Ending benefit sanctions for all?

Does a recent BPS statement go far enough?

I was pleased to read that the British Psychological Society, along with eight other leading mental health organisations, have signed a consensus statement that ‘everyone living with a mental health condition should be supported to attain financial security’, and that ‘Neither conditions nor sanctions have been shown to work or to be safe for people with mental health difficulties, and as a result we believe they should be stopped’.

This is a welcome step, but does it go far enough? The current benefit sanctions scheme started with the Conservative government in 1986 and the introduction of Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA), which increased the monitoring of claimants. The New Labour government elected in 1997 introduced the New Deal programmes, which became increasingly compulsory for more and more claimants, who faced benefit sanctions if they did not meet job-search requirements. The Welfare Reform Act 2012, introduced by the coalition government, increased the number and severity of benefit sanctions for JSA and certain disability claimants up to three years. The justification was to promote positive behavioural change and incentivise job searching.

The number of sanctions peaked at over a million in 2013, and then fell due to fewer people participating on the Work Programme (rather than greater compliance). Private providers were more likely to issue sanctions than other providers. There is some evidence that many claimants are sanctioned through lack of understanding of what is required of them to avoid a sanction, rather than deliberate non-compliance.  Furthermore, there is evidence that claimants found it difficult to comply through, for example, not having enough money to attend appointments, having to apply for too many jobs per week, and clashing appointments.

There may be a wide range of reasons why people are not in paid work, such as structural unemployment, ill health, caring responsibilities, disability, technological change, market failure and employer discrimination. The Mental Health Foundation estimate that 85 per cent of people out of work have experienced mental health problems. Research from the Welfare Conditionality Project led by the University of York broadly found that welfare conditionality is ineffective in assisting and progressing the unemployed into the paid labour market, and that it can lead to counterproductive negative behaviour – disconnection from the social security system, increased poverty, worse ill health and increased risk of survival crime.

Indeed, there is considerable evidence that many benefit claimants who have been sanctioned have suffered significant hardship, with many ending up relying on foodbanks, becoming homeless and engaging with begging and crime. Such a predicament would undoubtedly worsen existing mental health problems and increase the likelihood of claimants developing mental health problems. Therefore, is there not a psychological argument for the end of benefit sanctions for all claimants?

Stephen McMurray

Illustration: Tim Sanders

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber