Benefit Sanctions — [Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 16th December 2015.

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Photo of Eilidh Whiteford Eilidh Whiteford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Social Justice and Welfare) 2:30 pm, 16th December 2015

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered benefit sanctions.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to lead this short debate this afternoon. Members will be aware that I have debated this topic with Ministers several times in the past, and that I have been at pains during those debates to raise concerns about the impact of conditionality on vulnerable claimants. At the forefront of those debates has been the disproportionate level of sanctions imposed on people with mental illness. I met the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People not long ago to discuss some of the ways in which the Government might address the acknowledged shortcomings in the regime for those with serious mental illnesses and other fluctuating conditions. However, I am glad that the Minister for Employment is responding to today’s debate, because I think the wider issues sit far more appropriately in her portfolio.

As I have argued before, one of the reasons why the sanctions regime is failing vulnerable people so badly is the underlying problem with the work capability assessment. High levels of sanctioning among people who are ill or very disadvantaged is, in part, symptomatic of people being found fit for work when they are not really fit for work. Until that gets fixed, I fear we are destined to go round in circles. But that is not the whole story. Although I do not think anyone would dismiss the value of conditionality in the benefits system per se, the conditions that the Government set need to be proportionate and fair, and I do not think we can say that at the moment, particularly for the more vulnerable claimants.

The Government’s announcement a few weeks back that they intend to pilot a so-called yellow card scheme for sanctions in the new year is, I think, an acknowledgement that the system is not working very well at present. I hope the Minister will take the opportunity today to set out in more detail how that warning system will work in practice, and, specifically, what protection there will be for those who are identified as vulnerable.

My main call today echoes the calls I have made previously, and that the Work and Pensions Committee made in the previous Parliament, for a full independent review of the benefit sanctions regime. That is necessary and long overdue. I fear that tinkering around the edges of the system will not resolve the systemic weaknesses, and this afternoon I want to highlight a growing body of evidence that sanctions are not only failing to support claimants into work, but are actually having a counterproductive effect, undermining the Government’s policy objectives and causing unacceptable levels of hardship and destitution to vulnerable and disadvantaged people.

Last week the homelessness charity, Crisis, published a major piece of research undertaken at Sheffield Hallam University into homeless people’s experiences of welfare conditionality and benefit sanctions. It is a significant and timely piece of work; it is the largest study of its kind ever carried out, and it provides a robust qualitative evidence base for how sanctions are affecting vulnerable claimants. The researchers drew on the experiences of more than a thousand people who use homelessness services in England and Scotland, and looked specifically at the impact of sanctions on their lives and employment prospects. Distressing individual stories are documented in the report, and I urge the Minister and other hon. Members to read it. It deserves to be widely read.

There are many reasons why people become homeless or precariously housed. Often in the past, relationship breakdown has been cited as the single biggest reason why someone will end up homeless, but more recently that has been overtaken by problems with benefits, particularly among those who have been sanctioned. In many cases, though, homelessness is itself a symptom of underlying vulnerabilities. Young people leaving care; people with long-term mental health problems; people with addictions; and people with borderline learning disabilities who have trouble with literacy or numeracy—those are all high risk factors for becoming homeless, but what the Crisis research found was that the most vulnerable claimants were those at the greatest risk of being sanctioned. They also found that, far from pushing people to secure work, sanctions were actually pushing people further away from the labour market. To my mind, that is an extremely serious finding, because it undermines the Government’s assertion that sanctions are helping to bring down claimant numbers and are playing a positive role in getting people into work.

As far as vulnerable claimants are concerned, that is simply not where the evidence leads. Research from the University of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, published earlier this year, found that

“Sanctions do not appear to help people return to work. There is a real concern that sanctioned persons are disappearing from view.”

Similarly, the Economic and Social Research Council has questioned the effectiveness of conditionality in getting people into work, and the Department for Work and Pensions’ own evaluation of Jobcentre Plus in 2013 concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that knowledge of jobseeker’s allowance conditionality led to actual movement into work. However, there is mounting evidence that sanctions are a key driver of the growth in demand for food banks and are causing unprecedented hardship, and now there is evidence that they are fuelling homelessness.

The number of people being sanctioned has fallen from its peak in the year to October 2013. Since that time, the labour market has improved significantly, and the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance or its successor benefit, universal credit, has fallen by 41%, so we would expect to see a corresponding fall in the number of people being sanctioned. What is more revealing is that we have also seen a smaller, underlying downward trend in the proportion of claimants being sanctioned, which has fallen to 4.92% a month in the year to June 2015, from a high of 6.77% a month in the previous year. That, however, is still dramatically higher than the pre-2012 rates prior to the introduction of the new regime, and a staggering proportion of sanctions—more than two thirds—are now overturned on appeal, where claimants challenge the decision. I know from speaking to colleagues in Citizens Advice that it now urges people who are sanctioned to appeal against that first sanction. If people do not appeal against that first sanction, there is a real risk that if they are sanctioned again, the consequences will be devastating for their incomes.

Research carried out by Dr David Webster of Glasgow University highlights a couple of very important statistical limitations of the data that we have on sanctions. First, the recorded stats show sanctions only after reviews, considerations and appeals, so there is a time lag in the data, and the figures do not tell us how many people actually had their benefit money stopped in the first place. Also, and more significantly, as the DWP has been making the transfer to universal credit, new single claimants of unemployment benefits are going on to that benefit instead of on to JSA, and absolutely no data have been published on universal credit sanctions. This is now having what researchers describe as a “significant distorting effect” on analysis, because the number of those at risk of JSA sanctions is being reduced. Moreover, the young single claimants now more likely to be on universal credit—almost half of them are under 25—were previously twice as likely, statistically, to be sanctioned under JSA, so the distortion in the data could be amplified by that, but without hard data, we simply do not know. So we need that data on universal credit.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She has made an interesting point about jobseeker’s allowance, but there are data to show that in the past couple of years there has been a significant increase in the number of disabled people in receipt of employment and support allowance who have been sanctioned, up from 1,400 in March 2013 to 5,400 in March 2014, according to the Crisis figures that I believe the hon. Lady was citing.

The hon. Lady made comments about improving the work capability assessment. Even if the WCA were improved, what is her solution to the sanctions on disabled people on employment and support allowance?

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham

May I remind hon. Members that interventions are supposed to be short and pithy?

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

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about employment and support allowance. I was particularly addressing the universal credit figures, on which, at the moment, the data are lacking, although I believe that in August the UK Statistics Authority called for those data to be published, along with data on actual numbers of sanctions applied. Will the Minister tell us when the Government plan to publish those figures?

The wider issue about the move to universal credit is that it introduces critical differences to the conditionality regime that applied for JSA. First, under universal credit, sanctions run consecutively, not concurrently, so they will potentially be much longer. Also, any hardship payments made are repayable, so if, for example, someone is repaying a hardship payment at the rate of 40% of their benefit, their sanction will effectively become three and a half times longer in real terms than its nominal length. That seems unduly punitive. Moreover, the 80% hardship rate for vulnerable claimants will be abolished under universal credit. Again, given what the Government have already said about recognising the needs of vulnerable claimants, they really should go back to the universal credit changes and look at how they are going to impact on people.

