Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review - Work and Pensions Contents

4  Setting appropriate JSA job-searching conditions

67. In this chapter we examine JCP's approach to agreeing appropriate job-searching conditions for JSA claimants. The standard tool for this is now the Claimant Commitment. This was designed as part of the policy development for Universal Credit, to replace Jobseekers Agreements, which were used in the JSA system, but Claimant Commitments are already being used in almost all JCP offices, ahead of Universal Credit's full implementation.[72]

68. The intention is that Claimant Commitments further intensify job-searching activities; DWP can require claimants to undertake up to 35 hours of job-searching activity per week.[73] It also gives claimants greater scope to record the steps they have taken towards finding employment, and allows Work Coaches to monitor whether claimants have taken the agreed steps. Claimant Commitments should reflect individual claimants' needs and capabilities, and involve claimants in the process of developing a job-searching strategy which is appropriate for them. They are intended to be "living documents", which are updated regularly according to changing circumstances.[74]

The Claimant Commitment in practice

69. We were supportive of the introduction of the Claimant Commitment, concluding in our November 2012 Report on Universal Credit implementation that it had "the potential to help benefit claimants return to work, by making clear what job-search requirements they must fulfil." However, our Report also noted witnesses' views that the effectiveness of the system would to a large extent depend on the ability of JCP staff to identify claimants' needs and ensure that these were properly reflected in the document.[75] The Department's written evidence to this inquiry was very clear that:

Any requirements placed on JSA claimants should take into account any restrictions agreed within the Claimant Commitment as well as the claimant's individual circumstances and needs.[76]

70. Several witnesses were concerned that in practice Claimant Commitments were being formulated principally by the Work Coach, with limited input from the claimant.[77] Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) told us that it had advised a number of claimants who believed that their Claimant Commitment had not been sufficiently tailored to their personal circumstances. This included people with "very severe literacy problems" which were not adequately reflected, for example.[78] The PCS union told us that Claimant Commitments tended to conform to a fairly standard template. It also reported that JCP staff were "not encouraged" to include flexibilities to reflect claimants' individual circumstances. PCS's view was that the primary focus tended to be on increasing the number of steps claimants were required to take. Helen Flanagan, PCS's DWP Vice President, told us that, whereas the JSA Jobseekers Agreement would typically require a claimant to apply for three jobs per week, the Claimant Commitment sometimes required the claimant to take more than 40 individual steps. She also reported that in some JCP offices the 35-hour job-search requirement was already being applied to JSA claimants, ahead of the implementation of Universal Credit.[79]

71. Ben Robinson of Community Links, a third sector contracted provider, believed that it was still "early days" for the Claimant Commitment. In his experience, the level of tailoring of Claimant Commitments to individual circumstances was "patchy" across the JCP network. There was also a mixed picture of Claimant Commitments being used as "living documents", reflecting changes in circumstances over time. He agreed with the PCS union that, in general, the Claimant Commitment had increased the number of mandatory steps claimants were required to take to find work.[80]

72. Keith Dryburgh of CAS told us that that a number of claimants it had advised felt they had no choice but to sign the Claimant Commitment, as they believed that they would be sanctioned if they did not. His view was that Claimant Commitments which did not properly reflect claimants' needs were "setting people up to fail."[81]

73. Chris Hayes told us that the effectiveness of the Claimant Commitment would be fully evaluated by DWP, and that an evaluation report was scheduled to be published in Summer 2016.[82]

74. We recommend that DWP's evaluation of the Claimant Commitment includes an assessment of: whether claimants are fully involved in the process of developing a suitable job-searching strategy and in setting realistic and achievable targets; and whether reasonable conditions are being set for all groups of JSA claimants, including those with physical and mental health conditions, learning disabilities and caring responsibilities. We also believe that more than another year before the findings of this evaluation are published is too long a wait for an assessment of new benefit conditions affecting so many claimants. We therefore further recommend that DWP expedite its evaluation and publish initial findings as early as possible in the next Parliament, and certainly before the end of 2015. We believe that there is a specific need to review whether the conditionality applied to those claiming JSA while a decision on ESA eligibility is being reconsidered or appealed should be altered to reflect this, and the individual's specific circumstances.

