UNEMPLOYMENT benefits are, by their very nature, vital.
They enable those who receive them to buy food and heat their houses. A five-fold increase in the number of people on JobSeeker's Allowance (JSA) being stripped of their benefits as a penalty must therefore be cause for concern.
At first glance it would appear that increasing numbers are not turning up for appointments and failing to take up offers of work. Over the past two years the number of JSA claimants in Scotland having payments withdrawn as a sanction has increased from 800 to 5000. This dramatic rise between January 2010 and April this year coincides with new rules bringing in financial penalties for claimants who miss meetings with advisers.
Closer examination indicates that the sanctions are being applied over-zealously and often wrongly, leaving some people destitute and relying on food parcels as a result of a mistake by the Department for Work and Pensions. It is hardly surprising that Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) has experienced a huge rise in people seeking urgent help. The most disturbing examples in their caseload are where payment has been stopped without checking the facts. It is plainly wrong that someone who has not received letters from the Jobcentre because the DWP failed to pass on a new address should be penalised for failing to attend meetings. It is unjust that someone who applied for a job identified by the Jobcentre loses benefit for allegedly failing to do so. It is unfair that someone on a training course is judged to show insufficient evidence of looking for work or penalised for not attending an interview when on a mandatory work placement.
It is right that people receiving JSA should be required to make a genuine effort to find work. But, at a time of high unemployment, the odds are stacked against those at the bottom of the heap who often have to make long journeys to interviews. Compounding their difficulties unfairly will achieve nothing but additional despair. Cuts to public spending and the prospect of a spiralling bill for state pensions as the proportion of over-65s in the population continues to grow are understandably placing the benefits system under renewed scrutiny. The Labour MP Frank Field, who was asked by Tony Blair to "think the unthinkable" on the welfare state, has claimed the current system encourages cheating. His suggestion that the basis of the welfare state must move from meeting need to contributions-based insurance is potentially a return to first principles. He is right to insist that questions about how to finance benefits and who should qualify for them must be addressed. But the high youth unemployment rate shows that creating jobs is the most urgent need.
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