Benefit Claimants Sanctions (Required Assessment) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd December 2016.

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Second Reading

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South 9:34 am, 2nd December 2016

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Before I start to explain the Bill, I want to thank the people and organisations that have been incredibly helpful and supportive: the Child Poverty Action Group; the Scottish Association for Mental Health; Gingerbread; Citizens Advice Scotland; PCS; the House of Commons Library staff, who have done a power of work on this; and all the researchers in the SNP team. I also thank my colleagues for coming out to support me today. I give a particularly big thank you to Tanya, one of the researchers. She is an absolute belter of a person, and I really appreciate everything she has done.

To understand the logic behind the Bill, we need to appreciate that people feel anxious. They are terrified of the process that they will have to endure if they lose their job. We can debate whether that fear and anxiety is legitimate, but the reality is that people are scared.

We need to examine the current process that people have to endure. If a claimant is deemed to have failed to meet a condition of jobseeker’s allowance—failing to attend an interview, being unavailable for work or leaving a job voluntarily—they are subject to benefit sanctions, meaning that their benefits are stopped for period.

The final decision on whether to sanction is made not by Jobcentre Plus work coaches or Work programme providers, but by Department for Work and Pensions decision makers. If a work coach or adviser believes that the claimant has not fulfilled their requirement, a “doubt” can be raised and referred to a decision maker in a sanction referral. That mysterious decision maker is unknown to the claimant and uncontactable. Normally, if we have an issue or are dissatisfied, we phone a number or speak to a manager, but a claimant referred for a sanction has no number to phone the decision maker to explain why they failed to meet a requirement. There is no means of finding out who this person is who ultimately has their livelihood in their hands, which only adds to the unhealthy, insecure atmosphere that drives so much anxiety and pessimism. The decision maker should attempt to obtain evidence from the claimant, as well as from the work coach, and make a decision on whether to apply a sanction based on a “balance of probabilities”—whatever that means.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and getting a large number of people here on a Friday morning. I have had a careful look at her Bill. Is she advocating getting rid of conditions or sanctions entirely? That is the tone of her speech, which is in contrast to the detail of her Bill.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman my copy of the Bill, because he will see that that is not what I am trying to do. It is quite hard to pass a private Member’s Bill, so while my colleagues and I would want to get rid of the sanctions regime altogether because we disagree with it, I am trying to use this Bill to make a small, genuine change that the Government can hopefully get on board with. I am not trying to be controversial.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

I join my hon. Friend Michael Tomlinson in congratulating the hon. Lady on securing an admirable turnout among her colleagues. She wrote in The National on 16 July:

“If we must have a sanctions regime”.

To be absolutely clear, is the hon. Lady’s position that she would prefer not to have a sanctions regime at all?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I cannot emphasise enough that if I had the power I would get rid of sanctions altogether, but I am not trying to do that right now. The Bill tries to amend sanctions.

There are two major problems in the current system, the first of which are the guidelines. Under the current regime, a sanction may be imposed if a claimant has good reason. The JSA legislation was amended to provide that “good reason” was to be set out in guidance rather than in the regulations themselves. That is the problem—it is only guidance. The Government argued that not setting out particular circumstances or situations in legislation allows the decision maker

“to take into account all reasons considered relevant when determining good reason.”

The decision maker’s guide on the guidelines explains:

“Good reason is not defined in legislation.”

It says:

“DMs should take into account all the relevant information about the claimant’s circumstances” and their reasons for actions.

“Claimants will be given the opportunity…to explain why they have not complied with requirements and it will remain the responsibility of the claimant to show good reason for any failure and to provide information and evidence as appropriate to explain why they have not complied.”

That sounds fair enough when we just read it, but how does a person provide hard concrete evidence that their bus was 10 minutes’ late, or that their train was delayed?

Let me set out where the whole idea behind this Bill came from. I am a member of the Work and Pensions Committee. We were looking into jobcentres, and we paid a visit to South Thanet, which is what I would describe as a leafy, prosperous, happy Conservative suburb with not many real hard issues. When we went to the jobcentre, I was desperate to pick holes in the sanctions regime—desperate to sit there and say, “It’s horrible, it doesn’t work, it’s horrendous and people endure horrible things.” I am glad to say that I could not do that. Within the jobcentre, the sanctions regime was working as best as it possibly could. There were hardly any sanctions, because time after time the staff were patient and understanding. They worked incredibly hard to make sure that nobody ended up in that position.

I appreciate the fact that this Conservative constituency, geographically, economically and socially, does not have anywhere near the same pressure and problems as many other constituencies throughout the UK, including mine. In my opinion, that jobcentre was just lucky—lucky because of the personalities and the attributes of its staff. That was why the sanctions were not as harsh as they were in constituencies such as my own.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Conservative, Surrey Heath

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the opportunity to introduce the Bill, but I must correct her: South Thanet is not a leafy suburb. It is one of the most deprived parts of south-east England, and the population there—[Interruption.] Members of the Scottish National party should not be selective in their championing of those suffering poverty. The truth is that South Thanet, which I shall visit later today, is a disadvantaged area that over the past 20 or 30 years has suffered as a result of the changes in the economic climate in this country, and it is mischaracterised by the hon. Lady.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I note the right hon. Gentleman’s point of view. I invite him to come up and see Ferguslie Park, where he will see what real deprivation looks like.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (International Affairs and Europe)

When I was listening to the intervention of the right hon. Gentleman from Surrey Heath—that other incredibly deprived area of the south of England—I was struck by the Foreign Secretary’s difficulty with language this morning, when he was trying to say:

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!”

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

In my constituency, I have had people sanctioned because they were ill, because they had children who needed to be looked after and all sorts. Each of us has heard examples of how people have been sanctioned for a shocking amount of ridiculous reasons. There are some examples of people who have been sanctioned for missing an appointment at the jobcentre because they were at a job interview. It is ludicrous.

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer Conservative, South East Cambridgeshire

I congratulate the hon. Lady not only on getting the debate but on the tone of her speech. If it is true that the system works in some places, is that not a reason to retain it and ensure that it works everywhere rather than to change it?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I am not saying that the systems works perfectly everywhere. As I have said, I disagree with the system as it stands just now. However, if I am to be realistic and try to make some small changes, South Thanet is a place where sanctions are not as harsh as they are all over the rest of the UK—they are not as harsh as they are in different constituencies.

I want to go on to explain why this Bill should go through, and I have examples of jobcentres that are not doing not too badly with the current system. There is a dramatic variation throughout the UK as to how many sanctions are applied and why they are applied. The fact that sanctions are being applied inconsistently across the board is backed up by this week’s National Audit Office report, which found that some Work programme providers make more than twice as many sanction referrals as others dealing with similar groups in the same area. The NAO report concludes that

“management focus and local staff discretion are likely to have had a substantial influence on sanction rates.”

When I secured this private Member’s Bill, I opened up a public consultation whereby individuals could answer a series of 10 questions, telling me their thoughts on the current regime and my proposed changes. Out of those responses, it was very clear that people felt that there was a Government-created point of view driven by much of the mainstream media that anyone claiming benefits is a scrounger and a chancer. They are made to feel as though they are lazy, work shy and someone who is leeching off the state and taxpayers’ money.

