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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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.