Hardship payments are not made automatically. People need to know that they exist, whether they are eligible for them, and how to apply. My hon. Friend Ms Ahmed-Sheikh has introduced a ten-minute rule Bill, which we are due to debate early in the new year, that would make hardship payments automatic and non-repayable. In the wake of the Oakley review, the Government accepted in principle the need to: make hardship payments available from day one of a sanction; remove the requirement for those who are vulnerable or have children to complete a separate application process; and extend vulnerability markers. Given that acknowledgement that there are vulnerable people in the system, that people are being sanctioned who are not really in a position to comply with the conditions placed on them, and the growing evidence that those claimants are at much greater risk of sanctioning, will the Minister look at this again as universal credit is rolled out more widely?

The rate of sanctions for those in receipt of ESA is very much lower than for JSA, but it is nevertheless a serious issue. We would expect ESA sanctions to be less prevalent, but one of the deeply worrying issues that emerges from the figures released by the DWP in November is that around half of the ESA sanctions imposed between April and June this year were on claimants who had previously been sanctioned. That makes it crystal clear that sanctions are not having a deterrent effect on sick and disabled claimants; rather, it suggests that people are simply unable to comply with the conditions imposed on them. That echoes case studies in the Crisis research, which showed that when sanctioned claimants on ESA had support from professionals, they were subsequently assigned to the support group.

One of the key issues that emerged from the Crisis research with service users was that overall, 21% of respondents who had been sanctioned said that they became homeless as a result of the sanction. The Government have to take that extremely seriously. If someone becomes homeless, it becomes significantly more difficult for them to find work. Communication becomes difficult if someone does not have a stable address, reliable internet access, and cannot present themselves in a smart and work-ready way. It also puts untold pressure on relationships with family and friends. Indeed, it puts financial pressure on family and friends who are trying to support loved ones but might not have the means to do so. It also has a very costly knock-on effect on local authorities, which have statutory responsibilities in such circumstances but also face significant financial pressures.

A critical and perennial problem is that sometimes when a person is sanctioned their housing benefit is also stopped. I know that it is not supposed to happen, and the Government claim that it no longer happens, but very recent research makes it clear that it is still happening. The issue was highlighted in the Oakley review back in 2014, and the Government responded by advising claimants to keep local authorities informed of their situation.

They also said that they would implement an IT fix. When the previous Employment Minister appeared before the Work and Pensions Committee in February, prior to the election, it was suggested that the problem had been resolved, but it had not. In early October, DWP issued an urgent circular to local authorities confirming that sanctioned claimants should continue to receive housing benefits without interruption.

It is clear that there has been an ongoing problem that has not been resolved. That is backed up by the evidence in the Crisis report: more than a third of those it surveyed who claim housing benefit reported that it was stopped when they were sanctioned. That rate rose to 38% for those in the ESA work-related activity group—that is, those people currently not fit for work and in an inherently vulnerable situation. It is clear that not all councils’ systems have caught up with the new guidance yet, and it is still a bit of a lottery. This has been happening for a long time now, and the Government really need to get a grip of the issue. Will the Minister update us on that, and tell us what the Government are going to do to protect vulnerable claimants who face housing benefit cuts?

It is important to understand that for many people in rented accommodation, housing benefit or local housing allowance will not cover all their rent in the first place. Many people in private rented accommodation make up the rent out of their JSA or ESA, and some folk in social housing will be liable for the bedroom tax—although thankfully not in Scotland. In a lot of cases, sanctioning is pushing people into arrears, even where the system is working as the Government intend it to.

It is abundantly clear that the sanctions regime is causing real hardship for the most vulnerable people. The Crisis report lays out in very stark terms the extent to which some claimants find it immensely difficult to comply with the conditions placed on them. It is really notable in the research findings that the overwhelming majority of claimants want to work and have every intention of meeting their responsibilities, but simply cannot always meet the demands placed on them. Sanctions need to be reasonable, proportionate and fair, but for those who face the biggest hurdles, the current regime is none of those things.

No one should be made destitute because of the conditionality regime. That is not an acceptable outcome in a civilised and wealthy society. Neither is it a proportionate response to minor infringements, which are often the result of circumstances beyond the control of individuals. Only one in 50 people who are sanctioned is sanctioned for refusing a job. That seems like a heavy burden for people who have made minor infringements. They can potentially lose their homes and any means of supporting themselves. All Members know that we are witnessing destitution in too many communities. People are simply falling through the safety net, and at this stage we have no way of quantifying how many people simply fall out of the system altogether. I have seen them in my constituency, and they tend to be sick people who have long-term health conditions, but we have no systematic information. It is clear that we need a root-and-branch review of the sanctions regime and, as a matter of urgency, we need hardship payments to ensure an accessible safety net.

I am really conscious that it has been a balmy 12° to 15° here in London over the past few days, but I left Aberdeenshire this weekend in sub-zero temperatures.

As winter sets in, those who cannot stay warm and cannot feed themselves properly are at the gravest risk. The Government are culpable if they do not protect our most vulnerable citizens. I urge them to listen and to respond to the specific points I have made. I thank the Members who have come to contribute to this very important debate so close to the end of term.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Civil Liberties) 2:48 pm, 16th December 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Whiteford on securing what is possibly the most important debate that could be brought before the House. We heard from her some important and shocking statistics, which I will not repeat. I intend to look at the principle of sanctioning people’s benefits, share a few stories about people in my constituency who are currently being crucified by sanctions, and say a little about what I think the Government’s motivation is.

The idea is that if we punish people for not wanting to work, or for not wanting to work hard enough, and really make them suffer, it will teach them that they cannot always rely on the Government to take care of them. I would challenge the idea that there really are people who do not want to work. Yes, there are plenty of people who struggle to find work, but there are many reasons why they cannot, such as a lack of jobs, a lack of confidence, no self-belief, an experience of applying over and over and getting nowhere, and generational unemployment in the area where they live.

I also want to challenge the idea that people get comfortable on benefits and on the Government’s largesse. Jobseeker’s allowance is about £73 a week, and people struggle to pay their living costs on it. Being cash poor is incredibly time-consuming. People have to be very creative to get by, but it is not a fun creativity. It is stressful, depressing and, for many people, never-ending. I am sure we would all argue that we could live on £73 a week, and I agree that we probably could for one week, but try doing it week in, week out, month in, month out—for some people, it is year in, year out—with absolutely no respite. There are no bonuses for people who live on benefits.

Seventy-three pounds a week means that, if your washing machine breaks down, you’ve had it. Nobody is going to fix it for less than £50, so where will you get the money? It means always being the one who turns up to family weddings and parties in the same outfit and with a cheap present that you know they do not really want but is all you can afford. It means having holes in the bottom of your shoes and getting used to soggy cardboard underfoot. It means keeping up the facade so friends do not pity you. It means being in job interviews trying to focus on coming across well, but spending far too much time worrying that they can hear your shoes squelching. Being poor can be really embarrassing. Nobody gets comfortable on benefits.

The money people are given does not stop them looking for work. Yes, low pay is a problem that we need to tackle, but we need to acknowledge that pay is not the only attraction to work. There is the purpose that work gives; it is somewhere to go and a reason to get up in the morning. Most importantly of all, there are people to interact with on a daily basis. Whether you like them or not, interaction is important.

We all know that, but not everybody does. There are areas in which whole generations have been unemployed for long periods. If someone does not remember their parents, aunts and uncles working, how can they know that jobs are about more than money, and how do they therefore garner the enthusiasm to apply for very low-paid jobs?

