Sanctions have been a dystopian farce but there are wider problems for social security
Universal Credit was always controversial - but no other part of this sweeping reform has received as much criticism as its sanctions.
Sanctions are a reduction in benefit – smaller payments, or a complete withdrawal of support, for a given period of time – meted out when an individual does not adhere to the conditions of the benefit in questions.
Critics of the process have labelled it many things, from misguided and malfunctioning to callous and cruel, and story after story has been published outlining some of the wild, nonsensical and horrific reasons people have been sanctioned. Ken Loach even made a film about them.
Earlier this week, a report was released that concluded they fail in their basic, stated purpose of getting unemployed people back into work and instead increase poverty, poor health and can even encourage crime.
The WelCond Project – a five-year piece of work from researchers at six different universities across the UK – concluded that: “Benefit sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek, or enter paid work. They routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes and push some people away from collectivised welfare provisions.”
Here we look at what this report says about sanctions and how they have worked – or not – with Universal Credit.
WelCond is research into “welfare conditionality” in the UK, this meaning two things: when people’s access to social security is restricted or removed, such as by sanctions; and compelled welfare support structures, such as family intervention or help to find work.
The group spoke with 481 people living in various places across the UK who live in a variety of circumstances: unemployed people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, individuals and households claiming Universal Credit, lone parents, disabled people, social tenants, homeless people, people subject to antisocial behaviour orders or family intervention, migrants, and offenders.
Each of these different categories has its own dedicated briefing as part of the final publication. This article is focused on Universal Credit; Northern Ireland, following the rest of the UK, is currently moving towards that system as its sole model for social security.
On one level, Universal Credit was not just uncontroversial but, instead, a policy with widespread backing because of its aim to simplify welfare in the UK and replace several separate statutory benefits under one banner.
However, at the same time as implementing this more straightforward system, the government laid out its intent to reduce the amount spent on social security, meaning most people who moved from the old streams onto Universal Credit saw their support decrease – a move which angered a lot of people (and which also had a lot of support, it should be said).
Sanctions, however, have never been popular. Not necessarily because of opposition in principle – the WelCond paper itself notes that “[m]ost participants agreed with the principle that unemployed people should attend appointments and look for work” – but because its execution has been a cartoonish failure.
Stories like people being sanctioned for missing a JobCentre appointment because they were at a job interview, or for failing to complete a work-capability assessment because they had a heart attack during the interview, have made the news for understandable reasons.
However, these absurdities are not out of character for the system.
A total of 35 of the WelCond interviewees had been sanctioned while on Universal Credit. Most sanctions were handed out for bureaucratic appointments being missed – such as a meeting at the job centre - despite excuses for missed appointments including being at work, attending a family member’s funeral and being in hospital following a suicide attempt.
In some cases, sanctions created extra barriers that prevented people looking for work, with one interviewee saying:
“The sanctions, I think, have held me back from being able to go and look for work… I wasn’t able to get out and look for work further away, but if I wasn’t sanctioned I would’ve been able to look for work in [nearby city].”
One respondent ended up applying for jobs he knew he had no chance of getting – a complete waste of time – solely to escape sanction. For those claiming Universal Credit while in employment, the sanctions regime often threatened to undermine their working life.
“I go down [to JobCentre Plus] and say, ‘Look, I’m doing 16 hours with more hours promised.’ [The work coach says] ‘Well you’ll have to look for another job’… That’s scurrilous because I’ve got my employer on one hand wants me to do mornings and would like me to do an evening shift, you know. I never get told what day I’m working. So, I can’t go to another employer and say, ‘Look…I can probably fit in another 20 hours work a week but I don’t know when I can work for you’.”
“The current sanctions regime is unfit for purpose because it has widespread and deeply negative impacts on wellbeing whilst failing to improve employment outcomes substantially or enable beneficial inwork progression.
“The application and threat of sanctions impacted negatively on in-work and out-of-work UC [Universal Credit] recipients and did more harm than good in terms of gaining or progressing in work.
“The stringent sanctions regime did ensure compliance with conditionality requirements, but could be counterproductive in creating unnecessary barriers to paid work. Even some working recipients experienced financial hardship, were forced to use food banks, accumulated debt or risked losing their homes because of arrears and had worsening physical and mental health.
“Several interviewees reported being pressurised to apply for unsuitable or unsustainable jobs. In-work conditionality was mainly viewed as unfair and illogical and the requirements set by Jobcentre Plus were in some cases at odds with the realities of the contemporary labour market.
“Working recipients reported struggling to attend Jobcentre Plus appointments and increasing their hours or work or number of jobs was ineffective in moving them out of poverty or improving the quality of their work. This heavy pressure to spend many hours taking ineffective action was not well supported.”
A working future
WelCond’s Universal Credit paper has several key recommendations, some of which include:
- Reforming sanctions to ensure people are treated with “empathy, dignity and respect”, including: the removal of financial penalties from various vulnerable people; a reduction in the length and severity of penalties to ensure proportionality; the process itself should be more reasonable and come with fair warning.
- Conditionality-free Universal Credit should be trialled.
- Counterproductive conditions placed on claimants who are in work should be urgently reconsidered.
- Support and training should be of higher quality with more meaningful engagement, and support systems should be free to use, accessible and flexible.
- The entire system should be rethought to ensure that paid employment is financially viable and that working recipients are better off in employment and no longer living in poverty.
It paints a dizzying picture of a system that fails in several of its stated aims. However, while some of the problems with Universal Credit and conditionality are clear, solutions are not so easy.
The fact that people can be in work and yet still need welfare support represents a failure of the market. Scope has written at length about the rise of automation and AI and the pressures this will put on the jobs market – fewer jobs, and lower wages.
Meanwhile, those outside of work rely on support that comes from the national tax take. This is stretched already and, looking into the future, is set to become moreso – for example, the burden on health and social care is increasing at a rate far above economic growth, never mind that the internet is creating a lot of enormous multinational companies that are extremely elusive and pay little tax.
It is not easy to design and fair and equitable social security system that is also robust. Nevertheless, that is what needs to be done.
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