Report shows a way for MSPs to defy Westminster over benefits sanctions

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Don't pass up historic chance to bust benefit sanctions urge Scottish Greens

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19th August 2016 by Graham Martin 1 Comment

The Scottish Government must not squander a historic chance to shelter vulnerable people against the worst excesses of the punitive sanctions regime.

A new report outlines a method by which Holyrood could protect claimants from cruel Westminster punishments.

The Scottish Greens, which published the study, say ministers could insist on a policy on non-compliance with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to ensure people don’t have benefit payments stopped for failing to comply with draconian rules.

Under the complicated deal to devolve some welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament, which will take effect from 5 September, Westminster will maintain control of the sanctions system.

Sanctions are pushing people into poverty and trapping them there

Benefits being devolved to Scotland such as Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independence Payment can not be affected by sanctions

However, punishments are imposed on Westminster-administered benefits such as Jobseekers Allowance and Universal Credit.

Holyrood has a chance to protect people from sanctions on these benefits by exploiting a loophole in the mess created by the devolution of some welfare functions.

Employability schemes such as the Work Programme, which is supposed to help jobseekers find and keep employment, is being transferred to Edinburgh, and a failure to comply with its terms is a major driver of sanctions.

The Greens, in the Scotland Against Sanctions report, claim that the Scottish Government could ensure that providers of employability programmes refuse to tell the DWP who had broken the rules.

Alison Johnstone MSP, the party's social security spokeswoman, said: "Sanctions simply don't work. They do not help people into long-term employment and they clearly contribute to worsening physical and mental health. Scotland has an opportunity to take a different, positive approach.

"For the DWP to implement a sanction they need information from the provider of the employment programme. The Scottish Government could insist that programme providers do not pass information on. This already happens in a small way with young people involved in the Sector Based Work Academy, so there's no reason we can't apply the approach more widely. Preventing sanctions being implemented would send a strong message about fairness in our society."

The report, by academic Dr Dan Heap, claims that without a change in policy from the Scottish Government, 13,000 people a year may soon face sanctions in Scotland.

Poverty Alliance director Peter Kelly said: “Alongside colleagues in the Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform, we have been calling on the Scottish Government to use new employability powers to reduce the number of sanctions. 

“We know that for too many people the Work Programme simply isn’t working, and instead sanctions are pushing people into poverty and trapping them there. 

“If we truly want to build a social security system built on dignity and respect then we need to start from a position of trust, and this means moving away from the punitive sanctions regime.

“We know that sanctions are one of the biggest drivers of increased foodbank use, and have no place in a socially just Scotland.”

In a statement, the Scottish Government refused to be drawn on whether it agreed with non-compliance with the DWP, insisting that sanctions are a matter for Westminster.

Jamie Hepburn, minister for employability and training, said: "None of the UK government benefits being devolved to Scotland are part of its conditionality and sanctions regime. It is the case that Westminster will remain entirely responsible for decisions over an individual’s entitlement to working age benefits such as Job Seekers Allowance, and any decisions over sanctions in Scotland after devolution."

Analysis: Bill Scott, Inclusion Scotland

Sanctions do not apply to the benefits being devolved to Scotland such as Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payment, Carers Allowance or Attendance Allowance. 

Sanctions are only imposed on those receiving JSA, ESA and Universal Credit – and those benefits are most definitely not devolved to Scotland. 

Instead it’s the employability programmes that are being devolved (these are not benefits) and it is in the Scottish Government’s gift and power to issue contracts that state that their employability programmes are voluntary and that people leaving them or failing to attend will not be sanctioned nor will the DWP be contacted by the contractors to seek the imposition of a sanction.

That said the problem will be that if the DWP makes attendance on Scottish Government employability programmes a mandatory job-seeking activity then, whatever the Scottish Government says and does, failure to go onto that employability programme may result in the DWP imposing a sanction. Similarly the DWP might impose sanctions on those leaving said employability programmes without “good cause” and there is absolutely nothing the Scottish Government could do to stop them.

This is all a result of devolving some benefits and some powers over social security and not others. It’s still totally unclear what the DWP will do but I fear that they may well continue to impose sanctions on those failing to go on, or leaving Scottish “voluntary” employability programmes early.

There is no empirical evidence that sanctions move people into sustainable employment – that, is as the Greens are saying, “they do not work”. There is also mounting evidence that they instead move vulnerable groups such as homeless and/or disabled people further from the job market whilst also damaging their health.

23rd August 2016 by Rose Burn

There is no evidence of a desire for universal benefits such as pensions or unemployment benefit to have different rules between Scotland and the rest of the U.K. We pay our national insurance benefits and claim if we need to.