Independent review of Jobseeker's Allowance sanctions
Independent review of Jobseeker's Allowance sanctions
1 Independent review of Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions Joint response: Broadway and St Mungo’s January 2014 St Mungo’s and Broadway are responding jointly to this call for information as both organisations provide accommodation and employment support services to single homeless people. This submission draws on the experiences of clients and staff from both organisations. Although the call for information covers a range of ‘back to work’ schemes, this response is concerned with single homeless peoples’ experiences of the Work Programme. This is because it is by far the most common ‘back to work’ scheme for our clients to participate in.
St Mungo’s St Mungo’s has been opening doors for homeless people since 1969. We currently run over 200 projects, providing accommodation for more than 1,900 people every night and helping thousands more who are rough sleeping or at risk of homelessness. St Mungo’s delivers a range of residential services from emergency shelters to semi-independent flats, as well as non- residential health, education and employment services. We also prevent homelessness through our housing advice programmes.
St Mungo’s services are based on a recovery approach and we aim to work in partnership with clients in a personalised, effective way. Our clients often have complex problems that cause, or are caused by, homelessness; we deliver holistic support to help people rebuild their lives. Broadway Broadway has been supporting homeless and vulnerably housed people for the past 11 years. Our work is about providing long-lasting solutions; helping people turn their lives around, not just changing immediate situations. Our services include hostels and supported housing; assistance to combat substance and alcohol misuse; work, learning and welfare advice and street outreach for rough sleepers.
Last year, we supported more than 9,500 people on their journey from street to home. In addition to our core services, Broadway runs No Second Night Out in London and in Oxford. We also operate the StreetLink rough sleeper hotline from our centre in west London. For more information on our response please contact Rebecca Sycamore, Broadway’s Director of External Affairs at email@example.com or Dan Dumoulin, St Mungo’s Senior Policy and Research Officer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 Summary of recommendations Improving Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) claimants’ understanding that they may be sanctioned and their benefits affected if they do not participate in a ‘back to work scheme’ Jobcentre Plus (JCP) should ensure that claimants understand that they have been referred to the Work Programme and that they understand the purpose of the Work Programme.
Information about why sanctions may be imposed and the implications of being sanctioned should be provided to all claimants at the outset of their claim or at the earliest opportunity to do so.
Any changes to the sanctioning regime should be clearly communicated to all claimants. Ensuring claimants have a sufficient understanding of what is expected The DWP and Work Programme providers should ensure that advisors routinely record claimants’ communication preferences and that communications are then provided through the requested channel and in an appropriate format.1 This could include using multiple channels, e.g. an initial letter and phone call followed up with a text reminder. JCP must improve procedures for identifying people who are homeless, they must also ensure that Work Programme providers are aware of housing related issues faced by people who are homeless or have recently been homeless when referrals are made.
JCP and Work Programme advisors should be aware that people who are homeless may find it more difficult to understand what is expected of them. Advisors should be aware of hostels and supported accommodation projects in the local area and encouraged to liaise with staff from these projects when appropriate and with the consent of claimants. Before raising compliance doubts concerning a vulnerable JSA claimant, advisors should be required to take the same steps to ensure that the claimant understands what is expected that they would be required to take for a vulnerable ESA claimant. 1 Social Security Advisory Committee Occasional Paper No.
11 (2013) Communications in the benefits system
3 DWP must ensure that JCP and Work Programme advisors are aware of the rules and ensure that advisors are held to account for misinforming claimants. Relevant information should be checked before compliance doubts are raised or a decision is made to apply a sanction. Other agencies could be asked to provide or verify this information. Ensuring claimants understand why they have been sanctioned JCP advisors should be able to access information about compliance doubts held by Work Programme providers.
Work Programme and JCP advisors who do not provide adequate levels of customer service, e.g.
cannot be contacted by claimants or their advocates, should be held to account. JCP and Work Programme advisors should notify claimants’ key workers/advocates by phone when raising a compliance doubt where claimants give consent for them to do so. Improving claimants’ awareness throughout the sanctions process JCP should inform clients that they should continue to sign on at JCP while sanctioned to avoid losing their housing benefit. JCP should also advise claimants what to do if their housing benefit payments cease erroneously. Improving sanctioned claimants’ awareness of the help available to them from Jobcentre Plus JCP should ensure that claimants are aware of how to get a sanction decision reviewed and make an appeal if they wish to do so.
They should also signpost claimants who have been sanctioned to agencies which offer support to people in financial hardship.
