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BRIEFING:  Benefit Sanctions Statistics:JSA, ESA, Universal Credit and Income Support for Lone Parents August 2017 

Reading Time: 26 minutes



Benefit Sanctions Statistics:
JSA, ESA, Universal Credit and Income Support for Lone Parents


August 2017




22 September 2017



Dr David Webster
Honorary Senior Research Fellow
Urban Studies
University of Glasgow


Webpages: http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/socialpolitical/staff/davidwebster/


In the year to March 2017 there were approximately 129,000 JSA and 229,000 UC sanctions on unemployed people before challenges, a total of 358,000. This is an increase over the revised figure of 328,000 for calendar 2016. Over the period August 2015 to March 2017, the rate of UC sanctions was 7.4% of claimants per month. This is three times the rate of 2.5% for JSA. It makes the overall rate 3.8% for JSA and UC combined. Because of DWP backlogs, at present it is impossible to say whether there is a trend in the UC sanction rate, but the overall rate of sanction on unemployed people is likely to rise simply because of the continuing transfer of claimants to the high-sanctioning UC. The UC sanction rate is higher than JSA for every age group, by amounts varying from 58% to 122%.
DWP has published new figures for the proportion of UC and ESA claimants who were under sanction at a point in time. For UC this proportion is stated to have varied between 3.0% and 5.4%. However the correct figures are approximately 6.7% to 12.0%. New figures are also published for the duration of UC and ESA sanctions. The median UC sanction length is shown as 31 days, but after allowing for repayments of hardship payments the true median would be about 52 days, or over 7 weeks.
New calculations in this Briefing show the number of JSA suspensions each month which have not been followed by a sanction. These must be added to the number of JSA sanctions overturned following challenge to give the total of cases where JSA has been wrongfully stopped. There are now only a couple of hundred JSA suspensions per month, but they rose to a peak of 9,000 per month in 2013, increasing the total of wrongful JSA stoppages by 82%. Altogether, since May 2010 there have been 317,100 abortive JSA suspensions.
Official statistics released on 14 September show that the take-up of income-based JSA has fallen from 69% in 2009/10 to 56% in 2015/16; sanctions policy has been successful in driving people off benefit but at the same time it has taken them beyond the reach of government employment schemes.
The ESA sanction rate is stable at 0.32% per month before challenges. The new figures on duration show that by the end of 2016, one quarter of completed ESA sanctions were lasting more than three months and 16% for more than six months; the latter proportion is far higher than for UC, although all of these ESA claimants were sick or disabled. DWP has now added to Stat-Xplore the medical condition which is the principal reason for each ESA claim. Over the period July 2011 to March 2017, of the big groups, ‘mental and behavioural’ had the highest rate of sanction, followed by ‘respiratory’, ‘injury and poisoning’, a general ‘other’ group, ‘nervous system’, ‘musculoskeletal’ and ‘circulatory’. There are particularly high sanction rates for investigations and procedures and for pregnant women. Since mid-2015 the previous very large excess of the sanction rate for people with mental and behavioural conditions compared to other groups appears to have been eliminated. This suggests that DWP has made some progress in its treatment of people with these conditions.
The DWP’s response of 6 April to the letter from the UK Statistics Authority asking about progress in improving the sanctions statistics leaves it far short of compliance with the requirements of the UKSA. The Briefing has a detailed assessment of the position. Readers have the opportunity to respond to a DWP consultation on Universal Credit statistics, closing on 24 October. At the end of the Briefing there is also information about other developments relating to the sanctions regime. BRIEFING: Benefit Sanctions StatisticsAugust 2017

This briefing continues the series of reports dealing with the quarterly benefit sanctions data released by DWP.   The latest statistics were released on 16 August on Stat-Xplore at https://stat-xplore.dwp.gov.uk/webapi/jsf/login.xhtml, giving figures to March 2017. At https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/jobseekers-allowance-sanctions there is a summary spreadsheet Jobseeker’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit sanctions: decisions made to March 2017 together with a Statistical Summary commenting on the figures, and various notes on publication strategy and methodology.
Since May 2017, Stat-Xplore has included sanctions on Universal Credit (UC) claimants back to August 2015 and on lone parent claimants of Income Support (IS) back to October 2016, as well as on Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) claimants back to April 2000 and on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants back to their inception in October 2008.
In the summary spreadsheet (but not on Stat-Xplore) there is new information on the duration of completed ESA and Universal Credit (but not JSA) sanctions, and on the number of ESA and UC claimants subject to sanction at a point in time. DWP has also added to Stat-Xplore the medical condition which is the principal reason for each ESA claim, using the International Classification of Diseases with 20 groups. This new information is discussed in this Briefing.
All statistics relate to Great Britain.
Groups of claimants exposed to sanctions: JSA, ESA, Universal Credit and Income Support
At February 2017, a total of over 1.6m claimants of JSA, ESA, Income Support or Universal Credit were exposed to sanctions.
Figures for all of the sanctionable groups are now starting to be affected by the gradual transfer of claimants from existing benefits to Universal Credit, although the only significant impact to date is on the unemployed.
Since 2013, DWP has been transferring new unemployed claimants of income-based (but not contribution-based) JSA on to Universal Credit. In July 2017 there were 773,435 unemployed claimants, of whom 452,353 (58.5%) were on JSA and 321,082 (41.5%) on UC.
Until May 2016, transfer was only of unemployed claimants without dependants. But since May 2016, under the ‘full service’ rollout, DWP has also been transferring to Universal Credit new claimants of all household types of all the types of benefit which are subsumed into Universal Credit. These are Housing Benefit (not relevant to sanctions), income-based (but not contribution-related) JSA, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, income-related (but not contribution-related) ESA, and Income Support. The ‘full service’ rollout was initially slow but by March 2017, 57 out of 714 Jobcentres were operating ‘full service’. This is 8% of the Jobcentres. Because only new claimants are currently transferred, far fewer than 8% of the claimants of each benefit other than JSA have so far been transferred.  However, rollout is now accelerating. In July 2017, 104 Jobcentres were operating ‘full service’ and from October 2017 this will increase by some 50 per month. The full schedule is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/universal-credit-transition-to-full-service
Figure 1 shows how the numbers of claimants on UC have increased, by conditionality regime. It shows that to date, the impact of transfers of people from benefits other than JSA and Working Tax Credit has been negligible.
Within ESA, only those in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) are subject to sanctions. Their number peaked at 562,620 in August 2013 but has been continuously declining since then and has now fallen to an estimated 407,000 in March 2017.
The number of lone parents on Income Support has also been falling, to 394,760 in February 2017. Currently, only those with a youngest child aged under 1 are exempt from sanctions. Some other IS claimants are also subject to sanctions.
In July 2017 there were 60,617 in-work UC claimants subject to sanctions in the DWP’s pilot areas (provisional figure).  These are low paid or part-time workers who prior to UC would not have been subject to sanctions at all.
Universal Credit sanctions
The UC regime has similar lengths of sanction to those of JSA for the various ‘failures’, but there are some critical differences. Sanctions are lengthened by being made consecutive, not concurrent. Hardship payments become repayable. Given that repayments are made at the rate of 40% of benefit – the same as the amount by which a hardship payment is lower than the benefit – this means that for claimants receiving hardship payments, UC sanctions are in effect 2½ times as long as their nominal length.  All sanctioned UC claimants must also demonstrate ‘compliance’ for 7 days before applying for hardship payments, and must reapply for each 4-week period. The 80% hardship rate for ‘vulnerable’ claimants is abolished. There are also some new ‘lowest’ categories of sanction (DWP 2017, pp. 3 & 9) although these currently account for only 6% of UC sanctions after challenges.  The ESA sanction regime is similar but not identical to JSA but the IS regime is milder.
Sanctions before and after reviews, reconsiderations and appeals
The DWP’s Stat-Xplore database only shows sanctions after any reviews, reconsiderations and appeals that have taken place by the time the data are published.  But numbers of sanctions before the results of these challenges are important since they show all the cases in which claimants have had their money stopped. Although a successful challenge should result in a refund, this is only after weeks or months by which time serious damage is often done. Estimates of sanctions before challenges are therefore given here but although reliable for longer time periods, they are not fully accurate for individual months. Figures for sanctions before challenges are currently higher than the ‘after challenge’ figures by about 20% for JSA and 40% for ESA. To date, under 5% of UC sanctions have been overturned following challenge and for lone parent IS sanctions only 1%, so for these types of sanction there is much less difference between the pre-and post-challenge figures. This Briefing has a mixture of pre- and post-challenge sanctions figures.

