Benefits sanctions are financial penalties that are given to people who are deemed to have not met the conditions for claiming benefits. The social security system has always been based on people meeting certain conditions – this has been true for all working-age benefit claimants, with sanctions applicable to those who fail to observe those conditions. This has been the case since its inception.
However, the Coalition changed the conditions and increased the application, duration and severity of sanctions that apply to those claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) and extended the application of sanctions to those in the Work Related Activity Group of those claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Since 2012, benefit payments can be suspended for a minimum of four weeks and for up to three years where a person “fails to take sufficient steps to search for work”, to “prepare themselves for the labour market” or where they turn down an offer of employment or leave a job voluntarily.
It emerged during an ongoing inquiry instigated by the parliamentary Work and Pensions Select Committee that Research conducted by Professor David Stuckler shows that more than 500,000 Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimants have disappeared from unemployment statistics, without finding work, since the sanctions regime was toughened in October, 2012.
This means that in August 2014, the claimant count – which is used to gauge unemployment – is likely to be very much higher than the 970,000 figure that the government is claiming, if those who have been sanctioned are included.
The research finding confirms what many of us already knew.
Professor Stuckler, who has analysed data from 375 local authorities, said: “The data clearly show that many people are not leaving Job Seekers Allowance for work but appear to be being pushed off in unprecedented numbers in association with sanctions.”
The Work and Pensions Committee decided to conduct a further in depth inquiry into benefit sanctions policy, following the findings of the research. This inquiry will consider aspects of sanctions policy which were outside the remit of the Oakley Review. (You can see the terms of reference for the inquiry, and submissions are invited, all details of which are here – Committee launch inquiry into benefit sanctions.)
Labour MP, Debbie Abrahams, said: “Sanctions are being applied unfairly to job-seekers, as well as the sick and disabled.
The reason the Government is doing this is that it gets them off the JSA claimant figures, so it looks like there are fewer people unemployed.”
The Government claims that sanctioned claimants who leave the benefit system are going into work – they also claim that their punitive sanctions regime “works”. But the Oxford study found this is untrue in a “majority” of cases.
Debbie Abrahams asked the Tory Minister Iain Duncan Smith how many people were excluded from unemployment figures after being sanctioned but not going into work.
In the angry exchange, during the Work and Pensions Committee questions session yesterday, Mr Duncan Smith said that Ms Abrahams’ claims were “ludicrous”.
Mrs Abraham said: “Hundreds of thousands of people have had their benefits stopped for a minimum of four weeks and then approximately a quarter of these people, from the research that I’ve seen, are disappearing.
They are leaving and we don’t know where they are going. That’s an absolute indictment of this policy and it’s a little bit worrying if we’re trying to tout this internationally as a real success story.”
Mr Duncan Smith responded: “Well I don’t agree with any of that. I actually believe the sanctions regime as applied is fair, we always get the odd case of …”
The MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth cut in and said : “People have died after being sanctioned, Minister.”
“No, I don’t agree with that,” Mr Duncan Smith answered. But he has yet to provide any evidence that supports his view.
Many of us have been calling for an inquiry following the death of former soldier David Clapson. He died starving after being sanctioned for missing a single Job Centre meeting. David had type one diabetes, which is an autoimmune illness. He was unable to afford to maintain an electricity supply to keep his fridge running, where he safely stored his life-saving insulin. Sadly David is not an isolated case, and this government have been presented with many other cases of extreme hardship and suffering because of sanctions, which they simply deny.
Of course a DWP spokesman dismissed the study, saying: “It looks to be partially based on unreliable data.”
I don’t see how that could be the case. The data presented in the study explictly relates to people vanishing from the DWP’s records after claiming Job Seekers Allowance, who are not in work, so the comment from the DWP isn’t even a coherent, rational response.
We do know that the real problem is not people that people aren’t trying hard enough to work, or failing to try, but rather, it is the Tories ideological obsession with austerity policies that contract the economy and fail to provide the job opportunities that people are desperately looking for. And the fact that the government are lying to hide the consequences of their damaging and extremely cruel policies.Those policies are ultimately about removing support from people that need it, as part of a broader ideological aim of dismantling welfare provision.
Since the government does not track or follow up the destination of all those leaving the benefit system, as discussed, the off-flow figures will inevitably include many having their claim ended for reasons other than securing employment, including sanctions, awaiting mandatory review, appeal, death, hospitalisation, imprisonment, on a government “training scheme” (see consent.me.uk and the Telegraph – those on workfare are counted as employed by the Labour Force Survey.)
And it’s clear that sanctions, which are a crudely applied politicised form of punitive behaviourist pseudo-psychology, are being used to prop up an insidious ideological drive to remove people’s basic lifeline support at a time when they need it. Sanctions are the removal of money that the state previously deemed necessary for meeting basic needs, and as such, cannot possibly be justified when all they may ever achieve is to force people to focus on basic survival rather than on gaining employment.
Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for the excellent pictures.