The SLF had tabled an amendment to the welfare motion, “Mending the Safety Net”, relating to sanctions for benefit claimants that I am very pleased to say was passed  with a significant majority of members during debate in the conference hall on Monday 19th September.

Our amendment called for scrapping the current system of sanctions completely and replacing it with an incentivised system instead.  The motion had put forward the idea of retaining some elements of the sanctions system and introducing some incentivised elements as well.  The reason given for this in the debate was evidence that had been received from some consultees of the policy working group that the sanctions system was not wholly bad.

It made me think about the role of evidence in policy formation.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe in evidence-based policy.  But if policy and party direction is governed solely by evidence then there is no need for liberalism as a philosophy and an underpinning of a political system, because you will always follow the balance of evidence.  

After all, we are politicians, not scientists.  There is a difference.

It strikes me that this is where the working group had got it wrong.  As Liberals, we believe there is a better way of dealing with benefit claimants then penalising them in a system that is arbitrary at best and purely punitive at worst.  In our fundamental belief that we should be setting people free and designing systems that enable the individual to flourish and reach their potential, arguably there is no room for a sanctions system.  It penalises you for being poor and being out of a job—for being unlucky.  It assumes the Conservative-pedalled rhetoric, so rife in our society, that there are workers and shirkers and there exists the undeserving and deserving poor.

Yes, there almost certainly people trying to take advantage of the system, but surely a more effective, and more Liberal way of dealing with them is to incentivise good behaviour and to spend scarce resources on such a system, rather than to spend money on a system which would—for such people—encourage an even dimmer view of the state and a greater sense of alienation from it and society in general.  Arguably, sanctions for many simply reinforce bad behaviour.

There is still a lot of work for us as Liberals to do in dispelling Conservative dogma and reframing the debate of how we modernize our political systems and make them relevant for 21st century problems.  This is a challenge that we fully embrace at the Social Liberal Forum.  So our success in making scrapping the sanctions system party policy, is a good way to start.  

But there is a long way to go.

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