I will do something quite unorthodox here and quote from what probably constitutes as a national treasure, Kevin Bridges. He rightly said that if politicians really think that people are choosing to be vilified by those with power all so that they can sit in their boxers watching “Storage Wars” on a Tuesday afternoon eating Quavers, then they are really not living in the real world. I know that anyone who is in touch with reality knows that that image could not be further from the truth. One respondent worded it better than I ever could when they said that there is a belief that claimants are scroungers and liars. They said that where there is a good Jobcentre Plus management, that attitude is less and probably also accounts for the variations in the application of sanctions.

It is worth noting and putting it on the record that I am not slagging off or criticising jobcentre staff. I am criticising the lack of direction and clarity that they have to operate under and the fact that they have to endure an ever-increasing workload with increasing responsibility without clear instructions.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector)

Does my hon. Friend not agree that the Government are taking their eye off the ball with regard to the broad scope of this matter? We are seeing substantial numbers of staff leaving the DWP as result of the introduction of universal credit. Nights out are being held in Glasgow on a weekly basis by those leaving centres in Glasgow, which serve the whole of the United Kingdom. It is a disgrace, because we are losing the knowledge of the staff from the DWP, which has a gross impact on those dealing with sanctions.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We are all aware of people who have felt horrible when they were working in jobcentres—they felt under pressure in having to treat people as though they do not deserve attention. He is quite correct to say that the DWP and these jobcentres are under increasing pressure, and it is putting an unhealthy level of anxiety on to the staff, never mind the people who are claiming the benefits.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Civil Liberties)

Does my hon. Friend agree that some of the staff who are under all that pressure will now face sanctions themselves and will have to impose sanctions on their colleagues? That is nothing short of disgraceful, and will only serve to make them feel even worse about themselves and even worse about the jobs that they do.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I could not agree more.

A respondent to the public consultation stated that staff are human, and that

“they can make mistakes, like or dislike clients and their individual views can affect how they deal with the individuals on their caseload. If they don’t like or trust someone, they are much more likely to sanction than if they like or have sympathy for the individual.”

Again, I must emphasise that this is not a criticism of jobcentre staff, who do a tremendous job given the system with which they have to work. It is recognition that we are all human, and that we all have our bad days and our grumpy days, but unless there are clearcut rules and regulations of conduct in place, that bad day could translate into ruining someone else’s day—and that simply cannot happen when they have someone else’s livelihood and survival in their hands. This creates a postcode lottery of sorts, and a situation whereby the way in which a person is treated is completely dependent on where their assigned jobcentre happens to be, who they get as a work coach and what mood that coach happens to be in.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Defence)

I thank my hon. Friend for selecting this vital topic for debate. Does she agree that the National Audit Office’s report makes it clear that the rise and fall in referrals from 2010 to 2016 cannot simply be explained away by claimant behaviour? The Government would have us think that that is the case, so can she confirm that it absolutely is not?

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

I congratulate the hon. Lady on the thoughtful speech she is making, albeit that I disagree with some aspects of it, which I will come to when I have a chance to speak. She said that a decision might be affected by the mood of somebody working in the jobcentre or by whether they happen to like the individual. Yet, a little earlier, when she talked about how the process works, she made the point that the decision maker is separate from the individual’s normal work coach, which avoids that personal dynamic, so what she says does not make sense.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I think the hon. Lady is confusing two separate issues. What I am saying is that, when we speak of referrals, there is a huge disparity between different jobcentres in different parts of the UK because the guidelines can be interpreted differently by different people. Therefore, instead of having these vague and unclear guidelines, which can be interpreted by different people in different ways, my Bill seeks to create a formal code of conduct, whereby it is clear who should be exempt from sanctions and for what reasons.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans)

I very much appreciate my hon. Friend’s support for staff who work in jobcentres. Many years ago, I worked in a jobcentre, and these jobs are very challenging. It is clear that there is not sufficient guidance or an appropriate framework in place to allow people to make the system work as it should.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I completely agree.

The Bill is made up of 11 clauses, and it makes changes to the current legislation on the administration of certain social security benefits. It prevents a claimant in receipt of certain social security benefits from having their benefits reduced or restricted unless two requirements have been met.

I will focus on the first requirement. We want to introduce a formal code of conduct and a list of sorts, whereby an individual’s personal circumstances must be taken into account before any sanction can be applied. The Bill would also require that, before drawing up and reviewing a claimant commitment, which many individuals I have come across simply sign in the same fashion as most of us say we have read the 300-page terms and conditions when we buy a phone, download something or update our phone, the person has to be given advice—not guidance—on their rights and entitlements, and that advice has to be in writing.

Secondly, the Bill requires claimant commitments to include details of the person’s caring responsibilities, mental health, physical wellbeing and housing situation, before any sanction can be applied.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

I fear that the hon. Lady has just contradicted her own point. She says that the claimant will not read the claimant commitment, but she is making it a requirement that they have written guidance. What makes her think they will read the written guidance if they cannot be bothered to read the commitment?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I did not explain myself clearly enough. What I am saying is that formal written advice, not guidance, has to be given to people so that they can fully understand what a claimant commitment means. I have come across lots of people—not just in my own constituency office—who have signed a bit of paper that has been shoved in their face, thinking it means they will get their benefits, but without fully appreciating or having been told exactly what it means. Part of the reason they are sometimes not told exactly what it means is the lack of clear and concise instructions for jobcentre staff. That is what I am trying to formalise in the Bill.

Photo of Eilidh Whiteford Eilidh Whiteford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Social Justice and Welfare)

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that consistent patterns show that some groups find it particularly difficult to comply with claimant forms? Single parents are particularly badly affected, as are people with mental health problems. They have consistently been shown to be sanctioned disproportionately.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

Yes, that is a point I am about to touch on.

Let me give a few examples of the kinds of responsibilities that should be taken into account. A report from Gingerbread found evidence that single parents are being inappropriately referred for a sanction in the first instance, or wrongly sanctioned, as a result of the decision-making process. Responding to the National Audit Office report on sanctions, a Gingerbread research officer said:

“Our own research has found that single parents are more likely to be unfairly referred for sanction than other JSA claimants;
job centre advisers are getting it wrong far too often. We hear from single parents who are threatened with sanctions if they don’t take jobs that are unsuitable and unsustainable. We’re particularly concerned that new rules starting in April will mean even more single parents with young children are at risk.

Despite the mounting evidence that sanctions are ineffective, costly for the government and hugely damaging for those who are sanctioned, the government has done very little to fix this broken system.”

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I am going to make a wee bit of progress first.

