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Do people support sanctions at this time?

In March, as lockdown was instituted and Jobcentres closed, the Government suspended the usual conditionality requirements and stopped all benefit sanctions, write our team's Rob de Vries and Ben Baumberg Geiger. To find out what people thought should happen after lockdown ended, we asked our YouGov survey participants the following question:

Under normal circumstances, some people receiving benefits need to meet certain conditions, otherwise their benefit is reduced or stopped for at least a week. These benefit reductions have temporarily been suspended during the coronavirus outbreak. Thinking about a FUTURE TIME when lockdown is lifted, and most workplaces are open with safety precautions and social distancing… Do you think someone’s benefit should be reduced or stopped if they do any of the following? (Please select all that apply)

  1. They don’t want to work because they were worried about safety during the coronavirus outbreak

  2. They only want to look for certain types of work, rather than take just any job

  3. They don’t do a work-related activity that they were told to do (e.g. a training session)

  4. They refuse to apply for a particular job that they were told to apply for

  5. They don’t want to travel further than 45mins each way to a job

  6. They don’t attend a compulsory meeting at the Jobcentre

  7. None of the above – their benefit shouldn’t be reduced/stopped

The surveys that this was asked were run via YouGov; claimants were asked this question between 21st May and 15th June (mostly in May), while the general population was 10/11th June.

The graph below shows the percentage of claimants and non-claimants who think that someone should receive a sanction in each of the circumstances described above.

Figure 1. % of claimants and non-claimants supporting sanctioning in each circumstance

This shows three things. Firstly, support for sanctions varies quite dramatically depending on the circumstance. Among non-claimants, there is moderate support (around 40-50%) for sanctioning claimants who:

  • miss a compulsory meeting at the Jobcentre,

  • refuse to engage in a work-related activity (such as a training course),

  • will only look for certain types of work, and won’t just take any job, or

  • refuse to apply for a specific job that they were told to apply for.

However, there is substantially less support for sanctioning claimants who don’t want to work because they are worried about their safety due to the coronavirus. This suggests that the British public are sympathetic towards those in need who are concerned about returning to work while Covid-19 remains a risk. We also found low levels of support for sanctioning claimants who don’t want to travel further than 45 minutes each way to a job.

Secondly, support for sanctioning was lower among benefit claimants themselves. Remember too that new claimants of Universal Credit include both those who are out-of-work and those that are working on a low-income. If we break this down further, we find that claimants who were working were more supportive of sanctions, and those who were unemployed were less so (e.g. 27% of employed new claimants thought that someone should be sanctioned if they only look for certain types of work, compared to 16% of unemployed claimants). The least supportive of sanctioning were new claimants who said they were long-term sick/disabled, who were much less likely to support sanctioning someone who didn’t want to travel 45mins to work (only 6% supported this), or who missed a meeting (only 26% supported this).

We also explored other differences between people in their support for sanctioning. We found that BAME respondents were considerably less supportive of sanctioning than white respondents; for example, sanctioning those who miss a meeting was supported by 56% of white non-claimants but only 40% of BAME non-claimants (and 40% of white claimants vs. 23% of BAME claimants). It is unclear if this is because of other differences between these groups (we know that older people support sanctioning more, and that BAME people tend to be younger), or because of concerns about unfair treatment (which we have written about elsewhere); we will explore this further as the project continues.

Third, support for sanctioning someone for a specific reason is never overwhelming. Or to put this more precisely: most people (claimants and non-claimants alike) support the use of sanctioning in at least one of these situations, but in most cases only a minority support sanctioning in each situation. (The only exceptions are non-claimants’ support for sanctioning where people miss a compulsory meeting or refuse to do a particular work-related activity). And very, very few people – only 11% of non-claimants and 2% of new claimants – support sanctioning in all of these situations.

It’s also worth noting that even if the public support sanctioning in general, this is conditional on sanctions being implemented in a fair way, and people may want sanctions that are less severe than we find in Universal Credit (see Ch3 of this).

Final thoughts

Does this suggest that the public support or oppose the present situation? It is actually very difficult to say. While sanctioning has now been re-introduced on paper, everything depends on how policy is implemented in practice. The DWP have emphasised that they will take a supportive approach, saying:

“We don’t want to sanction anyone. These are difficult, uncertain times for many people and we want to do everything we can to help them find work or increase hours, where that is possible for them. No sanction will be used until the claimant has an up-to-date Claimant Commitment in place. After that, a sanction will only be used where a claimant has not provided good reason for meeting the agreed requirements in the Claimant Commitment. Claimants who are shielding, have childcare responsibilities because of COVID restrictions, etc. will have their Claimant Commitment tailored to reflect their circumstances and will not be asked to do anything unreasonable.”

The Secretary of State then followed this up by saying that “I expect if there are any [sanctions] applied at all, it would be very rare.” We are currently interviewing 80 claimants about their experiences (to be re-interviewed in six months, and with a new wave of the survey in-between), so we will pay close attention to what is actually happening on the ground – as many other individuals and organisations will be doing too.

Finally, and as ever with public attitudes research, it is important to separate out ‘good policy’ from ‘popular policy’ – the public sometimes supports unfair, ineffective policies, and are sceptical about fair, effective ones (partly because of the way the media discuss the benefits system, as we have discussed here & here). It is nevertheless important to look at public attitudes as something that is relevant to policymaking in their own right, as we might want to consider not just whether social security systems are fair and effective, but whether they are legitimate as well.

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