Sanctions in welfare: IDS lets the cat out of the bag

Finally, with the release of the DWP White Paper, Iain Duncan Smith has let the cat out of the bag. In the future, jobseekers who reject a job offer, a short-term community work placement, or who fail to apply for a job recommended to them, will see their payments suspended for three months. If they turn down another offer, the suspension will last for six months. The third time round, they will have to make do without income replacement (Housing Benefit is not affected) for three years.

While the attacks were predictable, there is logic to these plans. Implicitly, this sort of conditionality is commonplace in other publicly (let alone privately) provided services. If you receive a longer-term treatment on the NHS, and behave in a way which makes therapeutic success impossible – say, you repeatedly fail to show up for appointments, refuse to follow the doctor’s recommendations, and do not take the prescribed medicines – the doctor will eventually terminate the treatment. (He will not label this a “sanction”, of course). It is reasonable to focus scarce resources on those who want to be treated. Why should this logic not apply to out-of-work benefits?

The opposition’s criticism that these plans would penalise those who chase for jobs that are not there is misleading. Sanctions can only apply once a work offer of some sort has been made. The proposed sanctioning tools would be “anticyclical”: in an economic downturn, they would be used much less frequently than in boom times.

Assuming these sanctions will really be applied on the ground, are IDS’s proposals really as “tough” as they are portrayed to be? The answer is yes – at least for a relatively small group. These are, broadly speaking, those who would qualify for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) in the present system. Those who presently qualify for Income Support (IS) will see no similar expectations placed on them, except for the requirement to attend an occasional non-committal “work-focused interview” (some IS-recipients will be shifted to the JSA-group, though). Neither will these proposals, in themselves, tackle undue recourse to Employment and Support Allowance by the able-bodied.

It is also inaccurate to compare the announced mandatory work placements with US-style workfare schemes. What “workfare” really means is that the government cuts welfare not by cutting its monetary component, but by cutting the imputed value of leisure time. This requires high participation rates, and IDS’s plans will go nowhere near that. What the White Paper talks about is “requiring a small group of recipients to engage in full-time activity” [p. 29, emphasis added]. This is a far cry from US states like Wisconsin (most are much more lenient), where more than half of all welfare recipients work for their benefits.

If jobs aren’t there, then the only compulsion available will be Mandatory Work Activity, 120 hours of community service not different in kind from 120 hours of unpaid work requirement imposed on convicted criminals.Save that a criminal can spread his hours over the course of a year.What happens when a jobseeker insists on charging for his hours? You couldn’t make this work as long as the forced labour provisions of the Human Rights Act remains in force.

It’s a stupid gimmick, is all, authoritarian posturing at its worst that is unenforceable and won’t save the taxpayer a single penny.This whole welfare state started going wrong about thirty years ago and the whole poverty-dependency cycle is now into its second or third generation. So let’s do our best to get IDS to reduce the Single Unified Taper from the ridiculous 65% to 76% to something humane like 50% (which would minimise the cost of welfare) and sit back and see what happens.

I’ve just downloaded and glanced at your new paper, Kristian. You state that under your ‘workfare’ system, the daily life of benefit recipients is not that different from the daily life of their working peers, which would both remove the stigma from recipients, and encourage them to look for full-time employment in the regular labour market straight away.But the daily life of workfarers would be different, wouldn’t it? Their working peers would be paid wages, and they wouldn’t.I propose ‘workfee’. If the state wants the services of anyone on the dole, then he has to be allowed to charge for them on the same basis as someone called upon to build two aircraft carriers for the MoD.

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