Peter Dwyer and Janis Bright consider this week’s report
This week the National Audit Office published its report on benefit sanctions. The NAO found that an increasingly harsh sanctions regime, extended in scope and severity, has been running for quite some time with only limited evidence on the outcomes and effectiveness of benefit sanctions leading to increased participation in paid work.
The NAO points out that government has a duty to evaluate its own rules, and to ‘balance their effectiveness in encouraging employment against the impacts on claimants and any wider costs for public spending’.
The report notes that the DWP expects that most people will not be sanctioned, and that the threat of sanctions will get most people to comply with their conditions. But, says the NAO, the reality is that almost a quarter of JSA claimants in recent years received a sanction – so it’s by no means uncommon. And there’s little by way of an evidence base on how people respond to sanctions. Nor does the DWP track the costs and benefits of sanctions.
Our project’s First Wave Findings, published in May this year, detail extensive evidence on the negative effects of conditionality and benefit sanctions:
- Linking continued receipt of benefit and services to mandatory behavioural requirements under threat of sanction created widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment.
- Routinely, sanctions had severely detrimental financial, material, emotional and health impacts on those subject to them. There was evidence of certain individuals being pushed toward survival crime or disengaging from services.
Our study found that harsh, disproportionate or inappropriate sanctioning was frequently reported by service users. It created deep resentment and feelings of injustice.
To date, our work has found little evidence of benefit sanctions bringing about the positive effects government intends. For example, our work finds:
- There was limited evidence of welfare conditionality bringing about positive behaviour change. Evidence of it working to move people nearer to the paid labour market was rare. A minority of practitioners and service users did acknowledge some positive outcomes.
- The common thread linking stories of successful transitions into work, or the cessation of problematic behaviour, was not so much the threat or experience of sanction, but the availability of appropriate individual support.
In summary, we need two things to improve the system for the future. First, it’s vital to find out more about the effects of sanctions and what works to bring about positive change in people’s lives. We hope that government will work with independent researchers – like our own project – to build the knowledge base on the effects of sanctions and support, and then act on that evidence.
Second, and this is important in the short term – we need to alleviate the problems related to the administration of sanctions as raised by the NAO report. Our research suggests some immediate steps could be taken to improve the current approach to sanctions and support within the benefit system:
- A more graduated approach to sanctions that could involve incremental increases and/or a warning system.
- A reformed approach to in-work Universal Credit recipients. Some practical approaches could be taken to overcome counterproductive effects in the UC ‘in-work progression’ system.
- Improving the quality and level of support available to benefit recipients to enhance access to meaningful, sustainable work.
- Incentivising benefit recipients to undertake training, educational or job search activities.
- Better implementation to ensure greater fairness and consistency, proper communication with service users, and attention to people’s individual needs and circumstances.
In line with our ongoing work, the NAO report has cast a light on the limited evidence that benefit sanctions work to move people towards paid employment. Our ongoing qualitative longitudinal study with benefit recipients hopes to shine more light on the question of how, and if, sanctions and welfare conditionality more widely work to change people’s behaviour. Our final report will be available in mid 2018.
Our submission to the Commons Public Accounts Committee inquiry that debates the NAO report details our evidence. Read it here.
Professor Peter Dwyer is Director of the ESRC funded ‘Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions Support and Behaviour Change’ project and Dr Janis Bright its Impact Officer. See http://www.welfareconditionality.ac.uk/