Benefit Sanctions Contents

5Setting conditionality requirements

Claimant commitments and available easements

86.The Claimant Commitment (CC) records the actions a UC claimant has agreed to undertake as a condition of receiving their benefit. This document is called the Jobseeker’s Agreement under JSA, and Action Plan under ESA. For the purposes of this report, however, we will simply refer to the CC. If a claimant does not comply with their CC, and does not have good reason for failing to do so, they could be sanctioned. The CC is therefore an integral part of the sanctions regime, as the DWP recognised in its written evidence:

For sanctions to work properly, it is important that conditionality is applied correctly to ensure that all the conditionality requirements placed on claimants are realistic and achievable with regards to their circumstances.184

87.The Department described how requirements were set through a “1–2–1 relationship between work coach and claimant”, the purpose of which was “to develop a good understanding of the claimant’s circumstances, so that a work coach can best help a claimant find work”.185 Work coaches have discretion to set requirements to suit each claimant. The DWP said CCs should therefore be tailored according to the claimant’s “capability and personal circumstances, taking account of any vulnerability, complex needs or health issues”.186

88.We received some evidence suggesting that this process was working well. Luke O’Donnell, a claimant who had been sanctioned, said “I can’t really fault my work coach”.187 He described how his work coach had given him “breathing room” when his grandmother was ill and then passed away.188 Researchers studying welfare conditionality for veterans also observed “some evidence of Jobcentre advisors exercising their discretionary powers positively” to adapt to individual circumstances.189 The DWP’s Universal Credit Full Service Survey found 54% of claimants believed that their CC took their personal circumstances into account.190

89.Most of the evidence we received on this subject, however, suggested that people’s experiences of setting conditionality were a far cry from the Department’s expectation of a personal, tailored process. DePaul, a charity supporting vulnerable young people, described CCs signed by young homeless people as often being “generic”, failing to take account of their individual circumstances.191 This was a common theme, particularly for vulnerable groups with complex circumstances, such as those who were homeless, a single parent, suffering from a health condition, including mental ill health, or disabled.192 We heard repeatedly that when a claimant’s CC was not tailored to their personal circumstances, it resulted in unrealistic and/or unachievable conditionality. In such circumstances, claimants were sanctioned because they simply were not able, rather than not willing, to comply. For example, DePaul gave examples of young homeless people who had been required to spend a lot of time using Universal Jobmatch online, despite having limited access to the internet.193

90.Others, such as Gingerbread and CPAG, drew attention to the “power imbalance”194 between claimants and their work coach when agreeing a claimant commitment. They argued that it led to claimants feeling their conditionality was not agreed through a deliberative negotiation, but rather they felt obliged to accept it.195 Gingerbread highlighted how this was exacerbated under Universal Credit, as receipt of the first payment is conditional on signing the claimant commitment.196 The charity said “this risks claimants signing without pushing for more scrutiny of their conditions in order to receive timely financial support”.197

91.Citizens Advice Rossendale and Hyndburn also highlighted the DWP’s and jobcentre’s duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people, through service provision and engagement with claimants.198 It noted that this duty was about more than just avoiding discrimination; it required proactive steps to anticipate whether a claimant needed reasonable adjustments. It was concerned, however, that jobcentres did not “always comply with their duties under the Equality Act 2010, and in particular their positive and anticipatory duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people”.199

Insufficient use of easements

92.Work coaches can reduce or switch off a claimant’s conditionality for a period of time if their circumstances mean it would be unrealistic for them to comply. This is known as applying an ‘easement’. Some easements are a legal requirement, such as when someone is the victim of domestic abuse, and others are at the work coach’s discretion, such as when someone is experiencing a “domestic emergency”.200 They are a key tool for ensuring CCs are appropriately tailored, but we received a lot of evidence suggesting they were used insufficiently and inconsistently.201

93.Witnesses explained that most easements relied on work coaches making a judgement based on detailed knowledge of claimants’ circumstances. So, they must either rely on claimants disclosing the relevant information, or they must ask the right questions to get it. We heard, however, that vulnerable claimants did not always share the relevant information, either because they were not aware of the easements they were entitled to, so did not know what to tell their work coach, or because they did not feel comfortable talking about sensitive personal circumstances, particularly in an open-plan jobcentre.202 For these reasons, CPAG said that claimants were “entirely dependent on their work coach asking sufficient questions to identify when an easement applies”.203 But their experience was that “this is simply not happening”,204 partly because work coaches did not know how someone’s requirements might need to be adjusted in response to often complex circumstances.205

