Before the interruption, we were hearing from the Opposition a perception that the Government were not listening to what was being said about issues such as this. Let me point out that, in 2013, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions commissioned Matthew Oakley
“to undertake an independent review of the operation of the provisions relating to the imposition of benefit sanctions that are imposed as a result of, or have been validated by, the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Act 2013.”
The review considered benefit sanctions for claimants of jobseeker’s allowance who were sanctioned after being referred to a mandatory back-to-work scheme in the year to
“commended the Department and officials for the manner in which they have approached and supported my review.”
He also stated that sanctions were
“a key element of the mutual obligation that underpins…the effectiveness and fairness of the social security system.”
The review concluded that the current system largely functioned well, but conceded that in an operation of this scale there were almost inevitably areas for improvement. It made 17 recommendations with three key themes: communications, jobcentre/provider responsibility, and safeguards. Her Majesty’s Government accepted all 17 recommendations from the Oakley review. Significant work with internal and external stakeholders has taken place to implement the recommendations and, crucially, is continuing to ensure that the system continues to function effectively and fairly.
In March 2015 the Work and Pensions Committee published the report “Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review”, with recommendations. In October 2015 the Secretary of State responded to the Select Committee accepting recommendations in a number of areas, including on vulnerability and giving tailored support to claimants. Frank Field, Chairman of the Committee, said
“We are pleased that the Government has accepted many of the Committee’s criticisms of its approach and, more importantly, the recommendations for change.”
From October 2015 onwards, the response to the Select Committee clearly outlined the work the Department had already undertaken to review the sanctions system and changes the Government intended to make and they are continuing to work on those alongside the ongoing work of the Oakley review.
I agree, and I have known the Minister for over 20 years and I know him to be one of the most moderate, reflective and compassionate people in our party. I know he will be open to ideas on how we can further improve the system to deliver the best support to those who legitimately need it most.
In seeking to build a system that has compassion within it, does the hon. Gentleman agree that my constituent who was sanctioned for missing his signing day to be at his father’s deathbed is in need of compassion from a system that is clearly failing at the moment?
The hon. Lady raises an individual case; we all have individual cases in our constituencies where the system has let people down. That is why it is absolutely appropriate that there is a full independent appeals process to correct it when it goes wrong. I would extend, through the hon. Lady, our sympathy to that gentleman; the system clearly did not work for him on that occasion. But that is why it is important that we have this continuous process of listening and improvement; that is how systems are improved.
Between October and December 2015, in terms of employment and support allowance sanctioning, the Government made significant improvements in communications between decision makers and work programme providers to ensure that claimants received relevant safeguarding activities and reduced the risk of inappropriate sanctions.
In November 2015 the Government re-introduced automated sanction notifications for jobseeker’s allowance and ESA. In December 2015 the Government issued supplementary vulnerability guidance to work coaches in Jobcentre Plus, which includes how conditionality can be tailored for vulnerable claimants to take account of individual circumstances.
I am appalled by some of the cases I have heard mentioned in the Chamber today. Many of the cases in which I have had to intervene have been where parents have not been involved in the processes, and where perhaps younger or vulnerable people have not had support. That is where we and the processes have intervened, and it has worked for them. I have found it very difficult to hear from Opposition Members of cases where people have been in such peril, in circumstances similar to those in which I have been able to intervene and make a difference to people’s lives by working with parents, those who care for people who are vulnerable and those who are helping the claimants.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and highlights the fact that, as Members of Parliament, we can be powerful advocates for people who sometimes slip through the cracks. She also makes—if I may say so, in a spirit of cross-party consensus—the interesting point that compassion is not resident in only one part of this Chamber. All Members who come to this House to serve, come to do their very best for the constituents who elected them.
The hon. Gentleman has said that many of us have come across these experiences, and his hon. Friend Mims Davies has said the same—we have heard examples during the debate. The system is therefore clearly not working; it should not come down to people having to go to their MP to get the support they should rightly have.
It is incumbent upon all Governments of all colours to constantly work to try to improve the systems under which we operate. The answer, however, is not to remove a sanctions regime—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South set out the matter very clearly; this is a Trojan horse Bill.
If I wanted to use this Bill to get rid of sanctions, that is exactly what it would say on the cover. I have explained, and I cannot be more sincere in explaining, that this Bill is not about removing sanctions. It is a genuine attempt to bring some consistency to a system that is allowing far too many people to fall through the cracks. It is about ensuring that individuals are not left without. That is compassion.
The hon. Lady was very clear in her speech to the House earlier that her view is that it would be much better to have a system with no sanctions in place. [Interruption] That is what the hon. Lady said. What I am trying to outline is the way in which the Government are working within the existing processes to improve the arrangements of the system so that we genuinely deliver benefits to those who need them, but root out those seeking to abuse the system and therefore break the social contract with the taxpayers who are working to pay those benefits.
One of the ways we have done that was when, in December 2015, we accelerated the process for considering hardship payment claims so that they are now paid within three days. The Government response to the Select Committee included the announcement that we would trial a sanctions warning system and that we would give a further opportunity for claimants to provide evidence before a sanction is applied. That would strike the right balance between enforcing conditionality and fairness. The trial started in Scotland in March 2016 and ended at the end of September. Evaluation is currently being undertaken to enable ministerial decisions on any future national roll-out.
Sanctions are not jumped to before any other considerations; they are used as a last resort. The Government have put in place a comprehensive monitoring regime to ensure that sanctions are always, and only ever, applied appropriately. Not only is the decision to impose a sanction taken by an independent decision maker, but everyone is made aware of their right to appeal, and claimants are given every opportunity to present additional evidence. It is not a form of arbitrary and cruel punishment for those who, of innocent circumstance, were forced to be late for, or miss entirely, a meeting.
The hon. Gentleman is doing his best to suggest he can empathise with people, but I wonder if he has ever experienced not knowing where his next meal is coming from or whether he can feed or clothe his children. I also wonder what effect this sanctioning regime is having on our already embattled mental health services, which are struggling to cope as it is.
I have in fact been in those circumstances. I was unemployed and had to sign on after I graduated in 1994 in the worst graduate recession since the second world war. I experienced that again after I tried to get elected to this House in 2005 and had not got the money; I had to decide whether to pay the mortgage or the council tax on overdraft. So, yes I have been in those circumstances, and I have to say, do not ever sit there and suggest to people that we do not have the ability to empathise in this House of Commons simply because we sit on the Conservative Benches. That is the worst type of class war stereotypical nonsense, which frankly we should have moved way beyond in this House a long time ago.
Let us return to the point in question. The fact is that 94% of JSA claimants stick to their commitments and are not sanctioned, and even smaller is the percentage of ESA claimants—the main in-work sickness benefit—who are sanctioned, which stands at less than 1%. However, something being uncommon does not justify ignoring it, if it is a justified issue, which brings me on to my other point.
Department for Work and Pensions research shows that 70% of people receiving JSA and 60% of those receiving ESA said that the regime made them more likely to follow the rules. This is a sensible policy, which takes account of, and goes to great lengths to never disadvantage, those genuinely in need of benefits, but which seeks to cut down any dependency culture, ensure that those claiming benefits—
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. Has he read the NAO report published this week which shows that a quarter of all people between 2010 and 2015-16 have experienced a sanction? That is the reality; that is the real fact.
I am happy to confirm that my hon. Friend is correct. I have the House of Commons Library briefing paper here and it confirms exactly what he has said about JSA claimants falling to around 2% in each of the first six months of 2016 and ESA claimants falling to around 1% between May 2011 and May 2016. He is absolutely right to say that Conservative Members do not lack compassion and empathy. Mhairi Black was right to say that we are dealing with individual human beings, not statistics, but the statistics are nevertheless important.
I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend. I could not have put that more eloquently myself.
Sanctions regimes are not uncommon. In fact, most developed economies attach conditions to the receipt of benefits. Recent European studies in Switzerland in 2005, in the Netherlands in 2013, in Denmark in 2011 and in Germany in 2014 found that benefit cuts substantially increased employment take-up among sanctioned persons. In 2013, the Government commissioned an independent review into sanctions and implemented all its recommendations. We should put aside the misconception sometimes portrayed by Members that sanctions are the automatic default that the system rushes towards. In fact, a claimant has to go through an incredibly long journey before they reach the point of sanction.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to tell me how that fits in with what DWP staff have told me about the aspirations that they have? They do not call them targets; they call them aspirations, and they have an aspiration to sanction a certain number of people every week.
If the hon. Lady has an example of a named official who has told her that, she should feed that information to the Minister, because I am sure that the Department would like to investigate it. That is not the policy of Her Majesty’s Government. The Department has laid down a very clear process that staff have to follow.
I shall take the House through that process. The first stage involves a claim interview at which expectations are explained and set by the work coach. The claimant’s commitment is discussed and agreed, taking into account individual circumstances. It includes the claimant’s job goals and the days and hours they are available for work—including any agreed restrictions for caring responsibilities or health reasons—and the job steps that offer them the best prospects of employment. The work coach notifies the claimant of any specific requirements, such as the details of where and when they need to attend the jobcentre. As part of the above, the work coach explains the consequence of non-compliance and gives sources of further information, such as the Government’s website.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the process for claimants getting into work, but does he agree that there is no logic to the case of one of my constituents who found a job and was informed by the DWP that he was at risk of sanction for failing to apply for more jobs while he was waiting to take up that job? Is that not absolutely illogical?
I agree that that seems absolutely illogical, and I am pretty certain, on the basis of what the hon. Lady says, that that individual would be successful in appealing. It is a logical absurdity to suggest that a claimant would be fined while waiting to take up a job, unless the commencement of that job was, say, two years down the line.
I shall describe the second step to the House. If, when reviewing the claimant’s activity, the work coach identifies that an activity has not been completed, they will: tell the claimant why the doubt has arisen; ask the claimant to provide the reasons for their failure and any supporting evidence to help the decision maker reach their decision; tell the claimant what will happen next, how they will be notified of the outcome and how to challenge the decision if they disagree with it; and provide the claimant with information about hardship and how to claim it.
In the third stage, details of the failure and any available supporting information or evidence are referred by the work coach to a decision maker. The work coach will include any details they have of factors that may affect the claimant’s capacity, such as caring responsibilities, health and wellbeing issues, accommodation problems or anything else that is relevant. In step four, the decision maker reviews the case. If required, the claimant and/or relevant third party are contacted to provide any clarification or additional information, either by telephone, email or letter. For provider referrals, including those relating to the Work programme, the decision maker tells the claimant that a doubt has arisen, gives the reasons and asks the claimant to provide the reasons for their failure and any supporting evidence.
In the fifth step, the decision maker considers all the available information and decides whether the claimant had a good reason for their failure and whether a sanction is therefore appropriate.
The sixth stage involves the details of the decision being sent to the appropriate benefits centre for processing.
In the seventh step, the claimant is issued with a notification letter to inform them of the decision. When a sanction has been applied, that notification includes details of the reason for, and the period of, the sanction, how to claim hardship and what the claimant should do if they want more information about the decision and/or want to challenge it.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the next step involves someone in that position having to phone an 0345 number, for which a mobile phone provider will charge 45p a minute? Can he explain why the Government have rejected the advice of the Social Security Advisory Committee that all phone calls to the DWP should be on 0800 numbers and therefore free?
If the hon. Gentleman cannot speak for the Government, does he at least agree in principle with my hon. Friend Chris Stephens that the phone calls should be free?
The Minister is hearing these points being made, and he will give both hon. Members a clear answer on the Government’s policy in due course.
I shall now move on to the eighth stage of the process that needs to be gone through before a sanction is applied. If a claimant requests more information about the decision, an explanation will be given by the jobcentre or contact centre. When a claimant makes such a request, they are contacted by a decision maker and a full, detailed explanation is provided.
In the ninth stage, if the claimant disputes or challenges the decision, a decision maker will have the case, and any additional information provided by the claimant, reviewed. If the decision is overturned, notification is issued to the claimant and arrears of benefit paid. If the decision is not overturned, the case is referred to the dispute resolution team for a full mandatory reconsideration.
In the tenth step, following a request for a mandatory reconsideration, the original decision will be looked at again, taking into account any additional information provided by the claimant. A mandatory reconsideration notice will be sent to the claimant to notify them of the outcome. The letter also includes information on how to appeal against the decision. One of the points the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South makes is that sanctions are causing people to become impoverished and that they ostensibly disregard their situation and position, yet 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.
If I read this correctly, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South is talking about assessing and then reassessing after sanctions, to ensure that no one falls through the gaps and to formalise the process and create consistency. Does my hon. Friend agree that the biggest difficulty is in striking a balance between achieving consistency in a fair and structured system and being able to assess each claimant individually based on their needs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Indeed, the Government are constantly listening and adapting the system to improve it. We heard a lot from Opposition Members about people on JSA being categorised as vulnerable, but, as the Secretary of State announced recently, the Government are extending the list of vulnerable groups to include those with mental health conditions and those who are homeless. This will mean that they can receive hardship payments from day one of their sanction. The Government have also accelerated the process of considering hardship payments so that they are now paid within three days.