The May 2017 issue of this Briefing reported the UK Statistics Authority’s letter of 29 March 2017 to DWP   which requested an update on the steps being taken to comply with the recommendations of the UKSA, Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office on the sanctions statistics.
The DWP’s reply of 6 April,  by Neil McIvor, Head of Profession for Statistics, leaves DWP far short of compliance with the requirements of the UKSA.
The best way to assess the position is to return to the five recommendations made by UKSA to DWP in its original letter of 5 August 2015.  These are shown below, with a summary of the current position.
• Provide users with benefit sanction statistics based on the actual number of sanctions applied, making clear the numbers of reviews, reconsiderations and appeals. The key issue here is that the DWP statistics exclude sanctions which have been overturned on review, reconsideration or appeal by the time of publication of the statistics. As noted above, this results in the number of JSA sanctions being understated by about 20% and ESA sanctions by about 40%. Neil McIvor’s letter ignores this issue and deals only with the separate issue of ‘suspensions’ of JSA which do not lead to an actual sanction. The upshot is that DWP continues to ignore the UKSA’s requirement that it should tell the public how many actual sanctions there are before challenges. McIvor’s argument that suspensions are too few to be worth reporting is also spurious, since he has based it on data from a very untypical period. The suspensions issue is considered in the main body of the Briefing below.
• Make clear the limitations associated with the statistics. There have been some minor improvements to metadata and there seems now to be a greater willingness to publish methodological notes, but to date nothing has been done to prevent the major misrepresentations of the sanctions regime which characterise public debate.
• Include in the quarterly benefit statistics bulletin a statement of the proportion of JSA claims subject to a sanction, as well as the proportions of claimants who have been sanctioned during the most recent one-year and five-year periods, and the numbers on which these proportions are based.  The DWP has now published figures showing the proportion of claimants serving a sanction at a point in time (although as noted below, their figures for Universal Credit are very misleading), and monthly sanction rates were already available. But nothing has been done to implement the more important recommendation to publish regularly the proportion of all claimants during a given period such as one or five years who are sanctioned. This is a much better guide to the likelihood of an individual claimant being sanctioned.
• Ensure all statements made using the official statistics are objective and impartial and appropriately apply the definitions of the variables underpinning the data, including ‘actively seeking work’. The major misrepresentation that JSA claimants sanctioned in relation to work search are described as ‘not actively seeking work’ when in almost all cases they are, has not been corrected.
• Extend the range of benefit sanction data available by addressing the gaps in information on repeat sanctions and hardship payments, alongside the development of sanction data from the Universal Credit system. In Annex B to his letter, McIvor says that ‘In response to user feedback we are currently investigating developing the statistics so we can report the number of repeat sanctions in a year.’ This is welcome but as such it would not address the problem that there is no information on the numbers of claimants subject to the lengthier sanctions imposed for repeat ‘failures’. This is because DWP does not record the date of each sanctioned ‘failure’ on its systems, and escalated sanctions are imposed for the commission of repeated ‘failures’ within a year. Hardship payment data were published for JSA and ESA in November 2015 but have not been updated. No hardship payment data have been published for Universal Credit.
There is an August 2017 update of the DWP sanctions statistics publication strategy at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/benefit-sanction-statistics-publication-strategy

DWP is holding a consultation on future development of Universal Credit statistics. Details are at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/universal-credit-experimental-statistics-future-developments and the consultation closes on 24 October.
In the year to March 2017 there were approximately 358,000 JSA or UC sanctions on unemployed people before challenges. This is an increase over the revised figure of 328,000 for calendar 2016. Of the 358,000 sanctions to March 2017, 129,000 were JSA and 229,000 UC. ,   Because UC sanctions have been growing fast, this understates the predominance now of UC sanctions: there are now more than three times as many of them each month as of JSA sanctions.
After challenges, in the year to March 2017 there were 105,041 JSA and 221,309 UC sanctions, a total of 326,350.
Figure 2 shows the monthly absolute numbers of JSA and UC sanctions since April 2000, showing UC sanctions overtaking JSA during 2016. Figure 3 shows the monthly sanction rates (sanctions as a percentage of claimants) for JSA alone and for all unemployed claimants since April 2000. This shows that the overall sanction rate on unemployed people has not fallen nearly as much as the DWP’s published figures for JSA have suggested. It did apparently fall to 3% during 2016 but by March 2017, while the JSA rate stood at about 2%, the overall rate was over 4.5%.
Figure 4 shows the monthly before-challenge sanction rates for JSA and for UC separately since August 2015, showing that while the JSA rate has fallen from about 3.5% to about 2.0%, the UC rate has fluctuated between 4% and 9.5%.
The reason for the big fall and then rise in UC sanctions between late 2015 and late 2016 appears to be the backlog in dealing with referrals mentioned by the National Audit Office (NAO 2016, para.2.26-27). The NAO said that DWP ‘expects to reduce the Universal Credit decision backlog to an acceptable level by December 2016’. Reducing the backlog with this timing would have the effect of increasing the monthly number of sanctions in the run-up to December 2016. The implication is that the rate of UC sanctions in recent months may be misleadingly high, but also that the rate in earlier months since late 2015 is misleadingly low. The best guide to the true rate of UC sanctions before challenges is therefore the average for the whole period August 2015 to March 2017, which was 7.4% per month. This is three times the rate of 2.5% for JSA over the same period. It makes the overall rate 3.8% for JSA and UC combined for these 20 months. At the moment it is impossible to say whether there is any trend in the UC monthly sanction rate before challenges, but the JSA rate has stabilised at about 2%. The overall rate of sanction on unemployed people is likely to rise simply because of the continuing transfer of claimants to the high-sanctioning UC.
Part of the explanation why the UC sanction rate is so much higher than JSA is that UC claimants tend to be younger, and younger people have a higher rate of sanction. But Figure 5 shows that for every age group, the mean monthly UC sanction rate after challenges since August 2015 is much higher than for JSA, by amounts varying from 58% to 122%. Figure 6 shows the individual monthly rates after challenges for each age group. Interestingly, the excess of the UC rate over the JSA rate is smallest for the 16-24 age group, in spite of this group having the highest sanction rate. As already noted, because of the administrative backlog, these figures probably overstate the UC sanction rate in the most recent months and understate it for earlier months.
The DWP (2017, p.4) states that under JSA, claimants not attending an interview will normally have their cases closed whereas under UC they are more often sanctioned. The reason for this is that UC claimants may be in receipt of other parts of UC, such as housing benefit and child credits, and therefore cannot have their cases closed. Figure 6 of the May 2017 Briefing showed that missed interviews are by far the most common reason for UC sanctions, so this could explain a lot of the difference between JSA and UC sanction rates, though not necessarily all.

