Conditionality and Sanctions


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This factsheet is aimed at professionals working with single parents but it may also be of value to single parents themselves. It explains what actions single parents have to take (conditionality) in order to be awarded, and remain entitled to, jobseeker’s allowance while seeking employment. It looks at difficulties that may be encountered and penalties (sanctions) that may be imposed. See also Universal Credit, Money for Single Parents and Money If You Are Working factsheets.

The benefit claiming process

The initial claim

A new claim for jobseeker’s allowance is made online or by calling the benefit claim line.

The claimant states what benefit they wish to claim and will need to answer questions about their circumstances so the claim can be assessed.

The claimant will then be invited, by text, call or email, to attend an interview at their local Jobcentre Plus. If the claimant does not attend this interview the claim will not progress and no benefit will be paid. The appointment can only be rearranged if there is a valid reason for doing so. At the interview the claimant will be told what steps they need to take in order to qualify for benefit. These steps will be based on the conditionality group the claimant belongs to and the claimant commitment agreed between the Jobcentre Plus adviser and the claimant.

Conditionality groups

There are four conditionality groups. The group a claimant is placed in determines the steps they need to take to find work. If the claimant does not undertake these actions they will not qualify for benefit. What group the claimant belongs to depends on their circumstances.

No work-related requirements group

Claimants in this group do not need to perform any activity or take any steps in order to qualify for benefit. This group consists of people who are considered not able to work and those already earning above a certain earnings limit (see our Universal Credit factsheet).

This group includes single parents with a child under one year, carers and claimants with limited capability for work related activity. (Victims of domestic abuse who are within six months of an abusive incident, and have written proof it happened, can be put in, or remain in, this group for 13 weeks irrespective of other circumstances).

Work-focused interviews only group

Claimants in this group need to attend appointments with Jobcentre Plus to discuss the steps they need to take to prepare for work in the future. The frequency and length of the interviews are at the discretion of the adviser.

This group includes single parents with a child aged one or two years.

Work preparation and work-focused interview group

People in this group have to attend work–focused interviews, as above, and undertake the steps discussed to find work.

It includes people with limited capability for work and single parents with a youngest child aged three or four.

All work-related requirements group

The steps claimants in this group need to take include attending interview, completing a C.V., applying for jobs, participating in training and work placements. Parents with a child aged five years and over will be expected to be available for and actively seeking work.

Claimant commitment

The claimant commitment is an agreement between the claimant and Jobcentre Plus. This contract states what is expected of the claimant in order to find employment and therefore to qualify for benefit while unemployed. It also gives details of what will happen if the claimant fails to meet the terms of this agreement.

The claimant commitment combines the requirements of the conditionality group with variations specific to the claimant’s personal circumstances. It also allows them to specify any limitations or constraints they have.

It is very important that claimants take the claimant commitment seriously as they will have to adhere to it.

It is also important that the claimant has knowledge of their rights and fully understands what is being asked of them.

Things a claimant needs to consider when drafting the claimant commitment include the kind of job they are looking for, the hours they are able to work, the travel time and costs they can afford, childcare arrangements and any illness or disability they have that will limit their availability and ability to find and sustain employment.

Single parents can limit the hours they are available to work depending on the age of their children and availability of childcare, as stated in Regs 4 and 13(4), (6) and(7) JSA Regs and Reg 13A JSA Regs.

Problems that may be encountered

There are a number of potential obstacles that may need to be overcome at this first stage of a claim for benefit.

The first problem a claimant encounters may be trying to contact Jobcentre Plus. This can be done by phone on the benefit claim line or online.

The claim line is free to landlines and most mobile networks, but not all, so claimants will need credit and charge on their mobile phone before starting a claim. A caller may find it difficult to get back in touch with the person they were talking to if they become disconnected, so it is best to avoid this in the first place.

A recorded message, stating that claims for jobseeker’s allowance need to be made online, will be repeated while waiting to be connected to an adviser. The claimant needs to hold the line to make the claim by phone.

