This is a blog which contains joy and danger in equal measure.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has decided to stop imposing three year-long benefit sanctions as a punishment for not obeying the instructions of the Jobcentre. Such sanctions meant that people had no support for food or heat for 3-years, causing untold hardship. I am overjoyed that this will stop.
I am angry that such a foolish policy was ever started and that so many lives have been damaged in the last seven years. We will never know how many lives have been damaged – as the government does not keep count.
I have only met one person on a three-year sanction.
Tara’s life story up to the point of having her income taken from her was one of abuse, by family and by partners, and of never finding a stable life. A three year sanction simply reinforced the trap holding her in poverty.
What most struck me was how utterly resigned she was. She expected people to be unpleasant to her – and they were. The Government agency tasked with helping her was no better. My impression was that she felt her life was broken and was unconcerned when someone else kicked at the pieces.
It is hard to hold the memory of my conversation with her alongside the Government’s description of sanctions as “supporting families into work” without exploding with laughter and anger simultaneously.
Three year sanctions were part of a package of policies beginning in 2010 that massively increased the number and severity of sanctions applied to the unemployed and to some sick and disabled people also.
This system reversed natural justice. When the Jobcentre believes that an instruction has not been obeyed a sanction is applied and it is up to the claimant to prove their innocence – or “show good reason” as it is termed. The result is that those least able to argue their case are most likely to be sanctioned. Our data highlighted those with mental health problems but the trend is clear for other groups – those with the most difficulties are those who are sanctioned most.
Churches and charities have tried to support families affected by sanctions. Foodbanks are called upon to feed people who have been sanctioned and importantly they show compassion and humanity where the sanctions system has not.
Working with other Churches we challenged the injustice of the sanctions regime in the #RethinkSanctions campaign. We joined the chorus of organisations who continue to call for a full independent review of sanctions – where the costs and the benefits of this policy can be seen by all and where a better system could be created.
The sanctions policy’s stated intention was to move people into work – but there has never been evidence that ramping up sanctions would achieve this. Over the past 9 years the Government has refused to look for evidence that it policy is achieving its aims, and worse has refused to look for evidence of the hardship caused by its policy choices. While others – including ourselves and the Governments own watchdog the National Audit Office – produced report after report detailing the damage the policy has caused the Government preferred to maintain its ignorance.
Today the Secretary of State has said she reviewed the DWP’s internal unpublished data, which tells her that “a six-month sanction already provides a significant incentive to comply with the labour market regime”.
Surely today is the time to not just do a limited private review which leads to an eye-catching change before a planned speech – but to review all the evidence from Government, academia and charities so we can understand the real effects of the sanctions regime? Is it not time to listen to the stories of people who have been sanctioned to see if the data indicating “compliance with the labour market regime” is really worth the pain inflicted?
Today’s announcement is a start – but if benefit claimants are to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve – it cannot be the end.
 Name changed to protect privacy