An examination of the new benefit sanctions which came into force in the UK yesterday, 21 October, and the effect they will have on the most vulnerable in society. Reproducing this article is not an endorsement of all of the views of the author.
From yesterday new sanctions on benefits are being rolled out by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), whereby people who don’t comply with the terms of their receipt of benefits can have their benefits docked for up to three years. The reasons for such sanctions being handed out include not applying for the jobs suggested by JobCentre staff, turning down offers of work - even if work is entirely inappropriate, refusing to do unpaid work - regardless of the conditions of that work, and missing appointments. It’s worth remembering that the JobCentre have targets to move people off benefits, and in the current situation in which there really aren’t enough jobs, that people are being moved off benefits by sanction and not by getting employed. It is also worth remembering that more people applying for jobs does not make more jobs appear.
Anyhow, I was mainly interested in trying to discover how benefits sanctions actually affect people - given that benefits are set at pretty much the minimum level to keep you alive, the prospect of living for three years without that, I imagine, would likely result in a) destitution, and b) death. I’m really interested in whether the government has impact-assessed or risk-assessed this change of policy. Unsurprisingly there is little in the way of research on people undergoing benefits sanctions, but having gone through the docs on the DWP site, I found a couple of useful reports. I’m just going to paste a couple of block quotes here in order that you can get a flavour of what these sanctions actually mean. The first is from a report on the effects of benefit sanctions on offenders from 2003 (http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd5/rports2003-2004/rrep198.pdf)
“One group appeared to have experienced little financial hardship. For these offenders, the sanction meant they had not had the money for things like buying clothes for themselves or toys for their children, renting videos, and going out. They reported having to buy cheaper food and cutting back on discretionary spending during the sanction period. ‘I just went without cigarettes, went without like going out for drinks and just cut back really.’ (Male, 23, CPRO, Sanctioned, IS 40%)
Others experienced more severe financial impacts, with problems paying for food, heating and electricity. These impacts were described by people experiencing an Income Support reduction as well as the 100% Jobseeker’s Allowance sanction. They described buying less or cheaper food or missing meals, and occasionally reported going without food for periods of time. Offenders reported that they had also cut back on or gone without heating or lighting for periods. ‘Without that money they were taking off me, I couldn’t run my fire, I was going without gas and electric.’ (Female, 19, CRO, Sanctioned, IS 40%)
There were also reports of living circumstances becoming more unstable because of the sanction. Offenders who lived with their parents said they had been threatened with being thrown out, or told to leave, because they were unable to contribute to their board during the sanction. Offenders living in rented accommodation also described being unable to pay rent due, above Housing Benefit. There were reports of being threatened with eviction (none had actually been evicted), and falling into arrears.
Offenders had also been unable to pay outstanding fines from previous offences, or fines imposed for the breach for which they had been sanctioned, and some received a summons to court or were threatened with repossession. There were other outstanding loans on which people had not been able to make repayments, such as Crisis Loans, informal loans from family or friends, and a debt owed to drug dealers.
A consequence for many offenders was an accumulation of debt which added to financial difficulties after the end of the sanction period”
A second report, from 2008, on the effects of benefit sanctions on the behaviour of lone parents, http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd5/rports2007-2008/rrep511.pdf, (a study that sounds like it was cooked up by Dr Milgram) offers the following in its summary:
“The findings in this study, based on the data gathered from both the lone parents and the Jobcentre Plus staff, suggest that imposing a sanction had only a negligible effect on customers’ labour market decisions. The questions posed in pursuit of the research aims drew very little data that could illustrate that sanctions promote job-seeking behaviour, although a very small number of customers said that the risk of, or the implementation of, a sanction ‘may’ have made a difference”
“The financial coping strategies of the lone parents who found their benefit payments reduced usually involved reducing spending. The spending that was reported to be affected often related to the purchase of basic provisions, such as food, phone, electricity, gas, nappies, taking their child to playgroup, paying other bills, Christmas club payment.”
Further, this study showed that “These lone parents, in comparison to the wider sample in this study, demonstrated higher levels of ill health, both of themselves and of their children.”
The increase in benefits sanctions has been designed by the government to save an extra £10bn. What is clear from these reports is that this money will be saved at the expense of the lives of those who are poorest and most in need. These sanctions will not create jobs, nor will they help people get jobs, but they will prevent both adults and children from having access to the very basic necessities: food, warmth, and shelter.