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.
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”. 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”.
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”. He described how his work coach had given him “breathing room” when his grandmother was ill and then passed away. Researchers studying welfare conditionality for veterans also observed “some evidence of Jobcentre advisors exercising their discretionary powers positively” to adapt to individual circumstances. The DWP’s Universal Credit Full Service Survey found 54% of claimants believed that their CC took their personal circumstances into account.
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. 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. 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.
90.Others, such as Gingerbread and CPAG, drew attention to the “power imbalance” 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. Gingerbread highlighted how this was exacerbated under Universal Credit, as receipt of the first payment is conditional on signing the claimant commitment. The charity said “this risks claimants signing without pushing for more scrutiny of their conditions in order to receive timely financial support”.
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. 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”.
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”. 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.
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. For these reasons, CPAG said that claimants were “entirely dependent on their work coach asking sufficient questions to identify when an easement applies”. But their experience was that “this is simply not happening”, partly because work coaches did not know how someone’s requirements might need to be adjusted in response to often complex circumstances.
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”.
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.
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. 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”.
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.
184 Department for Work and Pensions
185 Department for Work and Pensions
186 Department for Work and Pensions
188 Luke O’Donnell
189 Sanctions, support and service leavers: welfare conditionality and transitions from military to civilian life project
190 Department for Work and Pensions and Government Social Research, , June 2018
192 Joseph Rowntree Foundation , Citizens Advice , Dr Aaron Reeves , Employment Related Service Association , Mind , Centrepoint , Young Women’s Trust , Child Poverty Action Group , Qq57, 85 [Samantha]
194 Gingerbread , Child Poverty Action Group , British Psychological Society ,
198 Citizens Advice Rossendale and Hyndburn
199 Citizens Advice Rossendale and Hyndburn
200 Department for Work and Pensions
201 Crisis , Mind , Child Poverty Action Group , The Public Law Project , Q156 [Maeve McGoldrick], Sanctions, support and service leavers: welfare conditionality and transitions from military to civilian life project , Q185 [Martin Williams]
202 See for example Child Poverty Action Group , Dr Aaron Reeves , Gingerbread , Mind , Public Law Project
203 Child Poverty Action Group
204 Child Poverty Action Group
205 See for example Dr Ben Baumberg Geiger , Crisis and Royal Mencap Society
206 The Public Law Project , Gingerbread
207 Child Poverty Action Group
209 The Public Law Project , Mind , NHS Health Scotland
211 Q48, DePaul
213 Crisis , The Children’s Society , Qq159–160
214 Child Poverty Action Group (ANC 0056)
Published: 06 November 2018