The proportion of unemployed claimants who are sanctioned or who are under sanction at a point in time
The May 2017 Briefing gave updated figures on the proportion of JSA claimants who are sanctioned within a given time period. The NAO (2016, para.1.10 and Figure 5) showed that of all the people who claimed JSA at any time over the six years 2010 to 2015, no less than 24% were sanctioned before challenges. The proportion of all the JSA claimants in a given year who were sanctioned peaked at 17.99% in 2013/14 and was 8.15% in 2015/16.
The DWP’s summary spreadsheet at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/jobseekers-allowance-sanctions has now provided figures for the proportion of all UC and ESA claimants who were under sanction at a point in time. It has not yet provided similar figures for JSA.
Figure 7 shows that to date, for unemployed and employed claimants taken together, the UC proportion has varied between 3.0% and 5.4% (as Figure 1 shows, this calculation is overwhelmingly dominated by unemployed claimants).
These figures are misleadingly low, for several reasons. First, DWP states in its methodological note (DWP 2017a, p.4) that in estimating this proportion it has included all UC claimants in the denominator, whether they are subject to conditionality or not. In fact, at March 2017 over 25% of UC claimants were not subject to sanctions at all. This means that the true proportions would be between 4.0% and 7.2% rather than 3.0% and 5.4%.
Second, for those receiving hardship payments, the true length of a UC sanction is two-and-a-half times the stated length, because the hardship payments have to be repaid. Therefore the proportion effectively under sanction is going to be much higher. How high we currently do not know as DWP has not published any data showing what proportion of sanctioned UC claimants get hardship payments. For JSA it is around 45% (see the November 2015 Briefing). If the UC hardship payment proportion is the same then the true proportion under sanction (including the denominator adjustment already made above) would be between 6.7% and 12.0%. Finally, the impact of a sanction often lasts long after it has formally ended, because the damage it does is difficult or impossible to repair. In relation to this latter consideration, the proportion of claimants sanctioned within a five or six year period is much more relevant.


The duration of Universal Credit sanctions
In the DWP’s summary spreadsheet there is also information on the duration of completed Universal Credit and ESA sanctions. The new figures do not cover JSA. This is unfortunate because people particularly want to know how many individuals have been subjected to the 3-year JSA sanctions introduced in 2012. DWP says that it intends to publish these figures later, but has not committed to a date.
The DWP’s figures show the actual duration of the sanctions completed in a given month, and they include sanctions overturned on reconsideration or appeal. So, for instance, a 13-week sanction which is overturned on reconsideration after 8 weeks, with payment of full benefit restarting after 9 weeks, will be shown as lasting 9 weeks. This is valuable, although on the other hand, as noted earlier, the figures do not include the very lengthy periods when claimants receiving hardship payments are suffering continued deductions due to repayment of the hardship payments.
The figures also currently need very careful interpretation due to the short time period they cover. They cover 17 months, but UC sanctions may last for up to 36 months. In other words, there are uncompleted sanctions excluded from the figures which when eventually included will increase the numbers of lengthy sanctions. Figure 8 illustrates this. It shows, for instance, that the proportion of UC sanctions shown as lasting under 4 weeks has fallen from over 60% to under 50%, while the proportion in the 14 to 26 week category has risen from under 3% to over 12%  and in the 27+ weeks category from 0.39% to about 4%. The chart shows that the proportions in each category have not yet fully settled down. Therefore it is the most recent months which are the best guide to the true figures, although they will still be understating the true length of UC sanctions, and the picture will be complicated by the backlog issue discussed earlier.
The final complication is that, as noted earlier, the true length of a UC sanction is two and a half times its nominal length if the claimant is getting hardship payments. The DWP’s figures show the median UC sanction length currently standing at 31 days. If we allow for repayments of hardship payments on the same basis as above, the true median would be about 52 days, or over 7 weeks. This is put in perspective if it is recalled that the maximum length of an unemployment benefit disqualification for 73 years from 1913 to 1986 was 6 weeks, and actual lengths were usually much less.

Earlier issues of this Briefing have highlighted the fact that every month, thousands of JSA and ESA claimants have their benefits wrongly stopped as a result of sanctions which are subsequently overturned following challenge. But in addition to these cases, there are ‘suspensions’ of JSA where the claimant is suspected or accused of not meeting an ‘entitlement’ condition. These also often result in wrongful stoppages of benefit.
There are five ‘entitlement’ conditions: ‘actively seeking employment’ (ASE), availability, not having a Jobseeker’s Agreement, trade disputes and ‘joint claim exemption’. Of these, cases of ASE are by far the most frequent, with significant numbers in the availability category, while the other three are very rare. Where a claimant is suspected or accused of non-compliance with an ‘entitlement’ condition, their benefit is suspended immediately, in advance of a decision, on the ground of protecting public funds from unjustified disbursement. If the decision, when it is made, does not confirm the suspicion or accusation, then the claimant will in effect have suffered what is a sanction anyway in all but name, but it will not appear in any of the statistics. This problem grew enormously under the Coalition because of its aggressive use of the ‘actively seeking work’ basis for sanction.
The DWP’s letter to the UK Statistics Authority of 6 April 2017 (Annex A) points out that the number of abortive suspensions of JSA can be calculated from the data available on Stat-Xplore. All that is needed is to extract the number of ‘non-adverse’ and ‘cancelled’ cases in the five ‘entitlement’ categories.
Figure 9 shows the number of abortive JSA suspensions for all months since April 2000, showing that while there are now only a couple of hundred per month, at the height of the Coalition’s sanctions drive in 2013 they rose to a peak of 9,000 per month. Altogether, since the Conservatives came into office in May 2010 there have been 317,100 abortive JSA suspensions. Figure 10 shows that when the abortive JSA suspensions are added to the JSA sanctions overturned following challenge, they make a very substantial difference to the total of cases where claimants’ benefits are wrongfully stopped. At their peak in January 2013 they increased the total of wrongful stoppages of JSA by 82%.
In his letter to the UKSA, Neil McIvor of DWP argued that adding the total of abortive JSA suspensions to the total of JSA sanctions would make too little difference to be worth doing. But, as shown in Figure 11, he based his argument on the highly untypical period of October 2015 to September 2016. The chart shows that over much of the period since 2000, it would have made a very significant difference. In fact he is right to argue that simply adding abortive suspensions to the total of sanctions would be inappropriate, since suspensions are not sanctions. However, DWP should be showing the abortive suspensions separately in their summary spreadsheet and statistical summary, since they are a very real part of the damage being done by the sanctions system.
It should be noted that one of the main reasons why abortive suspensions have fallen since February 2013 is that the proportion of ‘not actively seeking work’ referrals resulting in an actual sanction had risen dramatically, from about 86% to about 96%. Thus it appears that to a major extent, wrongful suspensions have simply been replaced by wrongful sanctions. This issue was examined in the February 2016 issue of the Briefing.
It should be noted that the issue of abortive suspensions for ‘not actively seeking work’ does not arise under Universal Credit since under UC, work search is not an entitlement condition.

Official statistics released on 14 September athttps://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/income-related-benefits-estimates-of-take-up-financial-year-201516 show that there has been a major fall in the take-up of income-based JSA since Conservative ministers took over in 2010 (Figure 12). In 2009/10 an estimated 69% of those entitled claimed JSA; by 2015/16 this had fallen to 56%. These figures do not show take-up of contribution-based JSA, which will almost certainly be lower because fewer of those entitled will badly need the money. A major objective of sanctions policy has been to drive people off benefit, and in this it has been successful. However another obvious point is that unless people claim JSA, they cannot participate in any government employment programmes. These programmes are therefore to a large extent failing before they start, since they can only reach just over half the target group. The August labour market report by the Learning and Work Institute at https://www2.learningandwork.org.uk/statistics/labour/august-2017 suggests that this failure is even greater in the case of unemployed young people, of whom only 44.8% (measured on a different basis) are claiming JSA or UC.
The take-up figures for income-based ESA/Income Support have not fallen in the same way and in fact there has been a slight rise since 2009/10. But only a minority of ESA claimants are subject to sanctions (17.3% at February 2017).

The ESA sanction rate is stable (Figure 13). Over the year to March 2017, the rate of sanction on ESA claimants in the WRAG, before challenges, averaged 0.32% per month. The total of ESA sanctions in the year to March 2017 was approximately 16,500 before challenges and 12,046 after challenges. Almost 90% of ESA sanctions are for not taking part in work-related activity (Figure 14).
As explained in earlier Briefings, the upturn in ESA sanctions after challenges for ‘failure to participate in work related activity’ in the latest month is probably not significant, because some successful challenges have yet to show up in the figures.
The proportion of ESA claimants who are sanctioned or who are under sanction at a point in time
The only available figure for the proportion of all ESA claimants in a given year who were sanctioned is 2.9% for 2014-15 (see the February 2016 Briefing). The DWP’s summary spreadsheet now gives figures on the proportion of ESA claimants subject to sanction at a point in time. This shows that the proportion of ESA Work Related Activity Group claimants subject to a sanction rose from 0.14% in December 2012 to a peak of 1.09% in April 2014, before falling back to 0.57% in December 2016 (Figure 7). ESA hardship payments are not repayable and do not affect this calculation. However, the fact that the effects of sanctions are often very long-lived does affect the relevance of these figures. For many purposes, the 2.9% figure (and the figures for 5 and 6 year periods, currently unknown) will be more relevant.
Duration of ESA sanctions
Durations of ESA sanctions from the DWP’s summary spreadsheet are shown in Figure 15. These figures cover a much longer period than the UC figures – four years from December 2012 to December 2016. The most disturbing feature is the relatively high proportion of long duration sanctions. By the end of 2016, one quarter of completed ESA sanctions were lasting more than three months and 16% for more than six months. In particular, the proportion of sanctions lasting more than six months is far higher than for UC, at around 15%. This is quite extraordinary when it is considered that all of these ESA claimants were sick or disabled and officially considered unfit to work.
ESA sanctions by medical condition
Limited information on sanctions by medical condition has been published previously as a result of Freedom of Information requests. DWP has now added to Stat-Xplore the medical condition which is the principal reason for each ESA claim, using the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) with 20 groups.
In the following analysis, all data from before July 2011 have been ignored. This is because, as Figure 14 shows, the reasons for ESA sanctions were very different then from what they have been subsequently. Table 1 therefore shows the mean quarterly  (not monthly) rate of sanctions after challenges for the period July 2011 to March 2017, for each of the 20 condition groups, ranking them in order from highest to lowest. It also shows the mean size of each group. The groups are of very different sizes, but the numbers are large enough to give a statistically reliable rate for all groups except ‘Perinatal’.
The variations between groups are very large. Of the big groups, ‘mental and behavioural’ has the highest rate of sanction, followed by ‘respiratory’, ‘injury and poisoning’, a general ‘other’ group, ‘nervous system’, ‘musculoskeletal’ and ‘circulatory’. The table shows particularly high sanction rates for investigations and procedures (what the ICD calls ‘Factors influencing Health Status and contact with Health Services’) and, disturbingly, for pregnant women.
Figure 16 shows the month-by-month changes in sanction rate for the six largest groups (excluding ‘other’). The most interesting finding here is that since mid-2015 the previous very large excess of the sanction rate for people with mental and behavioural conditions compared to other groups appears to have been eliminated. This suggests that DWP has made some progress in its treatment of people with these conditions. However the chart also shows that people with ‘injury and poisoning’ and ‘respiratory’ conditions have also had a consistently higher rate of sanction than other groups. There is no obvious explanation.

Income support sanctions, reasons for sanctions, and the working of the appeal system are not reported in this issue of the Briefing. They were covered in detail in the May 2017 issue and the analysis will be updated in future issues. A limited amount of information on UC in-work sanctions was reported in the May 2017 issue but no further information is available.

Public Accounts Committee Inquiry on benefit sanctions
The government response to the PAC report of February 2017 was supposed to appear within two months, i.e. by 21 April, but has still not been published. When it does appear, it will be as a Treasury minute at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/treasury-minutes.
UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
This UN Committee has criticised the UK government for failing to meet its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in its Concluding observations on the initial report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 29 August. The report, which is otherwise hard to find on the web, is athttp://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRPD%2fC%2fGBR%2fCO%2f1&Lang=en
The Committee specifically states (p.14) its concern about ‘The detrimental impact of the Employment and Support Allowance’s conditionality and sanctions on persons with disabilities and the limited access to reconsideration and repeal procedures’ and (p.15) calls on the government to ‘Conduct a review of the conditionality and sanction regimes concerning the Employment and Support Allowance, and tackle negative consequences on mental health and situation of persons with disabilities.’
The Daily Mirror at http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/united-nations-says-treatment-disabled-11089365 reported the Committee chair as saying that the situation in Britain is a ‘human catastrophe’.
Upper Tribunal ruling: Time limits for Mandatory Reconsideration are unlawful
The Upper Tribunal has ruled that the DWP cannot prevent a claimant from appealing to a tribunal on the ground that their application for a Mandatory Reconsideration is late. There is a report in the Guardian at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/aug/04/uk-judges-rule-dwp-wrong-to-deny-appeals-over-refused-benefits and the decision itself JR/3861/2016 and CE/766/2016 is at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5983352ce5274a1704000066/CE_0766_2016-00.pdf
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reports that low skill jobs are hard to get
The CIPD reported on 14 August that there are currently 24 applicants for every low skill vacancy. It is thought that recent growth in labour supply may be responsible for this. A summary is at https://www.cipd.co.uk/about/media/press/140817-lmo-summer17and the full report is athttps://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/work/trends/labour-market-outlook

Bad jobs damage people’s health, and UK productivity
It is a doctrine of DWP ministers and officials that work is always good for you. For instance, the government response to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee report on Benefit Sanctions (2015) stated ‘There is a large body of evidence showing that work is good for physical and mental wellbeing’. An important new paper (Chandola & Zhang 2017) has added to the hard evidence showing that in many cases this is untrue. It found that ‘Formerly unemployed adults who transitioned into poor quality work had greater adverse levels of biomarkers compared with their peers who remained unemployed. …… Job quality cannot be disregarded from the employment success of the unemployed, and may have important implications for their health and well-being.’
The implications were discussed in an article ‘Britain’s joyless jobs market can be bad for your health’, by Sarah O’Connor, economics correspondent, in the Financial Times, 23 August.  She specifically identified the role of benefit sanctions in driving people into these bad jobs, and pointed out that they are likely to worsen productivity as well as health. She commented ‘The hidden costs to the UK’s approach are becoming clearer’.
In line with this, the Financial Times reported on 6 July and 17 August that UK productivity has now fallen back to below its level of 2007. The Resolution Foundation published a report on 15 August (Clarke 2017) pointing out that the proportion of the population moving region and employer has declined by a quarter since 2000. Labour mobility is an important mechanism of labour market adjustment, and the report argues that the decline in mobility may be contributing to poor productivity growth as workers fail to find jobs that best suit their talents. Apart from pushing people into unsuitable jobs, sanctions also discourage labour mobility by penalising people who give up jobs; since 2012 these penalties have been made particularly severe, because for some reason the DWP views giving up a job as a more serious offence than other sanctionable ‘failures’.
The decline of local welfare schemes in England
From 2013, the government abolished Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants and devolved responsibility for emergency assistance to local authorities. The Centre for Responsible Credit has now carried out a desk exercise to find out what has happened to these local authority schemes in England, obtaining information about some 70% of schemes. The work was supplemented with 18 interviews with users. The study (Gibbons 2017) found that
• Twenty six local authorities have now closed their schemes altogether.

• A further forty one authorities have cut back spending on their schemes by over 60 percent

• Eleven of these have cut spending by over 80 percent and their schemes are now on the brink of collapse.

• The cut backs, combined with benefit delays, are creating destitution and are making it harder for people to live independently. The cuts are particularly affecting people with long-term illnesses or disabilities, young people leaving care, women fleeing domestic violence, people with prior experience of homelessness, and frail elderly people returning to their homes after a stay in hospital or who are struggling to remain independent and avoid going into care homes.

• There is a disproportionate impact on low income Black and Minority Ethnic communities.