I want to respond to Mims Davies. As Conor Burns is sincerely saying, the job of Government is to listen, and they should do so constantly. If they do listen, they will find that there is huge disparity throughout the UK. While it is fine to say in theory that the system should be consistent, the Government should listen to the facts, and the reality of the stories that we are hearing today is that that is not happening. Let us listen and introduce something that will formalise that consistency. That is all that this Bill is about.
I am happy to be a useful conduit for the hon. Lady to make that point to my hon. Friend Mims Davies, but it may stretch the generosity of the Chair were I to invite my hon. Friend to reply through me to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.
Much has been said about people who work in jobcentres, including that some of them might be callous or cold-hearted people who, on a whim or when in a bad mood or if they got out of bed on the wrong side, would somehow deliberately impose hardship. I do not recognise that characterisation from the meetings that I have had with them in my constituency. They are often berated and vilified simply for doing their job. They are honest people.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying about DWP staff, but I wonder whether the fact that total DWP staff numbers are down 34% since 2010 has some bearing on the issues he is raising.
It might be that we have a more efficient Department or that we are focusing more resource directly at the frontline rather than in back-office administration. I note that the Minister is nodding, and he may want to say something about that in his remarks.
This is about getting people into work. Government Members and many beyond our Benches believe that with work comes dignity—individuals being able to look after themselves and their families. I return to what that the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South wrote in The National, in which she said:
“If we must have benefit sanctions”.
We should have benefit sanctions, because they are there to ensure that people do not abuse the system. Those who abuse the system are in a sense committing a fraud against their fellow citizens and against hard-working taxpayers who are trying to do their best. We believe in a society in which responsibility should be taught and instilled from the first step. We believe in offering a handout or opportunity for people to do better. I am delighted that those who commit benefit fraud are in such a tiny minority. I am also delighted to be a member of a Government who have created the economic conditions for more jobs than ever before and therefore more opportunities for people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way during his extended speech. He might as well be reading from a cookery book, because you are adding nothing new to this debate. Sixty-five per cent. of claims have to be overturned as a result of this failed system, so does the hon. Gentleman accept that what he refers to as the fractional percentage of people who commit fraud is far outweighed by the vast number of people who need support? A social security system should protect those people when they need protection most.
I thank the hon. Lady for her insult at the beginning of her intervention. I note yet again, Madam Deputy Speaker, the use of the word “you” by SNP Members. You would have thought that, 18 months into this Parliament, they might have learned the basics of parliamentary procedure.
This is a Trojan horse Bill. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South betrayed her true feelings early on in her remarks when she said that there should be no sanctions for benefit fraud—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady will have the opportunity tomorrow to look at Hansard online and read her own remarks.
I will conclude here because I agree with Angela Crawley that I have been going on for quite some time. I am proud that we have a Government, a Minister and a Secretary of State who are determined to get support to those who need it most. They are determined to improve the system to eliminate fraud and get maximum benefit for the taxpayer. I am proud to serve on these Benches, where we are committed to a growing economy, work for everyone who wants it and a society that works for all.
After the previous speech, which I will come on to, I welcome the opportunity to use a slightly different tone in this debate—certainly when it comes to the evidence. I start by offering warm congratulations to Mhairi Black on bringing the Bill forward. She rightly deserves credit for her work, and her conciliatory tone is to be commended. She is absolutely right that, as Conor Burns was saying, this debate is about continuing the listening process and trying to improve a flawed system. The Bill does just that.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South outlined her personal views, but she put them to one side and, like so many Members, spoke about the car crashes that are happening in the sanctions system. I want to provide two examples that I received just last night and this morning—that is how frequently such things are happening. Nearly a million people were sanctioned last year. It is not an insignificant number. The two cases are exactly the same. Both people were due to go in for surgery just days before a work capability assessment and were signed off for eight works. When they asked whether they had to go to the assessment, they were told that they did or else they would be sanctioned. It is absolute nonsense. This sort of thing is going on up and down the country, and I will come on to some other examples.
The hon. Lady was right to highlight the unfortunate narrative that was indicative of the Government until fairly recently. The shirker/scrounger language set a tone and tried to shift the public’s perception.
Does the hon. Lady share my enormous concern—it sounds as though she does—with that scrounger tone? My father was the manager of the largest social security office in Scotland, and he always said that the problem was not people claiming what they were not entitled to; it was all the people who did not claim what they were entitled to because of the sense of shame and the narrative propagated by Government Members.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Reflecting his father’s experience, many jobcentre advisers have been saying similar things and that they are absolutely horrified by what they are experiencing.
The hon. Lady made an important point about tone. Members from all parts of the House should conduct this debate with a compassionate tone, but she seems to be putting words into the mouths of Government Members—words that have simply not been said. Is there a Government source that she can refer us to that uses the language that she was using a moment ago?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We all need to be responsible for the language and the tone that we use. Unfortunately, we have seen some of that in today’s debate. I refer Members to the earlier National Audit Office report that was published this week. A headline in a paper suggested that the one in four claimants who had been sanctioned were somehow fraudulent. That was the disgraceful tone of the headline in a major newspaper, which distorted the evidence.
I am sorry, but I am going to carry on.
We must ensure that all of us, as leaders, use the appropriate language. I can point to speeches that have been made in the past in which that has not been the case.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South has outlined the provisions of her Bill, which requires an assessment of social security claimants’ circumstances before a sanction is applied. Measures in the Bill include a code of conduct for those responsible for imposing sanctions and the important principle of just cause, which is applied in defined circumstances. It will be applied, for example, where undertaking a job is in clear conflict with the claimant’s caring responsibility, and where there is just cause for not undertaking particular employment or job-search activity. In such cases, it is proposed that sanctions should not be applied.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the need for assessment for hardship payments after a sanction has been applied. Again, that is absolutely right. It was in fact one recommendation from the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry on this issue last year.
I have been heartened by the slightly different tone taken by the new Secretary of State, particularly in what has been said about work capability assessment and sanctions for homeless people and other vulnerable groups. I see this Bill as an important step forward, as it builds on what we have said should be happening. It would also make the process much fairer. I support this Bill in abolishing the punitive sanctions regime that the Tories and the Liberal Democrats introduced in the Welfare Reform Act 2012.
Let me provide a bit of background to what has been going on over the past four years. We have heard about the exponential rise in sanctions that have been applied to people on JSA, incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance, but we did not really touch on the new application to people on universal credit who are in work. I am referring to the taxpayers who the hon. Member for Bournemouth West was talking about—the taxpayers who are already contributing to the Exchequer and who are, through the universal credit regulations, likely to be subjected to a sanction. That would be the case if, for example, they are not working full time, or if they have not got a permanent contract and want a few days off. They can be sanctioned and that is happening now.
I have been campaigning on this issue for more than four years. A constituent came to me after he had been sanctioned. He was in the middle of a work capability assessment when he suffered a heart attack. He was told by the nurse undertaking the assessment that he needed to go to hospital. He did that, and two weeks later he had a letter in the post saying that he had been sanctioned.
I mentioned another case to the Minister when we were in an interview recently. John Ruane from my constituency has a brain tumour, which means that he has three to four epileptic fits a week. His clinical team contacted me because he was refusing to have a life-saving operation on the grounds that he feared he would be sanctioned. He had already had his ESA stopped after a work capability assessment—that is another story, which I cannot go into today, but which certainly needs to be looked at again. He was frightened of being sanctioned. Fortunately, I have been able to intervene and his ESA has been re-established, but that fear of being sanctioned is what people are experiencing.
Yet another constituent of mine, who was a Jobcentre Plus adviser for more than 25 years, came to me four years ago, saying how troubled he was about the targets that he was being set—or aspirations as a Member said earlier—to sanction claimants. Targets were being set for sanctions even when people had done nothing wrong. He explained how the system works—that appointments would be made when people were meant to come in for a work-related interview, and the people would then not be told. That was investigated by the Department for Work and Pensions and, shamefully, it did nothing.
The hon. Lady mentions sanctions. Does she approve of the sanctions regime overall, or would she also advocate getting rid of it in its totality?
I said, “On that point alone,” and the hon. Gentleman has not asked specifically about the investigation of the fraudulent activity that was going on in the DWP, so I am afraid I am not going to respond to his intervention. [Interruption.] I will come on to putting our position very clearly to the Minister.
This Jobcentre Plus adviser said people were being set up to fail to get them off flow. If claimants are off flow, they are not signing in. Not only do they not count in the JSA claimant statistics, but they are not drawing social security support. Wednesday’s National Audit Office report estimated that, last year alone, £132 million was not paid in social security support, but a significant amount—not quite as much as that—was spent on administering the sanctions process.
What many people are surprised to hear is that sanctions apply immediately and last for a minimum of a month. They are referred to a DWP decision maker, as we have heard, to decide whether they should be upheld, but that in itself can take a month. On top of that, although housing benefit payments are not meant to be stopped, they have been, and that was confirmed during the Select Committee inquiry last year. As has also been said, the ensuing debt builds up, and Sheffield Hallam University has shown the implications for sanctions-related homelessness.
Then I started to hear about the deaths of claimants following a sanction—first Mark Wood, and then David Clapson, and there have been many more. Of the 49 claimants who died between 2012 and 2014, and whose deaths were investigated by the DWP, 10 followed a sanction. By the way, I am still waiting for the Department to get back to me on the peer review details of nine subsequent claimant deaths.
It was after David’s death, and when I had met his sister, Gill Thompson, who is absolutely devastated—I pay tribute to her for the campaign she has launched to try to raise awareness of what is happening—that I managed to persuade the Select Committee to undertake an inquiry into sanctions that would explore the impacts of the Government’s 2012 sanctions regime. We found that, between 2012 and 2014, 3.2 million sanctions were applied. At a peak, in one month in 2014, 90,000 JSA claimants were sanctioned. The sanctions for sick and disabled people increased fivefold. One in five JSA claimants were sanctioned at that time; as we have heard, that has increased to one in four. Single parents and people with mental health conditions were particularly affected. Again, the variation across the country was quite staggering.
We found that 43% of claimants who are sanctioned leave JSA—they move off flow, distorting the JSA claimant count. Over 80%—this is a really important point—of those leaving JSA after a sanction do so for reasons other than work. One would think that the Government would want to know what was happening to those people and where they were going. If they are not going into work, what exactly is happening to them? One recommendation from the all-party Select Committee inquiry was that we should follow up these cases. As the NAO has shown, that has not happened. We do not know what happens to the nearly half of the JSA claimants who leave and the 80% who do so for reasons other than going into work.
The rise in food bank usage was also linked to the increase in sanctions, and both the physical and the mental health issues of claimants were found to be exacerbated by the punitive sanctions regime. The Select Committee made more than 20 recommendations, including for the pre-sanction process that the Bill also calls for. It also said that all financial sanctions on vulnerable JSA and ESA claimants, as well as those on people who are on universal credit and in work but not full-time work, should be stopped.
Fundamentally, the Select Committee called for an independent inquiry into sanctions as a whole, and the NAO made the same recommendation in its report on Wednesday. Unfortunately, the Government did not accept the majority of the recommendations. They made some moves on hardship payments. We have heard about that already and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
Wednesday’s NAO report was the third in a month reaffirming and adding to the Select Committee inquiry’s findings. There is no evidence that sanctioning someone motivates them or modifies their behaviour in such a way that they move into work. Even the Government’s own behavioural insights team found exactly that in its review. We have discussed the fact that one in four JSA claimants were sanctioned between 2010 and 2015, and I have mentioned the appalling headline that said that they were abusing the system. As I have said, the Jobcentre Plus whistleblower said that claimants are being set up to fail.
We also know that 42% of UC decisions about sanctions took longer than 28 days, and that £132 million was withheld last year. Last month, the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics quantified the association between the increase in sanctioning and food bank usage: for every 10 sanctions, five more adults were referred to food banks.
I echo the hon. Lady’s sentiments and her comments on the correlation between sanctions and food banks. Does she agree that it is a sad situation that Scotland now has not only food banks, but school uniform banks, and that that is directly linked to the inability of families, through no fault of their own, to support their children in going to school?
Absolutely. Last week, the food bank in my own area launched a fuel bank, because people are choosing between heating and eating. That is what is going to happen up and down the country this Christmas.
Where do we go from here? I hope that, given the evidence and the new tone being used by this Government—I was disappointed with the autumn statement, but I am an eternal optimist and hope that the Minister is listening—they will support the Bill and implement it at the earliest opportunity.
I turn to the question asked by Michael Tomlinson about our position. I made it very clear in my conference speech in September.
I will certainly do that. The hon. Gentleman is very welcome to cross the Floor.
I said—and this was widely reported at the time—that we want to scrap the system. We must be driven by evidence, and the evidence shows that it does not work. It does not motivate people or change behaviour. All it does is have a very harmful effect on the most vulnerable in society. It also has some very difficult spin-off effects.
I am coming to a conclusion. As part of my party’s sanctions review, I want to explore approaches that better reflect the change that I want to see in the culture of our social security system. I want it to be based on support and positive reinforcement, not harassment and punishment. Again, if we look at the evidence from the Netherlands, we see that such an approach is much more effective at moving people into sustainable employment.
Our social security system is, like our NHS, there for all of us in our time of need. It is based on the principles of inclusion, support and security for all, and it should assure all of us of our dignity at all times. I do not think that we can say that about the present system, and we certainly cannot say that about the sanctions system. I hope that the Government are listening, because this is so important. I implore them to implement the Bill.
