The Public Accounts Select Committee,in a report into Job Centre Plus performance published last month, have criticised the DWP on five issues. And after receiving concerns from a number of quarters including media and members of the public about the use of targets for sanctioning job seekers, they have ordered Robert Devereux, the DWP’s Permanent Secretary to write to them with answers despite the fact that both Mr Devereux and Neil Couling had both denied emphatically that no such targets or league tables existed, during questioning before the Committee.
- The number of people who stop claiming benefits is a flawed measure of jobcentres’ effectiveness
- There is a risk that sanctions unfairly penalise the most vulnerable claimants and are applied inconsistently
- Jobcentres have increased flexibility to take local need into account, but the Department does not yet know enough about what works and why
- We are concerned that increased flexibility for jobcentres may leave greater scope for ‘parking’ harder-to-help claimants such as those with disabilities
- Technology can improve the services available to jobseekers, but some claimants will struggle with online access and need more support from third parties.
Perhaps the most embarrassing criticism for Iain Duncan Smith is their focus on sanctions and their concern that vulnerable claimants are being unfairly treated as a result of the harsh regime he’s insisted on putting in place. In their summary they refer specifically to the sanctioning of a claimant with learning difficulties who had gone along to their Citizen’s Advice Bureau to have the sanction explained to them because they didn’t understand what it meant. The fact that they also responded positively to a large number of concerns raised by people from the media, the Citizen’s Advice and individual members of the public among others, who had written to them with evidence that strongly suggested JobCentres were working to targets regarding sanctions, should be a source of embarrassment for the Secretary of State.
Even though Robert Devereux and Neil Couling had answered questions when called as witnesses before the Committee concerning the use of targets and denied it emphatically in their evidence, Margaret Hodge, the Committee’s Chairman, was obviously concerned enough by these submissions from the public to write the following letter to Devereux, effectively questioning the truth of their evidence,
You will recall that on 11 March 2013, during the Committee evidence session on Responding to changes in Job Centres, you were questioned by Fiona Mactaggart MP about whether staff at Job Centres had been given targets to enforce sanctions in connection with Job Seeker Allowance Claimants. Both you and Neil Couling were insistent that no targets are in place. I enclose the relevant exchange with this letter.
I am sure that you are aware of recent media reports stating that sanctions have in fact been in operation at a number of Job centres across the country. In particular, on 26 March, The Guardian reported the existence of an email from Walthamstow Job Centre where an official referred to a “league table” of benefit sanctions in which Walthamstow Job centre was ranked 95th out of 109.
This and other reports on this matter are naturally of concern to both me and the Committee and I would be grateful if you could clarify whether or not there is any basis to these media reports and specifically whether you are able to re-assure us that there are no targets for sanctions in operation at Job Centres.
3 April 2013
Devereux, the DWP’s Permanent Secretary, who once defended the Coalition government’s decision to charge an upfront application fee and a surcharge on any money transferred between parents when single parents asked the Child Support Agency for help to make their ex-partners pay towards their children’s care, on the basis that it would reinforce the message that “coming to the state is the least best option” for those struggling to agree maintenance arrangements”, responded to Margaret Hodge with the following 14 days later,
Thank you for your letter of 3 April 2013. I am happy to reassure you that the evidence that Neil Couling and I gave to the Committee on 11 March is correct. No targets have been set for Jobcentre Plus to sanction claimants.
During our evidence Neil and I sought to explain that:
JSA is a conditional benefit, and the sanctions regime exists to respond to failure on a claimant’s part to meet the conditions;
A sanction is decided by an independent decision maker, not a Jobcentre advisor, but the advisor initially raises a concern (backed by evidence), that a claimant may not have fulfilled their conditions for receiving benefit;
It can, of course, be challenging for an advisor to take these steps, and subsequently explain them to a claimant: while the great majority of advisors manage to do so when the circumstances warrant it, some may not; others may, at the other extreme, be referring inappropriate cases for sanction;
One way to pick up either of these potential shortfalls in performance is for managers to look at the rates at which potential sanctions are referred to decision makers, and the extent to which the decision makers are persuaded by the evidence provided;
But even when a rate looks abnormally low (or high) the management action is then to observe the work of that advisor, to see if the management information simply reflects a more/less compliant caseload, or the need for further training to ensure that advisors are properly implementing the JSA regime.
So, no targets exist. But we use information about sanctions to make sure Jobcentre staff are implementing JSA properly.
17 April 2013
The full Public Accounts Committee report can be accessed here
The Uxbridge Graduate blog has provided this graph (to see a larger version click the link to the blog given below) after questioning the legality of Duncan Smith’s increased use of sanctions. The blog states,
In the last two years, the frequency with which sanctions have been used has increased noticeably. Some commentators suggest the increasing use of sanctions has not been justified. Anecdotal evidence of sanctions being applied for trivial reasons, or without sufficient or just cause, support the case that they are being misused. Further, there is now speculation that DWP is working to targets and that sanctions are being applied to meet these targets. In short, the sanctions, it is suggested, are being used to meet purposes separate from those set out in legislation and approved by Parliament. If true, this would mean, of course, that sanctions are being applied unlawfully by DWP. An independent review of DWP’s use of sanctions, we have been told, is now to take place to investigate these matters.
This blogger did some statistical research using figures produced by ONS and concluded,
The variation in sanctions frequency between region is not consistent with the hypothesis that claimant behaviour is independent of region. So what is causing this variation? If sanctions targets were being set at regional level without the centre’s knowledge, then we might expect to find statistically significant variation in the regional sanctions frequencies. This is indeed what this brief study finds – the regional variation uncovered by this study is statistically significant at the 0.05% level. So the results of this study are consistent with the hypothesis of sanctions policies and targets being determined regionally, at least in some of the regions.
This blogger has a professional background in Statistics and Accountancy which adds validity to his conclusion that the ONS data he used, when analysed, strongly suggest that targets have been applied. Check out his full account here:-
If the Uxbridge Graduate blogger is right in his analysis then both Robert Devereux and Neil Couling lied to a Parliamentary Select Committee twice. Not only that but a government department, the DWP, has acted unlawfully in using the application of sanctions as a performance criteria for JobCentres by setting targets. In addition the PAC have expressed strong concern over the unfairness of sanctioning vulnerable adults, many with learning difficulties who were previously not considered able to work, without making sure they are fully aware of what the DWP expect of them when looking for work.
Iain Duncan Smith and his gang at the DWP are standing among the ruins of destroyed lives and have so far managed to get away with it. One day they will have to answer for this……One day….