It’s a tough call to name the most toxic LibDem/Tory coalition government department – there’s such a lot to choose from.

For example, Gove’s Education Department must be right up there, especially with teachers – awful industrial relations, overspent budgets, denial of responsibility. And now the new Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, seems intent on following the same path trodden by Gove.

Or how about Defra? People living on the Somerset Levels or the Thames during last year’s floods might consider Defra to be as bad if not worse than Education. Minister Owen Paterson’s denial of responsibility for problems, massaging of budget figures and denial of climate change has been truly shameful.

Department for Work and Pensions

Bad as these departments are, Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must be worse for most people.

Iain-Duncan-Smith-2 In the recent cabinet reshuffle, this incompetent and arrogant minister kept his job whilst Gove and Paterson at Defra lost theirs. Why? We suspect because no one else wanted to be blamed for the appalling mess he has created in the department. Failures include:

  • Budget mismanagement in the introduction of new information technology;
  • Overdue start of the new Universal Credit, running to delays of years not months;
  • Unacceptable delays in processing appeals over disability allowance;
  • Overseeing the huge increase of people forced to use food banks, AND denying any responsibility for it, AND refusing to meet with people working on the food poverty front line, such as the Trussell Trust;
  • Manipulating statistics to prove that all his reforms are working and that black is white.

Worst of all perhaps is Iain Duncan Smith’s deliberate and determined effort to drive an ideological wedge between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.

Given the disasters at DWP what else could possibly go wrong?

Under the Jobseekers Act 2013, claimants who do not fulfil their defined responsibilities may be sanctioned by having their allowances summarily curtailed. The DWP may repeal the sanctions but this can take a long time. It has become clear to critics that the sanction system is not working.

On 22 July the Government published a review of how Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions are working under the Act. The review was done by Matthew Oakley of Which? magazine. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/335144/jsa-sanctions-independent-review.pdf

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Whilst sanctions may have their place in the system their implementation, Oakley accepts they “can go wrong and, when that happens, individuals and families can suffer unfairly.”

He continues:

“In this respect, it is easy to see the importance of communication and understanding. 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.”

Oakley found the system for benefit sanctions to be unfair and ineffective and sets out 17 recommendations for improvement. The DWP is making positive noises at the moment but we will have to see whether or not they take any notice.

Failures of the sanction system

Here’s a summary of Oakley’s main points of criticism. These mainly focus on failures in the quality of communication between claimants and the system, or within the system.

Letters to claimants

Oakley says clear written communication through letters is essential, as this is the legal and principle means of communicating with claimants. But on the whole, the review found that letters were complex and difficult to understand because they:

  • Were overly long and legalistic in their tone and content
  • Lacked personalised explanations of the reason for sanction referrals;
  • Were not always clear about the possibility of appeal and process surrounding appeals, or application for hardship payments; and
  • Were particularly difficult for the most vulnerable claimants to understand – so the people potentially most in need of the hardship system were the least likely to be able to access it.

Making sure claimants engage with the benefit system

Oakley notes many letters from the Department are not opened or read by claimants. He says, whilst some responsibility must be placed on claimants, there are good reasons why letters are unopened: for example, many claimants are in temporary and sometimes insecure accommodation; many need support to read and understand letters. He suggests the Department should record and use individual claimants’ preferred form of communication (e.g. text, email or through an advocate).

Lack of clarity about what the system requires of claimants

Claimants are being penalised by one part of the system (Jobcentre Plus) for doing what they have been told to do by another (Work Programme for two reaons.

First, advisers and decision-makers don’t know how the whole system works.

Second, there is no shared and agreed definition of what constitutes a ‘good reason’ for not attending a mandatory interview on the Work Programme. Typically, Jobcentre Plus staff instruct a claimant to do one thing that makes it impossible to do something else that is required by the Work Programme. If the claimant fails to do what is required then a sanction is imposed.

The absence of defined discretionary powers

As well as no shared agreement about constitutes a ‘good reason’, there is also no room for advisers and decision-makers to use their good sense. So, where a Jobcentre Plus adviser tells a claimant to do something that conflicts with the Work Programme requirements, the claimant is deemed to be in breach of his or her ‘contract’. The appropriate staff are not allowed to accept conflicting requirements as ‘good reason’. Yet on appeal, when it can be shown there are conflicting requirements, this often leads to removal of the sanction.

There are other problems that relate to the ‘good reason’ issue. Oakley says claimants don’t understand the good reason process, and don’t realise the significance of it. This is not necessarily the fault of the claimants.

A further problem is that claimants often don’t know where sanctions referrals originated from and who to speak to about them, so their concerns or queries end up being passed from pillar to post with little hope of resolution.

There must be a better way

If there is to be a social security system in which sanctions have a role to play, the system for sanctions should be clear to everyone involved and consistent across the organisation: the right hand should know what its left hand is doing. The present claimant sanction system fails on both counts. Oakley’s review recognises this is financially hard for claimants and expensive for the DWP and the taxpayer.

We would go further: it strikes us that the present sanctions system puts the entire burden of making the system work onto the shoulders of the claimant. If the claimant fails to understand the sanction system, they lose their income. This is unfair, unacceptable and must change.

Britain can be better than this

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