I congratulate Mhairi Black on securing the debate, on the tone that she adopted and on the powerful way in which she spoke.
In my speech, I will identify three things: the general principle that working is important—the value of work—the existing sanctions regime and the importance of limiting sanctions wherever possible. Before I do so, I would like to make a general point. I think that the hon. Lady accepted that the system worked in some places, that there are hardship payments and that there is guidance. Implicit in her speech and in the Bill was the recognition that she seeks to change the implementation of the system, not the system itself, but I am not clear that legislation is necessarily the right way to do that.
First, I want to identify the principle of work. We need to encourage, empower and inform everybody about the opportunities of work, because work has a number of benefits. It gives people self-fulfilment and financial responsibility for themselves, and it enables them to be a role model for their children. Work also helps the country as a whole. If we have high employment and high productivity, we remain competitive as a nation and we ensure that those who might suffer, physically or mentally, from being out of work can help themselves. It is our job, as a Government, to ensure that those opportunities remain available and that people have the skills and the confidence to go to work.
Secondly, I said that I would identify the sanctions regime. The idea that people should go to work—that it pays to work, that people should get off benefits to go into work and that we should encourage them to do so—is neither new nor controversial. Likewise, the benefit system and the sanctions system are not new. The sanctions system has been around for four decades, and there is some evidence that sanctioning works; 70% of claimants say that they are more likely to follow the rules if they know that they are at risk of having their benefits stopped if they do not.
According to the National Audit Office report, international evidence suggests that sanctioning increases the number of people who go from benefits into employment. We have sanctions because we have conditions, and conditions are useful. Through the conditions system, people can get the training and the skills that they need, and conditions force people to get the skills that they need. As has been said during the debate, the evidence suggests that 90% of people do not have any sanctions at all.
To go back to the evidence from the National Audit Office, we must be reading two different reports. I have also looked at the report, and according to the official analysis of the benefit sanction system, there is absolutely no evidence that the sanctions regime imposed by the DWP has a positive effect on job outcomes. I would just like to get that on the record, because it is in complete contradiction to what the hon. Lady has just said.
I have read the report, and it states, as I have said, that the international evidence suggests that sanctions increase the number of people who go from benefits into employment. It is incredibly important that we get people into work.
Having set out the system, I would like to identify, thirdly, the things we need to ward against. We absolutely need to protect the vulnerable in our society. Those who cannot work must not be penalised, and we need to ensure that those who suffer sanctions are still able to maintain a proper standard of living.
As I said at the outset, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South rightly spoke about the importance of mental health, so the following principles are important. Sanctioning must be a last resort, and the sanctions must be monitored. It is right that there is a right of appeal, and that there is a further appeal to an independent decision maker. It is right that there is a hardship fund, and that that fund protects the most vulnerable.
Does my hon. and learned Friend, like me, welcome the Government’s broadening of the hardship fund to cover those points, including the homeless and those who suffer from mental ill health?
I welcome the comments made by the hon. and learned Lady and by Michael Tomlinson on the importance of the hardship fund and the good it can do. Will she therefore support the principle of the Bill? Instead of waiting and making the individual responsible for applying to the hardship fund, the Bill would mean that the individual’s entitlement to a hardship payment is immediately assessed. Is that something she can support?
My hon. Friend Conor Burns rightly identified that hardship payments are one of the steps set out in the process. We do not necessarily need legislation to identify the fact that people should be told that a hardship system is in place—that should happen. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South rightly identified that the practice works in some places. If it works in some places, it is not legislation that is needed. We need to ensure that good practice is happening throughout the country.
The hon. Lady also rightly spoke about the work of jobcentre staff, and the Oakley review said:
“All of the conversations that the Review team held with Jobcentre Plus staff highlighted their dedication to trying to help claimants back into work and ensuring that the social security system was administered fairly and effectively.”
That is what we need to keep doing.
The Bill rightly recognises that the position could be improved, because things can always be improved. There is a continuous assessment of what is right and what is wrong. We have had the independent Oakley review of sanctions, which recognised that work still needs to be done.
Is the hon. and learned Lady aware that Matthew Oakley gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry last year? He said that he was disappointed that the Government had not followed his initial review, which focused only on JSA claimants, and not on the very vulnerable incapacity benefit, ESA and UC claimants. He said that he was surprised and disappointed that the Government had not taken another approach to review those areas, too.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but the Government have accepted a significant number of the Oakley review’s recommendations. Of course we need guidance, but there is already some guidance from the DWP. The guidance lists a number of examples, including:
“The claimant provides a statement that he could not attend the jobcentre because he had to attend a job interview thirty miles…from his home. The DM writes to the claimant asking for details of the interview time... The claimant provides details which clearly show that he could not have attended the jobcentre at the time and day specified in the written notice. The details are provided after the five days, but they merely verify the claimant’s original statement. The claimant has shown good reason within the five days.”
May I finish the point? Guidance is already set out in the DWP documentation. Obviously not every scenario is set out, but it is the job of those working at jobcentres to help those who come before them.
My hon. and learned Friend may remember that certain cases from unemployment benefits case law used to be in the jobseeker’s allowance regulations. One reason why they were removed in 2012 was to prevent them from being interpreted as a definitive list of cases. There are numerous scenarios and individual circumstances that just cannot be put into a list.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is always hard—this is a challenge in all legislation—to set out the rules to be followed when not every scenario is identified in the legislation itself.
“Sanctions are being applied at a scale unknown since the Second World War and the operation of sanctions on this scale has made for the most significant change in the post-war social security system. Yet the Government” do not know for sure how much money has been withdrawn. Does the hon. and learned Lady not agree that more of the same process is completely useless?
I will make a little progress.
I want to comment on three points that were made by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South in her speech. First, she identified that she was concerned about the facelessness of the decision maker, but there are many systems in other areas in which the decision maker does not know the individual. Many immigration decisions are made by someone who does not know the individual. Our judicial system rests on the basis that the judge is not familiar with the individual case and assesses those cases on the evidence.
I will make some progress.
Secondly, the hon. Lady questioned how people can provide evidence that a bus or a train was late. I can think of a number of ways of doing so, such as taking a photograph of the dashboard or asking a member of staff to provide evidence. Thirdly, she said that staff may be affected, but I have already covered that point.
In conclusion, the hon. Lady’s Bill is important because we need to assess what works and what does not work. I welcome the call for consistency, because it is absolutely vital that we have a system that works fairly throughout the country.
I am about to finish.
I welcome the fact that we have had a review—the Oakley review—and the fact that the Government have taken on board some of the recommendations. We must consistently and constantly strive to ensure that work pays, that we encourage people to find work and, at the same time, we must protect the most vulnerable.
I normally say that I am very pleased to take part in a debate, but, unfortunately, I am not very pleased to do so today because we are having to discuss a terrible subject. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mhairi Black on the way she introduced this very important Bill. I cannot match her passion and, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will be glad to hear that I will not match her length, but I want to make a few points.
I listened very carefully to what Lucy Frazer said. Nobody on the SNP Benches disputes the fact that working is important—we all want everybody who is able to work to be in work, and that should be fundamental for everybody in every political party—but when she was talking about decision makers, she mentioned that we have a judicial system in which the judge does not know anything about the case. The fundamental difference is that such a person can go to court and present their case to the judge, but that is not possible in relation to decision makers in this process.
I want to comment on some of the remarks made by Conor Burns. I have always found him to be a reasonable chap, but I was disappointed by what he said. He made a point—it is often made by Conservative Members—that taxpayers and benefit claimants are somehow different and neither the twain shall meet. He must realise that many of benefits claimants were taxpayers and probably will be taxpayers again in the future. He quoted Beveridge, but these people have paid into the system for many years, and they often find themselves having to claim benefits because they have had an accident, they are ill or have a mental illness, or for many other reasons. It is totally wrong to look at the two as different: benefits claimants have been and will be taxpayers, and they are trying to get from the system what they are entitled to, but the hon. Gentleman does not seem to accept that.
We are not discussing the principle of sanctions today. We are discussing a Bill that sensibly seeks to mitigate the current system. Whether there should be sanctions at all is another debate for another day, but it is not what we are debating today. Many Government Members have spoken about mitigations in the system. It is true that people can get hardship payments, but it can take many weeks. Not only that, but the hardship payments are a percentage of what people would get from benefits. Despite what many people seem to think, benefits are hardly over-generous in the first instance. People who get by on benefits find that they cannot get by on hardship payments.
Parts of my constituency are relatively prosperous. Many people work in the North sea oil industry, for example. In the downturn in that industry, people lost well-paid jobs. Many of them came to me absolutely flabbergasted at the amount of money they got by signing on because they had believed for so many years the rubbish pushed by some of our media that all people on benefits live the life of Riley, which is absolute nonsense.
The point has been made that there is nothing new in the sanctions system, which is correct—sanctions have been part of the system since at least 1996—but what is new is the number of sanctions and how they are imposed. The system is deeply flawed, and SNP Members have long called for a full independent review of it. Even the National Audit Office found in its recent report that a shocking 24% of jobseeker’s allowance claimants received a sanction between 2010 and 2015 and that the rate of sanctions varies dramatically. That is not right and the Government must listen to the concerns about the damage that the application of benefit sanctions has on individuals and their families.
The report also states starkly:
“sanctions are not rare. A quarter of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants receive them at some point”,
which blows apart the Government’s assertion that only a small minority receive them. Worse still, there is absolutely no consistency in the figures. The report finds that some Work programme providers made more than twice as many sanctions referrals as other providers within the same geographical area, even though claimants are randomly allocated, so that case load characteristics are identical for each provider. That would not happen in a fair system.
There should be no more than a minor variation if the system is used uniformly. Clearly it is not, which the Bill would address by adding a clear code of conduct. The point is that, wherever someone is subject to the system up and down the United Kingdom, the same principles would be applied, and it would not be left to individual variance from place to place. The NAO believes that the DWP does not use sanctions consistently, noting that sanctions referral rates
“have risen and fallen over time in ways that cannot be explained by changes in claimant compliance.”
The Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South has introduced would make a start on the process. Hon. Members accept that it is does not do away with the sanctions regime. She is very intelligent and knows perfectly well that such a Bill would never get through the House in its current form. However, the Bill would go a long way to ensure that there is a coherent, unified process for all jobcentres and that advisers take a claimant’s personal circumstances into account before issuing a sanctions. Advisers would be compelled to take into account whether a person is at risk of homelessness and whether they have caring responsibilities or a mental health condition that could be exacerbated if their benefits were sanctioned.
It is interesting to note that in March 2015 the Work and Pensions Committee published a report, “Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review”, which recommended, among other things, that the Government take urgent steps to implement fully the outstanding recommendations of that report. To be scrupulously fair, the Government have taken some measures. They have trialled the yellow card system and we still wait to see what the outcome of that trial will be.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I hope that the Minister will address that point at the end of the debate, because in a written answer to my question asking when the details of the yellow card system would be published, the answer was the end of November. We are now into December.
When my hon. Friend has been here as long as I have, she will realise that a political month can go on for a very, very long time.
The point is that many of the people who are subject to sanctions are vulnerable or, frankly, leading chaotic lifestyles because of mental illness. In its comments on the Bill, SAMH, which has a scheme in my constituency, said:
“People with mental health problems are among the most vulnerable of benefit recipients, are 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.”
SAMH also makes the point that
“Sanctioning this group…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.”
In response to a Scottish Government consultation last October, it added that
“The number of sanctions applied in Scotland doubled in the last year, and individuals with mental health problems are disproportionately affected.”
According to Mind, figures obtained by a freedom of information request in November 2015 showed that 19,259 people with mental health problems had their benefits stopped under sanction in 2014-15, compared with just 2,507 in 2011-12. That is a 668% rise in just three years, which cannot be just or right.
These people are already vulnerable. The reason that they are perhaps not fully compliant with the rules is not that they are wilful but that they are unable to do so. A sanction will make matters worse and will not make them more likely to get a job; in other words, it is a completely counterproductive process. In fact, it could be even worse than that, because these people are also the least likely to look into how they can then get a hardship payment or how they can appeal. We get people coming into my office after they have been sanctioned completely unaware of the system and how they go about appealing a sanction or how they go about getting a hardship payment, and that happens despite the work that we do and despite the excellent work that Angus Council’s welfare benefits team do to point people in the right direction.
There are people, particularly those with mental health problems, who simply fall through the cracks, and the danger of not having a unified system is that more and more people will fall through those cracks. Many other Members will have stories of people in similar circumstances. Crucially, however, the Government also did not accept the WPC’s recommendation that they should
“establish a broad independent review of benefit conditionality and sanctions, to investigate whether sanctions are being applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately, in accordance with the relevant Regulations and guidance” that already exist.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not appropriate for somebody to be sanctioned in circumstances such as those of a constituent of mine, who was sanctioned when he did not turn up for a meeting because the letter about it was sent to the No. 5 in a different street to his?
It is absolutely incredible that such a thing could happen, which just goes to show the difficulties there are in the system as it works at the moment.
