Mencap logoThe sanctions regime for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) is “grossly unfair to people with learning disabilities” and helps to “trap them in poverty”, according to a leading charity.

This criticism came as the government published the findings of a review into how Jobcentre Plus and back to work scheme providers communicate with claimants who have their benefits stopped for not keeping up their end of the bargain.

Sanctions – which have a “vital role to play in the modern day welfare system”, according to the review’s author, Matthew Oakley – are applied as a last resort when claimants fail to do enough to find work, fail to attend appointments or have turned down job offers. Recent research found that 72% of claimants said they are more likely to follow the rules because of threat of having payments stopped.

The recommendations of the Oakley Review – which have been accepted by the government – include: 

Setting up a specialist team to audit all communications including claimant letters, texts and emails and transform how claimants on all benefits are provided with information about their responsibilities and the support on offer

Streamlining the checks and balances that are already in place that give claimants the opportunity to provide evidence of why they haven’t complied with the rules

Working more closely with local authorities to coordinate their approach to deliver Housing Benefit for claimants who have been sanctioned for not doing the right thing

Working with providers, stakeholders and advocates for groups to continuously explore alternative formats for all types of communications with claimants.

“While the majority of those sanctioned do understand what is expected of them, more needs to be done to help the most vulnerable,” said Oakley. “The recommendations in my review will ensure that all claimants know when and why a sanction will be applied and give them the information they need to challenge that decision and claim the financial help that they might need.”

Misunderstood or ignored

But these changes do not go far enough, or take into account the effects that learning disabilities can have, according to James Bolton, policy officer for Mencap. 

“Learning disability is often misunderstood or ignored by advisors and, as a result, essential simple adjustments aren’t made to help individuals complete the tasks they are often unfairly set, or even help them understand what sanctions are,” he said. “Instead, people with a learning disability have been sanctioned again and again for not completing tasks which they simply were not able to due to their learning disability. This is extremely worrying.  

“Sanctions should only be used as a last resort for people with a learning disability and not applied mechanically, in the way they are now. Many individuals Mencap have worked with didn’t know they had been sanctioned. Their payments just stopped. This caused panic, confusion and financial hardship, all of which were completely avoidable.

“In all our cases, unfair sanctions were only overturned and reasonable adjustments were only made once Mencap got involved. This is not right. We want to see a uniform approach where what is asked of people with a learning disability is fair, appropriate and achievable, with proper support provided. Until we see this, people with a learning disability will continue to be penalised by an unfair system.”