Councils need to think about how to mitigate sanctions
This week we released our new report which charts the growth of benefit sanctions in Great Britain over the last number of years. In 2014, there were some 686,000 benefit sanctions, the majority of which were for Jobseeker’s Allowance. This number is down on 2013, but mainly as a result of fewer JSA claimants rather than the regime becoming more generous. There were also roughly 40,000 sanctions for both Employment and Support Allowance, for those unable to work due to illness or medical conditions, and Income Support for lone parents.
The report does not look specifically at local variation, mainly because there are no particularly clear patterns. What can be said is that four of the local authorities with the highest sanction rates are in the East of England, and that some regions (broadly the North) are slightly overrepresented for sanctions given the number of claimants they have, whereas others are underrepresented on the same basis (such as London).
Of course, this is not to put the blame on those councils: the benefits that can be sanctioned are those administered through Jobcentre Plus rather than local authorities. But this is not to say that local authorities do not need to think about them: they should have a strategy to handle the fallout from sanctions. There are several reasons why.
The first is something that was flagged by last year’s Oakley Review into the communication of sanctions, which noted that there are recorded instances where a JSA claim ended as a result of a sanction could automatically lead to housing benefit – which is administered by councils - being stopped as well, something which clearly compounds the hardship. While the root problem here is to do with the DWP computer systems, short term fixes will require better communication between local authorities and their local Jobcentres.
The second is that councils are increasingly being asked to manage and maintain parts of the safety net – those areas of welfare that are being devolved by central government without ring-fenced funding One aspect of this is Council Tax Support, previously the national scheme Council Tax Benefit, which is now effectively 326 individual schemes in England, with the only real stipulation from central government being that pensioners should not lose out.
More relevant, however, was the devolution of the discretionary Social Fund to upper tier local authorities. People who are sanctioned may have to spend weeks with much reduced or even no income and so may need to rely on grants or loans from these schemes to meet basic needs. The picture of these local schemes is somewhat mixed, particularly with the funding available being cut. A Guardian report last year found some local authorities were preventing those who were sanctioned from receiving assistance, though some have since recanted on this given evidence of the vulnerability of those sanctioned. Proper signposting and support for charities such as food banks is also important, given the association between food banks and sanctions in local areas. Following the example of some local authorities and providing assistance to those asking for budgeting advances or hardship payments from the Department of Work and Pensions after being sanctioned is another positive example of mitigating the impact of sanctions on recipients and areas. Funding cuts represent a challenge, though councils should maintain schemes in order to prevent part of the social security system disappearing in areas of the country.
Our report also argued that sanctions may end up increasing in the next few years. While the JSA count is falling at the moment, under Universal Credit there will be a million more people subject to benefit conditionality and therefore the possibility of receiving sanctions. These might also have a very different appearance – people who are in work but below a certain earnings threshold will be subject to conditionality for the first time. This means council areas with, for example, large hospitality or retail sectors may start to see problems. Councils should be looking to mitigate the impacts through effective local welfare schemes, good communication with local Jobcentres, and signposting to other services. Central government’s devolution of some social security functions whilst nationally maintaining a harsh sanctioning scheme is something of a poisoned chalice; but nevertheless local government should and can show it is up to the challenge.
This blog originally appeared in LGC Plus on 22 June 2015.