The debate about poverty is so toxic right now, therefore it's inevitable that most people believe sanctions are reasonable and that the government's policy of punishing people, by taking their benefit away, is legitimate.
Back in November 2013, the Department for Work and Pensions Works Services Director, Neil Couling, told MPs from the Work and Pensions Select Committee that his department monitored its job centre staff closely in order to guard against ‘rogue sanctions.’
It was a turn of phrase I'd never heard before.
The implication here was that a category of sanctions existed that was so out of the ordinary (in terms of justification, malice or effect for example) as to be considered 'rogue'.
His aim in uttering this phrase was to shore up MP's and, by implication, the public's confidence in the policy of sanctioning and to set up the idea that, overall, the decisions to sanction claimants were well grounded and fair (only a few bad apples). Mr Couling's evidence included the suggestion that 'rogue sanctions' were the result of mistakes made by job centre staff.
His argument must be set against the fact that most sanctions that are challenged, are subsequently overturned by DWP staff (50-53 per cent of all reconsidered sanctions) because they were unreasonable or wrong in the first place. A similar proportion of sanctions challenged at independent tribunal are, likewise, struck off.
The facts would suggest that, far from being 'rogue' these sanctions are, in fact, the norm.
Nonetheless, Mr Couling told lawmakers that his department monitored the sanctioning activity of job centre staff to guard against 'rogues'. He added, pointedly, that this type of monitoring was important in order to keep the public’s trust (if you want to hear the evidence yourself, scroll forward to approx 11.30 am here).
‘I don’t want to create an oppressive regime here, but to find out if there are rogue sanctions going on. We don’t want the sanctions system falling into disrepute,’ he said.With this mind I decided to put a series of questions to the DWP under the Freedom of Information Act, to get a clearer idea of precisely how the department deals with these 'rogue sanctions', who these 'rogue sanctioneers' are and to get the department to elaborate a little on what it is doing to stamp the whole thing out.
Among other questions (full FOI transcript here) I asked:
- How many times has the DWP taken action against staff who consistently recommend sanctions, a high proportion of which are subsequently overturned?
- What does the action taken against these staff consist of?
- How many times has DWP taken action against staff for refusing to refer JSA claimants for sanction, or for not sanctioning enough?
- What does the action against DWP staff, who refused to refer JSA claimants for sanction, or did not refer enough, consist of?
The department could not give details of what any such action against staff could consist of.
The department could not say how many times, if any, it had taken action against staff for refusing to sanction claimants. Nor could it say how many times it had taken action against staff for sanctioning too many claimants.
Finally, the department could not say how many times it had taken action against staff who had not issued the expected number of sanctions.
In a statement the DWP said:
‘We do not have a set expectation for how many referrals are appropriate for each office. The information which is gathered regarding the number of sanctions referrals made for each office is collected purely for monitoring purposes. This is to ensure that all offices are following the policy and raising a doubt with a Decision Maker where a doubt exists. Should a member of staff be found to be using sanctions inappropriately, or not using them at all, this should be raised by their Line Manager as part of their ongoing performance. This may identify a training need, or where appropriate, the need for a member of staff to be put on a Personal Improvement Plan. We are committed to ensuring that all sanctions referrals made within our Jobcentres are made appropriately and it is for this reason that we collect the data referred to by Mr Couling to the Select Committee.’Leaving aside whether or not such a thing as a 'rogue sanction' actually exists. The fact that so many sanctions are applied unlawfully suggests these sanctions are not exceptional, not 'rogue' at all, but normal.
It is also significant that the DWP insists such sanctions be considered a consequence of mistaken or wrong decisions on the part of job centre staff, the fault of 'rogue sanctioneers' if you like.
But this argument has to be set against the fact that the department cannot provide any details of a single case in which it took action against an overzealous job centre sanctioneer.
It is significant because, in putting the blame on 'rogue sanctions', 'rogue sanctioneers' or other phantoms, the DWP obscures from public scrutiny the real issue here: the discussion of the legitimacy of sanctions as a policy in and of itself. There are no 'rogue sanctions', there are no 'rogue sanctioneers'.
It is the policy of sanctioning that is rogue.