A single mother or a carer, for instance, might have an appointment, but their child or dependant might be sick, or they might be called to school to collect their child. The Bill would recognise their caring commitment to that child, and it would mean that they should not and could not be sanctioned. Similarly, if a mother has an appointment at half-past 8 in the morning and cannot attend, there should be a formal code of conduct so that jobcentre staff can see that, between the hours of seven and nine, she is getting the wee uns to school, so, of course, she cannot go for a job interview.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins Conservative, Louth and Horncastle

I congratulate the hon. Lady on calling this debate. She has just described the system as broken. Could she please help me, then, with the fact that, on average in each month last year, more than 96% of JSA claimants and more than 99% of ESA claimants were not sanctioned? In other words, the vast majority of JSA and ESA claimants understand the system and are complying with it. It is not broken, as she asserts.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I would say that the hon. Lady has not got her facts correct—

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

Hold on a second. If the hon. Lady looks back, she will see in the NAO report out this week that a quarter of all people who receive JSA have been sanctioned at some point. That is what the facts are.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Another interesting statistic from the NAO report was that over a quarter of those who were sanctioned actually had their sanctions lifted on appeal. Does that not say all we really need to know about how sanctions are injudiciously used?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

The hon. Lady has just made a brilliant point. We see that all these sanctions can be overturned later. That has cost the Government more money in administration, and it has caused more heartache, anxiety and pressure for individuals who have committed no crime and who should not have been sanctioned in the first place.

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

It is also worthy of note that, in relation to the recent Concentrix scandal, 90% of the cases have been overturned in the past few months on appeal, and the money has been given back to the claimants. That just speaks to the fact that the system is in disarray, and I would hope that Members on both sides of the House will listen to the point my hon. Friend is making and to the up-to-date statistics that are available, including about the 90%.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point; it is evident throughout different parts of the Government just now that the administration has become problematic, but today I want to focus on the fact that tens of thousands of single parents face the risk of being wrongly sanctioned by the jobcentre. Two in five sanction referrals and decisions against single parents are actually overturned, which shows just how faulty and flawed the system is. Surely we could make this small, uncontroversial change, prevent a lot of hassle to begin with and, hopefully, save some money.

Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities, Women and Children)

Earlier in the week, I spoke in a debate on employment and support allowance and personal independence payments. More than 65% of decisions are overturned on appeal, which means that your Government’s system is broken. Over 80% of the claims affect women who are predominantly single parents. Your system—the Government’s system—is broken.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Civil Liberties)

Will my hon. Friend join me in reminding everybody that, despite the percentage of cases that are overturned at mandatory reconsideration, the vast majority of people do not ask for a mandatory reconsideration, because nobody tells them that they can do that and they do not know how to do so? We are talking only about the percentages of people who actually ask for a reconsideration.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

My hon. Friend makes a brilliant point. It is covered by the second part of the Bill, which I will touch on later.

It is clear that DWP decision makers are not making any genuine assessment but are simply rubber-stamping referrals, because the proportion of people being sanctioned for not actively seeking work has risen to 98%. No real consideration is being given to the individual’s circumstances and life.

On health, “Living at the Sharp End”, a recent Citizens Advice Scotland research report on the causes and impacts of gaps in income for Scottish citizens advice bureau clients, found that benefit sanctions were one of the top five causes of a period of no income. One of the most striking findings from an analysis of the report’s 47 case studies is the impact that gaps in income have on the mental and physical health of clients in the sample. Of those case studies, almost a third mentioned worsening mental health issues as a result of a gap in income, and two of them explicitly mentioned suicidal thoughts.

I ask Members to think of the process that people already have to endure. As I said at the beginning, they are already terrified before they go into the jobcentre, never mind when they end up as part of the sanctions process. [Interruption.] If an individual suffers from depression, anxiety or any other mental health condition, the system as it stands completely neglects what life is like for them when they are having a bad day or are struggling. In response to a Scottish Government consultation in October 2015, the Scottish Association for Mental Health said:

“The number of sanctions applied in Scotland doubled in the last year, and individuals with mental health problems are disproportionately affected.”

Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Health)

The Health Committee is conducting an inquiry into suicide and the causes of suicide. Since the crash of 2008 and the increase in the number of unemployed people, we have seen a sharp rise in the number of suicides, particularly among middle-aged men, who suffer at rate of 3:1. The idea that the financial changes that this country has seen over the past seven or eight years have had no impact is, frankly, wrong. How people are treated really matters, not just for the quality of their life, but for whether they survive.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Scottish National Party, Glenrothes

I do not know whether my hon. Friend heard the comment that we think we heard from a Conservative Member—I have no doubt that it will be corrected if we misheard it—but I was convinced that they suggested that a major cause of stress for claimants is that, “They are terrified they might get a job.” [Hon. Members: “Shameful.”] Does my hon. Friend agree that anyone with that kind of attitude is not in any position to judge those who are actively trying to find employment?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

My hon. Friend is exactly right. If that comment was made, I suggest that the person who said it gets to their feet and puts it on the record. I suggest that, if someone has that point of view and thinks it is acceptable to speak in that way about our most vulnerable people when it is the Government’s job to look after them, they are not fit for government.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

The point is that the best way to help people is for them to find work. The fact of the matter is that there are more people in work in this country than ever before, so people have no reason to be terrified about going into a jobcentre. They ought to be looking forward to it, because the likelihood is that, under this Government, they will find a job.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

For the purpose of Hansard, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to rise to his feet and confirm or deny whether he made that statement? His silence is a shame.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being very generous. I am sure that her constituents, like mine, do not want to see people who are able to work simply staying at home and taking whatever money they can, but that is not what the Bill is about. It is not about stopping sanctions for people like that; it is about doing what our constituents want and looking at the issue more humanely. They, like us, see this Government acting in a way that is bringing real stress and distress to families unnecessarily.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

The hon. Lady is spot on and I am glad that she gets it.

As part of our public consultation, Sean in Glasgow confirmed the need for exceptions for those with mental ill health. He said:

“I live in Glasgow and suffer from a few mental and physical health conditions which affect my ability to work, and have affected my Jobcentre claims in the past (a couple of times, I’ve been too depressed to go to a meeting and my claims have been cancelled—my depression and isolation at those times left me sitting around, hungry and alone, with no money, and too depressed to deal with it), so I feel I’m qualified to talk about this topic and, indeed, recently contacted the Minister for Mental Health to discuss possible ways in which we can ameliorate the mental health burden on the NHS and increase levels of care for sufferers at the same time.”

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland Office)

Last week I tabled a written question asking the DWP for an estimate of the number of people in Scotland subject to a benefit sanction who have had to use food banks. The answer I received was:

“The Department does not hold this information.”

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government cannot possibly continue to deny the link between sanctions and food bank usage if they are not collecting that vital information?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. As I have said multiple times in this Chamber and outside it, one of the things that saddens and depresses me most about the society we live in just now is the fact that use of the phrase “food banks” has become normal. Although we should support our food banks, they are now considered to be a legitimate add-on to the state and people are told that they should just go to them.

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Flooding and Coastal Communities)

I thank the hon. Lady for making that important point. Tomorrow I will support Tesco in a neighbourhood food collection. It is fantastic that Tesco is doing that, but is it not shocking that in today’s society we are having a public collection of food for people?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

The idea that individuals and citizens in our society are reliant solely on the charity of others to eat and to feed their children shows that we are sliding backwards down a hill to Victorian times.

Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Health)

We also have to acknowledge the increase in malnutrition in this country, particularly micro-malnutrition, which means a lack of vitamins and minerals. People who are living precariously with low-paid jobs tend to have poor nourishment, and if they are reliant on food banks they have no access to fresh food, given that the vast majority of them do not provide it. We are, therefore, laying down problems for the future.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

What Sean in Glasgow got across was that one of the main reasons behind the anxiety that prevents people from having nutritious food and from feeling confident enough to get out of their bed if they are depressed and to get a healthy diet comes down to the pressure that the system as it stands puts on mental health.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I am going to make a wee bit of progress.

When someone suffers from mental health issues, there is no escape. It does not matter what is happening around them—it is in their head. No matter who they speak to or where they are, they are looking at life through a prism of utter fear and intimidation that exists only in their head. It takes over their entire life and their entire perspective on everything. It affects all the decisions that they make.

I ask Members to imagine feeling like that and then being told that, because their bus was late, they will not have any income to buy food or deodorant, to put money in the electricity meter or to feed their kids for a week. That is the reality of what many people are experiencing.

Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities, Women and Children)

May I add to that the fact that women are, unfortunately, unable to access sanitary provision? As a result, they are reliant on the “big society”, as Government Members refer to it. Food banks provide tampons and sanitary products to women who cannot afford to buy those simple products because the Government’s sanctions regime penalises them.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. The fact is that we have people who are in desperate need not just of food, but of everyday products.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins Conservative, Louth and Horncastle

The hon. Lady gives the impression—inadvertently, I am sure, because I know that she would not wish to mislead the House—that people who are sanctioned receive no money. She gives the impression that there is no pot of money in the benefit service from which people can claim in the event that they are sanctioned, but claimants who are sanctioned can apply for hardship payments equivalent to 60% of their normal benefit payment; JSA claimants who are seriously ill or pregnant can receive 80%, if they qualify for hardship payments; and all ESA claimants who meet the criteria for hardship can receive payments. Does she agree?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

No, I do not agree. At no point did I say that people in that position do not have access to any funds; what I said is that many people are left with absolutely nothing because they do not know about the fund, and they do not know that they can claim from it. Apart from anything else, they do not know how to. Someone who is depressed and anxious, and who is all over the place worrying about where their children’s next meal is going to come from, does not have time to think and worry about how to go down the paper trail to get a mandatory reconsideration.

Photo of Eilidh Whiteford Eilidh Whiteford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Social Justice and Welfare)

My hon. Friend has taken us to a point in the debate where we have to talk about the disproportionality of sanctions. Criminals who are fined by a court for crimes that they have committed lose less money than people who have been 10 minutes late for an appointment or gone to another interview.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Perhaps I can correct Victoria Atkins. On sanctions, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities said:

“Opportunities to apply for hardship payments exist, but few people appear to have been informed thereof;
the payments are also modest, discretionary, subject to strict access rules and of a temporary nature.”

I think that that clarifies the point.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

My hon. Friend is right, because numerous studies over numerous years have shown us the reality that the system serves only to create and exacerbate mental health problems. Is it really surprising that being unable to afford food and skipping meals have implications for individuals’ health? When umpteen reports tell us that something is wrong, and when the UN tells us that something is wrong, surely it is not controversial to make a small change such as the one I am suggesting.

Photo of Callum McCaig Callum McCaig Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Energy and Climate Change)

I think the most powerful part of my hon. Friend’s speech is what she is saying about the impact on people’s mental health. We can look at the pounds and pence that the Government are saving through their measures, but they are storing up an immense problem. Who pays for that? It is the taxpayer. If we cannot appeal to Government Members’ humanity, at least we can appeal to their love of money.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

My hon. Friend has put it succinctly, and I would probably agree. Part of the reasoning behind the Bill is to try to make the system not just a bit more humane, but a wee bit more economical—a bit more value for money.

Photo of George Kerevan George Kerevan Scottish National Party, East Lothian

Is my hon. Friend aware that the NAO report sets out the clear calculation that when the hardship payments and the cost of running the sanction system are added in, the Government are not actually saving any money?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

That point speaks for itself. This is not a political argument; it is factual. The system is costing money; it is not giving us good value for money. It is causing a lot of distress and hardship for many people.

Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Health)

Over the last seven or eight years, pressures on the mental health services in this country have increased. It may not simply be that the sanctions regime is not saving money; the regime is likely to be costing money, because it is driving more people to require support.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I think everyone on the SNP Benches agrees with that.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Conservative, Surrey Heath

The hon. Lady is making a powerful point about mental health and the need to have a better system of sanctioning those who, for whatever reason, fall foul of the rules. However, in Scotland recently mental health spending has been falling as a proportion of overall health spending, and child and adolescent mental health spending is significantly lower in Scotland than it is in England. Will she join me in challenging the Scottish Government to increase mental health spending, particularly on child and adolescent mental health services?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I understand the political point that the right hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but I do not want to drag us into a political debate in which we argue about Scottish budgets and so on. I remind him that Members cannot keep putting pressure on the Scottish Government and asking them to fill every single hole that this Tory Government creates, while cutting our money. As I say, I am not interested in going down the path of that argument. I am trying to be constructive and ensure that the Government can get on board with what I am suggesting.

Housing is a major issue when it comes to people being sanctioned. Research by Citizens Advice Scotland found that when people cannot pay for essentials such as food, electricity and gas, they are likely to accumulate arrears and fall into debt. The accumulation of rent and council tax arrears puts people at risk of eviction. For people who are in social rented housing, as 29% of Citizens Advice clients are, that places a burden on the local authority and the Courts and Tribunals Service, as well as adding to the hardship and vulnerability experienced by those individuals and their families.

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer Conservative, South East Cambridgeshire

The hon. Lady is making a powerful point about mental health, which is, of course, incredibly important. Does she accept that housing benefit is not taken away when a benefit sanction kicks in?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I appreciate the point that the hon. Lady makes, but with the greatest respect, she misses the point. When people are under extreme stress, they accumulate debt. That is how, as the study says, they end up in arrears, which puts pressure on councils, local authorities and the individuals themselves.

In a report published in December 2015, Crisis found that homeless service users are disproportionately affected by sanctions. In the past year, 39% of the survey sample had been sanctioned, and three quarters of the survey respondents who had been sanctioned said that it had had a negative impact on—surprise—their mental health. Overall, 21% of sanctioned respondents said that they had become homeless as a result of the sanction. The simple fact is that, no matter how we look at it or how we arrive at this point, no Government should make their citizens homeless. It does not matter whether that is happening to 21% of people affected, or whether the figure is higher or lower. One person made homeless is too many. This Bill is an attempt to prevent that situation from ever arising.

Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Health)

Is it not the case that aspects of support normally provided by central Government end up being a burden on local government? We do not allow families to live in doorways in cardboard boxes, so they will end up in temporary accommodation, which is funded by local government.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

My hon. Friend has just echoed the arguments that have been made on that point.

