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When even an avowedly conservative think tank says that people are being unfairly sanctioned, making them destitute and forcing them to use foodbanks, the Department for Work and Pensions can no longer deny that there is something seriously wrong with the system it has created.
While Policy Exchange’s acknowledgement that there is a problem is welcome, its report still accepts the principle of sanctions, perpetuating the belief that ‘workshy’ people are milking the system, and need to be disciplined into finding a job. The author of the report, Guy Miscampbell (who graduated from university in 2012 and refers to himself as a ‘boy genius’) suggests issuing first-time offenders, who may or may not have been fairly sanctioned, with a 'yellow card' in the form of a benefits card. Benefits would be accessed using this card for a maximum of eight weeks. If the claimant continued to breach job search conditions, the card and benefits would be taken away.
Now, this may sound reasonable to anyone who has no real experience of the reality of what happens at Jobcentres and the problems encountered by people claiming JSA. But for those who know how arbitrary and irrational the system now feels, it is no help whatosever.
Take this account, from a 62-year-old woman, recently made redundant: “Some of us in our previous lives actually taught jobsearch. We actually took people through to the point of appointment, so [it's very hard] to come here and be told “why are you late, you’re not doing proper jobsearch, that’s why you haven’t got a job,” when you’re 62 years of age… I’m being told that if ever I arrive late, they are going to cut the whole of my benefits.
“They can make you come in every day if they want. I’ve actually come in today to tell them that I can’t come in on Friday, because I’ve got a discussion [about a job] through my own network, possibly about doing some job share. I’ve just had to walk here to tell them that I can’t come for the Friday interview. I don’t come, they’ll sanction me. It’s just policing really.”
The question that needs to be asked is not how we mitigate the effects of sanctions, but what is the point of sanctions? What are they designed to do?
There are currently 2.34 million people out of work. There are around 400,000 job vacancies. It doesn’t take a genius to see the problem here. Even if vacancies and people looking for a job were matched perfectly by region and suitability, there would still be around four unsuccessful applicants for every one who got a job. Must the unsuccessful applicants be punished for not trying hard enough? And of course, this being the real world, it is more complex than those two figures suggest. In Cambridgeshire there are just over two applicants for every job: in less prosperous areas of the country there are many, many times that.
When the coffee chain Costa advertised eight vacancies at a new cafe in Nottingham, they were shocked to get 1,701 applications.
The jobs paid between £6.10 and £10 an hour. Unsuccessful applicants included graduates and senior retail managers with more than 15 years’ experience.
There are obviously many people who are desperate for a job, any job, and are finding it extremely difficult to get one. If one of Iain Duncan Smith’s fabled ‘workshy’ people who must be forced with threat of sanctions to apply gets a job, it inevitably means someone who is desperate to work misses out. So how do sanctions play any part in reducing unemployment or in any other positive outcome?
Those who deal with the consequences of the sanctions regime every day, Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) for instance, say the whole sanctions system is punitive and distressing. Manchester CAB produced its ‘Punishing Poverty’ report in October 2013, in which it detailed the effect of sanctions on its clients.
Among other things, it noted that 33 per cent of those surveyed who had been sanctioned were in receipt of ESA and considered not fit for work at that time. They reported that the impact on individuals and families of suddenly losing their income was devastating, resulting in a deterioration in health, broken relationships, and making it less, not more likely, that they would find and keep a job.
For those on the receiving end, benefit sanctions are experienced as a means of punishing them for being unemployed, despite the fact that there are not enough jobs available. The system as it stands looks very like bullying, kicking those at the bottom of the economic heap, deciding who will be able to buy food and who will be forced to go to a foodbank. It is ugly and mean-spirited.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeadenTweet