I shall speak fairly briefly, as I had not intended to speak in the debate. I congratulate Stephen Gilbert on securing it.
I want to focus on one factor that drives homelessness, based on my constituency experience. Sarah Newton was in search of political consensus, and in our debate in December the two sides of the House did reach some consensus on the way in which an increasingly harsh benefit sanctions regime is driving people into homelessness.
In the September recess I conducted a community consultation in my constituency. We had something like 63 meetings over three weeks. Individuals and voluntary, community and faith sector organisations working on homelessness raised the issue of benefits sanctions as a significant factor in their work. For example, the cathedral project in Sheffield works with homeless people sleeping on the streets, to get them back into society. On the back of offering a breakfast service, it attracts them in and builds a relationship. It offers support and training and helps people to secure accommodation. It has been successful with such intervention for many years. People from the project reported to me that as a result of the increased pressure from the DWP and the harsher regime of benefit sanctioning, those whom they had helped into accommodation were getting letters whose significance they did not understand, or, in many cases, that they could not read. That would lead to their missing an appointment, and immediately, with no warning—no amber light or signals—their benefits would be cut and they would be unable to maintain their accommodation. When they presented themselves at the DWP the response was, “Go along to the cathedral Archer project. They’ll feed you.” That has transformed the project from a charity that could make a strategic intervention to tackle homelessness into a crisis centre.
That approach to benefits sanctioning has been taken up by Sheffield Citizens Advice. Its social policy group conducted a survey over 12 months and produced a report in May on the experience of JSA sanctions. I want to make it clear that I do not oppose sanctions in principle. Used appropriately and benignly they play a constructive role in encouraging people into work and providing a disincentive to the behaviour of those who do not co-operate with the system. The problem is that they are not being used benignly. To be effective, a sanctions regime must be humane. The report from Sheffield Citizens Advice showed that the system is neither humane nor effective in its avowed purpose of getting people into work and enabling them to afford accommodation.
I was presented with examples from its survey. One person, called Alan, was given a four-week sanction for not actively seeking work. He had limited literacy and numeracy skills and thought it important, so that he could get into work, to enrol on the English and maths course that was offered. He was on it for eight weeks, and thought that because he was on the course provided he did not have to sign on. He failed; he was not given a warning. He was immediately sanctioned.
Tony was vulnerable because of learning challenges and dyslexia. He cannot read or write. Despite getting significant support in looking for work from a local job club, he was sanctioned for not doing enough about his jobseeking. How did the DWP tell Tony that he was not doing enough? It sent him a letter, knowing—because it was on his records—that he could not read. Because he could not read the letter he was sent, he was immediately sanctioned.