To stop the first Scottish sanctions, all that’s needed is political will

Amid the uncertainty of Brexit, there’s a hard reality approaching from Scotland’s independence referendum. In April next year Scotland will take charge of the UK Government’s Work Programme and Work Choice schemes. The Work Programme in particular has a poor record of helping people into employment. We have a chance to do things differently.

Currently, benefit recipients can be referred to the Work Programme on a mandatory basis, and sanctions applied if they refuse to take part, or are deemed not to be properly engaging with it.

Benefit sanctions have increased hardship, making it difficult for people to meet basic housing costs. The Trussell Trust and Oxfam found 30 per cent of foodbank users had been sanctioned, while in a survey of people on the Work Programme, 61 per cent said it had worsened their health. Two-thirds leave not having gained and stayed in a job for at least 3 or 6 months.

Sanctions will remain reserved to the UK Department of Work and Pensions, but devolution means Scotland can stop sanctions being applied to the benefits of participants in employment programmes. Last week I published research showing how to do it and already over 2,000 people have signed a petition in support.

We can ensure that employment programme providers do not pass on information to the DWP. The Scottish and Welsh Governments already refuse to co-operate with the sanctions regime on the UK Government’s Skills Conditionality and Sector Based Work Academies programmes.

By adopting this approach, we can insulate tens of thousands of Scots from sanctions. With the average benefit sanction for Job Seeker’s Allowance recipients being around £530 and 13,000 Scottish benefit recipients being sanctioned as part of employment programmes every year, we could put £7million back in the hands of people who desperately need it.

My proposal has been welcomed by those at the sharp end of our increasingly uncaring social security system. John Dickie of the Child Poverty Action Group says sanctions cause real crisis for families with children. “The devolution of employability programmes does create real opportunities to reduce the risk of sanction,” he says.

However, Scottish Minister Jamie Hepburn says “Westminster will remain entirely responsible” for sanctions. This is true, but it doesn’t prevent us from putting in place a system that ends such inhumane and illogical treatment by the UK Government. All that’s needed is the political will.

This article first appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News