Benefit sanctions in Northern Ireland are low and should stay low
Benefit sanctioning is much lower in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain. There is little evidence the high level of sanctioning works – government in Northern Ireland can and should minimise their use.
As part of our discussions preceding our recently released Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion Northern Ireland report, one topic that lacked clarity was benefit sanctions. A sanction is the withdrawal of benefit for a certain time period for failing to meet the requirements: for Jobseeker’s Allowance, it might be not applying for enough jobs in a given week. While ubiquitous in discussions around poverty and hardship in much of the GB media, their presence in the NI debate has been much lower. This has been in part due to a lack of available statistics – the most recent ones were requested by Steven Agnew MLA as a written answer from a Minister. These are presented in figure 1.
The statistics are summarised and compared to Great Britain for 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15. There were around 24,500 JSA sanctions in total between April 2012 and January 2015 in Northern Ireland. The bars show the average proportion of JSA claimants who received a sanction each month in the time period. JSA sanctioning in Northern Ireland is substantially lower, and has been decreasing from 1.5% per month in 2012-13 to 0.9% in 2014-15. This means that sanctioning Great Britain has gone from around three times higher than Northern Ireland to around five times higher.
This is particularly relevant at the moment due to the changes to the sanctioning regime being brought in as part of welfare reform in Northern Ireland. That there is concern over the new harsher regime comes through in the Welfare Reform Mitigations Group report, which establishes a helpline and also forecasts 41,000 sanctions (though is not clear on the time scale).
One of the central justifications for the harsher sanctioning regime is that it boosts employment. The former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, is reported as saying that sanctions are behind the UK’s current record employment rates. At best, this claim is far too strong: the research available is quite limited, but is sceptical of large improvements in jobs outcomes (see for example, David Webster on the available evidence).
Northern Ireland’s recent experience supports this scepticism. Our recent report noted that Northern Ireland was falling behind the rest of the UK in terms of employment rates: the gap between the two has grown each year for the last four. Even so, Northern Ireland is still not far off having a record working-age employment rate. This is despite the fact that economic growth over the last seven years has been weaker than even the slowest growing regions of Great Britain. So unless the lack of sanctioning is behind Northern Ireland’s low growth rates, something nobody has argued yet, claims for the effect on sanctions on employment may be overstated.
Tying this all together, Northern Ireland is soon to be facing a harsher sanctions regime, close to the one introduced in 2012 in Great Britain. This will increase the number of weeks most sanctions for Jobseeker’s Allowance last. It does not necessarily mean an increase in the number of sanctions however: the large increases in Great Britain began in 2010 rather than 2012. This suggests a large component of direction from the DWP centrally. As the Social Security Agency in Northern Ireland is separate, it has the ability to resist any centrally mandated increase in sanctioning and promote a more understanding social security system.
This post first appeared on the Scope NI website here on the 1st of April 2016.