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05/10/16 15:00

Clarity on unfair sanctions

Conditionality should not be enforced on devolved employment programmes.

The UK Government must urgently clarify whether it will impose sanctions on people participating in Scotland’s new employability services.

Speaking in a Parliamentary debate, Employability Minister Jamie Hepburn again pressed the UK Government for confirmation that it accepts Scottish Government proposals which would see Jobcentre Plus clients able to access new Scottish employment support services on a voluntary basis, with no conditionality applied when they are devolved in six months’ time.

While sanctions will remain reserved, Mr Hepburn last month formally asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to confirm people taking part in new devolved programmes will not be sanctioned by the UK Government.

The initial response from the UK Government this week has been inconclusive. It accepted that it will be for Scottish Ministers to decide how conditionality will apply to devolved employment programmes but fell short of confirming that the threat of sanctions would not apply to people taking part in devolved programmes.

In one of the first exercises of powers under the Scotland Act 2016, from April 2017 the Scottish Government will deliver employment support to up to 3,300 disabled people through Work First Scotland, and help up to 1,500 people with a health condition enter work through Work Able Scotland.

The 12 month transitional arrangements come ahead of a full Scottish programme of employment support from April 2018.

Mr Hepburn updated Parliament on plans to deliver devolved employability services from 1 April 2017, following a discussion with single parents who have been affected by the threat of sanctions or have had their benefits cut at One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) in Edinburgh. He said:

“The current UK Government regime of sanctions and conditionality does not take into account the complexity of people’s circumstances and the personal and practical challenges they face when it comes to participating in work programmes.

“While we won’t have the powers to prevent people from being sanctioned, we want to do what we can to protect people from this unnecessary stress and harm, and to give people taking part in our new voluntary programmes the assurance that they will not be sanctioned.

“The UK Government has confirmed that the conditions in our employment programme are for Scottish Ministers to determine. While I welcome the UK Government’s willingness to work constructively to ensure the best possible support is put in place, I will continue to urge them to respect our desire that no JobCentre Plus client is forced to take part in our programmes and is under threat of sanction.”

The UK Government has also indicated it will cut Scotland’s budget to deliver these services by almost 90% in the first year delivery of devolved services. However, to make sure Scots can receive the level of support the need the Scottish Government has confirmed it will invest £20 million each year of this Parliament into employability programmes.

Mr Hepburn said:

“While our new powers are limited, and the UK Government has cut employability budgets, we are tackling things head on and are investing up to £20 million in the first year of devolved services. We will invest £20 million a year over and above the UK Government’s settlement until 2021, to make sure those who most need support get it, and we will encourage people to access our programmes so they can find work, and stay in work.

“The drastic cut in funding from the UK Government poses a significant challenge, the devolution of employability programmes is a chance for us to make support fairer and for it to be designed around people’s needs. The UK Government must urgently clarify its position so that we can challenge the stigma and show that these programmes are an opportunity and not a threat. I have written again asking for this confirmation and I will outline the Scottish Government’s proposed approach to UK Ministers when I meet them in London next week.”

Charities have also backed the Scottish Government’s position on sanctions.

Satwat Rehman, director at One Parent Families Scotland said:

“The proposal that claimants referred from Jobcentre Plus to the Scottish Employability Service will be able to access it on a voluntary basis without the fear of losing their benefit is extremely welcome.

“We are fundamentally opposed to the use of forced destitution as a policy instrument. This offers the opportunity to develop a more effective approach to the UK Governments very damaging ‘work-first’ conditionality regime.

“Employability services can focus on reducing poverty through supporting people into the best options available to them for sustained employment and increased earnings while taking account of family well-being.”

Emma Ritch, executive director of Engender, said:

"We are pleased that the Scottish Government is not planning to emulate the UK Government's harmful and coercive approach to participation in employability programmes.

“Sanctions of social security payments have a devastating impact on women and children, and have no place in a system designed to support people to take part in paid work."

Paul Carberry, Director of Action for Children Scotland representing the Young People’s Consortium said:

“Disadvantaged young people often face a range of practical and personal barriers when finding and maintaining employment and training opportunities. Sanctions, or even the threat of sanctions, can hinder the chances of success for these young people.

“Conditionality becomes a filter through which young people are only successful if they are confident and motivated, with prior work experience. The Young Person’s Consortium, including Action for Children, Barnardo’s and The Prince’s Trust, welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to having a more person centred approach.”

Notes to editors

• Creating a Fairer Scotland – A New Future for Employability in Scotland, published in March 2016 set out set out the vision, values and principles that will shape and deliver the devolved aspects of employability support in Scotland from April 2017 http://news.scotland.gov.uk/News/Investment-in-employability-244a.aspx

• Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), Employment Support Allowance (ESA), and Universal Credit can all be sanctioned, which means that people’s benefits can be cut dramatically at short notice.

• The majority of those who receive a JSA sanction are sanctioned for four weeks, resulting in a loss of over £285, based on the average JSA payment in Scotland in November 2015.

• The latest DWP figures show that young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are disproportionately affected by sanctions with 16-24 year olds receiving 37% of adverse sanction decisions, but accounting for 17% of those claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA).