The Scottish Equalities Secretary Angela Constance recently announced that the Scottish Government will embark on a programme of non-compliance with the Department for Work and Pensions ( DWP) over the hated benefit sanctions system. As part of the post-independence referendum devolution of powers package recommended by the Smith Commission and made into law in the form of the Scotland Act (2016) in March 2016, Scotland will take on powers next year in relation to welfare to work programmes. In making this announcement the Equalities Secretary was unequivocal about the type of leadership they intended to show “our powers are limited but I want to use them for the maximum benefit. We won’t be assisting (the DWP); I think that’s crystal clear”. 
Devolution of responsibility for employment programmes means that come next year the Scottish Parliament has the power to significantly reduce the level of sanctioning in Scotland and ensure that no employment programme run by the Scottish Government is associated with sanctions. This is precisely what the Scottish government intends to do.
So yet again we see Scotland leading the way in these jurisdictions in terms of progressive social and economic policy development – in this case, prioritising the health and well-being of their citizens over punitive strategies aimed at removing social welfare protections for the most vulnerable in our society.
This development raises an obvious question – could something similar happen here? The answer is pretty straightforward. Responsibility for employment and skills was devolved under the 1998 Northern Ireland Act and constitutes a transferred matter that falls fully within the responsibility of the NI Assembly. The Executive has the power to act as Scotland intends to do. All that is needed is the political will.
The NI Executive introduced its most recent welfare-to-work programme, Steps 2 Success in 2014, in place of its previous Steps to Work programme. Participation on Steps 2 Success is compulsory for all JSA claimants aged between 18 and 24 who have been claiming JSA for 9 months and those aged 25 and over claiming JSA for 12 months or more.
Lucrative 5 year contracts for the delivery of Steps 2 Success were awarded to 3 private contractors across the North; these contracts are structured on a ‘payment by results’ model. Starting with an ‘attachment fee’ of £480 per individual, providers are paid at various points of a person’s progression through the programme, including at the 6, 9 and 12 month points as well as a job entry payment if a person stays in a job for 2 weeks. From October 2014-May 2015 £10 million in attachment fees was paid out to private contractors. By the end of June 21016 31, 566 people had started on Steps 2 Success, amounting to some £15 million being paid in attachment fees alone.
Steps 2 Success guidance states that ‘JSA claimants must engage and complete all activities with, or as directed by, the Contractor otherwise sanctions may apply’. Sanctions are regularly imposed on people for a wide range of ‘breaches’ such as failing to attend meetings, not completing tasks set. The Right to Work: Right to Welfare Group has substantial evidence of punitive sanctions which breach their rights being applied to people on the Steps 2 Success programme, including young people with significant barriers to engagement. The Right to Work: Right to Welfare ( R2W) group has developed a set of human rights compliant proposals, ‘The People’s Proposal’, which can be delivered independently of Westminster, and which are designed to ensure that all social security decision making processes comply with the principles of due process and impact assessment and protect people from poverty.
Aside from the fact that sanction decision making processes, with their approach of ‘sanction first, investigate later’ are not compliant with human rights obligations, there is limited evidence internationally that mandatory schemes have a positive impact on helping people into employment. Summarising a wide range of research studies from Europe and the US, researchers Eichorst, Werner and Konle-Seidl argue:
“ some studies point at the fact that activating interventions based on the threat potential and demanding principle may help move benefit recipients to low-skills, low-pay and instable jobs so that they run the risk of continued partial reliance or repeated return to benefits”
Results achieved by the Steps 2 Success programme to date bear out this finding. Statistical data published by the Department for Communities in July 2016 show that private contractors are falling significantly below the performance targets set by the Department, both in relation to getting into a job and staying in a job.
Overall, only 33% of 18-24 year olds got into a job on completion of Steps 2 Success and only 17% of these sustained employment for 6 months, both of which outcomes are rated as ‘unsatisfactory’ by the Department. For the 25 years plus age group an overall rate of 22% into employment post programme was achieved, while only 15% of these sustained employment for 6 months; both ratings again deemed unsatisfactory. These outcomes worsen by at least 7% again for economically deprived communities such as the Derry/Strabane Council area.
Financial penalties are a standard feature of ‘payment by results’ contracts where contractors fail to meet targets set. In view of such serious levels of underperformance does the Department for Communities plan to impose financial penalties on Steps 2 Success private contractors? What sanctions will be imposed on private contractors for falling short of the performance standards expected by the Department?
Criticism of the benefit sanctions regime extends well beyond these shores. In June 2016 a member of the R2W campaign group, Mr. Bertie Atkinson, briefed members of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on these proposals during the Committee’s examination of the UK government. In their Concluding Observations the Committee expressed concern at the government’s use of sanctions in relation to social security benefits and the absence of due process. They called on the UK government, including the devolved administrations, to review the use of sanctions in relation to social security benefits and ensure that they are used proportionately and are subject to prompt and independent dispute resolution mechanisms.
The Executive’s draft Programme for Government 2016-21 talks about addressing the big issues facing this society and making a difference to things that matter most. Among the indicators are several in relation to reducing poverty, economic inactivity, underemployment and increasing the confidence and capacity of people and communities.
The Executive tells us that they want the proof of the pudding to be the outcomes achieved, not the actions taken. We know however that increasing levels of poverty and reliance on food banks, as well as increasing levels of homelessness and mental ill health are all outcomes related to the imposition of benefit sanctions. Hardly desired outcomes by the Executive. A good start therefore to ensuring these do not become outcomes associated with the new Programme for Government would be to fully implement the People’s Proposal.
 Eichorst, Werner, Otto Kaufmann and Regina Konle-Seidl, eds. 2008. Brining the jobless into work?; experiences with activation schemes in Europe and the US. Springer Science and Business Media.