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Thursday, 17 July 2014

Would benefit sanctions have stopped three million people becoming unemployed in the 1980s?

In April this year Neil Couling, Director of Benefit Strategy at the  Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)and one of Iain Duncan-Smith’s most senior civil servants gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament on benefit sanctions and foodbanks. 

You can read about the session here

Or watch the session here: 

At the time several newspapers picked up on his comment to the effect that sanctions were a good thing for claimants, a kick up the backside, if you will.
Mr Couling said sanctioned claimants: ‘recognise that it is the wake-up call that they needed.’ 
A short time later, he was asked (surely rhetorically?) if he had been ’inundated with thank you cards’ from people who had received sanctions?

‘Yes—that is not so remarkable.’ Replied Mr Couling. sanctions
Now, okay – let’s conclude Mr Couling was replying sarcastically to what was surely a sarcastic question. Surely we have to assume that Mr Couling has not actually been inundated with thank you cards from people grateful for having their benefit sanctioned? Let’s put this down to defensive ebullience on Mr Couling’s part. Though I do wonder if it’s worth putting in an FOI so we can see the display of thank you cards for ourselves.

*** BREAKING ***: Someone already put in an FOI along these lines, to Leigh Job Centre, in the north west of England. During a six month period the centre received 11 thank you cards from sanctioned claimants. 


Anyway, I digress, this is nothing compared to what was to come. Because later in his evidence, Mr Couling was to make a claim that, if true, was worthy of a PHD. An incredible claim, a whopper in fact that, when I think about it, sounds totally unhinged for a bureaucrat of his seniority. 
Here is what he said:
'During the recession in the 1980s, my predecessors… abandoned the sanctions and conditionality regime… unemployment grew to three million—it was probably going to do that because of the nature of the economy—... it stayed at three million until 1986 and started to downturn only when we reintroduced [sanctions] into the system.'
Now this seems an incredible statement to make, let me recapitulate it. Mr Couling's hypothesis is that:
  1. The Thatcher government, being a liberal administration, pressured the DWP not to sanction people;
  2. Under pressure, the DWP relaxed sanctions; and
  3. It wasn’t until sanctions were re-introduced (with the introduction of 'Restart') that unemployment started to come down from its 1986 peak of three million.
But, wait, there’s more and it is classic Whitehall Mandarin stuff. 
‘…when we worked hard—as we did in the 2008 recession—to hang on to the conditionality regime, the unemployment rate fell very fast,' he said. 'In the 2008 recession, unemployment was much lower than most external commentators suggested that it would be….’ 
The key point to bear in mind here is the date: 2008.
By Mr Couling's reasoning 2008 was the year that sanctions proved their worth at preventing mass unemployment.
But if this was the case in 2008 why did Mr Couling personally order job centres to increase their use of sanctions four years later in October 2012?
Why tell job centres to increase the use of sanctions, when unemployment was already apparently under control?
For me, this does not make sense.
Mr Couling continued:
‘Some former members of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee said that it would rise to 5 million, but it did not… it peaked at between 2.5 million and 2.6 million, and it is now falling back towards 2 million.’ 
Do sanctions really get people into work? This is a red herring. 
If you look at the rising number of unemployed people who do not claim JSA and compare it with the explosion of sanctioning behaviour from October 2012 onwards, I think the answer is a clear: no. 
Are sanctions a brilliant way of reducing the claimant count, of driving people off benefits? Yes, without doubt.

Is this the real reason Mr Couling is so committed to them?

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