No benefit sanctions in Scotland, say MSPs

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​Campaigners welcome commitment that access to devolved employability services will be voluntary and not mandatory

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7th October 2016 by Graham Martin 0 Comments

Charities have welcomed a commitment that punitive sanctions won’t be placed on benefits once welfare powers are devolved to Scotland.

MSPs voted that access to employability services should be voluntary and not involve compulsion and punishment.

Welfare-to-work programmes are due to come under the auspices of the Scottish Parliament from next April as part of the post-indyref devolution agreement.

However, while Holyrood will run employability programmes, Westminster’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) still administers benefits – and will be able to exact crippling sanctions on people who are unable to comply with strict rules.

Poverty campaigners have said this is unfair, penalises the vulnerable and entrenches poverty.

We are fundamentally opposed to the use of forced destitution as a policy instrument

MSPs this week voted to support the vow that access to devolved services supporting people into work will be voluntary, as opposed to mandatory participation and the threat of benefit sanctions.

They asked the Westminster government to clarify whether it would impose the sanctions regime on Holyrood-run services.

As previously reported in TFN, equalities secretary Angela Constance has said that if this commitment doesn’t materialise, the Scottish Government will embark on a programme of non-compliance with the DWP.

This would mean refusing to inform the department when someone infringes draconian rules when taking part in welfare-to-work programmes.

Barnardo’s Scotland, a major provider of training and employment support to vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, welcomed the MSPs’ stance.

Director Martin Crewe said: “Our experience is that the vulnerable young people we work with are disproportionately affected by benefit sanctions and this is borne out by evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

“Putting conditions on welfare payments distances young people from mainstream support, causing hardship and deepening poverty levels.

“Evidence suggests that this includes young people choosing not to claim out of work benefits. We therefore welcome the Scottish Parliament voting in favour of voluntary access to employment support. 

“This recognises the damage that sanctions and the threat of sanctions can have and we would encourage the DWP to recognise this too.”

Satwat Rehman, director at One Parent Families Scotland, said: “The proposal that claimants referred from Jobcentre Plus to the Scottish Employability Service will be able to access it on a voluntary basis without the fear of losing their benefit is extremely welcome.

“We are fundamentally opposed to the use of forced destitution as a policy instrument. This offers the opportunity to develop a more effective approach to the UK government’s very damaging ‘work-first’ conditionality regime.

“Employability services can focus on reducing poverty through supporting people into the best options available to them for sustained employment and increased earnings while taking account of family well-being.”

Emma Ritch, executive director of Engender, said: “Sanctions of social security payments have a devastating impact on women and children, and have no place in a system designed to support people to take part in paid work."

Paul Carberry, director of Action for Children Scotland, said: “Disadvantaged young people often face a range of practical and personal barriers when finding and maintaining employment and training opportunities. Sanctions, or even the threat of sanctions, can hinder the chances of success for these young people.”

Moves to block sanctions through using a devolutionary loophole were spearheaded by the Scottish Green Party before being adopted by the SNP government.

The Greens identified the tactic in their Scotland Against Sanctions report, which said that around 13,000 people would be under threat if action wasn’t taken.

Alison Johnstone MSP, the party’s social security spokesperson, said: "It has taken time for Scottish ministers to realise that they can prevent these cruel and ineffective sanctions.

"The evidence presented in the Scotland Against Sanctions report is clear. Sanctions do not help people into appropriate long-term employment. In fact, they can trap people in low-wage work with a detrimental impact on their health and wellbeing.”

Employability minister Jamie Hepburn MSP said: “The current UK government regime of sanctions and conditionality does not take into account the complexity of people’s circumstances and the personal and practical challenges they face when it comes to participating in work programmes.

“While we won’t have the powers to prevent people from being sanctioned, we want to do what we can to protect people from this unnecessary stress and harm, and to give people taking part in our new voluntary programmes the assurance that they will not be sanctioned.”