Commissioners have been sanctioned and / or threatened with them. Stories of injustice and inhumanity are reported to us.

This July the DWP indicated it agreed with the 17 recommendations of the Review into benefit sanctions by Matthew Oakley. The Review Report calls for improvements to the sanctions process for the benefit claimant and with a view to reducing departmental costs.

For those of us in the PTC the recommendations will only be significant if they lead to job centres adopting a more humane approach to the sanctions process.

The first thing to be said about Oakley's Review is that its remit was very specific. He was asked by the UK Government to enquire into the effectiveness of the sanctions process on claimants of JSA alone. We think that his most important recommendations, as regards possibly mitigating something of the impact of sanctions, are (in italics):

·         “The Department should revise procedures and guidance to ensure that proportionate steps are taken to inform all claimants of a sanction decision before the payment of benefit is stopped....”

The thinking here is obvious: for a claimant to attempt to draw money out from an account and find the expected benefit has not been paid must feel like being hit with a proverbial sledgehammer and individual (s) we know can confirm this. The trauma of being left with no benefit is itself great but to have no notice of its happening must be even greater.

Oakley notes the importance of clear communication in letters. One claimant told the Review team that he/she had not “...heard of the word sanction within Jobcentre Plus until it happened to me.”

·         "All letters sent to claimants ... should be reviewed to improve claimant understanding. They should give a personalised description of exactly what the sanction referral or decision relates to and include clear information about reconsideration, appeals and hardship [payments]."

Hardship payments equal 60% of JSA, after two weeks, if you are sanctioned, unless you are a member of a “vulnerable group” whereby you can access hardship payments immediately. A specific concern surrounding the hardship payments system was that the Review team found that only claimants that asked about help in Jobcentre Plus were told about such payments.

“After sanction decisions ... the Department should consider how vulnerable groups might be identified, helped to claim hardship payments and/or access support services offered through Jobcentre Plus and contracted providers.”

We would be grateful to hear from people who unfortunately have or will in future face sanctions, regarding whether these recommended improvements have been made. Also, if implemented, whether they have had an impact in reducing the stress of their situations.

David Milligan


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