The unintended consequences of poorly implemented welfare reform: incompetence, indifference or design?

From time to time I comment on welfare reform, not necessarily the principle but the woeful manner in which it has been implemented. I sometimes wonder whether it is incompetence, indifference or design that has resulted in unexpected (or planned) consequences that inevitably impact on claimants.

The unintended (intended?) consequences of sanctions is one example that is impacting not just on claimants but on landlords too. (In this article I am not commenting on the arbitrary process by which sanctions are imposed).

Sanctions can be imposed where it is deemed the claimant is not doing enough to find work, or if they miss appointments and so on. It means that their Job Seekers Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance is stopped. It has been reported that in some cases this had ‘inadvertently’ led to housing benefit being automatically stopped because people may not be aware, or they may not be informed, that they must inform the local authority because sanctions are a change in their financial circumstances.

If the local authority is not informed, housing benefit may be suspended because the claimant appears to be no longer in receipt of a qualifying benefit. Staff in BHT have reported how much time they are having to spend on challenging decisions to sanction claims and to have housing benefit reinstated. All the time the client is becoming more despondent, mental health suffers, and landlords (be it private landlords, BHT or other social landlords) are not getting their rent. I don’t have any figures regarding resulting evictions.

While much of this is common knowledge on the ground, it has been drawn to the attention of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in a report it commissioned from the economist Matthew Oakley. The report recommends 17 improvements to the way sanctions are administered.

The DWP has said that in the long-term it will “implement an IT solution” to the problem. Its spokesperson has said: “The DWP accepts that the housing benefit of claimants should not be stopped following a sanction”. The DWP has said it will now ensure that claimants are advised to keep their local authority informed of the sanction, thereby preventing housing benefit being stopped.

But why has the DWP implemented a measure without considering the human cost to individuals and to landlords? Why did the DWP not ensure claimants were being properly advised from the outset? And a long-term IT solution from the DWP is hardly something that inspires any confidence.

Writing in the latest edition of the RSA Journal, Matthew Taylor’s advice to politicians preparing their manifestos should be heeded by the DWP. He writes that rather than being “tempted to once again increase the number of promises they make, the principle of doing less – but doing it better – might be another RSA goal they could usefully consider”.

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