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9 January 2015

Why benefits sanctions don’t work, and we need a more personalised service

Visiting a job-shop in a Salford suburb, we learn why the government's current benefits sanctions need to be reformed.

By Ashley Cowburn

The doors of the Broughton Trust’s job-shop open weekdays at 9am. The charity, in a suburb of Salford, is housed in a Seventies-built, ex-council house with barbed wire covering the windows. Inside there are eight laptops, a few local rags and a jar of instant coffee. It’s a sanctuary for those who have learning difficulties, those who are computer illiterate and those filling out their weekly Jobseekers’ Allowance claims online.

Phillip*, 46, is unshaven and looks tired, but he’s in high spirits. He’s just applied to three different vacancies on the Universal job match website: a cleaner, caretaker and kitchen porter. He has 17 more “steps” (applications) to do before he can claim his dole for the week. “I won’t get any of the jobs,” he says, “but I have to keep trying.”

Phillip grew up in a care home from the age of 12 and left secondary school before obtaining any formal qualifications. For the past 18 years he has lived in social housing in the block of flats that tower above Salford precinct – a particularly deprived shopping centre with a depressing concentration of pawnshops and payday lenders. The local MP Hazel Blears also tells me there are high levels of mental health problems around the precinct. 

Sitting at the opposite end of the room to Phillip with a cup of coffee in hand is Simon Connolly, 47, who is one of a small team of volunteers helping claimants with their online job search. He is there to give introductory IT lessons, provide advice to those who have been sanctioned, or are facing a sanction and assist as much as he can with any emergency provisions. “I spend more time with these lot than my family,” he says, with a grin on his face.  “But most of them probably won’t get a job. I don’t know anyone who has got a job from this website.”

I ask him what he thinks of the current system of benefit conditionality and he responds bluntly: “They just don’t treat people like humans”. He tells me that the job-shop exists because of the lack of personalisation and the constrained resources at the government’s job centre.

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Three days before Christmas in 2013, Phillip slipped up and was late for a JSA meeting. His benefits were immediately stopped. “I had to beg on the streets, turn to family members – anyone that would help,” says Phillip, looking down at the floor. One place he did turn to during his sanction was Salford Central food bank (a Trussell Trust branch), less than 500 yards from the job-shop. According to an internal report by Salford council, 62% of the users of this food bank have had their benefits sanctioned.

But Chris Mould, the chairman of the Trussell Trust, is highly critical of the government for using his organisation and others like his as a substitute to state provisions, rather than the support network they were intended to be.

“We do not believe that addressing the vital needs of housing, clothing, food and dignity should be devolved by the state to the voluntary sector and rendered discretionary,” says Mould as he leaves the first oral evidence session of the work and pensions select committee into benefit sanctions beyond the limited Oakley review. During the session Mould – a witness on the panel – stated that 86 per cent of the food banks his organisation surveyed had seen a significant increase in those requiring emergency nutrition packages after benefit “changes”.

Following the hearing, Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, who instigated the select committee inquiry into sanctions said to me that the session was “damning” for the government.

Abrahams added: “The final points for me were clues on why the government is pushing sanctions so hard: it was confirmed that in 2013/14 an estimated £250m had been withheld as result of JSA sanctions following the introduction of the new sanctions regime.

One prominent issue from both the job-shop in a Salford suburb and the select committee hearing in Westminster was the need for a more personalised service from the government. A government that takes into account the complexity of the issues faced by an individual and the difficulties that are facing those trying to make ends meet. And, as Dr David Webster, an honorary senior research fellow at the University Glasgow said, a need for a system that doesn’t run a sanctions regime on the assumption that people don’t want to work.

*Phillip’s name has been changed to protect his identity.