Ipswich Unemployed Action.

Campaigning for Unemployed Rights.

Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Oakley

Work and Pensions Select Committee Hearing on Sanctions, this Wednesday.

Right Hon Esther McVey MP looking a Right Sight.

Hat-tip: Obi.

 The Work and Pensions Select Committee announce the final oral evidence session for its inquiry into benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review.


At 9.30am, Wednesday 4 February 2015, Wilson Room, Portcullis House

Department for Work and Pensions:

  • Rt Hon Esther McVey MP, Minister of State for Employment
  • Chris Hayes, Director, Labour Market and International Affairs

Purpose of the session

The session is intended to explore the Government’s position on a range of issues highlighted during the inquiry, including

  • The development of benefit sanctions policy and the evidence base
  • The Government’s response to the Oakley Review and progress towards implementation of its recommendations
  • The setting of appropriate benefit conditions and the sanctions decision-making process
  • The culture around conditionality and sanctions within DWP/JCP and the case for an independent review
  • Protecting claimants against hardship
  • The appropriateness of ESA sanctioning

Oakley sanctions review – responses from other organisations January 2014

From the PCS  response:

Target and expectation culture must be stopped

PCS is demanding that DWP must take action to stop the target and ‘expectation’ culture for sanction referrals, which is shown by 23% of those surveyed having an explicit target for sanction referrals, and 81% having an ‘expectation’ level. These levels are shocking as both DWP and Ministers claim that targets do not exist at all.

It is no longer acceptable for WSD Management to deny that there is a problem or claim that issues are just isolated incidents. They must take responsibility for the regime that sees 61% of surveyed members experiencing pressure to refer claimants where they believe it may be appropriate.

Performance action used to threaten staff

Worryingly 36% of members stated that they have been placed on Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), and 10% have gone through formal poor performance procedures for not making ‘enough’ referrals.

It’s clear that performance procedures are being used to push staff into making more and more referrals, rather than used to challenge staff who ‘refuse to sanction’ as DWP claim. Poor performance action can lead to dismissal, it is therefore a thinly veiled threat to your employment if you don’t make ‘enough’ referrals. Nor is there any evidence that staff who make an excessive number of referrals are challenged using the same procedures.

The specific PIP tool designed by WSD management to monitor sanction referrals completely contradicts the Employment Minister’s statement to Parliament on 24th January 2014 which said that “there are no sanction targets or expectations for numbers of referrals.”

The GEC will continue to challenge WSD management and provide advice to members on how they can resist this action. Members are encouraged to seek help and support from a PCS representative if they find themselves under threat of action.


Social Consequence of sanctioning

We believe the survey results highlight the devastating impact the conditionality regime has on benefit claimants. 70% of members completing the survey did not believe that sanctioning has a positive impact on a claimant finding work, and 76% have seen an increase in foodbank referrals.

The government has stated that they make no assessment of the link between sanctioning and foodbank referrals. We believe that the Government must analyse and take responsibility for the effects of sanctioning on claimants and their families.


The GEC is working with the Unite Community branches and the Unemployed Workers Centre on joint work to raise claimants’ awareness of their rights and to produce campaign material. This survey shows that whilst some members may support some aspects of conditionality, the punitive regime with its target culture is opposed. PCS understand but do not accept the anger directed towards DWP staff because of sanctioning and other welfare reform issues. We will use the survey results to campaign against the regime, and also raise awareness of the views and feelings of our members.

From the previous discussion,

House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee report of 20 Jan 2014 on The Role of Jobcentre Plus in the Reformed Welfare System made the following recommendations on sanctions:

para. 97 We recommend that DWP take urgent steps to monitor the extent of financial hardship caused by benefit sanctions, including by collecting, collating and publishing data on the number of claimants “signposted” to food aid by Jobcentres and the reasons for claimants’ need for assistance in these cases.

para. 100 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.

para. 101 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.

The Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee held an evidence session on sanctions on 1 April 2014.

The House of Commons had a debate on sanctions on Thursday 3 April, the following motion by Michael Meacher which was carried.

‘Resolved, That this House notes that there have been many cases of sanctions being wrongfully applied to benefit recipients; and calls on the Government to review the targeting, severity and impact of such sanctions.’ (col.1082)

The government published its reply to the Work & Pensions Committee report on 3 April 2014.

The government has gone back on the commitment to a further inquiry post-Oakley which was made to the Work and Pensions Committee by the Employment Minister Esther McVey on 20 November (Qu. 570-71) and reaffirmed in a letter of 1 February 2014.

Now, the government reply states:

‘We have 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.And 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.’


Lord Freud Bounces Back at House of Lords – Celebrates Sanctions and Job Coaches.

Most people would have thought that Lord Freud would have gone into hiding after his comments that some disabled people were ‘not worth’ the minimum wage.