I want to move on to the second main part of my Bill. It deals with hardship payments—my hon. Friend Hannah Bardell spoke about them earlier—which I view as the second-biggest problem in the system. Currently, when a sanction has been imposed, a person may be able to get a reduced-rate hardship payment, but such payments are not awarded automatically. A person will need to apply for them. Again, we must remember that we are talking human beings who are often very vulnerable. Whether because of their mental health, their physical health, their financial situation or their caring responsibilities, they are up to their eyeballs in stress already, and when they hear the dreaded word “sanctions”, the situation becomes 10 times worse.

The system is not designed to guarantee that everyone will be listened to. Some people might be lucky enough to be listened to. The system might be fine, as I said at the beginning, in jobcentres that are managing to make this skeleton of a system kind of work, but there is no guarantee that it will be the same for everybody. When an individual hears that they are being referred for—that dreaded word—a sanction, their world often falls apart and they are thrown into utter chaos.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

As the hon. Lady may be aware, the

NAO has said that

“the Department has limited evidence on how people respond to the possibility of receiving a sanction, or how large this deterrent effect is”,

and that the use of sanctions is

“linked as much to management priorities and local staff discretion as it is to claimants’
behaviour.”

Does she agree that we are moving into a postcode sanctions lottery regime?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is precisely why I am trying to bring in something to formalise what should already be in place to ensure a bit of consistency between different jobcentres and constituencies in the UK.

To expect someone who is up to their eyeballs and whose life is in chaos because they have heard the word “sanction” to know the system inside out, to know what they are entitled to and to know when and how to apply for it is simply unrealistic. It is not the reality of what genuinely happens. Some might accuse the Government of deliberately creating the system in that way to create a disincentive for people to challenge and claim what they are entitled to receive, as we know that the amount of unclaimed benefits to which people are entitled vastly outweighs the some 0.8% of benefits that are fraudulently claimed. However, I will let people make up their own minds.

We are realistic, and we know that the UK Government will impose sanctions. The Bill would therefore include in the code of conduct an assessment for hardship payments, so that anyone subject to a sanction would automatically have their situation considered. If someone is sanctioned, jobcentre staff should immediately assess them to see whether they qualify for a hardship payment, rather than it being the individual’s responsibility to initiate an assessment. That makes perfect sense. If jobcentre staff have a stressed person in front of them who is in a difficult position and in an emotional state, they should be the responsible participant. They are the one who is supposed to be doing the job that the Government do, which is ensuring that no one falls through the gaps. That is not a big ask; it is logical to ask, “Is this person qualified for a hardship payment?”

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for incorporating part of a private Member’s Bill that I tabled last year on the automaticity of hardship payments. That speaks to the whole point of her Bill, which is about the inconsistent application by jobcentres of what should be available to people in such situations. She is trying to make a minor change to ensure that everyone across the country has access to the same level of service from people working in jobcentres to make sure that nobody is left behind.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Again, I make the plea that the fundamental logic behind the Bill is that citizens should not be made homeless or destitute by their Government. They should not be left with absolutely nothing in their pockets because of the Government. It is our responsibility to look after our citizens. It is therefore perfectly logical to assess an individual at the point of sanction to see whether they qualify for a hardship payment.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector)

One thing I have noticed in my constituency is the hard work of DWP staff, working in conjunction not just with local authorities but with community planning partners across my constituency. Those staff are now being withdrawn from food banks, which undermines that conjoined work, thereby undermining the entire process that the Government want to introduce.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

We have all experienced that and can see it in our own constituencies. Again, I have not introduced the Bill to be controversial. The Bill seeks to tighten what is already in place, to tidy it up and to offer a wee bit of security and consistency for all people throughout the UK.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland Office)

Is there any evidence to suggest that sanctions help to reduce unemployment?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

No, there is not. If anything, the evidence shows the opposite. This is not about getting rid of the sanctions regime altogether, as some people would wish.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

No, I will make some progress.

This Bill is a genuine attempt to change a system that is already causing so much pain and heartache to individuals. I consulted on the Bill, and I received more than 9,000 responses. Some 98% of those responses were from people who agree with the Bill.

I give credit to the film, “I, Daniel Blake”. I went to see it again earlier this week, and it was even more hard-hitting the second time. I genuinely urge everyone in this room to go and see that film, because sanctions hit real people. They are not statistics. They are human beings who are struggling and suffering due to the actions of the state.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

The public are watching, and we owe a debt to Ken Loach for focusing our minds on the human costs. His film tells the story of a 59-year-old joiner from Newcastle, Daniel Blake, who suffers a heart attack at work.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development)

I was glad to join my hon. Friend at the cinema. I heard the sedentary intervention by Mr Nuttall, who has now left the Chamber. Well, the film might be a drama, but it is certainly not fiction. It depicts the day-to-day reality that so many people are experiencing. We have heard dozens of examples of exactly those kinds of cases in our constituency surgeries, and it does a disservice to the people depicted in the film and, indeed, to its director to talk it down in that way.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

Mr Nuttall, who has just left the Chamber, said that the film is fiction, which is exactly the kind of attitude that genuinely disappoints me in this House. The minute that people hear something they do not like, they leave and say, “Rubbish.”

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I can hear the hon. Lady heckling me. Well, I will show her that the facts are that sanctions are hurting people and leaving them with no food in their cupboards and no money in their electricity meter. Sanctions are leaving people with nothing. To sit there and simply say, “Stick to the facts” just shows how ignorant and out of touch from reality she is.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I will not take an intervention from the individual because we have all heard enough from her. I suggest that she listen to what the reality is for so many people.

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

Victoria Atkins is right that sticking to the facts is important. My city of Dundee was dubbed sanctions city 2014, and I am frankly ashamed that it still has that title today. Let there be no doubt that we also have the busiest food bank in Scotland. For anyone here who thinks that is a work of fiction or that these are not the facts, I make it clear that the sanctions city of Dundee also has the highest use of food banks in Scotland.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

Like my hon. Friend’s city, my constituency had one of the highest sanctions rates in 2014-15. I have seen that first hand not only because I live there but through this job. I have seen what sanctions do to people. I have seen the spiral that it puts people’s lives into—the downward spin that they cannot stop, because it just gets worse and worse.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Justice and Home Affairs)

Just to give some facts, my constituent Bryan suffers from severe disability as a result of childhood polio. His personal independence payment was withdrawn because he failed to attend an appointment as a result of an undelivered letter. Bryan phoned the office the say what had happened to the letter, but, despite that, his PIP has been withdrawn, and as a result, he has lost his disability living allowance. He is no longer in receipt of any disability benefit. He lost his entitlement to disability tax credits, and he has lost his Motability car. His appeal, which I am supporting, will not be heard until next year. Are those not the facts and the reality of the situation?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her intervention, because we all have constituents who have suffered under the system as it stands. We can see first hand just how cruel and heartless the system can be to people who are left behind.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, time and again, we hear stories such as that told by my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry? This Chamber is becoming the appeals chamber for the DWP. That is not what we are here to do. We are not here to address the mistakes of this Government. We are here to make good legislation and to stand up for people in our society. The Government should listen to my hon. Friend and accept her Bill.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I thank my hon. Friend very much. To go back to my point, “I, Daniel Blake” shows the kind of situation raised by my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry. Daniel Blake is forced to move on to jobseeker’s allowance because the DWP says that he is fit for work, and he is left in limbo, while he waits on a mysterious decision maker to decide whether he is actually fit for work, despite the doctor having already made it clear that he is not. Blake is then told by his DWP work coach that he is not making enough effort to get a job, and he is subsequently referred for a sanction.

