TO a committee of MPs. Amend benefit sanction so it is not responsible for hunger of unemployed people
PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE INQUIRY INTO BENEFIT SANCTIONS
I went to listen to Sir Robert Devereux, Permanent Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, and Susan Park, Director of Work Services, Department for Work and Pensions give evidence to the Public Affairs Committee inquiry into benefit canctions. TAP has therefore sent this additional evidence to each member of the committee.
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1. Covering letter.
MAGISTRATES' FINES AND JOBCENTRES' BENEFIT SANCTIONS
I am attaching a supplement to our written evidence which takes my experience of work with benefit claimants in the Magistrate's courts and applies it to outlining possible amendment to the procedures for imposing benefit sanctions. I have worked with benefit claimants trying to cope with rent, council tax and fines arrears since the early 1990s; and recently with a single adult whose JSA was stopped for three months by a benefit sanction.
I have also attached a case reported by the Local Government Ombudsman that was shown to Ministers, MPs and Peers engaged in the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and another case I helped. They show what happens when JSA is stopped. It will go on happening unless something akin to a judicial procedure is introduced to impose a benefit sanction which falls short of cancelling the income needed for food, fuel and other necessities.
Lord Ramsbothams amendment (25 Jan 2012 : just above Column 1060) to the Welfare Reform 2012 Bill required all relevant facts to be taken into account by jobcentres when imposing sanctions.
(3) Officials of jobcentres and local authorities shall take into account all the relevant factors and circumstances of welfare claimants before deciding to impose any sanction or any penalty and before deciding to recover any overpayment.
(4) It shall be the duty of the decision makers in jobcentres or local authorities to give reasons for any decision in any case where any sanction or penalty is imposed upon a welfare claimant and where any decision is made that an overpayment is recoverable."
Lord Freud's assurance was that that would happen (25 Jan 2012: just above coiumn 1062).
We spoke about the Wednesbury principles at our seminar, and I can reassure noble Lords that the decision-making process is and will continue to be consistent with these fundamental principles of public law. The department strives to ensure that no decision is influenced by irrelevant factors and that decision-makers act in a rational and fair manner, taking into account all relevant matters before exercising a discretion. For example, the primary legislation expressly sets out that a conditionality sanction applies only if there is no good reason for the failure. In determining whether there is such good reason, decision-makers will have to consider all relevant matters raised by the claimant within a particular time period, including information about a claimant's health condition and financial circumstances.
Mhairi Black's Benefit Claimants Sanctions (Required Assessment) Bill is making precisely the same points.
Susan Park and the buiding of relationships.
May I also add that the building of relationships between Jobcentre Staff and benefit claimants is fraught with difficulty because the JC threat of penury/hunger creates an almost insurmountable imbalance of power. The ambitions of Susan Park of the DWP, expressed in her oral evidence to you, are worthy but unrealistic when she said; “We will have a relationship with the customer from the start of their claim to the end. It is about personalising it."
2. Supplementary evidence
Taxpayers Against Poverty
Supplementary written evidence to the Public Accounts Committee enquiry into Benefit Sanctions
Using the experience of the magistrates’ courts to amend the benefit sanction so it is not responsible for the hunger of the unemployed
In 1997 I founded the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K).. One of the first things we did was to sign a contract with Wycombe Magistrates Court to help fine defaulters to fill in their means statements for the magistrates. I was in the court most Wednesday mornings for nearly ten years. Z2K now supports about 2000 cases a year of London benefit claimants in debt to the State. In 2012 I founded Taxpayers Against Poverty. I live in Tottenham and have continued to support benefit claimants in debt to the State.
Please see these two posts
- Ministers lost their moral compass bearings, and most other peoples, telling jobcentres hunger’s OK.
- Benefit sanctions; the devastating impact of rent and council tax during and after the sanction ends
The magistrates often fine people in their absence. They then issue a collection order requiring a fines officer to collect the fine. The offender may then either pay off the whole fine or contact the fines officer to arrange time to pay. For example an unemployed single adult receiving £73.10 single adult JSA/ESA/IS might have been fined £220. It can be deducted from benefit. The deduction rate is £5 per week, but for Universal Credit only, the deduction can be up to £25 each week. That would seem fair up to April 2013. But since April 2013 that £73.10 per week could be paying bedroom tax and council tax. Only the magistrate can remit the whole or part of the fine. A fine with time to pay seems a good model for the jobcentres.
A point of principle.
It seems very close to unconstitutional for the judiciary and the executive to be fused into one in the jobcentres to impose disproportionate fines on the unemployed. So disproportionate and unfair are they that they stop the income needed for food, fuel and other necessities. This must stop.
A possible solution
A punishment should always be imposed by some independent person who can hear the case for both sides. In the case of TV license evasion the BBC prosecutes and the evader has the opportunity to offer a defence in front of a magistrate. I suggest a magistrate and a magistrates’ clerk visit the jobcentres once a month to hear the prosecution case for a sanction from the jobcentre and the defence from the unemployed, including such vulnerability as may be relevant; as is required by the Wednesbury Principles.
Rev Paul Nicolson, 14/12/2016
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