‘A benefit sanction – ie withdrawal of benefit or a reduction in the amount of benefit paid for a certain period – may be imposed if a claimant is deemed not to have complied with a condition for receiving the benefit in question. Benefit sanctions are not a new feature of the social security system, but there is widespread concern among welfare rights and pressure groups about the incidence and impact of sanctioning, particularly since new “conditionality” regimes for Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance claimants were introduced in late 2012.’
Adcock, Alex, Steven Kennedy, ‘Benefit sanctions’, House of Commons Library, Number CDP-0113, 30 November 2015
The Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) and UK Administrative Justice Institute (UKAJI) jointly held a seminar and panel discussion on 16 March 2016 at the London School of Economics (LSE). The aim of the seminar, which was chaired by Nicola Lacey of the LSE, was to explore what we know and what we don’t know about the impact of welfare benefit sanctions on vulnerable groups and individuals.
The cross-disciplinary seminar heard presentations from three researchers who have investigated different aspects of the impact of benefit sanctions, and provided the opportunity for participants to discuss the evidence and gaps in our knowledge. A key theme was the need for research on the impact of the sanctions regime.
The research that has been carried out on the application and effectiveness of welfare benefit sanctions in the past few years includes statistical analyses and examination of the impact on specific, particularly disadvantaged, groups. In terms of inequalities and human rights, research has been carried out on the impact of sanctions policy and decision-making on women, disabled people, homeless people, children, lone parents and those with mental health problems. Some has been done by academic researchers but research has also been done by campaigning groups. This work tends to be strong on case studies and to take a more anecdotal approach, focusing on particular experiences. Many examples of this work were submitted as evidence to the Oakley Review.
There is less research available on the process by which sanctions decisions may be challenged through the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) internal process of mandatory reconsideration or through appeals to a tribunal. Official statistics show a marked decline in the number of social security tribunal appeals since the introduction of the mandatory reconsideration process. This raises a number of important questions regarding the effects of the mandatory reconsideration requirement especially on those who have been sanctioned. While some will argue that the figures may suggest an improvement in the rate of early resolution of disputes, others argue that the evidence points to how mandatory reconsideration acts to deter potential appellants. See further below.
More generally, the discussion illustrated the breadth of interests that exist in this area and the richness of research possibilities. Very few of the participants were narrowly interested in legal issues associated with administrative justice. Nonetheless, there was widespread acknowledgement that the quality of administrative justice is important from a social policy and inequalities perspective, not least because controversial policies become more problematical when serious questions arise regarding the adequacy of the procedures available to those who want to question and challenge decisions. This consideration highlights the need for sound evidence on how appeal procedures are used and what impacts their use has. This is not to say that effective justice procedures will necessarily ameliorate policy, and some will argue that administrative justice in this context provides little more than symbolic legitimacy for policies that are fundamentally contested. Such considerations remind us that research in an area such as this need not be limited to empirical issues but may extend to broader normative considerations.
Access to data, and evidence conflict
Among the issues identified by the speakers and in the discussions is access to data. David Webster (Glasgow University) spoke of the ‘hole’ in statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). For example, the DWP does not record the length of sanctions and also does not record the disability status of those to whom sanctions are applied. He also noted that there is no UK evidence that financial sanctions achieve their stated policy objectives, although there is evidence that sanctions make finding a job harder.
A representative from the advice sector reported that the experience of advice agencies is that people are not coming forward to challenge sanctions decisions. Research on the reasons why people don’t challenge would be useful.
Aaron Reeves (LSE) spoke of the evidence conflict: data is being used to tell a story that is not consistent with the evidence. His project, with Rachel Loopstra, looked at local authority data and found that as sanctions increase, the claimant count decreases, but of those ‘moving off’ benefits, only a small percentage move into work; for the majority, it isn’t known what they move into. It’s not possible to access data that shows the journey of an individual so it’s impossible to link the threat of sanctions with what happens, such as moving into work.
It appears that little if any research is being done on what happens to people after sanctions have been applied. This is another example of an area where there is a need for further research to understand that impact of policy.
Anne Power (LSE) discussed several recent studies, including one of social housing tenants’ experience of sanctions and how social landlords respond to welfare reform. She described the impact of sanctions as part of a complex web of other consequences of welfare reform.
Many of the failures in process – delays, lost papers, obstacles to appealing – resonate across all the research. Maurice Sunkin (UKAJI and Essex University) highlighted the administrative justice concerns about the sanctions policy and the way it is implemented, including insufficient controls over the quality of decision-making and lack of accountability, leading to lack of confidence in the system and questions of legitimacy. Key are issues of redress and access to redress and a need to understand why people do not use the redress ‘system’ when entitled to do so.
Michael Adler (Edinburgh University) spoke of his work on sanctions and the rule of law, comparing sanctions to court fines. The latter have various safeguards in place, including an assessment of an individual’s ‘guilt’ and personal circumstances before a fine is imposed, being one-off rather than repeated, and allowing flexible arrangements to pay – none of which are features of the sanctions regime.
Appeals and decision-making
One question raised is whether the fall in number of appeals to tribunal is due to the introduction of mandatory reconsideration, which is not judicial and not independent. Without data on this form of internal review, it’s impossible to know about the quality of decision-making. One participant suggested that what is needed is a comparison of how mandatory reconsideration compares to judicial determination. It was also noted, however, that even before mandatory reconsideration was introduced very few challenges got as far as tribunal, and with those that did, tribunal determinations do not prevent future poor decision-making by departments.
Not enough is known about how departments such as the DWP modify their decision-making (both substantively and procedurally) as a result of external criticism and scrutiny. Anne Power discussed the way those implementing policy at the DWP had altered their behaviour, for example by stepping away from a ‘digital by default’ approach in recognition of the digital divide and lack of access for many people.
Value of cross-disciplinary approach
Nicola Lacey, as chair, summed up the value of the presentations and exchanges and noted the way the cross-disciplinary approach and types of research discussed, both forensic statistical analysis and fine-grained ethnographic qualitative studies, complement one another in providing a fuller picture of the equalities impacts of benefit sanctions.
Presentations and associated papers from the seminar are available here.
A bibliography of published research on benefit sanctions and inequalities is available here: UKAJI Bibliography – Benefit sanctions and inequalities.