Photo of Paula Sherriff Paula Sherriff Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities)

A constituent of mine missed an appointment because his baby daughter was rushed into hospital as an emergency, and he was therefore sanctioned. He came to my office when looking for the nearest food bank. As a nation, should we not be absolutely ashamed that this sort of thing is happening, and should not the Government hold their head in shame?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I entirely and completely agree. That is the perfect example of someone who, under the Bill, would be exempt from a sanction because of their caring responsibilities. Those in charge would see that someone whose child is ill or has an emergency of course needs, as a parent, to be with them.

Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities, Women and Children)

May I add another example? A constituent of mine with three young children approached me to tell me about her issue with Concentrix in November last year, when she was sanctioned for six weeks over Christmas. Her children went without at Christmas as a result of this Government’s policy, only to discover that that was later overturned. This is a Government who allow families to go without for six weeks over Christmas.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

In many ways, the fact that the Bill has come before the House so near to Christmas may actually be a good thing. A number of people I have met or who have stopped me in the street up in Paisley or Johnstone have told me, “I don’t know what to do over Christmas. I don’t know where to get food. I don’t know if I can afford to get the kids any presents and be able to survive and have lighting in the House.” That is not the kind of society that I want to live in. It is not the kind of society that any Government should be proud of. The Government would be daft—it would hurt them in the polls at the next election—not to see the damage they are doing to society. Surely, when the Government hear stories like those we are telling today, they should think, “We need to change something here.” I have tried to make the Bill as palatable as possible to enable the Government to adhere to it.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

No. I am going to make a wee bit of progress.

There is a cracking and very powerful bit in the film. As I was saying, Daniel Blake has to go around giving out his CV and all that to prove that he is trying to find work to get any money at all. At one point, a guy phones him up and says, “Listen, I want to offer you a job.” Blake says, “I can’t come into work,” and he asks, “Why not?” Blake replies, “Because my doctor says I’m not fit.” He says—

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

Hold on, and listen.

He says, “You’re a scrounger. You’re just lazy. You’re going around applying for jobs, but then you tell us that you’re not fit. You’re just wasting everyone’s time.” We can see the logic behind the fact that there are those in the general public who think—they are led to believe this by the rhetoric of this Government and the mainstream media—that people on benefits are scroungers and that they are lazy. It is the perfect example in the film of when we see that this guy is struggling and is hurting”—

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

No. Please listen to the point.

This guy is in a really difficult position: he is caught in a vicious cycle in a system that continually allows him to fall between the cracks, which is all to the detriment of him, his life, his mental health—and, to be honest, his physical health—and his financial situation. The worst thing about the film is that at the end of it I know, especially because of my job, that it is true. I know that people are really experiencing exactly what is shown in that film.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

The hon. Lady said she wanted facts, so if she does not want fiction, here are some individual examples.

In response to the survey, Connie Dobson said:

“Nearly all people I have supported, had no idea they were about to be sanctioned until the meagre payment they so desperately anticipate, which barely covers their living/caring costs, as it is, isn’t available at the bank on the date it was due. Some don’t receive letters at all re their sanction, and those who do, receive them after the payment was expected, leaving them in undue hardship, without any means to buy food and other essentials”,

such as nappies and sanitary wear, and they

“are unable to top up their…gas/electricity” to keep themselves warm.

Another respondent said:

“In my experience of being on JSA a few years ago one of the problems was that it was very difficult to contact my (or any) adviser by phone. The advice given was that if you failed to turn up to sign on (or meet any other of the claimant commitments) without good reason you could face a sanction. It also said that you should contact your adviser ASAP to let them know that you would be late/missing an appointment etc. The problem was they almost never answered the phone! They should not be allowed to sanction someone if it is impossible for them to contact the Jobcentre and give an explanation! One of the biggest problems with the sanction regime is that they do not take in to consideration peoples personal circumstances.”

A female respondent, who is only 23, from sanctions city—Dundee—highlights the real cost of the regime on our constituents:

“I wholeheartedly agree with all of the above! I am a 23 year old female student in Dundee and the majority of my life was ruined by these sanctions. I found myself in a position with very little support and due to benefit sanctions along with very little advice, information and resources was left unable to feed, clothe and look after myself. These sanctions also affect any housing benefit which low income families depend on which resulted in me being homeless with my small son, twice. I am now in a much better position no thanks to any help from the government, in employment, have my own flat and am studying with hopes to pursue a career that helps people facing such hardships as it’s clear that something is seriously wrong.”

Such comments are made not just by individuals but by organisations such as those that I thanked at the beginning. Those organisations exist purely because they want to help people. Because they deal with these things day in, day out, they are the real experts on this.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Conservative, Surrey Heath

The hon. Lady is making a very powerful case, and the individual cases she is bringing to mind are deeply affecting. Does she have a sense of how many people currently sanctioned would not be sanctioned if her Bill were made law?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I do not have the exact figures, but from the experience of my constituency office, most of the sanctions cases I have dealt with that have been overturned would have been prevented altogether had the provisions been in place.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

I promise that this will be my last intervention, but I could not resist intervening. One thing that really struck me in the National Audit Office report is where it says:

“The Department has not used its own data to evaluate the impact of sanctions in the UK.”

How would the hon. Lady have such information when the Government do not even bother to keep it? I am sure that she agrees with me that the Government’s intellectual disinterest in the effects of the regime is absolutely outrageous.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I sincerely thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. The problem is an overarching one, not just for this issue, but for all the different aspects of Government, in that their records are very poor. In the Work and Pensions Committee we have seen the complete lack of data collated by the Government.

As I was saying, the organisations that do this work day in, day out and deal with these people every day know what is happening. In fact, in many ways they know better than we sometimes do, because we are always stuck in this place and they are on the front line, dealing with individuals and listening to cases.

The Scottish Association for Mental Health has said:

“SAMH calls for all MPs to support this Bill. People with mental health problems are among the most vulnerable of benefit recipients, have been disproportionately targeted to be sanctioned and are among the least likely to understand or be able to comply with the conditions attached to their benefit. Sanctioning this group of people serves no purpose other than to make their illness worse and their personal circumstances even harder to cope with—making employment a less, not more, likely outcome. Ensuring that a pre-sanctions assessment of benefits claimants’
circumstances is carried out should lead to a reduction in the numbers of people inappropriately sanctioned;
as well as not pushing vulnerable people into financial hardship and making them more unwell, the reduction in cancelled or appealed sanctions should also benefit the public purse through reduced administration costs. SAMH notes the NAO’s report on sanctions…and calls on the UK Government to rethink this punitive approach.”

