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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.

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