The road to the workhouse
I do not like the direction in which our society is travelling.
From a joint statement by several Christian churches, published in the Methodist Times in October:
Seriously? 100,000 children are affected by sanctions imposed on their parents? Let us remember what sanctions do. They deprive families of the money they need to pay for shelter, heating, food and the basic essentials of life. So 100,000 children were deprived of the basic means to live. What sort of society is it that does this to the innocent?In March this year, the Churches published a report showing that nearly 100,000 children had been affected by sanctions in 2014 alone and that people with mental health problems were being sanctioned at a rate of more than 100 per day.
And it gets worse.
That poor man. Sanctioned for 6 weeks for missing an appointment when his wife died. What sort of society is it that thinks it is reasonable to hurt such a man?The report told stories like that of Martin*, aged 60, who missed an appointment with the job centre because his wife died suddenly. He was sanctioned for six weeks, leaving him with nothing to live on and in a state of confusion as his wife had previously handled most of their joint paperwork. He came to the local church for help and charity Acts435 helped him with his living expenses until he could come to terms with the new shape his life had taken.
The report itself has further such tales to tell. In many cases the claimant is sanctioned due to circumstances completely beyond his control. And in some cases, such as this one, the fault actually lay with the DWP (my emphasis):
Peter (20 years old) was sanctioned twice - once for 4 weeks and once for 13 weeks - for failure to attend appointments with Groundforce (his Work Programme provider). On both occasions he had not received any letter stating that he had to attend an appointment. The lack of income led to an estrangement from his own family who could not afford to support him. He moved to stay with his girlfriend’s family but the financial pressures led to a further breakdown and he was re-housed in a hostel. He needed to claim hardship payments, discretionary housing payments, and use foodbanks in order to survive. The Coventry Law Centre assisted with mandatory reconsideration letters and the decisions were overturned, although not all of the benefit owed to him was reimbursed.The sanctions wrongly applied to this young man caused breakdown of family relationships and serious financial hardship. Yet the DWP did not even reimburse him fully, let alone offer compensation for their error. Another young man was sanctioned when the DWP sent the appointment letter to the wrong address, even though he had told them he had moved. The DWP never refunded the benefit wrongly deducted. And this tale, from Highbridge & Burnham On Sea Foodbank, is absolutely priceless:
We had a number of customers who had been sanctioned including one guy who had been sanctioned for being late for his appointment at the job centre because the queue was so long it took him to past his appointment time to be seen. He was sanctioned even though he had arrived at the job centre in plenty of time.DWP incompetence is legendary, of course, but this is beyond belief.
But appalling though these stories are, even more worrying is the treatment of the mentally ill. The report says that people who are deemed too ill to work are being sanctioned at an extraordinary rate (my emphasis):
Freedom of Information requests* show that in March 2014 – the last month for which data is available - 4,500 people who were judged as unfit to work because of long term mental health problems nonetheless had their sickness and disability benefit removed. Moreover the data shows that as the sanctions regime was tightened those with mental health problems were disproportionately affected.How, in God's name, is it EVER justifiable to sanction someone who is too ill to work? And what on earth is the point of doing so? Since these people are too ill to work, this can have nothing whatsoever to do with creating incentives to work. It is deliberate cruelty. There is no other satisfactory explanation.
In fact the churches' report makes very unpleasant reading. The DWP's gratuitous cruelty is evident throughout. This, for example, on the effect of sanctions on health:
Department for Work and Pensions guidance for assessing whether someone has a long term medical condition accepts that it is “usual” for the health of a claimant to deteriorate while they are sanctioned, if they have no other resources to fall back on. It states “It would be usual for a normal healthy adult to suffer some deterioration in their health if they were without essential items, such as food, clothing, heating and accommodation or sufficient money to buy essential items for a period of two weeks…” The DWP guidance repeatedly acknowledges that the sanctions it administers are expected to cause deterioration in the health of normal healthy adults.Starvation, exposure and hypothermia systematically used as punishments for minor transgressions of rules. And I mean REALLY minor. This is from a DWP training memo:
Audrey attends the JCP [Jobcentre Plus] every other Thursday at 10am to sign a declaration. On 25.10.12 she fails to attend to sign. On 1.11.12 she attends to sign at her normal time saying she forgot to sign last week as she got muddled with her dates. On 6.11.12 the DM [Decision Maker] determines that Audrey failed without good reason to participate in an interview as arranged to sign a declaration. This is Audrey’s first failure. A 4 week sanction is imposed.So, Audrey's benefits are removed completely for 4 weeks because she got her dates muddled. Remember that DWP says deterioration of health would be normal if people did not have basic means of survival for 2 weeks. Audrey's punishment is double that - for a first offence. Admittedly, she might get a hardship payment after 2 weeks. But her health would already have deteriorated by then. What kind of society is it that thinks starvation and homelessness is a reasonable punishment for a simple mistake? Audrey is not a criminal: unemployment is not a crime. But convicted criminals are treated better than this.
The churches point out that such out of proportion punishments do not in any way mirror working conditions:
The penalties attached to sanctions often do not appear reasonable or proportionate to the “failure” that has occurred. If a similar system operated in a workplace - where pay was immediately removed for a month for being late for a meeting or not achieving a weekly target - we might reasonably expect action to be taken against the employer.Indeed. Though in Victorian times, of course, employers did exactly that, and no action was taken against them. As did workhouses. The workhouse ethic was that work is a moral imperative: people who have no work are morally defective and must be forced to work as a "correction". If they refuse to work, they must be severely punished.
The DWP's sanctions regime looks uncomfortably similar. The sick, disabled, mentally ill and unemployed are treated like criminals even though they have committed no crime. A strict penal regime is imposed on them, with extremely harsh punishments for minor transgressions of unfair and arbitrary rules. These punishments affect not only their own health but the health of those dependent on them. Not unlike workhouses, really.
And in the not too distant future even those in low-paid jobs will be treated like criminals. The churches point out that under Universal Credit, the sanctions regime will be extended to recipients of in-work benefits:
The legal framework allows people to be instructed to do things like change jobs, attend training, or increase hours in order to earn more than the threshold income. Sanctions can then be imposed on those who do not comply with the requirements. This means that people who are already in work, ie the ‘working poor’, may become subject to sanctions unless they work for longer hours, find additional jobs, or find jobs which pay more money.Meanwhile the tabloids congratulate the government on getting the "scroungers" back to work - even though the churches note that few of those sanctioned actually find work: many disappear from the benefits system entirely. The churches comment about these people that "it is not clear how they manage".
But we know that sanctions do not work. Sanctioned people are not more likely to find work: indeed the deterioration in their physical and mental health as a consequence of sanctions may make finding work less likely, not more. Destroying people's health does not make them better able to work. Removing benefits from people who are too ill to work does not restore them to health.
The sanctions regime is no more than gratuitous cruelty imposed by petty bureaucrats. And the effect on the bureaucrats themselves is horrible, too:
There are persistent reports of Jobcentre workers feeling pressured to increase the number of sanctions they impose. One of the authors of this report has spoken to a number of Jobcentre advisers who were finding it difficult to reconcile their Christian faith with what they were required to do in the Jobcentre. The advisers felt that, even by following the rules with integrity, they were required to administer sanctions to people who would be damaged and had done nothing that warranted such a serious punishment. There are also a few reports of advisors setting claimants up to fail in order to keep up their sanction rate. This is a culture in which job seekers are less likely to seek the help and support they need and to which they are entitled.On reading this, I was reminded of the appalling Lloyds Bank sales incentive scheme of which I wrote a while ago. The Lloyds Bank staff abused customers because they faced harsh sanctions themselves. Perhaps this is also true of Jobcentre staff. How else is their deliberate cruelty towards vulnerable human beings to be explained?
We may not (yet) have created workhouses. But we have created workhouse-like conditions among benefit claimants. Recent research by Sheffield Hallam University finds that sanctions cause homelessness. There have been reports of terminally-ill people losing benefits because they have been deemed to be "fit for work": people starving to death after benefits are cut: people killing themselves because they have no means to live. The treatment of the mentally ill is particularly harsh. But the whole sanctions regime is a national scandal.
The sanctions regime has twice been criticised by the Work and Pensions Committee of MPs. In March, the Committee called for an independent review into the operation of the sanctions regime. The government rejected that call, though it did accept (at least in principle) other recommendations within the report. It continues to insist that sanctions are necessary.
I cannot agree with this. Even if sanctions work - and there is no evidence that they do - they are morally wrong. Depriving people of the basic means to live is unacceptable in a civilised society.
We desperately need to replace this horrible regime. Ideally we should introduce a basic income which is enshrined in human rights legislation and cannot be removed to create "work incentives". A properly designed basic income is itself a powerful incentive to work. We do not need sanctions. They are inhumane, and they don't work anyway. We can, and should, do far better by people than this.
In the 19th century it took the work of Dickens and a sustained campaign by The Times, and some high profile scandals, to expose the horror of the workhouses and bring about major social reforms. But this government is not listening even to a Parliamentary committee. What will it take to expose the horror of the 21st century benefits sanctions regime and bring about the social reforms that are now so desperately needed?
A very British disease
Mental health and homelessness
Time to rethink benefit sanctions - Joint Churches report
MPs call for full independent review of benefit sanctions - Commons Select Committee
* "The data collected through the Freedom of Information requests refer only to seriously affected individuals whose mental health problems mean they qualify for sickness benefit as certified by their doctor, the DWP’s private sector contractor ATOS, in addition to the DWP."