Tuesday, 29 April 2014

'Not so smart': Dr David Webster responds to Policy Exchange

David Webster, a leading authority on UK benefit sanction statistics, has responded to last month’s report by the Policy Exchange think tank (Smarter Sanctions: Sorting out the system).
A copy of Webster’s report can be found at the website of Conditionality *here (you have to scroll down to the bottom of the blog entry for the link).
Webster has consistently rejected sanctions, but in his latest report he also draws attention to the criminalising language increasingly used when referring to claimants by organisations like Policy Exchange (PE).
He highlights the way PE frames the debate through words like:
‘offences’, ‘failures’, transgressions’
He points to their use of 'throw away' phrases about sanctioned claimants such as 
 ‘serial and deliberate breach’ or ‘failure to meet their responsibilities,’ 
It is important that Webster emphatically refuses to accept this way of framing the debate. In doing so he shows how this kind of language has come to define the debate about benefit conditionality, sanctions, welfare reform and unemployment more generally.
Obviously you should read Webster’s response in full at Conditionality
But below is a smattering of quotes from it.

On Policy Exchange's uncritical use of criminalising language about claimants
‘The Coalition has changed the official language used in referring to sanctions in such a way as to imply that sanctioned claimants are in effect a type of criminal… Thus we read of ‘offences’, ‘failures’, transgressions’, ‘serial and deliberate breach’, ‘failure to meet their responsibilities’, and the like. The Policy Exchange report adopts this language uncritically, and adds to it… In what follows it has not been possible to avoid using the language of ‘offence’ and ‘punishment’ in reporting what the Policy Exchange has said, but it is important to bear the above points in mind.’
On PE's dodgy decision to focus on the 68,000 wrongly sanctioned for the first time
‘[Policy Exchange’s] identification of first-time ‘lower-level’ ‘offenders’ as the only claimants who should be treated less harshly is odd’
 Because it leaves out:
·      'second and subsequent time lower level ‘offenders’ including successful appellants
·      all intermediate and higher level ‘offenders’, whether first-time or not and whether successfully appealing or not.'
‘There is no justification for the [sic] Policy Exchange proposal to treat these groups less favourably… Repeat ‘offenders’ are just as likely as first-timers to be wrongly sanctioned. Wrongly sanctioned people with a previous ‘offence’ should not be treated less favourably than wrongly sanctioned first timers. The report does not attempt to justify this discrimination, which presumably arises from an implicit assumption that an‘offence’ renders a claimant ‘undeserving’ and that as a result they should forfeit their right to justice.’ 
‘The report does not offer any justification for treating ‘higher’ and ‘intermediate’ ‘offenders’ less favourably than ‘lower’ offenders. It appears simply to have accepted these distinctions uncritically at face value. But this categorization did not exist until
October 2012.’

On PE's failure to engage with sanctioned claimants or the qualitative research about them
It is striking that the Policy Exchange report makes very little reference to the British literature on the difficulties of sanctioned claimants. Instead, references are mainly to US literature on ‘workfare’, revealing the Policy Exchange’s political preferences and connections. A reading of the British literature would show that there are considerable objections to both of the proposed more ‘compassionate’ penalties.’
I'll add that the voice of sanctioned claimants was totally absent from Policy Exchange's report. Not a single claimant was interviewed for it. How can sensible policy be made at such social distance?

On the idea that a ‘yellow card’ be issued to people wrongly sanctioned for the first time
This proposal is modelled on the ‘Azure card’ issued to asylum seekers denied leave to remain. The British Red Cross is calling for this to be abolished, a fact of which the Policy Exchange appears unaware. The implied withdrawal of full citizenship recalls the overt removal of citizenship rights introduced for workhouse inmates by the 1834 Poor Law. The report itself states (pp.6, 33, 36) that the card would work partly through ‘social pressure’, in other words sanctioned claimants would be publicly shamed, even when they are subsequently found to have done nothing wrong at all… Given the shame involved in using the card, it seems likely that only claimants in dire need of money would opt to pick it up, and for many, there would thus be a reduced incentive to ‘re-engage’. The report itself (p.10, note 17) references a case where a teacher was wrongfully sanctioned for attending a job interview which took place at the same time as her signing-in time. An offer of a ‘yellow card’ would not only make such a person justifiably very angry; it would also most likely be rejected.’
Daily signing-on is an issue in the news this week, it is an integral part of the DWP’s so-called ‘Help to Work’ initiative. Aside from the cost in time and money of making people sign-on daily, Webster says the idea: 
has a strong resemblance to the oakum-picking of the nineteenth-century workhouse – a deliberately purposeless activity, designed to depress and humiliate.'
 ‘Again, the [sic] Policy Exchange proposes that this penalty should be applied to people who are blameless.' 
On punishment

Here I think we get to the nub of what conditionality and sanctions are all about, especially when considered alongside the criminalising language already referred to. There is no evidence that sanctions lead to sustainable non-precarious employment. What is certain is that sanctions are effective at disciplining people.
But a central strand of PE’s argument was that sanctions simply are not strong enough.
'The report does not cite any empirical evidence in support of its proposal to add further progression of penalties beyond 13 weeks for a third or subsequent lower level ‘failure’. It says (pp. 10-11) that ‘more needs to be done to prevent this group of individuals’ – a ‘hard core of claimants’ – ‘consistently wasting time and resources’. Sanctions should be ‘more punitive for those who are repeatedly attempting to avoid the conditionality regime’ (p.7). The harsher progression ‘would increasingly shift the most troublesome cases onto more punitive sanctions’ and ‘should help provide a more extensive punishment for those who consistently abuse this system’ (p.37).'

But, counters Webster:
‘The evidence shows that the great majority of claimants are doing their best to find work, and that Jobcentres contribute little of value to their search. For them, what the sanctions system often does is to enforce contrived and pointless actions which bring no actual benefit to anyone.’

‘The report is quite open about its belief in punishment: sanctions’ ‘purpose is twofold; attempting to ensure compliance with the conditionality regime, and’ (emphasis added) ‘punishing noncompliant behaviour’ (p.6). This position is clearly different from that of more moderate advocates of sanctions, such as Gregg (2008), whose report does not mention the words ‘punishment’ or ‘punish’ at all.’

‘There appears to be no evidence that heavy sanctions are more efficacious than mild ones.’

In conclusion:

'the obvious solution is not the report’s proposal to treat wrongly sanctioned people supposedly less harshly, but to ensure that sanctions are not wrongly applied in the first place…

‘Added to the pre-existing problems, there is now a deliberate policy on the part of ministers to drive up the level of sanctions to previously unheard-of levels.'
‘Sanctions should simply be abolished.’

*Conditionality is a project attached to York University, part funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) that is at the start of an ambitious round of qualitative research into ‘Conditionality’).

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