Food Banks

Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 22nd June 2015.

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Photo of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Trade and Investment) 2:30 pm, 22nd June 2015

If he will make an assessment of the effects of the benefits sanctions and conditionality regime on use of food banks.

Photo of Chris Law Chris Law Scottish National Party, Dundee West

If he will make an assessment of the effects of the benefits sanctions and conditionality regime on use of food banks.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

We have looked at the issue extensively, and we agree with the conclusion reached by the all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger that the reasons for food bank use are complex and overlapping. There is no robust evidence that directly links sanctions and food bank use.

Photo of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Trade and Investment)

While all Members of this House will commend the work carried out by charities such as the Gate food bank in Alloa in my constituency, it is absolutely clear from all independent evidence that the sanctions regime is having a heartbreaking effect on people such as David Duncan from Fife, who, as reported in this morning's Daily Record, was sanctioned after missing a jobcentre appointment, despite being in hospital recovering after major surgery following a serious heart attack. Will the Minister commit to an immediate review of the conditionality and sanctions regime to put a stop to this relentless and heartless assault on vulnerable people in this country?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

Food banks play an important role in local welfare provision. I do not accept anything that the hon. Lady has said. In Scotland, the number of jobseeker’s allowance sanctions has decreased from 84,000 in 2013 to 55,000—

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

Well, we are devolving welfare, and we can have this debate next week on the Floor of the House. It is also important to emphasise that the purpose of sanctions is to encourage claimants to comply with reasonable requirements to help them develop and move into the world of work. That is vital.

Photo of Chris Law Chris Law Scottish National Party, Dundee West

I thank the Minister for her response, but in the year following the introduction of benefits sanctions, approximately 2,500 people were sanctioned in my city of Dundee, leading to a 51% increase in referrals to Dundee’s Trussell Trust food bank, including of many parents with young children. The number is rising year on year, despite what she just said about falling figures. Does she not accept that there is an intrinsic link between the two, and that it is an absolute disgrace to have rising food poverty in the 21st century?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

Sanctions were in place for a significant amount of time before this Government and the previous Government. Let me reiterate the point, made in the recent Oakley review of benefits sanctions, that sanctions are a

“key element of the mutual obligation that underpins both the effectiveness and fairness of the social security system.”

For the benefit of the hon. Gentleman, let me say that we have accepted all the recommendations made by Oakley. This brings us back to the fact that sanctions play an important role in encouraging and supporting people to go back to work.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

Does the Minister agree that those who pay for these benefits through their taxes expect an effective mechanism to be in place, such as sanctions, to ensure that the rules are complied with?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend is right, because at the end of the day we are speaking about hard-working taxpayers who support and contribute to the welfare system. Of course, we have a duty to support those who are seeking work and who are in receipt of benefits, but at the same time, hard-working taxpayers want to ensure that their taxes are spent fairly.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

All I know is that those at Mission Trinity, an excellent independent non-political food bank in Goole, tell me that benefits sanctions are driving people to use it. I support the benefit sanctions system, but one issue that seems to be a problem is the consistency with which sanctions are applied. May we have a review of this and ensure that the recipients of the sanctions properly understand the consequences?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I commend my hon. Friend’s local food bank, and him, on the work done in his constituency. If he has specific examples that he would like to draw to my attention, I will happily discuss them with him.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

May I welcome the Minister to her new role? Before the election, we had a most unsatisfactory debate on benefits sanctions with her predecessor. I have to say, Mr Speaker, that in a disappointing election for Labour, the result in Wirral West was one bright spot.

One person in four is now being sanctioned, and sanctions are cited as one of the top reasons for people to visit food banks. Will the Minister take steps to make sure that DWP staff apply the good reasons code correctly and end these vicious and arbitrary sanctions?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome, although I must say I thought her comments about my predecessor were ungracious.

Regarding sanctions, I assure the House that for those in genuine need, hardship payments are on offer, as is support for those who have been sanctioned. Support is there for those who can demonstrate that they require financial assistance to buy essential items. It is absolutely right that in our jobcentres and in the interactions with claimants, we give them the right sort of support, guidance and advice, and I assure the hon. Lady that that does take place.