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities)

I very much thank my hon. Friend for the case she is making, particularly on mental health. I have a clinically depressed constituent who was given an indefinite ESA sanction for failing to attend a work-focused appointment. His sanction persisted for six months because he was just too sick to do anything about it. Does she agree that her Bill would go some way to addressing the issue of people not being able to comply and not being able to do anything about it?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

My hon. Friend gives a perfect example of the individuals we are talking about for whom the Bill is logical and sensible.

Citizens Advice Scotland has said:

“Our evidence shows that too often the current system of benefit sanctions is leaving many of our clients facing destitution and crisis. While Citizens Advice Scotland does not in principle object to the use of sanctions in appropriate cases as a last resort, we strongly believe that no one should ever be left without any income at all.”

People should be able to meet essential living costs, and at the very least be able to heat their homes and eat. Under the current sanctions regime, too little account is taken of an individual’s circumstances before they are referred for a sanction. The Bill proposes that a person’s mental and physical health, caring responsibilities and housing situation are taken into account ahead of the imposition of sanctions. It would also improve access to the hardship payments for some of the most vulnerable by ensuring that they receive written advice about the possibility of claiming hardship payments before a sanction is imposed, and by introducing a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that any person subject to a sanction is assessed for their eligibility for hardship payments.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

Before the hon. Lady concludes her remarks, will she outline for the House the approximate cost of the Bill? The explanatory notes clearly state that it will need a money resolution, so it would be useful for us to have some idea of how much it will cost.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I have the costs somewhere. In fact, if the hon. Gentleman looks in the explanatory notes, he will see them there.

I have explained how the Bill could have an impact on thousands of our constituents and am honoured to have the chance to do so. What is ridiculous about this whole thing is that I got the chance through a lottery, and that a lottery is helping to decide whether or not hon. Members have the chance to help. That is one thing for which I would criticise the House. Through sheer pot luck and because I happened to put my name beside the right number, I have the chance to make a genuine, logical, sensible, small and constructive change to the system.

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Surely one of the most compelling arguments for supporting the Bill is that there is ample evidence that it will work. We know from many pilot projects across the country that that is the case. In central Edinburgh, a pilot project required Department for Work and Pensions staff to work with NHS staff on target claimants with drug and alcohol dependency. They were able to reduce the number of sanctions applied to zero. If that can happen in a pilot project, it should happen all over the country. As a matter of public policy, we should treat our citizens the same; we should not depend on the empathy and good will of individual jobcentre managers.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is worth pointing out that the logic driving the reforms is inconsistent throughout the system. The Bill should be passed exactly because we want to bring a bit of sense and reality back into the system.

There is a huge disparity between the sanctions system and the mainstream judicial system. The scale of fines is higher for sanctions than it is for courts. In our legal system in the magistrates or sheriffs courts, there is always an assessment of the offender’s circumstances before a fine is decided. In the sanctions system, there is nothing.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

No, I will not give way.

The point we must remember is this: why are we prepared to take the personal circumstances of potential criminals into account, but not take into account the circumstances of people whose only crime is that they cannot find work? [Interruption.] Will hon. Members stop heckling me?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

I have let the hon. Lady in multiple times, and she has sat there and not listened to a single word. She can put her hand up all she likes. Shaking her head and wishing that this was not the reality is exactly the attitude that is wrong; it is what I am trying to challenge. SNP Members experience day in, day out the hardship that the Government are causing, so I suggest she sits back and genuinely listens to what I am proposing in the Bill rather than trying to score political points and build her ego.

If the Tories are so convinced that they have adequate protections in place, why not support a Bill that formally establishes them for the most vulnerable? The UK Government will say that they already have the guidance in place, which I appreciate. That is all the more reason to protect it formally and give it statutory power and cover. The Bill would also ensure consistency across the board. In reality, the protections in the Bill go beyond the vague protections within guidance by specifically protecting vulnerable groups and putting responsibility on the Government to assess a person’s individual circumstance.

The Government say that they have already taken measures to protect claimants from sanctions when they announced their intention to undertake a trial involving warning claimants of the intention to impose a sanction on them—a yellow card system whereby people are given a period of 14 days to provide evidence of a good reason. In a written answer on 18 November, the Minister stated:

“The Jobseeker’s Allowance Sanctions Early Warning Trial in Scotland ran until September 2016 and involved approximately 6,500 claimants. Data was collected throughout the trial period to assess the extent to which the warning trial affected sanction decisions.

Qualitative interviews are currently being undertaken with a sample of these claimants to gain an understanding of how the new process affected claimant behaviour. The trial has now finished and a full evaluation is being undertaken.

The interim report will be published at the end of the year and the final report around April 2017. Findings from the trial will inform any decisions on future roll-out.”

If the Government are prepared to make small changes, then surely for the reasons I have outlined for the last wee while, it is perfectly reasonable to ask them to support the Bill, or at least to give some kind of concession or introduce a similar proposal of their own.

Fundamentally, the Bill has two points: first, to assess the individual’s personal circumstances before any sanction is applied; and secondly, when a sanction is applied, to assess them automatically for a hardship payment. They are very small asks. As I have said, I have tried to be as constructive as possible to introduce a measure that the Government can get on board with, and to put aside party political differences and the different routes that we believe politics should go down.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

My hon. Friend has given a tour de force this morning. Is it the case that support for the Bill also comes from the trade union representing staff employed by the Department for Work and Pensions—the Public and Commercial Services Union—which wants consistency across the board?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

When I was first putting out the feelers to find out what people thought should be in the Bill, I went to numerous jobcentres. All the jobcentre staff I came across said that the Bill would be brilliant for them. They said it would be great because it would give clarity on what they can do. If they had a list or a code of conduct, they could say, “Right. You’ve got a child who is sick. It is clear that this does not apply”, and it would not be left to their personal judgment.

The Bill is logical and small. It protects not only our citizens and the most vulnerable people in our society, but the staff, who are under tremendous pressure in a system that is constantly changing at a rapid pace. I have genuinely tried to make the Bill one that we can pass together. I have tried to build a bridge over which all political parties can cross. I ask the Minister and all hon. Members who have sat in the Chamber today—I imagine Mr Nuttall will not be joining me—to support the Bill as much as they possibly can.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Before I call Conor Burns, I remind the House that there will be an urgent question at 11 o’clock, so I ask whoever is on their feet not to be too shocked when we go into it.

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns Conservative, Bournemouth West 10:48 pm, 2nd December 2016

I join my Conservative colleagues in congratulating Mhairi Black on securing this private Member’s Bill.

There is surely a consensus on both sides of the House that unemployment is a tragedy when it befalls anyone. There can be few things in life worse than wanting to work and failing to find it. However, I begin by bringing a group of people into the debate who were mentioned only once by Opposition Members in all the interventions in the hon. Lady’s speech: the taxpayer, which was referred to by Callum McCaig. Every benefit that is paid to a benefit claimant is paid out of the receipts that the Government take in tax. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South referred at one point to something that would cost the Government. The Government do not have any money; the Government have only taxpayers’ money.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir SNP Chief Whip

Does the hon. Gentleman not recall the National Audit Office report that showed that this sanctions regime does not actually save any money? His point is without merit.

