I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I hope that I conduct this debate in a workman-like way, as I did the debate on the allocation of time motion. The Bill will ensure that following the recent Court of Appeal judgment in the case of Wilson and Reilly v. the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the taxpayer will not have to repay to claimants the benefits lost because of their failure to take part in mandatory back-to-work programmes. It will also enable the Government to impose benefit sanctions on those who fail to participate in a mandatory programme where a decision has been put on hold because of the Wilson and Reilly case.
Is it not the reality that this is a multi-billion pound failed flagship scheme, which was condemned by the Public Affairs Committee as extremely poor? Having lost a case and fearing that they will lose the appeal, the Government, instead of respecting our justice system, are abusing our emergency procedures to fix the consequences of losing? Does that show not a shocking disrespect both for our courts and for the principle that workers should be paid the minimum wage?
The hon. Lady clearly has a press release that she wants to set out this afternoon. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, she says that it is a good press release. I wish it were an accurate one. The reality is that our schemes are helping to get people back into work. It is vital that people who are looking for work are given help to get into work, and we are offering that. Up to the end of September, 200,000 people found work as a consequence of the Work programme. If she thinks that that is a failure, she is insulting the people who have got work through the Work programme. She should recognise the benefits that such schemes bring. To allow people not to take part in them is breaking a contract between us and the unemployed. We give them the support that they need to get back into work and we expect them to take up that offer of support. If they do not take up that offer, it is right that they are penalised.
Will the Minister tell the House how our employment rate compares with that of eurozone countries and even with that of the United States?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The unemployment rate in the UK is below the average of the eurozone and the European Union. We are seeing one of the fastest rates of job creation in the developed world and we have record numbers of people in work, and record numbers of women in work. Our policies to help people into work are effective. On the whole, jobseekers welcome them and it is important that they continue to take advantage of the schemes that are on offer.
Is it not true that the Office for National Statistics has confirmed that the Government have included in their employment figures those who are not being paid for their work?
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the detail of the Office for National Statistics labour force survey, he will see that there are people who are on schemes who say that they are in employment, but that was the case under the previous Government. I have raised that issue with the ONS, because I agree that they should not be included in the numbers who are employed, but it rejected the argument on the grounds of international consistency. We cannot ignore the fact that, excluding those schemes and any reclassification, we have seen more than 1 million net new jobs created in the private sector since May 2010. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should congratulate us on achieving that.
Is it not the case that the employment rate now is lower than the rate—not the absolute numbers—in 2008?
The hon. Lady must recognise that we are in a very different economic climate from the one in 2008, when we saw a debt-fuelled boom that undermined the strength of the British economy. The economy is going through a healing process at the moment, and since May 2010 we have actually seen the private sector creating an extra 1 million new jobs. She should welcome that, because it has given people across the country an opportunity to get into work. We have seen the effectiveness of our welfare reforms—230,000 fewer people are claiming out-of-work benefits than they were in May 2010—and they have contributed to an increase in the numbers of people in work. People are coming into the labour market and finding jobs, and I would have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome that.
Before I go into the detail of the Bill and the background to the Court of Appeal judgment, let me outline why the Government believe that, in certain circumstances, jobseeker’s allowance claimants should be mandated to take part in employment programmes. and that when they fail to participate without good reason, they should face a benefit sanction.
First, this is a policy that is supported not only by Members from all parts of the House, but by the vast majority of the British public. According to the British social attitudes survey, 85% of the public believe that someone who is unemployed and on benefits should be required to do some unpaid work in the community while keeping their benefits. Sir Stanley Burnton, one of the Appeal Court judges in the Wilson and Reilly judgment, said:
“Parliament is entitled to authorise the creation and administration of schemes that are designed to assist the unemployed to obtain employment...it is not easy to see what objection there could be to them. Parliament is equally entitled to encourage participation in such schemes by imposing sanctions, in terms of loss of jobseekers’ allowance, on those who without good cause refuse to participate in a suitable scheme.”
Is not the issue the fact that sanctions can work if people know the consequences of failure to action? Did not the court rule that the information that was sent to people who were sanctioned did not comply with the regulations passed by this House?
A clear message was sent that people who failed to participate in schemes could lose their benefit for up to 26 weeks. That is the maximum they could lose. What the Court of Appeal said, and what the High Court said previously, was that we should make reference to the fact that if someone had committed a first offence, as it were, we should give details of the amount of benefit they would lose the first time they did not participate in a scheme. In fact, we have changed the notices as a consequence of the High Court judgment. The notice that we sent out said that people would face a loss of up to 26 weeks benefit if they did not take part in the scheme. What the High Court wanted was details of the lower levels of sanctions that could apply in that situation.
There is a broad consensus that mandatory back-to-work schemes are a necessary part of the approach that we take to get people back to work. When a person signs on to receive jobseeker’s allowance, they accept that they have certain responsibilities. It could be called a contract between the jobseeker and the taxpayer. We will offer a huge amount of support to jobseekers, including help to search for jobs, work experience and jobseeker’s allowance. That is our part of the deal. The jobseekers’ part of the contract is to take up the help that we offer. While the vast majority of jobseekers live up to their part of the contract, there are a small minority who are reluctant to do everything they can reasonably be expected to do to get back into work.
In a moment. For that group of people, it is right that we have the power to mandate them on to different back-to-work schemes, which we think will help them improve their chances of finding work. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) supports that sentiment.
A couple of years ago now, the Secretary of State gave an assurance to the House that individual jobcentres or jobcentre districts did not have targets for sanctioning jobseekers and that there were not any kind of league tables that ranked jobcentres or districts for sanctions. Will the Minister confirm that that is still his Department’s policy?
Absolutely. There are no league tables in place. We do not set targets for sanctions; I have made that point in previous discussions with, I think, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). The decisions that need to be made are the right ones. They need to be based on whether people have breached the agreements they have set out with the jobcentre, and there are no targets in place.
Let me set out in a bit more detail the programmes that exist. The programmes might vary from a training course that the Government have paid for so that the claimant gains some essential skills that will increase their chances of finding work, or they might involve a community work placement, whereby claimants can pick up the basic disciplines, such as turning up on time, that every reasonable employer will expect.
We also know that those schemes work. Recent research on our mandatory work activity scheme found that nine in 10 participants said that they better recognised the benefits of a working routine, and around three quarters said that their confidence and ability to work as a team had improved. More than half said that they felt more positive about work than they did before attending.
Is it not the case that the research on the mandatory work schemes found that, afterwards, people were as likely to be on benefit as they were before?
The scheme is used particularly for those who are some distance from the labour market. We know that we need to make a range of interventions to get people to move closer and closer to the labour market. The scheme changes people’s attitude to work. Those on the scheme can put that work on their CV and demonstrate to employers that they are ready for work. That makes a contribution to moving them closer to work. As the evaluation that the hon. Lady referred to pointed out, people themselves feel the benefits of taking part in the scheme. It is therefore right that when claimants refuse to take up the support that is available, and then fail without good reason to attend these mandatory programmes, they face the consequences of their actions—a benefit sanction.
Will the Minister give way?
I want to make some more progress. We have four hours, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will have time to make a contribution.
On 12 February, the Jobseeker's Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011 were found to be ultra vires by the Court of Appeal on the ground that the programmes covered by the regulations were not described in the regulations in sufficient detail. Those are the regulations that provide for most of the mandatory back-to-work schemes, such as the Work programme and the day one trailblazers, which we are running at the moment.
The Court of Appeal also held that the notices sent to claimants advising them that they were required to take part in a programme within the ESE scheme did not comply with the requirements of regulation 4 of the ESE regulations. It is important to remind all Members that the Court of Appeal has ruled that there was no breach of article 4(2) of the European convention on human rights, meaning that these schemes cannot be equated with slave labour. As I have already stated, the judgment was supportive of the principle and policy of our employment schemes.
Will the Minister confirm that he intends to appoint an independent person to produce a report on this matter? The intention is that they will report within 12 months and the Secretary of State will consider that report for some unspecified period. I know that it is a complex issue, but does the Minister agree that that could be done much more quickly, and the issue could be resolved much more quickly, if that process were shortened, rather than the period being 12 months and then as long as it takes to consider the report?
I will touch on this in a bit more detail later, but we will appoint an independent reviewer to look at the way in which the sanctions regime works under the Bill and to report to Parliament; that is dealt with in new clause 1, which we will discuss later. The Secretary of State will lay the report before Parliament. The operation of the sanctions regime will be looked at within a 12-month period. If it could be looked at more quickly, that would be a good thing. That is one of the helpful products of the discussion between the two Front-Bench teams over the past couple of weeks. I hope that that gives Members reassurance on the nature of the review. I will come back later to the new clause, which will provide further reassurance.
In response to the judgment of 12 February, the Department laid new regulations, which came into force with immediate effect, so that we could continue seamlessly to mandate claimants to these vital back-to-work schemes. We have also written to everyone already taking part in the schemes to ensure their continued participation in schemes designed to help them to get back into work.
Could the Minister clear something up? Does he believe that the Court’s judgment is basically about a technicality, or was there a serious oversight by the Department? Many of my constituents think that there was a serious oversight.
No, there was not a serious oversight; the judgment was about a technicality. The High Court agreed that the regulations were satisfactory. It did not have a problem with the amount of detail in the regulations, whereas the Appeal Court did. I therefore believe that the judgment was about a technicality; it was about the amount of detail in the regulations. The Appeal Court thought that there should be more detail about the schemes. We felt, for reasons of efficiency and responding quickly to identify schemes that would help people to get back into work, that it was helpful to have some detail in the regulations but not as much as the Appeal Court wanted. To ensure that we could respond flexibly to the changing labour market and the changing needs of the unemployed, we designed the regulations in the way we did. We are seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court to continue to press that point about the amount of detail that should be in the regulations.
On the very points that the Minister is making, of course it is right that those involved in the system—those seeking employment and training—should have as much information as possible. Does he recognise that the wider public need to be confident that the system—what is happening out there to find employment and training for those in need—should be robust and stand up to scrutiny, including scrutiny by the courts?
I think that the system is robust and that it does stand up to scrutiny by the courts. That is why the High Court accepted the amount of detail in the regulations. The Appeal Court disagreed with that and we are seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court to argue that point. It is not unusual for there to be a limited amount of detail in regulations and much more information to be supplied in guidance or notices provided not just by the DWP but by other Departments.
Will the Minister give way?
I have given way already to the hon. Lady. I want to make some progress.
As I have made clear, the Department fundamentally disagrees with the Appeal Court’s verdict, which is why it has applied for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court in respect of both grounds. We believe it is right that the regulations should allow for flexibility, so that we can respond rapidly to improve jobseekers' chances of finding work, such as trialling new approaches in Derbyshire and London to help young people get vital experience to bolster their CV. A more prescriptive approach—the one proposed by the Appeal Court—to the content of the regulations would create inflexibilities that would ultimately hinder the jobseeker's chance of finding work.
