Mark Cantrell, Author

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ESSAY: Destitution By Design Is Surely A Crime

Posted by Mark Cantrell on November 10, 2013 at 7:50 PM

It's the quiet ones you've got to watch out for

We've all got a stake in social security, so when it comes to the privations of welfare reform, maybe it's time we got work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to take the point to heart, writes Mark Cantrell

Vampires, by and large, are kind of cool, so the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith can't possibly be one of these creatures of the night, but it's certainly time to wonder if he doesn't draw some kind of macabre sustenance out of the misery his reign of terror creates.


The man might not be undead but he is certainly a political revenant; a relic of his party's post-Thatcher fag-end decline in the face of Tony's Blair's New Labour ascendancy, a lacklustre leader of the Conservative Party, he is a man who should have long-since vanished in a puff of obscurity.


But here he is, not quite a pantomime villain, the master of all he surveys, the cruel gulag-boss born of a failed Conservative bid for election victory in 2010, a secretary of state in a Government made possible only through a back-room deal with the Liberal Democrats.


And hasn't he made his presence felt, with the assistance of his loyal 'Igor', Lord David Freud, the architect of his political resurrection; Duncan Smith has gained a new lease of life and notoriety courtesy of welfare reform.


No, the Quiet Man isn't entirely Lord Freud's creation; he must take some of the credit himself for his ascent out of the crypt, just as plenty of blame must go to those who were so (wilfully?) gullible in the face of his proclaimed Easterhouse epiphany. Alas, as hindsight amply reveals, this was not a man seeing the light, but a politician biding his time.


Here he is, then, ensconced in 'Castle' Caxton House - the HQ of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) - where his policies (and his prejudices) cause misery and fear, and crush hope the length and breadth of the land. He is the hammer Prime Minister David Cameron, and Chancellor George Osborne, are using in their effort to reshape British society, to - in essence - institutionalise inequality, drive down standards of living for the many, and subordinate us all to the whims of a corporate and oligarchic elite (often called the 'market').


In a sense, Duncan Smith has far more power at the DWP than Cameron. The Prime Minister operates through Cabinet proxies, each of them ambitious, each pursuing their own agendas, each - some day - a possible stalking horse, all bound together under the loose umbrella of collective responsibility. They need the PM to grant them positions of state office; he needs them - and the loose alliances he must forge among them - to maintain his position.


In this cauldron of intrigue and careerism, Duncan Smith is but one of the minister-courtiers for sure, but within the DWP, he has the kind of direct power over millions of people that, perhaps, a Prime Minister can only dream of. In that context, the man is an absolute ruler, and perhaps it shows in his increasingly aloof disdain for the misery caused by his reforms.


Given that, competence and capability is something of an optional extra; just as well given the mess he's making of his pet project. Lately, the implementation of his Universal Credit - the amalgamation of several social security benefits into one monthly payment - has come in for some severe criticism from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of MPs. In short, it's in a complete mess and has pretty much wasted half a billion quid of public money.


The DWP and its erstwhile commander are unmoved. But this isn't an article about the wider aspects of the Duncan Smith Project - we'd be here all day - it's about the peculiar brutality of the sanctions regime imposed on people claiming benefits. Suffice to say, the Government appear to care little about wasting hundreds of millions, but it cares a great deal about clawing back a pittance from individuals and families who have nothing but the few quid paid in benefits to help them maintain a barely adequate hand-to-mouth existence.


Sadly, the DWP is far from incompetent when it comes to depriving people of subsistence benefits. In fact, it is getting rather good at it: proud of it too.


Between October 2012, when the Government introduced its new sanctions regime, and June 2013, JobSeekers Allowance (JSA) payments were suspended 580,000 times. That translates to around 447,000 people who had their payments stopped. The sanctions regime also applies to people with disabilities, with those receiving Employment Support Allowance (ESA) being sanctioned 11,000 times.


At times it gets downright Kafkaesque. The campaign group Boycott Workfare has pointed out that some ESA claimants have been declared unfit for work by ATOS - by ATOS, for God's sake, which has gained notoriety for judging the sick, the disabled, and the dying as fit for work - yet still been sanctioned for 'failing' to take part in the DWP's Work Programme, known as workfare by its critics, which forces people to work for nothing other than their social security benefits.


Plenty of other people have been sanctioned unfairly too, according to the charity Crisis, or because of mistakes made by the JobCentre and the Work Programme providers - in short, they are being punished for the mistakes of capricious authority.


