The government abandoned proposals for an independent review of its much-criticised sanctions policy, the latest example of how a minister watered down plans to prevent suicides and learn lessons from the deaths of benefit claimants.
The decision to further limit the effectiveness of the so-called DWP Excellence Plan was taken by work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey, shortly after she took over from Amber Rudd in September 2019.
A document secured by a welfare rights expert through a freedom of information request shows Rudd wanted her Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to commission an “independent review of sanctions policy”, which could have included a review of both policy and delivery of sanctions by her department.
The review was one of the “activities” listed in a draft document – dated 19 September 2019 – that showed “phase one activities” for the DWP Excellence Plan.
But in response to a separate request from Disability News Service (DNS), DWP has confirmed that the plans for an independent review of sanctions policy were subsequently abandoned.
In its response, DWP says that “ideas on sanctions policy were discussed which resulted in a submission proposing an independent review of sanctions” in 2019.
It adds: “The Secretary of State at that time [Amber Rudd] was interested in taking this forward however the work was initially paused when [she] resigned shortly after, and then did not take place due to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and differing priorities at that time.
“As the review did not progress, there are no documents that can be shared.”
Public Law Project (PLP), which last year published a report that found the system for challenging benefit sanctions posed “significant harm” to claimants, said DWP’s decision to scrap the review was “deeply disappointing”.
Caroline Selman, a PLP research fellow, said: “The finding is especially concerning amid growing evidence that sanctions pose harm to the health and finances of claimants and can damage their relationship with their work coach.
“Research published last year by Public Law Project revealed that people who try to question their sanctions face a complex, punitive, and unaccountable system in which legitimate challenge can feel futile.
“The secretary of state for work and pensions [Mel Stride] has pointed to the importance of having an ‘honest appraisal’ of everything the DWP does – he must now commit to re-establishing this review alongside publishing the DWP’s existing internal review so that the findings can be properly scrutinised and shaped into much-needed system reform.”
Last year, the Guardian reported how DWP had carried out its own internal research on the effectiveness of sanctions, and promised to publish the findings, but then blocked a request by sanctions expert Dr David Webster to release the report.
Webster, an honorary senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow’s School of Social and Political Sciences, has been publishing regular, influential briefings on DWP sanctions for more than nine years.
He told DNS that the independent review scrapped by Coffey “would have highlighted some of the most serious problems with the current sanctions regime”.
A decade on from the introduction of a new sanctions regime by the coalition government, there has still not been a “comprehensive review” of how it is working, he said.
He called on ministers to think again and commission an independent review.
He said: “What this tells us is that Therese Coffey escalated sanctions to a level higher than we had before the pandemic without having the evidence that an independent review would have given her, and that is very disappointing.”
Among the most serious problems with the regime, he said, was the difficulty many claimants face in repaying hardship payments they often receive after they are sanctioned, which he said was “responsible for a great deal of hardship” later on.
He has estimated that the average duration of a sanction was now about 11 weeks.
An independent report, commissioned by DWP, was carried out by Matthew Oakley and published in 2014, but it only examined sanctions for jobseeker’s allowance claimants who failed to take part in back to work schemes.
Webster said: “I think Amber Rudd had the right idea, and it’s a great pity that she lost the job of secretary of state before she had the chance to carry this good idea through.”
A DWP spokesperson declined to justify the decision not to carry out an independent review now the worst of the pandemic was over, or to explain why it believed there should not be proper research into DWP’s sanctions policy and delivery.
But the spokesperson said in a statement: “People are only sanctioned if they fail, without good reason, to meet the conditions they agree, and emphasis is placed on protecting vulnerable claimants.
“If a claimant disagrees with a sanction, they can ask for this to be reconsidered and can appeal to an independent tribunal.”
Among those disabled people whose deaths have been closely linked to the sanctions regime was David Clapson, who died in July 2013 after being left destitute by having his benefits sanctioned.
In 2015, DWP admitted that 10 of 49 benefit claimants whose deaths had been investigated through secret “peer reviews” between 2012 and 2014 had had their payments sanctioned.
And in December 2022, MPs were warned that the “aggressive attitude” on benefit sanctions that was taken by DWP in the coalition years of 2013 to 2015 was “back with a vengeance”.
The latest documents are likely to add to concerns that DWP has no interest in improving the safety of its sanctions regime.
DNS has previously shown how the DWP Excellence Plan, and Rudd’s apparent attempts to create a safer culture within DWP, were watered down in at least six ways in the three years Coffey was secretary of state for work and pensions.
The new documents released by DWP now show a seventh significant way in which the plan was watered down by Coffey.
She left the post in September 2022 when she became health and social care secretary and deputy prime minister under prime minister Liz Truss, although she was later sacked from both posts when Truss resigned and is now environment secretary.
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…