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Benefit Sanctions on Jobseekers

Volume 818: debated on Thursday 3 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of their policy to impose benefit sanctions after four weeks rather than three months if an unemployed jobseeker fails to seek or take work in any field; and whether they will publish their evaluation of the effectiveness of such sanctions.

No assessment has been made. We are not changing the reasons why we may apply a sanction, including refusing to take a job that has been offered, nor the rates applied. As part of the Way to Work campaign, we are changing the period in which a claimant can limit their job search to their usual occupation to promote wider employment opportunities, supporting people into work more quickly. As the noble Baroness knows, we no longer plan to publish a report.

My Lords, given the general view that tougher sanctions will have only a limited impact on labour supply in today’s market, the inability of the Government’s evaluation to assess their deterrent effect, the independent evidence that they typically push people out of the formal labour market or into poor jobs at the cost of longer-term better-quality jobs, and that they are associated with serious hardship and ill health, what justification is there for introducing a significantly harsher policy now without even public consultation?

I make it absolutely clear that we are not having tougher sanctions. We are reducing the period for which people can look for usual work, as I said. I went to Hastings jobcentre last week, and it was busy helping people to look for work. There were employers in there doing interviews, not rubbing their hands saying, “We can sanction more people”. The whole Jobcentre Plus network is enthralled by this new opportunity. We will be helping people to get a job quicker, but we will not stop helping them to get a job in the field they want to be in.

My Lords, I appreciate what the Minister said—the Government are altering not the sanctions, merely the period of time—but I confess to being surprised when I heard this. A month seems a very short period in which to expect somebody to find work in their usual area. Could it not be extended a bit?

The decision about the four-week period has been made. I can go back and say that noble Lords would like it to be longer, but that will probably not come as a surprise to the Secretary of State. The other factor is that we are inundated with employers wanting to recruit people to their workforce. In my experience, you are much more able to get the next job if you are in a job, than if you are sitting looking for jobs that do not exist at the moment.

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Lister said, there is no evidence that sanctions are effective in encouraging people into sustained long-term work. As universal credit statistics show, new claimants flow quickly off. In view of this, will the Minister ensure that the Government adopt the safety valve of preparing people with independent advice before bringing in these sanctions? What action will the Government take to publicise and inform claimants of the easement regime, which can protect people from such sanctions, notwithstanding what the Minister has said already? A month is a sanction.

Sanctions apply only if claimants do not comply with their agreed requirements for no good reason. That is not changing at all. If claimants refuse to apply for roles, attend interviews or take up paid work without good reason, they can be referred for a sanction. If a claimant disagrees with the sanction decision, they can ask for it to be reconsidered. We have a well-established system of hardship payments available as a safeguard if a claimant demonstrates that they cannot meet their immediate and most essential needs due to a sanction.

My Lords, if a sanction is applied, what arrangements are there for someone who feels unfairly treated to ask for redress? In particular, is it simple or will they have to run through a whole series of bureaucratic hoops?

Building on the answer that I just gave the noble Baroness on the opposite Benches, if a claimant disagrees with their sanction, they can ask for the decision to be reconsidered and can subsequently appeal against it. There are hardship payments. To emphasise the point, I rang a district manager this morning and said, “Tell me about this Way to Work”. She said, “We love it. We’re very excited about it, we’ve never had so many jobs, and the last thing in the world we want to do is sanction somebody in this environment”—and I believe her.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the inundation of employers, and I can imagine that, but has any work been done to assess the willingness of employers in different sectors to take on people with no experience in that sector? It is very important that workers on the front line understand.

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. The work coaches are well trained and their relationship with employers is gathering momentum. In fact, I heard today that employers are more prepared to take people with no experience in their industry and in fact are also considering taking people they would not normally have taken, such as ex-offenders and those with autism. So, yes, I agree.

My Lords, let us take a step back. What the Government are doing is saying to somebody who has lost their job, “If you don’t get back into your own field within four weeks, you should go and find any job and get in there fast”. The Government put out a massive press release last week saying, “We’re going to get half a million people into over a million vacancies”, and the centrepiece was the idea that you could be sanctioned within four weeks—ironically, before you even get your first universal credit payment, which takes six weeks.

Given that only 3% of universal credit claimants are even in this category—and given that all the evidence shows that most of them get back into work really quickly anyway—rather than blaming people who have lost their jobs, why not focus on long-term unemployment, people leaving the labour market and people retiring early? Let us concentrate on the real problems. Would that not be a better idea?

I am afraid that on this occasion I cannot quite agree with everything that the noble Baroness said, or indeed the sentiment in which it was said. That will come as no surprise to people. The fact is that we have been working with long-term unemployed people to try to overcome their barriers and put solutions in place. I say again that when someone does not have a job and they cannot get one within the field that they are used to and skilled in, their skills can be applied to other sectors, so they can take jobs and be in work and then, when a job comes up in the field they want, we can help them apply for it. So I do not hold with what the noble Baroness says.

Putting pressure on people to take jobs with the threat of benefit sanctions has a known link with deteriorating mental health. Indeed, some medics have pointed to a link between benefit sanctions and suicide. In the past, the Government have refused to assess that impact and publish the results. Will the Minister now look at that evidence and make sure, for transparency’s sake, that we all see it?

Let me go to the point about the publication of the evaluation and so on. We committed to using UC administrative data to look at the impact that a sanction has on an individual. However, durations could not be compared as we did not have robust legacy data and could not develop counterfactual information without legislative changes to allow for the testing of different approaches. Therefore, we were not able to do it and come up with a meaningful comparison.

I understand exactly the point that the noble Baroness made about mental health. Our work coaches are trained in mental health and to watch out for people. As I say, the last thing they are going to do is threaten people. It is only when there is no good reason for turning down an opportunity that a sanction will be imposed. Sanctions are running at 0.78%, which is lower than pre pandemic.

My Lords, some people seem to find great difficulty in securing a job, so what has been done by the Government to help these people to secure employment?

I am pleased to say that the Government have doubled the number of work coaches. They are spending more time with people, finding out in more depth the issues that are stopping them working and putting interventions in place to help them overcome their barriers. We have our plan for jobs programme. More and more employers are coming into jobcentres to interview people, understanding the barriers that people face. When all is said and done, we are doing a lot for people.