Figures released last week by the Department for Work and Pensions show that nearly one in five jobseekers-allowance claimants are currently being sanctioned because they didn’t turn up to an appointment, refused a job, or walked out on one. In 2010/11, 15 per cent of JSA claimants were subject to sanctions. This went up to 16 per cent in 2012/13 and by 2013/14 it was up to 18 per cent – that’s 568,430 out of 3,097,630 claimants.
These figures follow a recent parliamentary inquiry, a slew of reports claiming some of those subject to sanctions have committed suicide, and claims that a harsh, target-setting culture has been put in place, forcing bullied jobcentre staff to sanction benefit claimants unfairly. This is something the government denies. Rachel Reeves, shadow work and pensions secretary, has nevertheless declared that a Labour government wouldn’t impose such cold-hearted targets.
But is it necessarily wrong to exert more pressure on claimants to get them off benefits? Are they all vulnerable victims picked on by the cruel coalition government, as the critics claim? Do they all need more hand-holding or ‘support’ in order to get them job-ready? Or are they just being patronised? I appreciate there are structural reasons why jobs can be hard to come by today. But that doesn’t mean that individuals bear no responsibility for finding work. The new, more robust sanctioning regime may well, as employment minister Esther McVey suggests, be a much-needed kick up the backside for those stuck in a state-dependent rut.
Of course, the sorts of things jobcentre bureaucrats worry over – such as the number of online job searches an IT-illiterate claimant performs in a week – are not going to make much of a difference to claimants’ job prospects. But, still, people who claim benefits are more often than not perfectly capable of finding themselves a job. Dependency on benefits not only wastes people’s potential, but actively undermines their sense of themselves as active and able. It renders them passive and incapable. For superficially sympathetic commentators, reducing claimants to defenceless victims of a not very successful austerity programme, treating them as innocents wrongly punished, is doubly diminishing. Indeed, those opposed to the government’s allegedly cruel welfare reforms are doing more to reduce and enfeeble people than any benefits-basher ever could.
First published in sp!ked