New Policy Exchange research shows 68,000 people a year are unfairly sanctioned. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The benefit sanctions regime needs to be tougher but more compassionate

We need an end to unfair sanctions and new penalties for those who consistently break the rules.

People are much less sympathetic to the unemployed and the role of government in providing support to them than they were three decades ago. This was one of the headline findings from last year’s British Social Attitudes survey. The research pointed to the fact that 81 per cent of the public felt that large numbers of people were falsely claiming benefits. Viewed through the distorted lens of the national media, you can hardly blame people for assuming that the majority of people on out-of-work benefits were fiddling the system.

The reality is very different. Not everyone claiming benefits is Frank Gallagher from Shameless. The majority of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) are desperate to find work. They spend their time attending job centre interviews, updating their CVs, applying for positions, trying everything possible to earn their own wage. In return for meeting this set of conditions, the state pays people over the age of 25 a weekly sum of £71.70 a week.

There are, however, a significant minority who are physically and mentally able to work but who are not doing all they can to find a job. They are rightly punished. The welfare system is a safety net, not a way of life. Where there is abuse, the government must have a sharp set of teeth to enforce the rules. It is important to have a fair system for both people looking for work and people who are paying for the welfare system through their hard earned taxes.

This is where sanctions come in. They are financial penalties handed out to people who have not been playing by the rules. In an ideal world, sanctions would be unnecessary as claimants would always comply with the conditions of their benefit receipt. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The financial penalties vary depending on how many times an individual breaks the rules. For example, failing to attend a job centre interview for the first time will result in four weeks of lost benefits. On the face of it this seems fair.  However, a paper published today by Policy Exchange, Smarter Sanctions, reveals that 68,000 people a year are unfairly sanctioned. These mistakes could have been down to administrative errors or other factors such as having to rush a poorly child to hospital and as a result missing an appointment. Unless an individual has friends or family who they can turn to for money, many people will end up relying on desperate measures such as food banks, crisis loans or payday lenders.  

This is where a benefit card could improve the system. Under our proposals, people who break the rules for the first time – either on purpose or by mistake – would be issued with a “top up” style card credited with their weekly benefit. Instead of an initial financial penalty, claimants would in effect be shown a “yellow card”. Benefits would be accessed via this card for a maximum of eight weeks. If the claimant continued to break the rules, the card and benefits would be taken away. This system would provide a safety net, mitigating hardship whilst a sanction is appealed.

At the same time, the paper proposes tougher penalties for people who are consistently breaking the rules. Between October 2012 and September 2013, there were 30,000 claimants on their third sanction or more. In order for the system to be seen as acting fairly, repeat offenders should receive an appropriate punishment. In our view that would mean withdrawing benefits for a longer period of time – from 13 weeks under the existing model to 26 weeks. Tough love.

We Brits should be very proud of the principles behind the welfare state – it is the mark of a civilised nation to look after people who cannot look after themselves or who need support when they fall on hard times. However, it is just as important that people who can work, do all they can to find a job. At a time when people up and down the country are feeling the pinch, it is even more important that the government ensures that the system is not being fiddled. It is also the mark of a responsible government not to punish people for mistakes they didn’t make. A more compassionate but tougher sanction regime is integral to the future of the welfare system.

Nick Faith is Director of Communications at Policy Exchange

Nick Faith is Director of Communications at Policy Exchange

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As the strangers approach the bed, I wonder if this could be a moment of great gentleness

I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do.

It’s 1.13am on an autumn morning some time towards the end of the 20th century and I’m awake in a vast hotel bed in a small town in the east of England. The mysterious east, with its horizons that seem to stretch further than they should be allowed to stretch by law. I can’t sleep. My asthma is bad and I’m wheezing. The clock I bought for £3 many years earlier ticks my life away with its long, slow music. The street light outside makes the room glow and shimmer.

I can hear footsteps coming down the corridor – some returning drunks, I guess, wrecked on the reef of a night on the town. I gaze at the ceiling, waiting for the footsteps to pass.

They don’t pass. They stop outside my door. I can hear whispering and suppressed laughter. My clock ticks. I hear a key card being presented, then withdrawn. The door opens slowly, creaking like a door on a Radio 4 play might. The whispering susurrates like leaves on a tree.

It’s an odd intrusion, this, as though somebody is clambering into your shirt, taking their time. A hotel room is your space, your personal kingdom. I’ve thrown my socks on the floor and my toothbrush is almost bald in the bathroom even though there’s a new one in my bag because I thought I would be alone in my intimacy.

Two figures enter. A man and a woman make their way towards the bed. In the half-dark, I can recognise the man as the one who checked me in earlier. He says, “It’s all right, there’s nobody in here,” and the woman laughs like he has just told her a joke.

This is a moment. I feel like I’m in a film. It’s not like being burgled because this isn’t my house and I’m sure they don’t mean me any harm. In fact, they mean each other the opposite.

Surely they can hear my clock dripping seconds? Surely they can hear me wheezing?

They approach, closer and closer, towards the bed. The room isn’t huge but it seems to be taking them ages to cross it. I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do. I should speak. I should say with authority, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” But I don’t.

I could just lie here, as still as a book, and let them get in. It could be a moment of great gentleness, a moment between strangers. I would be like a chubby, wheezing Yorkshire pillow between them. I could be a metaphor for something timeless and unspoken.

They get closer. The woman reaches her hand across the bed and she touches the man’s hand in a gesture of tenderness so fragile that it almost makes me sob.

I sit up and shout, “Bugger off!” and they turn and run, almost knocking my clock from the bedside table. The door crashes shut shakily and the room seems to reverberate.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge