Benefit Claimants Sanctions (Required Assessment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:34 am on 2nd December 2016.

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

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.