The Government’s defence of sanctions

In the past I’ve hosted David Webster’s reports on this blog, but his material is now being hosted by CPAG here.  We met up yesterday and he suggested I might like to comment on his latest briefing separately.    His key criticisms of the Government’s response on sanctions are these:

The government’s response does not acknowledge any of the fundamental problems of the sanctions system identified by the Committee:

  • lack of evidence to justify financial sanctions, or their severity;
  • doubts about the reasonableness of Claimant Commitments;
  • lack of protection for vulnerable groups and single parents;
  • an inappropriately strict approach to all claimants rather than a focus on those who are genuinely not engaging in work search;
  • fundamental doubts about the appropriateness of sanctions for ESA claimants; and
  • inadequacy of the hardship payments system.

It repeats the by now habitual unjustified claims

  • that sanctions only affect a small minority of claimants,
  • that Claimant Commitments are genuinely agreed between claimants and Jobcentre Plus,
  • that there are effective safeguards against wrongful sanctioning, and
  • that the UK sanctions system can be justified by reference to international evidence.

In relation to the international evidence, I think David’s response concedes too much when he suggests they show small positive effects on the labour market.  The claims made in the literature are made about active labour market policies – sanctions are a part of that, but they have not been evaluated distinctly, and it would be difficult to do so.  The central thing to understand about conditionality is that every relevant benefit, everywhere, has some conditions, so there is no point in trying to assess whether the existence of conditions alone produces an effect; any meaningful comparison has to be about the degree to which sanctions have an independent effect when other things taken into account.  It’s also worth asking what the penalties are for.  Some of the evidence on cash assistance in developing countries implies that less strict conditions can have a beneficial effect, for example by allowing small enterprises to develop.

There is more to sanctions, in any case, than the claimed effects on the labour market.  Frank Castles once suggested that expenditure on benefits was probably less important in comparing welfare systems than understandings and expectations about entitlement.  It’s those understandings which have been undermined by the current regime.


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