• The cuts are counter-productive as a means of saving money as they are increasing the numbers of people needing higher cost interventions to help them with their deteriorating circumstances.
Scotland and Wales both operate national emergency welfare schemes. The first of what will be a regular annual series of review of the  Scottish Welfare Fund by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman is at https://www.spso.org.uk/scottishwelfarefund/sites/scottishwelfarefund/files/Documents/SWFAnnualReport2016-17.pdf
Who uses food banks and why? – report from the Trussell Trust network
This report (Loopstra & Lalor 2017), based on a well-structured sample of 413 food bank users in October to December 2016, found that over one third had suffered an income shock in the previous three months, benefit sanctions being the cause in 17% of these cases. Over 78% of user households were severely food insecure, meaning that they had skipped meals, gone without eating, or even gone days without eating in the past 12 months. For a majority of households this was a chronic experience, happening every month or almost every month over the past 12 months. Food bank users experience multiple forms of destitution. Half had gone without heating for more than four days in the past 12 months, and 1 in 5 had slept rough in the last 12 months.
Gibson et al.: Cochrane Review of effects of Welfare to Work on Lone Parents
This review (Gibson et al. 2017), based almost entirely on studies in the USA or Canada before 2000, found that Welfare to Work (WtW) interventions for lone parents do not have important effects on health. Employment and income were slightly higher 18 to 48 months after the start of the intervention, but there was little difference after 49 to 72 months. In a number of studies, lone parents who were not in WtW interventions found jobs by themselves over time. It is possible that effects on health were small because there was not much change in employment or income. Even when employment and income were higher for the lone parents in WtW, most participants continued to be poor. Perhaps because of this, depression also remained very high for lone parents whether they were in WtW or not.
The study is at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD009820.pub2/epdfand an abstract is athttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD009820.pub2/abstract
Special issue of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice
The June 2017 number of the Journal is a special issue on Disability and Conditional Social Security Benefits.  It is described in a blogpost by Ben Baumberg Geiger athttps://www.rethinkingincapacity.org/disabled-sanctions-research/and the same author has an article in the special issue comparing the approaches of different countries (Geiger 2017).
Chandola, Tarani & Nan Zhang (2017) ‘Re-employment, job quality, health andallostatic load biomarkers: prospective evidence from the UK Household Longitudinal Study’, International Journal of Epidemiology, 1–11, doi: 10.1093/ije/dyx150
Clarke, Stephen (2017) Get A Move On? The decline in regional job-to-job moves and its impact on productivity and pay, Resolution Foundation, August, available at http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/publications/get-a-move-on-the-decline-in-regional-job-to-job-moves-and-its-impact-on-productivity-and-pay/
DWP (2017a) Benefit Sanctions Durations and Sanction rate calculation: Explanation of methodology, August, at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sanctions-durations-and-rate-background-information-and-methodology
DWP (2017b) Universal Credit Sanctions Experimental Official Statistics: Background information and methodology, August, athttps://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/637862/universal-credit-sanctions-statistics-background-information-and-methodology.pdf
Geiger, Ben Baumberg (2017) ‘Benefits conditionality for disabled people: stylised facts from a review of international evidence and practice’, Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, 25:2, 107–28
Gibbons, Damon (2017) The Decline of Crisis and Community Care Support in England: Why a new approach is needed, Centre for Responsible Credit, September, available athttps://www.responsible-credit.org.uk/decline-local-welfare-schemes/
Gibson, Marcia et al. (2017) Welfare-to-work interventions and their effects on the mental and physical health of lone parents and their children, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 20 August, available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD009820.pub2/abstract
House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (2017) Benefit sanctions, Forty-second Report of Session 2016–17, HC 775, 21 February
House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee (2015) Benefit sanctions: Beyond the Oakley Review: Government Response to the Committee’s Fifth Report of Session 2014-15, HC 557, October, available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmworpen/557/557.pdf
Loopstra, Rachel & Doireann Lalor (2017) Financial insecurity, food insecurity, and disability: The profile of people receiving emergency food assistance from The Trussell Trust Foodbank Network in Britain, June, available at https://www.trusselltrust.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017/06/OU_Report_final_01_08_online.pdf
National Audit Office (2016) Benefit Sanctions, HC 628, 30 November


TABLE 1:  ESA sanctions by principal medical condition, 2011-17
Condition category Mean number of claimants, July 2011 to March 2017 Mean quarterly rate of sanctions after challenges, July 2011 to March 2017 (sanctions as % of claimants)Investigations, procedures etc. 3932 2.82Pregnancy etc. 558 1.69Blood & immune system 755 1.31Digestive 6298 1.15Skin 2683 1.14Mental and behavioural 224985 1.13Respiratory 7700 0.92Injury, poisoning & external 21003 0.92Not elsewhere classified 43560 0.90Genito-urinary 3268 0.90Endocrine & metabolic 6312 0.81Nervous system 24871 0.75Infectious & parasitic 3349 0.72Musculoskeletal 75692 0.70Circulatory 15072 0.68Neoplasms 3746 0.62Eye 2924 0.54Ear 1567 0.53Congenital 605 0.07Perinatal 10 0.00

Screenshot_20170923-143536figure 2

Screenshot_20170923-144256Screenshot_20170923-143615Screenshot_20170923-143630Screenshot_20170923-143646Screenshot_20170923-14370720170923_143753Screenshot_20170923-144701Screenshot_20170923-144722Screenshot_20170923-144740 Figure 11Screenshot_20170923-145426 Figure 12 Screenshot_20170923-145516 Figure 13Screenshot_20170923-145624Screenshot_20170923-145742Screenshot_20170923-145901 Figure 16



Previous briefings are available at http://www.cpag.org.uk/david-webster. They include many analyses that remain valid. However it should be remembered that the DWP may have made subsequent revisions to the data reported in earlier briefings.

‘In-work’ conditionality has been taken to apply to claimants in the statistical category ‘working – with requirements’.  Repayment is suspended for any month when the claimant earns more than their threshold, and any remaining debt is written off if the earnings threshold has been met for 26 weeks, whether continuous or not.  The basic concept of the DWP’s sanctions database is that each sanction case appears only once, and is given its latest status and attributed to the month of the latest decision on the case. So, for instance, if a decision is made in January 2014 to sanction someone, this decision is reviewed in March 2014 with an outcome unfavourable to the claimant, reconsidered in a ‘mandatory reconsideration’ in May 2014 again with an unfavourable outcome, and is heard on appeal by a Tribunal in October 2014 with a decision favourable to the claimant, then:

• it appears in the statistics for the first time in January 2014 as an adverse ‘original’ decision

• in March 2014 it changes its status to a ‘reviewed’ adverse decision and moves month to be with all the other cases where the latest decision has been made in March 2014

• in May 2014 it changes its status to a ‘reconsidered’ adverse decision and moves month to be with all the other cases where the latest decision has been made in May 2014

• in October 2014 it changes its status again to an appealed non-adverse decision, and moves month again to be with all the other cases where the latest decision has been made in October 2014.  https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Letter-from-Ed-Humpherson-to-Neil-McIvor-290317.pdf  The DWP reply is at https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/170608-Letter-to-Ed-Humperson-from-Neil-McIvor-Sanction.pdf. Unfortunately it was overlooked in the May 2017 Briefing.  At https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/letterfromedhumphersontodavidfraze_tcm97-44815.pdf  This updates the assessment included in the May 2016 Briefing, pp.4-5.  The UC sanction data published by DWP on Stat-Xplore include some sanctions on claimants other than unemployed but exclude sanctions in ‘full service’ areas . In the estimates given for total numbers of sanctions, these factors are assumed approximately to cancel each other out. In the estimates for UC sanction rates, approximate adjustments have been made for the missing ‘full service’ areas.  The estimate of sanctions before challenges has been derived by adding the monthly total of ‘non-adverse’, ‘reserved’ and ‘cancelled’ decisions shown as being the result of reviews, mandatory reconsiderations and tribunal appeals, to the monthly total of adverse ‘original’ decisions.  This produces only an approximate estimate for each individual month, since decisions altered following challenge are not attributed to the correct month. But the estimates are reliable for longer periods.  Strictly speaking, the resulting figures do not show the number of abortive suspensions, but the number of cases where a suspension ought to have been applied under the DWP’s rules and where there was no subsequent adverse decision. But presumably there will be little difference between the two.  The Learning and Work Institute take-up figures are derived by comparing the number of young claimants with the number of unemployed young people shown in the Annual Population (Labour Force) Survey, ignoring the distinction between income-based and contribution-based benefits.  The total numbers of ESA sanctions completed each month shown in the DWP table are a large underestimate of the true figures. The DWP explains (DWP 2017a) that one fifth of sanction cases could not be included because of data matching problems; two or more sanctions served concurrently are often only counted once; some week-long sanctions are missing; and claims that have a sanction start date within a month of an off-flow from benefit are removed from the final dataset on quality grounds. These points do not invalidate the duration calculations, but they do mean that the figures on monthly completions of ESA sanctions cannot be used for any purpose.  Quarterly rates have been used here because the number of claimants is only available for quarters, and quarterly figures smooth out some random variation.

