David Cameron has announced some genuinely tough penalties for jobseekers who step out of line. But it is no revolution in benefit management. Here are five reasons to take the latest crackdown on the workshy with a big pinch of salt:
1. Sanctions are as old as benefits. The first powers to dock the benefits of the workshy were introduced in the 1913 bill that created Unemployment Benefit. Yes, before the First World War. This “radical” Cameron plan is as old as the welfare state.
2. Most of the rules are already in place. Sanctions are already imposed on those who miss job interviews, refuse work, refuse training, disobey their employment adviser, get thrown out of the army, wear funny clothes to a job interview….the list goes on. Not only that, but the sanctions are already worse for the second and third offence. Cameron is hardly changing the rules. He’s just toughening up the penalties.
3. Most of the sanctions are pretty regularly enforced. Some of Cameron’s team are claiming the rules on sanctions — which currently permit benefits to be docked for up to 26 weeks — are rarely enforced. That may stretch the meaning of rare. Over the last decade alone there have been more than a million sanction referrals. Last year around 110,000 jobseekers had their benefits docked or stopped.
4. Even the rhetoric is old. “Three strikes and you’re out” isn’t just a cliché. It’s a cliché that Alistair Darling and David Blunkett rolled out in 1999 when they announced a “radical” new plan to dock the benefits of those refusing work or training on the New Deal. Emperors Old Clothes?
5. It’s the jobcentre advisers that make the difference. Toughening up the rules is the easy part. The difficulty is enforcing them. Cameron has signed off 40 per cent cuts to DWP, which includes Jobcentre Plus funding. At the same time there is the suggestion they will be a lot more active in enforcing sanctions. Where is the give? The time advisers are spending with jobseekers is being steadily squeezed, yet employment experts say these regular interventions are one of the most important ways of helping people back to work. Typical interviews last 4 minutes, on a good day. Will that time now be taken up imposing penalties?