Those are the arguments that we will make before the Supreme Court, if we are granted permission. Those arguments will not be affected by the Bill. We are hopeful that we will obtain permission and that we will win our appeal. There is, however, no guarantee that we will be granted permission to appeal, or that we would win the appeal. Were that to happen, claimants who have been subject to a sanction for failing to take part in the schemes would be entitled to a refund of that sanction. It would also mean that we had no power to impose sanctions in relation to failures under the ESE regulations, in cases where no sanction decision has yet been taken—the so-called stockpiled cases. If that were to happen, the cost to the taxpayer would be up to £130 million.
It is vital that, in the present economic climate, the public purse be protected from such claims. The Bill will ensure that the taxpayer does not have to repay benefits lost by claimants who have failed to participate in employment programmes, and can properly impose sanctions for such failures. It would be unacceptable for claimants who have failed to take all reasonable steps to increase their chances of finding work to receive an undeserved windfall payment. The Bill will prevent that by providing that any decision to reduce jobseeker's allowance under the ESE regulations cannot be challenged on the grounds that the ESE regulations were invalid or the notices given under them inadequate. It makes similar provision in relation to the mandatory work activity regulations in respect of notices given under those regulations.
Following on from the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who pressed the Minister on whether the judgment was about a technicality or not, may I draw the Minister’s attention to the comments of Lord Justice Pill? He said:
“Claimants must be made aware of their obligations and of the circumstances in which, and the manner in which, sanctions will be applied.”
I do not think that he regarded it as a technicality, but if it is, next time the Department makes a mess, will the Minister come and seek a further retrospective Bill, in the way he has done today?
The High Court upheld the steps that we took in setting out the detail in the regulations. As I said earlier, the letter that we sent to claimants who were required to participate in the schemes set out the fact that they could be subject to sanctions of up to 26 weeks’ worth of benefits. That is not the only communication we have with jobseekers. The jobseekers who come into Jobcentre Plus will have discussed the requirements with their personal adviser, so there is a range of ways in which we will communicate to jobseekers their obligations under the schemes. That is vital. It is important that people are aware of those obligations. We believe that the notices and regulations provide sufficient detail, and that will be backed up by the conversations and other communication that jobseekers have with personal advisers.
I want to make some more progress.
The Bill will ensure that the Government will not have to refund sanctions on the basis of the Court of Appeal’s judgment and will be able to make a decision in cases where no sanction decision has yet been made.
As I have previously stated, the Government have applied for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. However, to ensure that we are not faced with having to repay benefit sanctions, we have had to press ahead with this fast-track legislation.
I would like to put it on record that I am grateful for the constructive way in which the right hon. Members for Birmingham, Hodge Hill and for East Ham have approached this topic. In supporting the Bill, they have allowed us to expedite its progress, thus safeguarding taxpayers’ money.
Following discussions last week with the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, we will be proposing two Government amendments in Committee. The first will reiterate in the Bill that a claimant’s appeal rights against a sanction decision remain unchanged in all matters, apart from those covered by the High Court and Court of Appeal judgments. For example, when a claimant felt that they had good cause for not participating in one of these schemes, they would still be able to appeal to the first tier tribunal on the basis of good cause. That is a helpful reconfirmation of the right of claimants to appeal. Similarly, the Bill will not overturn appeals that have succeeded on the basis of good cause. I hope that our amendment on that provides the clarification that the right hon. Gentleman seeks.
Will the Minister now confirm that the grounds of good cause in respect of appeals will remain undisturbed and will include the grounds covered in DWP guidance, which says that good cause can include an unsuitable course, full-time study, health and caring reasons, travel time that is inappropriately long, religious belief, bereavement, attending court and other emergencies? Will he also confirm that, ultimately, the timetable for lodging appeals will remain at 13 months?
We have been very clear in this amendment. We are confirming the right to appeal, and appeals can proceed on the grounds that are usually available in these situations, which the right hon. Gentleman has listed. The Bill does not change people’s right to appeal, save for appeals based on High Court or Supreme Court judgments.
The second Government amendment that we will bring forward in Committee will require the Secretary of State to appoint an independent person to carry out a review of the operation of the sanctions validated by this legislation during the first 12 months after Royal Assent. That review will report as soon as possible after the 12-month period, and the report will be laid before Parliament. I hope that these assurances are satisfactory.
To conclude, this Bill is necessary to ensure that the taxpayer does not have to repay up to £130 million in benefits lost through the failure of claimants to take up the Government’s offer of support. It is vital that scarce public resources are targeted at those who need and deserve them most. It would be unacceptable for claimants who have failed to take all reasonable steps to increase their chances of finding work to obtain an undeserved windfall payment. This Bill will prevent that, and I commend it to the House.
This is a very dark day for the once-proud DWP, and it beggars belief that this once-proud Department has found itself in this position under the Secretary of State’s leadership. The organisation of back-to-work schemes is now in a state of total chaos. Once upon a time, back in 2010, the Secretary of State boasted that the Work programme would be the
“most comprehensive, integrated work programme in existence, certainly, since the war”.—[Official Report, 22 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 17.]
What do we have instead? We have a Work programme that is literally worse than doing nothing. Just 2.3% of people referred on to the programme have found sustained jobs. As has been said, the Public Accounts Committee stated—
The hon. Lady will want to reflect on this. The Public Accounts Committee said this about the Work programme:
“Actual performance was even below the Department’s assessment of the non-intervention rate—the number of people that would have found sustained work had the Work programme not been running.”
Maybe the hon. Lady can tell me whether she is proud of that.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I was going to tell him that this morning the Work and Pensions Committee was at Willesden Jobcentre Plus. I asked the staff running the programme there, helping people get back to work, how they felt about their efforts being described as worse than nothing. They said it was deeply demoralising and incredibly insulting to their efforts on behalf of the unemployed.
The truth is that jobcentre staff have so little confidence in the Work programme that they are not referring people to Work programme contactors at anywhere near the rate the Department has estimated. That is the reality of how jobcentre staff feel.
We have had universal credit now beginning its descent into universal chaos, and now we have the news that the regulations designed to encourage jobseekers to take work were so badly drafted that the Court of Appeal struck them down and the Department may as a result be on the hook to repay £130 million in sanctions. The judges could not have been more unequivocal. Here is what they had to say:
“The 2011 Regulations must be quashed.”
I therefore put it to the Secretary of State that this is a day of shame for his Department. The House of Commons Library cannot find an instance of DWP legislation being struck down in this fashion since 1996, under the last Conservative Government. If the Secretary of State had delusions of adequacy, they have been swept away by today’s proposed legislation.
Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore explain to claimants, trade unions and everybody who has looked at this Bill why the Labour party will be abstaining today? If this Work programme is no better than no work programme at all, why on earth is the Labour party sitting on its hands?
I will address that point directly, as the answer is very simple: because this Bill restores the general legal power of the DWP to issue sanctions. It is a broad sui generis power that has been in place since 1911. I will be interested to hear later the hon. Gentleman’s argument on why he thinks the power to issue sanctions, which has been in place since 1911, should now be struck down for the period in question.
The worst aspect of all this is that the Secretary of State was warned that he was heading for a failure not simply in this House, not simply by commentators opposed to his plans, and not simply by people who had a profound disagreement with him, but by the very specialist Committee he set up to advise him on these questions. This is what the Social Security Advisory Committee said about the 2011 regulations:
“SSAC ask why the Department did not opt to narrow the scope of the original regulations”,
Indeed, it was, of course, their broad and unspecified content that the Court of Appeal objected to.
I want to take my right hon. Friend back to the recent intervention of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), from the Scottish National party Benches. Has my right hon. Friend picked up from those comments that the SNP is totally opposed to sanctions of any kind?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am afraid that no other conclusion can be drawn from that intervention.
The Secretary of State said to us in the House a couple of weeks ago:
“That advice came to us; it was checked and it said that the regulations were fine.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 19.]
Well, either the lawyers are bad or the Secretary of State made the wrong judgment. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that there are a huge number of questions that the Secretary of State must now answer.
If this were the only recent example of such incompetence by a Government Department, we might look on it more sympathetically, but all of us clearly remember the west coast main line debacle that cost taxpayers so much money and all of us remember that the Department for Transport responded by appointing an independent reviewer to get to the bottom of exactly what went wrong and how so much public money was put at risk. That is the response we must see now from the DWP. There must be an independent inquiry into how the Department got this so badly wrong.
May I bring the right hon. Gentleman back to the Bill? Does he agree with its impact assessment, which states that a retrospective transfer of £130 million of
“public money to this group of claimants would represent poor value to the taxpayer and will not help those unemployed enter employment”?
Surely, in the current climate he should welcome the swift action taken by the Government. Listening to his interventions and his speech, I am not sure that he or Labour are ready to be custodians of this country’s public finances.
Right—so a Member of a Government who have just put at risk £130 million of public money says that we would not be safe custodians of public money.
The Secretary of State was given the judgment by the Court of Appeal on 12 February. Weeks later, there was the request for urgent legislation, please. That is highly unsatisfactory. Tests for retrospective legislation have been repeatedly set out in this House and the other place. Tomorrow, the Lords’ Constitution Committee will opine on this Bill. I suspect it will have harsh things to say about its rushed nature which, because it is retrospective and set to a fast timetable, represents the worst of all worlds.
The Secretary of State will be aware, like me, of the principles set down by the Constitution Committee in its 15th report, where it opines on fast-track legislation. There is a need to maintain clear, transparent parliamentary scrutiny, and to maintain “good law”. The right of interested parties to put forward views must be observed. There is a need to ensure that legislation is a proportionate, justified and appropriate response, and is set out so that fundamental constitutional rights are not jeopardised. Crucially, the policy-making process within Government should be transparent. I look forward to hearing how any one of those principles is honoured by the process before us. The test is all the sharper, in that the Secretary of State is in this pickle because he rushed the legislation, against the recommendation of his advisers.
The test for fast-tracked retrospective legislation is the toughest of all. It was a principle the Lords set down in their report on criminal evidence legislation in 2008, which said:
“Legislation to make lawful an action that was done without legal authority…needs to be scrutinised carefully.”
My concern is that this timetable does not deliver that.
At the heart of this debate is the question whether the programmes the Government have in place, which rest on the power the Secretary of State is seeking from us, are in any way effective.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that many people in this country will be shocked to learn that the official Opposition want to vote for this Bill precisely because they want to impose sanctions on people on workfare? Let me give him the example of a 58-year-old constituent of mine who has been unemployed for seven months. She was told that she had to travel miles to work in a Scope charity shop in Worthing or lose benefits. She could not afford to get to Worthing, so she offered to work in the Scope shop in Brighton, but the jobcentre would not allow it. Should she be sanctioned?
The hon. Lady raises an extremely important point, and that is why we have sought to ensure that the Bill includes our safeguards, which preserve the right to appeal with good cause, and the 13-month appeal window during which people can lodge objections to the sanctions regime. To answer the hon. Lady directly, I do believe that the DWP should be equipped with the power to issue sanctions. That general foundation has been in the hands of Ministers for more than a century. The new deal programmes and the future jobs fund that Labour put in place had sanctions attached to them—indeed, they were tightened by the Welfare Reform Act 2009—and I do not believe that those powers should be empty ones. However, nor do I believe they should be in the ether—in the hands of Ministers who have no obligation to put in place genuine back-to-work programmes that are better than doing nothing, unlike today’s Work programme.
Is there not evidence in our constituencies of people being taken off benefits for no good reason? For example, a constituent who was attending the funeral of a close relative had her benefits stopped. People with mental health issues, particularly young men, are kicked off benefit for no good reason.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to flag that up. He will know that the DWP’s own guidance says that “good cause” for appealing against a sanction decision includes bereavement where the claimant was arranging or attending a funeral of a close relative or friend. That is why it is vital that we seek to protect these appeal rights in the Bill.
The ultimate test of whether a back-to-work programme is working is perhaps the one the Secretary of State set out when he spoke in Easterhouse all those years ago. He said that
“we need a jobs revolution. Every working-age adult capable of earning a decent living for themselves and their dependants must be helped to have the opportunity to do so”.
Since he took office, unemployment has increased in three quarters of the estates with the worst unemployment levels in Britain. It has not got better; it has got worse.
More than half the first cohort on the Work programme are in work. Why does the right hon. Gentleman describe that as a failure?
The hon. Gentleman would do well to pay attention to the DWP’s own statistics and to the judgment of the Public Accounts Committee. They are categorical; they do not hem and haw or hedge their words; they make it clear that the Work programme today is worse than doing nothing. On the estates where unemployment is worst, the situation has got worse, not better since the Secretary of State took office. By any measure, that must be a failure.
That is why we say there has to be a different macro-economic policy. Unemployment is high because there are not enough jobs to go round. My constituency has the highest youth unemployment of any constituency in the country. There are 30 people chasing every single job. There are not enough jobs to go round, and we need a different plan for growth and jobs—an argument that my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor has set out with some power. We also need a different plan at the DWP. It is now Labour authorities and the Labour party nationally that are setting out the way forward for this Government. We have said that it would be wise to put a tax on bankers’ bonuses because we know we could use that money to get more than 100,000 young people back into work quickly. That is decisive action, which we hope to see from the Chancellor tomorrow. If anybody rejects an offer of a real job with real wages and real training, sure, perhaps they should face sanctions. But let us be clear: young people today deserve a real choice of a real job with real wages, but that is being denied them by this Government.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a second time. If I have read the Library briefing correctly, the JSA claimant count in his constituency fell over the last year by 6.7%.
That is cold comfort to a constituency with the highest youth unemployment in Britain. Does the hon. Gentleman know what people at my local jobcentre say when I visit it? Can he guess? They say, “I wish this Government would bring back the future jobs fund because it was the best programme we ever ran.” What a shame his party cancelled it, and that is why we propose its restoration.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will in a moment, if the Secretary of State will allow me.
When we look around the country, we now see Labour councils leading the charge to get young people back into work. In Sheffield, they are looking at how to intervene better in schools to help prevent young people from becoming unemployed. In Wakefield, they are bringing together colleges and businesses in a new way to get people back to work. In Leeds, there are new programmes to help get young people back into work. In Manchester, there is now a UCAS-style clearing house to get people back into apprenticeships. In Bradford, there are now industrial centres of excellence that bring the council, colleges and young people together. In Glasgow, the Labour council is guaranteeing a job for any young person out of work for too long. In Wales, they are making the same kind of commitment. In Birmingham, the Labour council—my own authority—has brought together a coalition of the willing to make progress on youth unemployment. In Liverpool, there is now an apprenticeship training agency, set up by the council and a local college. In Sandwell, Newham and Cardiff, Labour councils, local colleges and business communities have set up job brokerages. That is the kind of decisive action the Secretary of State can learn from. Perhaps he will give a commitment to go and look at what I have seen first hand and incorporate it into his policy.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Youth unemployment is lower than when the previous Government left office and there are more people in work than ever before. He is extolling the virtues of our localisation agenda, and I congratulate him on that.
I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman about a simple point. He has laid out for the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and others why his party will, by and large, not vote against the Bill. In doing so, he has said constantly how much he opposes emergency legislation and how terrible it is. Will he confirm that under Labour, there were 12 cases of emergency legislation being brought through this House in a hurry? Is he not crying crocodile tears on that point?
No. The Secretary of State should set out the detailed individual circumstances of every piece of legislation that he has referred to. He knows as well as I do what underpinned them. The point, as well he knows, is that he is making retrospective, fast-track legislation that touches on rights of appeal and property rights, all because of the mistake that he and his Ministers made in 2011 in bodging the regulations so badly that the Court of Appeal has struck them down.
To conclude, the assurances that we have heard from the Minister this afternoon are extremely important. The safeguards for appeal rights that have been set out are vital to ensure that people who are hit by sanctions have a wide-ranging set of good causes that can trigger an appeal.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
In a moment.
First, ensuring that the appeal window of 13 months is preserved is crucial for people who are hit by sanctions. Secondly, as has been referred to by my hon. Friends, it is vital that there is an independent review of the sanctions regime. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) will set out the questions that we believe need to be answered.
I have heard the Minister’s assurances this afternoon that there is no series of targets and that there are no league tables. We will hear further evidence on that point over the course of the debates in this House. I hope that the assurances that we have heard this afternoon withstand those tests.
Is it not the case that it is not only the low-paid, but the non-paid that Labour are not backing? By sitting on their hands, Labour Members are helping the Government to ensure that the people who are already being affected by the bedroom tax get no further support. It is worse than two bald men fighting over a comb.
It was the Labour party that opposed the bedroom tax when the Welfare Reform Bill went through this House, it is the Labour party that has consistently voted in opposition to the bedroom tax, and it is the Labour party that has forced the concessions out of the Government to protect foster parents and armed forces families.
In conclusion, it beggars belief that the Secretary of State has had to come before the House to fast-track retrospective legislation to fix a problem that he created when he got things wrong all those months and years ago. That is why it is so important that there is an independent Laidlaw-style review to get to the bottom of what went wrong. We need answers on how the Secretary of State has landed himself in this position. We need those answers to come before this House so that we can come to a judgment about whether he is still fit to be Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
I would like to put on the record once again my belief that anyone who can work should work. For that to happen, we first need to have good quality jobs. As I suggested in my intervention, the percentage of such jobs that are available is getting worse, not better.
The hon. Lady says that those who can work should work. Does she agree that they should be paid for that work, and that they deserve the support of MPs to be paid for their work?
I was about to make the point that schemes such as work experience, when they are co-determined, can be valuable tools in enabling people who are yet to find a permanent, full-time job to find one.
The Bill is a new low for the Government. It is the result of an abuse of power and incompetence, mixed with an ideological drive to run down our welfare state. I, for one, do not support it.
The recent court ruling that the Bill seeks to overturn quashed the 2011 jobseeker’s regulations, which failed to describe the specifics of the employment schemes and the requirements to participate in those schemes, including the time that must be spent on them. The Secretary of State had empowered himself to make regulations, but the form that he had chosen was judged to be unlawful. The regulations did little more than name the scheme.
The second part of the judgment related to the sanctions that were applied to claimants. DWP letters failed to explain what they were required to do. The ruling stated:
“the answer to my mind is plainly that there could be no question of sanctions being validly imposed if no proper notice of the sanction consequences was given.”
Again, I support the principle of a sanctions regime. If somebody consistently fails to turn up for work experience or a Work programme scheme, sanctions should be applied. However, I believe that sanctions are being applied indiscriminately. For example, one of my constituents was a beneficiary of employment and support allowance after they had retired on grounds of ill health as a result of a heart problem. He was required to attend a work capability assessment with Atos. During the assessment, he was told that he was having a heart attack and the nurse said that she had to stop the assessment. He got a letter a couple of weeks later saying that he had withdrawn from the assessment and, as such, was being sanctioned. That beggars belief. I have other examples, as I am sure do colleagues.
I welcome the opportunity for a review of the sanctions regime, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) has proposed, and the provisions on the appeals process. As he suggested, there is an indiscriminate approach to sanctioning. I was contacted by a Jobcentre Plus employee who was concerned that he was being forced to sanction people inappropriately. I hope that more whistleblowers will come forward during the review to describe the issues with the schemes.
The Government say that the Bill is needed so that they do not have to pay back the sanctioned benefits. That is absolute nonsense, as was suggested earlier. There is test case law from 2012 that disputes that argument.
Not only are the Government trying to push through retrospective legislation that undermines the judiciary and the rule of law, with all the appalling implications that that has; I believe that the Bill is part of the divide-and-rule narrative that underpins the Government’s ideology. They are again pointing the finger at the undeserving poor. They are emaciating our hard-fought-for welfare system on the convenient back of austerity. I believe in our country and our people. I believe that in good times and bad the welfare system is there to protect them. There will always be a few who abuse that system and we need to have measures in place to prevent that. However, the Bill goes beyond the pale and I, for one, will fight this emaciation of our welfare system.
In the Reilly and Wilson v. Secretary of State for Work and Pensions court case on 12 February 2013, the applicants challenged the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011 on four grounds. The first was that the scheme named in the 2011 regulations was beyond the powers of section 17A of the Jobseekers Act 1995. In other words, the regulations did not comply with the requirements of the Act. Secondly, the regulations could not be enforced in the absence of a published policy. Thirdly, notices to individuals mandated to take part in such schemes were inadequate. The fourth part, which was set aside, was the suggestion that the regulations conflict with article 4(2) of the European convention on human rights, which provides, subject to exceptions, that
“no one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.”
Many organisations totally oppose this Bill for a wide and varied range of reasons, and it is unfair to claimants to legalise retroactively penalties that the Court has judged unlawful. Contrary to Government claims, it is not obvious that the DWP would have to repay sanctioned benefits to all claimants, so the stated £130 million potential loss is inaccurate. The Government already have anti-test case law rules that would prevent them from having to repay anything for sanctions served prior to 6 August 2012, and more information on that point would be extremely helpful when the Minister responds to the debate.
It is of constitutional concern if the DWP undermines the judiciary and the rule of law by using retroactive legislation to avoid accountability for its own errors, and to negate any further appeal judgment by the Supreme Court that upholds the Court of Appeal judgment. Legal representatives who were in court for the Reilly and Wilson case stated categorically their belief that:
“The emergency Bill is a repugnant attempt by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to avoid his legal obligation to repay the thousands of jobseekers who…have been unlawfully and unfairly stripped of their subsistence benefits…The use of retrospective legislation, which is being fast-tracked through Parliament, smacks of desperation.”