Online claims obviously require access to a computer for prolonged periods of time.

Online claims are given priority over those made by telephone.

Claimants who cannot use a computer, for whatever reason, will need to contact Jobcentre Plus or a support worker for assistance.

The next problem a claimant may face is being told they are not entitled to the benefit they wish to claim or that they will not get it.

Staff at the call centre are not qualified to make this judgement and cannot stop a caller from proceeding with their claim so the claimant should insist on making it.

A claimant whose claim is refused because they do not pass the habitual residence test needs to get professional advice.

A claimant who does not have a national insurance number should call the Jobcentre Plus Application Line or, if they are under 20, the National Insurance Registration Helpline.

Being asked for information already submitted can be extremely frustrating but if a claim is not proceeding due to lack of, or lost, evidence the information needs to be supplied, or resupplied, as soon as possible before the claim can proceed.

Attending Jobcentre Plus for the initial interview can also cause problems. The claimant should check that the date and time are suitable. Appointments can only be changed if Jobcentre Plus considers the claimant has a good reason for doing so. Examples include illness, domestic crisis and caring responsibilities but the adviser has discretion over what they accept.

Claimants need to ensure they leave plenty of time to get to Jobcentre Plus for the interview. Advisers have very tight schedules so may not have time to carry out the interview if the claimant is late.

Claimants also need to ensure that they have enough money for travel, and childcare, if needed. Jobcentre Plus may reimburse childcare expenses from the flexible support fund but this is discretionary and therefore not guaranteed.

The security policy and procedure at Jobcentre Plus also need to be considered before the claimant arrives. For example, will the claimant be allowed to take children, will they be expected to leave prams and pushchairs outside, and does Jobcentre Plus need to be notified if they are bringing a friend, carer or support worker?

During the interview it is useful for the claimant to take notes. It is extremely important that details of what is discussed and agreed are noted for future reference.

This is particularly true when deciding what should be included in the claimant commitment. Claimants should check and re-check details. To avoid problems in the future claimants need to be vigilant at this stage. They need to have knowledge of the rights and regulations that apply to their specific circumstances. As well as being prepared, they need to be realistic about exactly what they are able to do. This is especially true for claimants with disabilities, children or caring responsibilities.

Changes in circumstances need to be reported to Jobcentre Plus in person or online so the claimant commitment can be amended. Keeping the adviser informed, and also keeping a record of how and when it was done, not only decreases the likelihood of problems arising but ensures they can be dealt with efficiently if they do arise.

Clashes between the claimant and adviser are best avoided if at all possible. As advisers have discretion, it is in the best interest of the claimant to be courteous and respectful at all times, however, if the adviser does not behave in this way or there is tension or disagreement between the two, the claimant can request to speak to another adviser.

Continuing claims

In order to remain entitled to benefit there are a number of conditions that must be, or continue to be, met.

After the initial meeting claimants will be requested to attend work focused interviews. The number and frequency of these depends on what was agreed in the claimant commitment, the discretion of the adviser and the personal circumstances of the claimant.

The claimant also needs to adhere to the requirements of the claimant commitment, participate in additional tasks as dictated by their conditionality group (such as training or work placements), and keep the adviser informed of their progress and of any changes that need to be reported.

Problems that may be encountered

Many of the problems with a continuing claim will be the same as those the claimant encountered initially such as accessing a computer and finding childcare. It is meeting the requirements of the claimant commitment that may prove the greatest challenge.

If the claimant commitment was thoughtfully considered, then problems that could arise will be fewer. If it was not taken seriously claimants may find they are unable to meet the requirements. For example a claimant with children needs to know there is available childcare before agreeing to look for evening work.

A claimant who does not do all they have agreed to will be sanctioned.

Sanctions

A sanction is a penalty imposed on a claimant for not taking reasonable actions to find work as dictated by their conditionality group and claimant commitment. In effect it is usually a loss of benefit for a period of time depending on the severity of the failure. Single parents in receipt of income support will lose an amount equivalent to 20% of their benefit if sanctioned. Special rules apply to 16 and 17 year olds.