Identifying vulnerable claimants

75. As noted in chapter 2, the Oakley Review found that "vulnerable" claimants, particularly those with mental health problems and learning disabilities, were more likely to struggle to understand and fulfil their benefit conditions. He recommended that the Department "should consider how vulnerable groups might be identified and helped to claim hardship payments and/or access support services offered through Jobcentre Plus and contracted providers."[83]

76. A range of witnesses believed that JCP's systems for identifying vulnerable claimants were inconsistent, and reported that vulnerable claimants, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities, were often subject to inappropriate conditions resulting in sanctions. Witnesses believed that more clarity and consistency was required around the definition of vulnerability. [84]

77. Chris Hayes reported that in the last year DWP had issued new guidance to JCP Work Coaches on identifying vulnerable claimants. This included taking account of "people's circumstances, life changes or certain medical conditions." He also told us that, in relation to ESA, DWP took "extra special care" before applying sanctions to claimants with certain medical conditions.[85] We consider ESA sanctioning separately in chapter 6.

78. The Department subsequently sent us a copy of its Vulnerability Guidance for JCP staff. In the guidance a vulnerable person is defined as: "An individual who is identified as having complex needs and/or requires additional support to enable them to access DWP benefits and use our services." Complex needs are defined as: "difficult personal circumstances and/or life events." The guidance lists a number of personal circumstances and life events which could be considered to indicate potential vulnerability, including: disability; ethnicity; domestic violence and abuse; care leaver; alcohol misuse; drug misuse; refugee; ex-offender; homeless; and lone parent. The guidance is clear that JCP staff can make a judgement on whether individuals in these circumstances need "additional support to enable them to access DWP benefits and use our services", including additional support to fulfil benefit conditions; however, it also states that: "The aim is for individuals to follow the standard Customer Journeys and we need to work with them to identify how we can enable them to do this."[86]

79. DWP's new Vulnerability Guidance is a welcome step forward in trying to more routinely identify claimants who are vulnerable and require support to "enable them to access DWP benefits and services". However, we are concerned that, while the guidance we have seen is a good, general purpose document, which includes helpful definitions of what might constitute vulnerability, it does not give clear guidance on the level of support vulnerable groups would need in order to fulfil their benefit conditionality. There remains a danger that some vulnerable individuals are being "set up to fail".

80. We recommend that DWP, drawing on specialist advice from health experts, develop guidance on vulnerability which is specifically intended to assist JCP staff in identifying vulnerable JSA claimants, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities, who may face difficulties in understanding and/or complying with benefit conditionality. This guidance should include examples or case studies to illustrate how conditionality can be tailored in a range of circumstances. We further recommend that the Department amalgamate this guidance into the broader Claimant Commitment guidance, so that it becomes part of the routine process of developing appropriate and tailored JSA conditionality.

Jobseeker Directions

81. In addition to actions set out in Claimant Commitments, Work Coaches can require JSA claimants to take specific actions by issuing individual Jobseeker Directions (JSDs). JCP guidance states that JSDs can be used to "mandate a claimant, under risk of a sanction, to undertake a specific course of action". It explains that JSDs "would usually be considered when a claimant does not voluntarily undertake a particular action, which will improve their prospects of finding work."[87] JSDs were introduced in the 1990s, as part of the JSA system.

82. Helen Flanagan of PCS reported that, in some JCP offices, JSDs were being used more frequently now than they were before the introduction of the Claimant Commitment.[88] Official data show that the number of sanctions relating to "failure to comply with a Jobseeker Direction" has remained low as a proportion of all sanctions, and at a stable level since 2012 (around 3% of all adverse decisions, see chapter 5); however, there are large variations between JCP offices, and in some offices the application of JSDs has increased.[89]

83. Given that the Claimant Commitment is intended to intensify job-searching requirements, include more specific steps, and be a "living document" which can be regularly updated, we wanted to know why JSDs were still necessary, and their use increasing in some offices. Chris Hayes told us that JSDs tended to be used in "very specific circumstances", including mandating claimants to undertake a particular type of skills training. Claimant Commitments tended to set out "general work search and availability conditions". However, he did agree that there was scope to include more of the types of activity currently being mandated through JSDs in Claimant Commitments.[90]

