Both in life and government we’re often so busy ‘doing’, we sometimes do not take sufficient time to pause and reflect.
This can be less of an issue in life, when a failure to reflect might mean you still buy paper copies of a newspaper when, in fact, you mainly read it on your phone. However, in government, a failure to reflect can have widespread ramifications across many lives.
The UK employment sanctions regime, which means that jobseekers can lose benefits if they do not comply with mandated activities, has built up incrementally over the years, without, it seems, a huge amount of reflection. The result is a system which does not always seem fit for purpose and which can seem to be based more on the political messages it sends rather than on strong evidence of what works.
Given this, the report this week by the Work and Pensions Select Committee is a much needed piece of political reflection. From ERSA’s perspective there are a number of areas to welcome.
First, ERSA supports the call for an independent review of the sanctions regime in order to examine in depth how the regime interacts with active labour market policies. Our hunch is that sanctions do play an important role and should be maintained as part of the adviser toolbox to help a jobseeker. However, a good hard look at the regime overall, should bring out important lessons about when sanctions might be used effectively vis-à-vis when their use could push jobseekers’ even further from the labour market.
Secondly, the report picks up important points in ERSA’s evidence to the committee that advisers of outsourced employment services, such as the Work Programme, need far more flexibility not to have to refer jobseekers to Jobcentre Plus for a sanction. At present, if a jobseeker fails to comply with a mandated activity, the Work Programme adviser has to raise a ‘sanction doubt’ even if it appears that good cause is evidence. This is bonkers. We need advisers and jobseekers to be working positively together and such rules militate against that.
Next, we’re pleased that the report highlights the problems of information sharing. At present the findings of the Work Capability Assessment are not routinely shared with Work Programme providers, meaning that advisers might not be aware that a jobseeker is struggling with mental illness or is subject to a fluctuating condition. This in turn might mean that a sanction doubt is raised inappropriately as the employment support provider simply doesn’t possess the necessary information.
Finally, the report is right to flag that future policies in relation to employment support should examine the conditionality regime on jobseekers. Fundamentally employment support works well when there is a positive relationship between jobseeker and adviser. For some groups of jobseekers this might work best when there is a voluntary approach to programmes, rather than mandated participation.
So –pause and reflect. Much of government is going to pause over the next six weeks or so whilst the politicians campaign in the General Election. Let us hope that our incoming ministers also reflect on this latest Select Committee report as, if the recommendations are implemented, we could have a far more effective and humane system.
Kirsty McHugh, Chief Executive, ERSA