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Beth Reid @crisisscotland Policy Manager (Scotland)

A conditionality system fit for a fairer Scotland?

New research published by Crisis shows that it is the most vulnerable who are hit hardest by benefit sanctions.  Sanctions are leaving people homeless, hungry and destitute by sanctions, and making it harder not easier for them to find work.

You can read more about the research and its findings here.

But changes are afoot for people claiming benefits and getting support to get back to work in Scotland.

The Department for Work and Pensions recently announced that they will trial a new approach to sanctions, which will give people 14 days warning of a sanction before they lose their money.  This will be piloted first in Scotland, starting in March 2016 at the latest.

This is of course welcome news.  People will have more time to gather evidence of any good reasons for not meeting their benefit conditions, and to prepare for life on no income, often for a month or more.

However, it is no substitute for getting decisions right in the first place. The research found that more than four in five of those sanctioned felt they had a good reason for failing to meet the condition.

People who had been in local authority care and people with mental ill health were more likely to be sanctioned than other homeless people.  And half of sanctions decisions are overturned when they are challenged.

The research found of the people surveyed, who were based in homeless hostels and day centres around Britain, 88% wanted to work, and there was widespread support for conditionality, with most thinking it right that people should ‘earn’ any benefits they receive.

Making sure that the conditions people have to meet are appropriate is vital.  63% of people found their requirements difficult to meet, often due to a lack of internet access, insufficient money to travel to appointments and being given the wrong information.

There are lessons here for Scotland.  New powers for employment support for the long-term unemployed will be devolved to Scotland from April 2017.  While the sanctions regime will continue to be the purview of the Westminster government, the organisations who provide support to get into work are likely to have a major role in deciding what people should and should not have to do to find suitable employment.

People who have no home, or who are having difficulties with their housing, should be identified at the very start, so they can be helped to sort out their housing problems as part of their journey back to work.  Employment support providers should use their discretion when setting requirements and provide tailored help for jobseekers that are suitable to their current circumstances.  And no one should be sanctioned if the consequences are likely to be destitution or homelessness.

A new programme for Scotland provides a real opportunity to commission a model of employment support which puts support over conditionality at its heart.  Whist there is the option to introduce a voluntary programme for jobseekers in Scotland, there is also a need for greater discretion and better support, particularly with housing needs.

Between now and 2017 the Scottish Government has a brief window to take a more evidence-based approach to how it applies conditionality policy, drawing on this research and the recommendations of the Work and Pensions Select Committee at Westminster and the recent Oakley Review.

We must seize this opportunity to create a system that genuinely supports people into work.