Ewan Aitken: Stringent sanctions hit jobseekers

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EIGHTY-FIVE days before the UK general election, the debate about welfare reform, one of the key battlegrounds, is once again taking centre stage.

At Cyrenians, we see at first-hand the human cost of that prevailing narrative that tries to connect our public debt with the cost of welfare in quite an insidious manner, which endangers not only the welfare system itself but one of the fundamental marks of our society: how we care for our neighbour and the stranger.

There is no doubt from our experience that the new and more stringent sanction regime makes continuing a job search during the sanction much harder.

Sanctioned claimants cannot claim hardship payments for the first 14 days of their sanction unless they fall into one of the “vulnerable groups” (responsible for a child, disabled, etc.).

They are therefore either on a nil income or a reduced income (which can be as low as £28.96 per week for a single person over 25).

This means they cannot afford to feed themselves properly so they are too weak to focus on finding work, or feel stigmatised and ashamed if they have to rely on a food bank.

Many of them have to go without heating in the winter, impacting on their physical and mental health, further undermining their prospects of finding work. This impacts on their self-esteem and resilience, again affecting their work prospects. Making those on the edge even poorer is no way to help them to a new place.

Sanctions mean no money for the bus to go to the Jobcentre or library to check newspapers and websites, or to go to prospective employers to give out CVs. We have examples of people having to walk five miles to their nearest the Jobcentre. It’s even worse for claimants on the Help to Work scheme who have to sign on at the Jobcentre every day.

But it’s that very word “sanction” that drives the deepest stake in the lifeblood of the welfare system. It’s a word that suggests that somehow the only way to help people out of poverty, especially those who’ve been there for a long time, is to build a culture of fear and authoritarian discipline, as if those on the edge are somehow slackers, choosing to be there which we know to be untrue.

Our experience tells us that far from motivating folks, it simply drives them further away from the society from which they already feel excluded.

Those standing for election might think such language is popular with some voters, but we know many for whom it is the sound of the key to the door back from the edge being firmly turned and apparently thrown away forever. A blame culture is not a good basis for a caring society.

Ewan Aitken is chief executive of the Cyrenians