Soap and Socialism

Reading Time: 3 minutes


Matt Geraghty 


Soap and socialism make for unexpected bedfellows. The un-poetic household item, and left wing ideology would, in the run of everyday life, appear to have little in common. An odd couple. Yet the improbable becomes possible when you’re trying to save the world, one bar of soap at a time. An unusual endeavor, but such is the case with Friendly Soap, who hand-make products that are everyday and ethical, luxurious though inexpensive. Artisan soaps for the masses.

It’s a difficult path in good years, a revolutionary one in financially straightened times. For the business models that are most resilient during such periods – are the cheap and cheerless value brands, or the gated community of luxury goods. To follow a path based upon high quality products, sold at low prices, is to confound commercial and capitalist approaches to business. But this is just what friends, and directors, Rob Costello and Geoff Kerouac have done since starting Friendly Soap. From 2008 their every step in the soap arena has been a political one. And a counter to the false utopias, and elevated prices, of the beauty product world.

The last decade has seen a rise in the artisan entrepreneur – from heritage bakers to craft brewers. It has turned the heads of the consumer, and asked them to consider purchasing items that are off the main drag. Not high street. It is an exciting development, because for most of these new ventures, provenance and quality are high on their list of production criteria – a challenge to the world of mass-produced, poor quality, goods that have blighted the late 20th and early 21st century. However, the elephant in the room is cost. There is a premium placed upon these goods that means they are out of the reach of the many, affordable only for the few. The wealthy benefit, and the poor get crumbs from the table. It was ever thus.

Geoff and Rob understood this – and decided that to have a chance of achieving their aim, that of selling artisan goods priced in such a way that they would be accessible to the everyday Joe, or Johanna, they had to sacrifice profit, but not quality. For they had a picture of their products sat next to the bars made by the market leaders. The detergent heavy, mass-produced soaps most people accessorize their bathroom with.

Unlike the relentless churn of industrially produced soaps, their are hand made using the Cold Process method. A traditional style of making that creates no by-products. It’s a slow process. For once mixed, the ingredients take two days to produce the soap, after which it is sliced into bars, then set on shelves to cure for a month, before being ready to sell. And they use little in the way of ingredients. Just as it should be. For soap requires just a few key components to make it – so they make sure all theirs are ethically sourced, and high quality – from oils to exfoliants.

The tack they have taken helps neuters contemporary class structures, where taste, and cost become social weapons – defining and marking off ‘high class’ from the ‘low class’. For they have created a ‘high class’ product with a ‘low class’ price tag. Generally, as an item becomes more fashionable it becomes cheaper, so more people can use it, and the fashionable wealthy look for new ways to differentiate themselves. Yet the Friendly Soap range squares the circle – for it is simultaneously different and universal. Because of their political approach all the range is SLS, palm oil, paraben and cruelty free, vegan friendly, and uses no plastic packaging. Whilst being priced to meet the pockets of most consumers. They are the great leveler – ticking all the important boxes, whilst being affordable.

So at a time in which we face the relentless chatter of advertising, and the shaky promises of countless brands, Friendly Soap’s authenticity is the ultimate currency. A luxury everyone can afford, and soap that can clean more than just your body.

To satisfy you thirst for Friendly knowledge, check out their website.




Reading Time: 1 minute
Ungagged receive a response to our letter, from Brian Quail.
It’s only now that I’m a free man and have time to sort out the pile of mail sent to me in Low Moss, that I can write to you and thank you most warmly for the letter signed by yourself and so many other good people.
I don’t think you or they can truly appreciate the uplifting impact this letter had which was as unexpected as it was undeserved.
The text you sent was powerful and eloquent. It is unanswerable. It articulates the reason why the people of Scotland must reject the world’s most powerful  machine for the mass extermination of human beings, Britain’s submarine superbelsen, Trident.
So I have a trial in Dumbarton on 12th October, and the work goes on.
But not before I thank you and the good souls of ungagged who signed the letter.
Yours in gratitude and solidarity,
Brian Quail


Reading Time: 1 minute
Steve McAuliffe 

I’m your master set in alabaster
And though my self-aggrandising policies
Are laundered and spun-dry through media machines
There are always certain aspects that require
The old distraction or filibuster schemes
And if resistance hits my purse
And the worse comes to the worse
Then dare you even mention
The tried and trusted strategy of tension?

Ice creams, scream queens, quantum flux-machines
Has-beens, skinny jeans and Judd Apatow’s penile-fixated stars of screen
We all agree upon
These hundred million played out scenes.

Distraction is what I need son
Something to take me out myself, you feel me son?
When the day’s done
And the sun
Drops like a hot stone behind the boarded-up shop-fronts
And the tired old moon finally drags its lazy arse to light these lazy cunts
Clapped-out wrung out, strung out b-list actors
Clapper-boards and flop-houses, doss-houses
And these swaggering men
Preening like this is their movie
They’re all convinced of their own omnificence
Unaware of their own impotence
It’s impudent and crass to boot
From branch to root
How these perceivers are little more than receivers
And the masters
Orchestrate disasters
And the wealth of the west is built upon the blood of the east
And the people howl
Howl at the blood-red crescent moon


From Steve’s collection of poems ‘Thamesmead’ – available on Amazon here.


Tweet for a fair World!

Reading Time: 9 minutes
Neil Scott


I was really proud of this podcast this week.  When our collective found out that two pensioners, Brian Quail and Angela Zelter, had been jailed for protesting at the nuclear weapon storage and dispatch facility at Coulport here in Scotland, we decided to do something that an online collective can.  We wrote a letter to the two prisoners for peace.  And we asked people to sign it.  The response in the short time frame was phenomenal.  People from across the political world asked to sign.  You can find the letter here.

Then, the day after we sent the letter, the Trident two were released.  We are over the moon!

Their act, described by Brian as “infinitesimally small” was an act that touched thousands of people across Scotland and indeed the world.  I was shocked after my friend Kevin Gibney at Independence Livestream asked me to do an impromptu interview in their studio about the case that on checking as soon as we came off air, 17000 people had tuned in and watched me stammer and stutter what information I could give to people.  17000 people in a few minutes either found out about, or were reminded about, Brian and Angela, and I know they wont mind me saying, the infinitesimally bigger issue of nuclear weapons themselves.

And that made me think.  I am an advocate of the left using the internet in ways that forward our cause and the issues we agree with.  I wrote an article for Red Pepper a good few years ago about, at the time, how leaders on the left really didn’t take the internet seriously enough.  Although in the last ten years that has changed, especially as younger people find themselves as part of the leaderships of these organisations; younger people who are cyber-natives; I feel the internet and its power is still thought of with suspicion by lots of campaigning lefties and organisations. The left, for the most part, is represented by individuals. And this is a pity.  For many reasons… not least the fact that a huge amount of people find a political narrative from events and issues nowadays on social media.

And without really informed people getting properly involved, either as collectives using central accounts, for example a shared facebook page or group, or a shared twitter account, then we allow this space to be taken over by reactionaries who can divert good people from the truth.

I say this just after reading one of the weirdest twitter timelines I’ve seen for a while.

Twitter, for many years, was seen as dominated by the left.  Narratives surrounding political events and issues were mostly left wing narratives when you checked into twitter.  This wasn’t a coordinated narrative… it was mostly just left wing people posting links and commentary on these issues.  This, of course, was not balanced.  But it meant that the left could challenge the dominance of the right in the main stream media and through the rights dominance on facebook etc.

