Benefit sanctions: MP's reply shows magical thinking

By Savi Hensman
February 7, 2015

An MP’s defence of benefit sanctions left many other UK parliamentarians stunned. It also showed how common magical thinking has become among those wanting tougher treatment of people receiving social security.

Labour MP Lisa Nandy from Wigan had described the hardship faced by a man with learning difficulties in her constituency who could not tell the time. He had been left sitting in the dark with no money for food or electricity after turning up late to jobcentre appointments, she said.

“Several times this year I have had to refer a gentleman with learning difficulties to Denise (the local Reverend) for food due to him having sanctions,” a councillor had told her. “The gentleman can’t tell the time and is a recluse. He has been found sitting in his flat in the dark with no electric or gas.” He “turned up at my door the other night. He hadn’t eaten for five days. He looked like he was dying.”

But Mark Spencer, Conservative MP for Sherwood, appeared to believe that this was a good thing, stating that “people who work very hard, and who might be earning very small amounts from working 50 hours a week, have to turn up to work on time.”

He continued, “If they are late for their employment, they might be sanctioned by their employer. It is important that those who are seeking employment learn the discipline of timekeeping, which is an important part of securing and keeping a job.”

Nandy asked him what he would expect someone with learning difficulties, who could not tell the time, to do in that situation.

“I think that that emphasises the importance of the education system in solving the challenges that we face as we move forward. We must try to ensure that the employees of the future are in the best place to be able to take on a career and move forward with a job,” he replied.

Certainly there are some people with learning difficulties who can and do go out to work, while a number of others could do so with more support or an accessible workplace. But Spencer appeared to believe that a lifelong impairment would suddenly vanish if the disabled man, or his teachers, had tried harder.

The idea that inflicting life-threatening punishment on someone for being disabled will suddenly transform them, so that their condition or illness disappears, is not uncommon. It forms the basis for much of today’s benefit system.

People who receive Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) because they cannot work due to a long-term mental health problem are being sanctioned at a rate of more than a hundred a day, the Methodist Church revealed earlier in January 2015.

“Sanctioning someone with a mental health problem for being late for a meeting is like sanctioning someone with a broken leg for limping. The fact that this system punishes people for the symptoms of their illness is a clear and worrying sign that it is fundamentally flawed," said Paul Morrison, policy advisor for the Joint Public Issues team.

Many severely ill people have been found supposedly fit for work using badly flawed tests, only to have this overturned on appeal. But even those granted ESA, along with jobseekers, are often targeted for sanctions which can leave them destitute.

The rationale is that fraud is common – a claim not borne out by facts – and that, with effort, almost anyone can get into the workplace and hold down a job. Last year it turned out that nearly 8,000 people no longer able to work due to degenerative diseases such as muscular atrophy were expected to take part in work-related activity. They might be sanctioned if, say, they did not turn up in time because they had a fall.

Earlier in 2014, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith had described the “welfare” system as an “entrapment” for “a million people left on incapacity benefits for a decade or more.”

In this worldview, regardless of medical science or the reality of people’s lives, even those with severe brain damage at birth, or a condition such as Parkinson’s that gets worse with age, might experience a miracle cure if benefits did not sap their morale. So leaving people with no food or fuel might be doing them a favour.

‘Magical thinking’ can refer to the belief that certain actions and events are cause and effect even when this is not backed up by reason or observation. This includes the idea that mental powers can override material reality. While the human mind is indeed a wonderful thing, such beliefs can lead to cruelty and injustice.

Such notions may be the basis of government policies. But leaving people humiliated, cold and hungry will not miraculously rid them of severe mental illness or rare genetic conditions, nor will they suddenly be able to tell the time.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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