There are four levels of sanction – higher, intermediate, lower and lowest. The duration of the sanction depends on the conditionality group the claimant belongs to, the action they have failed to complete and the number of times the claimant has failed to meet the conditions of entitlement to benefit. The more times a claimant is sanctioned the longer the sanction will last.

Table 1: Sanction Levels

Duration Duration Duration
Sanction Applicable to 1st failure 2nd failure 3rd+ failure
High Level
e.g. Failure to take up an offer of paid work.
  • Claimants subject to all work-related requirements.
91 days 182 days 1,095 days
Medium Level
e.g. Failure to undertake all reasonable action to obtain work.
  • Claimants subject to all work-related requirements.
28 days 91 days 91 days
Low Level
e.g. Failure to undertake particular, specified work preparation action.
  • Claimants subject to all work-related requirements.
Open-ended until re-engagement plus:
  • Claimants subject to work preparation and work-focused interview requirements.
7 days 14 days 28 days
Lowest Level
i.e. Failure to participate in a work-focused interview.
  • Claimants subject to work-focused interview requirements only.
Open ended until re-engagement.

The sanction process

If a claimant is to be sanctioned the adviser should discuss this with the claimant to ensure they did not have a valid reason for the failure, explain why they are being sanctioned and what the sanction means in practice. The claimant is then required to sign a ‘notice’ verifying that they have been informed about the sanction. This notice is then sent to a decision maker who will authorise and decide the length of the sanction. The claimant should then receive a decision letter saying they have been sanctioned and giving details of why, and for how long. If details are not given it may be useful for the claimant to request a ‘written statement of reasons’ especially if they wish to appeal.

Problems

Potential problems

Claimants may have problems with the sanction process itself or as a result of being sanctioned.

Problems with the process include not agreeing with why you have been sanctioned, not agreeing with the severity of the sanction and not knowing you have been sanctioned – claimants may not realise a sanction has been applied until they find their benefit has not been paid. However the main problem resulting from a sanction being imposed is poverty.

Avoiding problems

There are steps claimants can take in order to minimise the risk of problems arising.

Claimants will benefit from being prepared for every stage of the claiming process. Initially this means knowing which benefit to claim, how to do it and being organised in order to be able to attend interviews.

At the interview stage claimants need to know their rights and the specific regulations that apply to them in order to be able to negotiate a realistic and manageable claimant commitment.

  • Ideally claimants should seek advice before attending Jobcentre Plus for the first interview.

Claimants should ensure they fully understand what work related activities they are expected to complete and should adhere to their claimant commitment. If they are finding it difficult they should talk to their adviser before a problem arises and they are sanctioned.

Welfare reform rhetoric states that people need to take responsibility and should not expect ‘something for nothing’. This justifies the use of sanctions and advisers are obliged to use them. Claimants need to be aware of this and the fact that advisers have discretion.

Maintaining a good relationship with the adviser is to the claimant’s advantage.

Solving problems

It is always better to prevent problems than to try and solve them, however, when they do arise, often unavoidably, there are steps that can be taken to put things right or at least minimise the impact.

Of course claimants may be ‘correctly’ sanctioned but if they do not believe this to be the case the first step should be to talk to their adviser. If the claimant is still not happy there is an appeals process that can be followed.

Mandatory reconsiderations and appeals

Unfortunately there is little a claimant can do about a badly administered sanction other than complain to Jobcentre Plus or their MP. There is evidence to suggest that MP involvement is taken seriously so this not only benefits the claimant but could influence changes that would improve the process.

If a claimant disagrees with the reason for, or the severity of, the sanction they can ask for the decision to be reconsidered. If this is unsuccessful they can then go on to appeal.

The claimant has 28 days from the date of sanction in which to ask for a reconsideration.