Many Government Members have claimed that international evidence clearly shows that benefit regimes supported by conditionality reduce unemployment and that the regime in the UK is clear and effective in promoting positive behaviours to help claimants back into work. However, a recent study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council found that most claimants’ experience of welfare conditionality and sanctions was a wholly negative one, creating widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment. That is hardly a shock to those of us who have had to deal with the issue when they have turned to us for help.
More telling, however, is that a Government-backed employment project run by Oxford City Council and the DWP found in June that cutting benefit entitlements makes it less likely that unemployed people will find a job. It said:
“Conventional wisdom suggests that taking money off benefit claimants (eg by sanctions or cutting benefit rates) acts as a financial incentive to get a job. Our analysis says that the opposite is in fact true”.
I have to disagree with my hon. Friend’s initial comment that he would not be able to match previous speakers’ passion, because I think he is doing that very well. In my constituency, when a major employer closed down, the DWP joined a taskforce to help the redundant workers back into work. The taskforce organised a half-day recruitment fair. Claimants who should have been signing on the day of the fair were told that they would be sanctioned if they met employers to get a job on the day they were supposed to sign on. Does he agree that changing legislation to prevent such things would improve the credibility and acceptability of any remaining sanctions?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that again illustrates the complete illogicality of the system.
Research has linked sanctioning to food insecurity, demand for food banks and destitution. According to the Trussell Trust’s figures, benefit sanctions are a major contributor to its delivering more emergency food parcels in 2016 than at any other time in its history. The NAO has also thrown into doubt the cost-effectiveness of sanctioning. If we passed the Bill, we could start to reduce the number of needless, senseless and counterproductive sanctions by introducing into the system a clear code of conduct and a fairer means by which to look at the personal conditions of the person being considered for sanctions. The Bill builds on the good practice in some jobcentres, as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South fairly pointed out in her introduction. It would protect the most vulnerable from falling into poverty and prevent what are often already chaotic personal lives from getting even worse.
The Scottish Parliament is getting new powers to establish employment schemes to assist those at risk of becoming long-term unemployed and to support disabled people back into work, although benefit conditionality and sanctions remain a reserved matter. The Employability and Training Minister, Jamie Hepburn, has confirmed that the Work First Scotland programme, which will provide employment support for more than 3,300 disabled people from next year, will be voluntary and will not use the threat of sanctions. In a rare moment of agreement, I am pleased that the DWP has agreed that the programme can be voluntary and that no sanctions will be applied. I hope that this is a sign that the Government are now beginning to see the merit in looking at the matter afresh. From this small step, I urge the Minister to go further and to support the Bill, which would put the regime on a proper and consistent footing and in the process make a real difference to many people’s lives across the whole United Kingdom.
I congratulate Mhairi Black on introducing the Bill, on the enormous amount of work and research she has clearly done in preparing it and on the great sincerity with which she put her case to the House.
I am sure the hon. Lady will not be surprised to hear that I disagree with her Bill, but it is a good thing for us to talk about those in the greatest difficulty and about which parts of the welfare system do not always work. All Members, in their day-to-day work and casework, will have come across the examples we have heard today of parts of the system that do not work as intended and are not helping people as well as they should, and we all do our bit to make sure those mistakes and oversights—letters going to the wrong address, for instance—are corrected. In my experience, they are very often corrected. I am sure we have all had mistakes corrected for our constituents. The fact that there are mistakes—even though they might be awful mistakes—is not necessarily a reason to rip the system up and start again.
We all in the Chamber agree on the need to do our bit, but according to Trussell Trust figures more than 1 million food parcels a year—the highest number since the war—are going out across every constituency in the country. Is that not clear evidence that the system is not working. After the second world war came the post-war social contract, and this shows the worst parts of the breakdown of that consensus, which was once shared in the House.
From visiting food banks in my constituency and looking into the issue, I know that there are many reasons why people are using them. I am sure we would all prefer it if people did not have to go to food banks, but there are many reasons why they do, so we should not point the finger entirely at the sanctions regime.
In that case, let us look at the Trussell Trust’s own statistics, showing that 44% of all food bank use is due to the two key areas of benefit delays and benefit sanctions. I believe it is our responsibility to resolve that matter. Does the hon. Lady not agree that when we are talking about nearly 50% of people using food banks because of a failure of the benefit system, it means that there is a fundamental and direct link between the two and that the Bill amounts, frankly, only to a modest gesture to help improve those circumstances?
As I said a few moments ago, I do not agree with the proposed Bill. I do, however, think it right to work, as the Government rightly are, on ways to improve the system. Substantial steps have been taken already.
Let me make a little progress, because I am coming on to the steps that have already been taken to make sure that the system works better. Chris Law knows, and we all know, that the Government have been working very hard and are listening. They responded, for example, to the Oakley review and acted on its recommendations to make the whole system work better.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. Does she agree that we have already seen the number of JSA sanctions halved since March last year and that the Government are dealing with ongoing reviews? Most of the arguments advanced so far in favour of the Bill have been about issues of human judgment, which will be exactly the same with the codes of practice and just cause listed in the Bill?
I understand that the hon. Lady wants to intervene, but will she let me make a bit of progress because I have hardly been through two sentences of what I was planning to say. I will, of course, allow her to intervene later, not least because she is so passionate about this subject.
I want to take a step back and talk about the overall system that is in place. We rightly have a safety-net benefits system so that nobody should have to live in abject poverty. This system is taxpayer funded and, as my hon. Friend Conor Burns argued earlier, we should not forget that the money that funds the system comes from people’s pockets—not just from the wealthiest, but from people who are not well off and those described as “just about managing”. We always need to ensure that the welfare system gets the balance right between supporting those who need help with their income and not taking too much money away from those who do not have a huge amount of money to spend in the first place.
The statistics show that the price of this sanctions regime as it currently stands and the subsequently overturned decisions is £50 million to the taxpayer. The Bill would change how benefit sanctions are administered. It is not about ripping the system apart, but about trying to make it more efficient precisely because we want to save taxpayers’ money as well as a lot of the hassle that some people have to go through.
The hon. Lady makes the important point that we should look for value for money from Government spending. That is absolutely right, but there seems to be some kind of error that the imposition of sanctions in its own right is all about trying to reduce the amount of money spent on benefits. My understanding of the benefits system is that it is part of a larger welfare system that is attempting to help people get into work. Work is an important aspect of the system and some money is spent to achieve that. It is the whole aim of the system around jobseeker’s allowance, the Work programme and so forth.
Let me make a bit of progress to get on to my second page, and I shall take more interventions later.
My main point is that we should all agree that it is perfectly reasonable to expect that in return for receiving a share of somebody else’s income as a benefit payment, the recipient should, if capable, make an effort to work. None of us wants a “something for nothing” culture—that is not good for anyone—and, rightly, conditions are attached to benefits. As long as those conditions are reasonable, it is also reasonable to attach a penalty for not complying, which is what the sanctions system does. Underpinning that is the social contract, which was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West. The simple moral case is that people who hope to benefit from a society that gives them certain rights and supports them when they are in need must also take responsibility themselves.
I am interested in the point that the hon. Lady is making about the social contract. Should not the same apply to all those women who paid into a contractual pension scheme—the WASPI women? Are they not also entitled to have that money paid back to them by the state?
For the avoidance of doubt, when we are discussing a Bill the debate must be about what is in the Bill, or what might be in the Bill, not what could be interesting but is at a tangent to the Bill. The hon. Lady is wise to stick to speaking about the Bill.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Accordingly, I shall now deal with the practical case for sanctions.
The purpose and the effect of sanctions is to encourage people to take steps to find work. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, 70% of claimants say that they are more likely to stick to the rules, and to participate in the activity that will help them to get closer to work, if they know that their benefits could be withdrawn.
I must make a little bit of progress. Otherwise I shall be speaking until 2.30 pm, and I know that other Members wish to speak.
Claimants in that position are more likely to turn up for appointments with their work coaches, more likely to search for jobs online, and more likely to engage in Work programme activities that will help them to make their way towards finding a job. I recently visited Faversham creek, where Work programme activities include building boats. That is a fantastic activity, and I could see—and heard stories about—the enormous difference that it can make to participants. They gain real skills and meaningful involvement, which can take them closer to the workplace. The structure of turning up and doing the work is very good for their self-esteem, and the benefits are clear.
I thank the hon. Lady for letting me intervene again. She has spoken about how positive work is, and how it gives us all self-esteem and great benefit. No one disagrees with that point, which has been made many times in the House, but let us be clear about the suggestion that sanctions somehow encourage or motivate claimants. Lucy Frazer said earlier that, according to the National Audit Office, analysis showed that sanctions work internationally, and I do not dispute that. My point is that, in the United Kingdom, analysis of the benefit sanctions system suggests that there is no evidence that sanctions imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions have a positive effect on job outcomes. Does the hon. Lady accept that?
I shall come to the point about the evidence in a moment, but before I do so I want to say something about conditionality. I know that Opposition Members think there should be no sanctions at all. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South has said that she opposes sanctions in their entirety, although I appreciate that the Bill is not intended to achieve that.
The problem is that if there are no sanctions, that brings conditionality into question. As other Members have said, conditionality has been a long-standing feature of welfare benefit entitlements since they were introduced at the beginning of the last century, and in the United Kingdom access to employment benefit specifically has always been conditional on recipients’ being involuntarily unemployed and available for work. Sanctions have been a feature of the JSA since it was introduced in 1996 and they were continued under Labour as well as the coalition Government.
Nor is the UK alone in imposing sanctions; it is the norm in most countries to have conditions placed on receiving benefits. France, for instance, imposes sanctions if a jobseeker refuses two reasonable offers of work. Germany also imposes sanctions, as do the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark and Norway. A recent study covering international evidence from Germany showed sanctions increase the probability of leaving the welfare system for employment by over 50%. Another study in the Netherlands showed they increased the probability of going into employment by between 36% and 98%.
The hon. Lady said France imposes sanctions if somebody refuses two reasonable offers of jobs. There is a world of difference between that and imposing sanctions on somebody because they are five minutes late for an interview or for any number of other trivial reasons why people have had their money taken off them.
I will come later on to the question about good reasons for sanctioning somebody. We do have to be careful. Examples have been given in this House, and we will have seen this in our own casework, where the reasons do not appear to be good reasons and sometimes they are indeed errors, but we should not base policy on those specific individual examples, although what we should do, as we all do, is follow up on those individual cases and make sure that where errors have been made they are addressed. That is exactly what the appeals system does.
I have a copy of the Bill, and the hon. Lady may wish to have one to hand. It states:
“Before sanctions or reductions…may be imposed…an assessment of the relevant circumstances” or
“conditions…found to be satisfied” are required. That is what the Bill asks for. Will the hon. Lady speak to the Bill itself?
I also have a copy of the Bill to hand and the explanatory notes, and that is indeed what I am speaking about.
I wanted to make sure, however, that I had laid the groundwork on the important role sanctions play in a fair benefits system that is supporting everyone who can work to get into work. That not only reduces the number of people relying on other people’s earnings for income, and not only helps give businesses and public services a much needed supply of workers, but it is generally a good thing for the individuals involved, because we know that work is generally good for us.
A recent paper by the Royal College of Psychiatrists called “Work and mental health” observed that although work can be a stressor for some people in some circumstances, a comprehensive review of the research shows that work is beneficial to health and wellbeing. It says that when people without work are re-employed they have an improvement in health and wellbeing, while further unemployment leads to deterioration. A lack of work is detrimental to health and wellbeing, and the health status of people of all ages who move off welfare benefits improves.
We also know children in working households have better outcomes in academic attainment, training and future employment. Work provides a route out of poverty for families and improves children’s wellbeing and life chances as fewer will grow up in workless households. One of the great successes since 2010 has been the fall in the number of children living in workless households, so there are fewer children living in a household where there is often no routine, no rhythm of work, and no role model showing work is something we can, and should, do.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South mentioned her visit to a job centre in South Thanet as part of her work as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. I have also visited job centres in Maidstone and Sittingbourne that serve my constituents and have observed the hard work the staff do to help the people who come to them get into work. I have been very impressed by my conversations with the work coaches and the active and sincere interest they take in helping their clients get into work—and their celebrations when people succeed, particularly those facing a real challenge to get into work.
I appreciate what the hon. Lady is saying, and ask her to join me in trying to get that same experience in those jobcentres to become the norm throughout the UK? This Bill seeks to spread that consistency and good quality of staff throughout the UK.
I agree with the hon. Lady that it would be good to have a consistently high standard of support in jobcentres across the country. I do not agree, however, that a Bill is the right way to achieve that. There are other ways of achieving improvement across all the sectors of our public services. I have done an enormous amount of healthcare work, as she might know, and I do not believe that legislating from the top is necessarily the right way to reduce variation and bring everyone up to the level of the best. There are many ways of doing that that do not involve legislation.
I want to ask a specific question about the Bill. Clause 1 states:
“Before sanctions or reductions (“sanctions”) may be imposed on a person in receipt of social security benefits which will have the effect of reducing or restricting those benefits—
(a) an assessment of the relevant circumstances of the person must be carried out, and
(b) conditions in this Act found to be satisfied.”
What is the problem with that principle?
