From Benefits to Poverty to Crime: Time for a new approach

A guest blog post by Graeme Strachan, a member of our Tuesday night ‘Unbound’ group.

A still from Ken Loach's 'I, Daniel Blake', an uncompromising examination of the current benefits system and it's impact on people's lives

Ken Loach’s ‘I, Daniel Blake’ takes an uncompromising look of the injustices of the current benefits system

Visiting the job centre has become an unpleasant parody of community service. This is a by-product of our benefits system that was set up to look after those in need but has been utilised by the government to penalise and criminalise the weakest in society. This article will discuss how this works and what we can do to change it for the better.

Our current benefits system is based around “conditionality”. Conditionality is where you are required to do exactly what the government or advisor tell you or you will lose your benefit. This is where sanctions come in to play. Sanctions are used to psychologically and socially criminalise the poor, sick and unemployed. Incredible amounts of unreasonable pressure and stress are placed upon those who are already the weakest in society.

Sanctions can hold more financial weight than that placed by a criminal court for example. They are imposed by people with no duty of care or legal standing. They leave claimants with no option but to use food banks and in many cases criminalise themselves to find money to simply live on. These circumstances are fertilised by conditionality, which in itself breaches the UN convention on human rights, some argue. Sanctions do not work. They take people further away from work and into poverty, leaving them with no choice but to find other ways to survive.

This clearly hits one parent families the hardest. Looking after a child or children while being forced to undertake conditionality to survive is bordering on medieval. OPF have other priorities; in this case conditionality interferes with their duty of care for their children, another factor contravening the UN charter. This clearly leaves an unregulated system with unqualified personnel making decisions that leave families and children living in poverty due to sanctions.

Advisors hold the lives of people in their hands and are not scrutinised in any legal capacity. Some for example will be happy to work round parent’s commitments to their children; others will not, leaving parents suffering sanctions for not turning up for appointments. The other option is where parents have been forced frequently to leave young children standing at the job centre door or on the street. This is quite simply unacceptable. Refusing to work for free, disagreeing with advisors, homelessness issues, and being a few minutes late for appointments are just a few commonplace examples of other situations that can leave OPF facing sanctions.

We can change this – there are other alternatives. Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Finland and Denmark for example have higher benefit rates and a lower crime rates. The one common theme that keeps occurring is to implement a Universal Basic Income. Scotland is now looking at bold decisions by those in government to address this situation.

An income that every citizen would receive – no matter what their employment status – would guarantee them a means to live. This is in contrast to the current system, in which individuals and families, stripped of their confidence and dignity, struggle simply to survive. If we wish to eradicate poverty and lower crime rates, we must not push the weakest in society into poverty through conditionality and sanctions for simply being poor, unemployed, sick and trying to survive. We must look to build confidence and instil a desire to succeed rather than fear of losing everything, which understandably drives people to survive by any means.


For more on Universal Basic Income, see this recent TED talk by Jamie Cooke, head of RSA Scotland.