When the Scottish Government announced that the newly devolved training schemes they will be running in place of the dreaded Work Programme will not be mandatory, all of us familiar with the impact of sanctions heaved a collective sigh of relief. So it was with an added sense of frustration that we received an email from someone on benefits in the Highlands telling us that he had been mandated to go on a training course run by Highland Council. If the Scottish Government could rightly refuse to be implicated in anything that could facilitate the DWP operating its oppressive sanctions regime, then shouldn’t Scottish councils follow the same logic; and if the Scottish Government recognise that training schemes actually run better when people are there because they want to be, shouldn’t our Scottish colleges be similarly concerned?
We wrote to the Scottish Minister for Employability and Training, but his reply didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t know: Highland Council do not mandate attendance, but they do accept referrals from the DWP. So we wrote to Highland Council, who were concerned about the possible implications and promised to investigate further. So far, we have got an assurance from the DWP that no-one will be sanctioned for not attending, but this is not enough. Our original informant had been told to go on the course via a Jobseeker’s Direction, which generally means that failure to comply could result in a sanction. If attendance is not sanctionable, then the council and college need to insist that the jobcentre makes this absolutely clear to everyone they inform about the courses. Sanctions have been triggered so readily, and the fear of sanctions is now so entrenched, that people will always assume instructions are mandatory and sanctionable rather than run the risk of losing their benefits and being left destitute. (This is clear from the number of people who suffer unpaid work-experience placements not because they think they will be useful but because they didn’t realise that they weren’t compulsory, as noted in this recent report from the Guardian.) We are following up the Highland case further with the council, and are also meeting with officials from the minister’s office. We will let people know of any further developments.
This issue will become increasingly important as Universal Credit rolls out to more areas. Yet another sting in the tail of this new benefit is provided by the rules for people aged 18 to 21, who, after six months on the buroo, are mandated onto unpaid work experience or training schemes. Our colleges will have to make a stand against getting involved in this programme. They may feel tempted to argue that if people are being made to go on courses anyway, there is no harm in being the providers, but there are two good reasons for resisting this. Any connection with compulsion and sanctions would have a seriously detrimental impact on the course; and, even more importantly, anyone providing courses under these circumstances is facilitating the sanction regime.
Experience has taught us that under the current UK Government the welfare system has been transformed into a method of discipline and control, especially through sanctions, which Dr David Webster has described as a ‘secret penal system’. That is why we argue that there has to be a firm division between the DWP and any organisations that aim to provide genuine assistance to the unemployed. People using those organisations have to be confident that they are not being spied on by a system that could put their very livelihood at risk.