I am going to deal with that point later in my remarks. As I was saying a moment ago to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, legislation is not always the right way to achieve improvement. Personally, I believe that, where possible, it is better to give those who work in the public sector greater autonomy to do a really good job. That gives people an enormous amount of motivation, because they usually go into those jobs because they want to make a difference.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the example cited by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South of a jobcentre in South Thanet that was doing really well shows that this is not an issue that requires legislation? This is about ensuring that there is consistent management throughout the system, which does not require a new Bill.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. He mentioned the jobcentre in South Thanet, and I want to correct the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South on that point. I do not want to do South Thanet down, but I represent an area of Kent that is not far from there, and I know that South Thanet has enormous challenges as a result of deprivation. It is not only the most challenged area of Kent but the 35th most deprived area in England and Wales. There are lovely parts of South Thanet, but it is not normal to describe it as leafy and affluent, as she appeared to do.
I have seen how the very good jobcentres around my constituency provide personalised, tailored support. For example, they might help an individual to find the right childcare to enable them to get into work. They might also help people living in rural areas to overcome transport challenges. That personalised service is possible in the current system because of the level of autonomy and responsibility given to work coaches, and I would be wary of any legislation that might reduce their ability to tailor their support to individuals.
I have already acknowledged that the system is not perfect. No one would suggest that a system providing support to thousands of people could be perfect. One strength of the system is that it has been designed specifically to keep decision making local and to take account of an individual’s circumstances. It offers flexibility, and where there is flexibility, there will be some variation. There is work to be done to ensure that the variations are not too great and to bring all jobcentres up to the level of the best, but that is not a reason to legislate nationally. As we know, when mistakes are made, there is a right of appeal.
I support my hon. Friend’s point. Investigations by my team sometimes lead to grave concerns. Caseworkers around the House are constantly doing work on the inconsistencies in the system and the opportunities to improve it. In a long process, the failure to provide information and the necessary documentation and attend assessments is often part of the issue. Where they exist, local relationships are important when trying to unpick why people have got into such situations.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the value of the relationship that the individual has with their work coach, who can support them when going through some processes. MPs also play an important role. I am currently supporting two constituents in their appeals. One was sanctioned after missing an appointment because they could not read their appointment card and another was sanctioned on the grounds that they did not use the right website to look for a job. We know that there are times when the system does not work as it should and we can support constituents who are going through the appeal process.
I thank the hon. Lady for taking another intervention from me. Does she agree that the vast majority of people will not go to their MP to ask for support? We see a tiny percentage of the people who, like in her example, could not read their appointment cards—there is any of a number of reasons. The others are not getting the support that they need. It is good that the hon. Lady supports those who do come to her, but she is not seeing the majority.
It is impossible to know how many people do not go to their MP, but I make my best efforts to be as accessible as possible to my constituents so that people know that they can come to me for help. What I find when following up on individual cases with the DWP, whether relating to sanctions or other problems with the benefit system, is that it is extraordinarily responsive and willing to review cases and reverse decisions that turn out to be flawed. I am reasonably confident that the DWP steps up and corrects mistakes when they are made.
I cannot help but notice a deep irony in the hon. Lady’s comments. She cites examples of where the system has failed and of when her constituents have not been served well, and my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South is bringing forward a Bill that will help all our constituents and help the system to be fairer. How can she not see that irony and not support the Bill?
I wonder whether the hon. Lady has been listening to what I have been saying. I think I have recognised that the system has problems. Mistakes will be made in any system of such a scale, but that does not mean that the answer is to impose some more top-down legislation. It is better to try to improve how the system works and to support jobcentres that might not be doing so well to come up to the level of those that are doing best.
My hon. Friend is being generous with her time to both Government and Opposition Members. The key point is that the NAO report will be considered by the Public Accounts Committee, which will then produce recommendations. We keep returning to the fact that what is in the Bill would still be subject to discretion. We are talking about management issues and ensuring consistency and they do not require a new law.
I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene. First, I am more than happy for this Bill to be looked at and to have different inputs, so the Government should support it in principle and we can then thrash out in Committee the technicalities of how it can be implemented. Secondly, if the Government are genuinely interested in listening, it might be an idea for the hon. Lady to speak to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I have been trying for weeks to get a meeting with him to discuss the Bill, but I am yet to have even a reply.
My experience is that the Government are genuinely listening and, as we have heard in many examples today, have repeatedly responded to recommendations about improving the system. There is a continual process of listening and improving. But, no, I do not agree with the principle of the Bill, which is to legislate to address what are essentially problems with the management and implementation of the current system.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I commend her for thanking the members of staff in her own jobcentres. If I may, I will join her and thank the staff in my own constituency of Louth and Horncastle. May I just ask this question? Clause 1 (1)(a) says that
“an assessment of the relevant circumstances of the person must be carried out”.
Does that not happen already?
My hon. Friend is right that those circumstances are considered already, so much of what is in the Bill duplicates what is already done, and is included in extensive guidance to work coaches.
The hon. Lady says that legislation should not be introduced when it is not necessary, but the Government are poking their noses in all sorts of places where they should not be, so why not here? [Interruption.] She does not like legislation, but what about a code of conduct setting out the procedures, tests and standards to be followed and applied in carrying out assessments? What is wrong with a code of conduct laid down via regulation?
As I literally just mentioned, there are already extensive guidelines, so why add to them with another code of conduct? It is simply duplication.
I wish to move on now to mental health. I am chair of the all-party group for mental health, and I recognise that there have been particular problems with sanctions being imposed on people with poor mental health. We know that people with mental health problems have been disproportionately affected by sanctions, partly because of the complex and fluctuating nature of those conditions, and that sanctions have caused them a great deal of stress and anxiety.
Mind, the mental health charity, has made the point about the great number of people with mental health conditions who have been receiving sanctions. In its evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee in 2014, it talked about the problems with the way that people with mental health problems were being supported in the benefits system, and those problems persist. We know that an individual’s mental health problems are not always well understood by the people in the jobcentres, and that some of the activities required of them as conditions for receiving benefits can be inappropriate and are sometimes thought to move them further away from work. That can be the case despite the fact that people with mental health conditions frequently very badly want to work.
Efforts are already being made to support people with mental health problems into work. Work coaches already receive guidance specifically on how they can best support people with mental health conditions. For instance, the definition of people regarded as “at risk” now includes those with mental health conditions, so hardship payments can be expedited. In recognising the challenge for people with mental health problems getting into work, the Government have recently published a Green Paper, “Improving Lives”, which is a joint effort between the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions. I very much welcome it, as it recognises that there is a large employment gap between those in good health and those with long-term illnesses—physical and mental—and it sets out a series of proposals to try to improve that situation. One proposal seeks to improve the support for people with mental health conditions, including developing the employment offer alongside talking therapies, enhanced training for work coaches to support people with mental health conditions, more disability employment advisers, and personal support packages offering better tailored employment support for people with health conditions. That set of proposals must be a reminder to everyone here how committed the Government are to helping people with health conditions into work, particularly those with mental health conditions. The Government are doing an enormous amount to help people in these situations. The Green Paper is very much part of a common theme of the Government listening, responding to the situation and trying to make the system better.
On the other actions the Government are taking, we have heard that they accepted the recommendations of the Oakley review. The Work and Pensions Committee, in its recent follow-up review, said:
“We welcome DWP’s acceptance of the Oakley Review’s findings, and the steps that it has taken towards implementation of the Review’s recommendations.”
The Government have accepted many of the recommendations in the Select Committee’s follow-up report, including trialling the yellow card system, so claimants will have 14 days’ warning before they are sanctioned, and we will soon hear how that has gone. The Government have been issuing comprehensive guidance to staff to improve awareness of how JSA conditions can be varied to take account of the claimant’s physical or mental health condition and caring responsibilities. The Government have also provided for claimants to agree with their work coach any restrictions in their pattern of availability and/or in the type and hours of work they are capable of doing, as long as the restrictions are reasonable in light of their condition. Therefore, all JSA claimants should have conditionality requirements that are tailored to their specific circumstances. As more people move on to universal credit, more will benefit from its even more tailored approach.
To conclude, given all that is being done to improve the system we have—a system that is rightly designed with a level of flexibility to allow for improvement—the Bill is unnecessary and unhelpful. It is unnecessary because it seeks to legislate for things the Government are already doing. For instance, there is guidance that requires an assessment to be carried out of whether hardship payments are appropriate. There is also a whole set of guidance about things that would count as good reasons for a claimant not to attend an appointment or make their Work programme commitments. Those good reasons include things such as homelessness, travel time, domestic violence, bullying, harassment, mental health conditions and learning difficulties.
I could go on, but as has been said, that list is not intended to be exhaustive, and it gives scope for judgment on the part of the decision maker. Critically, the system we have is intended to support and enable work coaches to give flexible support to the individuals they are helping into work. It is intended to give some autonomy and responsibility to jobcentres in supporting people into work.
What we should not try to do where a system does not work perfectly is always to centralise and always to legislate. It is better to persist with an approach that is about improving the way the service works on the ground. My experience of work coaches is that they are thoughtful and doing their absolute best for the individuals they are trying to help into work, and I absolutely support them. What they have told me they need more than anything is time to spend with the individuals they are supporting. What they do not need is more complexity, more legislation and more rules that might get them into legal knots. Let us give them the support and the time to do the best possible job by the individuals they are helping into work.
Today started so well. My hon. Friend Mhairi Black took us on an incredible journey through the sanctions system, explaining why we need the Bill to pass, and many of my colleagues and many Labour Members made really powerful interventions—but then things just started to go wrong. I am standing here feeling like I am banging my head on a brick wall. I feel powerless. As an MP, I feel that I can do nothing to get the message through and to make people understand. If I feel powerless, depressed and, to be honest, close to tears at times, how on earth must somebody who actually has no power and who is at the mercy of this Government when they are using the benefits system be feeling. I do not even want to make this speech, but I will anyway.
As MPs, we often have to manage the expectations of our constituents. I would say that I am pretty good at fighting for them, sometimes tooth and nail—as no doubt are many others who have talked about supporting people in difficult situations—but we have to let them know that we do not have a magic wand. If I did have a magic wand and could make it do something today, I would get rid of the pernicious sanctions in the benefit system, because they are cruel and unnecessary.
I always say that the Conservative party knows the cost of everything and the value of absolutely nothing, but the sanctions do not even tick the Conservative box of being cost-effective. The irony is that, despite all their clamouring to reposition themselves as the party of working people—that is even more laughable—the Tories are simply showing their true colours by allowing the system to persist.
My hon. Friend’s Bill is based, quite rightly, on the premise that having a decent job is in an individual’s interest, as we have heard from Helen Whately. I agree with that, and the vast majority of people will try their level best to get one where one is available. The Government, with their usual deeply cynical view of humankind, have developed this policy based not on their view of the value of work, but entirely on their disdain for those who happen to be without it.
Not yet. I am going to talk about my mother, who is slightly more important to me than the hon. Gentleman. My mother regularly told me—I was a not-too-confident child—that I was as good as anyone else. She said that I was no worse and, being Scottish, no better, but as good. Let me tell those on the Government Benches today—not all of them need to hear this, but most of them do—that the same goes for us all. My constituents, whether they are in work or not, and whatever their reason for being out of work—whether illness, lack of jobs or a lack of self-confidence—are every bit as good as every one of them. Government Members are not better than my constituents. They may have been treated better in life and had better opportunities, but that does not mean that they deserve better, because they do not.
Truly, I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She and I have had many discussions and exchanges about this subject, the first almost exactly a year ago. She speaks with great passion, but Government Members have no less compassion than Opposition Members. She has mentioned her constituents, but all our constituencies have examples such as those that she has cited. She spoke a few moments ago about the principle of sanctions. Will she be crystal clear: would she get rid of the sanctions system altogether?
That is not what we are talking about, but as a special treat for the hon. Gentleman, I will come on to that and be very clear about what I think about the sanctions regime.
That is absolutely right and I completely agree. I am glad that my hon. Friend has brought that up again.
Michael Tomlinson has said that Government Members have as much compassion as Opposition Members. I suppose that depends on his definition of compassion. Was Mr Nuttall compassionate when he said that people were terrified of getting a job? In other words, he was saying that they are lazy and workshy. Then, when we attacked him for saying that, he sniggered.
Let me think: do I want to give way to somebody who speaks about my constituents in that way? No, I do not. My constituents who are out of work are every bit as deserving of a decent life as any Government Member. If they agree with that, they need to ask themselves how valued and respected would they feel if someone stood over them, pointing the finger, tutting away, treating them like naughty schoolchildren and taking away their entire income by way of punishment for minor misdemeanours. Except they cannot imagine that, because most of them—I take the point made by Conor Burns about being unemployed—have been nowhere near that kind of life. Well, lucky them.
I thank my hon. Friend for deeming me worthy to be given way to. On contrasting lifestyles, does she share my disappointment and alarm about the fact that we can have legislation that targets some of the poorest people in society, but we cannot find the legislative means to tackle people such as Philip Green who have stolen workers’ pensions but who are happy to keep their own yachts and who are taking away from people at the bottom of our society?
Absolutely. Without wanting to put words in my hon. Friend’s mouth, I wonder whether she is suggesting that there is a bit of political ideology behind all this.
