Benefit Sanctions – A Cudgel to Beat the Sick and Powerless

Benefit Sanctions – A Cudgel to Beat the Sick and Powerless

The smug old Etonians who currently have their hands on the national piggy purse tell us that jobless figures have fallen once again. We are strangely unmoved and ungrateful at this “good news”. It is not the reality that many of us live through. We have seen the removal of the sick and disabled from the unemployed numbers. The young have been inveigled into false apprenticeships (not actually learning a trade or skill but forming a poorly paid workforce, generally well below even the minimum wage, for a couple of years for cut price businesses). However a large part of these massaged employed figures has been achieved by discounting those forced off benefits through “sanctions” the arbitrary denial of benefits to anyone who is deemed to have transgressed the regime in any way. If the security hold you up so long at the door of the assessment you can be sanctioned for being late. If you then appeal it takes weeks before you can win back your rights. All kinds of tricks are employed to deny people, especially those with disabilities, their benefits.

In 2013, 871,000 people were sanctioned. Analysis of Government figures by the PCS union reveals that the value of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) payments sanctioned in the year to September 2014 was £355 million, compared to just £11 million in 2009/2010. This means that 7 million weeks of sanctions were handed out to benefit claimants last year. In the last year the number of those sanctioned has gone past 900,000. The human consequences of both sanctions and the bedroom tax have been horrendous.

The Social Security Advisory Committee’s review of evidence on sanctions in 2012 found:

“Sanctions tend to disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, who may be least able to change their circumstances and face the greatest difficulties in finding and keeping paid work, and may also have the most difficulty in meeting the conditionality requirements.

Employment taken up as the result of sanctions tends to be poorly paid and unstable.

[, p. 7]

Not only have 100,000 children been affected by benefit sanctions in 2013/14 but there have been at least 70 deaths from starvation or suicide as a direct result of sanctions from 2013 according to various sources[1]. New figures show that rough sleeping in England has soared by a shocking 55% since the Tory-led coalition came to office.

This is Class War

This is class war with a vengeance. A vindictive and deliberate way to exterminate the poorest and weakest in our society. Its victims report absolutely arbitrary and trivial reasons for suspension of benefits. Some of it seems like a Kafka or Joseph Heller novel (but minus the humour). Take, for example, the case of Mark and Helen Mullins. Helen had a learning disability so she was deemed “not fit for work”, and therefore not eligible for Jobseekers Allowance. But as her condition was not medically certified she was also denied incapacity benefit. Catch 22. After 18 months living on Mark’s £57.50 JSA in which time they walked 12 miles once a week to a food bank to get vegetables, they had had enough. Not able to “face another winter on handouts” they committed suicide together.

This is not just the heartlessness of an unfeeling bureaucracy. It is a conscious policy directed from the top. According to the Guardian on February 3 2015

“Documents produced by the PCS union at the committee’s request present a series of emails from Job Centre Plus managers which the union says show that staff who fail to instigate or approve enough sanctions are subject to performance reviews.

It says the emails reveal how staff are pressurised to meet sanctions targets, seemingly regardless of whether the penalty is appropriate. Staff who do not meet “expectations” are given a “must improve” rating by managers and in some cases are denied performance-based pay rises, it says.

Staff attending a regional briefing last month at which the ratings were unveiled were told that “off-flows” (the removal of claimants from the unemployment register) would help deliver savings to the welfare budget."

Latest official figures show that _918,000 claimants were sanctioned_ between April 2013 and March 2014 for apparently breaching benefits rules. Sanctions rates have risen sharply since 2010, and soared since tighter conditions were introduced in Autumn 2012.

The guardians of capital are doing nothing more nor less than fostering a culture of bullying and the bullied, seeking out those most at risk – the poor, single parents at times with very young children, the sick, the disabled – looking to create a jobs market where the options of poor pay and poor conditions appear brighter than being on any form of benefit. The ultimate human cost is of no matter to them. Just get the numbers of claimants down. One online campaigning organisation claims that the attacks upon the sick and disabled by ATOS, the firm awarded the contract until now, have been a direct cause of 26,000 deaths over the past 6 years or so.

This is like the New Poor Law of the nineteenth century. The aim, like today, was to cut the cost of of welfare and lower the taxes of the property-owning middle class. So more workhouses were built and deliberately made so bad that those without means to exist would still think it a “less eligible” choice to enter them. Nobody counted those who starved to death then but the impact of today’s equivalent is to lower the wage levels of everyone. Sanctions are not just targeting those who are without work but are also attacking everyone on low pay since they force people to accept jobs which don’t pay anywhere near a living wage. Little wonder then that we officially have lower unemployment but no real recovery.

