I spent some time on Friday listening to the Work and Pensions Committee’s session on sanctions. The second panel, in particular, has been reported as being highly critical of benefits sanctions; if anything, they were not critical enough. It was accepted that conditionality was necessary, because some conditionality is intrinsic to unemployment benefits. Much was made of the absence of evidence to support the sanctions regime, which seems to imply as an argument that if it turned out that sanctions were effective in moving people to work, they would be justified.
There are three problems with these arguments. The first is a conceptual confusion between conditionality and sanctions. There have to be conditions, because there have to be eligibility criteria; that is not the same as saying that people have to incur punishment as a spur to activity.
Second, there have been sanctions in place, in one form or another, for over a hundred years, and it would be a poor show if we couldn’t say anything about that experience. We know, or should know, that patterns of employment and unemployment in that time are not related to anything happening in benefits; it’s the state of the economy that matters. Previous penalties (the four week rule and the hike to 26 weeks) had no visible effect on employment; there was some reason to think that stopping benefits under the four week rule led to crime, but that’s another story. We know that when people were faced with the lighter sanctions regime, 90% returned to work within a year, and that now, under a stricter sanctions regime, 80% do. And we know how sanctions are being operated – as reports from CPAG and Mind amply demonstrate, they are arbitrary, harsh and penal. This is not a lack of evidence; it is a lack of evidence to make any case for sanctions, and that is not the same thing.
The third problem is that this all misses the point: this is a moral argument, not an evidential one. The people who think they are a bad idea generally think that benefits are there to protect people. The people who think that sanctions are a good idea believe that a strict penal policy is ethically desirable, because benefits should be the last port of call rather than the first and there should be a deterrent. If sanctions work in most cases, or if they don’t work, does it really matter to those positions?