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

The hon. Lady is making some important points about the most vulnerable in society, as, indeed, did Dr Whiteford, who secured the debate—I apologise for being late. Does Anne McLaughlin agree that we should welcome today’s jobs figures, which show that more people are in work than ever before, and that we, as Members of Parliament, have a responsibility to promote those who are in work and the benefits of work that she is highlighting?

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

I represent Glasgow North East, which has the 17th highest rate of unemployment in the whole of these islands, so my constituents have got very little to cheer about today, although I hear that the Prime Minister was most gleeful about the fact that we have managed to cut unemployment a little overall.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Is the hon. Lady aware that, although more people are in work than a year ago, the number of hours that we are working as a country has gone down, which indicates the sort of jobs that people are getting?

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

Yes, I am aware of that, and I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting it.

I grew in the shipbuilding town of Greenock in Port Glasgow. I often tell a story about when I was at Port Glasgow high school—I am not going to tell Members what year it was. Every Monday morning in my first year at high school we had a 15-minute registration class, and the teacher would ask, “How did you get on at the weekend?” I remember a long, long period in which several people in my class—it felt like dozens, but it could not have been—said, “My dad got made redundant”, “My dad was a fitter, and he’s lost his job”, “My father was a welder” or “My mother worked in the canteen.” Not many women in those days were time-served tradespeople. For so many of my classmates, both their parents lost their jobs. For many of them, the last time they could remember their parents working was when they were 12, so they have very little memory of working parents. Where there is generational unemployment in an area in which expectations are low, surely our job is to raise people’s expectations; give them confidence and self-belief; work with them, not against them; give them additional support, not less support; and certainly not punish them.

Let me turn to what I believe lies behind the Government’s sanctions agenda. I will start with what they say lies behind it. They say it is to teach claimants that they cannot expect something for nothing. I will refer to a few of my constituents, and perhaps the Minister will tell me what each of them was supposed to learn. Sara was late—not very late—for an interview and was sanctioned. She was late because there was an accident on the road and her bus was stuck in traffic. It was not her fault. What is she to learn from that?

Another constituent was told that she had to go to an interview at the jobcentre. She was given a week’s notice, and they said, “We want you to come next Wednesday at 3 pm.” She said, “But I pick up my six-year-old from school at 3 pm.” “Well, that’s just tough”—her parents lived 100 miles away—“You either come to the interview or we sanction your benefits.” What is she to learn from that? Should she have abandoned her child at the school playground or take her child out of school? That is what she did, and her child missed an hour’s education.

I have two constituents—a couple—who live in Roystonhill. The wife went into labour—not the party; she was having a baby. [Laughter.] I do not know why I said that. The husband unsurprisingly went with her. He had no credit to phone and say that he would not be signing on that day, so he went the next day. They were sanctioned for six weeks. Welcome to the world, tiny baby; your parents are getting no money for six weeks, and not even a single milk token. What is that couple to learn from that sanction? Did they learn that the husband should have abandoned his wife and left her to it? Before anybody starts thinking that they were long-term unemployed, let me say that their daughter is two and they are both working now. They were both working up until six months before she had the baby. They are not people who do not want to work. They learned nothing from that experience, except that the Government do not care about them.

I have a constituent who has mental health problems and a visual impairment. He has severe panic attacks. A condition of his ESA is that he attends an office in the city centre either once a month or once a week. It takes him hours because he gets lost and distressed. He was asked, “What is it you do when you get there?” He said, “I just sign a bit of paper and leave.” Why? What is the point of that?

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

I want to be helpful, but I also want to make a point. The hon. Lady is raising some tough, interesting cases, but does she recognise that there is a test of good reason that can be employed where there is good reason for sanctions not to be imposed?

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

I recognise that, but, as one of the most active welfare rights providers in Barmulloch in my constituency told me, most people do not ask for a mandatory reconsideration. That couple with a baby did not know that they could apply for a mandatory reconsideration. No doubt they were given a leaflet, but they were so distressed and busy working out what they were going to do with their baby—they had absolutely no money for six weeks—that they did not do it. I am sure everybody here will agree that those cases cannot be justified and that those decisions were wrong, but they are not exceptions. Those people are losing money for unacceptable reasons.

I want to look at the exception of the people the Minister will no doubt argue should be sanctioned—those who are deemed not to be doing enough to find work. I can tell him a little about that, because I was one of them, apparently. I recently spent a significant period looking for work. I started off confident. I was certain that I would find something fulfilling and reasonably well paid, and I was prepared not to limit myself. I spent days putting my heart and soul into applying for jobs that I knew I would be offered an interview for. Rejection is very hard to take, but no acknowledgment is even harder. When someone has put their heart and soul into something, to be treated as if they do not exist—as if they are invisible—is soul-destroying. Some weeks, I confess, I could not face it. I could not pluck up the energy to try to write in the confident manner that is necessary to impress a potential employer. Should I have been sanctioned? That is what is happening to people now. Should I have been punished, or should I have been given a bit of additional support? We should acknowledge that finding a job is a stressful, extremely low-paid, full-time job. Is it really so difficult to understand why claimants sometimes need to clear their head and build their confidence again?

It is clear that what lies behind the benefit sanctions regime is an ideologically driven determination to drive people further into the ground, to show them who is boss, to pander to the red tops that tell people about layabouts living the life of Riley, never having worked a day in their lives and never having wanted to because the poor, downtrodden workers are doing it for them while they get paid way too much to sit about on their backsides all day. That is utter nonsense and anyone who argues it should be ashamed of themselves.

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

If the hon. Gentleman wants to argue that, carry on.

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

The hon. Lady is being generous with her time, particularly with my interventions. I cannot let her get away with the accusation that Government Members are determined to drive people into the ground. It is the exact opposite. The intention is to drive people into work. For SNP Members to accuse Government Members of wanting to drive people into the ground, not into work, is to miss the point entirely.

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Michael Tomlinson says " I cannot let her get away with the accusation that Government Members are determined to drive people into the ground. It is the exact opposite. " As yet nobody has mentioned the state pension which the government insist in...

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

We are not missing the point. Most of us have been there ourselves. Most of us have been unemployed and looking for work. None of us was born with a silver spoon in our mouth. None of us has had a job for the boys. Most of us have experienced living on benefits. I am telling the hon. Gentleman that the way to get people into work is to support them, understand them and build their confidence, not to attack or threaten them and certainly not to take away the means by which they feed and clothe themselves and their children.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Does the hon. Lady share my concern about the despicable comments that we just heard? We are talking about disabled people with mental health conditions or learning disabilities. A quarter of a million people on employment support allowance have been found unfit for work. It is disgraceful to be pretending that this is about supporting them back into work. This is about taking money from disadvantaged people.

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

I will finish by completely agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. I have had a constituent—a grown man—crying to me on the phone. He once had a lot of self-respect. He once had a tough job that he worked really hard at. He became ill, but he has not been believed. He is now talking to me about ending his life. I do not know what to say to him. Michael Tomlinson pretends that this is all about getting people into work, but why does he not listen to what we are telling him? Why does he not listen to the evidence? He may believe something else, but he needs to open his ears and start listening.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords) 3:02 pm, 16th December 2015

I do not know how to follow my hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin. She was excellent.