94.We heard several suggestions for how to address these issues:

95.We heard that while these measures would go some way to improve the use of easements, they would not resolve the problem entirely, for two main reasons. First, because work coaches did not have enough time to explore fully claimants’ personal circumstances; and second, because easements were set out in guidance and therefore relied on work coaches to judge what was reasonable, which CPAG said created “a real risk of poor or patchy decision making”.214

96.CPAG recommended that there should be more rules around the application of easements. Martin Williams, a Welfare Rights Advisor for the organisation, explained:

Where you have a general reasonableness test [for when to apply an easement], the amount of fact-finding that the work coach needs to do, the number of things they need to look into, is vast. When you have much more of a rules-based system you can ask them questions, “Do you have any [caring] responsibilities for an elderly relative?” … Tick box. “How many hours?” Tick box.215

He said that, short of “fundamentally changing” work coaches’ available time, pay grade and responsibilities, the current system—whereby work coaches must elicit information and apply easements based on what they judge to be reasonable—would continue to create “nightmare” cases of inappropriate sanctions.216 But the Minister did not support the suggestion of a more rules-based approach to the application of easements. He argued that there was already some “standardisation in the sense that there are a set of temporary easements that must be applied in certain cases”.217

97.The Claimant Commitment is the bedrock of the sanctions regime and, if done well, it can be a powerful tool for driving positive engagement and minimising inappropriate sanctions. But if done badly, it becomes the root of ineffective, inappropriate and potentially deeply harmful sanctions. We do not doubt that work coaches are doing their best, but the model in which they currently operate makes it near-impossible for them to get it right every time, for every claimant. The system cannot rely on claimants knowing all available easements and pouring forth all the details of their personal lives to their work coach, who has neither the time nor the expertise to explore every potential avenue of a claimant’s situation to understand if, and how, their conditionality should be flexed.

98.We recommend that the Department:

184 Department for Work and Pensions (ANC 0083)

185 Department for Work and Pensions (ANC 0083)

186 Department for Work and Pensions (ANC 0083)

187 Q95

188 Luke O’Donnell (ANC 0095)

189 Sanctions, support and service leavers: welfare conditionality and transitions from military to civilian life project (ANC 0036)

190 Department for Work and Pensions and Government Social Research, “Universal Credit full service survey”, June 2018

191 DePaul (ANC 0070)

192 Joseph Rowntree Foundation (ANC 0068), Citizens Advice (ANC 0067), Dr Aaron Reeves (ANC 0081), Employment Related Service Association (ANC 0066), Mind (ANC 0064), Centrepoint (ANC 0060), Young Women’s Trust (ANC 0059), Child Poverty Action Group (ANC 0056), Qq57, 85 [Samantha]

193 DePaul (ANC 0070)

194 Gingerbread (ANC 0080), Child Poverty Action Group (ANC 0056), British Psychological Society (ANC 0061),

195 Gingerbread (ANC 0080)

196 Gingerbread (ANC 0080)

197 Gingerbread (ANC 0080)

198 Citizens Advice Rossendale and Hyndburn (ANC 0058)

199 Citizens Advice Rossendale and Hyndburn (ANC 0058)

200 Department for Work and Pensions (ANC 0083)

201 Crisis (ANC 0065), Mind (ANC 0064), Child Poverty Action Group (ANC 0056), The Public Law Project (ANC 0037), Q156 [Maeve McGoldrick], Sanctions, support and service leavers: welfare conditionality and transitions from military to civilian life project (ANC 0036), Q185 [Martin Williams]

202 See for example Child Poverty Action Group (ANC 0056), Dr Aaron Reeves (ANC 0081), Gingerbread (ANC 0080), Mind (ANC 0064), Public Law Project (ANC 0037)

203 Child Poverty Action Group (ANC 0056)

204 Child Poverty Action Group (ANC 0056)

205 See for example Dr Ben Baumberg Geiger (ANC 0063), Crisis (ANC 0065) and Royal Mencap Society (ANC 0046)

206 The Public Law Project (ANC 0037), Gingerbread (ANC 0080)

207 Child Poverty Action Group (ANC 0056)

208 Q255

209 The Public Law Project (ANC 0037), Mind (ANC 0064), NHS Health Scotland (ANC 0045)

210 Q272

211 Q48, DePaul (ANC 0070)

212 Q255

213 Crisis (ANC 0065), The Children’s Society (ANC 0053), Qq159–160

214 Child Poverty Action Group (ANC 0056)

215 Q185

216 Q188

217 Q274

Published: 06 November 2018