Benefit sanctions - ineffective and immoral

jobcentreplusFood banks and job clubs, run by churches and community organisations around the country are reporting increased numbers of destitute people asking for emergency help, who come to them with the story “I’ve been sanctioned”. Greg Smith, a member of Christians on the Left, explores just what that means in a blog that first appeared on church action on poverty's website. 

It is government policy, introduced by the previous Labour administration, and toughened up by the Coalition, that benefit claimants who do not fulfil the terms of their job seeker’s agreement will have their benefits withdrawn. The aim quite crudely is to discipline the unemployed to ‘get on their bike’ to look for work, and to take any job that may be on offer, however inconvenient and however lowly-paid. “Those who will not look for work shall not eat” seems to be the motto.

Nearly half a million people have been affected.. Some 580,000 sanctions were handed down to over 400,000 claimants between October 2012 and June 2013, according to recent DWP figures.

In simple terms this policy is immoral.

It slashes a huge hole in the welfare safety net and causes huge destitution and distress, while doing nothing that makes a significant impact on unemployment or worklessness. It strengthens the prejudices of the ‘strivers’, frequently described in politicians’ rhetoric as ‘hard-working families’, against those labelled ‘scroungers’ – thus throwing us all into an individualistic law-of-the-jungle struggle, rather than strengthening the bonds of community. While bankers, and top executives in public, voluntary and private sectors, including those who operate in the ‘unemployment industry’, are offered incentives for good performance, and golden farewell handshakes when they fail, the poorest are offered few incentives and lots of penalties. This is not social justice as the biblical prophets demanded, or social insurance as envisaged by Temple, Beveridge and the other founders of the welfare state.

The sanctions regime is also ineffective.

Where there are few jobs available, as in the North West of England, taking money away from people is hardly going to help them find jobs. With the government’s ‘Work Programme’ in a state of failure and chaos, with perverse incentives that encourage providers to cherry-pick the easy cases to help, and accusations of corruption, many of the unemployed despair of getting help and meaningful training. For most people who are sanctioned, it does nothing to help them acquire skills that would help them compete in the labour market, against the pool of graduates and migrant workers who are skilled, enthusiastic, flexible and willing to take on work below their educational and skills level. Learning to write CVs (which are frequently very thin), to do job searches on the internet, and having to apply online for dozens of inconvenient, unsuitable jobs for which they are poorly qualified, and which they may be physically or mentally incapable of holding down, is hardly a profitable use of time. Such work is barely more productive than watching daytime TV, and might even be better replaced by the offer of work on a programme of public works paid at the minimum wage, as applied in numerous previous recessions. Yet failure to comply can mean an end to even the minimum income produced by benefits. Destitution, which follows, merely helps the poorest to learn how to survive by ducking and diving, by applying to charity, by falling into the clutches of payday lenders and loan sharks, by begging and sometimes stealing. Increasingly we come across people who find the whole process of claiming out-of-work benefits so demeaning and stressful that they just can’t be bothered to apply, and conveniently disappear from the official register of the unemployed.

Sanctions may not even be cost-effective.

If they produce stress and distress and increased petty crime, the tab has to be picked up by other budgets from the public purse. Sanctions reduce health and well-being for the claimants and their families, resulting in extra demand on the NHS. Police and the courts are likely to become more busy, with all the associated costs.

Sanctions are also applied in a harsh and arbitrary way.

Even the the language used by government is punitive and tends to criminalise people who simply are not coping. Official guidance from the DWP speaks of sanctions being applied for first, second and third ‘offences’. An ‘offence’ can simply be missing an appointment at the Job Centre, perhaps because a bus was late, or cancelled, perhaps because a child was sick and off school. These offences are not tried publicly in a court of law, but determined administratively by a low-level officer at the Job Centre. Even where there is a successful appeal against the sanction, it can take months to recover the payment. Despite denials, rumours persist that there is a league table encouraging competition between offices for the highest rate of sanctions imposed.

Sanctions are imposed for the flimsiest of reasons.

In our local church job club, we have heard of people who have lost benefits because they failed to apply for an HGV driver job when they didn’t even have a driving licence, for failing to apply for enough jobs when they had spend the whole week walking round all the local nurseries and child care centres with a CV but had no way of proving it, and for not applying for a job on a two-hours-per-day contract over 10 miles away which would have paid less than benefit levels, and barely covered transport costs. There is an enlightening list of other silly but tragic sanctions at the Stupid Sanctions website.