The Bill does the best that we can do, working within the system. The Government cannot really argue with what is proposed, because they claim that they do it anyway. They claim that they already take people’s circumstances into account. If that is the case, they should just agree to the Bill. The hon. Member for Bournemouth West said that he would not support the Bill because my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South had said that she was opposed to sanctions, full stop. I want to know how supporting the Bill is going to end the sanctions regime. It is not; it is going to make the regime a little bit more humane, but there is, sadly, nothing in the Bill that will end the sanctions regime.
I will let the hon. Gentleman come in if he will answer my question. Why is he not supporting the Bill? He said that he would not do so because the Bill will end the sanctions regime. Nothing in the Bill says that it will, so why will he not support it?
There are very good reasons not to support the Bill that do not relate to the comments that Mhairi Black made about her approach to sanctions in general. Much of the Bill duplicates what already happens, and it would increase bureaucracy. I have also made the point that the Government have listened consistently, and they have improved and changed things. It might be a timely moment for Anne McLaughlin to fulfil her promise to answer my hon. Friend Michael Tomlinson about her approach to sanctions in principle.
Is my hon. Friend frustrated, as I am, about the fact that Government Members seem to be applauding themselves for being so good at listening, but they have not listened for the last three hours, while we have told them how the system is not working and why we need the Bill to formalise what should be happening?
Absolutely. As I said at the start, I feel as though I am banging my head off a brick wall. In fact, I think that that might be a better use of my time.
If we are already doing this, the requirement in the Bill for someone’s caring responsibilities to be taken into account when considering a sanction happens already, does it? Tell that to my constituent Claire, a single parent who was summoned to an interview with the jobcentre on a day the following week at 3 pm, the exact time that her six-year-old gets out of school. She asked whether the meeting could be changed to 3.30. No. Could it be changed to earlier in the day? No. Could it be changed to another day? No, it had to be on that day at 3 o’clock, the time that she needed to pick up her child from school. She said, “Should I leave my child there, or should I take my child out early?” She was told, “We don’t care, as long as you get here, and if you do not get here at 3 o’clock on that day, we are sanctioning you.” Were her caring responsibilities taken into account? No. I do not want to hear that that was an incorrect decision or an isolated case. I am sick of hearing that. It was not an isolated case, because we hear about this all the time. I could talk about it until midnight and I would not get through, such is the number of times I have heard about it.
I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way. When it comes to the system not working, does she agree that we have heard about very many cases and it is quite clear that Conservative Members are not listening? A constituent of mine, who had Parkinson’s and who fell twice coming to my office, had been sanctioned—against the DWP’s own recommendations that people with degenerative diseases should be treated through a paper process and not be subjected to interviews. Twice I wrote to the DWP, but only when I brought his case to this Chamber was it properly dealt with. That is not how the system should work, and the Bill would address that.
Absolutely. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South on proposing this Bill, and I thank her on behalf of many of my constituents. If the Bill is successful, it will provide some protection. If not, it will at least have raised the issue again, and people out there will know that somebody in here cares about what happens to them.
I will start—I say “start,” but I have been going on for quite a while—by offering the treat that the hon. Member for Bournemouth West is looking for by arguing against the entire sanctions regime. I challenge him to respond to my arguments. I saw Government Members being given a sheet of paper with a list of suggested interventions, but I have experience, and lots of it, on my side, so challenge away.
I will argue on three levels. First, there is the financial argument. I will use only factual arguments, and the sanctions regime costs us more to run than it saves—that is before we look at the long-term hidden costs. Secondly, there are the academic arguments. Conditionality in the welfare system does not work. It is not me making that argument; it is academics. I will share their findings, and let us see whether Government Members have actual evidence to the contrary—not opinions, but evidence. Thirdly, I will make the moral argument, and here Government Members can make a counter-argument because we all have a different moral compass—morality can be subjective, a matter of opinion. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that anybody who thinks it is right that we sanction the benefits of people who are already in poverty needs their compass reprogrammed pronto.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is my MP, for giving way. Is it not ironic that we interrupted today’s debate to talk about the UK’s response to global poverty and the sustainable development goals? Does she recognise, as I hope the Minister does, that the Government have a duty to meet those sustainable development goals and eradicate poverty here at home, too? In fact, as we have heard in all the testimony today, the sanctions regime makes that poverty worse.
I agree with everything my constituent says. On the financial argument, let us look at the hidden costs. We do not know how much those hidden costs amount to, but it does not take a genius.
The hon. Lady has just said that we do not know the costs. Earlier in this debate, Mhairi Black suggested that the explanatory notes contain figures on the cost of the Bill. I have looked again at those explanatory notes, just in case I had missed it, but it turns out that I had not missed anything. All the notes say is that, in relation to clause 9 on financial provision,
“The Bill will require a money resolution to cover increased expenditure under the Bill.”
There would clearly be increased expenditure. When Anne McLaughlin talks about the costs, will she explain how much the increased expenditure will be?
If it is in order for me to say so, that is the last time I will let the hon. Gentleman intervene. When there is expenditure, it is about political choices. I choose to support people who are at their lowest, and I choose not to pay £400 million to redecorate Buckingham Palace. As he knows, I was talking about the long-term hidden costs.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She is contrasting supporting the most vulnerable with paying for Buckingham Palace. I speak on behalf of my constituents, and their median salary is £480 a week. I am not talking about Buckingham Palace; I am talking about being fair to people in my constituency who earn £480 a week. I am sure she agrees that that is not a great deal of money, and those people require fairness, just like the vulnerable people who Members on both sides of the House have mentioned.
That reminds me of a constituent who wrote to me about his benefits being sanctioned for 13 weeks and about how he is now back in work and how he hates benefits scroungers because they caused the sanctioning to happen.
Will the hon. Lady let me develop my argument? That is just about turning people with very little against people with nothing. My point is that the Member for Louth and Horncastle—
The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle, because the most important thing in this debate is that I say “hon. Member”, is it not? She said that she is not talking about Buckingham Palace, but her Government are, and she is supporting the Government to redecorate Buckingham Palace, while saying that we cannot support people.
The other thing is that the people on £480 a week may well be unemployed at some point and may well face benefit sanctions.
No, I will not let the hon. Lady in again.
It does not take a genius to work out that it will cost more if we put people out on the street. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South cited the figure from Crisis, which has done some studies. It found that 21% of the people it spoke to said that they became homeless as the result of a sanction. How much is it going to cost to rehouse people and to deal with the health and mental health problems that result from their having nothing, losing their home and being on the street? All sorts of figures are being batted around, but according to a story in Scotland’s Daily Record, the National Audit Office has said that, when the figures are added up, it costs £135 million more per year to implement benefits sanctions than we save by them. I think that that proves the financial argument.
On the academic argument, I have a report on welfare conditionality from the Universities of Glasgow and York. I am happy to send it to people if they want to read it. The report shows that conditionality in the welfare system does not work, if by “working” we mean that it helps people to move into employment. It does not help people into employment. The first wave of findings found that, in all the research on the impact of the current sanctioning regime, only one individual thought that sanctioning made them more active, which is less than 2% of those interviewed. Later, I will read out what somebody said.
Mr Nuttall mentioned the need for a money resolution if this Bill is to progress further, but the Government have not tabled a money resolution for the last private Member’s Bill that was approved by the House. Even if we have a vote and the House gives this Bill a Second Reading, there is no guarantee that the Government will let it progress any further.
That is absolutely correct, and what does that say about the democracy of this place?
The fact is that most of the respondents in the research were already keen to find work—most people are—and even the practitioners who are imposing the sanctions regime are sceptical about its benefits. As we have already heard, DWP staff are under incredible pressure. When I spoke about the aspirations they have to reach, the hon. Member for Bournemouth West challenged me to provide the name of the whistleblower who told me all about this, and then just hope that they stay in employment. I will not do that, but I will point him to an article on a journalist’s website called “Common Space”, in which Fraser Stewart talks about how he gave up his job and became unemployed because he could not bear to keep up with the targets or aspirations that were set for him. The hon. Gentleman can have a look at that, although I am surprised he does not know about it already.
I was glad to read the research to back up what I have always known, which is that conditionality does not work. I do not think people have to be that bright to see why it does not work to have somebody standing over them telling them, “You must do it”. I wonder how many of the Conservative Members who have spoken today require a stick to be wielded over them for them to go out to find work. [Interruption.] They have the Whips—that is a very good point—but how many of them went out into the world of work and said, “I’m not going to bother doing this”. What makes them so special, because they will all say, “No, no, I always wanted to work”? I was always keen to work, but so are most people. Most people have aspirations.
I promise my hon. Friend that I am intervening on her for one last time. Is she aware of this year’s “Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, support and behaviour change” project report? It states that
“the impacts of benefit sanctions are universally reported by welfare service users as profoundly negative.”
It also found that sanctions have pushed some people into committing survival crime. Is not the fact that people in our society are pushed into committing crimes just so that they can survive a shame and a stain on our society?
That is an absolute shame on our society, and it costs more money, because when people commit crimes, we have to detect them and punish criminals.
I want to talk about a friend—[Interruption.] Wheesht! If an hon. Member wants to intervene, they can do so.
Order. I will just make it clear that the hon. Lady is quite right in saying “wheesht”. We cannot have sedentary interventions.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I want to speak about a friend who has been through the system and tell Members what was done to her. She asked to change her signing on day because she could not find work and wanted to set up her own business. She was given a fantastic opportunity to present to 60 people in the industry that she wanted to go into. She could not have had a better opportunity, so she asked to change her signing on day. They said no. She said, “But I’ll lose this opportunity.” They said, “Tough.” She said, “But I have to go.” They said, “That’s fine, but we will be cutting your benefits if you do.” The Minister is looking perplexed, which is how he looked at my Friend Peter Grant.
May I just say that I think everybody is honourable in case I forget to say it again?
These are not isolated cases. My friend could not do that presentation and had to sign on because she could not afford to lose unlimited amounts of that meagre income. She had to refuse that business opportunity. The damage it did to her reputation and self-confidence was incredible. She could not say to the person inviting her to the conference, “I’m awfully sorry but I have to go and sign on that day,” because she was positioning herself as a serious business person. She lied, but did so unconvincingly and was offered no more opportunities. The impact on her self-confidence and ability to apply for further jobs or develop her business was dramatic. I know that because the person I am talking about is me.
That was only three years ago. The decision did not make me any more likely to find work; it made me far less likely to find work. I felt powerless and my confidence went. I continued to apply for jobs, but how many jobs will someone be offered when the words they write make it quite clear that they are not feeling it and do not have the confidence to do the job? If I have time, I will tell a story of being unemployed that shows why conditionality does not work, and what does work.
I have no notes on the moral argument because it should go without saying. Let us take one single person—this is not about parents who are struggling to feed their kids—who is living on £73 a week. Does any hon. Member imagine that that is easy or manageable?
No. I want to talk about the people who need to be talked about.
It is a struggle. If that person’s washing machine breaks down, they cannot get it fixed on £73 a week. They have holes in the bottom of their shoes and it is raining non-stop—perhaps that is just a Glasgow thing—and cannot afford to buy new shoes. They cannot afford to be part of what their friends and family are part of. Victoria Atkins said that they can apply for 60% of their benefits, which means they can get £40 a week if they know about it and if they are successful. They cannot live on £73 a week, never mind £40 a week. That is immoral. The only reason for sanctioning is to say to people, “You are too lazy and you are workshy.” It is punishment and that is all it is.
I had bad and good experiences. My good experience was that I had an adviser who had faith in me. He built my confidence. I had already been a Member of the Scottish Parliament. It was not as if I was lacking in confidence, but it goes instantly when people are treated as if they are children, or as if they are workshy and do not want to go out and earn their own living. Nobody wants not to work. There are reasons why people do not apply for work, and we need to investigate them. They might be lacking in confidence. I have met so many people who say, “Who would employ me?” So they are not applying for jobs because they think, “Who would employ me?” Nobody is helping the and people are taking their money away from them, so that they lose even more confidence. It is unacceptable and it just does not work.
I have not seen the film, “I, Daniel Blake”; I just need to go to a constituency surgery; I do not need to see the film. However, I will see it and we should all thank Ken Loach for making it—I want everyone to see it. I am not saying that members of the Conservative party do not know anything about real life—I would not say that—but for those who have not experienced anything like this situation, please go and watch it. Government Members said it was fiction but it is based on fact.
No, I will not, but I will respond to that point. The hon. Gentleman is saying, “She’s not seen it”—incredulously. I do not need to see it; I have lived it. I do not have to see it, but I will go and see it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South mentioned our top-notch researcher, Tanya. Tanya told me that she went to see “I, Daniel Blake”, and came away thinking, “What is the point of any of this that we’re doing?” Are Government Members proud that they have made her feel that way, that they have made her feel as if she is powerless to help anybody? She was in tears. I guess that is what the sanctions are all about. They are about grinding people down, so that they know who the bosses are, making them know exactly how powerless they are—
I will not give way to somebody with lots of power; I want to talk about people with no power. The reality is that the true motivation behind these sanctions is political ideology that says, “We are better than you”.
