Benefits sanctions don't get people in to work—so why does the cruel system exist?

A new report, built on the most extensive research yet, confirms what we knew: that sanctions don't work. Why is the focus on following the rules, not helping the vulnerable?

May 22, 2018
A Jobcentre Plus sign in West Bromwich. Some claimants are apparently avoiding the centres, even if it risks their benefits. Photo: PA
A Jobcentre Plus sign in West Bromwich. Some claimants are apparently avoiding the centres, even if it risks their benefits. Photo: PA

In a routine familiar to many a social media user, this morning I opened Facebook to a jarring political meme: this time, one describing how ‘benefit claimants’ supposedly get £850 a week “whilst the rest of us who work don’t get that in a month.”

I found myself thinking of this as I read today’s damning report into the benefit sanction regime. In what is the UK’s most extensive research on benefit sanctions yet, the five-year study found removing people’s benefits is ineffective at getting jobless people into work. Instead, they are more likely to push those affected in to poverty, ill-health or even, for the particularly vulnerable, the grimly-dubbed  “survival crime.”

For the minority who did obtain work, the study found the most common outcome was a series of short-term, insecure jobs, interspersed with periods of unemployment, rather than a shift into well paid, long-term work. Appallingly, the study found jobcentres to be more focused on enforcing benefit rules rather than helping people get jobs.

From their introduction under New Labour to their vast acceleration under the Conservatives, benefit sanctions have always been the political equivalent of ‘tough love’—the friend who causes you pain but insists it’s for your own good. Ministers have repeatedly claimed sanctions are effective in ‘focusing’ people for work—as if going hungry clarifies a lazy mind—despite repeated evidence that this is not true (in fact, sanctions have been found to actually push people further away from work).

The shift to increased ‘conditionality’ in the welfare system in recent years has been little more than ideological fantasy; the belief that the unemployed aren’t human beings who need support to find a job but scroungers who need starving as motivation to get off the ‘easy life’ of benefits. It speaks to a wider drive of scapegoating heightened in the post-crash era that has seen politicians point to marginalised groups—be they immigrants or disabled people—as the cause of the nation’s problems.

Shifting the blame

The rise in insecure poverty waged jobs or the inequality in educational opportunities, say, are conveniently not the problem. Instead, blame is placed on the individual who needs help, who is increasingly vilified and dehumanised.

This is evident in the almost sadistic implementation of sanctions—and the policy that led to it. In 2012, David Cameron’s Coalition introduced legislation to make it easier to take more money from claimants and for longer (though rare, jobseekers can have their benefits stopped for as long as three years).

Worse still, these are often imposed for trivial or outright cruel reasons, such as missing an appointment to attend the birth of their stillborn child. Like anyone who has worked on this subject or experienced it themselves, I know first hand how tilted the power can be in Jobcentres; people hit by sanctions often have trouble with literacy, learning disabilities, or health problems (disabled people are 53 per cent more likely to be sanctioned than those who are not disabled).

At its peak in 2013, there were more than a million sanctions, with a 580 per cent increase in the number of disabled and chronically ill people who had their money docked. But this is not to say sanctions are a historical issue.

Skipping meals to avoid the jobcentre

Universal Credit (UC) has been found to have a particularly high rate of sanctions as it’s rolled out across the country. Notably, today’s study found low-paid workers on UC—the so-called ‘deserving’ hard workers who are required to find more hours or face sanctions—in some cases actually preferred to sign off, and give up housing benefit and tax credits, rather than deal with jobcentre staff.

When people would prefer to skip meals rather than deal with the jobcentre, the concept of a safety net is on its knees.

MPs are currently undertaking an inquiry into the sanction system—with one disabled woman telling the committee she was thrown out of a shelter and forced to sleep in her college library after being sanctioned—and we may hope this latest research, combined with the inquiry, will add to pressure on ministers. And yet, the signs are not optimistic.

A mere twelve hours before today’s sanction report came out, the government announced it was dropping a scheme to stop people being wrongly stripped of their benefits. The ‘yellow card’ drive was, it said, a “burden” on staff.

I would suggest that the people becoming destitute as a result of a sanction are perhaps dealing with a burden of their own. But then, if the sanction regime has taught us anything, it’s this: benefit claimants don’t really matter at all.