Finally, with the release of the DWP White Paper, Iain Duncan Smith has let the cat out of the bag. In the future, jobseekers who reject a job offer, a short-term community work placement, or who fail to apply for a job recommended to them, will see their payments suspended for three months. If they turn down another offer, the suspension will last for six months. The third time round, they will have to make do without income replacement (Housing Benefit is not affected) for three years.
While the attacks were predictable, there is logic to these plans. Implicitly, this sort of conditionality is commonplace in other publicly (let alone privately) provided services. If you receive a longer-term treatment on the NHS, and behave in a way which makes therapeutic success impossible – say, you repeatedly fail to show up for appointments, refuse to follow the doctor’s recommendations, and do not take the prescribed medicines – the doctor will eventually terminate the treatment. (He will not label this a “sanction”, of course). It is reasonable to focus scarce resources on those who want to be treated. Why should this logic not apply to out-of-work benefits?
The opposition’s criticism that these plans would penalise those who chase for jobs that are not there is misleading. Sanctions can only apply once a work offer of some sort has been made. The proposed sanctioning tools would be “anticyclical”: in an economic downturn, they would be used much less frequently than in boom times.
Assuming these sanctions will really be applied on the ground, are IDS’s proposals really as “tough” as they are portrayed to be? The answer is yes – at least for a relatively small group. These are, broadly speaking, those who would qualify for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) in the present system. Those who presently qualify for Income Support (IS) will see no similar expectations placed on them, except for the requirement to attend an occasional non-committal “work-focused interview” (some IS-recipients will be shifted to the JSA-group, though). Neither will these proposals, in themselves, tackle undue recourse to Employment and Support Allowance by the able-bodied.
It is also inaccurate to compare the announced mandatory work placements with US-style workfare schemes. What “workfare” really means is that the government cuts welfare not by cutting its monetary component, but by cutting the imputed value of leisure time. This requires high participation rates, and IDS’s plans will go nowhere near that. What the White Paper talks about is “requiring a small group of recipients to engage in full-time activity” [p. 29, emphasis added]. This is a far cry from US states like Wisconsin (most are much more lenient), where more than half of all welfare recipients work for their benefits.