by Erica Young, a member of the CAS Social Justice team.
This article was first published in the Herald on 10 February 2024.
An effective social security system should incentivise engagement through appropriate support based on a position of mutual trust. Our main low-income benefit - Universal Credit (UC), is failing to do this.
There are several features of UC that threaten already precarious financial lives; the cruellest of these is sanctions. By October 2023 one third of UC claimants, over two million people, were potentially subject to a sanction, including those who have jobs but are expected to find better paid work. CABs have seen a steep 20% rise in people seeking advice about sanctions in the last three months.
Sanctions are applied when an official agrees with a Jobcentre work coach that a claimant has failed to fulfil their obligations. Their benefit is reduced or stopped for up to six months. In most cases the ‘offence’ triggering the sanction is simply failure to attend a Jobcentre. Shockingly, we typically see sanctions applied in circumstances outwith the claimant’s control, such as illness, public transport disruption, and shift-work opportunities.
Increasingly onerous expectations are being placed on claimants. Personal circumstances, local infrastructure, digital capacity, and skills level have limited influence on these expectations. Many more claimants, including parents of very young children, are being expected to engage intensively with the JobCentre. In these cases a sanction will punish not just the ‘offender’, but their children too.
When a sanction is applied and a household is without income, the state’s inadequate response is a discretionary hardship loan, providing a maximum of £221 per month to cover basic needs. This meagre stop-gap, which amounts to little more than half the basic rate of UC, is automatically clawed back when benefit is restored. Little wonder then that sanctioned claimants resort to extreme food and energy rationing, or crisis and charitable support, long after the sanction ends.
And challenging sanctions can be a stressful and protracted process. Coping with the income loss while the challenge is ongoing is unavoidable. In one deeply distressing recent example, a CAB client was sanctioned when she failed to attend an appointment while re-locating due to domestic abuse. It took the CAB forty-two days to successfully overturn the sanction.
The logical fallacy of a policy which removes lifeline financial support - with the supposed aim of incentivising work - is obvious. Do we believe a person’s ability to secure a job is enhanced or diminished by hunger? Sanctions can be a trap door into low quality work. Within six months, sanctioned claimants are more likely to be shifting into ‘economic inactivity’ or low pay, earning on average £34 per month less than their non-sanctioned peers. Is this the kind of economy that we want? Evidence of the oft-cited ‘deterrent effect’ of sanctions is very limited. The evidence is clear on the other hand of the positive role of holistic support.
It may stretch credulity that our supposed safety net is designed in such a way that a decision made by one official can leave a stranger resorting to a foodbank, but this is what’s happening. A punitive system that leaves people in abject poverty with diminished psychological and practical resources is a failure. It contributes to an atmosphere of mistrust, even hostility, and stigma.
We need a system that supports success, rather than one which creates destitution by design.