84. We note the concern expressed by some witnesses that use of Jobseeker Directions has increased in some JCP offices in recent years. While we appreciate that there may be circumstances in which it might be appropriate for JCP staff to mandate a JSA claimant to undertake a very specific type of work-related activity, such as particular skills training, it is not immediately clear why such activities could not invariably be included in Claimant Commitments. Intuitively we would expect there to be minimal, if any, use made of Jobseeker Directions, as the Claimant Commitment becomes more firmly established. We recommend that DWP's evaluation of the Claimant Commitment include an assessment of the appropriate use of Jobseeker Directions and their interaction with the Claimant Commitment process.

Single parent protections

85. Gingerbread, a single parent charity, drew on official data to illustrate that single parent JSA claimants appeared to be more likely to receive a "non-adverse" sanction decision than the general JSA claimant population. Non-adverse decisions can be the result of the claimant proving "good reason" early in the process, in which case the claimant's benefit payment is not affected. The majority of non-adverse decisions affecting single parent JSA claimants are made at this early stage, but Gingerbread noted that a significant minority are applied later, at the decision-review stage: 26% of low level sanctions; 46% of intermediate level sanctions; and 17% of high level sanctions.[91] In these cases the claimant's benefit will be stopped from the point of the original decision until it is overturned at review. Claimants will be reimbursed following the review but are likely to be without their benefit payment for a number of days or weeks.


Source: DWP, Jobseekers Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance sanctions: decisions made to June 2014, November 2014


Source: DWP, Jobseekers Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance sanctions: decisions made to June 2014, November 2014

86. Gingerbread believed that the relatively high incidence of non-adverse sanction decisions in relation to single parent JSA claimants was a consequence of both claimants and Work Coaches being insufficiently aware of the flexibilities which should apply in relation to single parent conditionality. These flexibilities are defined in a set of 12 statutory safeguards, which include scope for single parents of children under the age of 13 years to restrict their working hours to the school day, and protect single parents from sanctioning where they refuse a job offer because they are unable to find suitable and affordable childcare, for example. It believed that a lack of awareness of these flexibilities was leading to inappropriate conditions and sanction referrals. It also pointed out that "only one of the 12 regulatory safeguards has been transferred in its entirety into Universal Credit", and was therefore concerned that, under Universal Credit, "single parents will be at greater risk of incurring sanctions and less likely to find work because vital safeguards have been removed."[92]

87. There is evidence that single parent JSA claimants are more likely to receive a non-adverse JSA sanction decision than the general JSA claimant population. Whilst not necessarily causing individual financial hardship, it should be recognised that the raising of a "doubt" in itself can cause distress. Notwithstanding the fact that many do successfully offer "good reason", there may still be some claimants who experience an adverse decision if they are not enabled and encouraged to offer "good reason". We also note concern from those representing single parents that claimants and JCP Work Coaches may be insufficiently aware of the statutory flexibilities designed to protect single parents from inappropriate conditionality, and that this may be leading to unnecessary sanction referrals which are subsequently overturned by Decision Makers.

88. We recommend that DWP increase training for JCP Work Coaches on the regulatory flexibilities which should be applied to the benefit conditions of single parent JSA claimants. We also recommend that DWP produce a straightforward, plain English guide to the flexibilities, which should be given to all single parent JSA claimants. We further recommend that DWP review the regulatory flexibilities afforded to single parent Universal Credit claimants, with a view to ensuring that they are offered the same level of protection from inappropriate conditionality and sanctioning as JSA claimants.

