Benefit sanctions: criminalising the unemployed

No criminal court in Britain is allowed to make you starve as a punishment, yet people can be left unable to feed themselves or even maintain shelter over their heads for being five minutes late for an appointment at a jobcentre. Unlike in court, you will not be present when the decision is made; there is no requirement for a hearing. The ‘crime’ is not knowing or playing by rules which are subject to arbitrary and sometimes ridiculous interpretations. The narrative developed by successive Labour, Coalition and Tory governments is one of individual ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ enforced by increasingly harsh sanctions. ‘We are ending the something for nothing culture’ says the DWP. In reality the driving force is the need for capitalism to constantly cut the cost of maintaining the reserve army of labour. ANDREW COOPER reports.

Since 2012 claimants have faced losing their benefits for up to three years through sanctions. Two million people have had their benefits stopped within the last two years. The number of sanctions on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) has almost tripled from 2.5 sanctions per 100 claimants per month in 2001 to 7 per 100 claimants per month in 2014. Behind these figures are brutal effects on people’s lives. During 2014 there was a 19% increase in the number of people hospitalised with malnutrition in England and Wales. Commenting on this rise, the Vice President of the Faculty of Public Health, John Middleton, said: ‘people can’t afford good quality food ... Malnutrition, rickets and other manifestations of extreme poor diet are becoming apparent’. On top of this, claimants may find themselves homeless if they cannot meet housing costs such as service charges, or fail to renew housing benefit applications on time.

The rules for sanctioning can be applied in the most arbitrary ways. There are whole websites listing the stupidest reasons given for sanctioning people which include not looking for work on Christmas Day. Poor and confusing communication has been cited as a major cause of benefit sanctions. So much for ‘the clear and fair rules’ that Iain Duncan Smith said should apply to benefits! Playing by the rules is not how the DWP operates, as shown by its recent leaflets. These showed pictures of people with quotes claiming to have benefited from being sanctioned. The response to a Freedom of Information request by Welfare Weekly showed that these photographs were actually from stock images, and the quotes were manufactured. Non-existent ‘Sarah’ was shown explaining how being left with no money for two weeks helped her to write her CV!

According to the Samaritans, the poorest people are already ten times more likely to commit suicide than the affluent. The psychological warfare of the sanctions regime just adds to this. ‘I didn’t know what a benefit sanction actually was until money was just taken away like that.’ Sam Clement, a real JSA claimant, told Vice magazine. ‘It shocked me how quickly I fell to pieces. The whole thing destroyed my mental health.’ The reason for the sanction was that Sam attended a course in self-employment approved by one job centre advisor, and then when he had completed it another advisor told him that it was not an approved course. Later he would be driven to a failed suicide attempt after being threatened with a further sanction if he didn’t take part in a ‘voluntary’ work programme to learn a ‘work ethic’.

Employment Support Allowance (ESA) replaced Incapacity Benefit in 2008 to support people with long-term illness or disability. Everyone who claims it must undergo periodic Work Capability Assessment (WCA). There has been a threefold increase in ESA sanctions from 1,400 per month in 2013 to 5,400 per month in 2014. Despite a landmark decision in court in 2013, which ruled that WCAs were not fit for purpose, they have continued regardless. New statistics given by the DWP in August 2015 due to a Freedom of Information request show that 2,380 people have died shortly after being declared fit for work over a period of less than three years, from December 2011 to February 2014. The DWP says we should not draw any conclusions from this!

The DWP says ‘sanctions are critical in incentivising benefits’. However, the thinking behind benefit sanctions amounts to that of beating an animal with a stick to change its behaviour. It is a way of transferring the blame for a crisis-ridden social and economic system onto working class individuals. The main causes of unemployment are blamed on individual behaviour, to the point of threatening people to undertake treatment for ‘mental health issues’ or face sanctions. The Conservatives have proposed an on-screen cognitive behaviour therapy treatment, under threat of sanctions, for 40,000 claimants. Hundreds of psychologists have condemned this, in an open letter, in which they describe such therapy as professionally unethical and damaging. Even on its own terms the benefit sanction system does not work. Evidence from the University of Oxford found no link between sanctioning rates and employment rates. Leaving someone with no money to buy clothes and travel and facing possible malnutrition is hardly likely to help them find work.

Waging war on the unemployed is at the sharp end of the class struggle and, while it takes different forms, it is one of the forces of capitalist coercion. The class relation whereby the capitalist is able to buy labour power on the market as cheap as possible and maximise the rate of exploitation is what oils the capitalist system. The more desperate people are, with no means of supporting themselves other than selling their ability to work – their labour power – for a wage, the better for capitalism. In 1734 Jacob Vanderlint, an ancestor of our present day governing moralists of capital, quoted by Marx in Capital, said, ‘An ideal workhouse must be a house of terror and not an asylum for the poor.’

FRFI 247 October/November 2015

 

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