One of the most frequent arguments heard in 2014 in favour of Scotland becoming an independent country was that it would give us an opportunity to operate our own social security policy, setting a different political course from Westminster. In the face of the UK Government’s full scale assault on the welfare state, many people saw the need for a radical change and saw independence as the means.
Yes campaigners are all too aware that Scotland is not independent yet, but we still have some meaningful opportunities to do things differently, albeit with limited devolved powers coming our way from the Smith Commission’s recommendations.
In the near future we’ll see one clear situation where the Scottish Government must act and where business as usual will not do. Today the Scottish Greens published a report showing that 80,000 benefits sanctions have been issued to people on employment programmes in Scotland since 2010 and that 13,000 people a year might soon face sanctions under benefits devolved to Scotland.
Our report also makes the case that when employment programmes are devolved in April next year the Scottish Government should insist on contracts that prevent sanctions being implemented.
Sanctions simply don't work. They do not help people into long-term employment and they clearly contribute to worsening physical and mental health. Scotland has an opportunity to take a different and positive approach.
For the DWP to implement a sanction they need information from the provider of the employment programme. The Scottish Government could insist that programme providers do not pass information on. This already happens in a smaller way with young people involved in the Sector Based Work Academy, so there's no reason we can't apply this approach more widely.
There is a wealth of evidence to show that benefit sanctions have increased hardship, fuelled the need for foodbanks, worsened sanctioned claimants’ health, and all this while having a minimal impact on helping claimants return to work.
Whilst the sanctions regime itself will remain a reserved matter, devolution of responsibility for employment programmes means that the Scottish Parliament can significantly reduce the level of sanctioning in Scotland and ensure that no employment programme run by the Scottish Government is associated with sanctions.
The UK government remains either unable to see, or worse still blithely untroubled by, the negative impact their policies are having on debt, health and wellbeing. It’s critical that we don’t copy their attitude, or their policies. The Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government must take seriously our responsibilities when these powers are devolved, and we must ensure that reducing the human suffering of the people involved is our highest priority.
This semi-devolved system will be far from perfect, and our hands will still be tied on many issues. But we must listen and respond to the lived experience of people who face the threat of sanctions; people who are struggling to meet household expenses such as housing costs and utility bills. One survey of 500 ESA claimants being supported on the Work Programme showed that 61 percent said participation had worsened their health condition and that participants with mental health conditions are the most likely to report a negative impact on their health. We also know rises in benefit sanctions drive up reliance on food banks, and that as many as 30 percent of foodbank users have had their benefits sanctioned.
There is strong evidence suggesting that forcing benefit recipients onto employment programmes under threat of sanction does not achieve positive, long-term outcomes in terms of helping unemployed people into sustained employment. More so, mandatory participation appears to be particularly ineffectual for benefit recipients with multiple and complex barriers to work, and it is these recipients who will make up the bulk of referrals to Scottish employment programmes.
It’s for this reason that the Scottish Greens are recommending that when Scottish employment programmes start to operate in April 2017, these should be voluntary as far as possible. Whilst the new Scotland Act does not devolve the sanctions system, the operation of that system relies heavily on employment programme providers reporting sanctionable behaviour to the DWP so that they can apply sanctions.
The Scottish Government must therefore oblige Scottish programme providers not to share such information with the DWP. This would insulate tens of thousands of non-employed Scots from sanctions every year. With the average benefit sanction for JSA recipients being around £530 and an average of 13,000 Scottish benefit recipients being sanctioned as part of employment programmes every year, such a move could put approximately £7million back in the hands of some of the poorest citizens in Scotland.
If we get this right, both as a parliament and a nation, we can give a practical demonstration of how fairness, and ultimately full control of our own affairs, is something worth fighting for.
This article first appeared in the National