And the punishment is severe. A four-week loss of benefits might not sound like a long time, but when someone is living a day-to-day existence, hand-to-mouth, it can seem like an eternity - let along the three long years for those who suffered the severest penalty. No money for food, for heating, for travel to interviews; no money for rent, since a loss of one benefit can impact on receipt of others.


The penalty means the very real risk of destitution - and that is a harsh, not to mention unjust, punishment for what may, on closer examination, turn out to be nothing more than minor administrative transgressions Or, indeed, mistakes made by Job Centre staff - such as failing to tell people they have an appointment and then sanctioning them when, unsurprisingly, they don't turn up.


That's one of the cases cited in a report from Crisis, 'Dashed Hopes, Lives On Hold', that has collected together the experiences of its clients placed on the Work Programme. The Government might offer the riposte that is merely a collection of anecdotes, but anecdotes provide a human face, and an empathic understanding, to cold statistics.


"These sanctions are cruel and often handed out unfairly, due to errors on the part of the Job Centre or Work Programme provider. They can leave people utterly destitute - without money even for food and at severe risk of homelessness. Quite how this is meant to motivate people or help them back into work is difficult to see," said Leslie Morphy, the charity's chief executive.


The Charity Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) said 120 disabled people are among those given the harshest penalty of a three-year stoppage in their JSA. Like Crisis, it is disconcerted about the impact of the regime.


"The sanctions regime is an unfolding scandal that is doing tremendous damage to jobseekers and disabled people, even when they are trying to do the right thing," said CPAG's Tim Nichols.

"Sanctions are meant to have a positive effect on behaviour, so if the system was working their use would be falling as claimants develop positive relationships with Job Centre and Work Programme advisers and do all the activities needed. Instead, the system has become an unhelpful bureaucratic nightmare, with Job Centres setting targets to arbitrarily push up the numbers of people hit with a sanction."


The DWP might state that only 5% of those claiming JSA or ESA have been sanctioned, but the number of penalties issued is rising. Since the new regime got underway last year, there has been a 30% rise in referrals for a sanctions decision. Meanwhile, the sanctions imposed have gone up by 13% over the previous regime.


There is no suggestion that the rate of punishment might slow down. Indeed, once conditionality rules come to be applied to those claiming in-work benefits, the country's low-paid workers will find themselves subject to the same capricious and merciless regime as their job-seeking counterparts.

Therein, perhaps, is a clue to what this welfare reform package is all about - monitoring and controlling the lowest paid and least secure sections of the workforce. Taken together with the workfare aspect of the system, and any successful implementation of measures to weaken employment rights, then we have in the making what you might term a State gangmaster.


Given the context, the harshness of sanctions starts to make sense - it's a warning to everyone else to behave, lest they be forced into destitution too. Poverty and hunger, fear and uncertainty, can all be powerful motivators to obedience.


Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), described the sanctions regime as a "threat of destitution" in "a bid to mould behaviour and encourage people to take jobs".


"International evidence is that while conditionality has its uses, it is a blunt and uncertain instrument for driving behaviour," she said. "In the USA the evidence is that people disappear below the radar altogether, which may rescue the claimant count but creates huge risk.

"Evidence from Europe suggests that the application of sanctions drives people to take inappropriate, insecure jobs which they are then unable to keep. The threat of destitution is a poorly evidenced high risk way of trying to influence the behaviour of the poorest people in the country."


Nichols added: "Claimants are finding it increasingly confusing to understand what the sanctions regime expects of them, and many sanctions appear to happen when people are trying to do the right thing, but they just cannot find their way through the unhelpful and chaotic bureaucracy of Job Centres and the Work Programme.


"The result is demand on foodbanks surging from people whose claims are stopped for weeks, months and even years. Since June last year 120 disabled people have been banned from benefits for a fixed three-year period, without a systematic safeguard of full case reviews before it reaches that point. Instead of helping people, many claimants are finding that Job Centres are becoming like a Kafkaesque nightmare. The Government should urgently investigate what the consequences are for the children and families of people being failed by this cruel regime."


From the point of view of the Government, however, it's all perfectly reasonable. As one of Duncan Smith's lacklustre minions, the employment minister Esther McVey put it: "This Government has always been clear that in return for claiming unemployment benefits, jobseekers have a responsibility to do everything they can to get back into work. We are ending the something for nothing culture.


"People who are in a job know that if they don't play by the rules or fail to turn up in the morning, there might be consequences, so it's only right that people on benefits should have similar responsibilities. We always make the rules very clear - it's only right there is a penalty if people fail to play by them."


Firm but fair, you might think. Well, that's what you're required to think. But the language of the DWP is in itself quite telling; it is clearly inspired by the criminal justice system, and this speaks volumes of precisely how it sees people on benefits - whether working or not. To claim the dole is to commit a crime in itself; to transgress the jailer's rules, brings a harsh penalty not born of the courts, but of the needs of the institution to impose discipline on its inmates.


"Tougher rules", "minor offences", "repeat offenders" - this is the language of courts and prisons, applied to people who are simply out of work, or who are unable to work through sickness or disability. This is the language used to cover the harassment and intimidation by powerful agencies of the state of people who may be outright vulnerable, who are certainly not well placed to fight their corner.


On top of that, they face being the subject of salacious media-sponsored innuendo, slander, and frequent misinformation, as the focus of a kind of endlessly looping 1984-style 'Two Minute Hate' session.


And what are their crimes? Well, the severest sanctions result in a JSA being stopped for 13 weeks for the 'first offence', followed by 26 weeks for a second, leading to a three stoppage for a third offence, if someone refuses to take a job, leaves a job voluntarily, or loses a job through "severe misconduct".


Then there are four-week penalties for those who are deemed to be not doing enough to find work, or who are judged as not being available for work, rising to 13 weeks for a repeat 'offence'.


The lowest levels of transgression, for which people receive a fixed four week sanction, include not turning up to an appointment (or just being late), rising to 13 weeks for the next offence.


Verdicts can be handed out on a whim, the decisions made in a far from transparent process, and with sanctions targets expected if not quite officially imposed, the judgements become all the more capricious. And the penalties are harsh indeed, for what amount to administrative protocols, or vague measures of compliance - what, exactly, constitutes not doing enough to find work?


At the end of the day, these 'transgressions' lie exclusively within the realm of bureaucratic algorithm, personal prejudice, and circumstantial whim, driven by the fury of moralising politicians drunk on the power they have over some of the weakest members of our society. It is vicious, it is vile; destitution by design as a means of enforcing labour discipline should surely rank as a crime against humanity.


It is not without opposition, though; a range of grass roots campaigns and protest groups, as well as trade unions, anti-austerity movements, and others, are resisting these kinds of assaults on the welfare state, and the Government's concerted efforts to turn back the clock on social justice and human well-being.


The organisation Boycott Workfare, for example, has called on the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which covers Job Centre staff, to ballot their members on a boycott of the Work Programme and the sanctions regime. It ties in with a nationwide week of action against both to be held next month (2-8 December).


You might say that the unemployed, low paid workers, and others in the firing line of Government contempt, are not intending to go down without a fight.


"These statistics [on sanctions] are sickening to see, but they are no surprise," said Liz Wyatt, of Boycott Workfare. "We are contacted regularly by people who tell us horrific stories of being unable to afford to buy food as a result of having benefits sanctioned. They also describe the significant mental toll that sanctions and the threat of sanctions cause them. Sanctions must stop. They are causing hunger, homelessness, and intense suffering in our communities.


"Yet the Government is intent on extending benefit sanctions to low-paid workers as well, bringing one million more people under the savage sanctions regime. Sanctions are being used by the Government to bully people from claiming what is rightfully theirs."


Destitution as a matter of Government policy ought to be sobering for anyone to contemplate, regardless of whether they are directly in the firing line. This is an issue that goes right to the heart of the kind of society we want to live in - indeed whether we want to live in a society at all, or whether we're happy to acquiesce to life in a kind of gulag.


Few of us are safe from the malignancy of Duncan Smith's workhouse mentality. What he is building, whether by conscious intent or instinctive class prejudice, is an essential and powerful component of a Stasi-style state that will seek to discipline us all into a state of broken compliance.


Welfare reform, and its harsh sanctions regime, is actually part of a concerted attack on democracy and human decency - part of a drive to enslave us all to the remorseless and rapacious appetites of the powerful.


Forget vampires and the visions of shambling revenants, Iain Duncan Smith is far more dangerous. But we all have a stake in the maintenance of a humane system of social security - so let's ram that point home before the sun goes down.

Mark Cantrell,


9 November 2013


Copyright (c) November 2013. All Rights Reserved.



Easterhouse Epiphany:


Centre for Social Justice:


An example of IDS disdain:


PAC on Universal Credit:


DWP Statistical Release (6-11-13):


Crisis: Dashed Hopes, Lives On Hold:


Boycott Workfare:




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