The introduction of a pilot scheme to trial ‘yellow cards’ for benefits sanctions next year has been widely condemned as not going far enough to make sanctions fairer, even by the companies making profits from welfare to work contracts.
In the face of continued pressure over the harshness of the benefits sanctions regime, the DWP have announced that they are to pilot a yellow card scheme. The effect will be that a sanction decision will no longer take effect immediately. Instead, there will be a 14 day period in which the claimant can put forward evidence showing why the sanction is unreasonable.
If the DWP accept that the evidence shows the sanction is wrong it will not be imposed.
The DWP also say that they have:
‘issued new guidance to Jobcentre Plus staff to improve awareness of vulnerability and how conditionality can be varied.’
In addition, they say they ‘accepted in principle the need:
- to make hardship payments available from day one of a sanction;
- to remove the necessity of a separate application process for a hardship payments for vulnerable claimants and those with dependent children;
- and to extend the definition of groups considered "at risk" for hardship purposes to include those with mental health conditions and those that are homeless.’
Not far enough
However, the new policy has already come under attack from the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA), the group which represents welfare to work companies.
Kirsty McHugh, ERSA Chief Executive, said:
“We welcome the recognition by the Secretary of State that the sanctions system is in need of reform, but are concerned that the changes today don’t go far enough. For some jobseekers, receiving a sanction can act as a ‘wake up’ call. However, for the majority, the sanction system is more likely to hinder the journey to employment. Jobseekers move into work quickest when they feel positive about work and thus sanctions should only be used as a last resort.”
ERSA say that additional changes that are needed include:
1 An ‘early warning’ system which could be used at first offence rather than imposing a sanction.
2 The development of a far more robust evidence base about the effectiveness of sanctions and benefits conditionality generally on jobseekers.
3 Frontline employment providers of the Work Programme and other programmes to be given more discretion about when they should report jobseekers to Jobcentre Plus for potential sanctioning.
4 Greater clarity across the system about which jobseekers classed as ‘vulnerable’ and should be exempt from sanctions altogether.
5 The better sharing of information about jobseeker circumstances, including the results of Work Capability Assessments, as lack of information can lead to inappropriate sanctioning.
6 An automatic review of jobseeker circumstances when repeat sanctions fail to have an effect.
Full review needed
A coalition of church groups have also condemned the very limited proposals to change the sanctions system.
The Baptist Union, Church in Wales, Church of Scotland, Methodist Church, United Reformed Church and charity Church Action on Poverty have called for an immediate suspension of sanctions against families with children and people with mental ill-health.
They say the DWP’s response does not go far enough and have called again for a review.
A spokesperson argued:
“If a court is working to a bad set of laws for a bad set of reasons and making bad and unreliable decisions, it’s not the sentencing policy you look at. ‘Yellow cards’ will reduce the number of sanctions, which is welcome, but won’t address the fundamental problems that occur long before the decision to sanction has been made. That’s why we need a full independent review”
How much difference?
Any lessening of the harshness of the sanctions regime is welcome. But the current announcement looks much more like an attempt to blunt criticism whilst doing as little as possible.
As yet there are no details of when in 2016 the yellow card pilot will begin or how long it will last before a decision on whether to roll it out nationally is taken.
There is also real doubt over how much difference it will make to have the DWP look at their own decision again, especially when just 14 days are allowed for a claimant to collect and provide evidence.
As long as the DWP believes that threats, traps and cruel punishments are the best way to deal with claimants, tinkering with the system is no more than a PR stunt.