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Monday, 8 December 2014

Foodbank report: Unjust sanctions are merely anecdotal

The food poverty report published this week drew lots of attention to the role that benefit delays and sanctions play in forcing people to rely on foodbanks.

The idea that unfair sanctions are unusual, or some kind of -one-off, is utter nonsense.

The regime of conditionality operated by this government has given rise to a scale of unfair sanctioning that is systemic in nature. So much so that the system of reconsidering sanctions has been dismantled completely broken down (see David Webster’s evidence passim). 

Unfair sanctions aren’t some rogue aberration, as the DWP has already conceded (see Donkey passim), they are systemic to the benefit system itself.

A mere glance at the proportion of sanctions that are subsequently overturned by claimants points to a huge, organised and deliberate system of injustice directed against claimants.

Apparently the report's chair, Frank Field, (himself a former Secretary of State for work and pensions) can’t join the dots between ‘anecdotal’ cases of sanctioning injustice and the overnight explosion of sanctioning since October 2012.

That he apparently sees no connection between ‘anecdotal’ evidence of unjust sanctions and a tribunal system that previously recorded a 90% success record in favour of claimants overturning sanctions beggars belief.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Interview with a Work Programme contractor.

I’ve been researching a story about social landlords involved in the Work Programme.
I wrote a news story about the experience of Bromford Support for InsideHousing hereI’m hoping to write a longer follow-up that covers the issue in more detail.
In the course of trying to speak to around 16 landlords on the programme, I learned that Bromford  pulling out of the scheme.
This was a shock. Bromford had been a high profile backer of the WP (see here, here and here). It was also criticised for its involvement in the scheme by campaign groups such as Boycott Workfare and Refuted.

I managed to speak to Bromford Support’s Managing Director, John Wade, at some length. It is clear that all is not well with housing associations involved with the policy.
Bromford along with other social landlords was never a prime contractor, landlords usually seem to be second or third tier sub-contactors to the scheme. This has implications in terms of the people who end up being referred to them.
In the course of my research it emerged that the types of barriers these people faced are commonly: homelessness, mental health issues, disability, debt etc. These are the people pushed into the Work Programme by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), then ‘parked’ by the prime WP providers because, right now, they are simply incapable of work.
‘Creaming and parking’, the use of mandatory work placements (aka workfare) and benefit sanctions were common themes in my conversations with housing association WP providers.
Anyway, below is a partial transcript of my interview with Mr Wade of Bromford, it’s worth a read.

Barriers to work
‘The big thing we realized is that most of the people referred to us were just not ready to get into a job. Generally now [Bromford continues to run a welfare to work scheme focused on its own tenants and residents, ‘Bromford Connect.’ And ‘Connect Extra’]. We are trying to identify which of our customers are not ready for work. Our focus is on those other issues, the barriers to work that exist now. At the point when we think someone has got enough control over those issues in their lives, or they feel they are in a better place, then we start to engage more around employment.’ ‘We run a six day course over six weeks with the initial aim of getting people to re-think themselves in terms of working out “am I employable?” and “how should I prepare for getting a job?”‘It’s about preparing them to play the game and understand how to get a job. It is uncanny how similar what we are doing is to the advice that is given to young people when they are first starting out. It’s about re-packaging themselves, getting them to think about how they can feel more positive about themselves and think about what they have got to offer.‘The success rate of people that go through the course is 60 per cent, the reason for that success rate is down to the fact it is focused on trying to do one thing only: to work with people who have already reached the point where they have decided they want to get back into work.‘By contrast, most of our Work Programme work was actually about addressing the pre-employment issues. We might be referred a client who was facing a debt problem, or at risk of homelessness and trying to get that sorted out. We’d end up helping them to sort the issue out, because that’s a major barrier to finding work: being homeless. But it’s not Work Programme work, it’s more like Supporting People (link) work.   
There is something wrong with the Job Centre 
‘It’s easy to take the Daily Mail view of people living on benefit: that these claimants are totally capable of work, but would rather scrounge and watch Jeremy Kyle, or whatever. But that’s not the situation of the people we were seeing, if indeed, such people exist at all.‘We were engaging and meeting with people who had been ground down by their circumstances and needed help and the overwhelming message was that they did not get that support from Job Centre Plus. Instead, their interaction with Job Centre Plus was merely confirming everything negative and bad that they felt about themselves: that they were worthless, that they were not capable of much. There is something wrong. ‘Our staff would meet regularly with people from Job Centre Plus, we worked really closely with them. When you meet them, they are the same people, decent people who seem to be genuinely motivated by wanting to help others.
‘But something is wrong with it. It’s about relationships, it’s about trust and it’s about people engaging with other people in a relationship of mutual respect and it’s about having the time to do all of those things. 
 Unpacking the lives of the long-term unemployed

