Jobseeker sanctions have been in the news recently, spurred on by the current inquiry by the Work and Pensions Select Committee into their operation. The debate is often polarised. Many ERSA members are awash with horror stories of the impact of sanctions on the clients they support. Indeed, the implications of a temporary suspension of benefits can be stark, with people already in poverty pushed further into debt and whole families suffering from the reduction of cash coming into their households.
Despite this, politicians from all parties support the continued application of conditionality in the benefit system. Indeed, this appears to be supported by the general public - opinion polls report a hardening of support for conditionality on jobseekers, with a feeling that, in return for benefits, jobseekers must demonstrate that they are actively looking for work.
If we try to put this polarised debate aside, however, we stand a chance of getting to the main question. Do sanctions actually work? Sadly, however, the answer is we don't always know.
Unfortunately, there is a very little expertly refereed data on whether the current sanctions system is moving people nearer to work. A first step must surely therefore be to commission an expert review of the impact and effectiveness of the sanctions system overall.
The government hasn't yet done this. What it did do, however, is commission a review of the operation of the sanctions regime, although not its effectiveness. This independent review of JSA sanctions by Matthew Oakley concluded that the system is hardly a well-oiled regime, with fundamental communication problems undermining the system overall.
So what do employment support providers themselves think? After all, if they are delivering DWP contracts, they're the organisations that have to refer a 'sanction doubt' back to Jobcentre Plus if a jobseeker hasn't complied with the activity to which they've been mandated. There is precious little discretion in the system, with providers potentially going against the terms of their contract if they don't raise such 'doubts'.
Well, provider opinion isn't actually uniform and there's not point pretending there is. However, ERSA members, on the whole, believe that there should be some retention of the ability to sanction those on Jobseekers Allowance. Indeed, many cite examples where a sanction has helped engagement with the system. However, there is also consensus that a sanction should be a last resort rather than a first resort and that there needs to be more discretion in the system overall.
There's also consensus that understanding of the current exemptions for those deemed 'vulnerable' need further strengthening, with different parts of the system not always agreeing about who falls into this category.
Finally, there's also agreement that many problems stem back to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), with evidence coming through from providers that those jobseekers who have been through the WCA and who are contesting its findings are far less likely to comply with the system overall. Worryingly, WCA findings are still not being routinely shared with providers of the Work Programme, meaning that providers will not necessarily know jobseekers' medical history, and therefore if an individual fails to engage with mandated activity, they may not be able to judge that individual 'vulnerable' and thus exempt from the sanction regime. This is particularly important in the case of individuals who have a history of mental health conditions. We would hope that, if appropriate, these individuals would not be judged 'fit to work' by their WCA. However, even if we accept that the WCA was accurate, there is always the possibility of a deterioration of a condition, which may not be visible to the employment support provider.
So where does that leave us? Well, it seems that politicians are wedded to imposing conditions in return for benefits and that sanctions will remain part of that regime. However, employment support providers know that you achieve most with jobseekers when the relationship is positive, providers are trusted and jobseekers want to work. Following the Oakley review, there's the opportunity for the next government to commission further work, this time looking at the effectiveness of sanctions on the journey into employment and not just the mechanics of its operation.