I want to discuss the Crisis figures, highlighting a few that were not mentioned by my hon. Friend Dr Whiteford earlier. Some 77% of those who were sanctioned skipped meals and 64% went without heating. As was mentioned, someone can just about get away with that in this weather down here in London, but not in a cold granite tenement in Aberdeen. It is horrendous that people are having to decide whether to spend their last £10 on the prepayment meter for electricity or on food for their children. It is ridiculous that people are being put in such positions.

Returning to the figures, 60% found it harder to look for work after being sanctioned. That does nothing to encourage people into work. It is an attempt to take money away from people. In a Citizens Advice survey, nine out of 10 people who had been sanctioned said they did not know why they had been sanctioned or how to stop it happening again. If they are supposed to be encouraged into work and to learn from the experience, which is presumably an attempt by the Government to prod them in the right direction, why are they not learning? Why do they not know how to avoid being sanctioned in future? Why have they not gained knowledge from the experience?

I also want to mention the link between sanctions and food banks, which has been discussed at length previously. Research carried out by The BMJ found that areas with the biggest increase in benefit sanctions saw the biggest increase in food bank use. The link is clear. I represent Aberdeen North. Aberdeen is the oil capital of Europe. It has the highest proportion of Rolls-Royces outside of central London. It is a very rich city, but we have so much poverty.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords) 3:14 pm, 16th December 2015

I was talking about the food bank situation, and the situation more generally, in Aberdeen. We have three food banks in Aberdeen that publish statistics: the Trussell Trust, Instant Neighbour and Community Food Initiatives North East. In the past year, we have seen a massive increase in food bank use in our city. Indeed, between 2012 and 2014, the Trussell Trust saw 240% growth, while the Instant Neighbour food bank saw 120% growth—the growth has been absolutely huge. All three food banks cite late benefit payments and benefit sanctions as reasons for food bank use.

Interestingly, on the topic of getting people back into work, 22% of those across Scotland who go to Trussell Trust food banks say they do so because of low wages.

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

Does the hon. Lady welcome the pilot scheme under which jobcentre advisers attend food banks to signpost people in the right direction and to help them get back to work?

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords)

It is good to have all sorts of advisers in food banks, but food banks are filling a ridiculous gap that we should not have in the system. They are going out of their way themselves to do their best for people in terms of advice. They are having to finance these things and to get money from people, including from local charities and organisations, to provide advice. People really need that advice, and I welcome advice from all quarters, but these things should not be happening in the first place.

As I said, Aberdeen is a rich city. How do people get into a situation where they are unemployed and need to go to food banks? I came from a job where I was not earning as much as I am now—obviously, most of us took a bit of a pay rise when we got this job—so the combined income in my household was less than £40,000. People in my peer group, who are not earning the lowest of the low wages are still just a couple of pay checks away from having to go to food banks. The Government say it is really good that we are giving breaks to people with savings, but people do not have massive savings. If the main earner in the house is made unemployed, and they have a couple of months where they have no finances, they are in serious trouble, no matter how careful they have been or what they have done.

In Aberdeen, people cannot rent a one-bedroom flat for less than about £500 a month. People who have been made unemployed, who are struggling and who are having to pitch up to the jobcentre are really struggling to pay their rent.

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

My hon. Friend will be aware that, in my constituency, we now have not only food banks, but a Christmas toy bank. Food banks, general practitioners and the rest are referring people to toy banks at this time of year. Surely that shows that the welfare system is failing.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords)

A local organisation, Home-Start Aberdeen, did an Advent book bank and people donated children’s books. Some of the children who received books would not otherwise have got a book at Christmas time. It is absolutely awful that children are being disadvantaged because of those policies.

Some of the people who walk through the door of my constituency office and through the doors of food banks are pitching up because of late benefit payments.

For example, an adverse decision has been made against them, they have been sanctioned and they have got the decision overturned, but it takes another month for that to get through the system and for the money to come in. How can the Government say that someone will be sanctioned for being 15 minutes late for an appointment when they cannot pay somebody for a whole month? How is that a realistic position? They expect individuals to behave in an impossible way—it is impossible for anybody to be on time for every single appointment and never to be 15 minutes late—when they can happily miss paying people for an entire month, and that is acceptable. It is ridiculous that they expect people to live by rules they cannot live by themselves.

I am really distressed by the benefit sanctions system. I am particularly annoyed about the late payments. I am annoyed that the Government, despite having published the guidelines and policies they expect people to work within, do not even stick to them. If there is an appeal, for example, it would be really good if they could make payments timeously to ensure that my constituents do not have to go to food banks.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities) 3:19 pm, 16th December 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Whiteford on securing the debate, and other Members who have spoken passionately about their constituents and the situations that they have seen. I want to highlight a couple of constituency situations as well.

The sanctions regime for employment and support allowance is particularly punitive, going by my experience in my constituency office. It has put sick and disabled people into serious hardship for unacceptably long periods. I have a constituent in the ESA work-related activity group who suffers from serious clinical depression. As a result he has been totally unable to get to advisory interviews and take part in work-related activity. He should be in the support group but has not been able to advocate that for himself because of his condition, which has compounded his situation. He was sanctioned for an entire year and has been unable to recomply to get the sanction reduced to a fixed period. He should not have been sanctioned at all, but it is clear that the structure of the ESA regime and the increasingly punitive sanctions imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions are targeting the sick and vulnerable.

Despite guidance that states that claimants must be officially notified of sanctions in writing, many jobseeker’s allowance claimants have been sanctioned without an official warning and, as my hon. Friend Kirsty Blackman said, without any understanding of the reason for the sanction. A constituent of mine lost his benefits from 2013 when he was sanctioned for failing to attend an interview. He was told verbally that he had been sanctioned, and the sanction should have lasted four weeks. He was not given further information about how to challenge the sanction. It is estimated that over the past five years, 28,000 claimants in Scotland have been sanctioned without official notification in writing from the DWP. Following the switch to automatic notification of sanctions by the DWP in 2015, my constituent finally received notification of his sanction two and a half years late. That burden of administrative error puts people into situations of great confusion and misunderstanding. They do not know why they are in such circumstances, and that is unacceptable and should not happen.

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

The hon. Lady again highlights very effectively some hard cases involving the most vulnerable people. There are examples in my constituency as well. However, just so that I can understand, is it her party’s policy that there should be no sanctions at all? After all, sanctions have been in place for some time. Alternatively, is the issue simply that they are not being implemented correctly?

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

The sanctions regime as it stands today is unacceptable. The hardship that people are placed in, the stress on their lives and the effect on their children and wider families is unacceptable. The sanctions regime is not fit for purpose. It targets entirely the wrong people and makes things worse.

There is particular concern at the citizens advice bureau in Bridgeton about the question of the first sanction, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan. People are not challenging that first sanction. They think, “I’ll ride that one out. I can wait a week. I can manage. I can cope,” but if they do not challenge it the system decides that they have accepted the reason for the sanction, and that it was fair and justified. When something else happens—the next time their bus is late, or they have to pick up a child, or they are ill or in hospital, or some other thing happens—the second sanction will be far more punitive and the third one, should there be one, even more so. The first sanction is crucial, and that fact is not getting out to people. I cannot stress enough how much I would like people to challenge the first sanction on every occasion. An awful lot are overturned, because they are not fair.

