THE BLOG

68,000 Wrongly Sanctioned Shows the Benefit System Is Broken

04/03/2014 11:21 GMT | Updated 03/05/2014 10:59 BST

68,000 jobseekers had their benefits taken away wrongly last year, according to a centre-right thinktank.

Policy Exchange is the first major organisation from the right to become involved on this side of the sanctions debate, at a time when Iain Duncan Smith is toughening his line on claimants.

The thinktank's report 'Smarter Sanctions: Sorting out the system' shows that 29% of sanctions are wrongly handed out, corresponding with the 29% increase in the total number given last year.

This suggests that most of the rise is not due to any jump in offences by benefit recipients, but is motivated by the targets culture that has taken hold in jobcentres.

UnemployedNet has written extensively on this, highlighting a recent report from a committee of MPs which said that targets were in place despite official denials.

These included one by Neil Couling, head of Jobcentre Plus, to an official Freedom of Information request.

Policy Exchange's prescription for the misery caused by sanctions includes implementing a new 'benefit card' for first time offenders, a kind of probation system that allows claimants to keep their payments but with a requirement to sign on every day and with the threat of an immediate loss of money if they do not keep up with stringent rules.

They would work under this for eight weeks, while higher sanction rates are recommended for those on a second or third strike.

Guy Miscampbell, the author of the report, said: "It is clear that there are a significant number of people who have their benefit taken away from them unfairly. Four weeks without any money is driving people to desperate measures including a reliance on food banks".

His report makes clear that: "With some 874,000 adverse decisions being made between October 2012 and September 2013, and over 146,000 of them being successfully appealed or reconsidered it is clear that the possibility of wrongly applied sanctions, and what their effects might be, is an important one. With some estimates suggesting that 43% of those referred to food banks are there due to benefit stoppage or being refused a crisis loan, it is clear that there is not currently an adequate safety net for those who are wrongly sanctioned".

The Trussell Trust, the UK's largest food bank provider, said last year that use of its services had doubled since George Osborne introduced his benefit cuts in April 2013, and that more than half of the need was due to welfare cuts, delays and sanctions.

The recognition that sanctions are causing untold misery to jobseekers without justification is important, particularly from a part of the political spectrum that has not usually been so understanding.

The Policy Exchange 'cure' is better than the existing system of immediate benefit removal for any offence, particularly given that targets are driving some jobcentre staff to sanction those who have done little or nothing wrong.

But it is still rooted in the false premise that many claimants are 'skivers' who are making unreasonable claims and do not care about their own prospects or British taxpayers.

There are two main issues with the current sanction process; first is that the number is being driven ever higher by a targets regime that means innocent people are having benefits removed simply so their advisors can avoid getting disciplined, or so they can earn bonuses.

The benefit card requires people to sign on daily after a first offence, but our users and others have told us that many 'first offences' are either invented or wilfully misunderstood by staff under pressure from their managers and politicians (you can see some of them collected at the Stupid Sanctions tumblr account), or result from an unreasonably stringent set of rules.

The second issue is that the punishment in no way fits the crime.

Having all of your income removed for missing a single meeting, or for not hitting every clause in a jobseeker's agreement which may be unsuited to your specific circumstances, is a bizarre and disproportionate sentence.

Iain Duncan Smith says he wants to make the experience of unemployment more like work, including forcing 35-hour per week jobseeking as standard, but what employer could get away with taking a month's salary from you because you missed one Monday morning staff meeting?

Those who want to suggest solutions to the sanctions issue - one of the biggest facing unemployed people in the UK - need to acknowledge that the system that implements it is broken and delivers far more misery and poverty than justice.