Now, if this Bill is not passed today—I am guessing that we will not get it through today—[Interruption.] There they go again, Madam Deputy Speaker, telling me that I do not have the right to speak. I am sick of hearing that in this House. It is important that what we are saying to people here is—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know that passions are running high in the Chamber but I do please ask the hon. Lady to reflect what Members across the Chamber are saying—
Order. If the hon. Lady is making a point of order, she must make it to the Chair, not to Anne McLaughlin. If she wishes to make a point of order, she has the opportunity to do so.
I am extremely grateful and this is the first point of order I have ever made, Madam Deputy Speaker, so forgive me if I do not know the procedure. The hon. Lady has made assertions about what has been said by Government Members, but the things she is asserting simply have not been said. The claims that we have been accusing people on benefits of being scroungers and what she has just said are simply not true.
.I appreciate that it is the hon. Lady’s first point of order, but it is not properly a point of order. It is not for the Chair to decide what any particular Member can say, but I am quite sure that the hon. Lady for Glasgow North East will temper her speech so as to reflect what has been said, not what might be said, but the hon. Lady has the right to say whatever she likes, within reason, and she is speaking within perfect reason in this House.
Again, the hon. Gentleman has made his point. It is not a point of order as such, but I am well aware, and I have already said a few times in this debate, that we must not have sedentary interventions, that people must not shout when they are not taking part in the debate, and I will make sure that they do not do so. At the same time, this is a heated debate on an important subject and I cannot reasonably expect everyone to sit in silence—that would be uncharacteristic.
Also, I have every confidence in the hon. Lady for Glasgow North East being able to conduct this part of the debate with perfect precision and indeed rhetoric.
If I must, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Somebody does not have to use the words “benefits scrounger” to imply that somebody is a benefits scrounger; they just have to apply vicious sanctions to them because they were five minutes late for an appointment, or because they attended hospital with their wife when she was giving birth.
I will end by sharing the story of two of my constituents, who I met during the election campaign a year and a half ago. I bumped into them and their beautiful two-year-old daughter on the street, and they told me that the day she was born, he went with his wife as she gave birth. Does anybody here think there is anything wrong with that? Does anyone think that the right decision was to say, “Sorry, I’m going to sign on”? He forgot all about it in the euphoria—well, euphoric for him, if not for her—and was at his wife’s side as she gave birth. The following day he went in, euphoric—“I’ve had a baby”—but apologising, and they sanctioned that young couple, and that tiny little baby. Her first ever birthday gift was a six-week sanction—not a single milk token, not a single pound to support that family.
I feel that my language has been as tempered as I can get on this subject. When I hear such stories—it is not an isolated case; I have heard so many like it, as I have said before—I find it difficult to retain a calm demeanour. My priority is to support my constituents. The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle is looking at me as if to say, “I would never have done that to them”, but she supports a regime that allows it to happen. That is the important point.
It is a pleasure to follow the lively, considered and very honest speech from Anne McLaughlin, who shared her personal journey. The House is at its best when we share our personal experiences, as we have heard from across the House today.
I congratulate Mhairi Black on producing the Bill; it was no easy feat. I am sure that many hours and much hard work went into it. It has given Members on both sides of the House a chance to look at the issues, to challenge their views and to question whether there is some lack of understanding. I recognise that for many this is an emotional, difficult and distressing subject. It is important, especially with the introduction of universal credit, that we continue to make sure that the benefits system is not only fair but humane.
I have sat through today’s interventions and passionate speeches, and I have sought to listen and to understand, and I now wish to bring to bear my own experiences, as an MP and a mum, and as somebody who has conducted surgeries and is doing related casework locally. When I meet constituents in peril, I speak to them about benefits assessments and mental health support. As we have heard today, it does not end just at the MP’s office. My staff and I take this support extremely seriously, as do all those who work to provide support, be they those in the local community and charities sector or those working in the local departments. I would like to put on the record my huge thanks to all the staff who work in these various departments and to my team and all the casework teams getting to the bottom of these matters. We will learn nothing in the House if we do not bring that to bear here.
I have spoken to my casework team this week and reflected on past meetings with constituents, and very often we are talking about constituents who have not attended assessment or interview. We have heard today the many and multifarious reasons why people have not turned up to interview or provided the necessary documentation in time.
It can be heart-breaking to hear that sanctions have been applied in some cases because people were unable to read and write and therefore be a part of the system. If people cannot understand the system and it does not work for them, it can be frightening.
I mentioned earlier that in my constituency there is great partnership working between the DWP and what is called in Scotland “the community planning process”, through which all partners within a local authority come together. Does the hon. Lady agree that, on reflection, the DWP needs to improve that aspect of its working, not only in my constituency but across the United Kingdom? If the system is to benefit those most in need, does she agree that that needs to happen, rather than, as in my constituency, withdrawing officers from food banks?
I absolutely agree about the importance of an integrated approach. Last night, I gave out an award at one of my local colleges for one of the most improved maths and English students. Some people who came to the local college were unable to engage with education, let alone a benefits system. We need to understand that people must feel able to participate in the process.
In some cases, my constituents were aware of what they needed to do, but they somehow failed to gain a sense of ownership or an understanding of the process, which led to complications and, in some cases, very regrettable sanctions. I have been involved with parents and others who are concerned about vulnerable individuals. I found from my surgery work that in some cases the reason for non-attendance—illness, for example— had not been taken into account.
We met some great success with sanctions decisions being reversed when there was an unavoidable reason for failure to comply. Inevitably, however, there were some instances where sanctions were imposed and no good reason existed. My team and I have been able to work alongside the individuals and families in cases where the process has got on top of them—and my biggest concern about the Bill is that it amounts to more process in a difficult and complex area.
In addition to dealing with DWP benefit sanctions, I have worked with a small number of HMRC tax credit suspension inquiries due to investigations regarding the eligibility of single living claims. HMRC has recognised problems and implemented solutions that have helped to sort out the bottlenecks surrounding evidence by claimants. This has reduced the number of delayed decisions locally. I thank HMRC for its work in this respect.
For some constituents who approached me for help with making progress on getting a decision to reinstate their claim, the problem has been the consistency of their evidence. There can be a discrepancy between what people say to their MPs or their work coaches and what they actually do. I am sure that other hon. Members will have had their own experiences. Indeed, we have heard in today’s debate the wealth of knowledge that Members have brought into play.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South once again on her Bill. I am yet to be successful in the private Member’s Bill process, and I am sure that it is an absolute minefield. The hon. Lady therefore deserves our congratulations.
Before I come on to the specifics of the Bill, I believe it is necessary to examine its main principles. Clearly, the Bill is not designed specifically to reverse the conditionality of the system, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South was at pains to point out. It is going to be quite difficult to ensure that any benefits system is going to work where any condition is likely to arise. We have heard about the importance of assessing and assessing again after sanctions.
To some extent the debate has been about showing our colours—whether we as Members agree or disagree with conditionality in the sanctions. I do believe in it, as long as it sits alongside, as it must, positive transitional work and local support for increasing employment. There is absolutely no point, as we have heard, of having the stick without the carrot. It is all about getting the right balance.
The National Audit Office report on how people have been affected by sanctions and how likely they are to get into work has rightly been acknowledged. The review states:
“The existence of benefit conditionality and a system of sanctions is…supported almost uniformly across the political spectrum in Great Britain.”
It also notes that similar systems can be found throughout the developed world, and Members have mentioned many different countries today. As we have heard, and as I have been at pains to point out, 70% of claimants are more likely to follow the rules if they know that they could be sanctioned—but only if they understand the system.
A system of sanctions is a necessary and well-supported part of our benefits structure. We know that the conditions need to be checked, and that they should be used fairly. I do not think that any Member in any part of the House believes in unfairness, and it should be rooted out.
My hon. Friend is making a fine and reasoned speech. Does she agree that Conservative Members acknowledge that any system run by human beings is liable to mistakes? I have experience of that myself, because in the early stages of my previous career I used to prosecute cases for the Department for Work and Pensions, and on several occasions I refused to prosecute because I considered that the Department had taken the wrong view. Does my hon. Friend, like me, find it unhelpful and, indeed, a little hurtful when Opposition Members accuse us of not being compassionate? That is not our reason for disagreeing with the Bill; we believe that the current regime should be reviewed, and the Department is doing that.
I thank my hon. Friend for her considered intervention.
Today we have heard about a “postcode sanctions lottery”, about formalising and consistency, and about efforts to ensure that no one falls into the gap. The people who make the decisions will not always be in possession of the full facts, which is why we need a process to examine the sanctions system. The four principles of the Gregg review offer a useful set of tools for assessment of the strength of the policy, and were endorsed in the Oakley review. The additional pillar described in the Oakley review has also provided a clearer recourse in terms of appeal, and that must be welcomed.
We are talking—and have been all day—not about statistics, but about people, livelihoods, aspirations, children, families, homes and security, and that is absolutely right. I strongly believe that this is a listening Government. My hon. Friend Helen Whately said what worried her about the Bill was the risk of duplication and pure bureaucracy in a system that would continue to be tweaked and would continue to evolve. That system will have to change to meet new challenges, and there are people in the middle of the process. I know that, in this area as in many others, the Government are listening and proceeding with reform based on constructive criticism and research, and that they are taking a pragmatic stance. I like to think that the Minister, who is a Hampshire neighbour, is always listening, although I see that he is talking to a colleague at the moment
A new sanctions regime was introduced in 2012 with the important aim of increasing the effectiveness of categorisation. Again, this was about people, not just statistics. The categories were higher, intermediate and lower, depending on whether a transgression had been repeated and on the nature of the fault. I think that that was a good reform. Proportional responses mean a system where one size does not fit all, and we have an opportunity to approach people and their personal circumstances differently.
We have heard many examples of hard cases in which things have gone wrong, but the current legislation contains a safety net—a “catch system”. It used to be called good cause, and is now called good reason. The examples that have been cited—such as people who are five minutes late because they missed the bus, or because they were having a baby—are already covered by good cause, or good reason.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The entire legal system based on common law is about applying the law in a consistent way historically and geographically, so we must make sure that he application of sanctions is consistent.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about consistency, which I absolutely believe the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South is looking for in this process, but we have heard about cases today, from hon. Members across this House, in which there were completely different views and completely different ways of going about things, and that reflects the way our constituents live and work. We can bring in a consistent system in, but the reality is we are dealing with different people.
We have heard many comparisons between the sanctions system and the criminal justice system. Consistency in the criminal justice system is helped by the fact that there are strict laws about admissibility of evidence and what the police can do to collect evidence and so forth. Would it not be better to have legislation that enshrines in law some of the steps that can be taken to have consistency in the sanctions system, so that some of the failures the hon. Lady has had to deal with in her constituency office are stopped before they happen and before people get hurt?
I hear the hon. Gentleman, and I genuinely came into this debate with the view that the Bill has some real benefits. However, I believe that better and more up-to-date guidance, rather than legislation via the Department, is the right way to proceed. But I still do believe that through the Bill and this debate we can learn a lot about how sanctions can be operated humanely.
I realise that for those, few in number, who are given sanctions, that makes a big difference to their lives. Those people will be suffering huge hardship because of their sanctions and because certain criteria mean they do not receive safety-net payments. I recognise that 60% of a very small amount of money for those in a very difficult situation is an unpleasant place to be, but this does give us a layer of protection. I have great sympathy with the measures in the Bill limiting the use of higher level sanctions in certain circumstances.
There might be mental health issues, homelessness and caring responsibilities. Just yesterday, I heard from one of my caseworkers that we had managed to deal with a slightly different issue in terms of homelessness: someone was moving from north London, who was without family and who was in a difficult position because of disability. We have managed to get him on to the right level of support in the local area where his friends and family are located. That had been affecting his mental health, and we were all crying when we were speaking and listening to this constituent.
Every single time I meet my constituents, I am moved by the plight people find themselves in, and mental health issues and homelessness issues play a huge part in them. In fact, there were very few sanctions cases in our casework, but where we had intervened and got to the bottom of it we had made progress. I am very pleased the system is working in that way.
As co-chair of the all-party group on carers, I recently led a debate on carers in this House. I am a former carer, supporting my mum and dad, and we know the enormous sacrifice the 6.5 million carers undertake daily for their loved ones. Two million more people a year will come into caring responsibilities in some way or other. We need to be able to reflect that in the way we support our constituents.
There is a quiet carers army on which all of us depend, which is why I always speak to my constituents about making sure they are aware of the benefits system and are making sure they get all the support they need. The benefit sanctions system should consistently recognise that people have caring responsibilities, and if it does not we need to ensure that the Government pour support into this area, just as they are in the area of mental health. The pledge to provide an additional £1 billion for mental health provision by 2020-21 is welcome. Mental health issues reach every part of the way in which the state operates, including the sanctions regime. I have had a constituency case in which the parents of a young lad with mental health issues had a problem with sanctions. We managed to deal with it because the way through to him was via his parents. They were able to come to me to ask for help.
Every one of us in this House who is a former councillor will be aware of the link between mental health and homelessness, and of the urgent decisions that have to be made in order to get people into a place of safety urgently.
My hon. Friend has mentioned homelessness and mental health. She might have heard in a previous intervention that the Government are already moving to extend hardship payments to at-risk individuals. Does she welcome that development, given that it will help the groups she is describing in her powerful speech?