The last case that I want to highlight puts the tin lid on how ludicrous the system is. I do not know, but I imagine that hon. Members from parties outside Scotland will not have seen the front page of The National this morning. It reports on a case that I highlighted about a constituent who was on universal credit and sought work. He obtained an offer of employment, which was great—that is what we want for people. As with all jobs, a start date was negotiated and agreed; that was fine. However, because of the expectation of compliance with the claimant commitment, which is the core requirement at all times for receiving universal credit, that constituent faced the threat of sanction even though he had a confirmed offer of employment. The new employer of that person will be the DWP. Well done, guys; that is absolutely tremendous. You could not make it up. The Government urgently need to review universal credit, particularly to ensure that the transition to employment is managed properly and is not subject to sanction. It is ludicrous to sanction someone who has complied and done everything they ought. It is crazy.

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

I repeat my question on that. Is it the position of the hon. Lady’s party that there should be no sanctions regime at all?

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

Does the hon. Gentleman think that he should be sanctioned because he was late for the debate today? I hope he loses a week’s, a month’s or a year’s wages as a result.

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

Did you? Then you should explain it to someone else and see if they consider that fair. That does not happen to my constituents. Why should the hon. Gentleman have a different set of rules?

I have another case I want to raise, although it is not the case of a constituent of mine. However, the lady who told me about it affected me deeply. She was in Central Lobby a few weeks ago, and was so upset; she was in tears and absolutely broken. Her brother had committed suicide. He died with £3.44 to his name because he had been sanctioned and lost his benefits. He committed suicide as a result of the pressure put on him by the policies of the Government. The sanctions regime needs to be resolved and reviewed, and that must happen now.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment) 3:25 pm, 16th December 2015

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Whiteford on securing the debate, which follows on from one that I secured in this Chamber two weeks ago. The Minister may well be getting fed up with responding to Scottish National party debates about the Government’s sanctions regime, but I warn her that the party will return to the issue and challenge the Government on it until we see fairness in the social security system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan made an excellent speech and has been a constant campaigner on the issue for some time. I pay tribute to her for that. She highlighted the issue of work capability assessments and people being declared fit for work when they are clearly not. She also highlighted the fact that although there is a need for some form of conditionality, the conditions should be proportionate and fair. She called on the Government to look at the trial of the yellow card warning system, and argued that the very need for it shows that the system is not working. I call again on the Minister, as I did two weeks ago, to tell us about the detail of that trial—when we can expect it to happen, and where and how it will happen. That detail has not so far been forthcoming.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan also highlighted the hardship and destitution resulting from sanctions. The Crisis report gives excellent qualitative evidence on that: 1,000 people were spoken to in a survey, and the impact on their lives was documented. My hon. Friend’s speech, coupled with the Crisis research, reveals the urgent, desperate need for a review of the sanctions regime, and for better protection of homeless claimants and those with mental health conditions against extreme hardship resulting from sanctioning.

My hon. Friend also touched on issues to do with hardship payments, which I hope the Minister will reflect on and deal with. Sanctions have not become a deterrent. That is clear, and my hon. Friend showed it. Indeed, there is a debate to be had about whether a deterrent is needed. The Crisis report set out that homeless people accept the need for conditionality. The problem is that they are simply unable to comply with the conditions, because of their unfortunate circumstances.

My hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin made an incredibly powerful speech on behalf of her constituents, and I must agree with her. Over the nearly eight years I have helped in and represented the constituency of Airdrie and Shotts, I have yet to come across anyone who has shirked the responsibility of looking for work, or anyone who does not want to get work. As my hon. Friend said, there is no bonus for living on social security support. I support her in challenging any of us here to live on £73 a week. Maybe we could do it for one week, but week after week it would be incredibly difficult. No one gets comfortable on benefits. For her to be able to draw on her own experience of living on social security support and applying for jobs, and of the dent to confidence from being knocked back, was powerful testimony to which I hope the Government pay heed.

My hon. Friend Kirsty Blackman was worried about following my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East, but she did so well. She drew on figures from the Crisis report, such as the one showing that 77% of those sanctioned had skipped meals. That has to be a wake-up call. That figure alone should trouble Members in all parts of the House. Another critical figure is that 60% of those sanctioned found it harder to find work as a result—little wonder, frankly. The rise in the number of food banks in her constituency is reflected in mine, but we should not be relying on food banks and third sector organisations to fill the gaps in the social security safety net caused by Government cuts. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that in her winding-up speech.

My hon. Friend Alison Thewliss spoke about the case of her disabled constituent who was sanctioned for a year—an absolutely disgraceful example, which we should all be shocked by. She was also quoted in a newspaper report this morning—I have a copy, if the Minister wishes to read it—which highlights another of her constituency cases. My hon. Friend’s constituent had earned employment at the DWP, but was sanctioned while waiting for the employment to start. That sums up the omnishambles of the sanctioning regime.

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

The hon. Gentleman, too, is highlighting some of the hard cases. As the SNP spokesman, however, will he confirm whether it is his and his party’s policy for there to be no sanctions system? After all, sanctions have been part of the social security system since 1946.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his diligence, especially after the put-down by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central: the hon. Gentleman was himself late for the debate and, had he been on social security support, he would have been sanctioned. I do not believe that many of us could survive for longer than a month or so without our own salary, never mind the £73 a week that other people have to live on. It does him no service to push this. As for our view of sanctions, we believe that there should be conditionality, absolutely, but not the punitive sanctioning that has increased exponentially under this Government and the previous one. That is our concern, not conditionality or sanctioning in general. I hope that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan said, the sanctions regime is causing extreme hardship and is being operated in an arbitrary and unfair way. The Crisis report she quoted shows plainly what is happening to homeless people.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the rules were changed in 2012, resulting in the much greater use of sanctions than ever before?

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

Yes, absolutely, the Labour spokesperson is right. There is clear, documented evidence of the rate of sanctioning for all social security benefits such as JSA and ESA having risen since the coalition Government came to power.

Homeless people are twice as likely as others to be sanctioned, which must shock us all. I hope that the Minister will advise us of what plans she has to extend the at-risk group to those with mental health conditions and to the homeless, as I called for two weeks ago. I hope she will provide some detail on that.

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

The Scottish Association for Mental Health published research that found that 98% of service users had said that their mental health had deteriorated as a direct result of welfare reform. The research confirmed that benefit sanctions had been detrimental to the mental health of service users. Does my hon. Friend agree that sanctions are inhumane? I call for a review of the practice.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

Absolutely. Two weeks ago I called for that same review, and the Select Committee on Work and Pensions has done so as well. I hope that the Minister will respond. It is little wonder that mental health of people who have been sanctioned suffers—their confidence, their ability to find work and their ability to feed and water themselves and their family are all damaged. It is little wonder that we find evidence that people’s mental health is suffering. What benefit does sanctioning give to people seeking work? Very little, if any.

In the Minister’s response to my earlier debate, she stressed the importance of sanctioning to the social security system and to getting people into work. I hope that in her response today she will provide some evidence of the effectiveness of sanctions in pushing people into work. I am genuinely interested to hear what the Department has done to get evidence of how many people have returned to work within three or even six months of a social security sanction. I am interested because there is certainly plenty of evidence to show that the system is not working.

