National Audit Office (NAO) is currently undertaking a study of benefit sanctions, in order to:
“… examine whether the Department for Work and Pensions is achieving value for money from its administration of benefit sanctions. This includes how benefit sanctions fit with the intended aims and outcomes of DWP’s wider working age employment policy, whether sanctions are being implemented in line with policy and whether use of sanctions is leading to the intended outcomes for claimants.”
I wrote two days ago about the Department for Work and Pensions document about the Randomised Control Trial (RCT) they are currently conducting regarding in-work “progression.” The document was a submission made to the Work and Pensions Committee in January, as the Committee have conducted an inquiry into in-work conditionality. The document specifies that: “This document is for internal use only and should not be shared with external partners or claimants.”
The Department for Work and Pensions claim that the Trial is about “testing whether conditionality and the use of financial sanctions are effective for people that need to claim benefits in low paid work.” The document focuses on methods of enforcing the “cultural and behavioural change” of people claiming both in-work and out-of-work social security, and evaluation of the Trial will is the responsibility of the Labour Market Trials Unit. (LMTU). Evaluation will “measure the impact of the Trial’s 3 group approaches, but understand more about claimant attitudes to progression over time and how the Trial has influenced behaviour changes.”
Worryingly, claimant participation in the Trial is mandatory. There is clearly no appropriate procedure to obtain and record clearly informed consent from research participants. Furthermore, the Trial is founded on a coercive psychopolitical approach to labour market constraints, and is clearly expressed as a psychological intervention, explicitly aimed at “behavioural change” and this raises some serious concerns about research ethics and codes of conduct.
Sanctions are “penalties that reduce or terminate welfare benefits in cases where claimants are deemed to be out of compliance with requirements.” They are, in many respects, the neoliberal-paternalist tool of discipline par excellence – the threat that puts a big stick behind coercive welfare programme rules and “incentivises” citizen compliance with a heavily monitoring and supervisory administration. The Conservatives have broadened the scope of behaviours that are subject to sanction, and have widened the application to include previously protected social groups, such as sick and disabled people and lone parents.
There is plenty of evidence that sanctions don’t help people to find work, and that the punitive application of severe financial penalities is having a detrimental and sometimes catastrophic impact on people’s lives. We can see from a growing body of research how sanctions are not working in the way the government claim they intended.
Sanctions, under which people lose benefit payments for between four weeks and three years for “non-compliance”, have come under fire for being unfair, punitive, failing to increase job prospects, and causing hunger, debt and ill-health among jobseekers. And sometimes, causing death.
The Conservative shift in emphasis from structural to psychological explanations of poverty has far-reaching consequences. The reconceptualision of poverty makes it much more difficult to define and very difficult to measure. Such a conceptual change disconnects poverty from more than a century of detailed empirical and theoretical research, and we are witnessing an increasingly experimental approach to policy-making, aimed at changing the behaviour of individuals, without their consent. This turns democracy completely on its head. Policies are meant to meet public needs, rather than being used simply as tools of government to have the public meet ideologically-determined government outcomes.
This approach isolates citizens from the broader structural political, economic, sociocultural and reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape an individuals’s experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a problematic duality between context and cognition. It also places unfair and unreasonable responsibility on citizens for circumstances which lie outside of their control, such as the socioeconomic consequences of political decision-making.
It’s clear that the government intends to continue embedding sanctions in policies which were meant to provide a minimal income for people needing support. This is policy based entirely on ideology and traditional Conservative prejudice, aimed at punishing sick and disabled people, unemployed people, the poorest paid, and part-time workers, inflicting conditions of hardship, distress and absolute poverty on those social groups. Meanwhile, the collective bargaining traditionally afforded us by trade unions has been systematically undermined by successive Conservative governments, showing clearly how the social risks of the labour market are being personalised and redefined as being solely the economic responsibility of individuals rather than the government and profit-driven big business employers.
It’s important that we gather and present as much evidence as possible about the detrimental impact of welfare sanctions. The NAO study will run until the Autumn, so that gives us some time to have our say about our own experiences.
It is easy to make a submission to the study. Just go to the contact page and select welfare and benefits as the topic, and write “FAO Colin Ross” or “Max Tse” in the subject field. Alternatively, you can email Colin Ross, the audit manager, directly at Colin.ROSS@nao.gsi.gov.uk
Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. If we can’t meet our basic physiological needs, it isn’t likely that we will be able to meet higher level psychosocial needs.
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