I spent most of yesterday going through the written evidence submitted to the Commons Select Committee on Work and Pensions for its review of benefit sanction policy, Beyond the Oakley review. The government originally set up this review in the light of concern about the increased rate of JSA sanctions in claimants on mandatory back to work schemes after the coalition government came to power in 2010.
Since then, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee has carried out two inquiries relating to benefit sanctions, a report on the Role of Jobcentre Plus in the Reformed Welfare System, in addition to the Beyond the Oakley Report. I was specifically interested in the latter, because of written evidence from John Longden, a personal advisor at Salford Jobcentre. If you haven’t come across, then I strongly recommend that you read it [i]. It nails the lie that I, Daniel Blake is a “worst case scenario”.
Anyway, that’s beside the point. Yesterday, I was interested to see what other evidence had been submitted to the Beyond the Oakley inquiry, and decided to examine it in some detail. There are over one hundred documents submitted in evidence (104 to be precise) from a broad range of organisations representing different groups likely to be affected adversely by sanctions, the homeless, people with learning difficulties, women, single parents, people with mental health problems, substance misuse, as well as evidence from Citizens’ Advice Bureaux and Local Authorities [ii]. But what really surprised me was that I could find no evidence submitted from groups or individuals representing the interests and concerns of black people.
The reason for my surprise is quite straightforward; in almost every area of society in which our institutions have the power to take disciplinary action against us, black people are more likely to experience the use or misuse of this power. We know this to be the case in policing (detention of young black men under the ‘sus’ – person suspected of having committed a crime), the criminal justice system (over-representation of black people on remand and in prison), the psychiatric system (black people more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia and detained under the mental health act), and the school system (black children more likely to be suspended or expelled). There are, I am sure, many other examples in other areas of society. In view of this one would expect that black people are more likely to be sanctioned and to have their benefits stopped for failing to comply with Jobcentre instructions. I can’t be sure this is the case, but I’d be very surprised if it weren’t, especially given the seemingly random and capricious way in which these sanctions are applied (see John Longden’s testimony).
In fact there is evidence that young people claiming JSA are twice as likely as older people to be sanctioned. Figures released by the Trust for London and New Policy Institute in 2015 examined sanction rates by age and ethnicity in the Capital [iii]. In 2014 young black people had the highest sanction rate of any ethnic group, with 8.9% of Black Caribbean (18 – 24 years) JSA claimants being sanctioned. The rate was almost 8% for Black African and other Black claimants, all double the rate of older claimants. For all young people, black claimants had higher sanction rates that white claimants by 2.2%. It seems reasonable to assume that what happens in London is likely to be repeated across the country.
[Source, Trust for London and New Policy Insitute]
It may be, of course, that evidence of black people’s experiences of sanctions is included in some of the 104 submissions, but I’d be very surprised if this were indeed the case. I must confess to not having had time to go through all the evidence in detail (yet…), so I may be proven wrong. But I’d be very surprised. Why? Because as a society we have a poor track record of taking into account the concerns and experiences of black people.
Jayasree Kalathil and Alison Faulkner [iv] point out that the British Psychological Society’s major (and otherwise very good) report Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia was seriously deficient because it completely failed to engage with views of those most likely to have negative experiences of mental health services – black people. If the professional organisation that produced the report, the British Psychological Society, which likes to see itself as inclusive and sensitive to difference, makes such a glaringly insensitive mistake, then there are no good grounds to believe that other organisations will be any better.
This leaves unanswered the question why no black voices in the select committee’s evidence? I can’t believe that black communities and organisations don’t see it as an issue. Maybe they simply don’t have the resources, the time and people, necessary to do the research and networking to put documentary evidence together. Maybe over the years they have become sick and tired of being consulted by various white institutions, only to have their views and opinions ignored. Either way it’s a great shame and reflects very poorly on our claim to having an inclusive society. It points out the necessity for all of us who are concerned about social justice to work much harder in reaching out to and engaging with the voices of those who otherwise would not be heard.
[iv] Kalathil, J. & Faulkner, A. (2015) Racialisation and knowledge production: A critique of the report Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia, Mental Health Today, Jan-Feb 2015, 22-23)