From the TUC

Why is welfare policy in the papers but not the Queen’s speech?

03 Dec 2008, by in Economics, Labour market, Politics, Society & Welfare

Today’s papers were full of reports about new welfare policies to stop the evil unemployed from stealing our taxes. But although nationwide lie detector tests and ‘one strike and you’re out‘ sanctions have been heavily trailed, I have yet to find reference to them in any Ministerial comments (please let me know if you have). The policy references that we do have are from the Gregg review (heavily spun as a scrouger crackdown) and the Welfare Reform Green Paper – which has attracted heavy criticism. The TUC does not oppose benefit sanctions for those knowingly defrauding the system. But all of the evidence shows that it is only a tiny minority who are engaged in this behaviour – and that neither of the Government’s two leaked but not yet confirmed proposals would actually work.

As the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) has set out, sanctions are intended to ensure that benefits are only paid when the claimant meets eligibility requirements. But it stands to reason that sanctions will only work when people know about them and understand them. SSAC cites survey research highlighting that that 18 per cent of claimants reported little or no understanding of the benefits system, and that 32 per cent of claimants said they had not been told about sanctions. Those who are already the most vulnerable are at the greatest risk of non-comprehension. For example, in one survey 47 per cent of non-white claimants with literacy problems stated that they had little or no understanding of the system, and among this group knowledge of sanctionable offences was very low.  In another study, those with learning difficulties were more likely to be sanctioned.

The Committee concluded that sanctioning is not clearly explained and that there is a lack of uniformity in how sanctions are applied. Their recommendations included improving communications associated with the sanctions regime and introducing a clearer system of fixed fines. Yesterday’s Gregg Review came to some similar conclusions, calling for the introduction of a system of warnings and improved clarity and communication. Importantly it also highlighted that sanctions directly impact on a minority – of the 13 per cent of claimants who do recieve a sanction, three quarters never recieve another.

But the Government’s leaked proposals appear to fly in the face of both reports, instead suggesting a new immediate sanction, under the current often unclear and poorly communicated regime, which would hit those who break the rules by accident as well as those deliberately flouting them and have little impact upon claimant behaviour.

On lie detectors there are a similar range of problems. Evidence shows that this technololgy has no scientific basis (my colleague Richard has found that the first machine was invented by the same man that created Wonder Woman) detecting not lies but changes in behaviour. Such ‘Voice Risk Analysis’ has also been shown to have high rates of inaccuracy and to discourage those who are entitled and in need of support from applying in the first place. No evaluation of existing Government pilots has been published. Even if the Government did decide that tackling benefit fraud was their top priority (as oppossed to, say, error, which is responsible for twice as much cash loss), there is therefore no evidence that this method would make any difference.

So we have a Government that feels the need to talk tough about unemployed people even when the measures they are proposing would not work. Today’s leaks have not been about supporting unemployed people at a time of great need, or recouping fraudulently claimed benefits. Instead they seem to signal a Government playing to the right wing press in a sad sold out attempt to win middle England votes.