I’ve come across a remarkable document in the last few days – a report commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) on its own ‘Skills Conditionality’ pilot, in which it started to mandate training on jobseekers under threat of the sanction (suspension) of their benefit payments. The report was released in 2011, so my apologies if it’s not new information to you – but I haven’t seen or heard of it before, and it’s more relevant than ever.
This report, which you can download in full here, takes a bit of digesting, which is partly why I’ve been a bit quieter than usual the last few days. However, once you get through it, it contains some quite remarkable conclusions – conclusions which the DWP has completely ignored, even though it was it’s own advice to itself.
The most striking conclusions centre around the issuing of ‘sanctions’ – periods between 4 weeks and 3 years long, which can be issued instantly by Jobcentre Plus ‘advisers’ for offences as minor as being a few minutes late for an appointment. Let’s take a look at some of them:
Sanctions: damaging to, well, pretty much everything
Section 11 of the report, Conclusions and Recommendations, includes a section on the harm done by the trial itself, either by participation in the pilot project itself or by sanctions arising from it. First the report looks at the harmful effects of the training imposed by the pilot:
- people prevented from looking for work by being forced to attend training that was no use to them
- people already involved in training or volunteer work intended to improve their chances of finding work who had to end it to take part in ‘mandated’ training – or face sanction if they declined
- transport difficulties and childcare problems – again potentially leading to sanctions
- people who didn’t attend, didn’t complete or rejected a training course because it was unsuitable- and were sanctioned anyway
Having highlighted the insanity of forcing people to take training that was unsuitable or impractical and was likely to put them in a position of being sanctioned, the report then looks at the effects of the sanctions themselves on jobseekers – and their families, even if they don’t have dependent children. Harmful effects included:
- forcing claimants to rely on family and friends for their survival (assuming of course they’re lucky to have family and friends to turn to)
- damage to family relationships
- damage to low-income families who had to stretch their resources to help a sanctioned family member
- harm to younger siblings of sanctioned claimants
The conclusions section of the report ends with this statement:
If the pilot is mainstreamed and mandation at Stage 3 becomes more common, sanctioning is likely to increase. It should be acknowledged that when a claimant is sanctioned, the loss of benefits may affect low income families rather than individuals alone, even when the claimant does not have dependants (sic) themselves.
The report recognises that not only does sanctioning do harm, but it also harms people who have nothing to do with the claim being suspended – about as unjust as you could possibly get.
Pointless – and often counter-productive
The report looks at whether sanctions were sensibly applied – and whether they did any good anyway – and the answer is a resounding ‘NO!’. First it acknowledges that ‘directions’ to attend training were given to people who didn’t need them:
In more than half the sample, individuals were identified through basic skills screening as having no potential skills need
Then Jobcentre Plus advisers did not understand the rules properly and mandated training on the wrong people, setting many up for sanction. ‘Bob’, an adviser from one of the pilot centres, told interviewers:
I didn’t realise that it was only for customers with a skills need, so I was putting everyone in the pilot.
The report then looks at whether backing the instructions with sanctions made any difference to the outcomes:
The analysis has provided estimates of the impact of conditionality as operationalised in this pilot on training, sanctions and early labour market outcomes for individuals who were identified through basic skills screening as having a potential skills need, and who had a valid pilot marker. There is no evidence of an impact on any of these outcomes.
By contrast, the report acknowledges that adding more instructions backed by sanctions simply put people in a position of being sanctioned without any real cause:
Some advisers believed that sanctions could be avoided if training is positively ‘sold’ to claimants through encouragement and persuasion. While this approach may have merits, it is unlikely to have prevented most of the sanctioning cases reported to us. This applies particularly to the claimants who had missed sessions through human error, but also to claimants who left training because they felt that it did not meet their needs.
There was little evidence of poor motivation to find work among the respondents who experienced loss of benefits though sanctioning. They were upset at being sanctioned, with some finding it unfair when they were taking positive steps themselves to find work. Those who declined or left training still felt they were right to do so, because it had not met their needs, and sanctioning in these circumstances would appear to be ineffective.
In other words, sanctions were applied to people that had nothing to do with any lack of effort to find work, and because they were not related to any lack of effort, they had no effect in motivating people to find work – they just inflicted suffering for no reason.
While all these statements relate to one specific pilot, the comments about the justness and effectiveness of sanctions clearly have a wider application. The DWP cannot claim to have overlooked the significance of these comments, since it summarises them in a section of its own website discussing the significance of the report, in about as unequivocal language as it’s possible to imagine:
The report concludes that sanctions can cause hardship to families and is (sic) in many cases unlikely to be effective in encouraging future compliance.
The DWP published its report, and made that last statement, in August 2011. If you or I tried something and found that it did no good and in fact caused harm, we’d stop doing it. Right?
But the DWP did anything but.
It’s bad. Really bad. Let’s do more!
In the last full year before the publication of the above report – the first year of the coalition government – the DWP issued 528,700 sanctions, already massively up from the figure of 388,200 inherited from the outgoing Labour government (in itself much higher than the 2007/8 figure of 254,670).
In the 12 months to October 2012 – a period starting just 3 months after the DWP published its remarkably frank report and summary – the DWP issued no fewer than 778,000 sanctions, an increase of over 47% in a single year.
That’s not the worst news. In October 2012, the government introduced a new, even tougher sanctions regime, so the growth of the numbers of sanctions is likely to have accelerated even further. However, we don’t know by exactly how much – the latest statistics were due out this month, but the government has delayed them indefinitely. Most likely, the government is afraid of the political fallout of the results of its actions, or else the number of sanctions has grown so incredibly quickly that even the Tory-led coalition can’t quite believe the figures and is having them double-checked before an undoubtedly embarrassing release. One thing is already certain, however – the tougher ‘regime’ will not have slowed down the growth.
If any sane, non-sociopathic person analysed his own actions and found them to be not only harmful to others but counter-productive to what he wanted to achieve (or claimed to), he or should would stop. For this government, it appears to be a signal to pile on the pain – either recklessly disregarding or else actually desiring the damaging effects on ordinary people.
People who, as the government’s own report admits, are not scroungers or workshy, but are actively seeking work.
To me, that looks like a very good definition of one or two things – either insanity or evil. And in the context of this report – created by the DWP, for the DWP, and explicitly acknowledged – the DWP’s decision, which I exposed last month, to force people to take fake psychometric tests or face sanction is even more unconscionable.
If you want to hear from people who are the victims of this wanton campaign of sanctions, then please watch this 5-minute video made by the Guardian. I warn you, it’s moving, even heartbreaking – but it will make you very angry as well, and in this context that’s anything but bad: