A LEADING Scottish academic has accused the UK Government of distorting benefit sanctions statistics to hide a rise in the number of penalties being imposed.
Dr David Webster, an honorary senior research fellow in urban studies at Glasgow University, said there was a “consistent pattern” of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) misrepresenting the number of people being sanctioned.
His comments come after he made a successful complaint to the UK’s official statistics watchdog over how the DWP is presenting benefits statistics.
The UK Statistics Authority has now issued a series of recommendations to the DWP, including that it should ensure official statistics are “objective and impartial”.
Webster said the DWP announcements on the issue of sanctions – which can see claimants stripped of their money for up to three years for alleged breaches of Jobcentre rules – focused on the idea that there has not been a major increase in sanctions and only a small number of hardcore persistent offenders were impacted.
Official sanction rates published by the DWP are usually around five cent, based on the proportion of jobseekers who are sanctioned each month.
But annual figures, obtained under obtained under freedom of information, tell a different story. In 2013-14, a total of 18% of JSA claimants received at least one sanction – just over 568,000 individuals. In 2009-10 – just before the coalition government came to power – the equivalent figure was 10% or 256,000 individuals.
Webster, one of the UK’s leading experts on sanctions, said he believed the DWP was driving up the use of sanctions to save money – but did not want the issue to come to public attention.
In his letter of complaint to the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) he said: “I believe that ministers and officials are taking advantage of the fact that benefit claimants, and especially those who are accused of not meeting their obligations, are a stigmatised group who have relatively few defenders.”
One example he cited is a press release issued by the DWP in May, in which employment minister Priti Patel said a 300,000 drop in the number of sanctions between January and December 2014 was evidence more jobseekers were taking up “tailored employment support” and moving into work.
It also claimed that sanctions are “only used as a last resort in a small percentage of cases, with over 94% of jobseekers allowance (JSA) claimants…not being sanctioned.”
However in his complaint Webster said only using numbers – rather than overall rate – had exaggerated the fall and could not be used to support the claim that sanctions had induced claimants to change their behaviour.
He said another key issue was that figures published by the DWP fail to include sanctions which are cancelled after an appeal by a claimant.
“If someone appeals successfully then the sanction is treated as not having ever existed (in the figures),” he said.
“But the claimants only get the chance to appeal afterwards – they lose the money and if they are successful they get it back later.
“So they still go through the experience of being sanctioned and very often they will undergo the ill effects.”
Webster said he had heard from one JSA claimant who suffered a severe bout of depression after being sanctioned on “totally unreasonable grounds” – and later got the decision overturned.
He added: “An appeal may reverse the sanction and repay the money, but it doesn’t reverse the consequences.”
Webster argued the use of the phrase “actively seeking work” by the DWP in relation to people being sanctioned was also misleading.
“It is intentionally feeding a public perception that there is a lot of unemployed people out there who are not bothering to look for work,” he said.
“They should say people are being disqualified for not meeting the DWP’s job seeking requirements – that would be accurate.”
In July Jonathan Portes, the director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, also complained to the UKSA over the DWP’s presentation of statistics breaching the code of practice for official statistics.
Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UKSA, has written a letter with five recommendations to the DWP including providing users with benefit sanction statistics “based on the actual number of sanctions applied, making clear the numbers of reviews, reconsiderations and appeals”.
It also said the DWP should ensure all statements made using official statistics are “objective and impartial”.
A spokesman for the UKSA said: “We have a statutory responsibility to monitor the production and publication of official statistics and to report publicly on our findings. Where issues or concerns have been raised with us, we look at those and make a public report.
“The letter sets out our findings – it will be for the DWP to consider and respond to if they wish.”
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