Welfare reform in a wintry New Zealand

Britain has a rival in the contest to make social security as repellent as possible. New Zealand’s bracing programme of legislation is working hard to make the system more punitive.   Working age benefits are being reformed into three branches, for job seekers, sole parents and those requiring support. Among the reforms there are

  • three-month sanctions where benefit is either stopped or, where there are children, reduced by 50%
  • reductions in benefit for people who are subject to arrest warrants  (as this is pre-trial, I take that to refer to people who are presumed innocent)
  • an expectation of work for people who are sick
  • drug-testing for job-seekers
  • re-application for benefit after a year’s continuous receipt, and
  • registration of young children with general practices and enrolment of young children in nursery education and health care programmes (I think I agree with this one).

The sanctions may seem harsh, but by comparison with the UK’s three years and subsequent repayment or hardship payments for years more, they are almost moderate.

Sanctions: a disgrace to us all

I received this note yesterday from someone who had seen a posting I made last March about Jobcentre Plus sanctions.  I have not clicked ‘approve comment’, for two reasons: one is that it would reveal the identity of the person who sent it (I have written to her to check whether this is what she intended), the other that the format of the blog does tend to bury the comments made on older posts, and this is much too important.  This is what she wrote:

i am a single parent with a daughter of 8 and to have had a sanction put on my jsa benefit for failing to attend a tomorrows peoples appointment they say i had. The only appointment imissed well didnt really miss just got there late due to taking child to school then i had to walk 3 miles as didnt have bus fare only to be left standing outside in cold while they discussed what to do which ended with me being sent away and informed that another letter would be sent to me. i then had notice in post that my JSA would be sanctioned from 10/05/13 until 10/08/13 and i would get nothing. i only heard about a hardship allowance i could try and claim but as of yet heard nor received any kind of help wot so ever, and the job centre advisors just seem to fob me off they have been of no help wot so ever plus i still havnt had any information regarding my reconsideration letter ive sent.

The rules governing these sanctions are fairly new. For low-level offences, such as missing an interview, the usual sanction for a first offence is four weeks; for a second offence in the same year it is thirteen weeks. ‘Tomorrow’s People’ is a part of the Work Programme, and this interview may have been part of mandatory work activity, which also carries a 13 week sanction. I am not sure of the details here – whether this is a breach of mandatory conditions, whether my correspondent has been given a previous sanction, or whether she has been penalised further for something said after she arrived – but I do not think that any of those issues is what matters here. There are lots of opportunities to incur a 13 week sanction. As far as I can tell, what has been done in this case is most probably what the rules say ought to be done. And the fact is that this person has had her benefit stopped for three months for the offence of being too poor to afford her bus fare.

In the past, people studying social policy could look in bemused distaste at the practices of the Victorian Poor Law. People were treated then with contempt and dehumanised in accordance with accepted public practice. We can now be reasonably sure that future generations will look back at our current policies with the same sense of horror. I know, as a citizen and a taxpayer, that this is done in my name, and I am ashamed.

1.6 million referrals for sanction in a year

The delayed figures on Jobcentre Plus sanctions on JSA claimants have been released. The scale and reach of the sanctions is staggering. There were 1,593,800 referrals made in the last 12 months for which figures are available. Only half that number (778,000, as David Webster has already posted in comments) led to ‘adverse decisions’ made against the claimant, but a further 337,000 decisions were ‘reserved’ because the claimant left benefit before a decision to cut payments could be imposed. To put this in perspective, the estimated caseload of claimants of JSA in 2012 was just over 1.5 million. It seems that we have turned a system that was supposed to protect people during spells of unemployment into a model where instead claimants are routinely subjected to threats.

Jobcentre sanctions

The Guardian reported yesterday that Jobcentres are being set targets for the imposition of sanctions, despite assurances to Parliament that no such targets existed.  Yesterday I was at a forum where we were told about  examples of sanctions in Clydebank, including

  • a claimant sanctioned for one month for confessing that he had not looked for work on Christmas Day and Boxing Day;
  • a claimant sanctioned for a month for appearing five minutes late for interview;
  • a claimant sanctioned because the firm he had been referred to had not received a referral and sent him straight back to the Jobcentre to check.

I’ve not done well with the DWP  tabtool on this topic and in the process of trying to milk the statistics I’ve ended up with more on the floor than in the bucket.   David Webster’s helpful comments, below, explain about where to find the statistics I missed.