 ‘When we engage with someone on our Connect scheme a lot of the focus is about getting people to put together a CV. But it’s more than that, especially for people who are long-term unemployed, for example. You ask people: “What have you been doing, what’s going on in your life?” They might not have been working, but they will have been budgeting, having to manage their time, meet deadlines and things like that. Basically they have been doing lots of things that that can be unpacked and re-packaged and be useful skills in lots of jobs.’

Friday, 8 August 2014

'Test, Learn, Implement,' the new slogan for Universal Credit

It is well worth a listen (scroll to 50 mins). The interview is part of Milligan's award-winning series of on the record lunchtime chats with politicians for Radio 4's 'PM' programme.
The light-hearted nature of the interviews reveals a lot. 

He loves Italy, the food, the country but denies he was the ‘Iain’ referred to in that infamous overheard reshuffle conversation on the Chichester to London train. But intriguingly he does know who the ‘Iain’ referred to was.
His lesson for aspiring SPads?
‘Don’t talk on bloody trains, ‘I know very well that both ends were not talking about me…’
On a sartorial level, it's not quite Dorothy Parker but:
‘Men who wear glasses on their head look silly.’
But it’s IDS’s ‘vocational’ commitment to welfare reform and how stories about poverty affect him that are really of interest in this interview. Plus a new DWP chant apparently doing the rounds at Caxton House.
‘I just know that I should be doing this…[welfare reform] I see this as a vocation… these stories about people in difficulty didn’t start the day I walked through the door. Of course those stories are sad and terrible, you want to find out about them, the speed with which you pick these up, is what you test yourself upon.
‘The reality is that the change [to Universal Credit] itself should ameliorate the problem, if you don’t change it, they’re still going to be screaming.
Universal Credit was supposed to have been rolled out in one go. Having missed the deadline, and learned lessons, the department has apparently adopted a new slogan. 
‘Our phrase is ‘test, learn, implement,’ says IDS.


Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Oakley review is out: some initial comments

Not had a chance for a detailed look through this yet, but the DWP has at last published the Oakley review into the way benefit sanctions are communicated.

The review’s terms of reference were always too tight. This was a common theme of criticism from organisations that responded to the consultation earlier this year.

But a wider ranging review of sanctioning would inevitably have called into question the policy itself and the principle of ‘conditionality’ that underlies it.

These are emphatically not up for review yet. The report’s author, Matthew Oakley, is himself committed to the current policy of sanctions (Donkey Passim)

Oakley’s report includes references to the consultation responses and the Child Poverty Action Group has a page on its website where many of the responses can be read. Most of the responses criticized the tight terms of reference.

There were rumours going around that Oakley was going to step beyond the narrow confines of his remit and he hints at this in saying that the report has implications for sanctioned claimants across the board, not just those on the work programme. But I’ll have to read it more closely.

Oakley’ review was about the way conditionality and sanctions are communicated, it was a review of the processes, in itself this is no small issue. Communication between advisors, claimants, local authorities and others who interface with the policy of conditionality and its attendant sanctions, is awful. From the dreadful job seekers agreement, the woeful ‘job seekers diary,’ which is a regular source of ‘raised doubts’ against claimants (I know of claimants who have been threatened with a sanction for failing to include a job reference in their diary). The squalid relationships that exist between claimants and their advisors to the almost willfully poor letter writing on behalf of work programme providers and the DWP itself - the system works terribly and Oakley makes some important recommendations on some of these processes.

