Government U-Turn on Sanctions Inquiry

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After Employment Minister Esther McVey promised the Work and Pensions Select Committee that an independent investigation into the ‘appropriateness’ of benefit sanctions would be set up, the Government yesterday announced another u-turn.

The Government’s response to the Work and Pensions select committee report on Jobcentre Plus says the Department for Work and Pensions is “already committed to an independent review by Matthew Oakley which will look primarily at the communications to claimants and offer recommendations to improve the operations of the sanctions process.”

Crucially the Government response adds that “we will be publishing further information on sanctions through the forthcoming Work Programme Evaluation and the claimant commitment research to help inform our future strategy. We are fully committed to monitoring the current regime to ensure it continues to deliver the intended outcomes and will assess whether any further evaluation is needed once the current evaluation programmes have concluded.”

As you may be aware from earlier posts, I challenged Ms McVey to set up the independent inquiry.  I believe that this u-turn is a deliberate snub by the Government to the Work and Pensions Select Committee following a commitment given by Esther McVey in November when I demanded the Department set up an independent investigation into the ‘appropriateness of sanctions’.

If sanctions are currently being applied correctly, an independent review will testify to that, so just what are Ministers trying to hide?  This u-turn is just another example of how Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey are using smoke and mirrors to avoid any criticism about the mess and misery they are creating in the social security system.

The hundreds of thousands of people suffering right now as a result of inappropriate use of sanctions cannot wait for months and months while Esther McVey waits to see ‘if any further evaluation is need’.  The Work and Pensions Select Committee report clearly identified the evidence of inappropriate sanctioning and that a second independent inquiry is needed now; urgently.

No-one is arguing with the fact that anyone who is on benefits should do all they can to find appropriate work. However, this Government has gone beyond the pale by using underhand tactics and creating a culture in which Jobcentre Plus advisors are expected to sanction claimants to manipulate unemployment data.

I believe that the last thing Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey want is for that uncomfortable truth to be uncovered by a focussed and independent investigation.

Further information

This extract from the Work and Pensions Committee – Second Report – The role of Jobcentre Plus in the reformed welfare system shows that the Committee believes Esther McVey has agreed to an independent review:

Monitoring the conditionality regimes

18. It is important that JCP makes fair and proportionate sanction referrals and that the process is transparent. We welcome the current independent review which will focus on the clarity of communications between JCP and claimants in relation to the conditionality and sanctioning process; the availability of hardship payments for sanctioned claimants; and the clarity of the review and appeals process. We strongly believe that a further review is necessary and welcome the Minister’s commitment to launch a second and separate review into the broader operation of the sanctioning process. (Paragraph 100).

19. We recommend that the second review of sanctions investigate: whether sanction referrals are being made appropriately, fairly and proportionately, in accordance with the relevant Regulations and guidance, across the Jobcentre network; and the link between sanctioning and benefit off-flow, including whether benefit off-flow targets have an influence on sanctioning rates. We also recommend that this review consider whether, and to what extent, the use of sanctions is having the desired effect of encouraging claimants to engage more actively in job-seeking. We further recommend that this review is launched as a matter of urgency and reports before the end of 2014. (Paragraph 101) 

The transcript during which Ms McVey commits to ‘a secondary’ investigation is below:

TRANSCRIPT – The Role of Jobcentre Plus in the Reformed Welfare System Wednesday 20 November 2013 – Esther McVey MP and Neil Couling

Evidence heard in Public

Following repeated requests from Debbie Abrahams MP to Esther McVey for an independent investigation the Chair said:

“Q574 – Chair: I am going to bring Graham in just a minute. Can I just be a bit clearer about the Matthew Oakley review of sanctions? I have just had a look at the terms of reference, and it is all about clarity of communications. There is nothing in his remit to look at the appropriateness of the sanctions. I think that was the wider question that was being put to you: should there not be an independent review that would cover all of that: not just whether people have been told that they are being sanctioned, but whether the sanction and the sanction regime were actually appropriate?

“Esther McVey: I said it was communications and process, and I personally had said that I wanted to make sure that it was proportionate. That would be a secondary one, so they are separate, yes.”

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