By Dr Sharon Wright, University of Glasgow and co-investigator, Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions. Support and Behaviour Change research project
The social security system has been one of the most contentious issues of political debate in recent years – with the U.K. Government’s controversial changes to welfare standing in stark contrast with the majority view in the Scottish Parliament.
Throughout these debates, the issue of sanctions has been almost totemic, often described as representing the cruellest extremes of current welfare policy – kicking people when they are down and taking from people the ability to afford the basic necessities of life.
Today, MSPs have the chance to speak out about the findings of a new study which has found that Westminster’s sanctions regime brings about more sorrow than support and more hardship than help – and is failing by even its own standards.
The debate in Holyrood today has been sparked by new research on the impact of sanctions, carried out by the University of Glasgow and partners across the UK, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Our study has found that sanctions not only create ‘widespread anxiety’ in claimants but saw some people forced to turn to crime to survive after seeing their benefits cut. We heard testimony of people struggling to feed their families or even being unable to send their children to school, because they couldn’t afford the bus fare.
We found that sanctions had major negative impacts, with harrowing tales of the shame of losing essential income. This caused short-term crisis and long-term problems paying off debt.
Sanctions were found to result in some cases in rent arrears, eviction threats and homelessness. One mother told us that after being sanctioned she was forced to pawn everything she had – and choose between eating and lighting her home.
Sanctions often came as a shock and without warning, with many people believing they had followed the rules only to discover they had been caught out when they went to the cash machine and found they were overdrawn.
If people don’t even know why they are being sanctioned – how can the threat of sanction bring about positive behaviour change? This central tenet of the U.K. Government’s argument has been completely undermined by our research.
Many administrative errors by DWP were reported. The financial cost of a sanction often far outweighed the ‘crime’ that had occurred. We spoke to one disabled man who couldn’t eat properly for the whole of August because he was a few minutes late for his Jobcentre appointment even though he was inside the building, queuing to get past the security guard.
We found that sanctions had major negative impacts, including financial, emotional and health effects like anxiety and depression. A disabled woman told us that ‘It is demeaning, condescending, it is painful, it is damaging, it actually makes your disabilities worse… Nothing in what they’ve done to me has assisted me in getting back in to the employment market. So these people are paid to torture me basically, for money I don’t get’.
But the harsh system of sanctions means that some people have to comply with unrealistic job search rules, which can make it harder to find work in the long run – with one lone parent telling us she was forced into the “demeaning” position of applying for jobs she couldn’t take because of childcare commitments.
Of course, lone parents and homeless people are meant to qualify for ‘easements’ and ‘flexibilities’ to help them satisfy the rules, but use of these powers was found to be very limited.
But perhaps most galling is the fact that our report shows that sanctions do little to help people find work – and that the running theme behind examples of people getting into work was the availability of appropriate support, rather than the threat of punishment.
Indeed, our research served to demonstrate that the very foundation of the sanctions regime was flawed – the fact is that people by and large want to work, and in many cases have long histories in employment before their circumstances changed.
We spoke to one man, James, who found himself out of work after suffering health problems – and instead of finding help and support at the JobCentre, describes only a sense of fear at the prospect of being sanctioned. He sums his experience up simply as “They don’t really help you to find a job.”
Overall, the system of support is so limited that most of those in the study were DIY job hunting. Focusing on more intensive and individual support could help people overcome barriers to work – rather than the current focus on threat and punishment.
Our research results show that urgent action is needed to change the UK benefits system to help people to find work, rather than to punish them for trying to do the right thing.
It is very heartening that the Scottish Parliament is taking this issue so seriously – and today’s debate is an opportunity for MSPs across parties to speak with one voice on this issue which is causing misery for people in every part of Scotland.
And when they do, the UK Government should listen – and make long overdue changes to a sanctions regime we now know is failing by even its own standards and causing completely unnecessary hardship for people across the country.