But the truth is that an orgy of sanctioning activity is taking place in job centres right now. Since October 2012 when it upped the expectation on job centre managers that they would punish more people, sanctions have gone through the roof. No amount of ‘behavioural’ approaches to communication (as recommended by Oakley) will make a difference to a policy like this. It is the deliberate decision to ramp up sanctioning activity in October 2012 that needs sorting, not how those sanctions are ‘communicated’.

It’s worth noting that employment minister Esther McVey MP, previously committed to a wider sanctions review. That was dropped pretty quick.

The bottom line is sanctions work, they are brilliant at driving people off benefits.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Would benefit sanctions have stopped three million people becoming unemployed in the 1980s?

In April this year Neil Couling, Director of Benefit Strategy at the  Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)and one of Iain Duncan-Smith’s most senior civil servants gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament on benefit sanctions and foodbanks. 

You can read about the session here

Or watch the session here: 

At the time several newspapers picked up on his comment to the effect that sanctions were a good thing for claimants, a kick up the backside, if you will.
Mr Couling said sanctioned claimants: ‘recognise that it is the wake-up call that they needed.’ 
A short time later, he was asked (surely rhetorically?) if he had been ’inundated with thank you cards’ from people who had received sanctions?

‘Yes—that is not so remarkable.’ Replied Mr Couling. sanctions
Now, okay – let’s conclude Mr Couling was replying sarcastically to what was surely a sarcastic question. Surely we have to assume that Mr Couling has not actually been inundated with thank you cards from people grateful for having their benefit sanctioned? Let’s put this down to defensive ebullience on Mr Couling’s part. Though I do wonder if it’s worth putting in an FOI so we can see the display of thank you cards for ourselves.

*** BREAKING ***: Someone already put in an FOI along these lines, to Leigh Job Centre, in the north west of England. During a six month period the centre received 11 thank you cards from sanctioned claimants. 


Anyway, I digress, this is nothing compared to what was to come. Because later in his evidence, Mr Couling was to make a claim that, if true, was worthy of a PHD. An incredible claim, a whopper in fact that, when I think about it, sounds totally unhinged for a bureaucrat of his seniority. 
Here is what he said:
'During the recession in the 1980s, my predecessors… abandoned the sanctions and conditionality regime… unemployment grew to three million—it was probably going to do that because of the nature of the economy—... it stayed at three million until 1986 and started to downturn only when we reintroduced [sanctions] into the system.'
Now this seems an incredible statement to make, let me recapitulate it. Mr Couling's hypothesis is that:
  1. The Thatcher government, being a liberal administration, pressured the DWP not to sanction people;
  2. Under pressure, the DWP relaxed sanctions; and
  3. It wasn’t until sanctions were re-introduced (with the introduction of 'Restart') that unemployment started to come down from its 1986 peak of three million.
But, wait, there’s more and it is classic Whitehall Mandarin stuff. 
‘…when we worked hard—as we did in the 2008 recession—to hang on to the conditionality regime, the unemployment rate fell very fast,' he said. 'In the 2008 recession, unemployment was much lower than most external commentators suggested that it would be….’ 
The key point to bear in mind here is the date: 2008.
By Mr Couling's reasoning 2008 was the year that sanctions proved their worth at preventing mass unemployment.
But if this was the case in 2008 why did Mr Couling personally order job centres to increase their use of sanctions four years later in October 2012?
Why tell job centres to increase the use of sanctions, when unemployment was already apparently under control?
For me, this does not make sense.
Mr Couling continued:
‘Some former members of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee said that it would rise to 5 million, but it did not… it peaked at between 2.5 million and 2.6 million, and it is now falling back towards 2 million.’ 
Do sanctions really get people into work? This is a red herring. 
If you look at the rising number of unemployed people who do not claim JSA and compare it with the explosion of sanctioning behaviour from October 2012 onwards, I think the answer is a clear: no. 
Are sanctions a brilliant way of reducing the claimant count, of driving people off benefits? Yes, without doubt.

Is this the real reason Mr Couling is so committed to them?