Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith
Benefit sanctions: How harsh is this government going to get?
Yesterday the DWP published new statistics on the number of people being ‘sanctioned’ (punished by losing some or all of their benefit for a set amount of time) for breaking the rules for Jobseeker’s Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance.
Most coverage of these statistics has focused on the fact that 818,000 people have been sanctioned since the government introduced new rules at the end of 2012, but I think that disguises a much more important story. And that is how much sanctioning increased under this government before the new rules were introduced.
Is this is a matter of there being more sanctions because more people are claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance?
Well that probably does explain the small increase in sanctions between the start of the recession and the election. During that time, the number of people on JSA rose from under 850,000 to over 1.5 million, so some increase in the number being sanctioned during this period is not surprising. But, as we can see here, after the election, sanctions soared to a much higher degree than increases in the claimant count. Indeed, throughout 2013, the number of people on JSA fell (by more than a third of a million) but the number sanctioned kept on rising.
If you want, you can believe that there has been a sudden increase in the number of people breaking the rules, which just happened to coincide with the election of a new government, but you’ll have to do a lot to persuade me.
Iain Duncan Smith’s comment on the statistics said that they were proof that the government are “ending the something for nothing culture”. If you believe that, I’d like to refer you to a tumblr called A Selection of Especially Stupid Benefit Sanctions, which gives you examples like people sanctioned for missing an appointment at the jobcentre because they were being interviewed for a job, for not finishing a form because they had a heart attack or people sanctioned because they went to a family funeral instead of the Jobcentre. Unemployed Workers’ Centres come across cases like the woman who was told to take up voluntary work by the Jobcentre, because it might make her more employable – and then had her benefits stopped for six weeks because she was doing too many hours voluntary work!
Of course the benefit system needs rules to stop cynical abuse. When an employer, for instance, encourages staff to claim benefits to subsidise their lower pay, allowing them to undercut businesses that play by the rules, I get as angry as anyone else. But most sanctions are for “offences” that are nothing like this, they are usually aimed at the bewildered and vulnerable or at people who’ve tried to follow complicated rules and been caught out.
And sometimes that is deliberate. Increasingly the atmosphere in Jobcentres is reminiscent of the early 90s, another time when unemployed people were being made to “jump through hoops”. These hoops were employment programmes that had very little hope of getting people into jobs, but which encouraged anyone who could avoid claiming benefits to do so.
You don’t have to be a biased observer to believe this is happening again. In the last year covered by the latest statistics a quarter of a million people were sanctioned for turning down a place on the Work Programme. If I was unemployed I’d try to avoid the WP too: less than one in eight of the people who have been on it for a year have got jobs, the official evaluation of the programme says that the people who need help most are deliberately given least, and the Work and Pensions select committee and a DWP report have pointed to problems caused by inadequate funding.
The strongest evidence for the claim that unemployed people are being put through a meaningless obstacle course is the mounting evidence about Jobcentre staff being set targets for numbers of sanctions, with one whistle-blower telling the Guardian “the truth is that benefit claimants are being deliberately set up to fail in order to achieve sanction quotas without regard for natural justice or their welfare.”
And finally, let’s remember what the government’s Social Security Advisory Committee found when they looked at the tougher benefit sanctions introduced in 2012:
- Sanctions can encourage people to look for work but they can also cause hardship for claimants and their families. Encouraging people into work may sometimes be, on balance, the more important objective, but the hardship should be taken into account, it shouldn’t just be ignored.
- This is especially important because sanctions tend to hit the most vulnerable hardest.
- And because the jobs people move into are often low-paid and insecure.
- Many claimants are either unaware of sanctions or don’t understand them, which means that they aren’t always as effective deterrents as politicians expect.
- Having the role of imposing sanctions can make it more difficult to provide support and establish trust, which most JCP advisers would prefer.
Even if you accept that some sanctions are needed as a backstop, the current system is unfair and probably herds claimants into low-paid, low quality work. They mean that the benefit system doesn’t build social security, instead it is one of the factors that helps to create this country’s economic “low road”. It is entirely appropriate that the use of sanctions has rocketed under the current government.