Ask anyone who’s been on unemployment benefit, and they’ll tell you that they’d much rather be in work.
The sensationalist media may paint an image of the supposedly feckless benefits scrounger, leading a cushy life on constant holiday, all on the taxpayer’s dime. But you can’t exactly splurge when you’re getting a pittance – £72 per week, a much lower entitlement than in most European countries.
And even this meagre sum – barely enough to put food on the table, let alone do anything else – is under constant threat under the government’s draconian sanctions regime, which sees jobless people losing their only lifeline for absurd and often non-existent reasons.
Indeed, the daily hoops that you have to jump through while in constant fear of being sanctioned makes claiming Jobseekers Allowance one of the most difficult – and lowest paid – jobs out there.
On Wednesday (January 23), charities, campaign groups and PCS, the union representing Job Centre staff, gave evidence on benefits sanctions at a special work and pensions select committee.
The evidence against the sanctions regime, under the auspices of work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, is damning.
“Every engagement an opportunity to sanction”
Since the current government took the helm in 2010, benefits sanctions have gone through the roof by 2000 per cent, according to PCS research.
Over the weeks leading up to Christmas, the union found that in that month alone, £20m was being withheld from more than 70,000 people on unemployment benefit.
What can explain this shocking proliferation in the number of people being cut off from their benefits entitlements?
The department of work and pensions claims that sanctions are necessary to keep jobless people from abusing the system, but talk to Job Centre staff, and they’ll tell you a completely different story.
A former Job Centre official, John Longden, said he was under constant pressure by management to sanction jobseekers for even the smallest infraction.
“Sanctions of customers were encouraged by managers daily, with staff being told to look at every engagement with the customer as an opportunity to take sanction action,” he said.
“I was personally told by a manager to ‘agitate’ and ‘inconvenience’ customers in order to get them to leave the register.”
Head of Unite Community, Liane Groves, says that the “massive increase in sanctions” since the coalition government came to power is nothing more than political point-scoring.
“The sanctions regime as it stands now makes absolutely no sense,” she said. “Common sense tells you that if you cut off people’s ability to feed themselves and heat their homes, you create an environment that is not conducive at all to finding a job. You can’t perform well at a job interview if you haven’t eaten in days.”
“The government doesn’t want to help people get back into work,” she added. “They only want to improve unemployment figures to show that their tactics are working, that more and more people are finding work. Instead, you have sanctioned people disappearing from the system entirely and resorting to food banks to survive.”
Playing by the rules
The department of work and pensions recently claimed that “sanctions are a necessary part of the benefits system but they are used as a last resort in a tiny minority of cases where people don’t play by the rules.”
These so-called “rules” are a labyrinthine tangle of do’s and don’ts designed expressly to trip claimants up, which documented sanctions stories have shown.
Birmingham against Cuts has published a “selection of especially stupid sanctions,” which tells of one claimant being sanctioned for not looking for work on Christmas Day.
Another claimant was sanctioned for running nine minutes late to a job centre appointment, even though the reason she was late was because she’d been at a job interview that had run a bit too long.
Yet another claimant says the job centre gave her the wrong forms, after which she was sanctioned for filling out these wrong forms.
The list goes on.
“Disappeared from view”
What Groves called a “completely cruel” sanctions system — one that often targets the most vulnerable, including the mentally ill — has also been found to be ineffective as well.
According to recent research conducted by academics at the University of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, only a fifth of people whose benefits are taken away find work after being sanctioned.
“If, as we’re finding, people are out of work but without support – disappeared from view – there’s a real danger that other services will absorb the costs, like the NHS, possibly jails and food support systems, to name a few,” the researchers said. “Sanctions could be costing taxpayers more.”
The cost to sanctioned claimants themselves has also been exposed, a cost that some claimants have paid with their lives.
“We know of at least 60 suicides connected with the loss of benefits following sanctions,” said Groves. “The government itself has admitted to this scandal after an official investigation.
“It’s absolutely shocking that in the sixth richest country in the world, the most vulnerable people, who should be receiving support, are instead being punished.”
Unite has called for an immediate end to the sanctions regime, which has not only cost taxpayers money, but has ruined, and in some cases ended, countless lives as well.
Unite Community has actively fought the sanctions system in an ongoing campaign.
The union’s section for unemployed workers has published a guide to help those appeal sanctions decisions. Community often has stalls set up outside job centres across the country to provide the support network the most vulnerable need.
Want to get involved in the fight against sanctions? Join Unite Community’s day of action on March 19, when over 100 protests are set to take place across the country.