Why should Christians and the church be concerned? Firstly, of course, because it is a question of justice and mercy that is causing great hardship in our land. But beyond that, it is placing impossible and unjustified demands on the church and charitable sector. Indeed it is an opportunity to rise to the challenge and become more generous, and churches and communities have responded magnificently through food banks, soup kitchens, job clubs and money and debt counselling centres. However, it is unfair of the government to shift the burden of support to charities. It is another example of the ‘freerider’ problem that government so actively seeks to drive out of the welfare system.

As long as the state expects the churches to become the safety net for the failure of economic and employment policy, it is they and not the unemployed who deserve the name of ‘scrounger’.

Greg Smith is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation.

Post topics:
Do you like this post?

Showing 12 reactions

commented 2016-07-26 17:00:23 +0100 · Flag
Well that’s Blairite New Labour for you, helped a little bit by the lovable George and IDS.
commented 2014-10-18 21:21:01 +0100 · Flag
This website is for Christians and leftwingers. Acts of the apostles 2:5 blatantly postulates communism, small c. You aren’t going to get more far left than that.
I ask you one question having read all you have written. When you read the parable of the good Samaritan which of the three passers by do you see yourself as?
commented 2013-12-16 18:25:48 +0000 · Flag view this for a sensible TUC view on benefit cuts
commented 2013-12-10 14:57:43 +0000 · Flag
Greg and Shirley – you can quote your far left views as much as you like, but there are far too many examples of people working the system for there to be no truth in the matter. and let’s get real no one is going to admit to milking the welfare system are they. Neither of you address the issue of women producing babies without the fathers lifting a finger to support them so the state has to pick up the tab. I wonder why. Perhaps you might like to explain why you think it is o.k. that one section of society should have to support the other, unless the needs really are genuine. I am only one person in one place and I personally know several people who know how to get welfare they are not really entitled to. Don’t ask – I shan’t name names. Shirley, if you think that saying that I sound like IDS is an insult, I can assure it isn’t, if you compared me to Ed Milliband well that would be insulting. We shall never agree, you want to finance every Tom, Dick and Harry as long as someone else picks up the tab. ’nough said.
commented 2013-12-10 14:05:52 +0000 · Flag
commented 2013-12-10 13:02:51 +0000 · Flag
I’m sorry to say this, Ruth, but you sound like IDS – ignoring empirical evidence because you believe it to be wrong. Here’s some hard evidence for you:
and some more;
This one includes the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s research – but you’ll probably say they didn’t try hard enough, either:
This one is about the increase in WORKING households reliant on Housing Benefit:
And if you don’t like what those statistical reoprts say, why not check out what DWP says here:

Then show me the “dreadful abuse” that is proliferating in this country. I think you’ll find that the dreadful abuse is being perpetrated by the tax evaders.
commented 2013-12-10 09:51:44 +0000 · Flag
Greg – firstly I NEVER read the Daily Mail so have no idea to what propaganda you are referring, secondly I have read your link to the JRF, to which all I can reply is that they quite clearly didn’t try very hard. There ARE families where workshy IS a way of life. You didn’t comment on the rising level of unsupported women producing children, fathered by feckless men. Many of the mothers and also the fathers are living on the state. I personally know a situation where one man, long term unemployed, has already fathered two children by two different women who are all state supported and is now in a relationship with a third woman in her twenties who is pregnant by him, and who has never worked since leaving school – as she said why should she, she can manage very nicely on her welfare payments, thank you very much. So please don’t tell me that there isn’t a lot of welfare manipulation by people who – know their rights. Meanwhile hard working families and older retired responsible citizens are taxed to pay for others when they could do with the cash themselves – keeping warm is expensive for the elderly. Welfare, by the abuse perpetrated by the lazy and clever who milk the system, has become a drain on the state and needs to be revised now. Trouble is that any politician who attempts to deal with the problem is at once branded a right wing, cold hearted monster.

I support a welfare state that cares for the GENUINELY sick, disabled and those who for no fault of their own have fallen on hard times. But I abhor the dreadful abuse which has proliferated in this country and about which COTL seem to be so indifferent.
commented 2013-12-09 19:38:44 +0000 · Flag
Ruth… you seem to be basing your understanding of the workless on the propaganda odf the Daily Mail rather than on personal experience or empirical research…. JRF researchers tried hard but could not find any 3 genrational families of “scroungers”.. please read this
commented 2013-12-08 19:57:46 +0000 · Flag
Shirley – Pensions may be included in the “Welfare” budget for accounting purposes – BUT it isn’t a WELFARE benefit in any sense of the word, those in reciept of state pensions have PAID for them over a lifetime of work and paying Nat. Ins and tax. THEY HAVE BEEN EARNED. To pretend otherwise is a lie.

