1 April 2013


I start from the position that anyone who totally refuses to work, and is capable of doing it, while taking state benefits should expect a penalty. That penalty should be imposed by job centre officials with the same attention to the facts and the circumstances of the benefit claimant as a magistrate imposing a fine, or any judge making a decision in law; but that is not what is happening and a sanction is a worse punishment than many fines. .

Lord Ramsbotham, a former inspector of prisons, proposed an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill setting out guidelines to be followed by officials of jobcentres and local authorities when imposing sanctions, penalties or overpayments. He cited the following example of how it goes wrong;

"My first example is Harry, who having recently left prison was desperate for work and finding it hard to make ends meet on an unemployment benefit of £67.50 per week (Now £71.60). His record made finding employment difficult. He duly signed a claimant commitment requiring him to attend the jobcentre once a week, before he was taken on by a provider who sent him on a course. Attendance on this course meant that he could not attend the jobcentre as required, for which he was sanctioned by officials, against the advice of the provider and the police. He was fortunate that Zacchaeus took up his case, appealed against the sanction and won, (28 Nov 2011 : Column GC22). and his money was repaid. However, where was the common sense in the department's official? Then there is the unnecessary expense of the appeal."

I met Harry and without any money he feared he was in danger of re-offending.

All claimants are subjected to work related requirements as a condition of receiving unemployment benefits. Any of sections 15-18 of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and around any of 38 subsections, can give a job centre official the pretext for a sanction. In Harry's case he had signed an agreement to attend the job related interview once a week (the claimant commitment); the job-centre official made a strict interpretation of the agreement and sanctioned him without properly considering all the circumstances as he is required to do in law.

The amendment was turned down by government with an assurance from Lord Freud.

"We spoke about the Wednesbury principles at our seminar, and I can reassure noble Lords that the decision-making process is and will continue to be consistent with these fundamental principles of public law".

The principles are set out in Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd. v Wednesbury Corporation [1948] 1 KB 223[1] requires all government decision takers to consider all relevant facts and to be rational. Associated Provincial Picture Houses v Wednesbury ... - Wikipedia

However the advice sector is now overwhelmed and legal aid for appeals has been cut; so many benefit claimants wrongly sanctioned will not get help.

From today April 1st the sanction has become the generator of ever more council tax and rent arrears. For example in Haringey there are over 6000 unemployed single people living alone receiving council tax benefit. They are now liable for 20% of the council tax or £3 to £8 a week depending on the their tax band. Some of them will be hit by the bedroom tax and have been hit by the housing benefit cap. The £71.60 a week JSA or standard amount of the Universal Credit, they are the same amount, will be reduced by the council tax and by an average of £15 a week for the bedroom tax. The following case has been posted on our Facebook page;

"I am hit with paying for 2 bedrooms,by the time i have paid out council tax,bedroom tax,and my usual rates £45 per week will be coming out of my money before anything else. i.e. fuel bills,food,and other household payments.After working it all out I have less than £10 per week to live on, doesn't the law state you need so much per week to live on,therefore this government is breaking the law."

The Royal College of Psychiatrists supported Lord Ramsbotham's amendment because of the connection between debt and mental illness. The cuts plus a sanction just adds to the costs of the health service.

The constant cry from coalition sources that the bedroom tax is not a tax was hit on the head by Lord Atlee, a Conservative Peer, who let slip to the House of Lords during the passage of the Welfare Reform Act;

"The Secretary of State for Transport has announced a major programme of investment in our railway system. We can either spend money on council tax benefit or take a little cut on that and a little cut elsewhere, then put it all together in order to spend money on developing our infrastructure and promoting growth in the United Kingdom." 16 July 2012 : Column GC13.

Isn't that what tax is for? The bedroom tax and all the other cuts are funding the tax reductions for the wealthy and, rumour has it, wind-farms.