That is absolutely the spirit in which I am approaching the Bill. I do not want to pick holes in it, because it has clearly been introduced with fortitude and passion based on casework. Bringing these matters to our attention today has given us an opportunity to have a really welcome debate and for all Members to consider how these things are working in their constituencies and bring any issues to the Minister. However, I am not sure that another layer of bureaucracy and legislation is the way to deal with these matters.
For me, this is an instance—[Interruption.] I shall turn my phone off. I think it was a constituent calling. This is an instance that highlights the need for a greater understanding of mental health issues. We have heard about caring responsibilities. I am here today juggling family commitments. They include the need to be here as well as in my constituency, and finding a way to look after the dog. The dog is always the hard bit. No one can ever get an appointment at a time that suits, and we need to ensure that people who work with benefit claimants understand that what might seem a small challenge to us can be a very big challenge indeed to someone who is in peril.
I have great sympathy for people whose caring responsibilities, mental health issues or homelessness create a situation that attracts a sanction. It would be uncaring of us to penalise carers through the system, because this country relies heavily on them. It would be out of sync with the rest of Government policy for us not to give due consideration to people with mental health needs, and I welcome the recent announcement that homeless claimants with mental health problems will be able to access hardship payments within 14 days.
As we can see, a new policy is being trialled without the need for a Bill, and I am sure that all Members will be keen to read the outcomes of the sanctions warning system trial. I hope that the evaluations will be available for us to study soon. Giving claimants notice and an opportunity to explain the reasons behind a breach is a fair way of approaching the sanctions system. I understand that we can expect the final report around April next year, and I look forward to seeing how the trial is going and how these measures could be taken up nationally.
We must not lose sight of the overall objectives of the programmes. They are designed to ensure that people have the stability of a job and a pay packet, and that we never again see children being brought up in homes where getting a job is discouraged. We must always remember not only the claimants but those who pay in to the system. There are 800,000 fewer workless households today than there were in 2010, and unemployment in Eastleigh has fallen by 63% in that time. I welcome the continued support and focus that the Government are providing for our society so that people can have the security of a pay packet and so that it always pays to work.
Wherever I find injustice in the benefits and sanctions system, I vow to bring it to the attention of Ministers. I have spoken for 20 minutes on this important Bill and, on balance, the most important thing is to make things fair for those who claim and those who work. We must be sure that the Bill does not add to the bureaucracy and make things more difficult for those facing challenges to go on to better things after receiving support.
I thank my hon. Friend Mhairi Black for bringing this important Bill to Parliament. It is detailed and compelling and it is crystal clear about the need for a code of conduct and consistency of application. Let me be clear from the outset, because I have heard this questioned too often in the Chamber today, that while the SNP would like a complete review of the UK Government’s sanctions system, this small Bill is about making the system fairer with cross-party support. It seeks to build on the good practice that is already happening in some jobcentres, where advisers look at the circumstances of an individual when imposing a sanction. The Bill will ensure that that happens across the board, protecting the most vulnerable in society from being pushed into absolute poverty.
Make no mistake: the UK Government’s current benefit sanctions regime is brutally draconian and undignified. An individual can be sanctioned so heavily that they have nothing left to feed themselves or their family, in effect becoming destitute through state-sponsored starvation. At a St Andrew’s Day dinner last night, I was reminded that, less than 200 years ago, Dickens was a journalist up in the Press Gallery. He got sick and fed up of debates in here about whether or not they needed to legislate for the poor, and I am shocked today to hear that we again do not need legislation for the most vulnerable in our society. Dickens quit his job and went on to write some of the most seminal works of the terrible and draconian Victorian period. For those who have not seen Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake”, it is deeply compelling and reminds me of the spirit of Dickens. While some think it to be a work of fiction, it will go on to teach future students and others who look back at history about this appalling time in this country.
No, I will not, owing to the short amount of time left. I do apologise.
Only a couple of years ago, my constituency of Dundee was named sanctions city. Today, we might as well call it bloody marvellous sanctions city, because I have been hearing so much appeasement about sanctions and about how great they are—until someone is on the receiving end. Common outcomes include eviction threats, increased debt, anxiety and ill health, resulting in some constituents having to turn to petty theft. There is clear evidence of a link between the use of food banks and benefit sanctions, and I am saddened to say that Dundee also has Scotland’s busiest food bank. The Trussell Trust estimates that benefits issues account for 44% of all referrals—nearly half. Everyone in the House should hang their head in shame and do something about that. We should protect the Bill and ensure that it progresses.
There is a story behind every statistic. In Dundee, a woman with learning difficulties ended up with two concurrent 13-week sanctions after DWP staff declared she that she was not filling in her “work commitment booklet” properly. I recently chaired a Trussell Trust event at which I met a single mother whose benefits would be cut if she failed to send her husband’s death certificate to DWP every six weeks. Imagine the grief that that woman was feeling and how it must feel to be hounded for that kind of documentation on a regular basis.
It is not exaggeration to say that the UK Government are treating people like criminals, but if they were criminals, they would be treated more fairly. When a court imposes a fine on an individual for a driving offence, for example, their basic rights are protected by court proceedings. There is no expectation that the fine will lead to them being unable to heat their home or feed their children. We do not hear about people committing suicide as a result of a conviction for a driving offence. There is a direct correlation between driving too fast or using a mobile phone when driving and fatal road accidents, but those who commit such offences are penalised less than someone who misses an appointment at the jobcentre because their child was ill. The sanctions system is severe and cruel and so clearly needs to change, and today’s Bill represents positive steps towards that.
As I said earlier, the National Audit Office analysis showed that there was absolutely no evidence that the sanction regime imposed by the DWP has a positive effect on job outcomes, but judging by some of the information coming out today, we are experiencing post-truth politics. It is abundantly clear from the NAO evidence that vulnerable people are more likely to be sanctioned—I am talking about homeless people, those with mental health problems and immigrants with a limited understanding of English. Those are the people who need most help to find jobs, but, rather than being helped, they receive a sanction, and their already fragile living situation is sent into crisis. They need to concentrate on how to live from one day to the next; they need to go to a food bank; their confidence is eroded, and they worry. Rather than stepping up their job-search activities, the main effect of imposing sanctions is to distance such claimants from the world of work, contrary to the whole purpose of sanctions in the first place.
The Bill is made up of 11 clauses, which are small administrative changes to the current legislation, and they seek to establish a long overdue code of conduct and official procedures for the current sanctions system. The aim is to end the postcode lottery of sanction regimes operated at different centres, therefore ensuing a fairer system of sanctions for everyone who uses the social security system, no matter what area of the country they live in.
The Bill will mean that a person in receipt of benefits cannot have them reduced unless two requirements have been met. Let me make this crystal clear in plain simple English for those who have not yet read the Bill. First, the claimant’s circumstances have to be assessed. Secondly, a number of conditions set out in the Bill have to be met. These focus on the individual’s situation, in particular the claimant’s caring commitments, whether they are at risk of homelessness, and whether they suffer from a mental or physical health condition. Such difficulties can be intensified—and are intensified—by these cruel sanctions. What this means in practice is that an individual’s circumstances would be taken into account before—and I underline the word “before”—cutting off their financial support.
In essence, this Bill proposes minor administrative changes, which do no more than humanise a fundamentally unjust and inappropriate system, and formally establish adequate protections for the most vulnerable. Although my SNP colleagues and I would like to see an entire review of the system, this Bill goes some small way towards putting dignity and respect into people’s lives. It is for that reason that I wholeheartedly support every aspect of this Bill.
This is an important debate today. I am very grateful to Mhairi Black for bringing these matters to the Floor of the House for further discussion. I do have very comprehensive responses to the individual line items of the Bill, and it is important that they get an airing, but, because of the way that the debate has gone, there will not be time today to go through them all. I thank my hon. Friends who pulled off the Speaker’s List in order to allow a small amount of time for a Government contribution to this debate. I look forward to speaking to those points when the hon. Lady brings her Bill back to the Floor of the House in due course.
The hon. Lady set the pace today with a very comprehensive and passionate one-hour-and-15 minute speech in which she covered a great deal of the aspect of this debate. As I have said, these are important matters, and it was important that they were brought here today.
We also heard from Debbie Abrahams who speaks for the Opposition. I was not entirely clear, at the end of her speech, where we stood on Labour party policy as regards sanctions, but doubtless we will hear more on that in due course.
We heard from Mike Weir, who I believe is a member of the SNP Whips Office, but nevertheless spoke for 15 minutes on a day when his colleague had a private Member’s Bill to introduce. We also heard from Anne McLaughlin at some length.
I thank my hon. Friends on the Government Benches for their contributions to the debate, including my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster). We also had speeches from my hon. Friend Conor Burns, who reminded us of the centrality of the taxpayer in this equation. My hon. and learned Friend Lucy Frazer talked about the benefits of work, and reminded us that sanctions should be used as a last resort. My hon. Friend Helen Whately talked about the importance not only of getting people into work, but of getting people closer to the labour market. She thanked the jobcentre staff in Maidstone and Sittingbourne. My hon. Friend Mims Davies not only thanked her local jobcentre staff, but reminded us of the important work done by all our caseworkers and, in fact, of the importance of casework itself in informing these debates. That is a particular strength of our parliamentary system.
There is much in the Bill that has logic to it and that would, all else being equal, be attractive from a public policy perspective, but I hope to reassure her today that much of what she is calling for is, in practice, already done, while other aspects are achieved in different ways.
The hon. Lady will have to forgive me. She spoke for one hour and 15 minutes, and I have very little time. I am obviously not going to be able to get through all the contents of her Bill in the time available, but I hope she will allow me to begin.
Successive Governments have recognised the key role that sanctions have in the benefits system to encourage people to comply with conditions that will help them move into or closer to work. Much work has been undertaken to ensure all those claiming are clear about their responsibilities when claiming benefits and about the potential impact on their benefits if they fail without good reason to complete a requirement they have agreed to undertake.
Imposing a sanction is not something that is done lightly. We invite those facing a sanction to explain exactly why they failed to meet the requirement, and we take all the circumstances into account to determine whether the requirement was reasonable for that individual and whether they had good reason for not meeting it. We do this in each case, and the proposals in the Bill present nothing new in that regard. Indeed, we have removed references in legislation to what constitutes good cause or good reason precisely to ensure that those making decisions can consider every aspect of an individual’s circumstances, not just those prescribed in a list. It would be a step back to return to having that in legislation.
We are confident that the training and guidance available to decision makers give them the tools to make fair and robust decisions. We have a well-established system of hardship provision for claimants—provision that can be accessed by those who are sanctioned. Where a claimant demonstrates they cannot meet their immediate and most essential needs, they can apply for a hardship payment. We tell claimants regularly about the availability of hardship payments, and we have worked hard to ensure that payments are paid within three days. Work coaches identify claimants they feel would be considered vulnerable for hardship purposes and, where a sanction is imposed, they contact them to instigate the hardship process straightaway.
Not only is our approach to sanctioning claimants considered and fair, but it is a key factor in improving the employment rate and curtailing unemployment. The Department invests significant resource to help people move quickly into employment. As a result, employment, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South will know, is up by 2.75 million since 2010, with the number of workless households at a record low.
Evidence shows that sanctions can have a positive effect on behaviour. In “The Jobcentre Plus Offer: Final evaluation report”, published in November 2013, it was noted that 70% of JSA, and over 60% of ESA, claimants say that sanctions make it more likely they will follow the rules. The recent “Universal Credit at Work” evaluation, from December last year, found that 76% of claimants felt that the potential for universal credit to be stopped or reduced encouraged them to meet their conditions. The same report demonstrates that 72% of claimants agreed that the potential for sanctions meant they were more likely to look for, or take steps to prepare for, work.
In addition, qualitative research found that people perceived the claimant commitment as critical to the upkeep of their claim. They were generally very clear about the time they were required to spend on job-search activity and the need for them to evidence this, and about the fact not fulfilling their requirements could result in a sanction.
If I may, I will start to go through the elements of the Bill. The Bill seeks to amend sections of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 concerning the claimant commitment and sanctions, to introduce measures to check a claimant’s circumstances prior to a sanction being considered. A significant proportion of the measures proposed in the Bill are measures the Department already undertakes through guidance. For example, the Department ensures that health issues, caring responsibilities and homelessness are noted and taken into account when dealing with claimants. We ensure work-related requirements are fully explained when they are set, as well as the action the claimant should take if they fail to complete the requirement, and the potential impact on their benefit if they do not. The fact that the claimant’s circumstances and any information provided by them are considered before a sanction is imposed should also be acknowledged.
A huge amount of work has been undertaken following recommendations from the Work and Pensions Committee and, as has been referenced by a number of my hon. Friends, from Matthew Oakley’s review of benefit sanctions, to ensure that our staff, when setting requirements for benefit claimants, do so reasonably. That is especially true, of course, of claimants who are identified as having complex needs or who require additional support to enable them to access DWP benefits and to use DWP services.
In addition, we ensure that claimants are advised about their conditionality requirements and about the associated consequences if they fail to meet them. At the point of the claim, staff clearly explain to claimants what they have to do and what will happen if they fail to do it. This is followed up in writing with the claimant commitment documentation. We ensure all appointment notifications and notifications to participate in mandatory programmes also include these requirements clearly in writing.
Turning to the contents of the Bill, clause 1—
The debate stood adjourned (
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday