Benefit Sanctions in the White Paper
Well, I suppose I should know by now, when they’re launching a new social security policy Ministers always soften the ground by briefing journalists that this is going to be the definitive crackdown on ‘scroungers’ and the ‘workshy’. I’d got used to it with the last government and discounted two-thirds of what they said at times like this.
There is genuinely shocking news about sanctions in today’s White Paper – the increase in duration of sanctions to up to three years is going to mean extraordinary levels of hardship in some families. And the worry I had this morning about families being forced to break up to protect the children is still very much a concern.
But I shouldn’t have paid so much attention to two proposals in the leaks that I can now see were designed specifically to upset people like me:
- Abolition of the right to appeal against benefits being suspended. When the last government engaged in this sort of kite-flying they used to have some tenuous link to the truth, but it looks as if journalists were told the government planned something quite contrary to the actual proposals: “recipients will continue to have the ability to appeal.” (para 15)
- Cutting back on (or abolishing) hardship payments. Here the White Paper is a little ambiguous, saying that “as now hardship payments will be available to benefit recipients in need who receive a sanction” but adding that they are looking at ways of tightening up this system. These include replacing the payments with loans – which would increase the debt burden carried by these families.
The fact that the White Paper is not introducing these measures is a relief, but it still has enough nasties to shiver over for some time. In addition to the extended duration of benefit penalties, there’s workfare and, as Nicola has pointed out, the Universal Credit looks likely to introduce a much steeper taper than tax credits have – many thousands of people stand to face much higher marginal tax rates and many of them will have much lower net incomes.
But what disgusts me about today’s exercise isn’t that the political world has tried to mislead the rest of us – dog bites man – but the way in which unemployed people are used as a punch bag. In the lead-up to this White Paper we’ve had endless articles about how the “workshy” are going to get their comeuppance and the constant refrain has been that we’ve got too many people out of work (I agree) and the answer is to get tough with them (couldn’t be more wrong.) The situation we face at the moment is that there are more than five unemployed people chasing every job vacancy – you could threaten unemployed people with summary execution but eighty per cent would still fail to get jobs.
The government that abolished the Future Jobs Fund has no right to lecture anyone else about the evils of unemployment and no government has the right to pick on the people who are paying the price of the recession but had nothing to do with causing it.