war-on-the-poorStuart 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.’ 

He cites Lawrence Mead and Charles Murray: ‘Charles Murray is a really third-rate academic whose career has been purely created by big money.’

Webster expresses bewilderment at the choice of the likes of Lord Freud to oversee welfare reform. ‘David Freud is a banker by background. I don’t really know how he got into this welfare reform business….  

‘The trouble with these Thatcherite people, with whom I include Tony Blair, is this idea you go off to businessmen, to tell you what to do, on the basis that they are somehow very clever and they’ll take a fresh view and know how to run things. It’s just appalling – the idea that a Professor of Social Administration would be asked to do such a review is outlandish.’

Given facts like these – where business bosses are given roles designing public policy – the professor holds that welfare reform may have a role in disciplining labour: ‘These right-wing people – their argument is that welfare benefits are too high, which means people’s so-called “reservation wage” is too high, so they won’t take the jobs that are on offer… But of course, it obviously is in the interest of employers to encourage as much low-wage expectation as they can get. Employers will always be in favour of lower social security because it will cheapen the cost of labour.’

More broadly, welfare reform could be said to be about squashing dissent of any kind. ‘One definite motivation behind the sanctions regime is simply to prevent protest by the unemployed. Think back to the 1930s and the Jarrow Marches. Well we don’t have Jarrow Marches now. It’s because people get sanctioned, so they can’t go on a Jarrow March…

‘They are supposed to be spending 35 hours a week on Universal Jobmatch looking for jobs, so if they’re protesting they’re failing in their duty to society. So protest is completely killed off.’ 

His ideas echo those of economist Guy Standing, an academic who has observed the modern trend for precarious work. Standing sees modern social policy as deeply authoritarian, characterized by a drive to control and discipline. 

‘The drift to behavioural nudging (link) gives discretionary and arbitrary power to bureaucrats, commercial surrogates and “experts” lurking behind politicians’, writes Standing. ‘Social policy is becoming part panopticon’. (Link) 

Dr Webster himself argues: ‘I don’t think the state knows best. I think individuals know best what’s good for them… If the Jobcentre says you’ve got to go on this course or we’ll take your money away, that means you’ll be offered a lousy course – because the power to turn it down [is] absolutely essential to guarantee quality. In other walks of life, people would just laugh at this… They’d think, “that’s Stalinist”. But when it gets to employment services, it becomes a command economy’.

Asking Webster about the use of language around welfare reform, he sees in it an ‘Orwellian’ tendency to mislead: ‘New Labour are tremendously guilty of all this stuff… The re-naming of the Department of Social Security as “the Department for Work and Pensions”. That in itself is a typical example of an ideological statement being incorporated into the title of a department – you’re either at work or retired. There’s isn’t a category of people too ill to work, or who might be left unemployed by the economy… It is absolutely Orwellian.’ 

Recognizing that claimants are now referred to as ‘customers’, he says ‘It is ideology, isn’t it?… The customer is always right, but it’s always been completely hypocritical, because claimants are not treated as customers who are always right. Far from it.’ 

Dr Webster draws a distinction between sanctions and conditionality, two things which are often conflated. ‘People use the term ‘conditionality’. People ask me if I am in favour of conditionality? I say definitely yes. I think you should think of it as an insurance scheme, and any insurance scheme has to have conditions. 

‘But first of all I think that’s completely different from punishment. I don’t think the thing should be a penal system at all. I don’t think there should be any capacity on the part of the state to penalise anybody for not doing what they think they should do. Because the reason why people take jobs is to get the money. If they’re not being offered anything good enough then they’re unemployed and the state should pay out.’  

Dr Webster’s views reflect a different ideological understanding of unemployment. Traditionally, unemployment was recognized as a structural feature of capitalism, designed to control the price of labour (Karl Marx’s ‘Reserve Army’) – while full employment was regarded as a socialist policy. 

Fast forward to 2016, and we have David Cameron claiming that we are moving ‘towards full employment’, maintaining that unemployment is more often than not a personal failing. The statistics, however, are on Dr Webster’s side. The ONS recorded that in January 2016, there were 754 thousand vacancies in the economy, but 1.7 million unemployed people. 

Strikingly, Dr Webster thinks that the welfare reform warriors are themselves guilty of defrauding the system. ‘I think they are guilty of misconduct in public office, because they have deliberately set out to defraud people of payments they are entitled to… They are themselves guilty of fraud… The evidence is so overwhelming that they have issued instructions to staff, the inevitable result of which is that people would be wrongly denied payments. That’s misconduct in public office.’ 

In summer 2014, however, the government published the Oakley Review on sanctions. The review was in theory ‘independent’, but Oakley himself had connections with pro-Tory think tanks: ‘His background is Policy Exchange. He worked in the Treasury… At the time he was commissioned to do this review he was a researcher at Policy Exchange.’ 

The evidence, however, was so clear that Oakley couldn’t deny there were problems: ‘He couldn’t really wriggle out of the implications of what people were saying. I think his views changed as a result. I think meeting all these people from the voluntary organizations about the damage it was doing, I think that really shocked him.’

The impact of the Oakley review, though, was valuable but limited. ‘One of the things which is particularly irritating is that in line one, he says sanctions are essential. That was just his view… There was nothing else in the report which would support that conclusion… In the event, I think the Oakley review was definitely worth getting… If you look at the chart, the down-turn in the rate of sanctioning dates to the publication of the Oakley report. It does look as if the embarrassment caused by the Oakley report did lead to a reduction in the rate of sanctions.’ 

Looking beyond the dry statistics and policy papers, though, I ask him about how he feels about it all emotionally – the human stories and all the other David Clapsons around the country. 

‘I feel it’s kicking people when they’re down… The overwhelming majority of people claiming benefits are down on their luck… We should be treating people as part of the labour force that is in difficulties, and needs nurtured. 

‘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.’