If they have requested a written statement of reason they have an additional 14 days. The reconsideration is mandatory so must be sought before appealing the decision. The reconsideration can be requested by phone (the number is given on the sanction decision letter) or in person at Jobcentre Plus but it is best to do it in writing and to keep a copy of the letter.

Hardship payments (see below) should be requested at the same time in case the reconsideration is unsuccessful and the client has to enter into the long appeal process.

A decision on the reconsideration should be received quickly, usually within five days of the request, but as there is no time limit it could be much longer. If the reconsideration is successful benefit payments will be reinstated or continue if the sanction had not yet taken effect. If the reconsideration is unsuccessful the sanction will remain and the claimant should appeal.

The claimant has 28 days from the date of the mandatory reconsideration decision in which to appeal directly to HM Courts & Tribunal Service.

The reconsideration notice needs to be included with the appeal as the appeal cannot progress without it. Instructions on how to appeal are included with the reconsideration decision but it is always advisable for a claimant to seek professional help to appeal.

The appeal process is lengthy taking months (occasionally years) for an appeal to finally be concluded at tribunal.

In many cases the sanction will be over before the appeal is heard, however, around half of all appeals are won.

As sanctions are cumulative, if the claimant is sanctioned again it will not be as severe as it would have been if the previous sanction had not been appealed and won.

Claimants should continue to claim benefit by ‘signing on’ and meet the terms of their claimant commitment, while subjected to a sanction, or jobseeker’s allowance will stop.

If they win an appeal the sanction will be lifted but they will not be paid lost benefit if they stopped claiming. Also a sanction, which has not been served or lifted, will apply to any benefit claimed, or reclaimed, at a future date.

Hardship payments

Claimants who have been sanctioned may be entitled to hardship payments depending on their circumstances. Claimants should make a claim as soon as they are sanctioned or at the same time as requesting a mandatory reconsideration. Jobcentre Plus will ask for evidence of the claimant’s circumstances which will be sent to a decision maker who will either allow or refuse hardship payments. If they are allowed the claimant will be paid 60% of their personal allowance for the length of the sanction. A claimant who is refused hardship payments can ask for a reconsideration of the decision then appeal.

Any hardship payments paid will be recouped from benefit reimbursed to a client who wins an appeal.

Housing benefit and council tax reduction will still be paid to a claimant who is sanctioned.

Claimants suffering financial difficulty can also approach the Scottish Welfare Fund for help:

Useful contacts

Citizens Advice Bureau:

Offer information and advice on a range of issues including welfare benefits.
Citizens Advice Direct: www.cas.org.uk
Tel: 0808 800 9060

Benefit Claim Line:

The number to call for a new claim for benefit.
Tel: 0800 055 6688

Local Council Welfare Rights Officers:

Each local council employs officers who offer benefit information, advice and support. Contact your local council for details.

Jobcentre Plus:

The number that a claimant can call to contact their adviser or inform their Jobcentre Plus that they cannot attend aninterview, etc.
Tel: 0800 169 0190

Scottish Welfare Fund:

Families in need or crisis may be able to get financial or practical support from this service. Contact your local council for details of the help available and how to apply.

Universal Credit Helplines:

Live service: 0800 328 9344

Full service: 0800 328 5644

Supporting and inspiring single parent families across Scotland

For further information about OPFS or our services, please contact:

One Parent Families Scotland, 13 Gayfield Square, Edinburgh EH1 3NX

Tel: 0131 556 3899

Email: info@opfs.org.uk

Helpline: 0808 801 0323

Helpline email: helpline@opfs.org.uk

Visit our website at www.opfs.org.uk

More help from OPFS

You may also be interested in these related information packs available from OPFS:

Call the helpline on 0808 801 0323, or download them from www.opfs.org.uk.

We have done our best to ensure that the Information contained in this factsheet is correct at the time of publication. Please check dates and details before use. This factsheet is not a comprehensive guide to the law, nor a substitute for legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss or damage that may arise from your use of services offered by third parties.

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