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Stormont ramps up benefit sanctions regime

Belfast Plebeian

1 February 2018

If you have no reason to be in contact with the Department of Communities you won’t be aware that a new harsher sanctions regime for benefit recipients is due to begin at the end of summer. A small booklet is currently being distributed informing people of new conditions they must adhere to. The first sentence states that from 27 September welfare benefit will be withheld for a maximum of 78 weeks and this constitutes they say a firmer approach than previously pertained. The very worst withdrawal sanction one could receive used to be a maximum of 26 weeks, this for missing a meeting with your back to work coach on more than one occasion or for ‘misbehaving’ more than once when mandated to join a work programme. If a change to the sanctions regime for the unemployed is about to get a little bit harsher nobody beyond the unemployment would much care. However the change is more comprehensive than a first glance would indicate.

The latest warning from the Department mostly skips by what is called lower level sanctions for the unemployed to the next higher level sanctions. It states starkly you will incur a higher level sanction (13, 26 or 78 weeks) if:

‘You were dismissed for misconduct from your last job or left without good reason, you left your last job, and you don’t apply for suitable jobs your Adviser or employment scheme adviser tells you about or you don’t accept a job you are offered’.
You might notice that the higher sanctions warning is less aimed at the already unemployed and more at those who are currently in employment. What is being put in place is a tougher regime for those currently in work who might at some point in the near future find themselves coming into direct contact with the Department. Many more people undoubtedly will indeed find themselves in direct contact with the Department because the change to the sanctions regime is being correlated with the introduction of the latest phase of the welfare to work programme called the Universal Credit. The new system abolishes six benefits that were previously accessed by separate application into just one application and assessment. The change means that workers who had only a very indirect contact with the Department will now come face to face with the sanctions regime, when the change kick in in September.

To take a few examples, many thousands of people currently in work have their wages and income topped up to reach a Government decided minimum level by means of a working tax credit or maybe a family tax credit. The tax credits were initially introduced by New Labour to subsidise low wage paying businesses and maintain and hopefully expand a small business sector. It became a routine for all businesses types to take advantage of the State subsidy by transforming full time workers into part time workers. So it became normal for supermarket chains, bars and restaurants to employ workers on a strictly part time basis only, so if you needed to work you had to agree to a limited hour contract, usually 12, 16, 20, 24 paid hours per week, the tax credit benefit then topped up your income. Yet another social change came into its own after the economic crisis of 2007. Thousands of workers who previously worked for businesses were encouraged to declare themselves to be self-employed, many of the new self-employed being in reality casual workers, their working hours and income varying from week to week and month to month, they too under the previous arrangement often drew some assistance from the tax credit system to supplement a fluctuating income.

With the implementation of the Universal Credit thousands of casual or part time workers will now have the exact same benefit regime previously reserved only for the unemployed. In the future they have to fill in an identical application form as the one used by unemployed, agree a personal contract with the Job Centre like the unemployed do, attend regular interviews with the Job Centre like the unemployed do and be subject to the same arbitrary withdrawal sanctions as the unemployed. One of the ironies is that a high number of Job Centre Staff are themselves part time workers, mostly middle age women doing 16 or 20 hours of work per week. They too will have to agree a personal contract with the Job Centre showing how they are searching for more hours of work, the target has been set at 35 hours per week under the Universal Credit scheme, or face the prospect of a withdrawal sanction, presumably decided on by the remaining full time staffers. In short no low pay worker is to be left alone to merely work the 12, 14, or 16 hours and then receive a tax or family credit, they will have to ‘earn the credit’ by showing real evidence that they are actively seeking more hours of work, if they can’t produce the evidence they will be penalised.

In short the withdrawal and sanctions regime of punishment and surveillance that used to be directed solely at the unemployed is to be extended to those in part time work or in self-employment. Workers who believed the welfare sanctions would be reserved for those unwilling to do some kind of paid work will find the same rules with sanctions applied to themselves, the ‘working poor’ are to be treated no better than the ‘not working poor,’ this is really what the new Universal Credit and the extension to the sanctions regime is really about. This is what happens to workers who place their trust in a hypocritical work ethic of capitalism which imposes a puritan work morality on those with no capital and allows leisure time for those who happen to own capital, often due to an inheritance of wealth like Osborne and Cameron Et al.

This is what happens to workers who agree to play by the social rules ordained by capital, they become the play puppets for an alien class interest. This of course will have some implication for the political parties hoping to have Stormont restored. If they decide to bring Stormont back they must know that they will be the front line administrators of a welfare regime that penalises many more people than it did before, it is likely that working mums who currently work part time will make up the greater number of the new benefit sanctions, this implies a change to the class relationship of some workers to the capitalist State. I am reliably told that local councillors are already meeting with the fear and loathing of those experiencing the tyranny of the new Universal Credit as it has just gone live first in Derry and Strabane. It means that the Stormont parties will find inevitably find themselves implementing some really vicious Tory measures to more workers than before and explaining them away as not part of our doing. However if you become part of the Stormont Executive you are co-responsible for what it does and that included penalising the most insecure workers.

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