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Any opinions represented within this blog are the authors and do not represent the views of ERSA.

We are ceaselessly told that benefit sanctions are a vital element in the working-age social security system. But are they? Until the later 1980s there was very little use of anything that could be called a sanction. Unemployment benefits were seen as part of an insurance scheme, with insurance-style conditions. Accordingly, as of 1986, 98 per cent of ‘disqualifications’ (as they were called) from unemployment benefit were aimed simply at avoiding giving an incentive for people to make themselves unemployed, through voluntarily leaving a job without good reason or losing it through misconduct. The maximum length of disqualification (applying since 1913) was 6 weeks.

‘Sanctions’ are almost entirely a development of the last 25 years. In pursuit of the notion of ‘active labour market policy’, the British state in a series of steps, under both Tory and Labour governments, has turned unemployment insurance into a penal system in which claimants found guilty of ‘transgressions’ (the DWP’s own word) are punished by removal of their benefits – an event that happens over a million times a year.  These ‘transgressions’ are almost exclusively very minor matters, such as missing a single interview with a Jobcentre or Work Programme contractor, or not making quite as many token job applications as the Jobcentre adviser demands. By no stretch of the imagination could they be held to make much difference to the claimant’s prospects of employment.

But the financial penalties are anything but minor. The scale is more severe than that available to the magistrates or sheriff courts (£286.80 – £11,185.20 compared to £200 – £10,000). Claimants are often reduced to hunger and destitution by the two-week ban on applications for ‘hardship payments’, and the hardship payment system itself is designed to clean people out of all resources. Moreover, this penal system lacks the safeguards which protect offenders in the mainstream judicial system. Decisions on guilt are made in secret by officials who have no independent responsibility to act lawfully, but are mere agents of the Secretary of State, currently subject to constant management pressure to maximise penalties. The claimant is not present and is not legally represented. The punishment is applied before there has been any hearing. If they get a hearing (and even before the obstacles introduced by Mandatory Reconsideration only 3 per cent of sanctioned claimants were doing so), then it is only long after the punishment. Unlike a magistrate or sheriff, the official deciding on the penalty does not have to vary it in the light of social or medical reports on its impact on the claimant or their family.

Given these characteristics, it is not an accident that the sanctions system is producing injustice on a huge scale and causing massive damage to the poorest in our society. Voluntary sector organizations regularly say that in their experience sanctions make it harder for sanctioned claimants to get work and that the threat of sanctions undermines everyone. The sanctions juggernaut is out of control.

Punishment belongs in the judicial system. We need to abolish benefit ‘sanctions’ and return to first principles. These include recognition that people are entitled to unemployment benefits when they are unemployed because they pay into the system when they are in work; and acknowledgment that the claimant’s own strategies for finding work must be respected. Employment services are not actually different from any other product: the jobseeker doesn’t have to be forced to use them if they are offering something worthwhile.

David Webster’s written and oral evidence to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into Benefit Sanctions beyond the Oakley Review is at http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/work-and-pensions-committee/benefit-sanctions-policy-beyond-the-oakley-review/oral/17289.html and his other papers are at http://www.cpag.org.uk/david-webster

David Webster
Honorary Senior Research Fellow
Urban Studies
University of Glasgow