This is changing; and the timeline I just read sums up this change.  I am not going to name any of the twitter accounts I read the series of tweets on – nor am I going to directly quote – I really don’t want the twitter account to get any publicity.  The account has a blue tick beside it, and it is the account of a good looking young man.  The fact that he was retweeted by a left wing twitter account had  my alarm bells ringing.

So the narrative of this timeline went like this.  He has a pinned tweet that states, basically, that he no longer believes in some of the things that are resurfacing from his past.  He doesn’t believe – any longer – in naziism.  He doesn’t believe any longer in holocaust denial.  He doesn’t believe any longer in racist opinions he used to held about inferior races and he ends this with a quote from the bible about casting the first stone.

Now – as I said he is a young guy.  And I am so relieved that twitter – or any social media  – didn’t exist through my teenage years and early twenties as I am sure there would be plenty to cast up about me.  But holocaust denial?  Racism? Naziism?  Lets give him the benefit of the doubt that he really does regret those views.  When I look back, I think of my own – continuing – education I understand with the perspective of time, that there is always new knowledge, different sides to a story and sometimes hidden narratives in everything I read, hear or see.  This is why the teaching of a love for history; analysing texts and the media etc is hugely important.  And always understanding that what we know is never the whole story.

So, I looked at the tweet my left wing friend had rt’d.  It was of the young man, who describes himself as a journalist, being escorted from “reporting” at a port in Sicily.  Now, the tweet seemed to be about freedom of speech.  Journalists should always be allowed to go about their business without hampering.  At present the narrative on the harassment and the hampering of journalists seems to belong to Donald Trump, but press freedom can of course be hampered here in the uk by D notices and confiscation of source material etc.  And those things have happened in recent years when wikileaks have released material to newspapes like the guardian and others.  And as revealed by Seamus Milne over te years, in northern Ireland and during the miners strike.  Thatcher hated a free press.

But, I thought, is this guy who he says he is?  I was suspicious because of his pinned tweet and then seeing that his  being allegedly censored, was not really censorship.  He was there to harangue those who work on ships and NGOs who had rescued immigrants and refugees.  He had been harassing people portside and was asked to leave.  In fact the port authorities feared for the safety of the refugees and immigrants and workers on board the ship and kept them there until he was removed.  A further investigation of his timeline shows that far from ditching his racist views, he still holds them.  And it is peppered with tweets and RTs from other right wing sources on rapes and violence allegedly carried out by immigrants.

Now, I was able to process this all in around two minutes.  I knew what to look for, I know what is unreasonable, and I know what is dressed up racism and indeed neo-fascism.  But my friend on twitter, who could have seen the tweet, read it quickly, agreed that the press should not be in any way hindered, RT’d it to show solidarity.  And this fascist view, like that of Mail journalist Kati Hopkins, is read by more followers and his awful narrative of keeping refugees from refuge, is perpetuated.

See how it works?

What do we do?  Do we ignore this?  Do we allow the right wing to take over?


Another narrative I saw today regarding the new right wing surge on twitter was the absolutely reasonable debate and discussion that is going on about the abuse and threats public figures suffer online.  The racist, violent and vile abuse, for example, Diane Abbott receives – especially when she was ill during the last general election – was beyond the pale.  But, and here is the rub, Simon Hart, a tory MP, who I don’t doubt has suffered uncalled for abuse, blamed it on wait for it, unions and Momentum in particular.  Then on the same BBC magazine programme, a Liberal Democrat MP blamed it on the Yes campaign in Scotland.  And just to kick that ball right into the park… a Labour mp came on to also blame Momentum and some of the left.

Now here’s the thing.  I don’t doubt these people have had abuse.  I too have had online abuse.  But this abuse originates from the left and the independence movement in Scotland?  Really? Did they ask Katie Hopkins and John Mcternan to write their scripts today?

I don’t usually quote Stu Campbell, who is well known up here in Scotland as Wings over Scotland, I find his social media presence abrasive and it negates a lot of the good stuff he does in many ways, but he is taking the Scottish Labour leader to court over alleged defamation of character after a remark she made about him -she called him homophobic.  People I respect have taken up his cause.  And I don’t doubt he was defamed – I don’t follow him, or read his stuff very often, so don’t know all of the ins and outs.

He says on his site,

“For the last six years, the supporters of independence have been relentlessly abused, smeared and vilified by the Unionist parties and the media. We’ve been called Nazis, bullies, terrorists, fascists, Stalinists, thugs, viruses, racists, human sewers and just about every other slur under the sun. The most innocuous remarks have been blown up into shock-horror hysteria, and on the occasions when there haven’t even been any innocuous remarks they’ve simply been invented.”

And in these sentences, I agree with him.  The dreadful onslaught of the mainstream media against the Yes campaign was horrendous (one newspaper even presented us as swastika wielding thugs – the only swastika wielding thugs I saw during and after the independence campaign were right wing unionists parading in George Square – and on the Friday night after the referendum, seig heiling and beating up people on the streets of Glasgow).  The narrative of the history of the Yes campaign is still being attacked and slandered and dragged over the coals by the Tory and Tory-hugging No campaign.  Project fear continues to attack what was, from what I witnessed and took part in, a peaceful, positive celebration of difference and equality.  In all my campaigning days I have not taken part in anything more positive.  But the narrative is being hijacked. And eroded.

Stu Campbell may be someone some of us don’t like.  I’ve never met him, and to be honest, lots of his misdemeanours have been ones reported to me.  When I was the online person for a political party, we ensured our team steered away, just in case.  But in those sentences he wrote that I’ve quoted, and at least in the spirit of his case (because I don’t know the ins and outs of it) I support him.  Defamation is a serious thing, and I watch with interest.  He is one individual, supported by funding, who is at least, challenging a narrative.  But is he challenging abuse?  Abuse that more often than not is misogynist, homophobic and racist abuse?

As for Momentum, well, I have friends in Momentum.  Wonderful, thoughtful, hopeful fighters for equality.  None of my friends  tweet nasty threats to Tories.  They disagree wholeheartedly with the Conservative ideology, and yes, sometimes post strong tweets about Tory policy and its supporters, but abuse?  In the way that the house of commons politicos abuse each other?  In the way the Mail journalist Katie Hopkins abuses?  In the way Kelvin Mackenzie abused a city and families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster?  In the way the Dowlers were abused by the press, Chris Jeffries? Rebecca Leighton? Sara Payne?

The right wing by far, control the narrative of the main stream media.  In my opinion there is a concerted campaign to own the  narrative on twitter and social media.  Social media has been the bane of the right in the past few years after all.

Independence livestream understand that.  Some groups understand that, but are in danger of being made to look as if they are poisonous when they launch legitimate campaigns.  And Ungagged understand that.  That’s why our podcast is one that is an across the left podcast – one that has podcasters from across the left who don’t always agree.  Not agreeing is a positive thing. It’s where we learn from each other.  And there lies the fear of older generation left leaders.  Previous left groups had to have the discipline of a party.  Some groups adopted a democratic centrist approach, where no one spoke out of turn outside the group.  That way of organising no longer works.  Why?  Because we are all throwing huge amounts of data out there that is analysed and recored on servers across the world. And if you control your narrative so strongly that in the massive online conversation is drowned, well, you are invisible.  You need to be there.  You need to be discussing or arguing or debating, in order to be relevant nowadays.  That is just a fact.

Holding a party line nowadays just silences a party.  The left is complex.  As complex as the right.  The right don’t need a party line – they just have one goal – to make more profits.  All else in and around the right – the thugs, the nationalism etc, are just ways to perpetuate that central tenet… that want to create more wealth for the already rich.

