“THIS photo posed by a model.” “This text is for illustrative purposes only.” Had either of these phrases appeared alongside “Sarah’s story” on the Department of Work and Pensions website, there would not now be calls for the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, to resign. In her story, “Sarah” had failed to complete her CV as requested. “I didn’t have a good reason for not doing it and I was told I’d lose some of my payment.” She then completed her CV: “My benefit is back to normal now and I’m really pleased with how my CV looks.” The website Welfare Weekly was among those who smelt a rat beneath such obvious cheeriness. Its Freedom of Information request produced an admission that Sarah was entirely fictitious.
Mr Duncan Smith will remain Work and Pensions Secretary, having survived far more serious challenges than this. In any case, criticism of the benefit-sanctions system is focused on its implementation, not its publicity. The immediate effect of being sanctioned (“Sarah” would not have lost “some of her payment”: to be sanctioned is to lose all your payment for the time specified) is to undermine the whole purpose of benefits, which is to support people while they search for work. With no money coming in, the only search will be for food. Yes, the annual social-security bill is reduced — between four and six per cent of claimants are sanctioned each month — but not in the way it should be, that is, by helping people back into work.
Stories continue to emerge that benefit offices have sanctions targets. Mr Duncan Smith dismissed one such report as “claptrap”. On the creation of further evidence, his department clarified this to an isolated case. In a written submission to the Work and Pensions Select Committee earlier this year, John Longden described the regime in Rochdale and Salford: “05/07/2012 — new line manager [name deleted] tells me to stop phoning and emailing vacancies to customers and asks me to get them into the office. I ask why and she tells me that I need to ‘agitate’ them. I ask her what she means by agitating and she says — we don’t want people to get comfortable claiming benefit, we want to inconvenience them so that they will sign off.”
Church Action on Poverty has highlighted the harm done to the most vulnerable people. Its report (News, 6 March) contained a story from another “Sarah” — not her real name (CAP says so), but a real story none the less. Sarah was sanctioned, wrongly; was not informed that she had been, wrongly; and was discouraged from appealing against the sanction, wrongly. “Usually I’m quite a confident person, but they crush you. I found the experience at the Jobcentre Plus so awful I’d rather starve than go back there again.”
On Monday, Mr Duncan Smith called for rules governing benefits for those with a disability to be less “binary”, which would enable people to be classified as fit for a few hours’ work. An enlightened system run by fully staffed, resourceful job centres could make this work. At present, the lack of trust and the inferred antagonism of those who administer the benefits make this a non-starter.