Pointless Cruelty: sanctions and inequality

A new report released today from the Work and Pensions Select Committee lays out the case for conducting a full review of sanctions in the UK’s benefit system. It highlights the fact that “there is currently no evidence” on whether a sanction will increase or decrease the likelihood of a person engaging with employment support or actually finding a job. At the same time numerous recent reports have highlighted the arbitrary cruelty created by the sanctions regime. Cases include a person being sanctioned for attending the funeral of their best friend, another person being sanctioned for being taken to hospital with a suspected heart attack, one person being sanctioned for attending a job interview instead of going to the jobcentre and many others. In 2013/14 seven million weeks of sanctions were imposed, in many cases forcing people to turn to food banks in order to be able feed their families. It is quite frankly shocking that there is such cross party support for implementing benefit sanctions which offend basic human decency and at the same time have no evidence to suggest that they are in any way effective. One good question that remains is how a system like this could come into being and how could anyone justify it to themselves?

The answer seems to be that those imposing the sanctions believe (despite lacking any rigorous evidence for this) that it is for claimants’ own good. Last year a senior official for the Department of Work and Pensions(DWP) suggested that “many benefit recipients welcome the jolt that a sanction can give them”. This is easier to understand as piece of a wider social security policy. From mandatory work activity to the basic process of attending a job centre the presumption is that the person in authority knows best. The person trying to get a job isn’t trusted to know the best way for them to get a job instead they are told what to do by an “advisor” and even told what jobs they should apply for. This attitude has led to a series of interventions which robust evidence has shown are less effective than simply leaving a jobseeker to apply for jobs by themselves.

The attitude of the DWP stands in stark contrast with changes in attitude across government on trusting users. Government tries to ensure that citizens get the best services in education, health and social care by those citizens choosing the service that they prefer, recognising that they might know what is best for their own needs.

What’s the difference between these services and those offered by the DWP?  The people who make the decisions on health and education either use the services themselves or have friends or family that do. By contrast the inequality that exists in society between those at the top, like politicians, and those at the bottom, like people forced to use services provided by the DWP, means that they can live completely unconnected lives. This lack of connection and resulting lack of empathy has profound consequences for service provision where politicians are unqualified to understand the lives of those they create policy for and arrogant enough to believe that they know better than those whose lives they are controlling. Benefit sanctions seem to be the most perverse implication of this played out in full.

A more equal country that trusted its citizens could construct fairer welfare policy. The Netherlands provides one good example where people out of work were given a personal budget to choose services to help them get a job. After implementing this they saw the job entry rates increase by 30-50%.

Tim Stacey, Senior Policy and Research Advisor