That he would be right now trembling in some dusty bunker, grasping at a bottle of whisky, swallowing tranquillisers  and contemplating a loaded revolver on a desk in front of him.

Not so!

The dapper gent found time last week to pontificate on the government’s success in renaming”client-facing people” “Job coaches” and other “transformations” his department has brought into the world.

During his generously paid attendance at the House of Lords, that is.

A few half-hearted and meaningless words (‘full and unreserved apology’) about his vile statement and the old boy is away again!

Sanction “safety nets”, encouraging Monetary Policy Committees,  transforming roles, work coaches….

Does he ever stop?

Tuesday, 21 October 2014.


House of Lords. 

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in implementing the Oakley report on Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud) (Con): We welcome the findings of Matthew Oakley’s review and have published our response, in which we accepted all his recommendations. We know that sanctions play an important role in conditionality, and it is crucial that the system is operated effectively and fairly. We are taking forward all recommendations and have already completed a number of improvements.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab): My Lords, as welcome as any improvements are to this punitive sanctions regime, given that Mr Oakley himself acknowledged the narrowness of his brief, the historically high level of sanctions and the accumulating evidence, including from food bank providers, of the hardship that they are causing, will the Minister now accept the growing demand for a more thorough, independent review of the whole sanctions system, as called for by the Work and Pensions Committee?

Lord Freud: I will respond to the noble Baroness in a moment, but first I would like to take this opportunity to repeat briefly the apology that I made last week. I want to make a full and unreserved apology for the comments that I made at the Conservative Party conference. Of course disabled people should be paid

21 Oct 2014 : Column 548

at least the minimum wage, just like everybody else, and I am profoundly sorry for any offence that I caused.

I turn to the noble Baroness’s question. Matthew Oakley found that benefit sanctions provide a vital backdrop in the social security system for jobseekers, and the OECD has ranked the UK as mid-table for the strictness of its sanctions regime. My right honourable friend Esther McVey has looked at these recommendations more widely and has made sure that we are reviewing claimant communications for all JSA claimants, not just the ones whom Matthew Oakley looked at, and that we are introducing a new IT interface to make sure that our relationship with local authorities works more smoothly.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con): My Lords, does my noble friend think that the largest annual fall in unemployment ever recorded, which was announced the other day, and the fact that 116,000 more disabled people are in work, might just have something to do with the painstaking work that he has done, both for the previous Government and for this Government, in bringing about the welfare reforms that are bringing to so many people, able bodied and disabled, the opportunity of a place in the workplace?

Lord Freud: As my noble friend said, the issue is that we are doing everything we can to help people into the workplace. It was a very encouraging assessment from the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, which said:

“A tightening in the eligibility requirements for some state benefits might also have led to an intensification of job search”.

That echoes something that the deputy governor had said a little while before. It is apparent that our reforms are working, with employment up by 1.7 million since 2010 and record numbers of people now in work.

Earl Attlee (Con): My Lords, the Oakley review suggested that some claimants do not understand—or even open—their correspondence about sanctions. What are we doing about this?

Lord Freud: Matthew Oakley was very concerned about the communications aspects of talking to claimants about sanctions. We have taken that point very seriously. Indeed, we have accepted his recommendations on that and are going further; we are reviewing and improving all our claimant communications on sanctions across every benefit, and we aim to ensure that people understand that they have received a sanction and why they have received it. We have introduced a claimant communications unit that tries to get the language right—because, as many noble Lords know, some of the language that the DWP put out in the past was clunky at best.

Baroness Sherlock (Lab): My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister has taken the opportunity to read the evidence that was given to Matthew Oakley when he did this report. I accept that sanctions are a necessary part of the system, but it is quite clear that many people have been sanctioned who have done literally

21 Oct 2014 : Column 549

nothing wrong. Look at the evidence from the CAB of the man sanctioned twice for missing appointments with his Work Programme provider; in fact, he had been to all the appointments with a company to which it had subcontracted him, but he was sanctioned. Then there was the man who was sanctioned after being told to be in two different places at once and the woman who was sanctioned for being in hospital having treatment for cervical cancer, despite having given advance notice of her hospital appointment to the system before she went in. I could go on. There is a very real risk of claimants starting to believe that the Government are more concerned with cutting their benefits than getting them into work. Will the Government sort this?