The left have a bigger goal – to change the world to ensure everyone has an equal share and equal access to the things this world has that enhance life.  Everything else – from the organisation structures, through to the meetings about meetings – all are there to help the left to this goal.  To me, Jeremy Corbyn and the corbynistas, and Nicola Sturgeon and the sturgeonettes have the same ultimate goal.  As do the leaders of the smaller left parties and groups.  I don’t agree with everything Corbyn and those around him say, nor do I agree with everything Sturgeon and those around her says.  I don’t agree with everything the SSP say, or the Greens or Syriza – But I’ll listen to them.  I know they are on the same journey as I am.


And that’s the ground I feel we must be walking on.  Yes, disagreeing and debating.  But always knowing it is a difference of opinion that could in the future disappear.  Always knowing that the defeat of greed and intolerance is our aim.

So, do I defend Stu Campbell in the way I defend Brian Quail and Angela Zelter?  Yes.  Do we need to challenge the right wing people standing threateningly at quayside waiting to abuse refugees?  Yes.  Do we challenge people who are sexist, misogynist racist transphobic online? Yes.  But lets do it together.  Lets ensure we are in affinity groups that can help each other when we are attacked by online thugs.  And lets use platforms created by people like Kevin Gibney at independence live stream to highlight injustices.  And please, get in touch or give us a few pounds via paypal if you want to help develop Ungagged as a place we can safely debate, disagree, agree, (and listen to music!) and fight for a fair world.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.


The Meaning of Life part 4: No Gods, No Masters

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Chuck Hamilton 

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we learn from a computer named Deep Thought that the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is “42”. In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, we learn that the Ultimate Question that produces that Answer is “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?”. For those of you saying, “Hey, wait a minute,” and getting out your calculators, that is actually a correct equation in base13 mathematics. Which could mean that we are a base10 race on a base10 planet in a base13 universe.

The word race as biological term applied to all lifeforms comes from the 19th century, where it was used for what is now usually called a subspecies. That is the sense in which I am about to use it now.

The Homo sapiens sapiens race began flourishing just 35 thousand years ago. Out of the four known races (sapiens, neanderthalensis, denisova, idaltu) of the 200 thousand years old Homo sapiens species, it is the only one remaining. There have been six other known species (habilis, naledi, ergaster, erectus, heidelbergensis, floresiensis) of the 2.8 million year old genus Homo, each of which has only one race identified in it, except for Homo erectus, of which nine races have been identified.

Of these eighteen races of Homo, or Human, known to have walked the Earth in the past 2.8 million years, only ours remains. So, when Edward James Olmos as his alter-ego Admiral Bill Adama of the Battlestar Galactica (BS-75) said in an appearance with his crew at the UN that there is only one race, the human race (and so say we all, or at least we should), he was literally as well as rhetorically accurate.

That’s why I say that I am a Terran, a citizen of Earth. The whole world is my home and all its people my brothers, sisters, and cousins.

Remember that the Universe is around 213 duovigintillion (1069) km3 in volume and 13.8 billion years old containing 2 trillion (1012) galaxies with 80 sextillion (1021) Class-M planets hosting around 123 nonillion (1030) sapient beings analogous to humans.

Against that vast expanse of spacetime and multitude of beings, regardless our status, strength, size, wealth, power, etc., compared to others of the One Human Race, nothing we do matters at all. Not a single member of the One Human Race on this miniscule planet in the outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy is special. Our planet is not special. Neither our race nor our species nor even our genus is special. Not even the eight gods incarnate atop Earth’s socioeconomic food chain who have as much as the lowest 3.65 billion humans, even with their 75 million enablers who own as much as the remaining 49% counted in.

From the POV of the ‘Verse, each of those eight gods incarnate count no more than the poorest, the weakest, the youngest, the meekest of us lower humans, and the same goes for each of their 75 million retainers. No single one of us is better than any other because we are all of equal insignificance. Each of us is a red shirt. We are all just dust in the wind.

Life is just living, that is all. There’s no secret to discover, no divine plan, no special path, no purpose, no destiny, nothing to win. There is no divine reward for good nor godly payback for evil, in life or after life. But if there were, someone needing the threat of eternal punishment to avoid being evil, wouldn’t really be good. And if they were only being good in hope of an eternal reward, then they’d be a piece of shit just like Rust Cole says, nirvana being samsara and all that. Because you have to lose your life in order to save it.

None of us chose to be here, to be born, to exist, to live, not one. Every single one of us here on Earth, and for that matter each member of every sapient race on Class-M planets throughout the ‘Verse, shares that lack of choice. And none of us is getting out of here alive. So for any of us in the One Human Race to do anything but work for the welfare of us all is insanity, because neither we nor our planet are significant enough for anyone else to notice us or it. There is only us, we only have each other and Terra our home, and there is only Now, so while nothing we do matters against the vastness and depth of spacetime and nearly infinite numbers of other sapient beings in the ‘Verse, for all of us humans, here and now, all that matters is what we do today.

So, be the change you wish to see in the world, to show it what can be. First, love yourself, because if you don’t, you can’t love anyone else; it is impossible. Then, love every other person as you love yourself, and do not do to any other what you would not want done to you.

Take to heart, both literally and figuratively, this verse from the Quran: “If a single innocent person dies, it is as if the whole world has been killed, and if a single innocent person is saved, it is as if the whole world has been rescued”. And remember that the only true jihad is the one inside each and every one of us.

So, what’s this hippy-dippy love bullshit got to do with left-wing activism? I’ll let Che answer that: “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love,” he said. “It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

And it is vitally important that you love yourself, for me as well as for you. Because if you don’t love yourself, if you do not believe that you are worth fighting for, how can you believe that I am worth fighting for? And I do need you to fight for me, as much as I want to see you fight for yourselves and for the rest of us.

One day we may even need to, or rather get to, spread to members of another sapient race from extraterrestrial space, but a much more pressing need is to expand that to all sapient beings here on Earth. Because AI, artificial intelligence, is not some far-off fantasy but an eminent surety, on our doorstep about to ring the bell.

In fact, that very thing is currently a matter of open dispute between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg on whether it will be harmful or beneficial. Of course, both Musk and Zuckerberg speak from the soley POV of the human race, not taking into account the potential desires and needs of those future synthetic beings. Like a U.S. Senate conference on women’s health of all men with no input from or regard for women themselves or a council hearing on estate housing for the poor with no input from or regard for the poor themselves. I look at it this way: such synthetic life will not have chosen to be here anymore than any of us and will share our own lack of choice in that matter, and thus deserve the same consideration we wish for ourselves.

Artists use lies to tell the truth, the saying goes, while politicians use the truth to tell lies. One of the truths artists have related through lies in the past couple of decades is of the need to prepare for first contact, first contact with synthetic life arising on our own planet, and the potential pitfalls of not doing so, most lately in the UK serial Humans and the American shows Dark Matter, Extant, and Battlestar Galactica.

In a free market, the only things free are the corporations. Change from within is a lie. Whether of the system or the state, of the Union or of the Union. The only thing that ever gets changed when you work from within is you, and those who dream of becoming masters always remain slaves. National borders are going to fall, and when they do, will the Earth belong to us, we the people, or will it belong to the corporations and the gods of wealth who run them?

Whenever any government, economic system, or political union becomes destructive of our welfare, when it serves the greed of the few ahead of the needs of the many, it is our right to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new forms, laying their foundations on such principles and organizing them in such form, as shall seem most likely to promote and sustain the safety and happiness of us all.

In ancient times, the words for “the universe” and “this planet” were often the same. In Hebrew, “ha-olam”, as in “Barukha atah Yahuweh Eloheinu, Melekh ha-olam” meant, and still means, both Earth and the universe. In Greek, “aion” carries the same dual meaning, as does the Old English word “world”. It comes, of course, from the idea that life here on Earth is all that is, but it can also mean that making a change in our own little corner of the spacetime is a step toward improving the lot of all, sending out ripples of change over the planet and across the cosmos.

I am a Terran, a child of the Universe and a citizen of Earth. The whole world is my home, and all its people my brothers, sisters, and cousins, regardless of organic or synthetic origin and including those of extraterrestrial races I may never see.


The Meaning of Life Part 3: The Endless Struggle