One example of evidence is the academic research conducted by Oxford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan cited. They looked at official data on sanctioning rates, employment rates and benefit off-flow between 2005 and 2014 in 375 local authority areas—a pretty comprehensive and wide-ranging study. They found that for every 100 JSA claimants who received a sanction, 42.4 no longer claimed the benefit. That sounds great until we realise that only a fifth of them actually reported having found work. So for every 100 sanctions, we get 8.5 people into work. Also, from those 100 sanctions, 34 people no longer claim the benefit but are not in work. How many of them are self-denying the support to which they are entitled and which they need because they are so scunnered and fed up with the system?

Has the Department carried out a social impact study? Has any work been done with those who have been sanctioned to find out what their experiences were, their destinations after the sanction and the impact on their quality of life? The Government have been quick to dismiss any link between work capability assessments and suicides, in spite of the study from Oxford and Liverpool Universities linking 590 suicides to WCAs. The Government have also been quick to say that the sanctions regime plays an important part in the social security system. As far as I can see, however, neither statement has so far been supported with fact. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us today.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of another statistic? If people go on the Work programme, they are as likely to get sanctioned as to get a job.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

That is a highly depressing statistic for the Government to reflect on.

I hope that the Minister will give us more detail on the yellow card sanction or early warning system. We heard that it was to be trialled in the new year, but where will the trial be, how long will it last and under what terms will it take place? I asked the same questions two weeks ago and hope that the Minister can now advise us of the answers.

Finally, will the Minister agree to the full independent review of the sanctions regime called for by the Work and Pensions Committee and by my party? With half of all sanctions being overturned on appeal, a sizeable increase in sanctioning rates and documented evidence from Oxfam, the Poverty Alliance, Crisis and many others linking sanctions to increased food bank need, now is the time for the Government finally to realise the damage that they are causing to individuals and communities and to review the sanctions regime.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 3:38 pm, 16th December 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan.

I, too, did not expect to be back in Westminster Hall discussing benefit sanctions so soon after the previous debate. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Dr Whiteford for securing the debate. I am also very grateful to Anne McLaughlin for speaking from the heart, for speaking the truth and for speaking so powerfully.

The debate has given us another opportunity to hold the Government’s feet to the fire. As the official Opposition spokesperson, I tend to speak second to last, before the Minister, so I do not get a chance to come back at her. We are two weeks on from the previous debate, so I will anticipate to an extent what the Minister will say this time. Perhaps that will challenge her on some of the things that I suspect will be in her speech and she might be able to answer some of the questions.

I spent a long time looking at the Minister’s previous speech from two weeks ago. It was interesting, but a number of things seemed odd. She seemed to indicate that the Government had given up even trying to persuade us that their sanctions regime is helping people into work, because she said,

“we know from claimants that there is a positive impact on behaviour” —[Hansard, 2 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 174WH.]

and that, “sanctions make it…clear” to people that they must “follow the rules”, so they are not about jobs. As is obvious, following the rules in terms of looking for work is not the same as finding work. In fact, it has become increasingly clear that, in many cases, the rules are a set of arbitrary boxes to be ticked that are as likely to hamstring people looking for work as they are to help them.

Sanctions are a major concern in Scotland, as they are in the rest of the country, as today’s debate and the previous one show. I was struck by a case that came up at a recent hearing of the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee on sanctions. A man from the east end of Glasgow described his experience on the Work programme, which included being made to sit in an office from nine to five, cold calling local employers to ask whether they had any vacancies. Of course they did not, so he ended up with a string of rejections, which was deeply humiliating as well as being a complete waste of time. For the Minister to suggest that the rules are about tailoring to the needs and circumstances of the individual frankly contradicts all the evidence and experience, which is to the contrary.

The Minister spoke about the claimant commitment in our previous debate. It is worth saying a few words about that, not least because, by setting the conditions that jobseekers are expected to adhere to, it has become an inextricable part of the wider sanctions debate. What are the conditions? Like the sanctions regimes we have today, the claimant commitment was a bit of a wheeze, cooked up by the coalition Government in what seemed to be more of an effort to score political points than to help people find work. I read the two reports on universal credit published by the DWP a little over a week ago and one thing I found interesting was that only 37% of people surveyed by the Department felt that the claimant commitment set realistic expectations that would help them find jobs.

It is time for a proper evaluation of the claimant commitment. Although that was a key recommendation of the Work and Pensions Committee in its recent report on sanctions, the Government continue to refuse to do that or to give us a reason why. In her previous speech, the Minister referred to her Department’s efforts to “improve” the system by taking on board the recommendations of the two recent reports. One of them, which was by Matthew Oakley and published in July 2014, has been referred to, while the other is the Work and Pensions Committee’s report from March to which I just referred. She said that the Government have

“responded positively to the…Oakley review”, and that they had

“accepted all 17 of the Oakley recommendations to improve the process”.—[Hansard, 2 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 176WH.]

I found that interesting, so I had a good look into that. However, I am afraid that the Minister has been gilding the lily.

The Government actually said that that they would accept the recommendations

“wherever possible, and subject to detailed feasibility and securing the necessary resources”— weasel words.

Effectively, they are giving no commitment at all and the reality is that, 18 months after the Oakley report was published, some of its most important recommendations have gone exactly nowhere. Recommendation 11, for example, called on the Government to pilot a system of non-financial sanctions. That seems entirely sensible, particularly for those with a strong record of meeting the requirements placed on them and, for example, may simply have had a wife in labour.

To give another example, recommendations 12 and 14 suggested that the Government end the absurd practice of Work programme providers being required to refer people for sanctions even if the providers themselves do not believe that there has been on offence. The Government rejected that common-sense suggestion and once again gave no reason. Therefore, the Minister claims to have “responded positively” to Oakley, and to have accepted his recommendations “in full”, but, having had a good look at the reality as opposed to the rhetoric, I do not see how they match up.

Similarly, the Minister did not tell us the whole story when she described the Government’s response to the Select Committee report. She said that its Chair had

“welcomed our response and, importantly, our willingness to engage with the Committee to ensure that the conditionality system works as it should.”—[Hansard, 2 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 176WH.]

Let us have a look at that. By far the most important recommendation was for there to be a full, independent review of the entire system. Inexplicably, the Government refuse to do that and will not give us a reason.

Another of the Committee’s particularly important recommendations was for there to be a thorough evaluation of the new approach to in-work conditionality. We all need to be mindful of what the Government are doing and what they are about to do. They are currently piloting, within universal credit, an expansion of the conditionality regime. That pilot is very shadowy. We do not know where it is, who is being put through it or how many people are on it and, when we ask, the Government do not give us any answers. In-work conditionality means that someone is working, but they are not working enough, so, as far as I understand it—if I am wrong, I would love to hear from the Minister about exactly what is going on—they are told that, even though they are working, they must look for more work and, if they do not, they will get sanctioned. If that is right, we would like to know the details.

We welcomed the recommendation of a review, not least because in-work conditionality is completely untested and unprecedented—it is a new concept within any social security system. The Government’s response to the recommendation was good. I give the Minister full marks for her response. She stated:

“We agree that individuals on Universal Credit and in work will not be subject to the full range of work-related requirements and sanctions beyond existing pilots until we have fully considered the learning from those pilots.”

Great.

