Work programme providers have been putting lives at risk by failing to carry out costly home visits before referring vulnerable employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants for sanctions. The situation has got so bad that the DWP have written an entire new chapter on the subject in the guidance to providers and warned them they will not be paid if they do not follow it.
Under the rules, no claimant who has been identified as vulnerable should ever be referred for a sanction unless they have had a face-to-face meeting with work programme staff. The meeting is to ensure that they understood what it was they were obliged to do and also understood that failure could lead to their benefit being sanctioned.
This particularly applies to claimants with mental health conditions or learning difficulties, but vulnerable claimants may also include people who have conditions which affect their communication or cognition. So, for example, a claimant with severe fatigue might have difficulty taking in information and remembering it afterwards.
Where there has been no face-to-face interview the provider should never refer the claimant to the DWP for a decision on whether they should be sanctioned.
However, a face-to-face meeting may involve the provider making a time consuming and costly visit to the claimant’s home, if the claimant fails to attend appointments at their office. It could mean a member of staff, or possibly even two if there are health and safety concerns, being out of the office and not earning fees for the company for half a day or more.
It is now clear that sanctions have been routinely imposed on vulnerable claimants without this meeting happening. However, the DWP claim that rather than cost considerations, this is because guidance was unclear, leading to “an inconsistent approach to the safeguarding these participants”.
New guidance now sets out exactly what steps providers must take to ascertain whether a claimant is vulnerable and how to attempt a face-to-face meeting prior to referring them for a sanction.
Sadly, more than half of all ESA sanctions have already been imposed on claimants with mental health conditions, many of whom will not have been subject to proper ‘safeguarding’ checks. We know that for some claimants, unfair sanctions have caused a dramatic deterioration in their health and sometimes even resulted in their death. We also know that in many cases claimants had no idea they were going to be sanctioned until their payments were cut.
For them, it is now much too late to begin applying the rules correctly.