Lord Freud: My Lords, it is clearly utterly important that the sanctions regime is fair to people. We have put in layer on layer of protections and safety nets in the machine. People have, to start with, five days to respond to the letter saying that we are looking at a sanction. Then it goes to a decision-maker and then, if claimants do not like that, to a mandatory reconsideration, which is an extra layer. Then you can go into the tribunal process, and we have hardship. We are putting many measures in to make sure that we run this system as fairly as we possibly can.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (LD): My Lords, I associate myself with the remarks made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. Having worked with him closely in the past four or five years, I think that the Minister plays an absolutely crucial and effective role in the important reforms that are designed to assist low-paid families in this country, and if he was not here, things would be harder to deliver on time and on budget. However, the scale of sanctions surprises me, with 800,000 or 900,000 sanctions per year. That is not something that I expected ever to see. The claimant commitment that we have is beginning to appear to be used as a coercion document to get people to do things that they do not really want. Will the Minister look again at the report that Professor Paul Gregg did some years ago, which suggested that the way in which to get an appropriate use of sanctions is to involve the claimants at an early stage in a joint enterprise to get a claimant commitment to work?

Lord Freud: My Lords, we have really transformed the role of the client-facing people in Jobcentre Plus and turned them into work coaches; that is what the claimant commitment does. It is something that has been done very recently. The relationship between claimants and the work coaches has changed very substantially already.

Oakley Sanctions Report – DWP, all we need is better “communication”.

Benefit sanctions hit most vulnerable people the hardest, report says

(This came out earlier this week.)

Claimants not told about hardship system and sanctions imposed when they were not at fault, DWP study finds.


Systematic problems in the way the government administers and imposes benefit sanctions, including disproportionate burdens on the most vulnerable, are revealed in a report commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions.

The report found the way in which the DWP communicated with claimants was legalistic, unclear and confusing. The most vulnerable claimants were often left at a loss as to why benefits were stopped and frequently not informed by the DWP about hardship payments to which they were entitled, it said.

It also revealed serious flaws in how sanctions were imposed, with Work Programme providers required to send participants for sanctions when they knew they had done nothing wrong, leaving “claimants … sent from pillar to post”.

The independent report was written for the DWP by Matthew Oakley, a respected welfare expert who has worked as an economic adviser for the Treasury and for the centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange.

He is widely acknowledged as one of the leading thinkers on welfare on the centre right and as a result his criticisms, couched in careful language, are all the more damaging for a government that has consistently said the sanction regime is fair.

The DWP responded to the report by saying it would be updating the way it talked to benefit claimants, setting up a specialist team to look at all communications, including claimant letters, and working more closely with local authorities and advice centres to simplify the system.

The government will also streamline “the robust checks and and balances that are already in place that give claimants the opportunity to provide evidence why they have not complied with the rules”.

It will also clarify the guidance on how claimants can access hardship payments, as well as co-operate more closely with Work Programme providers so there is more integration about what a claimant is permitted to do without facing the threat of a benefit sanction.

Oakley’s report said: “No matter what system of social security is in place, if it is communicated poorly, if claimants do not understand the system and their responsibilities and if they are not empowered to challenge decisions they believe to be incorrect and seek redress, then it will not fulfil its purpose. It will be neither fair nor effective.”

Although Oakley said the regime was not fundamentally broken, he made 17 recommendations for reform.

His terms of reference confined him to the way in which sanctions are administered on mandatory back-to-work schemes, which cover a third of those claimants at risk of being sanctioned, but he said his proposed reforms were relevant to the entire benefits system.

The report said “letters were, on the whole, found to be complex and difficult to understand. Partly as a result of the legal requirements the department has to fulfil when it writes to claimants, regular concerns were that letters:

• Were overly long and legalistic in their tone and content;

• Lacked personalised explanations of the reason for sanction referrals;

• Were not always clear around the possibility of and process surrounding appeals or application for hardship payments; and

• Were particularly difficult forthe most vulnerable claimants to understand – meaning that the people potentially most in need of the hardship system were the least likely to be able to access it.”

The report added: “Actual and sample letters that the review team saw were hard to understand (even for those working in the area), unclear as to why someone was being sanctioned and confusingly laid out.”

The review found that many people “expressed concerns that the first that claimants knew of adverse decisions was when they tried to get their benefit payment out of a cash point but could not”.

The report also said jobcentre advisers had highlighted the damage sanctions imposed on the most vulnerable. It stated: “Many advisers also highlighted the difficulties of communicating with particular groups of claimants. In particular, many advisers identified a ‘vulnerable’ group who tended to be sanctioned more than the others because they struggled to navigate the system. This concern for the vulnerable claimants was consistent throughout the visits.

“For these groups, particular difficulties were highlighted around the length of time it could take to ensure some claimants fully understood what was required of them and in conveying that a ‘sanction’ could entail the loss of benefit for a prolonged period of time.”

The report also criticised the failure of the jobcentre to highlight hardship payments. It said: “A more specific concern surrounding the hardship system was that only those claimants that asked about help in Jobcentre Plus were told about the hardship system. Advisers, decision makers and advocate groups argued that this means that groups with poorer understanding of the system are less likely to gain access.

“Since, on the whole, more vulnerable claimants are those with the poorest understanding of the system, this suggests that some of those most in need are also those least able to access hardship.”

