Fighting sanctions in Scotland

One year on from the Scottish independence referendum the need for an organised working class movement remains the key to smashing the Tories’ brutal benefit sanctions regime. Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures released in August show that almost half of all benefit sanction decisions against JSA and ESA claimants across the UK have been overturned under challenge. Between 22 October 2012 and 31 March 2015 there were 1,824,877 adverse sanctions against claimants. 575,901 of these decisions were challenged, with 285,327 being overturned, a staggering 49.5%. This shows the importance of appealing against benefit sanction decisions.

In Scotland during this period, 7,668 sanctions were applied at Dundee’s Wellgate Jobcentre making it the worst jobcentre for sanctions in Scotland. In Glasgow, Springburn Jobcentre recorded the highest number, 3,997, with Govan second highest at 3,108. Alongside Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, the Scottish Unemployed Workers Network and Dundee Against Welfare Sanctions, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! supporters have maintained regular pickets outside both Wellgate and Govan Jobcentres over the last year against this brutal policy.

Claimants are being sanctioned for not travelling 90 minutes or more for work regardless of transport limits, while whistle-blowing jobcentre workers talk about the pressure they are under to sanction vulnerable people or lose their jobs. Research by the New Policy Institute found that younger Scots on welfare were a greater target for sanctions then those 25 and over.

Benefit sanctions mean starvation. Trussell Trust figures from 1 April 2014 to 31 March 2015 show an all-time high of 1,084,064 people across the UK using their three-day emergency food service. Scotland’s share of this total was 117,689 people, including 36,114 children, up from 2012-2013 figures of 71,428 people with 22,387 children. The primary reasons for food bank usage remain benefit delays, sanctions and changes, as well as poverty wages. In Govan, Asda supermarket is now attaching security labels to £5.16 packs of mince as families struggle to survive.

The Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Employment Minister Priti Patel and the DWP spokespeople continue their spin that sanctions are the ‘last resort’, ‘that Jobcentre Plus has no targets for sanctions – written or otherwise’ – and that they are a proportionate and effective means of getting people on welfare into work. In reality sanctions mean being forced into slave labour community work placements and more attacks on wages and conditions of those in work. Finding claimant’s jobs comes second to exploiting them. Like in Victorian workhouses, claimants are being made to work for private company interests in return for state support. Of the 1.3 million claimants across the UK who have completed the work programme, around 7 in 10 failed to get work (DWP work programmes statistical summary, 30 June 2015).

We spoke to two welfare claimants from Glasgow, Steph and John, about their experiences. Steph is currently under a sanction for failing to provide medical records to prove his father’s attempted suicide and John is on compulsory job training with Ingeus. Both described how they have been made to look for and travel to jobs across the country, working for private companies for free, speaking about the embarrassment of receiving unemployed travel tokens and the difficulties faced finding work if you have a criminal record.

The pressures on individuals and families are destroying lives as impossible and degrading demands are placed on those on welfare. A Citizens Advice Scotland survey of Glasgow found that over 40% of respondents in more deprived areas could not use a computer at all, had never used the internet and did not have a computer or internet connection at home (‘Internet access in Glasgow’s deprived areas’, August 2015). Under the UK Government’s Digital Strategy, 80% of all benefit claims are to be made online by 2017 and job searching is all online.

Political resistance to this has been limited to sanction appeals and the small but determined efforts of a few to picket jobcentres. The SNP have called for ‘all sanctions … to be halted immediately until a fundamental root and branch independent review of DWP’s sanctions and conditionality can be carried out,’ (Dr Eilidh Whiteford, SNP MP, 26 August). The Scottish government is providing the Scottish Welfare Fund to offset ‘Westminster austerity’, but at the same time refuses to cover the financial losses of sanctioned claimants fully as they have done with the bedroom tax. Inevitably people are falling through the net.

Leading Scottish charities have demanded the full devolution of welfare powers and told the Scottish parliament’s Welfare Reform committee that the Scotland Bill proposed by the Conservative government does not go far enough to secure the future of vulnerable Scots (Third Force News, 15 September). This means that the bill excludes the traumatic WCAs which have caused the deaths of thousands of sick and disabled people since their introduction by the Labour government in 2007. We will continue to demand that the SNP Scottish government makes up the losses claimants face as a consequence of the benefit sanctions programme.

Dominic Mulgrew

FRFI 247 October/November 2015