Potential for a more targeted approach to conditionality and sanctions

89. There was a perception amongst witnesses that the current approach to conditionality and sanctions was based on an assumption that most unemployed claimants would not do enough to find work unless they were made to do so. This assumption was widely challenged.[93]

90. Kirsty McHugh of ERSA told us that contracted providers' experience was that strict conditionality backed up by financial sanctions was necessary in only a minority of cases, where claimants had a record of not engaging with the support on offer, and where this lack of engagement was "motivational or behavioural", and therefore susceptible to behavioural change.[94] She believed that it was important to distinguish these claimants from those whose lack of engagement was a consequence of vulnerabilities such as mental health problems.[95] A range of witnesses believed that in many such cases sanctions were likely to actively hinder a claimant's capability to look for work, because dealing with practical financial issues resulting from sanctions took up time that might otherwise be spent job-searching.[96]

91. In oral evidence the Minister emphasised that it was often claimants who were "most reticent at first" to engage with employment support who ultimately found that "conditionality or mandation was instrumental in getting them a job". She believed that the application, or deterrent threat, of sanctions in these cases had often been a "push in the right direction".[97]

92. Research published by DWP in 2011 suggests that it may be possible to categorise unemployed people into eight different groups based on their motivations and attitudes towards seeking work. The primary purpose of this research was to develop a "highly actionable segmentation tool that is driven by attitude and behaviour and underpinned by behaviour change principles", for application in DWP's communications and marketing strategies.[98]

93. Employment services professionals believe that strict conditionality, backed up by financial sanctions, is necessary in only a small minority of circumstances, in particular where claimants have a history of poor engagement with employment support, and where their lack of engagement is "motivational or attitudinal". If the intention of sanctioning is to change behaviour, we believe that it is important to identify and focus on those claimants whose attitudes towards job-seeking and work the Department seeks to change. We believe that an effective targeted approach to strict conditionality, which focuses on this group of claimants, would have the benefit of protecting more determined jobseekers, and the vulnerable, from inappropriate, and potentially counter-productive, sanctions. We recommend that DWP draw on its 2011 research into the attitudes of unemployed people towards job-seeking and work, and consider whether its insights could inform a more targeted approach to benefit conditionality and sanctioning. We recommend that DWP establish a small-scale pilot to test the efficacy of a targeted approach based on segmentation of claimants by their attitudes and motivations.

72   "Claimant Commitment to spell out what jobseekers must do in return for benefits", DWP press release, 29 August 2013 Back

73   The Jobseeker's Allowance Regulations 2013 (Regulation 9) Back

74   "Claimant Commitment to spell out what jobseekers must do in return for benefits", DWP press release, 29 August 2013; "Jobseekers to start signing new Claimant Commitment today", DWP press release, 14 October 2013 Back

75   Work and Pensions Committee, Third Report of Session 2012-13, Universal Credit implementation: Meeting the needs of vulnerable claimants, HC 576, paras 168-71 Back

76   DWP (SAN0142) Back

77   See, for example, Citizens Advice Scotland (SAN0096); One Parent Families Scotland (SAN0146); The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and the Housing Support Enabling Unit (SAN0140) Back

78   Q52 [Keith Dryburgh] Back

79   Qq138-9; Q142 Back

80   Q143 Back

81   Q52 Back

82   Q281 Back

83   Oakley Review, p 38  Back

84   See, for example, Keep Volunteering Voluntary (SAN0131); The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and the Housing Support Enabling Unit (SAN0140); ERSA (SAN0145) Back

85   Q207 Back

86   DWP, Vulnerability Guidance-Additional Support for Individuals [not published] Back

87   DWP Freedom of Information release, FOI 626, 13 February 2013 [available via the What Do They Know? website, accessed 17 February 2015] Back

88   Q144 Back

89   DWP Freedom of Information release, Statistics on Jobseeker's directions issued in Leicestershire and Northamptonshire JCPs: Sept 2012 to Aug 2014, January 2015 Back

90   Qq282-3 Back

91   Gingerbread (SAN0115), figures 1 and 2 Back

92   Gingerbread (SAN0115) Back

93   See, for example, Q47 [Dr Webster]; Mind (SAN0106); PCS Union (SAN0109); Gingerbread (SAN0115); Keep Volunteering Voluntary (SAN0131) Back

94   ERSA (SAN0145) Back

95   Q33 Back

96   The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and the Housing Support Enabling Unit (SAN0140); Derbyshire County Council (SAN0111); Newcastle upon Tyne Citizens Advice Bureau (SAN0072) Back

97   Q232 Back

98   DWP, Beliefs about work: an attitudinal segmentation of out-of-work people in Great Britain, DWP Customer Insight Research Report 1, 2011 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 24 March 2015