However—surprise, surprise—we heard from the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the autumn statement seemingly just a few weeks thereafter that the Government will

“extend the same support and conditionality we currently expect of those on jobseeker’s allowance to over 1 million more benefit claimants.”—[Hansard, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1371.]

I do not know whether the Minister knew that. Who are those claimants? What are the Government doing on this? We have a shadowy pilot and we are told that it will be looked at properly before it is extended, but then the Chancellor of the Exchequer says that it will be expanded to another million people and we do not know what the circumstances are. This is completely new. The current sanctions regime is bad enough and if the Minister is now to expand that to those in work, we need to know why and how.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

Does the hon. Lady share my concern that the conditionality and sanctioning regimes are just a fig leaf for social security cuts?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

With great respect, I think that is a simplistic argument and that it goes further than that. Those who have been subjected to a large number of sanctions lose confidence and end up “economically inactive” and, when they are asked why they have become economically inactive, we find out that it is because they have been discouraged. For many people, that means sleeping on the sofa, asking mum for a loan and begging. Many people are falling out of the system and a large number of them are very young, but that allows the Prime Minister to get up at Prime Minister’s questions and say that the number of claimants is going down. It is more cynical than cuts. Cuts is bad enough, but that takes things further.

The Government have not made clear exactly what they will do, but our assumption is that the 1 million people must include those on universal credit. I respectfully suggest that, for the Government to say one thing to the Select Committee and then the exact opposite in the Chamber just four weeks later, it does not look like the Minister’s promise to have “engaged” with the Committee in any positive way.

More troubling still are the implications of that U-turn for the future of sanctions policy. The sanctions regime is broken, but the Government will not look at it or allow an independent review. They are bashing on regardless and now they want to increase it to include those in work. During the previous debate we seemed to be fairly close to reaching cross-party consensus on the fact that it is broken. The only differences that arose were in relation to the scale of the problem. It does need fixing.

For the Government more or less out of the blue to suggest that they intend to expand the scope of sanctions is quite extraordinary. I hope that, this afternoon, the Minister will answer some of the questions rightly asked by the Opposition to hold the Government to account, because it is silly for us to have to keep coming back time and time again to Westminster Hall to ask them.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions) 3:49 pm, 16th December 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I will endeavour, in the time I have, to cover as much ground as possible.

It is fair to say that I am always happy to come to the Chamber to participate in debates on this important issue. Today’s debate has given all Members the opportunity to give their constituents’ views and their personal views on the sanctions and benefits system. It has also provided opportunities for Members of the House to discuss how we can support and encourage people back into work. On a day when we see figures showing record numbers of people in employment, we should welcome all the support put in place through our jobcentres and work coaches to help people into work. It is somewhat disappointing that we have not heard much from Members in this afternoon’s debate on the support available to help people into work.

Conditionality is a key part of the approach that has helped to deliver record-breaking levels of employment, labour market improvements and the lowest claimant count since 1975. As we have debated not only today and in the debate a few weeks ago but continuously, sanctions have been part of the welfare system for a considerable number of decades.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

Does the Minister accept that since her Government and their predecessor, the coalition, came into power, the sanctioning rate has increased for not only ESA but JSA? Can she give any reason for that?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says at all. Sanctions have been a part of the welfare system for a considerable number of decades, and successive Governments of all parties have acknowledged the principle that there should be a link between benefits and engagement with the labour market. That principle has been at the heart of the system, and it is important to recognise that that is exactly how the system works right now; we engage claimants and ensure they are being supported in their work searches, while ensuring fairness and balance in the system.

The claimant commitment clearly sets out the consequences of failing to meet the requirements of the claim. As I have stated in previous debates, the claimant commitment is discussed at length with the claimant and, of course, takes account of any barriers to work, health conditions, disabilities or caring responsibilities.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I will not, because I have many comments to make and we are short of time.

Two weeks ago, in the previous debate on sanctions, a number of Members quoted from reports and gave statistics to support their claim that the system is broken. We have heard similar quotes today, but we should be clear that much of what has been quoted is not fully representative of the system. We have heard extensive quotes from Oxford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine report that suggests only 20% of JSA claimants find work after a sanction has been imposed. That is misleading, because it makes the assumption that the 80% of people who leave JSA with unknown destinations do not enter work. In fact, many people do not inform Jobcentre Plus of their post-benefit destination because they are getting into work.

Statistics published by the Office for National Statistics put a clear disclaimer on the data, stating that the destinations data are unreliable and that it should not be assumed that all movements into employment are accurately reported. It would have been more accurate for Members to quote from the comprehensive DWP destinations survey that found that 68% of those leaving JSA move into work.

Members have rightly raised the issue of sanctions for people with mental health conditions. Less than 1% of ESA WRAG claimants with mental health conditions are sanctioned each month. The latest available data show that the number of sanctions across ESA WRAG claimants has decreased over the past year, including for those with mental health conditions. That is because, as we have continuously stated, we are seeking to support people with health conditions and, in particular, mental health conditions into employment.

The Government have just pledged more than £40 million to develop a proper and robust evidence base on which approaches are effective for people with mental health conditions. Over the next three years, that investment will enable us to have informed pilots that are based on evidence, to see exactly what kind of support works for those people and whether cognitive behavioural therapy for people on ESA, JSA and UC makes a difference. We are now working in a more integrated approach with the Department of Health on the use of talking therapies in our jobcentres and other community locations.

Several hon. Members mentioned the recent Crisis report, but they did not highlight that the report found there was support for a system of conditionality among the respondents interviewed.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

Let me finish my point. The report noted that

“the sanctions regime does prompt some behavioural change”.

Scottish National party Members have secured this debate; I congratulate them on that, but they have had their say. They have been giving very inaccurate reports about the sanctions regime. As I have said at least six or seven times on the Floor of the House, if individuals Members want to raise their cases with me, I am happy to look into them. If they want to raise cases about jobcentres in their constituencies or the conduct of work coaches, I would like to pick those up with them. Members who have raised such cases have not done so previously, but I give them the opportunity to do so.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I appreciate that the Minister has a lot to get through, so I will speak very fast. One of the Work and Pensions Committee’s recommendations was that the DWP should monitor the destinations of people leaving jobseeker’s allowance. Currently, the Department only does that on an ad hoc basis. That is one of the recommendations that the Government refused to apply.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

That, of course, is part of our ongoing work and, along with the sanctions system, it is always subject to review. We will continue to work with the system and learn from the data we receive.

To return to the Crisis report, it is not entirely clear how the respondents to the study were selected, and the conclusions appear to apply to only a subset of the overall homeless population. That is why we are quite cautious about the degree to which the views and responses included represent those of the broader population. We know that the most important priority for homeless people is to secure accommodation, and to secure support not only in getting into accommodation but in dealing with barriers to work and any particular conditions they may have. It is important to note that support is always, rightly, based on individual needs and circumstances, and is there to help homeless claimants find suitable living accommodation, which in turn helps to remove barriers to employment.

I return to the role of our work coaches. They are able to treat certain homeless claimants as meeting their job-seeking conditions if they are receiving the right support to find living accommodation. Work coaches are also able to suspend conditionality temporarily if the claimant’s circumstances constitute an emergency. We recognise that homeless claimants may not be covered by our current list of vulnerable claimants for the purposes of hardship payments, and I emphasise that we are considering expanding the list to include those who are homeless.

