Michael Adler, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment? Benefit sanctions in the UK

Michael Adler, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment? Benefit sanctions in the UK, Palgrave Macmillan, xii + 171 pp, 3 319 90355 2, hbk, £44.99

The title of this timely book comes from Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A similar phrase, ‘inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’, appears in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which in 1998 was incorporated into UK law. As Adler points out in his first introductory chapter, the right granted by article 3 of the ECHR is ‘absolute’, and so cannot be qualified by any other right; it refers to ‘treatment’ as well as to ‘punishment’; and the ‘or’ between ‘inhuman’ and ‘degrading’ implies a low threshold. The European Court of Human Rights has not yet been asked whether the UK’s benefit sanctions constitute ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’. This book proves that they are.

Chapter 2 sets out from Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake (with a comma), asks why benefit sanctions are not more of a public concern than they are, and suggests that the reason for that is public disapproval of benefits claimants. The following two chapters relate a history of the increasing scope and severity of sanctions.

Chapter 5 is of particular relevance to the Citizen’s Basic Income debate because it offers a wide-ranging discussion of rights, responsibilities, and conditionalities. Adler provides a list of three types of conditionality: category conditionality, circumstance conditionality, and conduct conditionality – and finds that the third now takes centre stage. He then employs T.H. Marshall’s categorisation of rights as civil, political, and social, and finds civil rights such as due process being denied to benefits claimants. He also finds that the balance between rights and responsibilities has shifted too far in the direction of responsibilities. A Citizen’s Basic Income would, of course, behave very differently from sanctions-infested means-tested benefits, because a Citizen’s Basic Income would function as a civil, political, and social right, and it would shift the balance towards rights functioning as an invitation to responsibility.

In chapter 6 Adler finds that sanctions are generally ineffective, that they cause a considerable amount of suffering, and that hardship payments are inadequate; and then in chapter 7 the book turns in a more clearly legal direction, as the series title, ‘Palgrave socio-legal studies’, suggests that it will. Adler begins with a distinction between substantive justice and procedural justice – that is, the justice of the process through which substantive justice is administered; he discusses administrative justice – that is, justice in decision-making; and he lists some recent changes in administrative methods, and their consequences for administrative justice – for instance, claimants who wish to challenge a sanction now have to submit to a bureaucratic ‘mandatory reconsideration’ process before an appeal to a tribunal can be made. This is just one example of a general shift from a juridical model of administrative justice to a bureaucratic model. Chapter 8 concludes that

violations of economic and social rights – including the right to social security – are widespread and are not currently subject to any effective remedies in the UK … it would appear that justice was not the primary consideration for those who were responsible for the design or implementation of benefit sanctions. (p. 112)

Chapter 9 finds that benefit sanctions compare badly with court fines – ‘they are disproportionate to the seriousness of the offence and they cannot be adjusted to take account of claimants’ changing circumstances’ (p. 127); chapter 10 concludes that benefit sanctions do not comply with a number of principles of the rule of law; and chapter 11 makes suggestions as to how the sanctions regime could be made more just, and discusses arguments for and against a Citizen’s Basic Income. In the final chapter Adler concludes that benefit sanctions are more cruel, inhuman and degrading than they need to be, and that ‘in terms of justice, the UK benefit sanctions regime undoubtedly fails the test’ (p. 151).

This well-evidenced, well-argued, and comprehensive book offers precisely the kind of evaluation of benefit sanctions that was required. Ministers, shadow ministers, members of parliament, civil servants, and anyone interested in the UK’s benefits system, should read it.