What’s wrong with benefit sanctions?

Our Chairman Chris Mould on why empathy is key to good policy making

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Picture this: you’re ten minutes late for a meeting at work. You’re very sorry. You explain to your boss how the bus was on diversion and took half an hour longer than usual. Your boss has no time to discuss it and simply tells you that you won’t get paid this month. That’s it, not a fine, or some kind of reduction, but nothing, no pay, absolutely nothing.

Or this: you’re home based. You’re on flexible hours. Today you had an appointment to check in with the team. But just as you were leaving to go to the office, your daughter’s school called. She’s in the sick room, they say. She isn’t well and the school needs you to fetch her home right away. You phone your office and explain there’s an emergency and head off for the school instead. Next thing you know, your work has written you a letter telling you, you won’t get paid this month: nothing, no pay, absolutely nothing; four weeks without a penny. No investigation; no checking the facts; no phone call to the school to see if your story added up.

Of course, in the UK, today, this would never happen. There are laws to prevent it. If anyone tried to justify anything like this in the workplace, they would be told just how grossly disproportionate a sanction like losing a month’s pay would be. And the idea the punishment could be put into action on a first offence, no yellow card, so to speak, would make it all the more far-fetched. Far-fetched that is, if we are talking workplace and employment.

But foodbanks in the Trussell Trust network deal with this type of situation with welfare recipients every day. A pregnant women who was working part time (less than 16 hours per week) but was ‘not looking for a job hard enough’ and sanctioned and left hungry. A construction worker on a zero hours contract who was sanctioned because he found work that day and had to cancel his appointment. Just two of many examples.

Somehow, the nation has got itself in a place where draconian action like this happens to tens of thousands of citizens without most of the rest of us batting an eyelid! Not when they are in work, but when they are out of it.

And this benefit sanctioning is even sometimes justified by saying it prepares people for the real world of work. How unreal is that. It’s like a parallel universe where the well-honed principles that govern relations between employees and their employers have been ditched in favour of a system that seems to have forgotten justice and proportionality.

I’m left puzzling. Why does behaviour we would think outrageous if it were a business owner trying it, get given the okay when it’s people administering the benefits system that do it? What justifies the rules being so very different?

I’m certain of one thing, though: if the people making the policy in the first place had put themselves in the frame and faced the thought that they too would be treated this way when they were out of work; faced the thought long enough and made themselves believe for a moment that they too might one day need to sign on, the policy would not be what it is.

There’s a simple maxim needed: never make policy for “other” people. Don’t write rules to cover those who are “not like us”. Always make sure you would feel it fair if it happened to you. That way lies policy that works.

Chris Mould, Chairman

This piece was originally published on HuffingtonPost.co.uk on 28 August 2015.