We understand that homelessness is highly complex, and no one should generalise about the circumstances or backgrounds of homeless individuals. It is our priority to ensure that they get the right support. That is why the Government have made more than £1 billion available since 2010 to prevent and tackle homelessness and to support vulnerable households. In the spending review, we announced an increase in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s centrally funded programmes over the next four years to tackle homelessness. I would like to think that all Members here would welcome that.

References have been made to sanctions statistics, and it has been suggested that according to the Government’s March figures, 50% of sanctions imposed have been overturned on appeal. The official statistics say something different: in the year to June 2015, only 14% of original adverse JSA sanctions and 23% of ESA decisions were overturned by decision makers. Those decisions were based on new evidence being brought forward that was not available at the time of the original decision.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I come back to my point that if individual Members want to raise specific cases with me, they are very welcome to do so.

I do not have time to touch on the overall improvements to the sanctions process, which I know we have discussed before, or the Work and Pensions Committee. We keep the operation of the sanctions system under constant review—as we do all our policies— to ensure that it continues to function effectively and fairly. We will continue to do that.

I will touch on the pilot of the yellow card system, which gives claimants an additional period of time to provide evidence of good reason before a decision is made. That will help to strike the right balance between fairness, conditionality and individual circumstances.

Our intention is that the trial will operate in Scotland from March 2016, running for approximately five months. It will be carefully designed and delivered, with a clear process, training and guidance provided for all staff involved. The trial will be evaluated in full to assess the impact on the individual behaviours and understanding, and we will carefully monitor all the relevant data to consider the extent to which the warning system trial affects sanction decisions. We will make the findings available from autumn 2016. There are already a number of opportunities for people who are sanctioned to present more evidence, and of course, that will be part of an ongoing system of review. We are working with our work coaches to develop that.

As today’s debate was secured by members of the SNP, I would like to raise some particular points about the situation in Scotland. First, I am pleased to say that today’s employment figures show that Scottish employment is up significantly, by 178,000 since 2010, and that Scotland has an employment rate of 74.3%, which is higher than the UK average. We are seeing very strong levels of employment growth in Scotland. Unemployment has fallen by 63,000, with the number of people in work in Scotland now close to a record high. That is not just because of economic policies, but because of employers expanding their businesses and doing more to support the economy. There are plenty of figures on that, but I do not need to quote them. Members in all parties can access today’s employment figures.

However, I want to touch on something that has not been raised today. When it comes to welfare provision in Scotland, we have the Scotland Bill, and the devolution package in Scotland will make the Scottish Parliament one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. The Bill will also apply to welfare provision in Scotland, which will be tailored to local circumstances. Powers will include: a power for Scotland to create its own employment programme to help the long-term unemployed and disabled people into work; the power to create to new benefits in any area of devolved responsibility; powers in universal credit to determine how and when claimants are paid and how much some claimants get for housing support; and the power to legislate for top-up payments to people in Scotland who are entitled to a reserved benefit.

This of course puts more power in the hands of the Scottish Government, and Members of the Scottish National party can now be up front with the public in Scotland on what they will do with this new devolved power and how they will apply the new powers to their welfare system.

Although we have had a full debate today, I think it is fair to say that sanctions are not a punitive measure, contrary to what the Scottish National party Members—[Interruption.] They are sitting there giggling right now, but I would not trivialise the support that has been put in place by this Government to help people into work; I think that is quite insulting, actually, to many of our work coaches and the people who work in the welfare area providing support for individuals.

This is part of a wider framework of policy to provide support to encourage claimants into work. Today’s labour market figures show that. Not only are we seeing high levels of employment, but the claimant count rate is at its lowest level since 1975. Conditionality and sanctions have played a role in that, and it is only right that we continue to keep under review the policy of sanctions, and continue to work to do more, to do better and to provide the support to help people get back into work. That is why we have the new joint health and work unit, set up by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health between them, and why, during the autumn statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a new work and health programme. That will come in in 2017 to support individuals with significant barriers to work and, in particular, help them to get back into work, through the welfare system, with support. Of course, universal credit is part of that. It gives people the help that they need to increase their earnings, move away from welfare dependency, and importantly, make sure that work always pays.

Thank you for chairing the debate this afternoon, Mrs Gillan, and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.

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

On a point of order, Mrs Gillan. I was going to say this in an intervention, but the Minister was not taking interventions. I wanted to correct the record on the person I mentioned who died. It was not suicide; it is actually a lot more sad than that. He died from diabetic ketoacidosis from not taking his insulin. He had no electricity for the fridge in which it was stored.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham

Well, that is not a point of order for the Chair, but I appreciate that the hon. Lady now has that on the record, and has set the record straight. Dr Whiteford, you have two minutes for a brief wind-up.

Photo of Eilidh Whiteford Eilidh Whiteford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Social Justice and Welfare) 4:05 pm, 16th December 2015

Thank you, Mrs Gillan. I am glad to have the opportunity to sum up what has been a very wide-ranging debate, but nevertheless, the questions that have been posed in this debate have been very focused. They have been put repeatedly to this “Conservatist” Government, because they need answering. They were posed by the Work and Pensions Committee in the previous Parliament on more than one occasion, and some were posed in the Oakley review. Most of the questions relate to the impact of conditionality on the most vulnerable claimants, because there is mounting evidence that the sanctions regime is hitting those people disproportionately and that the measures that have been taken are not going far enough to mitigate the impact on people who should definitely not be sanctioned.

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

We have heard powerful speeches this afternoon from my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), and indeed from the Labour Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). There is clearly a case to answer, because the detrimental impact of sanctions on the mental health and material wellbeing of people in the benefit system, particularly those in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance, is giving huge cause for concern across all our constituencies.

My constituency has one of the highest rates of sanctions in the UK, despite having one of the lowest rates of unemployment. I can only attribute that high rate to our rurality, the very poor and costly internet access, the limited transport links that people have, and the large numbers of people in seasonal, part-time and casual jobs. However, the questions that have been put to the Minister have come from right across these islands. They are about why people are using food banks in the 21st century, why people are being found fit for work when they are clearly not, and why the system is not providing a safety net.

I am glad that the Minister was able to give a bit more detail today about how the so-called yellow card system will work in practice, but is Scotland just one big constituency now? Which bits of Scotland will it work in? How will that be reported? How will that come back to this House? We still do not know the structure of that scheme, and we need to know.

My most important questions today were about how the conditionality regime becomes worse for the people on the receiving end of it under universal credit. The Minister did not touch on those questions at all, or on my questions about hardship payments. Instead she simply reiterated points that were made in the written statement—we know those; we have got that information. What we are looking for is more information about how the measures are going to be rolled out in practice.

I was also a bit surprised when the Minister mentioned the Scotland Bill, given that her Government voted down the amendments that we put to the Scotland Bill that would have devolved responsibility for these matters. I know that the Scottish Government have been committing £100 million a year to mitigate the impact of what is happening and to mop up the mess that the Government have created. Buried in the Blue Book, however, were some small lines about how the Work programme is to be cut drastically before it is devolved. That will significantly limit the amount of action that the Scottish Government can take. A set of powers are being devolved that are going to disappear before we get them.

I know that my staff in my constituency office work closely with very hard-working advisers in our benefits offices. I have paid tribute to them in this House before. They hear it and know that we appreciate what they do and the support that they give—

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).