Compassion is at dispiritingly low levels here. (Photo: Getty)
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People looking for work need support, not sanctions

The DWP's sanctions regime puts the most vulnerable at risk. The next government - of whatever hue - must do better.

Imagine getting to work and being told by your boss that you’ve been sanctioned - he’s not going to pay you for the next four weeks because you went to hospital and missed your meeting. He also sanctioned you last year after you refused to take a job doing night shifts because you couldn’t find anyone to look after your daughter. If you know to ask, he’ll start giving you ‘hardship’ payments in two weeks, which are about half your pay. But until then you and your daughter will get nothing.

Shocking, isn’t it? Surely that could never happen today? While perhaps the exception, this does happen and these examples are real - the only difference here is that the ‘boss’ is actually a Jobcentre advisor, there to help people find work. For many unemployed people, desperate to find a job, the fear of their Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) being sanctioned is their daily life.

Today the Work and Pensions Committee released their report into benefit sanctions, calling for a 'full independent review’. The committee's chair, Anne Begg stated that the system should 'avoid causing severe financial hardship', but that it 'does not always achieve this'.

If you or I were on JSA and unfairly sanctioned, we'd simply have to wait and hope that the sanction eventually got removed on appeal, giving back our £72.40 per week. If we had to take out a payday loan to pay for essentials like children's clothes, we'd be saddled with the interest. Perhaps we wouldn't be able to afford to top up the electricity meter to heat our homes. We'd go cold, be in debt and have to rely on food banks to feed our families. This isn't 'what if' - it's real life for many. 

'It is not reasonable to expect people to live without and source of income for 2 weeks', Begg stated. Unfortunately, this is simply the reality for many of the three million people who claimed JSA in 2013-14. Over half a million people were sanctioned during that time – 18% of people claiming. 35,170 were sanctioned three times. In 2008-9, just 10% of claimants were sanctioned.

"The system must also be capable of identifying and protecting vulnerable people, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities”, Begg said. For the system to truly protect vulnerable people, it must be redesigned, and sanctions must be a genuine last resort. Just as important is ensuring that staff understand how to support people.

Nothing shows this need better than the unbelievable - yet true - story of a man who was on JSA, wanted a job, and went to the Jobcentre for help. He couldn’t use a computer because of his learning disability, which he told his advisor. He applied for jobs by post and showed his advisor the list of jobs he'd applied for. His advisor sanctioned him because he hadn't applied for the jobs on a computer. 

The advisor didn't understand his needs or how to support him, instead falling back on all too familiar sanctions. A charity advisor helped him have this sanction removed and secured fairer goals, including applying for some jobs on paper and others on a computer.  He still gets questioned as to why he hasn’t applied for more jobs on a computer and has to explain, time and again, that he can only use a computer when the charity supports him. The Jobcentre won't provide this support.

Living on £72.40 per week JSA (or just £57.35 if you're under 25) is difficult enough. Forcing people to survive with no money for two weeks and then on £43.44 per week hardship payments, sometimes for up to three years, is a symptom of a broken system that needs to be redesigned. The first step is Begg's full independent review. I hope that the next government commits to it. 

With the rhetoric that constantly gets thrown around - skivers vs strivers springs to mind - it's easy to lose sight of the fact that most people just want support to get a job. Put simply, people looking for work need support, not sanctions. 

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A tale of two electorates: will rural France vote for Emmanuel Macron?

His chief rival, Marine Le Pen, was campaigning as the “candidate of the forgotten” years before Donald Trump entered politics.

It was a wet night in Paris, but hundreds of people were queuing outside the Antoine Theatre. It was standing room only to see Emmanuel Macron tonight, as it has been for weeks.

The 39-year-old former investment banker gave his usual energetic performance, delivering a well-practised pitch for a progressive, business-friendly and unabashedly pro-European France. His reward: a standing ovation and chants of Macron, président!

This theatre appearance on 8 March was an appropriate stop for a campaign that has been packed with more political drama than a series of House of Cards. Ahead of the first round of voting in the French presidential election on 23 April, the centrist independent has gone from underdog to the man most likely to beat the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. His other main rival, François Fillon of the right-wing Republicans, has been hampered by allegations that he paid his wife and children as parliamentary assistants, despite scant evidence of them doing any work.

