Aside from the neverending standoff over legal aid rates, it is not often that the Law Society of Scotland chooses to be sharply critical of the Government, at Scottish or UK level. As an apolitical organisation, it can be difficult to take a strongly critical line without abandoning that stance.
It makes it the more notable, therefore, that in a response to a House of Commons Select Committee inquiry, a Society committee has weighed in trenchantly against the sanctions system currently applied against welfare benefit claimants who are deemed to have failed to comply with DWP requirements.
Consider these comments, from the Administrative Justice Subcommittee. It may be only the widespread provision of food banks that prevents Government policy breaching human rights in general – and breaches may well have occurred in individual cases. The “penal effects” of sanctions have been exacerbated by the removal of an immediate right of appeal to an independent tribunal, due to the mandatory reconsideration process. There is no means of independently monitoring the quality of DWP decision-making, which evidence suggests “should be a matter of considerable concern”. The current regime, taken with other changes, has “fostered a hostile environment... and the emergence of a caustic relationship between DWP and its customers,” whereas the benefits system “ought more properly to be more caring and supportive”. Overall, the operation of the current regime “is widely regarded as grossly unfair and brings the benefits system into disrepute”. These are only a selection.
Given some of the personal accounts of those facing severe hardship after having been sanctioned due to circumstances beyond their control, it does seem somewhat fanciful for ministers or their supporters to claim that the regime is proportionate, fair or just – and the subcommittee also believes it does not even meet the policy objective of assisting claimants into work.
In those circumstances, a body dedicated to access to justice and the rule of law has every right, and even the duty, to speak out as part of its duty to stand up for the public interest.
The prospect has to be faced that in the present political climate, the Society may be faced with making more interventions such as this. What has been termed post-truth or post-factual politics brings its own reality, and that is the increasing reliance on questionable assertions that yet carry a powerful appeal to significant sections of the public. To stand up for the values mentioned above in the face of such political winds may not feel comfortable, but may be no less necessary.