I believe that is polite in the extreme. They went on:
“It undermines the rule of law and means that Iain Duncan Smith is once again seeking to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny of his actions…It is time for his Department to admit that maladministration and injustice costs.”
Other civil liberty groups and human rights campaigners have today explained to the press—it has just been released on the BBC—that they believe this type of retrospective legislation is a typical component of oppressive regimes. They could not have put it any stronger than that. The measure has been described by some organisations as “almost unbelievably disgusting”, and they said that the DWP
“broke the law, now they want to retroactively change the law so that they didn’t break the law in order to keep £130m out of the pockets of some of the poorest people in the country…The High Court found workfare unlawful precisely because people had no way of knowing the rules that applied. It shows an incredible level of arrogance and disregard for the poorest to now attempt to backdate laws to challenge this ruling.”
It has been correctly argued that the Bill would set a dangerous legal precedent if passed, and send a message that when citizens defeat the Government in court, the Government can overturn the Court ruling retrospectively with primary legislation—effectively making the Government, and the DWP, above the law. Who is in charge?
If this Bill is enacted, it is not clear what would happen in the cases of those who have successfully appealed against decisions to impose sanctions. It appears that there have already been successful appeals against sanction decisions at first-tier tribunals, following the Court of Appeal judgment. The Government’s argument is that the Bill will protect taxpayers by saving them a bill of £130 million. May I dare to suggest that that is denying those claimants their legal entitlement? Taxpayers will be better served if back-to-work schemes are properly scrutinised to ensure efficacy and that taxpayers are receiving value for money. That is a separate argument and has been stated well from both sides of the House this afternoon.
We can see from the poor performance of the Work programme so far, with only 3.5% of people referred to the programme finding a long-term job, that people are more likely to get a job without that scheme than with it. Is there a £130 million liability that would have to be repaid? The Government argue that legislation is necessary to protect the public purse from having to repay £130 million of sanctions that have been imposed. As I said earlier, however, significant anti-test case provisions already within the social security system mean it is highly unlikely that the Government would be required to repay all the sanctions. Section 27 of the Social Security Act 1998 allows the DWP not to change decisions that were only shown to be wrong by a decision of a court. It means that the DWP could probably resist repayment in all cases where the sanction was imposed and served before the High Court decision of 6 August 2012, as well as decisions after that date where no appeal is sought.
When researching for my contribution to this debate I looked at the explanatory notes and the impact assessment published with the Bill, and a number of issues really stuck out. Paragraph 9 states:
“The Bill has been introduced to avoid the need to repay claimants who have been sanctioned for failure to comply with requirements under the ESE Regulations and to be able to impose sanctions where decisions have been put on hold since the decision of the High Court or Court of Appeal. If this were to happen, the cost to the taxpayer is estimated to be up to £130 million.”
The Bill is being introduced to save the taxpayer up to £130 million, yet it deprives the most vulnerable people who have been on workfare and are looking to better themselves in employment. It has been introduced to deny £130 million compensation to 300,000 people who would like decent employment with decent wages, terms and conditions. The Government have introduced emergency legislation to prevent those people from getting only what the Court of Appeal says they deserve. That is an absolute outrage.
The explanatory notes state:
“The effect of the Bill will be that any decision to sanction a claimant for failures to comply with the ESE Regulations cannot be challenged on the grounds that the ESE Regulations were invalid or the notices given under them inadequate, notwithstanding the Court of Appeal’s judgment. This is to ensure that the Government is not faced with the situation whereby jobseekers previously sanctioned (or to be sanctioned) for non-compliance under the ESE Regulations can receive an unfair advantage over compliant claimants.”
Again, that is an outrageous statement. The notes continue:
“The Bill also addresses the risk that previous notifications to claimants made under the MWA Regulations—”
mandatory work activity regulations—
“which contain the same notification provisions as the ESE Regulations, may also be open to challenge on the basis of the Court of Appeal’s judgement.”
The explanatory notes state:
“The impact upon individuals is that JSA claimants who have not complied with requirements under the ESE Regulations will not be repaid sanctioned benefits as they might expect following the judgment or may have a sanction imposed. The Bill effectively restores the status quo to a situation before the High Court and Court of Appeal judgments. Once the Bill is enacted, claimants who might have appealed against previous sanction decisions on the grounds upheld by the Judicial Review will be unable to do so. Sanctions imposed under the…legislation can continue and sanctions decisions currently stayed can be made in accordance with the original intent of the legislation. This is to ensure that the Government is not faced with the situation whereby jobseekers who failed to comply with their requirements and were sanctioned under the quashed ESE Regulations can receive an advantage over claimants who have complied with their requirements and is necessary to safeguard the economic interests of the state.”
I wonder whether denying ordinary and mainly poor people what they have been granted in a Court of Appeal hearing is in the best interests of the country and the economy.
But the people taking part in the schemes knew at the start that, if they did not take part, they would be sanctioned. They knew there was a penalty for not taking part in the schemes. Does the hon. Gentleman think it right that they should not be penalised?
I am certain that the 300,000 people the Court says have a claim because of the illegal actions of the Minister’s Department should receive it—there is no doubt about it. The Bill is being introduced by the DWP and the Government to deprive many hard-working people, and many people who want to be hard-working, of any finance whatever. Is that in the best interests of the economy? It is an absolute disgrace. Those people will spend money in the economy. They might get £50, £100 or £72 a week, but they will spend it, because it is the only money they have. The Minister should not seek to deprive those people and leave them with no finances whatever.
Does the hon. Gentleman disagree with Opposition Front-Benchers, who earlier argued in favour of sanctions?
I have not disagreed with anyone up until now other than the Government, because they wish to deny ordinary, hard-working people—people who wish to get on in life—what the Court of Appeal says they should have.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and am sincerely impressed with the passion with which he makes his case. However, if I were in his shoes, I would be determined to vote against the Bill. Perhaps I have misunderstood something. My understanding is that Opposition Front Benchers are proposing not to vote against the Bill. If so, why not?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the situation, but perhaps when the vote takes place, he will be much better informed.
The Bill turns my stomach. The impact assessment states:
“A retrospective transfer of public money to this group of claimants would represent poor value to the taxpayer”.
What a disgrace to say such a thing in Government documents with reference to the people I have mentioned 10, 15 or 20 times previously. That will not give them self-esteem. They are doing their very best.
Jobless households trebled under Labour and increasingly became the norm for the next generation. Surely we owe it to those children to assist their parents to get their first foot in the door of a job. Specifically, I recently spoke to one parent who said that her children were full of pride when she got an opportunity. Why deny that to others?
Members of Parliament discuss with constituents, and often people away from the constituency, the merits and otherwise of policies. I often meet people with a very different view from the people the hon. Gentleman has met. That is not to say that that has not been said, but the people I meet want decent jobs. They want the opportunity to get up in the morning and go to work for a decent wage. They would accept the minimum wage even though, at this point in time, it is not high enough. Where I live, 25 people are after every single job in the jobcentre. That means that 24 are not getting employment for every single opportunity. People want to work for the best intentions and the right reasons. They want self-esteem and finances. People where I live want to work—I am sure that extends throughout the country.
Saying that paying claimants the money that the Court says they should be paid—the result of the ruling means that the £130 million can be paid—does not represent good value for the taxpayer is an absolute disgrace. It is not the type of language we would expect from any Government. It is not right to talk about people as, “This group of claimants.” They are ordinary people with feelings, and many of them want to get on in life.
If they want to get on in life, why have they turned down the opportunity to get the training and support that will help them to get a job?
People have received sanctions for a range of reasons. The Government should not overrule a Court of Appeal ruling and introduce retrospective legislation against people just because they have received sanctions. I am sure the Minister is not suggesting that people who have, for whatever reason, received a sanction, should under no circumstances claim some sort of subsistence, even if the courts have agreed in a ruling that they should receive it.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend has come across such cases, but I have come across a number of people who have gone for a number of jobs, and been told, when they go back to claim JSA, that they are not trying hard enough. What an attitude in the 21st century!
I fully understand my hon. Friend’s point. As I have said to the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), every MP has received many representations with regard to the wide and various workfare schemes.
The impact assessment states:
“If the Department cannot make these retrospective changes, then further reductions in benefits might be required in order to find the money to repay the sanctions.”
That is blackmail of the highest order—I make no apology for the strength of my feeling on that. If people are due finances, they should get them, particularly following a court ruling, but the Government are saying, “If we pay these people, we might have to cut benefits for other people as a result because that is where we have to find the money.” That is emotional blackmail. It is totally and utterly bang out of order. They are trying to set people who are looking for work and on benefits against each other. That is absolutely unacceptable.
To conclude, I have some questions for the Minister to answer in his winding-up speech. Is it right that claimants face financial penalties for failing to participate in schemes when the possibility of those penalties had not been properly explained to them? Is it right that the Government can flout the will of Parliament, which had clearly expressed its wish to have some oversight of the schemes, especially given that the schemes that were designed and imposed on claimants without an opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny do not appear to be working?
Is it true that the DWP continued to issue letters to claimants that did not explain things properly even after the High Court had stated that the letters were inadequate?
That is not true.
From a sedentary position, the Minister says that that is not true, but I hope he will clarify that.
Let me clarify that now. When the High Court issued its judgment, we changed the letters to comply with its rules.
That is debatable.
Finally, what is the Department’s understanding on whether section 27 of the 1998 Act protects people from having to repay some of these sanctions? Some 300,000 people will be denied their legal rights if the Bill is passed. This is just another ideological attack on the unemployed and the less well-off, despite a High Court judgment. Why does the Minister not just accept the court of law? Give these people what they are entitled to. It is the Minister’s mess. Why should they suffer?
It is an honour and pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). My contribution might pale into insignificance compared with his comments of the past 20 minutes or so. He has probably saved me some time, because he has obviously taken to heart what the Child Poverty Action Group has been telling us all about the inequity of workfare schemes in the past couple of years. However, my starting point will be some 15 or 16 years ago.
I want to compliment Department for Work and Pensions staff. We sometimes forget the job of work that people do in their day-to-day life, and how difficult it can be. I only have to look back to when I came into this place in 1997. At that time, DWP staff were doing excellent work and were up for the challenge, keeping in mind that unemployment levels were excessively high when we came into government. They took on board the task of delivering for the then Labour Government the whole concept of new deal: new deal for long-term unemployed, new deal for young people, new deal for lone parents and new deal for disabled people. It made a vast difference to the lives not only of individuals, but of families and communities the length and breadth of the country.
It is therefore disappointing when things go wrong and DWP staff get castigated—it is grossly unfair. In recent weeks, I have held a couple of welfare reform summits, with some 30 or 40 different organisations attending. A member of DWP staff attended, explaining fully the changes that are about to hit many families across the country. As I said to people at the meetings, “Do not shoot the messenger.” The member of DWP staff explained what would be happening. The fault does not lie at the door of DWP staff; it lies at the door of the Department and the Ministers who are pushing the policies that everyone is faced with on a day-to-day basis.