4 Overall comments The problems outlined in this response should be addressed urgently. Poor communication about sanctions increases the likelihood that our clients are sanctioned, which puts them at risk of falling into debt and repeat homelessness. Problems around the way in which sanctions are communicated also undermine the effectiveness of the Work Programme. Through participating in the Work Programme our clients should be supported to move off benefits and support themselves. Instead, they find themselves engaged in circular conversations with advisors in order to try to understand what decisions have been made about their claims and why these decisions have been made.
This is not conducive to moving towards employment. Furthermore, DWP and Work Programme provider staff often do not give consistent advice and seem unable to access relevant information. The complex needs of many of our clients mean that they often require extra support to understand what the Work Programme is, what is expected of participants and what they should do to get the most out of any opportunities open to them through the Work Programme. In 12/13 of the people living in Broadway’s hostels: 83% needed support with substance misuse (drugs and or alcohol) 51% needed support with a mental health problem 96% needed support with managing money and personal administration and 71% needed support with their self-care and living skills.
While our staff provide support in these and other areas, it can often take time for our clients to make progress in addressing such needs.
Answers to questions: Q1) To what extent do JSA claimants understand that when they are referred to a 'back-to-work' scheme (such as the Work Programme) their benefit may be sanctioned if they don't take part? 1.1 Our clients often do not understand what the Work Programme is and what its purpose is. They may not even realise that they are on the Work Programme. Our clients generally understand what sanctions are, why they are applied and that they apply throughout a claim for JSA. However, they often have a limited knowledge of what the Work Programme is and how it is supposed to help them to find employment.
In our experience people who are homeless and on the Work Programme are often unaware that they are on the Work Programme. Our clients generally understand that JCP have referred
5 them to another organisation, but they may not realise that this means that they have been referred to the Work Programme. In 2012 St Mungo’s ran a Flexible Support Fund scheme for claimants who had not been referred to the Work Programme. However, two thirds of the claimants who applied to take part had in fact been referred to the Work Programme and so could not participate in our scheme. Broadway’s Keeping Work2 study included a qualitative study of 50 formerly homeless people who had found employment. Of those surveyed 33 people said they were not on the Work Programme, and a further six people did not know whether they were or not.
This general lack of knowledge about the Work Programme increases the risk that clients are sanctioned for not taking part. Without a clear understanding of how the Work Programme is supposed to help them to find employment our clients are less motivated to attend appointments.
Our employment support staff also have to spend time working with clients to establish whether or not they are on the Work Programme. This is not the most effective use of our staff’s time Recommendation: Jobcentre Plus should ensure that claimants understand that they have been referred to the Work Programme and that they understand the purpose of the Work Programme. 1.2 Our clients who have been sanctioned usually do not know how long the sanction will last Recently our staff have reported that most clients who are sanctioned do not realise that a tougher sanctions regime had been put in place and are surprised at the length of the sanction that they are subject to.
If sanctions are intended to function as a deterrent then it is clearly important that claimants understand the implications of being sanctioned and what action or inaction of theirs has led to the sanction being imposed. Recommendations: Information about why sanctions may be imposed and the implications of being sanctioned should be provided to all claimants at the outset of their claim or at the earliest opportunity to do so. 2 Longitudinal qualitative research on homeless people’s experiences of starting and staying in work by Juliette Hough, Jane Jones and Becky Rice. Broadway 2013
6 Any changes to the sanctioning regime should be clearly communicated to all claimants.
Q2) To what extent does a claimant’s failure to meet their conditions arise from them not having a sufficient understanding of what is expected? Are there ways in which this could be made clearer to them? It is common for our clients to be sanctioned because they do not understand particular requirements that have been placed on them. It is also common for our clients to be sanctioned because advisors give incorrect or incomplete information or because the requirements placed on our clients are inappropriate or unfair.
2.1 Letters sent through the post are often an ineffective way to communicate with people who are homeless We believe that many of the sanctions applied to our clients are applied because clients fail to understand, open or receive letters sent by Jobcentre Plus. This results in our clients missing appointments because they were not aware of them. Many people who are homeless have severe literacy issues; 16 per cent of St Mungo’s clients cannot read a letter without support, 33 per cent cannot complete a form without support. It is also common for letters addressed to our clients to be sent to an address where they are no longer living.
In addition, our clients often need help and support with their personal administration. Even if they can read a letter they may not open it, or realise that they need to deal with the content.
