David Webster : Benefit Sanctions – Britain’s secret penal system
Dr Webster opened by observing that the audience, like himself, were pensioners and therefore likely to have a favourable view of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). However, the picture for people of working age is quite different.
In 1911 when the National Insurance Scheme was introduced conditions applied which would disqualify people who didn’t meet them. For instance, if a claimant refused to take up a job they were regarded as voluntarily unemployed, whereas the insurance only applied to involuntary unemployment. These conditions were ‘passive’ as is typical of insurance schemes; eg your car insurance wouldn’t pay out if your car was stolen because you had left the engine running and the car unattended. In more recent times governments have introduced sanctions, turning what was an insurance scheme into a penal system. The key difference is that benefits are now subject to ‘active’ conditions; eg the job seeker has to actively seek work or training, in exactly the way directed by the DWP. If they don’t do this they get penalisedBetween 2010 and 2016 there was a sanctions campaign where the rate of sanctions imposed more than doubled. While the government have recently eased back, Dr Webster believes primarily because of a bad press, there are fears that the new Universal Credit system being rolled out with harsher rules will intensify the pain felt by those needing support whether through unemployment, sickness or disability. The evidence indicates that sanctions have a big effect in deterring claims, but their effects on employment are usually small and they worsen the quality, sustainability and wages of the jobs people take. There is also evidence that sanctions have adverse impacts on family relationships, debt levels, homelessness, crime and loss of resilience. Voluntary sector organizations find more of their resources are going into helping people to cope with sanctions than achieving their original objectives. Dr Webster provided an interesting historical perspective going back to the harsh terms of the 19th Century Poor Law, the more humanitarian 1911 National Insurance Act, the means testing Unemployment Act 1934 triggered by the Depression and the more generous and wide ranging National Assistance Act 1948 after WWII. In 1971 less than 10,000 Supplementary Benefit claimants were subject to disqualification. However, in 1986 the system started tightening up and claimants found themselves in an ever increasingly hostile environment. The DWP has become less sensitive in its approach and, more recently, positively punitive. While there are signs that the government do respond to getting a bad press, Dr Webster is not optimistic of fundamental reform resulting in a more humanitarian system.
In the discussion that followed, several contributors focused on the question whether the rise of robotics is going to create another period of mass unemployment. Dr Webster felt that the specific threat of robotics was not necessarily different from earlier waves of technical innovation and that while specific sectors such as transport will probably suffer severe contractions in employment, in time, people would find alternative ways of employing their skills to provide for them and their families.
From the discussion which arose during the Q & A session one sensed that members felt that the government should have a stewardship role; ie managing the process of change for the benefit of both the economy and the general public. So, in short, this was a thought provoking talk and generated a lot of discussion amongst the members. Clearly our guest speaker had fulfilled his brief to inform, educate and entertain his audience.