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Unnecessary suffering

We now have a benefit sanctions regime that is bureaucratised, depersonalised and excessive, causing widespread unnecessary suffering. Human relations have been stripped out of public administration.

Nick Pearce
3 March 2014

Published alongside the good unemployment figures today were less welcome new statistics showing another big increase in the number of sanctions applied to people in receipt of jobseekers’ allowance (JSA). In the 12 months to September 2013, a total of 874,850 sanctions were applied to JSA claimants, up from 751,943 in the previous year – an increase of 16 per cent. Over the last five years, the number of JSA sanctions has more than doubled, rising from 401,664 in the 12 months to September to their current level.

These statistics are the first that cover a full year of data under the new sanctions regime introduced in October 2012. Under the new system, sanctions are applied automatically and advisers have very little discretion about whether to sanction someone or not, for example, if they think that a sanction could be counterproductive if it makes someone disengage further. The new scheme also increases the severity of sanctions in many cases, particularly for first-time breaches.

There will always be a place for sanctions in the benefit system to make sure people are complying with reasonable benefit conditions and to reassure the public that people who can work are making every effort to find a job. But under the new regime, the majority of sanctions are for relatively minor infractions of the rules. Low-level sanctions now account for over half (54 per cent) of all sanctions. A low-level sanction covers things like failing to attend an interview with an advisor or to participate in the Work Programme. It means an automatic loss of JSA for four weeks for a first breach, whereas previously advisors could opt to sanction people for just one or two weeks. So someone can lose their only source of independent income for a full month simply for missing an appointment. More serious infractions like failing to actively seeking work or to be available for a job account for only 37 per cent of sanctions applied in the 12 months to September 2013. Only 3 per cent of JSA sanctions were for people who simply refused to accept a job offer.

Today’s figures also show that 36,188 lone parents were sanctioned in the 12 months to September. This means that thousands of families with children are being pushed into destitution for a minimum of four weeks (many more children will be living with parents in couple families who have been sanctioned, but the statistics published today don’t allow us to look at this). Importantly, as the chart from the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion below shows, the proportion of unemployed people not claiming JSA has risen steadily since the new sanctions regime came into force in October 2012. People out of work are being pushed off benefit claims entirely.

Proportion of unemployed people not claiming JSA

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In essence, we now have a benefit sanctions regime that is bureaucratised, depersonalised and excessive, causing widespread unnecessary suffering. It is turning people into supplicants at foodbanks, applicants to payday lenders, and appellants at tribunals. It is not a cornerstone of welfare reform, but a symbol of what happens when human relations are stripped out of public administration. Consequently, it is the sanctions regime which really arouses the ire of the Catholic Church and children’s charities, not the universal credit or even welfare caps.

Sooner or later, somebody will take the government to court (and win) over this degrading treatment, and the destitution it causes. Better that the government reforms the sanctions regime first and alleviates the unnecessary suffering it creates.

* ‘Unnecessary Suffering’ is the title of a work of political and social theory by Maurice Glasman.

This piece first appeared on the IPPR blog

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