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Sanctioning benefits is destitution by design


Erica Young: "do we believe a person’s ability to secure a job is enhanced or diminished by hunger?"

Many will agree that an effective social security system should incentivise engagement with appropriate support based on a position of mutual trust.

Our main low-income benefit is Universal Credit. While there are several features of Universal Credit that threaten already precarious financial lives, sanctions are among the cruellest.

In August almost one third of Universal Credit claimants, 1.8 million people, were potentially subject to a sanction, including those who already have jobs but are expected to find more or better paid work.

Sanctions are applied when an official agrees with a Jobcentre work coach that a claimant has failed to fulfil their obligations. Benefit is reduced, often stopping altogether, for up to six months depending on the circumstances.

In most cases the ‘offence’ triggering a sanction is simply failure to attend an appointment at a Jobcentre. Shockingly, we typically see sanctions arising in situations outwith the claimant’s control, such as illness, public transport delays and shifts becoming available at work.

The context is one in which increasingly onerous expectations are being placed on claimants. Personal and financial circumstances, local infrastructure, health, digital capacity and skills level have limited influence on these expectations. Many more claimants, including parents of very young children, are being expected to engage intensively with the Jobcentre, and are vulnerable to sanctions. The outcome can be a form of collective punishment of children.  

The inadequate response to this designed destitution is a discretionary hardship loan, providing a maximum of £221 per month to cover basic needs, including rent in some cases. This meagre stopgap, which amounts to little more than half the basic rate of Universal Credit, is automatically clawed back when benefit is restored. Little wonder then that sanctioned claimants resort to extreme food and energy rationing, or crisis and charitable support, long after the sanction ends.

Challenging sanctions when inappropriately applied can be a stressful and protracted process. Coping with the income loss while the process is ongoing is unavoidable. In one deeply distressing recent example, a CAB highlighted a client who was sanctioned when she failed to attend an appointment while re-locating due to domestic abuse. It took the CAB 42 days to successfully appeal and overturn the sanction.

The logical fallacy of a policy which removes lifeline financial support, apparently with the aim of incentivising work, is obvious.

Do we believe a person’s ability to secure a job is enhanced or diminished by hunger? Sanctions can be a trap door into low quality work. Within six months, sanctioned claimants are more likely to be shifting into ‘economic inactivity’ or low pay, earning on average £34 per month less than their non-sanctioned peers. Is this the kind of economy that we want? Evidence of the oft-cited ‘deterrent effect’ of sanctions is very limited. The evidence is clear on the other hand of the positive role of holistic support.

It may stretch credulity that our supposed safety net is designed in such a way that a decision made by one official can leave a stranger resorting to a foodbank, but this is what’s happening.

A punitive system that leaves people in abject poverty with diminished psychological and practical resources is a failure. It contributes to an atmosphere of mistrust, even hostility, and stigma. Far better a system that supports success, rather than creates destitution by design.  

Erica Young works in the Social Justice Team at Citizens Advice Scotland.

This column was first published in the Herald.



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