Case study: Sally Sally 3 is a pregnant 19 year old woman with learning disabilities, living in supported accommodation and on the Work Programme. She received several appointment letters that she was unable to understand so she put them into a drawer and forgot about them. This led to a succession of missed appointments which resulted in Sally being repeatedly sanctioned. Staff at the hostel where Sally was living helped her to appeal successfully against the sanctions. 3 St Mungo’s, Crisis and Homeless Link (2012) The Programme’s Not Working: Experiences of homeless people on the Work Programme
7 Recommendations: The DWP and Work Programme providers should ensure that advisors routinely record claimants’ communication preferences and that communications are then provided through the requested channel or by using the appropriate format.4 This could include using multiple channels, e.g. an initial letter and phone call followed up with a text reminder. JCP must improve procedures for identifying people who are homeless, they must also ensure that Work Programme providers are aware of housing related issues faced by people who are homeless or have recently been homeless when referrals are made.
JCP and Work Programme advisors should be aware that people who are homeless may find it more difficult to understand what is expected of them. Advisors should be aware of hostels and supported accommodation projects in the local area and encouraged to liaise with staff from these projects when appropriate and with the consent of claimants. 2.2 Vulnerable JSA clients may need extra support to understand expectations It is inconsistent and unfair that advisors are required to take extra steps to ensure Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants who may find it hard to understand what is expected understand their responsibilities; but advisors are not required to take steps to ensure that the same is true of JSA claimants who may face similar difficulties in understanding what is expected of them.
Of St Mungo’s clients on JSA, 31 per cent have a mental health condition and eight per cent have a learning disability. We believe that many of these clients find it difficult to understand their responsibilities as claimants. The text below is taken from the Governments’ Official Work Programme Provider Guidance:5 Provider considers if participant is a vulnerable ESA participant : 41. Vulnerable ESA participants are those who have mental health conditions or learning disabilities or conditions affecting communication/cognition. 4 Social Security Advisory Committee Occasional Paper No. 11 (2013) Communications in the benefits system 5 Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/2 64722/wp-pg-chapter- 6.pdf (accessed January 7 2014)
8 42. It is your responsibility to make every effort to see vulnerable ESA participants face to face (which may include a visit to their home) to ensure that they fully understand their responsibilities before proceeding with a compliance doubt. Guidance on helping people with mental health conditions to find and stay in employment can be found by clicking on this link. 43. In these circumstances you will need to contact the participant, or their nominated advocate to arrange the face to face meeting. 44. Any activities you undertake to contact the participant must also be noted in the information you send as part of your evidence to support the compliance doubt.
45. If a vulnerable ESA participant fails to carry out a mandated activity you should consider whether their health condition could be a reason for their failure to comply before raising a compliance doubt. You are not normally expected to visit a participant at home, but you should consider doing so if: • there is genuine doubt or uncertainty; for example, where somebody has disappeared • there is serious concern about a mental health condition, learning disabilities or conditions affecting communication/cognition • somebody has disengaged for no apparent reason, and it is necessary to find out more Recommendation: Advisors should identify vulnerable JSA claimants, i.e.
claimants who have mental health conditions or learning disabilities or conditions affecting communication or cognition.
Before raising compliance doubts concerning a vulnerable JSA claimant, advisors should be required to take the same steps to ensure that the claimant understands what is expected that they would be required to take for a vulnerable ESA claimant (see points 41 - 45 in box above). 2.3 Advisors do not clearly communicate what is expected of claimants It is common for single homeless people on the Work Programme to experience extremely poor levels of customer service from Work Programme providers. People who are homeless often have to wait months between seeing Work Programme advisors, advisors frequently cancel
9 appointments and they are often unavailable for extended periods of time.6 It is extremely unfair that claimants can be sanctioned for not attending appointments but there are no consequences for advisors who cancel appointments or are repeatedly unavailable. Advisors sometimes also appear to be unsure of the rules or not explain them properly. “I think some advisors do not explain things clearly. In some cases claimants are seen by different advisors who tell them different things and can be quite vague. I have a client whose advisor said „apply for three to four jobs a day, at the same time she saw him write down four to five jobs a day.
I get the impression that advisors have not been adequately trained and don‟t always seem sure enough of the rules themselves, so cannot pass this on clearly to claimants.” - Broadway Employment and Skills Worker Recommendation: DWP must ensure that JCP and Work Programme advisors are aware of the rules and ensure that advisors are held to account for misinforming claimants. 2.4 Decisions are made based on incomplete or incorrect information St Mungo’s and Broadway frequently challenge sanctioning decisions by supporting our clients to request a review or to take their case to a tribunal.
