Last year David Clapson died because benefit sanctions left him unable to pay for electricity to refrigerate his insulin. His story meant hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition opposing the current sanctions regime. The petition had an impact and an inquiry into sanctions was announced.
Championed by Debbie Abrahams MP, who has previously stated, “I support the principle of a sanctions regime. If somebody consistently fails to turn up for work experience or a Work programme scheme, sanctions should be applied”, the inquiry looks set to stay within a framework which assumes some sanctions are necessary or even beneficial. Though it’s clear the inquiry won’t come to the conclusion it should – that all sanctions should be abolished – we think it’s important that our voices are heard.
On January 7th, the government held the first of its three evidence hearing sessions for the inquiry. It was important because some views that the DWP doesn’t agree with, some very good arguments against the sanction system itself, went on record, as well as some of the usual toxic workfare rhetoric.
Boycott Workfare has also submitted evidence to the sanctions inquiry. In contrast to the narrative that the DWP, the media or workfare industry representatives use to justify sanctions, we think another story needs to be heard. Our story of sanctions is that they are part of a shift from a supportive welfare state to a punitive workfare state. We highlight how many sanctions are not only petty and unfair, but how they also cause harm to mental and physical health and deliberately threaten and impose poverty and destitution.
As sanctions are a fundamental part of workfare – putting the ‘force’ in ‘forced labour’ – our main recommendation is that they should be abolished. Sanctions work on a much wider scale than the inquiry is claiming; the fear of being referred to mandatory work schemes and being exposed to harsher sanctions means that even supposedly ‘voluntary’ schemes like Work Experience are in fact just another layer of threat and punishment.
In the evidence hearing two weeks ago, there were some of the familiar justifications trotted out for sanctions. The inquiry is also a response to the report written by Matthew Oakley, formerly of the workfare-loving think-tank Policy Exchange, who was invited to give evidence as an ‘independent reviewer’. Oakley claimed that sanctions were a necessary part of conditionality, a sentiment echoed by the Tory MP, Graham Evans, who said that sanctions were needed so that people understand their ‘responsibilities’.
Another member of the first panel, Kirsty McHugh of the workfare industry body ERSA, slipped in the familiar idea that those being sanctioned live “chaotic lives”. The important aim for conditionality was, she said, about “getting people’s mindset in the right place”, echoing the ‘change-your-attitude’ approach of psychological coercion in workfare.
It was during the second panel of evidence-givers, however, that the sanctions system took a beating. Dr David Webster asked, “Why do you have to have a system which is based on the fundamental assumption that people have to be compelled to do things that they don’t want to? “Over the last twenty years”, he continued, “we have seen this shift towards running what is in effect a parallel penal system.” This system runs in secret: decisions are made in secret by officials; the claimant is not legally represented; the punishment is applied before they get a hearing; and if the claimant does get a hearing it is long after the sanction has been applied. All this, he suggested, should be “totally unacceptable in a democratic society.”
Others on the panel backed up the idea that the system is punitive. Chris Mould of the foodbank network The Trussell Trust said they had seen “frequent examples of punitive and disproportionate [sanction] decisions” and that sanctions were one of the main reasons for food bank referrals. Peter Dwyer, of York University, said that sanctions were being applied in an automated fashion, for being two minutes late for an appointment, for example. He had the impression, he said, that ‘support’ in the system had become secondary, and that sanctions were being used as a deterrent against people claiming benefits.
Webster has estimated that since the new sanctions regime started in October 2012, £275 million has been withheld because of sanctions of JSA claimants. More evidence will be heard in two further sessions, one this Wednesday and one later this month. Most people won’t be as critical of sanctions as David Webster. Nevertheless, this inquiry presents an opportunity for us to shout about how sanctions are unacceptable and punitive and that we won’t tolerate them any longer. Below are a few ideas of things you can do to take action and challenge the sanctions regime.
1. Sign the petition for an end to all benefit sanctions and share it!
2. The Sanctions Inquiry will hear vast evidence of the damage that sanctions cause, but the committee has said from the outset that in its view sanctions “can be a useful tool for encouraging engagement with employment support”. Sadly, this is the prevailing framework used even by people or organisations who also highlight the horrific impact of sanctions.
This means we have a lot of work to do to bring people back to the basic human reality that there is no fair way to threaten and impose poverty and destitution.
Please use the Sanctions Inquiry as an opportunity to influence those who help sustain workfare and sanctions or could do more to challenge them – perhaps your MP, your church, a charity you support, or your union.
- Tell them your experience of sanctions and/or why you oppose them.
- Ask them in what circumstances they think it could ever be right to punish people with hunger and destitution.
- Invite them to read Boycott Workfare’s submission to the Inquiry to learn more.
- Encourage them to publicly state their opposition to all sanctions and to work to bring them to an end.
Let us know how you get on!