The Means and the Ends

With his Demos research finding a million disabled people have been affected by benefits sanctions, academic Ben Baumberg Geiger asks whether the Government’s approach can be justified.

The sanctioning of disabled benefit claimants is a reality in Britain: over a million benefit sanctions have been applied to disabled people since 2010.

We therefore cannot avoid asking: are these justified? One possible justification is that sanctions increase employment, and another is that they are necessary for ensuring the benefits system is fair. Yet both arguments are contentious, and little evidence on disabled people has made it into the fierce public debates about sanctioning. In a new Demos report , I looked closely at the evidence – using new analyses of official data, new international comparisons, a new survey, and the wider academic evidence – and find both justifications wanting.

Whatever the evidence on the effects of sanctions more generally , we would expect things to be different for disabled people. I may know that I have depression, or cancer – but neither my ‘work coach’ in the Jobcentre nor I myself can be sure how I would cope in the workplace. Ideally I would experiment with things I don’t know that I could do but won’t cause me any harm, safe in the knowledge that I will still have enough money to live if it doesn’t work out. Sanctioning, however, drives people to hunker down rather than to experiment. Because of this, the overwhelming majority of experts that I spoke to as part of this report thought that sanctioning would be counter-productive.

The academic evidence bears out the expert view. Six studies worldwide have looked at the impact on disabled people of either mandatory rehabilitation meetings with the threat of sanctions, or at sanctions themselves. The least convincing studies show mixed (positive or null) results, but the three most convincing studies – the only ones based on randomly allocating people to get the threat or reality of sanctions – all show negative effects. As I summarised in a paper last year, while the evidence isn’t certain, “the limited but robust existing evidence focusing on disabled people suggests that sanctioning may have zero or even negative impacts on work-related outcomes.” And we should also note the anecdotal but widespread evidence that sanctions can lead to poverty and deteriorating health.

The other argument for benefit sanctioning is that it is integral to a fair benefits system. When we asked a representative sample of the British public about this, I did find that a majority supported the imposition of sanctions for disabled people – but they did not support the way this is done at present. A majority thought disabled people’s benefits should be cut if they refuse suitable training or rehabilitation. However, unlike current Government policy, they were less supportive of sanctioning for sometimes turning up late for meetings. And even those who do support sanctions prefer much weaker sanctions than those the government presently uses. Overall, only 6-11 per cent thought that a disabled person should lose most or all of their benefits if they sometimes turned up late for meetings.

What is more, when we spoke to people in more depth, these opinions about the principle of sanctioning quickly turned into discussions about real-world practice: even if we think that the system should include sanctions, how do we know what disabled people are capable of doing, to ensure that they are not sanctioned for things that are impossible for them to do?

Many experts had serious concerns about the fairness of sanctions to date, echoing a Government-commissioned review of sanctions, parliamentary select committees, a major qualitative academic study, and innumerable disability charities & campaigners. In my new Demos research, I show that disabled people on JSA were 26-to-53 per cent more likely to be sanctioned than non-disabled JSA claimants, which provides some statistical support to the widespread view that this process was unfair.

Put simply, it is difficult to justify the sanctioning system for disabled benefit claimants as it currently stands – even for those who agree with sanctioning having a place in the benefits system, it seems to be neither effective nor fair for disabled people. In the report, I explain a number of steps in more detail that could make the current system fairer and more effective. But foremost amongst these is a simple principle: to get a fairer, more effective system – which also costs less money to run – the Government should reduce the extent of benefit conditionality disabled people face per se.