Macron, meanwhile, has been attracting support from disenchanted voters on both left and right.

“It’s a new party, a new movement, a new face,” said Claire Ravillo-Albert, a 26-year-old human resources student and ex-Socialist in the queue outside the theatre. “We’re worlds away from the old Socialists and the Republicans here.”

Macron is not a typical outsider, having made millions in banking before serving as an advisor to François Hollande and as economy minister from 2014 to 2016. Nor can his ideas be described as radical. He is “of the left”, he says, but “willing to work with the right”.

For many he seems to embody an enticing alternative to the tired political class. Macron has never run for office before and if successful, would be the youngest president of the modern French republic. Many recruits to his one-year-old party En Marche! are young and relatively new to politics.

“I think he’ll change the French political landscape, and we need that,” said Olivier Assouline, a bank worker in an immaculate grey suit. “He knows business, he knows the state. I think he’s the right person at the right moment,” said the 44-year-old, who previously voted for right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy.

Many queuing for the rally were underwhelmed by Socialist achievements over the past five years – not least the dismal state of the economy – and had little enthusiasm for Fillon, a social conservative and economic Thatcherite.

Macron’s manifesto sticks firmly to the centre-ground. He has promised tax cuts for companies and millions of poor and middle-class families, as well as a few offbeat ideas like a one-off 500-euro grant for each 18-year-old to spend on books and cultural activities.

“With his central positioning, Macron is taking from everywhere – he has the capacity to seduce everyone,” says Frédéric Dabi, deputy director at the polling company IFOP. They estimate that Macron will take half the votes that went to Hollande when he won the last presidential election in 2012, and 17 per cent of those that went to runner-up Sarkozy.

Outside the theatre, the line was split between voters from the left and the right. But there was one word on almost everyone’s lips: Europe. At a time of continental soul-searching, Macron’s converts have chosen a candidate who backs the European Union as a guarantor of peace and celebrates free movement.

“He’s unusual in that he puts that centre-stage,” said Emma, a 27-year-old legal worker who preferred to be identified by her first name only. “Macron offers a good compromise on economic issues. But for me it’s also about Europe, because I think that’s our future.”

With Fillon and Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon both languishing behind in the polls, the second round of the presidential vote, on 7 May, is likely to be a contest between Macron and Le Pen. These are both candidates who claim to have moved beyond left-right politics, and who are both offering opposing visions of France.

This is also a tale of two electorates. Le Pen was campaigning as the “candidate of the forgotten” years before Donald Trump entered politics, traipsing around deindustrialised towns appealing to those who felt left behind by globalisation.

In the queue to see Macron were lawyers, PR consultants, graphic designers; students, gay couples and middle-class Parisians of multiple ethnicities. These are the representatives of a cosmopolitan, successful France. It was hard not to be reminded of the “metropolitan elite” who voted against Brexit.

Macron has called for investment in poorer communities, and his campaign staff pointedly invited onstage a struggling single mother as a warm-up act that night.

Yet his Socialist rival, Benoit Hamon, accuses him of representing only those who are doing pretty well already. It is hard for some to disassociate Macron from his education at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration – university of choice for the political elite – and his career at Rothschild. One infamous incident from early in the campaign sticks in the memory, when he told a pair of workers on strike: “You don’t scare me with your t-shirts. The best way to pay for a suit is to work.” For Macron, work has usually involved wearing a tie.

IFOP figures show him beating Le Pen soundly in when it comes to the voting intentions of executives and managers – 37 per cent to her 18 per cent. But when it comes to manual workers, she takes a hefty 44 per cent to his 17. He would take Paris; she fares better in rural areas and among the unemployed.

If Frédéric Dabi is to be believed, Macron’s bid for the centre-ground could pay off handsomely. But not everyone is convinced.

“He’s the perfect representative of the electorate in the big globalised cities,” the geographer Christophe Guilluy told Le Point magazine in January.

“But it’s the peripheries of France that will decide this presidential election.”