A Freedom of Information (FoI) request from Welfare Weekly has led the Department for Work and Pensions to withdraw a leaflet featuring fictional case studies from 'Sarah' and 'Zac'. The leaflet gave Sarah's reflections on being sanctioned:
'I didn't think a CV would help me but my work coach told me that all employers need one. I didn't have a good reason for not doing it and I was told I'd lose some of my payment'.
And Zac had avoided being sanctioned despite mixing an appointment with his 'work coach':
'I had a good reason for not going to the meeting and proof of the appointment'.
But what do real claimants have to say about their experiences of this system, and are they as grateful as Sarah and Zac? Evidence from case studies collected by our evaluations of two programmes suggests they are not. Sanctions rules are understood, but do not appear to be helping claimants to find work.
Sanctions rules are easy to understand and to break
The DWP's defended the use of fictional cases saying it was aimed at helping claimants understand sanctions rules. But for most claimants, this is not difficult. Take the main welfare to work scheme, the Work Programme. Once on the programme, almost all you are asked to do is compulsory. This includes one to one adviser meetings, job search, CV writing workshops, work placements; in fact any activity which your adviser recommends. If you don't cooperate you can lose your benefit for up to six months and, ultimately for up to three years. Sanctioning rates among claimants are estimated at around 17% and are on the rise. But are rates so high because people don't understand the rules?
Within the Work Programme at least, sanctions are high because withdrawal of benefits for non-attendance is more or less automatic. Providers even have sanctions targets. Claimants taking part in the evaluation told us they had been sanctioned when, like Zac, they had a hospital appointment and had told their adviser. But most referrals for sanctioning are not for refusing to take part in Work Programme activities but for failing to initially engage. Some claimants told us they had not received the letter and were only aware they were on the programme through being sanctioned. Once participants have attended an initial meeting, they tend to comply with its requirements. Some are so fearful of sanctions that they attend meetings even when ill, spreading germs as they go.
Case studies of real jobseekers
We found the same when evaluating the Skills Conditionality pilot for the DWP. Claimants considered by their adviser to have skills needs were mandated to training courses, often in 'employability skills', like Sarah. Some didn't comply and lost their benefits but not because they misunderstood the rules. They felt it wasn't what they needed to get back to work. Here are some real case studies, where only the names have been changed:
'Sophia' attended a CV writing course and was sanctioned for late attendance. She was then offered skills training in areas in which she had no interest. Facing sanctions for declining training, she returned to her former part-time job, continued to claim benefits and was sanctioned for overpayment of benefit. She is aiming to get her overseas qualifications as a psychologist recognised so that she can get a full-time professional job in the UK.
'Greg' thought he was being offered a choice of skills courses in manual trades and was interested in a carpentry course. However, on arrival at the college he found he had been sent on a basic skills course which he found too easy. He felt 'insulted' by having to attend, left the course and was sanctioned. He is looking for ground work and driving jobs.
Other research participants lost their benefits through a range of circumstances, including forgetting to attend training and for being late:
'Marcus' lives in a rural area with poor transport links. He was mandated to a 12 week basic skills training course. He was late several times because public transport was poor and he relied on his mother for a lift. As a consequence, he lost his place and was sanctioned. While upset at losing his benefits, he had been dissatisfied with the quality of the training because of the large number of participants and lack of one-to-one help.
We found that claimants were willing to attend courses where these would help them and felt a general obligation to agree to their adviser's recommendations. They were concerned not to be seen as 'work shy' or as benefit 'scroungers'. A number who were sanctioned had turned down courses in employability and CV writing because they been on such 'training' before.
Learning lessons from real cases
Most poignant of all, another case study claimant, 'Pedro' did attend the training that Sarah had declined. While understanding that a CV might be needed, he felt it didn't address his real barriers to work. He explained that, having spent more than 20 years on incapacity benefit and time in prison:
'I had nothing to put on the CV because I haven't worked, unless you count being a cleaner in prison... I don't think a course is going to help me, what I need is, I've been telling them I need employers that are prepared to take on ex-cons'.
Without advice of this kind, a sketchy CV was not going to improve his chances. And that's where the harm of sanctioning lies, and why reminding claimants of the consequences of breaking the rules is both beside the point and even harmful. It obliges claimants to accept the kind of standardised provision offered through 'employability' courses, rather than make their own reasoned choices about what they need.
Any collection of real case studies finds people with their own strategies for finding work, which include training, volunteering and job search. Our research found that some claimants feel these are disregarded, that repeated courses in 'employability', job search and CV writing were of no use, but were unable to refuse for fear of losing benefits. Rather than reminding individuals of their obligations through the testimonies of fictional characters, the DWP might consider how best to assist claimants to choose their own route to a job, with support to decide the kind of help they really need.