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

Photo: Getty
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Philip Hammond's house gaffe is a reminder of what the Tories lost when David Cameron left

The Chancellor of the Exchequer's blunder confirmed an old fear about the Conservative Party. 

Philip Hammond got into a spot of bother this morning describing the need for a transitional agreement with the European Union by comparing it to moving into a house, saying: "you don't necessarily move all your furniture in on the first day you buy it”.

This immediately surprised a lot of people, because for most people, you do, in fact, move all of your furniture in on the first day you buy a house. Or rent a house, or a flat, or whatever. Most people who buy houses are part of housing chains – that is, they sell their house to raise some of the capital to buy another one, or, if they are first-time buyers, they are moving from the private rented sector into a house or flat of their own.

They don’t, as a rule, have a spare bolthole for “all their furniture” to wait around in. Hammond’s analogy accidentally revealed two things – he is rich, and he owns more than one home. (I say “revealed”. Obviously these are things you can find out by checking the register of members’ interests, but they are, at least, things that are not immediately obvious hearing Hammond speak.)

That spoke to one major and recurring Conservative weakness: that people see them as a party solely for the rich. Focus groups conducted by BritainThinks consistently showed that when people were asked which group of TV families might vote Conservative, the only one that people consistently picked were the “posh couple” from GoggleBox.

David Cameron’s great achievement as Conservative leader was in winning two elections – the first, in 2010, the most successful night for the Conservatives since 1931, with 97 gains overall, the second, their first parliamentary majority for 23 years – despite being a graduate of Eton and Oxford leading a party that most voters fear will only look out for the rich.

He did it by consistently speaking and acting as if he were significantly less well-to-do than he was. Even his supposed 2013 gaffe when asked what the price of bread was – when he revealed that he preferred to use a breadmaker – projected a more down-to-earth image than his background suggested His preferred breadmaker cost a hundred quid and could easily have been found in any upper-middle class home in any part of his country. One of Cameron’s great successes was in presenting himself as an affable upper-middle-class dad to the nation, when he was in fact, well-to-do enough to employ a literal breadmaker had he so chosen.

This is slightly unfair on Philip Hammond who went to a state school in Essex and is by any measure less posh than Cameron. But his gaffe speaks to their big post Cameron problem (and indeed their big pre-Cameron problem) which is that while many conservative ideas are popular, the Conservative Party isn’t. Most of their big politicians are a turn-off, not a turn-on.

And until they can find a genuine replacement for David Cameron, miserable results like 2017 may become the norm, rather than the exception. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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