Supporters of the government’s attacks on benefits regularly accuse unemployed and disabled people of living in a “culture of entitlement” or wanting “something for nothing”.
But the truth is that even claiming the benefits you are entitled to can be an uphill struggle—one that’s driving people into absolute poverty.
The government introduced a new system of “sanctions” in 2012. The bland name covers the blunt cutting off of people’s benefits, which can leave them with no money at all (see story below).
Sanctions can stop money for weeks or months for what are often the most arbitrary of reasons. These include turning up five minutes late to a job centre appointment and not applying to jobs that are further away than you can afford to travel.
It is part of a long term attempt to stop working class people feeling they have a right to benefits. It aims to convince them that any money from the welfare state is effectively charity.
But what gets people really angry is when they are sanctioned for the mistakes of the very system that is punishing them.
People forced onto Work Programme placements can find their interviews are scheduled at the same time as their job centre appointments—and that a sanction is inevitable. Others are penalised for missing appointments they weren’t told about, or for being sent contradictory information.
The current sanctions regime was introduced in October 2012. The number of people being sanctioned immediately rose by 11 percent.
Almost 600,000 people had been sanctioned in the first eight months—including more than 11,000 disabled people on Employment Support Allowance (ESA).
The sanctions can last from a few weeks to as long as three years.
Even the Citizens Advice Bureau has argued, “It cannot be right that we have a system of support for jobseekers which actually docks their support for attending a job interview.”
Part of proving that you are trying hard enough to find a job means using the Universal Jobmatch website, run by private recruitment firm Monster.
That’s the firm that at least twice accidentally let the data of millions of its customers get into the hands of identity hackers.
It supposedly matches unemployed people up with jobs.
But these can include everything from dubious matches—such as IT jobs for people with no IT training, and jobs in the wrong region—to unpaid work, jokes, and scams.
And the way the site is set up is designed to make people believe that they have to let the Department for Work and Pensions monitor their use of the site.
This information can then be used to find grounds to sanction them.
When you are forced to sign up you can and should deny them access to your account.
It all smacks of a system that isn’t there to help people into work, but to catch them out in the hope of creating a scapegoat that can draw the blame away from the government.
Val from Southwark, south London, was sanctioned for four weeks last year.
Her employers had terminated her zero hours contract. The job centre assigned her to Work Programme activities run by scandal-hit private firm A4e.
“I got a letter about a placement the day after it happened,” she told Socialist Worker.
“I phoned up to tell them. As soon as I hung up I got a text saying I had another appointment on that very day. But they then said that was a mistake.
“Their reception told me my advisor would get in touch, but he never did.”
Despite submitting proof of her correspondence with A4e, Val was told that her reasons for missing the placement were unsatisfactory—and she would be sanctioned.
“I was furious—I didn’t see how it was my fault,” she said. “I keep every piece of paper I get, and I’d had nothing about that appointment. It was A4e’s fault, and they took no responsibility.”
Val tried to appeal, but was rejected twice. She contacted the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for a crisis loan—but the DWP said she wasn’t eligible.
Next came a six week wait to hear how long she would be sanctioned for.
“You’re sitting on tenterhooks the whole time, not knowing what’s going to happen, whether they’re going to take your appeal or not,” she said.
When the sanctions did kick in, “It crippled us. We had nothing to live on but my mum’s state pension. The cupboards and freezer were empty.”
The government wants to make it harder to appeal when people’s benefits change.
Appeals for Work Capability Assessments (WCA) can no longer be done through the job centre.
Memos seen by Socialist Worker forbid workers from even printing out the forms. It’s left to claimants to puzzle them out for themselves.
Appealing against sanctions can be just as hard.
One job centre worker said, “They see job centre staff as part of the problem for helping claimants stand up for their rights. They are trying to curtail that.”
Of course, an easier way to reduce the number of appeals would be to scrap the unfair system.
The government denies there are any targets.
But the PCS union says workers are put on an effective “league table” and face disciplinary Personal Improvement Plans if they do not give out enough sanctions.
Other than low pay, benefit cuts, delays and sanctions drive the growth of food banks, according to a Scottish government report.
A similar review for all of Britain, completed for government department Defra, has mysteriously never been released.
In Sheffield it takes claimants an average of nine weeks from first contact with the job centre to get benefits they are entitled to.
Trying to drive people off benefits doesn’t save money. It creates an expensive and complicated bureaucracy.
That’s true of sanctions, capability assessments and means-testing—and it’s certainly true of Iain Duncan Smith’s beleaguered Universal Credit masterplan.
He faced a grilling from select committee MPs last week.
This followed revelations that fewer than 3,000 people were claiming it—a cost of £225,000 per claimant.
A House of Commons select committee is to begin a new inquiry into the hated capability assessments tests for disabled people.
Thousands have died after being found “fit for work”. One person was found “fit for work” while in a coma, another lost their benefits for interrupting a test with a heart attack.
Atos Healthcare has carried out the tests since 2011. The committee is “particularly interested” in Atos’ performance.
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