One worrying aspect of the Bill is that this is emergency legislation. The point has been made about the number of times the previous Labour Government pushed through emergency legislation, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) knows full well what that emergency legislation was about. I have to tell the House that it was not in the realm of what we are seeing today. The retrospective element of the Bill is galling. My right hon. Friend knows that yesterday I had certain difficulties with the Bill. I still do—I have to be honest with the House. However, I recognise that he has worked hard to secure concessions from the Government to make the pill just that little bit less bitter than it would have been had he not made any such attempt.
The element of sanction is important. There are sanctions in all walks of life. We live in the real world, not the ideal world. If we lived in the ideal world, we would not have to have sanctions at any time, anywhere. The fact of the matter is that not everyone co-operates and not everyone plays by the rules, and so there are times when people have to be taken to one side and told where they are going wrong. However, that is no excuse for what has gone wrong here. Lord Justice Pill stated:
“Claimants must be made aware of their obligations and of the circumstances in which, and the manner in which, sanctions will be applied.”
I am not saying that that has not happened in every case. I am sure there are cases where staff have made it abundantly clear to claimants exactly where they stand. However, when we talk about the best part of 300,000 people, I have some anxiety about how many did not know.
In the case of one of my constituents, it took three months to determine whether he should be sanctioned, as it was not clear whether the responsibility rested with the manager of the placement or the jobcentre. At one stage I wrote to the Minister, and I cannot say that his letter made the matter any clearer. In that case, is it right that the sanction is maintained against my constituent? It is perfectly obvious that not only did he not know the conditions relating to the sanction, but neither did the manager of the placement nor the staff at the jobcentre. Surely the Minister is simply covering up an error, if he is allowed to do that.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is abundantly clear that the system is not robust. I made the point earlier that it is not only those who are out there actively seeking work or training who need to know the rules of the game. Every one of us in this House needs to know the rules, and the wider public need to know what is going on out there in their communities. When they see in their local press half a dozen vacancies and potentially 40, 50, 60 or maybe even 100 people applying for jobs, they need to know that systems are robust. They depend on good government to ensure that the legislation is correct.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what this tells us is that we need root and branch reform of how DWP communicates with the public? It is bitter when constituents of mine go to the jobcentre or take part in the Work programme already feeling bad and communication by DWP makes them feel so much worse. That has got to come to an end.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I also want to come back to the point I made at the beginning. Staff are under so much pressure. I can tell both Ministers here that there will for ever be a question mark over targets. Let me assure them and the Secretary of State that if evidence ever comes my way that clearly indicates that there are targets that have been denied by Ministers, I will make the House fully aware. I hope that hon. Members on both sides would do likewise. If that evidence is to be found, if that is happening, then it is only right that we expose it.
We all support high quality training and work experience, but the court case to which the Bill relates was about someone working at Poundland for an extended period. Does my hon. Friend agree that most ordinary people watching this debate will feel that it is outrageous that people are being asked to do such jobs without being paid?
I can only wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. Members of the public expect better from the shops, facilities and services we use. We expect people to be paid, and that point has been made this afternoon. All we are asking is for a real choice of a real job with a real wage. That is the decent thing to do, and there can be no doubt whatever about that.
Some of the newer Members might not realise this, but under the last Conservative Government, people in Coventry were being paid £1 an hour. I remember raising the matter with Ministers at the time. We are going back to those days.
My hon. Friend and I are of an age to remember when people were being paid pitifully poor wages, but thankfully—I will come to this in a minute—we introduced the national minimum wage when in government.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who has left the Chamber, was absolutely correct to make the point that the sanctions being imposed were wholly unfair, verging on the criminal. A number of us heard yesterday about someone who was asked to report to the jobcentre and sign on as unemployed at 9.30 on a Tuesday morning. At the same time, they were asked to turn up at a new training organisation at 9.30. They went to the jobcentre and said, “Look, I can’t come at 9:30 on Tuesday morning. I’m reporting to a new trainer,” but was told, “No, you need to come here, otherwise you’ll face sanctions. You’ll need to get a letter from your new trainer.” When they went to the trainer and said, “You’ll need to provide me with a letter that allows me to avoid signing on,” they were told, “We don’t provide letters.” So individuals are being trapped and end up being sanctioned. There is no fairness in that sort of system.
I want to touch on the £130 million that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck spoke about. This is the bit that really concerns me. Tomorrow, we will hear more from the Chancellor, and I am sure that Labour’s play will be for growth. As my hon. Friend pointed out, when we give money to the poorest, they go out and spend it, and it flows into and washes about in the local economy.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the only consequence of this judgment will be to put claimants in the position they would have been in had the Government not broken the law? Is it not deplorable that they now seek to use the House to change history and make their illegal actions legal? The Government broke the law and are now using the House to avoid the consequences.
My hon. Friend is correct. It is as if time has stood still for all these people. The only thing they have felt all this time is pain and hardship.
I told my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) that I would mention the national minimum wage. When we introduced it, the assessment showed that for every £1 million that we gave to poorer people and which went into the economy, we created 40 jobs. Even if every £1 million now created only 10 new jobs, that £130 million would create more than 1,000 jobs.
If we had to pay out this £130 million, we would have to find it from another group—potentially other benefit claimants who had done the right thing.
In life, when things regrettably go wrong, we have to face the consequences. I firmly believe that the Government should be facing the consequences in respect of this £130 million penalty. Can the Minister tell me exactly how many of these people were, like Reilly and Wilson, innocent? I think that a fair number of those 300,000 should have had their money repaid to them.
I know that other colleagues want to contribute, so I shall finish by saying that this is a tough decision for all of us in opposition. We still believe in sanctions—in government, we recognised that we needed them—but the Government have got it horribly wrong. On behalf of both the Ministers, I am disappointed that, up until now at least, we have not heard any attempt from Government Back Benchers to defend what is happening.
It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful contribution from the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown).
A very simple principle underpins my remarks: if somebody works a shift for an employer, they deserve a fair day’s pay for their time and effort. I cannot think of any circumstances in which it is okay not to pay employees or to pay them a derisory sum below the legal minimum wage for the work they undertake. I am sure that a number of us feel that the Government’s back-to-work schemes have fallen short of that principle, but the critical point is that the courts have found aspects of the regulations and sanctions regime attached to the schemes to be unlawful. At stake here is whether it is acceptable to use retrospective legislation to clean up the mess left in the wake of these court rulings. I do not think it is. Instead, I think the Government should accept that they made mistakes with the original legislation, take responsibility for the consequences and use the opportunity to rethink their approach and find more effective ways of creating job opportunities for people entering or returning to the labour market.
Given that aspects of the existing scheme have been judged unlawful and that penalties have therefore been imposed on some claimants unlawfully, it would be wholly wrong to legislate retrospectively as the Government propose to do. That, frankly, undermines the judicial process and the rule of law. We might as well rename this Bill “Jobseekers (Make It Up As You Go Along Schemes) Bill”. Whether or not we agree with the approach of the schemes in question—I have made it clear that I do not—the key issue is whether backdating legislation is the right approach to deal with this. I do not think it is. One of the main reasons why the courts found against the Government concerned the information provided to claimants and the description of the scheme in regulations. As legislators, we have a duty to scrutinise these regulations, and if we go down this retrospective “policy on the hoof” route, that aspect of our role is compromised, and that gives me great concern not only in a general sense, but in relation to the particulars of this issue, because to my mind the use of unpaid labour by businesses requires careful scrutiny and proper accountability.
I am quite sceptical about the value of such schemes, not just because if the jobs are there, they should be properly paid—at the very least at the minimum wage—but because I have seen very little evidence that they work. I am sure that many jobseekers will welcome every opportunity that comes their way, and some might even be able to use them effectively in the future, but there remain serious questions, mentioned by other hon. Members, about the practical outcomes of these programmes. I want to raise concerns about their long-term sustainability while the wider economy remains stagnant. There are real fears that schemes such as these actually inhibit recovery. Jobseekers might not be getting the skills that they need, but in the meantime they are depriving someone else, or even themselves, of a proper paid job opportunity. Also, while they are working for free, they cannot be out there looking for work that is appropriate to their skills and experience. Many will find themselves stuck in a sector that is wholly inappropriate and unsuitable.
To my mind, the schemes represent a poor use of our human capital. For example, they require graduates to stack shelves, yet we have invested thousands of pounds in those people’s education. They often have the confidence, skills and qualifications to enter the labour market, but if they are compelled to undertake low-paid, low-skilled work instead of looking for more suitable opportunities, what hope will that give to people who do not have high-level qualifications and who are trying to access a competitive labour market?
One question that has been raised today is: where is the money coming from? It is important to point out that that could well be a worst-case scenario. Other Members, particularly the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), have mentioned section 27 of the Social Security Act 1998, and suggested that only some of those who have been sanctioned under the unlawful sanctions would have a case. Also, claimants would need to appeal, and there is no guarantee that they would all do so.
In regard to the question of where the money would come from, this is only a tiny proportion of the overall welfare budget. I am sure that there are as many ideas about where the funding could come from as there are Members in the Chamber today. There are lots of other places where the money could be found, according to one’s political priorities. My own personal bête noire is tax avoidance, which, even by the most conservative estimates, costs the UK billions in lost revenues every year. Ironically, some of the large corporations that have faced recent allegations of tax avoidance are the same large corporations that are participating in the unpaid labour schemes. So it is not just that they do not pay tax; some of them are now not paying wages either. I suggest that recouping unpaid tax might be one way of meeting the shortfalls in the budget. That might also bring a rather satisfying element of poetic justice to the proceedings.
The UK has a poor track record on cheap labour schemes, and we should learn from the mistakes of the past. As someone who came of age in the 1980s, I remember all too well the failures of the youth training scheme that afflicted many of my own peer group. It was essentially a cheap labour scheme for employers that exploited the hopes and aspirations of young people desperate for work, and it marched far too many of them up the hill, only to abandon them back on to the dole at the end of the scheme. Some were able to use the scheme as a springboard to something better, but for many, the quality of the training was highly questionable and it did nothing to help them to develop skills that employers wanted.
Does the hon. Lady think that the small number of Government Back Benchers present in the Chamber is indicative of the fact that they do not share her concerns about the quality of these schemes and about what happens to these people?
It is very disappointing, but what disappoints me even more is that I suspect that we will be very lonely in the No Lobby tonight when we vote on this question. I urge everyone present who cares about this issue not to sit on their hands this evening but to stand up for people who are being asked to undertake unpaid work when they could be working for a wage in a proper job.
The worst aspect of the youth training scheme was that people were paid off from proper jobs in order to make way for YTS trainees on 20-something quid a week. Even in the 1980s, that was a derisory amount of money. It perpetuated dependency, sucked real jobs out of the economy and created huge resentment, not just among trainees who felt that they were being exploited, but from those who had watched their own wages and job opportunities evaporate.
