I am pleased that the House is having this debate today because it has given Members an opportunity to highlight how the DWP is not being resourced properly. The DWP has the single largest departmental budget, yet it finds itself under-resourced when it comes to dealing with the consequences of the Government’s welfare reforms.
The Government’s welfare reforms, be it universal credit or the personal independence payment, have disproportionately hit the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Just look at what has happened to those claiming income support and jobseeker’s allowance; both benefits are based on the principle of supporting those already in, or seeking, employment, yet the Government’s decision to include both benefits within the benefits freeze is undoubtedly having the opposite effect. There has been a real-terms decrease in the basic rate of income support and JSA, falling from a high of £78 in 2012 to £72 in 2019. The Trussell Trust highlights that low income was the main reason behind 31% of referrals to its food banks from April to September 2018. That highlights to me that the Government’s benefit freeze is creating a crisis of in-work poverty—a crisis which the DWP is currently not equipped to address. I urge the Government to bring an end to the benefits freeze now. Prices are rising and the DWP should be properly resourced to support low-income households—households which are currently set to lose £200 this year because of the benefits freeze.
That brings me to the issue of sanctions. I have consistently called on the Government to bring an end to the cruel sanctions regime. There were over 15,000 sanctions taken in April 2018, with the clear majority being implemented against UC claimants. This is despite an admission in a DWP report in October 2018 that there was no evidence that sanctions encourage claimants to get into work or increase their earnings. I was disappointed that the Government chose to reject calls from MPs to ease the burden of sanctions on some of the most vulnerable claimants, including single parents and those with disabilities. There should be a maximum period for which a sanction can apply and greater understanding that some claimants will miss appointments because of issues around health, childcare, finances and even local transport failures.
Members from across the House agree that there are real problems with UC and that the DWP has not been properly resourced to deal with them. The most glaring issue with UC is the five-week wait. The DWP has tried to take steps to address that, but those measures are either time-limited or do not go far enough in supporting those transitioning on to UC. With 1.6 million people expected to transition onto UC this year, it is vital that the Government act now to equip the DWP to deal with this problem.
More than 70% of PIP appeals found in favour of the claimant between January and March 2018. This represents a 17% increase in successful PIP appeals since January to March 2015, and we have to ask why the DWP has spent £108.1 million since October 2015 to fund legal professionals and their staff to fight these appeals while claimants are left to shoulder the costs of their appeal as a result of this Government’s cuts to legal aid. The Labour party wants to bring back legal aid.
I stood with the DWP staff in Coatbridge when it closed its office in 2017, but, sadly, we lost that fight. The building is still empty; why not reopen it and bring back the resources to Coatbridge?