And I could point you to places where there has been no wage earner for 4 generations. The increasing number of unsupported women having children and bringing them up on the state is a fact. Where are the men who father these children? These irrisponsible men should be made to face up to their responsibilities. Sadly we have generated a mind set of entitlement. As I have said real and genuine need is what the welfare system is intended for, it is not a gravy train for those who don’t want to work.

I am sorry that you were made redundant, I understand that is not a very happy place to be, but there should have been some redundancy payment to assist you while you job hunted surely.

The problem in the final analysis is the fact that welfare is paid for those who are working, and they have every right to not to support the workshy and scroungers, What if we all sat on our bottoms holding out our begging bowls.

btw I personally see nothing wrong with those who are fit and in reciept of welfare payments doing voluntry work it is good experience and will only enhance their C.V. They are not being put upon but putting something back into society in gratitude for state handouts.
commented 2013-12-08 18:03:38 +0000 · Flag
I agree, Ruth, people should work rather than rely on state welfare. The problem is that there just aren’t enough jobs to go around, and many of the people who use food banks are the working poor – there are more people working in receipt of benefits than not working. Here’s a report from the BBC with information about that:

There’s also the very real issue of people who are unable to work – in receipt of Employment Support Allowance following a difficult assessment – who are being forced to volunteer to work for many private businesses or charities else lose their benefits. I could provide you with many links if you’d like to read about that, as well as personal experience of supporting other Christians who, due to ill-health have had to give up their jobs.

And, there are very, very few adults who have never worked, although there are sadly many young people without jobs. Most people who receive Job Seeker’s Allowance have held a job in the past, and are temporarily out of work – for example I was made redundant and it took me over 2 months to find another job, so I claimed JSA after having paid into the benefit system all my working life. The welfare state is there to provide a safety net to us when we lose our jobs.

I’d also like to add “Pay the worker their due”, but sadly, there are many, part time or zero hours contract jobs where the worker needs to claim benefits whilst in work just to survive.

One last point; the largest part of the benefits bill is spent on pensions.
commented 2013-12-08 17:44:40 +0000 · Flag
If a person refuses to get a job – because it is not what they want or beneath them or requires a bit of effort – then please explain to me why they should be entitled to state benefits. The welfare state was set up to be a safety net for those unable, for legitimate reasons, to support themselves. It was, and is, right that it exists for the genuine needy. What isn’t right is that it has become – my right, I’m entitled etc. Well those who finance the welfare system also have their rights – the right to know that their taxes are being used for the right people, not the lazy or feckless. And please don’t tell me that there are no lazy or feckless people on benefits, we all know better than that. e.g. Men who father children with several women and they are ALL on benefit. AND How many of the food bank recipients have expensive t.v.s, phones, i.pads etc and other luxuries – that woul;d be interesting to know. It isn’t always poverty that is the problem but a failure to budget properly.

AS this is a Christian site and we see quoted often that we are to feed the poor, perhaps I could add some balance. The Bible also says that – By the sweat of his brow man shall eat bread and that The man who fails to provide for his family is worse than an unbeliever – . Just saying
commented 2013-12-06 08:57:42 +0000 · Flag
Whilst I agree with the vast majority of this, the words “fair” and “unfair” are irrelevant. Jesus told us to feed the hungry, not feed some of the hungry but expect the Government to do the rest. Fairness doesn’t come into it, it’s what we’re supposed to do. The fact that this government are intent on punishing poor, sick, disabled and needy people is what we should be protesting about, as loudly as possible – it’s repugnant the way DWP staff are penalising people for being in need of State support. That’s what’s wrong.
And yes, my church also works with homeless people on the streets, runs a soup kitchen and a food bank. It’s absolutely wrong that we have to, but completely right that we do.

Related posts on Welfare

Bob-Holman-008.jpgIt was sad but not unexpected to hear of the death last week of Bob Holman, lifelong Christian Socialist, and a powerful inspiration to us all.

As the use of Foodbank continues to rise, why are people struggling to feed themselves in one of the richest countries on the planet?

More topics: