Food banks and job clubs, run by churches and community organisations around the country are reporting increased numbers of destitute people asking for emergency help, who come to them with the story “I’ve been sanctioned”. Greg Smith, a long-standing supporter of Church Action on Poverty, explores just what that means.
It is government policy, introduced by the previous Labour administration, and toughened up by the Coalition, that benefit claimants who do not fulfil the terms of their job seeker’s agreement will have their benefits withdrawn. The aim quite crudely is to discipline the unemployed to ‘get on their bike’ to look for work, and to take any job that may be on offer, however inconvenient and however lowly-paid. “Those who will not look for work shall not eat” seems to be the motto.
Nearly half a million people have been affected.. Some 580,000 sanctions were handed down to over 400,000 claimants between October 2012 and June 2013, according to recent DWP figures.
In simple terms this policy is immoral.
It slashes a huge hole in the welfare safety net and causes huge destitution and distress, while doing nothing that makes a significant impact on unemployment or worklessness. It strengthens the prejudices of the ‘strivers’, frequently described in politicians’ rhetoric as ‘hard-working families’, against those labelled ‘scroungers’ – thus throwing us all into an individualistic law-of-the-jungle struggle, rather than strengthening the bonds of community. While bankers, and top executives in public, voluntary and private sectors, including those who operate in the ‘unemployment industry’, are offered incentives for good performance, and golden farewell handshakes when they fail, the poorest are offered few incentives and lots of penalties. This is not social justice as the biblical prophets demanded, or social insurance as envisaged by Temple, Beveridge and the other founders of the welfare state.
The sanctions regime is also ineffective.
Where there are few jobs available, as in the North West of England, taking money away from people is hardly going to help them find jobs. With the government’s ‘Work Programme’ in a state of failure and chaos, with perverse incentives that encourage providers to cherry-pick the easy cases to help, and accusations of corruption, many of the unemployed despair of getting help and meaningful training. For most people who are sanctioned, it does nothing to help them acquire skills that would help them compete in the labour market, against the pool of graduates and migrant workers who are skilled, enthusiastic, flexible and willing to take on work below their educational and skills level. Learning to write CVs (which are frequently very thin), to do job searches on the internet, and having to apply online for dozens of inconvenient, unsuitable jobs for which they are poorly qualified, and which they may be physically or mentally incapable of holding down, is hardly a profitable use of time. Such work is barely more productive than watching daytime TV, and might even be better replaced by the offer of work on a programme of public works paid at the minimum wage, as applied in numerous previous recessions. Yet failure to comply can mean an end to even the minimum income produced by benefits. Destitution, which follows, merely helps the poorest to learn how to survive by ducking and diving, by applying to charity, by falling into the clutches of payday lenders and loan sharks, by begging and sometimes stealing. Increasingly we come across people who find the whole process of claiming out-of-work benefits so demeaning and stressful that they just can’t be bothered to apply, and conveniently disappear from the official register of the unemployed.
Sanctions may not even be cost-effective.
If they produce stress and distress and increased petty crime, the tab has to be picked up by other budgets from the public purse. Sanctions reduce health and well-being for the claimants and their families, resulting in extra demand on the NHS. Police and the courts are likely to become more busy, with all the associated costs.
Sanctions are also applied in a harsh and arbitrary way.
Even the the language used by government is punitive and tends to criminalise people who simply are not coping. Official guidance from the DWP speaks of sanctions being applied for first, second and third ‘offences’. An ‘offence’ can simply be missing an appointment at the Job Centre, perhaps because a bus was late, or cancelled, perhaps because a child was sick and off school. These offences are not tried publicly in a court of law, but determined administratively by a low-level officer at the Job Centre. Even where there is a successful appeal against the sanction, it can take months to recover the payment. Despite denials, rumours persist that there is a league table encouraging competition between offices for the highest rate of sanctions imposed.
Sanctions are imposed for the flimsiest of reasons.
In our local church job club, we have heard of people who have lost benefits because they failed to apply for an HGV driver job when they didn’t even have a driving licence, for failing to apply for enough jobs when they had spend the whole week walking round all the local nurseries and child care centres with a CV but had no way of proving it, and for not applying for a job on a two-hours-per-day contract over 10 miles away which would have paid less than benefit levels, and barely covered transport costs. There is an enlightening list of other silly but tragic sanctions at the Stupid Sanctions website.
Why should Christians and the church be concerned? Firstly, of course, because it is a question of justice and mercy that is causing great hardship in our land. But beyond that, it is placing impossible and unjustified demands on the church and charitable sector. Indeed it is an opportunity to rise to the challenge and become more generous, and churches and communities have responded magnificently through food banks, soup kitchens, job clubs and money and debt counselling centres. However, it is unfair of the government to shift the burden of support to charities. It is another example of the ‘freerider’ problem that government so actively seeks to drive out of the welfare system.
As long as the state expects the churches to become the safety net for the failure of economic and employment policy, it is they and not the unemployed who deserve the name of ‘scrounger’.
Greg Smith is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation.
The increased use of sanctions is causing mass destitution – see our report Walking the Breadline for more information and how you can take action.