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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?

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Toxic Welfare Debate: real reason IDS is still in a job?

Many are asking how it is that Iain Duncan-Smith remains Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions in the wake of a deep and wide-ranging reshuffle this week.
Patrick Wintour, without citing the evidence argues that, in contrast to Mr Gove, Mr Duncan-Smith’s policies are‘popular’ with the electorate. The BBC’s Nick Robinson is unequivocal – IDS has ‘won’ the debate on welfare.

Others think Cameron didn’t sack IDS because no-one else wanted the job. But I find this a bit of a stretch.
Granted, the DWP is in a mess: Universal Credit is failing; the Work Programme works poorly; sanctions against people with a disease of disability are going through the roof; the system of Mandatory Reconsideration of appeals seems close to breaking point, the Ministry of Justice recently billed the DWP £20 million after receiving a tsunami of unexpected appeals against DWP decisions.
Practically anyone you speak to whose job involves engaging with DWP officials talks of a department on the defensive, a department in crisis even.
But this would not have deterred an ambitious MP from taking Duncan-Smith’s job. Afterall, as Wintour and Robinson argue, his policies are ‘popular,' aren’t they?
In truth I doubt the electorate has a clue what IDS’s policies are. I doubt that Wintour or Robinson have a clue either.
What they and the electorate are familiar with is the rhetoric about 'welfare reform' and claimants who rely some form of social security. What the commentators really mean is that IDS is winning the propaganda war on welfare policy.
For the past few years we have seen ‘welfare reform’ framed as a battle between ‘strivers and shirkers’ (and here, for Labour's contribution) accompanied by a rhetoric of ‘hard-working families’ that ignores the fact that, for many, work is not a route out of poverty. It is a rhetoric in which the media portrays claimants as dishonest for exercising their rights. It is a rhetoric in which the employment minister seeks to infantilise the unemployed.  It is a rhetoric deployed in a criminalising way to marginalise the unemployed for the crime of being… unemployed (Donkey Passim). It is a rhetoric that is reproduced in shows like Benefit Street, a form of ‘poverty porn’ lauded by Mr Duncan-Smith

But if you speak to people whose job involves engaging with actual policy, they repeat the same message: the welfare reform debate has become toxic beyond rational discussion.
And in large part this must be down to the rhetoric of politicians. They should know better, but they indulge in it anyway.
The problem when debate degenerates to this awful level is that ‘you reap what you sow.'
I recently spoke to a charity that has persuaded the DWP to make concessions on aspects of its welfare to work policies. The concessions, though small, seem hard won and potentially significant. They were the result of sustained, but evidence-based, campaigning and engagement with DWP officials. The concessions will not change the world but may be a start.
But pressure groups and members of the public rounded on the charity when news of the concessions leaked. Much of the anger seemed to come from people who have borne the brunt of ‘welfare reform’ and the rhetoric that comes with it.
A member of staff at the charity told me he felt that this reaction, whilst depressing, was understandable and predictable. The rhetoric of welfare reform affects the way everyone thinks, he argued, including those worst affected by actual policy.
The well has been poisoned. And despite the charity’s efforts to change policy for the better, there is a disillusion, to the extent that people have started to mistrust the motives of the charity itself.

Commentators who argue that Mr Duncan-Smith’s policies are popular, should reflect on this.