Across the country, when people on Jobseeker’s Allowance challenge a decision to sanction them, two thirds of cases result in the sanction being overturned. In Islington, the local law centre has a success rate of 100% in challenging sanctions.
If any other Government department was having its decisions reversed on this scale it would be a national scandal and we’d have a public inquiry. And yet the Department for Work and Pensions gets away with it on an issue as serious as sanctions, where the impact can be so extreme that families may be left unable to feed their children.
Part of the problem with sanctions is that many of the people affected are so vulnerable and marginalised that they lack the confidence to speak out, leaving us to rely on the evidence we see all around us in the form of ever-increasing demand for foodbanks.
Against this backdrop, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee last year initiated an inquiry which, over five months, considered around 160 submissions of evidence. Finally we heard the voices of some of the people who have been so cruelly treated by a sanctions regime which is fundamentally broken.
Unsurprisingly, the committee’s report was scathing. They found that the DWP’s approach lacked common sense, that claims of the effectiveness of sanctions were not backed up by evidence, that they were part of a “target driven culture”, and that in many cases they were not intended to help people into work all but simply to make a show of being “purely punitive”.
Yesterday, after stalling for seven months, the Government quietly slipped out its response to the committee’s report.
Aspects of the response were positive, for example the Government’s acceptance of a proposal for a “yellow card” system to allow people to contest a sanction before it is applied.
And in a remarkable turnaround, the Government also accepted the recommendation that people should actually be told why they’ve been sanctioned – remarkable not because the Government agreed to do it but because they weren’t doing it in the first place.
But for the most part, the response is little more than a whitewash, which simply regurgitates the standard Tory propaganda.
Perhaps the most offensive example of this is the argument that sanctions are only applied to people who actively “refuse” to meet the “reasonable requirements” that are placed on them. Statements like this echo the long-standing view that, as the former MP Esther McVey used to claim, “the people who get sanctions are wilfully rejecting support for no good reason.”
Tell that to the pregnant woman from Islington, who was sanctioned for missing an appointment at a time that she was so ill with morning sickness she had to be admitted to hospital. That 100% success rate which I mentioned earlier should in itself should tell you all you need to know.
And yet the DWP manages to keep a straight face when it says “a robust decision making process is in place to ensure that decisions are correct”. I can think of many ways to describe a decision making process that results in 100% reversal, but “robust” is not one of them.
By far the most significant of the committee’s recommendations was that the Government should commission a full, independent review to look at the fundamental questions around what sanctions are supposed to achieve, and whether there is any evidence to suggest that the system is working as it should be.
The Government’s response? “Not accepted”. Suggesting that Ministers have now more or less given up trying to justify their decisions, the document states that “we are keeping the operation of the sanctions system under constant review to ensure that it continues to function effectively and fairly”.
But that is exactly the problem – the DWP’s “robust” oversight is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place. We simply will not see the changes we need for as long as we leave the Government to police itself on this issue.