The reality, then and now, was that people started getting jobs in significant numbers when, and only when, the economy started picking up again. Castigating the unemployed for being out of work entirely misses the point, and simply passes the buck away from those of us who have more responsibility for the state of the economy. The point about the state of the economy is as relevant today as it was in the 1980s, and it is particularly relevant with regard to the availability of work for people who do not have much work experience, or who face hurdles because of their health, because they lack skills or because they face other barriers to employment.
For several years now, I have taken an active interest in the programmes run by the Prince’s Trust in my constituency, which help young people who are some distance from the labour market to build the skills, the experience and, above all, the confidence and self-belief to find work and derive the many benefits that come with it. A work experience placement is an integral aspect of the Prince’s Trust programme, but as the economic recession has dragged on, it has become harder for staff to find placements, and significantly harder for the young people taking part to secure employment subsequently.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the most awful aspects of the Work programme is the way in which some of the really brilliant and committed charitable organisations have been locked out of taking part in it?
I could not agree more. The schemes that are run by experienced voluntary organisations are often the most successful in overcoming the real attitudinal, confidence and self-esteem issues that many young people have when they are finding it difficult to get a job and to find the dignity that comes from work, and when they feel that society is telling them that they do not have a contribution to make.
Almost all the young people in the first Prince’s Trust team I met had secured a job by the end of their programme: either their placement had led to a job offer or they used their experience to get a similar job elsewhere, or they had gone to a positive destination in college or a training programme. Recent teams of young people have struggled; they did well in their placements, but there is not sufficient demand in the economy to generate the entry-level jobs they were working towards. When I say that about Aberdeenshire, one of the most economically buoyant parts of the UK, I am left pondering how much harder it must be in areas of high and persistent unemployment in other parts of these islands.
The only workable solution is to drive growth and create demand in the economy. That is the way to create jobs and get people into work, but it is something that the Government have conspicuously failed to do over the last three years and is one of the reasons why we need the power to make economic and policy decisions in Scotland. When the Government brought in their workfare scheme, they made mistakes. They should acknowledge their mistakes and take this chance to rethink the entire scheme, refocusing their efforts on creating real jobs for those who can work. Above all, the Government should step back from legislating retrospectively to penalise those they unlawfully sanctioned. That was a completely unacceptable move and my colleagues and I will oppose it.
Over recent months, I have asked the Minister of State a number of questions about the sanctions regime. It has proved hard for him to answer questions such as how many people for whom English is a second language have been sanctioned and how many disabled people have been sanctioned. In my view, he does not have the evidence to state in the impact assessment that protected groups will not be disproportionately affected by the Bill. They may or may not be affected, because my efforts to find that information have failed, but I believe they are. When I see constituents who have been sanctioned, they are disproportionately people who are easily confused or who do not have good English.
However, that is not the reason why I shall go into the No Lobby on Second Reading. I oppose the Bill because I do not believe that Parliament should give the Government an alibi for confiscating from more than 200,000 people sums of between £340 and £810. They have illegally kept those sums from them. Let us be clear. That is what we are being asked to do by this retrospective legislation.
The Government have broken the law in a way that impacts on individual citizens. They have disrespected the rights of individual citizens and they are now asking Parliament to say, “Carry on doing it.” I do not believe that Parliament should do that. It is a fundamental issue of civil liberties, human rights and good governance. For that reason, not because of the content, I shall not abstain: I will oppose the legislation.
Ministers say, “Oh, people knew,” but let us be completely clear about what the regulations the Government have been found in breach of say. Regulation 4 says that the notice that people who are sanctioned receive “must specify” that C—the claimant—
“is required to participate in the Scheme…the day on which …participation will start…details of what C is required to do by way of participation in the Scheme…that the requirement to participate in the Scheme will continue until C is given notice by the Secretary of State that C’s participation is no longer required, or C’s award of jobseeker’s allowance terminates, whichever is earlier”
“information about the consequences of failing to participate in the Scheme.”
In my view, the Minister has utterly disingenuously—I hope that is not unparliamentary, but I think so—
Order. I think it is, and I am going to rule that it is, so I am sure the hon. Lady will not want to use that word.
I withdraw that word, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The Minister suggested that claimants knew the consequences. I refer him to the statements of judges on the matter. Judge Foskett said that
“the words…in the letter received by Mr Wilson were that his benefits ‘may be stopped’, perhaps conveying the impression that sanctions are not necessarily automatic.”
He goes on to say that
“the information given concerning sanctions is unclear and opaque.”
I accept that, since then, the Minister has improved the letters. I think that is right, and I do not oppose the possibility of sanctions; I believe that sanctions can work if people know that they are at risk of being sanctioned.
May I point out that, actually, sanctions are not automatic? Sanctions may be applied, because actually we disregard sanctions—sanctions do not apply—if there is good cause not to apply them. So “may” sounds right to me. The problem that the courts had was not specifying the graduated approach to sanctions.
As I said, the judge said that
“the information given concerning sanctions is unclear and opaque.”
If the Government want sanctions to work, people need to know the consequences of their actions, and this is a debate about the consequences of actions—the consequences of the Government’s actions in failing to ensure that they complied with regulation 4 of the regulations in every communication with claimants. It seems to me that the Government should bear the consequences, and the consequence in this case is up to £130 million. When the Government do wrong—and let us be clear, the Government have been found to do wrong in this case—it is not just to be overlooked. This is a series of court judgments which say, in respect of individual citizens, that they have been wrongly treated—the Government must give those citizens back their money. It is not the Government’s money; it is their money. The Government have wrongly kept it from them, and it is quite clear that that is what the courts have decided.
If the Government are going to say that a sanctions regime is necessary so that people know the consequences of their actions—an argument that I would support—it seems right to me that the Government themselves should bear the consequences of their wrong actions, and they should not be coming to Parliament to ask us to give them a free pass for breaking the law, because that is what the Bill is doing.
I feel proud of a whole range of speeches that have been made. They have been principled and have set out the case very clearly.
The straightforward issue is that the judgment basically said that the Government acted unlawfully. What surprises me is that there has been no word of apology from the Minister—not a single word to say, “We got this wrong, and therefore we apologise to the House.” Let us be clear what the judgment said: that the Secretary of State acted beyond his powers. He failed to provide the details of workfare schemes within the regulations and bypassed Parliament by introducing an umbrella scheme—the employment, skills and enterprise scheme. This is not a technicality. In fact—I quote from the judgment of Lord Justice Stanley Burnton:
“There is a constitutional issue involved. The loss of jobseekers’ allowance may result in considerable personal hardship, and it is not surprising that Parliament should have been careful in making provision for the circumstances in which the sanction may be imposed.”
This is a fundamental constitutional issue. The Government tried to slide through Parliament, without adequate consideration, regulations that would eventually deprive our constituents of significant sums of money. The decision found that the Government have unlawfully required tens of thousands of people to work without pay, and, if they have said no, have stripped them unlawfully of a significant amount of their benefits.
The public interest lawyers who took the case said that there are basic requirements of fairness, and those basic requirements are usually dictated by Parliament. The basic requirements of fairness in relation to anything like these regulations are to provide people with a clear explanation of what they have been asked to do, why they are being asked to do it, and what the consequences are if they fail to do it. That has simply, as a result of this judgment, not been complied with. That is what the debate is all about.
The solicitor who represented the claimants, Tessa Gregory, summed it up very well:
“The case has revealed that the Department for Work and Pensions was going behind Parliament’s back and failing to obtain Parliamentary approval for the various mandatory work schemes that it was introducing.”
There was a lack of transparency and fairness in implementing the scheme, and claimants had no information about what could be required of them under the back-to-work schemes. The Court of Appeal affirmed the basic constitutional principle that everyone has a right to know and understand why sanctions are being threatened and imposed. That is what this is all about.
It is worth referring to the cases that determined the judges’ action, and putting them on the record. It is staggering that the Government even contested them. Jamie Wilson, the lorry driver, said:
“I refused to participate in the Community Action Programme…because I objected to being made to clean furniture for 30 hours a week for 6 months when I knew it wouldn’t help me find employment. I was given next to no information about the programme, I was told simply that I had to do whatever the DWP’s private contractor instructed me to do and that if I didn’t I may lose my benefits. Being without jobseeker’s allowance was very difficult for me but I don’t regret taking a stand”.
The community action programme
“is a poorly thought out and poorly implemented scheme which even according to the DWP’s own statistics is not helping anyone get people back to work.”
He continued—this is enlightening about the nature of the people we are dealing with; they are desperate for work:
“I am now participating in the Work Programme but it doesn’t involve me working for free, I have to meet an advisor every 3 to 4 weeks who helps me look for work. I will continue to attend these sessions with my adviser regardless of whether or not I am required to attend because I want to find a job”.
That is what people want.
In the other case, Cait Reilly said:
“I brought this case because I knew it was wrong when I was prevented from doing my voluntary work in a museum and forced to work in Poundland for free…as part of a scheme known as the sector based work academy. Those two weeks”
I worked at Poundland
“were a complete waste of my time as the experience did not help me get a job, I wasn’t given any training and I was left with no time to do my voluntary work or search for”
a job. That is extraordinary. She continued:
“The only beneficiary was Poundland, a multi-million pound company. Later I found out that I should never have been told the placement was compulsory.”
The Secretary of State has been quoted as saying elsewhere:
“Does Cait Reilly think she is above shelf stacking?”
I hope that is a misquote. If he did say it, he should withdraw it because it is a disgraceful insinuation about someone’s character. Cait Reilly also said:
“I don’t think I am above working in shops like Poundland. I now work part-time in a supermarket. It is just that I expect to get paid for working.”
That is all she asked for. She continued:
“I hope the Government will now take this opportunity to rethink its strategy and do something which actually builds on young unemployed people’s skills and tackles the causes of long-term unemployment. I agree we need to get people back to work but the best way of doing that is by helping them, not punishing them. The Government ought to understand that if they created schemes which actually helped people get back into work then they wouldn’t need to force people to attend.”
That is what the young woman who took the case to court said, and I congratulate her on doing that. If she had not, we would not be in the situation of contesting what the Government are doing.
Let us be clear about the intent of the Bill. The Government have acted unlawfully. They have robbed some of the poorest people in our society of, on average, £500 of benefits, which is a lot to people living on the breadline. Now the Government are using this retrospective device to avoid paying back to those poor people money that they should not have been deprived of in the first place. The argument that paying £130 million back to poor people would damage the economy is derisory and laughable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) said, if the £130 million was given to the poor who need to spend the money, it would help to boost the economy. To suggest it is a threat to the economy when the bankers have been bailed out with £1.2 trillion is laughable in any Government logic. The suggestion that if we pay the money back, it must come from other claimants is the Government’s classic strategy of divide and rule in their welfare benefits policy.
As my hon. Friend said, the use of retrospective legislation simply ensures that illegality is made legal and sets an extremely dangerous precedent, but that is nothing to do with the money, taxpayers or the economy. It is about prejudice against the poor, the demonisation of the unemployed and the iron heel of a prejudiced state. It is also about the preservation of a large pool of unpaid labour for large-scale corporations to exploit. It is now estimated that the Government will put through 250,000 people on work experience, 850,000 on work programmes and more than 70,000 on the mandatory work activity. At the last calculation, that is about 60 million hours of free labour to those corporations. That is exploitation; it cannot be termed in any other way.
In the past two decades, we have seen a transformation in how unemployment is considered, discussed and viewed. Governments since the second world war had a commitment to full employment and saw as a responsibility their role to ensure full employment. There have always been sanctions within the system to prevent people from abusing it, but they were about ensuring that people were sanctioned if they refused to go for paid work, never unpaid work. Now, just when unemployment is at its highest and it is the hardest time to find a job, the attitude is that unemployment is not the fault of the system or a failure of Government or of society, but a failure of the individual. The individual is to blame, not the society that has caused the unemployment. Therefore, the logic follows that the individual must be penalised, so what the Government have successfully done in the media and elsewhere by ministerial statements is demonise the unemployed—the unemployed themselves have caused their own poverty, rather than the system that has created the unemployment. The result of that logic is what we see today: the poor and unemployed have to be harassed, pilloried, sanctioned, blamed and made to feel guilty for being unemployed.
Does my hon. Friend agree not only that the Government have shown no contrition whatever on the issue, which is a mess of their own making, but that they are trying to scapegoat those people who have been sanctioned illegally?
It is that, but there is also a wider agenda of making people feel guilty just because they are out of work and guilty just because—temporarily, in most instances—they have to depend on some benefits. This is about scapegoating and victimising the poor and people who cannot get a job. It is about harassment and exploitation. At the heart of that is the judgment that Parliament was not properly informed of what those schemes and regulations meant. That is what the judgment said.
I make it clear that I shall vote against the Bill because it is immoral and wrong. Before we vote to render those schemes lawful retrospectively, it is important that Members are aware of what we will be supporting. Boycott Workfare is an organisation that set up— [Interruption.]
Order. There seems to be a phone ringing somewhere. Wherever it is, we can certainly hear it.
It is most probably someone looking for a job.
Let us hope that somebody answers it, then.
Before we vote tonight, it is important we know that we will be voting to support the workfare schemes being introduced by the Government. The Bill will enable the sanctions to be continued and retrospectively made legal, because people refused to go on those schemes—I think justifiably so with regard to many of them. Let us take some examples from the Boycott Workfare website. Tesco is a classic, and one example refers to
“a fifty-six year old man who worked at Tesco for 40 hrs a week for 6 weeks for no pay.”
“given the worst job, constantly filling freezers in the hope he would be taken on. After the 6 weeks were up the manager asked him if he would like to stay on for some extra weeks,”
and the man said,
The manager said no,
“why would he pay him when he can pick the phone up and get more unemployed people who have to work for nothing”?
That was at Tesco, and the list goes on. Poundland is a classic example of an organisation exploiting unemployed people, time and time again recruiting shelf stackers while laying off other workers. Primark is another example. One young woman who went to Primark said:
“The Jobcentre paid travel money but no lunch. I worked three days a week, 10 am to 4.30 pm or 5 pm with one half-hour break.”
“don’t pay any money. It was nearly six months, from January to June. When I finished the placement I took my CV and I asked the managers if they had any vacancies. They said, ‘Not yet—we’ll call you when we do.’ I haven’t had a call.”
Is my hon. Friend aware that there are companies that do the same, but with people who have not come through the jobcentres? People apply for a job, are asked to work for three or four weeks on probation and are then told to go and are replaced by colleagues. There are shops even in the west end using large numbers of totally unpaid staff on a permanent basis.
The whole point of the exercise, as far as I can see—despite the arguments that it makes people job fit—is the massive exploitation of tens of thousands of people for free labour. I will not go through all the examples, but it is worth looking at the Boycott Workfare website, which gives example after example of people who have been exploited or have worked in unsafe conditions lacking health and safety, have stuck at it to try to get a job and who have never got the job. The job never materialises.
What happens if people say no or drop out? They are sanctioned. Sanctions have increased dramatically in this country. In 2009, 139,000 jobseeker’s allowance claimants were sanctioned. By 2011, the number had nearly tripled to 500,000, and it has risen again this year. Interestingly, it is private companies that recommend sanctions to the Department for Work and Pensions. The worst are Serco, Seetec, A4e and Working Links. If they do not get their pound of flesh—if they do not feel that they are getting value for money from someone who is unpaid—they recommend to the DWP that the person be sanctioned.
The irony is that despite all the pain, anxiety and suffering inflicted on unemployed people, the schemes are proven not to work, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) said. Time and time again, all the evidence—whether from the Social Security Advisory Committee, the DWP peer review, Ben Goldacre or the National Audit Office—demonstrates that not only do the schemes not work but, as others have said, they undermine wages for people in work and prevent others from getting paid jobs.
Large numbers of people are extremely angry at how they have been treated. I believe that many are now willing to stand up and say, “We’re not going to be treated in this way.” That is why the sanctions system is becoming even more rigorous, and why it is important for the Government to pass the Bill: they want to intimidate more people and force more people into work, done for free, that they do not want to undertake.
It is worth stating that this is about exploiting people. It is about ensuring that young people in particular are intimidated into unpaid work. People who were brave enough to say, “I’m not willing to take unpaid work and be exploited in this way, and if necessary, I’ll be sanctioned because of that,” have now been proven right. They were not informed of what they were getting into, but they were bright enough to understand the level of exploitation involved and they stood up against it. The Bill says to them that now they have won in court, we will try to ensure that they do not get justice. That is what it is about.
I urge Members to vote for justice. The Bill is a disgrace. It is a monument to a combination of incompetence by the Government and brutality to the poor. I look forward to hearing the Labour party consider what we are doing here today. I urge Members to vote against the Bill, because I think that people are looking to the Labour party to defend them again—to stand up for what is right and just, for the people in our society who are exploited and for those at the bottom at the moment: those who are unemployed, unable to get a job, dependent on benefits and desperate for work. Those people do not expect to be harassed and exploited by a Government using sanctions to force them into unpaid work. That is why I shall vote against the Bill, and why I urge all Members to vote against the Bill to demonstrate that someone in the House is standing up for those people.
The Bill is not perhaps what some people think it is, nor perhaps what we would like to debate. It will not end various forms of work experience, whether we think that is a good or a bad idea, because the Government have put in place—and have done so very quickly—regulations to overcome mistakes in previous regulations.
We need a lengthy debate, and we need to think hard about what we do to help people find work, if there is work—often there is no work to find, which is the fundamental failure of many of these programmes. Whatever we call the schemes or however we dress them up, if the jobs are not there, no amount of job readiness and training will get people a job. They might make people readier for a job, which might not be a bad thing in itself, but it is an illusion to assume that if we simply introduce a programme and make people do it, suddenly a job will emerge at the end. It will not, unless there are jobs and demand in the economy.
It is the same for many people doing part-time jobs. We have had many debates in the past few weeks about the bedroom tax, and people have said, “Well, people can go out and get extra hours to pay the tax; it will be easy.” In the course of half an hour on Saturday afternoon knocking on doors in my constituency and asking people about this, I met two people who were working part time. They both wanted extra hours and had gone to their employers to ask whether extra hours were available but were told they were not. Ironically, if firms gave extra hours, that work would be taken away from someone else, giving them fewer hours or no job at all. Hours are short because the jobs are not there. Similarly, many job programmes have failed because, to a large extent, the jobs are not there.
Perhaps we should give more time to this debate, because we need to consider whether we are achieving what we should be achieving. Unfortunately—and I say this to people watching our debate—whatever the result of the vote at the end of today’s debate, it will not stop these programmes. Some people say that this is a vote on whether some of these so-called training programmes continue, but sadly it is not. I hope that we have further votes on the issue in future, because the new regulations, which may still be proved to be not as valid as the previous ones, have been introduced. Anyone out there who thinks that how the House votes today will bring an end to all those programmes will find that, sadly, that is not true.
If this were a situation involving parking regulations—my council introduced parking regulations, which were challenged in court and found to be invalid—and we were asking, in effect, for a sanction on sanctions or, in parking regulation terms, retrospectively forcing people to pay parking penalties which were unlawful at the time they were incurred, the Lib Dem and Tory Benches would be packed with Members saying how unfair that was. Even if we correct the regulations, that would not solve the problem. In the example I gave of my council, it corrected the regulations and issued new ones, and achieved the parking restrictions that it wanted, but it did not seek to go back to people and say to them, “Well, we can impose these penalties, because we will make it right retrospectively.” If it were any other subject, we would not see people sitting on their hands, which is what is happening today. Much attention has been focused on what the Labour party is doing, and rightly so; people are right to ask what we are doing. However, they also must ask what the Government parties are doing, because apart from the Minister, no one has come into the Chamber to speak in favour of what the Government are doing, and that speaks for itself.
A number of things have been said today that are simply not accurate. In one intervention, for example, a Government Back Bencher said that half the people going on the Work programme had got jobs. No one could seriously suggest such a figure. The only time I have heard the Government use the word “half”—[Interruption.] The hon. Member did mention the Work programme, but perhaps he did not intend to do so. The only programme that was mentioned where the word “half” was used was the pilot for the work experience programmes that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has described so thoroughly. I am talking about the research on the pilot programme. Half of those on that pilot programme, which was for 1,300 people, were off benefit in 13 weeks, but being “off benefit” is not necessarily the same as being in a job. After the results of that pilot were published, there were no further figures on those schemes. No one has actually said what the success rate of those schemes has been.
The hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) referred to a visit that she and I and other members of the Select Committee made to a jobcentre today as part of our inquiry into the Work programme. Yes, some people who are providing the programme did feel that their morale had perhaps been undermined by its results and outcomes and the fact that they had been told that it was worse than doing nothing. However, those outcomes were the ones that the Government themselves set for their own programme; it is not something that someone else invented. It is not those individuals who should feel that they are to blame; it is the set-up of the whole programme that is at fault. It is unfortunate that those people felt that they were being criticised.
If the hon. Lady had stayed to make a speech, perhaps she would have told the House about some of the other things that we heard. Although of course the providers speak up for their programmes, all of them made the point that if they had more resources they would be able to do far more and do far better.
One provider we heard from was putting considerable additional resources into individuals to get them job-ready and hopefully to find them jobs. They were putting some people through programmes that cost £900 a head out of their own resources. If those people get jobs as a result of being part of that Work provider’s programme, no doubt the Government will say, “We managed to do that through the Work programme, and it was the cheapest Work programme ever.” The truth is that it would not be cheap, because those programme providers are supplementing the cost by a considerable amount. They all said that if it were not in fact the cheapest Work programme, it could be doing a lot better. Cheap is not always good; cheap is sometimes extremely shoddy and of poor quality. As we all know, a cheap pair of shoes will not last very long.
