Benefit sanctions for single parents in London – what we know, and what we don’t

Benefit sanctions are a political hot potato. Increasingly vocal criticism of the policy has raised its profile in recent years – and not just from those working with claimants, but also the public spending watchdog, National Audit Office, and parliament itself.

While attention has largely focused on the fairness of the sanctions system and impact of losses in the past, one of the big issues that recent scrutiny has thrown up is the lack of transparency over sanctions policy – particularly when it comes to data.

The government has largely refused to publish robust figures on the risk of sanctions. It sticks to a monthly rate of claimants sanctioned – but when most claimants are on JSA for longer than a month, the risk they face is inevitably larger. The data it does publish has a very limited definition of a sanction which, thanks to its complexity, largely slips under the radar.

Fortunately academics with the patience to unpick these issues have flagged this with the data watchdog, the UK Statistics Authority. However, the DWP has yet to make much headway on the “more comprehensive analysis of sanction rates…supported by a clear explanation” recommended. Over a year later, a one-off release just before giving oral evidence to the Public Accounts Committee was the only sign of change; yet there is still virtually no data on the risk of sanctions for groups who are suspected to be particularly vulnerable to unfair sanctions – including single parents.

In an attempt to fill this gap, Gingerbread has looked at the data on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) sanctions more closely. Our estimates show that, at its peak, around one in five single parents receiving JSA were referred for a sanction a year, with around one in seven having a sanction imposed.

In London alone, over 31,000 single parents receiving JSA have been sanctioned since April 2005. Some have been affected more than once, with around 48,000 sanctions in total over the same period. These are startling numbers, but broadly in line with where single parents claiming JSA live – sanctions don’t disproportionately fall in the capital.

Single parent sanctions in London are as worrying as they are nationally – around 60 per cent of formal challenges to London single parent sanctions have been successful. As a result, around a fifth of single parent sanctions in the capital end up being overturned.

Frustratingly, though, we can’t say whether the risk of sanctions is any different for single parents in London than elsewhere. The DWP doesn’t provide the data on the number of claimants over longer time periods, so we can’t compare this with the number of sanctions. Even our national figures can only be estimates based on survey data, as claimant data is only provided on a monthly basis.

Despite its limitations, though, these figures raise significant questions about the policy. Why are so many single parents referred for a sanction, only to be dismissed? Are advisers being over-zealous in assessing supposed transgressions? Why are low level sanctions on the rise – is this an effective way to ensure claimants comply with rules or to help them move closer to work?

What’s more, the persistent data gaps tell their own story. Why is the DWP so reluctant to open up on the full extent of its sanctions policy?

Just this week, the government places more single parents at risk of sanctions by expanding the number of claimants who must seek work. Under universal credit, for the first time, parents of pre-school children (aged three or four years) must look for a job. Further changes to introduce conditions to working claimants of universal credit – again for the first time – will mean the reach of sanctions extends once more. When the department seems to know so little about what’s happening, it must surely look again at this policy. Judging by the data available, however, it seems to be burying its head in the sand.