by Ken Gibb

More than 50 braved a damp midweek evening in Glasgow tonight to participate in the first meeting of the Policy Scotland Welfare Reform Network. The network seeks to provide a setting where research, practice and policy can exchange information, ideas, evidence and argue about welfare policy. The subject of the evening was benefit sanctioning.

There were three brief papers. David Webster (Urban Studies, Glasgow University) presented rare evidence on sanctions trends, focused on JSA and ESA. Sharon Wright (also Urban Studies) drew on her ESRC Conditionality research to set sanctions in a wide policy, practice and labour market perspective. Carla McCormick of the Poverty Alliance provided an assessment of the impact of sanctions on real people, specific categories of people, organisations and on the wider economy and society. There was a lively and wide-ranging discussion after the three presentations. A good start which bodes well for future network sessions on Universal Credit (coming to Glasgow in June), welfare reform and migrants and a discussion of welfare reform and disability benefits.

What were the main points raised in the papers presented and what did I think were the major themes that emerged?

David Webster provided a lot of information, all from government sources, some of it from FoIs. Much of this would not get into the light of day were it not for David’s consistent and tenacious efforts.The scale of JSA sanctions is alarming with 6.5% of claimants a month sanctioned on JSA in the year up to September 2014. For young people JSA sanctions occur at twice the level than for other claimants Overall, since the Coalition was formed in 2010, the rate of sanctions has gone up 2 and 3/4 times. Overall, more than one in five of all JSA claimants in the five years to 2014 were sanctioned. Of all JSA individuals sanctioned in the last year, a third were sanctioned more than once. Since 2000 40% of those sanctioned received 2 or more sanctions.

How much money is lost to claimants (i.e. what are the direct savings to DWP)? Webster estimates that in 2005 benefits withdrawn because of sanctions saved £37million in JSA. By 2012 this was £140 million and in 2013-14 it had reached £328 million. Webster argues that there will be as much lost again by non-claimants (that is of the order of £350 million) because people are driven off claiming benefit. These figures are disputed and may be 50% or 60% of that level but Webster believes 100,000 claimants and a figure of £350 million is in fact reasonable.

Sharon Wright contrasted the expansion of the sanctions regime with the corresponding change to the support regimes that are designed to help people back into work, such as the work programme. Sanctions in the recent period have increased in frequency, duration and severity. Sanctions are now triggered more easily, accelerate rapidly and apply to wider groups than before. Sanctions can also run together across different benefits and when it is introduced the Universal Credit will draw another 1.2 million more people into the sanctioning regime (such as partners of claimants and those in work).

On the other hand, Wright argued that support for employment services provision in the UK is comparatively low in European terms, there is no direct job creation and only minimal spend on training. Furthermore, the UK system is more of a self help system, acting to residualise job centre plus. The evidence on the Work Programme is also not encouraging, summarised as over promised and under delivered.

Carla McCormick addressed the impacts of sanctions on people drawing both on evidence from research and policy sources but also case study testimonies of those affected. Carla noted that more than 132,000 sanctions were imposed in Scotland between October 2012 and June 2014. Sanctions take many people further away from the labour market because it significant increases the cost of labour market search. Sanctions also drive people to miss meals, often to depend on food banks and suffer mental health, family and stigma problems. Not only do sanctions also increase costs and change workloads for service organisations, the Poverty Alliance also demonstrated the wider costs of sanctions on homelessness, family and health services that follow on from the direct and indirect consequences of being sanctioned.

Listening to the presentations and subsequent discussion, the key themes that struck me overall were as follows. First, the remarkable lack of an evidence base on sanctions impacts and the sense of a lack of interest in such knowledge by the policy’s proponents. This is despite the clearly highly punitive nature of these punishments. Second, Webster identifies the scale and the reach of sanctions in the JSA sector. While we have less robust representative data on impacts, the depth of the problem and increasing reliance on food banks speaks volumes.

Third, the long term antecedents of the policy go back at least to New Labour but have been intensified under the Coalition. At the same time, fourth, the absolute incidence of sanctions is in part a function of wider labour market conditions but even with falling unemployment, the proportion of claimants being sanctioned remains steady and comparatively high.

Fifth, several people remarked on the curious silence during the Smith Commission about sanctions given the devolution of the work programme. Universal credit is still coming to Scotland and will significantly extend exposure to the sanctions regime. Finally, I was struck by a point my colleague Nick Watson made to me at the end of the meeting. We need to build a case against sanctions by developing a prevention approach; otherwise, we are increasing future demand for services as a result of sanctions. If we want to reduce future demand for services like homelessness, mental health and family services – we should roll back the sanctions regime.

It was an interesting though often a sobering and challenging evening. A great start for the network. A final thought I had is that we should also use the network, its social media and activities to raise awareness in this election year about these issues and seek to correct the media and political misunderstandings and down right inaccuracies that bedevil the public reporting and understanding of benefits and welfare reform.