Saving Our Safety Net Fact of the Week: front line Jobcentre workers aren’t responsible for benefit sanctions
Could this be the month when the general public start to worry about benefit sanctions? The Methodist church reported that approximately one hundred thousand children were sanctioned in 2013/14. This followed earlier work revealing that more than 100 people per day with mental health problems are having their Employment and Support Allowance sanctioned. Indeed, they showed that people with mental health problems are substantially more likely to be sanctioned than other claimants:
In the past I’ve noted that young people are also disproportionately likely to be sanctioned, with 42 per cent of all sanctions being applied to under-25s even though they only accounted for 27 per cent of JSA claimants.
We’ve also seen a report from West Cheshire Food Bank, showing that sanctions were a major reason for people needing to visit the food bank. Sanctions were the main reason for needing emergency food in 11 per cent of cases. Calling for sanctions policy to be “urgently rethought”, the authors commented:
Sanctions clearly place significant numbers of individuals and families in a position where they cannot afford food. This is alarming because it suggests that, contrary to the recommendations of the Social Security Advisory Committee, there appear to be few, if any, “safeguards for vulnerable people” (Social Security Advisory Committee, 2012). Policies and practices that deliberately remove the means by which an individual or family can eat grossly violate the right to food and social security.
David Webster of Glasgow University – for my money, the best regular commentator on the official sanctions figures – has been pointing to the acceleration in sanctioning for some time now. He’s pointed out that, in 2013/14, nearly one JSA claimant in five (18.4 per cent) was sanctioned, “the highest recorded to date”:
2007/08 – 11.8 %
2008/09 – 9.8 %
2009/10 – 10.8 %
2010/11 – 15.1 %
2011/12 – 13.2 %
2012/13 – 16.0 %
2013/14 – 18.4%
Many of these sanctions are imposed on Work Programme participants, which, as David points out,
“continues to deliver far more JSA sanctions than JSA job outcomes. Up to 30 September 2014 there had been 575,399 JSA Work Programme sanctions and 345,640 JSA Work Programme job outcomes.”
So we have a system that is expanding uncontrollably, causes families to go without food and hits children young people and people with mental health problems. No wonder this week Nick Boles a Conservative minister in the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills said
“With some of these cases it seems to me that there is an inhuman inflexibility that is imposed on them … The sanctions are a worry, and do need to be looked at.”
Rachel Reeves has already promised that a Labour government would make sure there were no targets for benefit sanctions and there may be sufficient momentum building up to change the current policy. What I want to finish this post with, however, is the very strong record of PCS – the union representing most Jobcentre Plus staff – on this issue.
At meetings and conferences I sometimes hear people who are rightly angry about sanctions blaming the workers in Jobcentres.
Of course, we can understand where that anger comes from, but the strong lead PCS has given on this issue gives the lie to this. The union has pointed out that the cost of sanctions has risen 3,000%, from £11 million in 2009/10 to £355 million in the year to September 2014.
PCS has pointed to the pressure on staff to refer claimants for a sanction and that there is a deliberate attempt to “trip claimants up”. They provided much of the evidence for a Channel 4 Dispatches programme, including managers who are “disappointed” when claimants aren’t referred for sanctions, demand more referrals or decorate the Jobcentre with posters showing how much sanctions have ‘saved’.
Jobcentre Plus workers aren’t responsible for sanctions policy – they’re the targets of privatisation, contracting out and a harsh pay freeze. The responsibility for sanctions is the government’s.