It is common for the process of challenging a sanction to reveal that the decision to apply it was based on incomplete or incorrect information. Being sanctioned frequently unfairly places our clients in financial hardship, which puts them at risk falling into debt and being pushed into repeat homelessness. We would prefer to provide relevant information to advisors and decision makers before a decision is made, rather than only having the opportunity to pass on this information when challenging a decision. This would reduce the anxiety and financial hardship experienced by our clients and also reduce the need for expensive tax payer funded tribunals.
Recommendation: Relevant information should be checked before compliance doubts are raised or a decision is made to apply a sanction. Other agencies could be asked to provide or verify this information 6 St Mungo’s, Crisis and Homeless Link (2012) The Programme’s Not Working: Experiences of homeless people on the Work Programme
10 Q3) Do sanctioned claimants understand why they have been sanctioned, and if not are there ways in which this could be made clearer to them? 3.1 JCP staff are generally unable to tell our clients on the Work Programme why they have been sanctioned. Work Programme providers are hard to contact and often do not communicate adequate information Our clients frequently find it hard to find out why they have been sanctioned. The issues with advisors failing to explain things clearly, especially to vulnerable claimants, and communicating through the post mentioned in our answer to Question Two apply to how claimants find out why they have been sanctioned.
“First thing I knew about it [being sanctioned] was when I went to the cash machine and there was no money there. Then a letter arrived saying that a sanction had been applied because [a Work Programme provider] had requested it. The Jobcentre had told me that I would be going on the Work Programme but I didn‟t realise I was on it until this letter came” - St Mungo’s client Our clients and staff usually try and contact JCP advisors if they are unaware or wish to clarify why JSA payments have been stopped. Letters notifying claimants that they have been sanctioned are sent by the DWP. However, JCP advisors are generally unable to access information concerning compliance doubts held by Work Programme providers so usually cannot offer an explanation as to why this sanction was applied.
This lack of shared information between JCP and Work Programme staff calls into question how much confidence can be placed in the accuracy of information on which sanctions are based. Work Programme advisors can be hard to contact, it is common for calls from our staff and clients to go unanswered or not to be returned.
Recommendations: JCP advisors should be able to access information about compliance doubts held by Work Programme providers. Work Programme and JCP advisors who do not provide adequate levels of customer service, e.g. cannot be contacted by claimants or their advocates, should be held to account.
11 JCP and Work Programme advisors should notify claimants’ key workers/advocates by phone when raising a compliance doubt where consent for them to do so has been given. Q4) Do sanctioned claimants feel informed throughout the sanctions process, and if not how could their awareness be improved? As a rule our clients do not feel informed throughout the sanctions process.
They often do not know they have been sanctioned until their benefit payments stop. They often do not know why they have been sanctioned and so do not know what they should do differently to avoid being sanctioned again.
“On one occasion my client was not told she had been sanctioned until she did not receive her JSA. She had completed a „rapid reclaim form‟ but didn‟t understand why – she just signed it as she was told to. She rang Glasgow who told her they didn‟t think she had been sanctioned before eventually getting her JCP advisor to admit she had been sanctioned.” - Broadway Employment and Skills Worker Our clients who are sanctioned often have their housing benefit stopped when they are sanctioned. It is unclear why this is the case: it may be because housing benefit offices record a change of income and incorrectly assume that the JSA claim has ceased, it may also be because claimants do not realise that they have to continue to sign on for the duration of a sanction.
Sanction related interruptions to the payment of housing benefit can have dire consequences for claimants. They are put at risk of falling into personal debt, rent arrears and homelessness. We would be happy to work with the DWP to ensure that claimants who have been sanctioned do not lose their housing benefit. Recommendations: JCP should inform clients that they should continue to sign on at JCP while sanctioned to avoid losing their housing benefit. JCP should also advise claimants what to do if their housing benefit payments cease erroneously.
12 Q5) To what extent are sanctioned claimants aware of the help available to them from Jobcentre Plus? For instance are they aware of how to appeal a decision or how to seek help through hardship payments? Are there ways in which this could be made clearer to them? The extent to which clients are aware of the help available to them from Jobcentre Plus varies depending on their advisor.
They are sometimes told how to access hardship payments - however, this is by no means always the case. If they do not access hardship payments then claimants are often left completely destitute. It is extremely rare for a JCP advisor to inform our clients about how they can appeal a decision.
As advocates for clients we often only become aware that they have been sanctioned after making enquiries when they have fallen into arrears. Although we support them to challenge or appeal against a decision, or claim hardship payments, this is made more complicated the longer it is left after a decision to apply a sanction. Recommendation: JCP should ensure that claimants are aware of how to get a sanction decision reviewed and make an appeal if they wish to do so. They should also signpost claimants who have been sanctioned to agencies which offer support to people in financial hardship.