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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.