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns Conservative, Bournemouth West

The hon. Gentleman is approaching this from exactly the wrong angle. The point is that the Government have an obligation to ensure that every person who is in receipt of a benefit is entitled to it. That is part of the social contract that underpins our society. It was at the very core of the Beveridge report, whereby people paid in in times of good, in times of work, and drew down in times of sickness, unemployment and retirement—drew down in terms of need.

If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should carry on in certain circumstances, where people have been demonstrated not to be legitimately in need of benefits, that is an abuse of the taxpayer. any of those taxpayers are on very modest incomes indeed and work extremely hard to contribute to our society.

Photo of Callum McCaig Callum McCaig Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Energy and Climate Change)

The hon. Gentleman entirely misses the point of this Bill. He listened to me enough to get part of the picture, but he has missed the point I was making entirely. When we sanction people, there is a cost to that. There is the immediate cost and the immediate saving to the taxpayer, which seems to be all Government Members care about, but the long-term costs—in health to the individual and society—are immeasurable. Let us think about that, let us not forget it and let us spend now to save in the long term.

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns Conservative, Bournemouth West

I understood the hon. Gentleman’s point absolutely; the reason I referred to him was because he was the only Member on the Opposition Benches who mentioned the word “taxpayer” at all. I was making a more fundamental point that we need to approach these debates from the perspective that the Government have an obligation to ensure that those who receive benefits are entitled legitimately to receive them.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Scottish National Party, Paisley and Renfrewshire South

The point the hon. Gentleman is making is that we need to have sanctions in place because people have to be claiming benefits legitimately—fine. We disagree on that, but that is not what this Bill is about. What it is about is preventing people from being sanctioned wrongly; it is about making sure that nobody is left destitute. It is not about sanctions overall; it is about one small change to prevent hardship.

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns Conservative, Bournemouth West

I hear the hon. Lady and I take her point absolutely, but I am afraid she did rather give the game away early in her speech when she said that in her view we should not have a sanctions regime at all—[Interruption.] That is the perspective from which I will give way to my hon. Friend Mr Nuttall.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. It has been suggested a couple of times this morning—and we need to put an end to it—that the NAO report states that the system costs money. Page 43 of the report, in figure 23, clearly states:

“The total costs and benefits to government of sanctions are unknown”.

The NAO does not come to a conclusion; it leaves the matter open. It is not saying that there is a cost. Does he agree that one cannot put a cost on how many millions and billions of pounds are saved by ensuring that everyone complies with the rules?

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns Conservative, Bournemouth West

I entirely agree. I do not think we can put a cost on the opportunity for work. Of course, it is this Government—through the policies of those on these Benches, both in coalition and now in majority Government—who have ensured the economic conditions that have led to our having more people in work than ever before in history.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns Conservative, Bournemouth West

I will make a little progress, if I may, and then I will give way to Chris Stephens.

We should also understand that this system of sanctions is not new; it has operated and existed for decades. It underlies a fundamental principle of ensuring that those who are being supported are not abusing the support that is being offered. There is a very real risk that the practical effect of the hon. Lady’s Bill, however well intentioned it is, would be to render the system of sanctions impotent, preventing it from encouraging claimants to meet their commitments.

It is important that we understand the historical context and practical purpose of sanctions. Conditionality has been a long-standing feature of welfare benefit entitlements in the UK since the formation of the welfare state itself. The Beveridge report spoke of the citizen having a “profound reciprocal obligation” to co-operate fully in the restoration of his earning power. Maintenance would be provided by society but

“only to the extent to which its members are willing to accept their corresponding social obligations”.

Access to full unemployment benefits has always been conditional on the recipient being involuntarily unemployed, being available for work and doing as much as can reasonably be expected to find such employment.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

The hon. Gentleman has been talking about the “taxpayer” and about how benefits are not a right. Does he know that 3,665 employees in the Department for Work and Pensions are chasing benefit fraud estimated at £1.2 billion, but that only 320 employees are based in the High Net Worth Unit of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs chasing tax avoidance estimated at £70 billion? Should we not be going after the tax avoiders far more than we should the most vulnerable in our society?

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns Conservative, Bournemouth West

First, I say to the hon. Gentleman that I did not say that benefits are not a right; benefits are a right, and a right that I fully respect and uphold. Secondly, on the point that we have heard many times—we had Opposition day debates on it when I was a bag carrier in the Treasury—as he knows, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, when he was Financial Secretary to the Treasury, reconfigured HMRC by focusing on more regional offices, so that we can have greater impact in the collection powers of HMRC and the focus it has on ensuring that the tax collected is the tax owed.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for giving way. He mentions the Beveridge report. I am reminded by my hon. Friend Helen Whately that it is from 1942, but in fact the sanctions regime goes back to 1911 and the setting up of the first unemployment benefits regime.

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns Conservative, Bournemouth West

My hon. Friend and neighbour is absolutely correct. It is the reciprocal arrangement between the benefit claimant and the taxpayer, who is supporting that person in distress, that underpins the social contract that is at the core of our society.

The scope of behavioural forms of conditionality and the severity of the sanctions applied for failure to comply with the required conduct—attending appointments with the unemployment advisers and so on—have increased substantially since the 1980s. A series of social security reviews conducted by Conservative Governments between 1979 and 1997 led to the introduction of a stricter benefit regime from the late 1980s and culminated in the introduction of jobseeker’s allowance in 1996, which intensified the monitoring of unemployed claimants’ job-seeking behaviour.

It was the last Labour Government who adopted a “work first” and “work for all” approach, embracing JSA’s monitoring of claimants’ job search activities, backed up by benefit sanctions in cases of non-compliance.

The coalition Government further intensified benefit conditionality. The roll-out of universal credit has further extended the scope of the conditionality regime. Individual claimant commitments increase jobseeking expectations for most claimants. In addition, claimants of universal credit who are in work but on low income are also subject to conditionality for the first time. The current sanctions reflect the conditionality, in that longer periods of sanction are imposed for the most serious failures, such as giving up work voluntarily, refusing to apply for a suitable job, or not taking up the offer of a suitable job. Less serious failings, such as missing an appointment or not updating a CV, of course incur a shorter sanction.

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am confused about why the hon. Gentleman is trying to defend the principle of conditionality, when there is nothing in this Bill that says that conditionality would be removed. Does he not understand that there is a difference between people being required to look for work if they are in receipt of benefit and removing people’s method of staying alive if they miss an interview by 10 minutes because their child was sick or because they had a personal catastrophe? We should be looking at the individual and not treating people as a bloc.

Photo of Conor Burns Conor Burns Conservative, Bournemouth West

As was acknowledged in earlier interventions, there are procedures for emergency payments, so the idea that the hon. Gentleman is perpetrating—that somehow it is these cruel, callous Tories—

Proceedings interrupted (Standing Order No. 11(4)).