The Irish Times reported recently that over 4,000 people on job seekers benefit had a penalty cut imposed from January up to July this year. The culture of using penalties or sanctions in benefit contexts needs to be debated a lot more. They have become a normalised feature of the UK benefit system (blogpost I wrote on this here and lengthy and somewhat eclectic reading list here; see David Webster for detailed analyses of how sanctions evolved from 2010 onwards). There is a substantial body of evidence documenting substantially elevated levels of psychological distress and mental health problems among people who are long-term unemployed. There is also substantial controlled correlational evidence that sanctions at the levels imposed in the UK are associated with a range of negative outcomes (including here, here) though the causal impact is one that still is for debate.
Furthermore, there have been dramatic problems with implementing an albeit far more extensive system of sanctions in the UK (e.g see the Oakley report which points out what look like very large flaws in the system of administering sanctions). One of the most lucid accounts of this is given by Professor Michael Adler here. Adler examines UK benefit sanctions from the perspective of eight legal principles below, and argues that they fail most of these criteria and should either be remedied or better yet replaced with non-punitive methods.
The law must be accessible and, so far as possible, intelligible, clear and predictable.
Questions of legal right and liability should ordinarily be resolved by application of the law and not of discretion.
The laws of the land should apply equally to all, save to the extent that objective differences justify differentiation.
Ministers and public officials at all levels must exercise the powers conferred on them in good faith, fairly for the purpose for which the powers were conferred, without exceeding the limits of such powers and not unreasonably.
The law must offer adequate protection of fundamental human rights.
Means must be provided for resolving, without prohibitive cost or inordinate delay, bona fide civil disputes which the parties themselves are unable to resolve.
Adjudicative procedures provided by the state should be fair.
The rule of law requires compliance by the state with its obligations in international law as in national law.
The extent to which the type of things being envisioned under Job Path are susceptible to these criticisms is something that should be discussed more. It is also worth thinking about the direction of this policy in Ireland and whether it represents a move toward the more widespread and normalised use of these methods across a wide range of policy areas and whether it will be ramped up to a greater degree in the employment area itself. At the very least, it would be good if the responsible politicians were asked to articulate the reasoning behind and direction of these policies, and the extent to which they are legal and ethical. There are some empirical papers pointing to a potential role for such sanctions in motivating employment uptake in the short-run (key paper here) but it is reasonable to think that this relationship will depend on the state of the economy, the degree of skills mismatch, and other features of the participant pool and quality of implementation. It is also not an argument for ignoring legal and ethical aspects of roll-out.