The report also found that providers of mandatory work schemes were unable to make legal decisions regarding good reasons for missing appointments and so had to impose sanctions.

“This means that they have to refer all claimants who fail to attend a mandatory interview to a decision maker even if the claimant has provided them with what would ordinarily count as good reason in Jobcentre Plus. This situation results in confusion as the claimant does not understand why they are being referred for a sanction.

“A very high proportion of referrals for sanctions from mandatory back-to-work schemes are subsequently cancelled or judged to be non-adverse.”

A lack of coordination between the jobcentre and Work Programme can “result in a situation where claimants are passed from pillar to post, without either Jobcentre Plus or providers taking responsibility for explaining the claimant’s situation. More commonly, we heard that Jobcentre Plus advisers had to spend large amounts of time dealing with claimants’ queries about sanctions from mandatory schemes.”

Poor understanding of the good reason process mean claimants subsequently appeal a sanction and often win, at cost to the DWP and taxpayer.

A key reason the report found for the confusion was that, because different organisations use different IT systems, neither providers nor Jobcentre Plus hold all the information needed about a claimant’s current experience and potential sanctions.

The report (available here)  begins by asserting that sanctions are a “vital backstop”  of the welfare system,part of the arrangement of “mutual obligation”which means claimants are “held accountable” for doing all they can to “,move back into work”.

What are the limits of the “obligation”  for “doing all they can to take on that support ” and find employment are is never laid out.

Or to put it more clearly, what are the limits to  the rights the DWP and private “provider” Nosey Parkers  claim over claimants.

It might be interesting to discover how claimants enforce the “mutual” obligation that DWP or the Work Programme “providers” have to get work for people.

Or what obligations the exploiters of workfare have to anybody but themselves?

Or what obligations we can force on the whole rotting system known as the Work Programme?

How do we apply sanctions to them?

And stuff about ‘communication’, ‘more information’ – that’s the typical gasp of management when something is not working.

But I digress.

For all of the above the report  contains one clear recommendation:

That the department should provide an “accessible guide to benefit sanctions”, in hard-copy and on-line.

This is the upshot of all this, as the DWP has announced (here),

The government is set to update the way it talks to benefit claimants, setting up a specialist team to look at all communications – including claimant letters – and working more closely with local authorities and advice centres to simplify the system.

Independent expert(1)  Matthew Oakley has conducted a review of how Jobcentre Plus and back to work scheme providers communicate with claimants who have their benefits stopped – called a sanction – for not keeping up their end of the bargain.

Acknowledging that sanctions have a vital role to play, Mr Oakley has today made a series of recommendations that will help encourage more claimants to do the right thing – and help save taxpayers’ money – which the government has accepted.

Employment Minister Esther McVey said:

Every day Jobcentre Plus advisers up and down the country are helping people get the skills they need to get a job and turn their lives around, and only this week we saw employment match the highest level on record.

Our welfare reforms are helping to transform people’s lives, and we are committed to continuous reform of the sanctions system to ensure it remains fair to taxpayers and to claimants.

By sticking to the government’s long-term economic plan and making further reforms, it will mean even more people can help build a better future for themselves and their families.

Matthew Oakley, author of the review, said:

The sanctions system plays a vital role in the modern day welfare system. While the majority of those sanctioned do understand what is expected of them, more needs to be done to help the most vulnerable. The recommendations in my review will ensure that all claimants know when and why a sanction will be applied and give them the information they need to challenge that decision and claim the financial help that they might need.

It is encouraging to see the department already making great strides to improve the system and I hope my proposals are taken forward to ensure that many more people are helped into long-term and rewarding jobs.

(1) ‘Independent’  right-winger as the Guardian already notes.

So what do we have?

 A  fog of words:

Actions agreed include:

  • setting up a specialist team to audit all communications including claimant letters, texts and emails and transform how claimants on all benefits are provided with information about their responsibilities and the support on offer – this team will take on board the latest academic research and innovations in private sector communications
  • streamlining the robust checks and balances that are already in place that give claimants the opportunity to provide evidence of why they haven’t complied with the rules
  • clarifying guidance and updating the process in which claimants can access hardship payments once they have been sanctioned
  • working more closely with local authorities to coordinate their approach to deliver Housing Benefit for claimants who have been sanctioned for not doing the right thing
  • ensuring the contract that claimants sign up to in exchange for their benefits – the Claimant Commitment – in which they agree what they will do to get a job, can be shared with their provider throughout their time on a back to work scheme
  • working with providers, stakeholders and advocates for groups to continuously explore alternative formats for all types of communications with claimants.

There are justified protests at the whole system of ‘sanctions”, and frankly waffle about ‘communication’ is not going to change that.

But, as the Void points out, all too many bodies are implicated in the system in the first place.

Written by Andrew Coates

July 26, 2014 at 3:09 pm