Overall capitalism is reducing the cost of variable capital in an attempt to increase profitability in order to get the economy going again. But given the low global level of the rate of profit in relation to the mass of capital required to do this we can see that this is a futile hope. The Keynesians of all lands are calling for more deficit financing, spending on infrastructure etc or a New Deal to get the economy going but they overlook two things. In the first place Keynesianism only seemed to work in the past because it was based on previously over-tight governments failing to invest. Our governments are already up to their eyeballs in debt, especially since they took on the banking sector’s debt to save capitalism after 2008. In the second place Keynesianism did not solve the problems of the Great Depression in the 1930s. The crisis was beginning to return in the late 1930s and was only overcome by the arms spending that preceded the Second World War – a war that did more than reduce wages – it devalued capital on a global scale and allowed a new cycle of accumulation (the post-war boom) to begin. Today’s stagnant global economy promises a repeat in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime the rich get richer (the number of billionaires has increased exponentially since the banking crash). If you are part of their little club feel free to bank with HSBC and similar, salt your money away, enjoy the comforts, if one tax loophole is plugged the accountants and lawyers will organise another one for you. In the meantime the agony of the entire working class goes on. How can we end it? Certainly not through the ballot box.

Don’t Vote – Join the Fight

Don’t forget that it was Labour governments up till 2010 who extended the original sanctions rules. It was Labour who led the way by starting the use of sanctions against single parents, then it moved on to those on what was then Invalidity Benefit (now coming under ESA and DLA). And if elected again Labour Party has promised more of the same. They will respect all the budget constraints imposed by the current coalition and have even sounded more macho on sanctions than the Tories. In 2013 the newly-appointed shadow secretary for work and pensions, Rachel Reeves told the Guardian

"Nobody should be under any illusions that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government," she said. "If you can work you should be working, and under our compulsory jobs guarantee if you refuse that job you forego your benefits, and that is really important … We would be tougher [than the Conservatives]. If they don't take it [the offer of a job] they will forfeit their benefit. But there will also be the opportunities there under a Labour government.”[]

As ever Labour is a party of capital – seeking to administer it and its details for the benefits of a few. The benefits of the many will be degraded if capital needs it. Spin, subject changing and prevarication will be the order of the day on welfare benefits if they gain power.

The assault on benefits and those claiming benefits will not be fixed by bleating appeals to Labour and the Unions. We cannot trust the Labour party, its apologists and its various and vague supporters – Union, leftist or otherwise – to fix something they had a hand in creating. Appeals to old style social democracy and labourism will not do – they have long since passed their sell-by-date.

Nor can we trust the resurgent Greens whichever of its various and vague heads it may be wearing. Their scheme for a citizens’ wage sounds fine until you ask them how capitalism will pay for it. Abolishing money and producing just what people need would be less utopian.

Similarly, leaving things to the online campaigners, their endless petitions, occasional meetings and demos will do nothing for a working class continuing to be ground down under the heel of a continuing capitalist crisis. That crisis may have been clouded over courtesy of fiddled figures and a moment or two of seeming respite. The abomination of zero-hours slavery, punitive benefits sanctions, gradual privatisation of the welfare state – all of these are a reality, a sad and painful reality.

It is time to organise ourselves and to take the struggle for real life and welfare against both capital and its servants into our own hands. We have to stop suffering in silence and … in isolation. That’s playing the capitalist game. They want each individual to think that their plight is their own fault. There are embryonic grassroots organisations out there. Those threatened should find them or found them. But their perspective should not be just to overturn this or that decision but in the long run the entire system of exploitation itself. Food banks and clothing banks are all well-intentioned but if they are not linked to a struggle for a greater goal they will end up as adjuncts to the system patching over its cracks. The working class can only trust itself and its own organisations, it is time to take the struggle on. In the long term struggle means political too and we don’t mean just party-political in the sense of standing in capitalist elections. We mean that it the real way forward lies in finding a programme which is not only anti-capitalist but enshrines the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. That’s our unity slogan.


[1] gives a list of many by name.

Saturday, March 7, 2015


From the smug, pompous rich old Etonians who govern the country, to those condemned to suicide by the filthy machinations of the capitalist exploitative machinery so inhuman now that it won't spare even the meanest financial help to the destitute at their wit's end, this article covers the lot.

Reading its descriptions of the lives of those exiled from life by the ghastly system, and penalized by its enforced misery, I was reminded of the Work Houses and overall penury of life for the impoverished found in Dicken's early novels. Who would have expected those 19th. century horrors to comeback? Yet here they are!