THE BLOG

Sanction First, Ask Questions Later

09/12/2016 12:08 GMT | Updated 09/12/2016 12:08 GMT

The UK, in 2016, has an 'absence of due process and access to justice'. Not my words, but those of one of the United Nation's most important human right committees.

Britain prides itself on its fairness, but when it comes to those relying on meagre social security payments for their survival, the system is anything but fair. And when the system gets it wrong, hard-up individuals can be left without income for anything between 4 weeks and 3 years.

This is due to penalties known as 'Sanctions'. To receive Jobseekers Allowance, people sign a Claimant Commitment. This is a sort-of contract, but with terms more demanding than you would see in many employment contracts. The special vocabulary of these commitments and the Jobcentre make understanding them a genuine challenge. Each process and person in the byzantine system has a specific term, with its own specific definition. The meanings of 'DWP decision makers', 'steps', 'work coach'. So severe is the language problem, the Department for Work and Pensions has produced a 36-page guide.

Ken Loach, the award-winning director, has delved into this world in his new film I, Daniel Blake. He shows how 'claimants' (that's 'people' to you and I) experience the system as a series of bureaucratic set-ups. The harrowing account demonstrates exactly the sort of humiliation that concerned the UN committee when it recommended that sanctions were used 'proportionately'. In other words, the government must ensure that the Sanction penalty is equivalent to the infringement that is being punished.

Mhairi Black, the dynamic SNP MP, has also taken up the cause in Westminster. Her draft bill - rejected after being voted down by Conservative Party MPs - aims to combat the 'sanction first, ask questions later' approach that is so common. It would require Jobcentres to consider whether an individual's circumstances make a Sanction inappropriate. These would include asking basic questions before sanctioning someone. These would include thinking about whether the individual's job search had been affected by homelessness, childcare, or mental ill-health.

Considering these factors before cutting off people's income is crucial. When considering the UK's human rights record, the UN committee expressed particular concern about disadvantaged individuals and groups. The system - it noted - could be impacting women, persons with disabilities, and low-income families even more than others. Black's reforms are urgently needed to address the especially harsh impacts on those groups.

Even with proper consideration of individual circumstances, some sanctions will still be wrongly applied. This is why a full, independent, and prompt appeals system is important. At present, any sort of appeal takes too long, leaving people without income while they wait to hear how their appeal will be dealt with.

When waiting for an appeal without a source of income, people are forced towards the UK's thriving food banks. They survive off charitable generosity because of state incompetence. Due process and access to justice have traditionally been seen as fundamental rights in the UK's system. That a UN committee needs to remind of us of their importance, is alarming.

Neither are appeals of hypothetical importance. As many as 49.5% of sanctions are overturned when they are appealed. Getting it wrong so much of the time would be a deep source of shame for any other body. The figure shows just how often the 'sanction now, ask questions later' approach is getting it wrong. It's little wonder that the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommended that the system was reviewed to ensure Sanctions are 'subject to prompt and independent dispute resolution mechanisms'.

It's easy, with all of the technical language and complex processes, to see Benefits Sanctions as a simple bureaucratic issue. But its effects and importance go well beyond that. Far from being a consequence of some irrelevant technical process, this occurs because of a failure to protect individual's basic rights. There is an inflexible system that sanctions too many people. And, there is an ineffective appeals mechanism that is too slow to correct these mistakes.

When sanctioned, people are thrown from having little income into having none at all. Hunger, homelessness and impacts on people's health inevitably result. The country has already been shamed at the UN, in film, and in Parliament. What will it take before we live up to our tradition of fairness and due process?