Stuart Rodger interviews Dr David Webster, the Glasgow-based academic who charts the full horror of Tory benefit sanctions – which fine more people for being poor than are fined in Magistrates courts
While the Tories like to prevaricate and evade on the causes for the dramatic rise in foodbank use in Britain over the past six years, the statistical evidence is unequivocal.
The Trussell Trust – the leading provider of foodbanks in Britain – claim that the highest proportion of users, at 28%, cite benefit delays as their reasons for referral. Corresponding with the rise of physical hunger has been the level of psychological distress – with DWP staff now being given ‘suicide guidance’ when dealing with despairing claimants.
The benefit-related problems in question are, in many cases, sanctions. These have long been part of the system, but the passing of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 brought in a much stricter regime, with some claimants being sanctioned for as long as three years.
They soon became a common topic of discussion after the news of the death of David Clapson – a diabetic former soldier left with an empty stomach and a cut-off refrigerator where he left his insulin. With sanctions causing such widespread misery, no wonder the DWP issued fabricated personal stories promoting sanctions, in a Ministry-of-Truth like twist.
One academic who has been taking sanctions to task, however, is Dr David Webster, of Glasgow University. He has memorably described benefit sanctions as ‘Britain’s secret penal’ system.
His remarkable observation is that, once you crunch the numbers, the number of benefit sanctions being inflicted on claimants – at over 1 million – is now higher than the number of fines imposed by Magistrates and Sheriff courts throughout Britain, at around 850,000, and the amount of money is measurably greater.
Meeting with Webster in his elegant, semi-detached Victorian house in Glasgow’s southside, he tells me that he regards this system as a ‘third-rate form of justice’. What stands out for him, he has written, is that the decisions are made in secret, without any open system of transparency or accountability:
‘Decisions on guilt are made in secret by officials who have no independent responsibility to act lawfully – since the Social Security Act 1998 they have been mere agents of the Secretary of State. These officials are currently subject to constant management pressure to maximise penalties. And as in any secret system, there is a lot of error, misconduct, dishonesty and abuse. The claimant is not present when the decision on guilt is made and is not legally represented.’
Webster sees it as a basic violation of the principles of a liberal democracy: ‘The civil liberties alarm bells haven’t been triggered – because it’s been done step by step by step. But of course that’s what happens when liberties are taken away, they don’t all go at once.’
Talking about the historical development of welfare reform, he says ‘the biggest increase in penalties was the 2012 Act… That’s what created this anomaly where these secret administrators can impose penalties higher than the Magistrates courts.’
‘The trouble with the sanctions system is that it’s so vicious that it undermines people… It makes them ill, destroys their resilience in all sorts of ways, lose their self-confidence. It’s immensely damaging. So I feel very angry about it.’
But Webster argues that New Labour are similarly culpable: ‘What’s happened is that, step by step, the safeguards for claimants have been stripped away, in particular by Frank Field – he has a lot to answer for, personally. He – along with Harriet Harman – was responsible for abolishing Independent Adjudication in the 1998 Social Security Act.’
Dr Webster has spoken with a civil servant from the period: ‘I met the Bill manager in the DWP for the 1998 Act, and he told me that they presented this Bill to Harman and Field… in the expectation that it was going to refused. But they just put it through’
Reflecting on the driving forces behind welfare reform, Webster sees both a malign American influence and those of labour market economists. ‘Economists have got a lot to answer for here, because of their promotion of the active labour market policy. A lot of them are very arrogant. They think that the employment services offered by the state must be superior to the actions that individual citizens would take… Once you’ve accepted that the state knows best, that’s when you introduce the concept of punishment.’
He cites in particular Richard Layard, a favoured guru of New Labour: ‘The New Deal of Blair and Brown was drafted by Richard Layard. There was a lot of mistaken analysis behind Layard’s stuff… They thought long-term unemployment just goes up and down along with short-term unemployment… So, mistaken labour market theories are one of the big reasons we have this punitive attitude to sanctions.’
On the US influence, Webster tells me that ‘Duncan Smith flies over to give speeches to the Heritage Foundation… He’s been going over there quite regularly… When he’s over there he boasts about how Britain is showing the way.’
Much of the intellectual agitation for reform comes from the Policy Exchange think tank, who in turn have a strong connection to US business interests. ‘Policy Exchange, they’ve been very busy promoting this welfare reform agenda. The have a whole page devoted to American donors. They actually have a couple of American billionaires on their governing body. They are advancing the right-wing, Republican agenda.’