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Oakley Review Shows Need for a Full Enquiry Into Benefit Sanctions

25/07/2014 12:13 BST | Updated 22/09/2014 10:59 BST

After months of evidence-taking and investigation, the Oakley report on sanctions has been published.

It considers the issue only as it relates to those on Jobseeker's Allowance, and only for those who have had benefits cut after being referred to mandatory back to work schemes.

It is also limited to considering questions of information provision, showing further how small this review is.

Coming just two days after the Tory-linked think tank Policy Exchange - where Oakley worked from 2011-2013 - published its radical idea for abolishing jobcentres and setting up a new competitive employment support system, the review shows why so few unemployed people will miss them.

Oakley does at least understand that "this is a system that can go wrong and, when that happens, individuals and families can suffer unfairly".

But the real problems are never understood, partly because of the limits on the review's scope, but partly because it is a bloodless document which never attempts to get inside the shocking experience of being sanctioned, and wants to avoid apportioning blame.

Oakley says "while this Review highlights areas of the system that do not work as effectively as they could, this is not a criticism of either Jobcentre Plus staff or policy makers."

So to translate, the desperate poverty caused is neither the fault of the frontline workers who carry out orders, nor of those who tell them what to do.

In this particular firing squad, we can find the people who pulled the trigger, we can find the people who shouted 'fire', but we can't work out who to charge with a war crime.

The report does bring to light some poor practice within and between jobcentres and the work programme even within its limited remit, with vulnerable clients targeted unfairly, communications often overly complicated and understood by few, and the wider problem of poor communication between jobcentres and work programme providers resulting in disruptive and worrying threats of sanctions for those who have done nothing wrong.

Even on this more solid ground, however, Oakley could be accused of optimism as he prescribes more joined-up working, better and lengthier communication and the creation of new teams to look at communications, all from a department that has lost a quarter of its workforce since 2009 and with more job cuts to come.

UnemployedNet and Respect for the Unemployed and Benefit Claimants wrote a joint response to the review, and we made clear that the target and pressure-to-sanction culture clearly comes from policy makers including those at the Treasury (where Oakley was an advisor previously, raising questions on his independence) and Department for Work and Pensions.

Oakley acknowledges that there are "much wider concerns about the system of sanctions that fell outside of the remit of my Review", an important concession to those who are fighting for a proper enquiry.

The scale of the problem is shocking. Last year over 870,000 people had their Jobseeker's Allowance taken away, a rise of 8% over 2012. But in 2009, the last full year of the Labour government only 439,000 had been sanctioned, and 2009 was itself a record year.

To suggest that the government was not responsible for such a massive change seriously underestimates the power wielded from Westminster and the frontal assault perpetrated on the jobless in a sleight-of-hand that aims to point voters away from real living-standards culprits like bankers.

Recognising as Oakley does that the sanction regime needs much more scrutiny than he could provide, a full enquiry into the issue of the growth in the number handed out and the accusations of multiple jobcentre whistleblowers should have been a key recommendation, but he doesn't dare go there.

Advisors should only work to one target, the number of clients they support into work. Spending their sanctioning time doing this is surely of more value to the country than stripping money away from the already-destitute?

Leaving aside how horribly low UK benefit payments are, when people can have their income removed and be thrown into penury for missing a single meeting (regardless of the reason), for applying for 34 jobs in a week rather than 35, not to mention the fraudulent activities of some jobcentre staff, the value basis of the system has been subverted and justifies its abolition.

The government talks in terms of morality, but trying to justify kicking some of our unluckiest citizens into poverty, cold and hunger simply for the actions described above is so immoral it verges on psychopathic.

The suspicion of many that sanctions are not about fairness but about saving money and punishing unemployed people is backed up by Oakley, who found that "only 23% of claimants who said their benefit had been stopped or reduced said they had been told about hardship payments".

Even this inadequate system is hidden from those it is meant to help.

Oakley appears to have an understanding that too many sanctions are being handed out, recommending the implementation of "warnings and non-financial sanctions following a first failure to comply".

He cites the coalition's "goals of reducing unemployment and improving social justice" as key to its attitude to the issue, but those on the frontline know that one of those goals has been trampled on.

The fear for unemployed people is that, particularly given the government's commitment to reform some aspects of communication as a result of this report, the issue of sanctions will be capped off as a result of Oakley, never to be revisited.

The only measure of success for this review should be whether sanctioning rates fall over the next years as its recommendations are implemented, and this would be a miracle.

Matthew Oakley's report shows that only a full enquiry into the appalling and unfair sanctioning regime will make real improvements and hold wrongdoers to account.