Right at the top of the list of problems faced by people experiencing homelessness sits benefit sanctions. We know this, because at Homeless Link we undertake an Annual Review of the homelessness sector and the increase in sanctions is reported as one of the biggest issues faced. We have also undertaken two separate pieces of research to drill-down further. One of our key findings is that homeless individuals on either Jobseekers Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance are more likely to be sanctioned than the general claimant population. Furthermore certain groups such as those with mental health or substance misuse issues are amongst the most likely to be impacted.
The feedback from Government to our evidence has always been that sanctions are meant to be reserved for those who deliberately fail to undertake conditionality. We have worked with DWP on some legal and communication initiatives to try and ensure homeless people are not inappropriately sanctioned. The evidence shows that while these have made a positive difference, the problems with sanctions persist.
Alongside our research, two inquiries have recently taken place looking at conditionality within the benefits system and how effectively it operates. The first was published by Matthew Oakley of the Social Security Advisory Committee and the second by the Work and Pensions Select Committee. Between them these two reports have made over fifty recommendations. That is far too many for the scope of this blog so instead I am going to concentrate on three which the Government committed to act upon.
Sanctions and Housing Benefit
Matt Oakley, rightly in our view, zeroed in on the relationship between JSA or ESA sanctions and the suspension of a claimant’s Housing Benefit. A sanction should not lead to the suspension of Housing Benefit, but often this was taking place. Agencies have repeatedly fed back to us that this was leading to people in homelessness services not getting their rent paid with the risk of a debt they could never repay or even eviction. Last month the DWP issued an Urgent Bulletin confirming that this should not happen for a sanction but can happen with a benefit disallowance. This is a welcome, long overdue, clarification. However, its impact will depend on local implementation and those advising claimants being able to understand the difference between sanctions and disallowances.
The second change is the introduction of a “yellow card” system. We have long been calling for an alternative to financial sanctioning for somebody’s “first offence”. The Government have plumped for trialling a different approach. Claimants will now be given two weeks to show they had “good cause” for not fulfilling conditionality before a sanction is applied. It is possible that this approach may moderate some of the more “curious” decisions and give claimants time to get advice, but it is unclear whether it will affect the sanctioning rate.
The final commitment made by the Government is to consider adding those with mental health conditions or who are homeless to the Vulnerable Groups who can get JSA hardship payments immediately, currently they often have to wait two weeks. Again this is another welcome change which will have to be monitored for impact. There has been a long-running concern, which Matthew Oakley identified, that claimants are not even aware of the existence of hardship payments to be able to apply for them.
All these changes are welcome and we will gladly work with Government to try and make them effective. However, one Select Committee recommendation the Government rejected which we would like them to reconsider is to use the post-election period to review whether the current conditionality and sanctions regime is the most effective way of moving people closer to the labour market. Everyone agrees that work is a way out of poverty but our evidence is that for many vulnerable individuals the current sanctions system moves people further away, rather than closer to employment.