Sanctions – Cruel or kind?

Our experiences of sanctions can be horrific.

Research from Homeless Link found people experiencing homelessness were ten times more likely to be sanctioned than others, leading to food poverty, increased anxiety and survival crime. Heriot Watt found that for people experiencing homelessness sanctions were a ‘common trigger for extreme anxiety, depression, the onset or escalation of debt, relapses during addiction recovery, and/or repeat episodes of homelessness.’ Our research in Croydon found people experiencing multiple disadvantage were forced to beg due to inflexibilities in the welfare system.

This is not a society that anyone wants. So why are sanctions still such an intrinsic part of the welfare system?

Got to be cruel

Sanctions are intended to support people into work; the rationale being that a threat (the removal of money for basic essentials) is required to enforce a behaviour (actively trying to get work). Without this threat, people will not be incentivised to gain employment, which in turn will have negative consequences to individuals and society.

Many people have a gut feeling that this is roughly the right approach. And I would guess that the vast majority of people would agree with the approach if we they were told that there were safeguards for people who are sanctioned for no fault of their own.

It is a pervasive argument. Last month we wrote about how some debates around begging can follow a similar rationale; if people do not engage with services, then they will remain at risk to the many dangers associated with rough sleeping, so a threat (removal of money for substances) is required to enforce a behaviour (engagement with services). Some arguments around preventing crime run in a similar way.

They don’t work

This way of thinking about supporting people into work doesn’t seem right to me. It assumes people who don’t engage are to blame for not doing so, and that if they are not to blame then there are safeguards in place that work.

But many who don’t engage with looking for work or making appointments with the Jobcentre have experienced multiple disadvantages; the vast majority of whom have experienced adverse experiences in childhood. A threatening, punitive approach to getting people nearer the job market runs a very high risk of re-traumatising people with these experiences. So to stay safe, engagement is not really an option. People become trapped.

As for safeguards, these are inherently very risky; they require perfect administration, job coaches and claimants to know about them, and crucially for people to fully disclose deeply personal aspects of their lives, such as abuse they may be experiencing or an addiction they are servicing. Many people do not, and may never want, to talk about these things to a workcoach who has the ability to take away their means for basic essentials.

Be kind

To support people with their lives, we cannot rely on threats. We cannot label and stigmatise people who don’t engage. We cannot require people going through tough times to be able to talk about their lives to a stranger.

Instead, we need to start from a belief in our shared humanity, harness the skills and talents that we all have, and show our trust in people. We need to provide positives, not take things away.

Relationships can form in these circumstances, and we know there is work taking place in the UK which looks to develop trusting relationships and ensure practice is strengths based and trauma-informed.

We commend the people who are taking this approach. Together, we must all advocate for a welfare system that enables everyone to support each other in this way.