A sentence in a rather dull report by the Social Security Advisory Committee caught my eye: “Sanctions can have positive impacts, ensuring that claimants meet the responsibilities associated with their social security entitlement, and acting as a disincentive to voluntary unemployment.” There may be arguments for sanctions, which have been part of social provision since the Reformation – they are essentially about compliance and fairness – but I am not sure there is much reason to think that there is a “positive impact”. The whole point of sanctions is, surely, that they are punishments, and punishments are supposed to have a negative impact – that’s how they work.
The usual arguments for punishment are retribution – wrongdoers should have evil visited upon them – and deterrence – it will stop the offence happening again. But there is a further argument: that punishment can be character-forming. I was hit with the tawse in my primary school, and one routine treatment of offenders in my junior school was to bend over so that the teacher could whack us on the backside with a chair leg. Autres temps, autres moeurs. When the SSAC reviewed the issue in 2006, the nearest they came to showing any change was the comment from half of the unemployed respondents who had been sanctioned that they would now be more likely to look for work. That may show that the sinners have repented, but equally it might tell us more about the answers people learn to give when they have been punished. Neil Couling, of the DWP, told a Holyrood committee in April that “many benefit recipients welcome the jolt that a sanction can give them”. Take six of the best and say, “Thank you sir”.