Dr Sharon Wright comments on recent developments and the balance between sanctions and support. See also her comment piece in The National
Benefit sanctions are a core part of the UK Coalition Government’s welfare reforms, but how do sanctions affect people living in Scotland? New evidence shows that benefit sanctions have removed £32 million from the Scottish economy and there are concerns that poverty and hardship are being created on a scale and intensity unseen for more than half a century. Three quarters of referrals to food banks have been related to benefit sanctions or delays. Sanctioned claimants have been found to cut back on food and heating, borrow from family and friends, use payday loans and miss rent payments.
The current sanctions regime was introduced in 2012 and is the harshest system of penalties since the welfare state was established. Sanctions have increased in frequency, duration and severity, are triggered more easily, accelerate rapidly and apply to wider groups. Job search requirements designed originally for unemployed people are now being applied to those impaired by ill health or disability and lone parents with caring responsibilities.
|Benefit/programme||Low e.g. non-attendance||Medium e.g. failure to be available for work||High e.g. failure to apply for a job|
|Jobseeker’s Allowance||1st = 28 days2nd/3rd = 91 days||Disentitlement, then1st = 28 days2nd/3rd = 91 days||1st = 91 days2nd = 182 days3rd = 1095 days|
|Employment and Support AllowanceWork Related Activity Group||1st = 7 days2nd = 14 days3rd = 28 days, then100% until compliance|
|Universal Credit||Until compliance||1st = 28 days2nd/3rd = 91 days||1st = 91 days2nd = 182 days3rd = 1095 days|
|Work Programme||As above , for all mandated activities|
Sanctions are set to increase further with the roll out of Universal Credit, which is currently operating in Inverness and is due to Glasgow in June 2015. Universal Credit means sanctions will be applied even more widely – to new groups including partners of claimants and those who are in employment (who will be required to increase their hours of work and pay). Universal Credit also introduces a new fines system, e.g. £50 for ‘negligently making a false statement’.
The administration of the sanctions system is causing concern, with reports of communication problems leading to unjust and disproportionate sanctions. For example, one disabled man lost his benefit income for the whole month of August last year, during the Commonwealth Games, because he was five minutes late for an appointment at Jobcentre Plus, even though he was in the building at the time, delayed by security guard checks on entry to see his adviser. Another man was sanctioned for missing an appointment he was never informed of. These issues undermine the logic of sanctioning, by punishing people who are keen and compliant, rather than those who break the rules.
Such tough sanctions rely on a well-functioning support system to help people back to work. However, the current system has been subject to repeated waves of funding cuts and is one of the most frugally funded employment services in Europe. Most job seekers find work before becoming eligible for Work Programme support. Job seekers receive so little assistance in finding work (by international standards) that British employment services can be seen mainly as residual ‘self-help’ services, without the sorts of job creation and training that are common in other countries.
This balance of sanction and support is currently weighted towards harsh penalties for relatively minor ‘offences’ with little support for most job seekers. Serious concerns remain over the severity of sanctions, the nature of sanctions (removing essential income, even from families with young children), the application of sanctions and their effectiveness, which remains unproven.