Benefit sanctions for low-paid workers
In January this year, in a move that received little media coverage at the time, this government introduced secondary legislation that would enable them to extend benefit sanctions to low paid workers who aren’t doing ‘enough’ to earn more money.
Sanctions – the withholding of benefits – have been applied on an industrial scale under this government to the benefits of unemployed people. The number of stories where the use of sanctions would be comedic if not so cruel has been growing, with broken limbs and the death of loved ones proving not to be a barrier to their application. Over the past two years over 2 million sanctions decisions have been applied; they are cruel, create hardship and have been linked with a number of deaths, including that of David Clapson, a vulnerable diabetic ex-soldier who died starving and destitute in 2013 because he was sanctioned after missing a meeting.
Last Thursday his sister, Gill Thompson, handed in her 211,800 name petition to the DWP calling for an investigation into the widespread use of sanctions. It was part of national day of action against sanctions organised by Unite Community – it saw stalls, pickets and die-ins across the country outside Job Centres. It was also supported by PCS, the union representing those working in Job Centres.
The revulsion at how the sanctions regime has been used stretches well beyond the labour movement. In January the Employment Related Services Association (ESRA) who represent the work programme providers said that “…. for the vast majority of jobseekers, sanctions are more likely to hinder their journey into employment”. Earlier this month, the Churches were damning of their use, arguing that “The design of the sanctions system includes both the threat and the use of hunger as an instrument of policy” and that their use is inhumane and erodes dignity.
It is within this context that the government wants to extend their sanctions regime to low-paid workers. It has proved difficult to get much information out of the DWP on what such ‘in work conditionality’ would look like. Ester McVey ‘answered’ questions about how the regime would work when she appeared before the Parliamentary Committee looking at this legislation. She said that the DWP was going to trial in work sanctions where those on low earnings – less than £12,000 a year on average – who “could reasonably be expected to earn more” would be ‘supported’ to increase their earnings, and sanctions would be used as part of this ‘support’. Unite, and others, have been asking for more information about how this would operate. Last Thursday we received a reply from the DWP stating that from April 2015 randomised trials would be run in 10 Jobcentre Plus sites, testing;
“providing Work Coach support, at a level to 60 per cent of that provided to out of work claimants, to each low-earning claimant to set relevant goals and actions, to try and help them earn more;
Making requirements mandatory and sanctionable by testing the impact of different intervention frequencies (fortnightly against bi-monthly”
It remains unclear, and we have asked the DWP for further information on, what will be included in a Claimant Commitment for those in work, what ‘goals’ and ‘actions’ will be set for people that will then be a determining factor in someone being sanctioned.
There is currently no public information on how the trials will work, their timeline and how they will be assessed. There is no information on the extra workload that will accrue to Job Centres that are already overstretched. There is also absolutely no mention of the role of employers in increasing earnings, and reversing the growth of low paid, low skilled, insecure and precarious work that we have seen take hold in our labour market.
It is a real possibility that people will become trapped between a sanctions regime and an employer whose business model is based on exploitative, low paid insecure work and therefore has no desire to increase the earnings of workers. If the government really wanted to increase earnings this is where it would focus its energy – on raising the national minimum wage and improving the trade union and employment rights that enable people to organise for better pay. Instead it rather cynically feels that this is about punishing individuals so that the government can appear tough on driving down social security costs, irrespective of the human cost. Is this where some of the £12bn welfare cuts is to come from?
SIGN PETITION: Reform the Cruel Sanctions Regimes
The DWP’s harsh benefit sanctions regime has pushed Jobcentres towards a culture of harassment, not help. The TUC has started a petition to be given to the next Secretary of State for Work and Pensions after the election, asking them to immediately establish the review called for by the cross-party Work and Pensions Committee. Please sign petition