Those who decry the 'something for nothing' benefits system will be heartened by the introduction this week of new obligations on people receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). The new rules mean that those claiming ESA because of an illness or disability, but assessed as capable of 'work related activity', risk losing their benefits if they refuse an offer of a mandatory work placement.
The Work Programme also includes more stringent requirements on its participants. The first evaluation report on the Work Programme, published on the same day last week as the dismal job-outcome figures from the programme, includes some answers to the question of whether unemployed people need the threat of losing their benefits to make sure they comply with Government schemes. While firmer evidence of the programme's effectiveness may have to wait a little longer, findings on 'conditionality' - making benefits dependent on prescribed activities - tell an increasingly familiar story. The main message is that coercion isn't necessary for most jobseekers and that withdrawing benefits, through sanctioning, may increase hardship but makes little difference to compliance. Shouldn't we give more credit to unemployed people to steer their own route to getting a job, rather than use threats and penalties?
Linking benefits to behaviour isn't new: when they were first introduced way back in 1911 they could be withdrawn if you refused a suitable job offer, but expectations on jobseekers have increased in recent years. If you've been unemployed for a year (9 months if you're under 25) and refuse to take part in the Work Programme you will lose your benefits. Once on the programme, almost all you are asked to do is compulsory. This includes one to one adviser meetings, job search, workshops, work placements at the local discount store - in fact any activity which your adviser recommends. If you don't cooperate, and quickly, you can lose your benefit for up to 6 months. And your chances of being referred for sanctioning are high, at one in ten. But why are rates so high? don't unemployed people value their benefits enough to make sure they comply? Let's look at why Work Programme participants are being sanctioned and then at whether it makes a difference.
Work Programme sanctions are high because, unlike in previous programmes withdrawal of benefits for non-attendance is more or less automatic. Providers even have sanctions targets. You are referred for sanctioning even if you have given a reason, such as a hospital appointment. Your Work Programme provider sends the details of your non-compliance to a distant Jobcentre plus 'Benefits Delivery Centre' who decide whether you had 'good cause' not to attend or should have your benefits stopped. Work Programme advisers are keen to emphasise that they don't sanction participants themselves, but that's a bit like a traffic warden protesting that they only issue the ticket and it's the local council that decides whether you should be fined.
But most referrals for sanctioning are not for refusing to take part in Work Programme activities, but for not attending the initial, introductory, meeting. Once participants have attended an initial meeting, they play ball and comply. Many who are sanctioned for not attending an initial appointment say they didn't get the letter, and it is well known that claimant databases are littered with errors in addresses and telephone numbers. If they can prove it, they aren't sanctioned, but it might not be easy to prove you didn't get a letter. Even so, a large proportion of referrals are not approved by decision-makers, with some Work Programme providers estimating that more than half of the cases they had referred had been thrown out by decision-makers, many on 'technical' grounds.
Sanctioning rates are high, but is it effective? Let's look at what Work Programme providers say. Some providers think sanctions are effective, sharing the view of one provider that 'there's no other way to get through to them'. Others feel that it shouldn't be used as a threat, but many participants do feel threatened by the prospect of losing their benefits, and potentially their home, since housing benefit is affected by sanctioning. Some are so fearful of sanctions that they attend meetings even when ill, spreading germs as they go. Some Work Programme participants, including those taken off incapacity benefit, find it hard to keep appointments and well-meaning advisers 'park' these individuals rather than have them fail to cooperate and end up destitute. So some in most need of help end up being left without it.
There is also a view among some providers that mandating and sanctions are not necessary because most participants play by the rules once they are fully signed up. This isn't surprising, given that the requirements are generally fairly limited, consisting of a meeting once a month or so. And Work Programme participants tend to agree. The general view among participants interviewed is that compulsion is 'fair enough' and that the threat of sanctions makes no difference to their behaviour. Some visit their provider even when they don't have to and are keen to show they are actively looking for work.
These findings echo those of research published last year on the Skills Conditionality pilot where claimants with skills needs were required to go on training courses, often in 'employability skills' or lose their benefits. Many participants said they would have attended the courses in any case, because they wanted to get out of the house and felt a general obligation to agree to their adviser's recommendations. They were also keen not to be labelled as 'work shy'. Television shows like 'Saints and Scroungers' and press stories of 'benefit cheats' have doubtless contributed to the stigma which many jobseekers feel. Among those who ended up losing their benefits in the Skills Conditionality pilot were some who refused to take part in training, often because they had done it before. However, others simply forgot to attend or were late. For many, it was like getting a parking ticket, but which meant borrowing from family and friends to keep food on the table. The research concluded that coercion is, in many cases, unlikely to be necessary or effective.
But you might ask, what's the harm, if people are prepared to participate? Talk to unemployed people and you'll find many have their own strategies for finding work, which include training, volunteering and job search. The skills conditionality evaluation found that some claimants feel these are disregarded, that repeated courses in job search and CV writing were of no use, but were unable to refuse for fear of losing benefits. Those who lost benefits felt they could not have avoided it, since it happened by mistake, or that they were right to refuse activities of no benefit to them.
So what's the solution? Public opinion surveys find that most people, including claimants, think there should be some obligations attached to getting benefits. But there might be value in what one adviser in the Skills Conditionality Pilot called a 'third way' which he described as 'a choice within an overall expectation'. This would place an obligation on claimants to actively look for work, with sanctioning at the discretion of their adviser. If applied to the Work Programme, this would put participants in the driving seat, choosing their own route to a job, with an adviser's support to decide what kind of help they need. Parking tickets could then be issued when rules are clearly infringed and, who knows, the dismally low job outcomes from the Work Programme might improve.