Much of what has been said about the quality of the programmes is poor. I want to have the debate about sanctions, because the experience of my constituents is that the sanctions regime has not only been increased in extent but has lost discretion. Discretion has flown out of it all together, so that many people are finding that they are sanctioned for things that they hardly understand. Many people who are deemed to be job-ready are actually suffering from mental illness or a learning disability and they are the people who may be sanctioned. I therefore welcome the new clause that provides for a report on sanctions. The sooner that comes through, the better.
I ask the Government yet again, as I have before, to look at individual cases. I raised one with the Minister at DWP questions. A young man was on the Work programme for a year and a quarter, but there was no real progress. He sourced a training course—a very good training course—to learn construction skills. That would have involved eight weeks of unpaid work, which he was quite prepared to do, as part of a structured scheme, followed by 13 weeks of paid work and the prospect of a job at the end. When I raised that case with the Minister, he simply said, “The reason he is not getting to do that is the Scottish Government’s funding.” I will come back to the Minister on that case because that is not so. The underlying issue is that the Work programme provider could not provide anything like that quality. In a year and a quarter, the provider had never offered that young person that sort of training. That should be the significant point; it should not be a blame-game—“Oh, it’s the fault of the Scottish Government, Jobcentre Plus, or the Work programme provider.” That is the merry-go-round that that person is on; as far as I am aware, unless something has come in today, he is still on it.
I am not against good schemes, good work experience, or sanctions, but I am against poor-quality schemes. The Government are so gung-ho, saying that it does not matter that this measure is retrospective, that they have made mistakes and will go back over it. That is not acceptable, and we must stand up and say that clearly. I am sorry that the Government have not been prepared at any stage to say, “We did get it wrong and we are going not only to alter that bit of regulation but put real effort into improving our employability schemes.”
It is not often that, when I rise to oppose a Government Bill, as I do again on this occasion—for the avoidance of doubt, I will be going through the No Lobby—I follow six hon. Members in succession with whom I agree. Perhaps that is an indication that no Government Back Bencher is prepared to stand on their convictions and argue the point. Therefore, this is quite a rare occasion.
I am proud to represent the Easington constituency. This is a matter of social justice for me and I have a number of concerns about the Bill. The issue of retrospection is an important and fundamental one. I suspect that the Government are opening a Pandora’s box here. In the debates on last year's Finance Bill, I heard the same Minister warning of the dangers of retrospective measures to deal with tax avoidance and loopholes, so using this route will have consequences. If he was so confident about the quality and strength of his argument, why did he not challenge the decision in the Supreme Court, rather than using primary legislation? Perhaps he might answer that question in his response.
It is not just an issue of retrospection—the Government's arguments are wrong. They are trying to justify this measure, but they have made the mistake. It is an issue of wording. Nevertheless, the Government have made the mistake and they are seeking to sell their argument to hon. Members on both sides of the House by saying that, if the funds are not recovered from those who were incorrectly sanctioned, they will have to be recovered from elsewhere in the welfare budget. That is outrageous blackmail; I am sorry if that is not parliamentary language, but I find that deeply offensive. It goes against every grain of fairness in Members on both sides of the House. The view I am expressing is the view that has been unanimously expressed to me. I have received numerous e-mails and messages from my constituents over the past 48 hours, all of them asking me to vote against this Bill as it is unfair and unjust.
The Government, and especially Government Back Benchers, have characterised jobseekers who have been sanctioned as workshy and feckless—the sentiment expressed was “Are you really suggesting these people shouldn’t be sanctioned?” Let us have a look at the Work programme, however. It has gone from chaos to farce. We talk about “workshy”, but what about wage-shy employers who exploit the unemployed, with the connivance, approval and funding of the Government?
Many commentators have severely criticised the Work programme as not representing value for money, and so, too, I believe, has the Public Accounts Committee—I am sure the Minister will correct me if I am wrong about that. Indeed, it has been suggested that the programme is worse than doing nothing, and I am certainly aware that major retailers have exploited free labour from the Work programme to meet seasonal demand, rather than, as would otherwise have happened, employing temporary staff or, even, giving existing employees additional hours. The programme has therefore had the perverse effect of blocking real jobs, and I agree with other Opposition Members who feel it should be subjected to a root-and-branch review.
What we have is a £3-million black hole, and it seems to me that the only people profiting from it are the privately contracted organisations—some of whom were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell—who have done well out of the programme. I am therefore surprised that one of the Government’s principal arguments here is about the protection of the national economy, when they are seeking to introduce primary legislation to rewrite history and withhold social security payments that were denied because of unlawful sanctions. We must not beat about the bush. The judgment is clear and specific; my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) read it out in her passionate and excellent speech. The Government are at fault here, in how they have implemented things.
I oppose the concept of two nations, as does my party, but what will the consequences of these measures be? The Government are creating two nations. They are seeking to penalise and punish the poor for the mistakes of the rich and powerful, in part of a continuing series of policies that are badged as “austerity”. Those policies are pushing the poorest in society further into poverty.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) said, one of the most galling things is that Ministers have shown absolutely no contrition or understanding of the consequences of their actions. That might be because they do not understand the consequences, because they do not live in the real world where they would rub shoulders with some of the poorest people in society who are suffering hardship. People in my constituency in east Durham ask me, “Why are we suffering for the consequences of this crisis? Was it created in Horden, Shotton, Haswell, Blackhall or even Murton?” No, of course not; the crisis was caused by the mistakes of the banking sector and City speculators. I raise that point not only because I despise the casino bankers for the state they have reduced the economy to, but because there is another avenue that Ministers could pursue to recover the £130 million, which I will return to shortly. In fact, we touched on this issue last year in the Finance Bill Committee. Why on earth do the Government not legislate for a general principle of tax avoidance? Instead of robbing people who have been inappropriately sanctioned, the Government should consider the huge reservoir of unpaid tax that individuals could well afford to contribute to. To my mind, there was a failure by Governments.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and a very good point about where money could be found. He mentioned the tax gap, which, according to Richard Murphy and others, is some £120 billion a year. We are talking today about £130 million, which is roughly one thousandth of that amount.
My hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable and has a background as an economist, has hit the nail on the head. The general public, my constituents and many Opposition Members do not understand why the Government do not address this problem. There is a relatively straightforward way to do so: by legislating for a general principle of tax avoidance. The Government are quite happy to use primary legislation retrospectively to deprive people who have been illegally sanctioned of £130 million, but they will not use the same route to recover moneys properly due to the Exchequer.
There is a contradiction here. Although the Government have been highly critical of what has happened, they continue to push the case for further deregulation. Just yesterday, in a Delegated Legislation Committee the statutory period of notice for compulsory redundancies for employers employing more than 100 people was reduced from 90 days to 45. This Government are still very much pursuing the Beecroft agenda.
It is worth noting that, according to the Government’s impact assessment of that delegated legislation, employers will gain £290 million and employees will lose £250 million.
That just goes to show that we are all in this together—or rather, we are not.
I have seen the graphs and the charts showing that the poorest are being hardest hit. We should consider the effect of a 5% cut in their weekly income. Other Members have spoken about the sort of cuts that individuals are going to experience. I do not know whether the Minister, other Front Benchers or even Conservative Back Benchers know what it is like to exist on £71 a week, but it is a real struggle. Taking up to £25 a week from the poorest families, most of whom are in social housing, can mean a choice between eating or having proper heating. How can this be fair, when the Government’s priority is to make millionaires richer, to the tune of £2,000 a week? Such a tax cut is unimaginable for someone who would be sanctioned under the Work programme. In fact, the £2,000 a week tax cut for millionaires that we anticipate tomorrow equates to 28 weeks’ income for somebody on jobseeker’s allowance.
Will the hon. Gentleman just remind the House why Labour always had a lower rate of tax for rich people than this Government?
We need to look at the situation we are in now. This is the wrong thing to do: it is unjust and unfair to give millionaires a £2,000 a week tax cut, at the same time as the right hon. Gentleman’s Government propose to deprive some of the poorest people, who have been illegally sanctioned, of large chunks of their income. It is outrageous, and it is rank hypocrisy for anyone to talk about rights with the emphasis on responsibility when it comes to workfare. If they are willing to undermine the judiciary and the rule of law, and vote for retrospective legislation to cover up the mistakes and failings of the Minister, who is asking that we legislate to place him above the law, that is a dangerous precedent to establish.
I cannot, in all conscience, support this desperate Bill, put forward by a desperate Government who have broken their own laws and now wish to forgo their legal obligations and withhold social security payments of £130 million to some of the poorest people in the country. Why do we not apply that method across the board? If the national emergency is such that it is right to deny access to social security to those who are entitled to it in order to safeguard the national economy, why do we not chase the tax exiles—those powerful individuals who own newspapers and luxury hotels, who pay no corporation tax and who have laid siege to a small Channel Island? I understand that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has already paid out more than £200 million to two such individuals who are now seeking a £1 billion VAT windfall at the taxpayer’s expense. Government Members are silent about such things. As we know, there is one rule for the rich and one rule for the poor, including those who have been illegally sanctioned through the Work programme.
We are in the sorry situation of the Minister blackmailing hon. Members by threatening a collective punishment for all those in receipt of social security and welfare benefits if these changes do not go through, because the Department might have to find the money through further reductions elsewhere in its budget. I thought that it was the Secretary of State for Education and his advisers who were the bullies. It is now obvious that the Department for Work and Pensions has decided to sink to those standards by threatening Members of the House in this way, which is below what we would expect of a responsible Government and a responsible Minister.
I did not come into Parliament to penalise and punish the vulnerable and the poor for the mistakes of the Government. The Department for Work and Pensions seems to be in a state of chaos. It is trying to save money by issuing unlawful sanctions for a Work programme that is not fit for purpose. It is making arbitrary cuts to disability living allowance and employment and support allowance, and is seeking to reduce the case load by 20%. Through the bedroom tax, it is cutting the incomes of disabled people and families with children. The welfare state under this coalition Government in 2013 is failing at every turn.
What we are seeing today is an abuse of power. This is an appalling Bill. I urge the Minister to take responsibility for his actions, even at this late stage, to put a stop to the Bill and to pay those who were unlawfully sanctioned because of his failings. I will vote against the Bill and I urge other hon. Members to do the same.
Thank you very much for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker. I apologise to you, the House and the Minister that I was not hear for the earlier part of the debate. I was in a Select Committee upstairs and then in a meeting. I wanted to contribute to the debate because the Bill troubles me.
I will start by expressing concern about a couple of matters raised by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), which are relevant because they are about how we treat the rich as well as the poor. I am not party to what is going to be said tomorrow, but I hope that the Government will go ahead with having a tax system that requires a minimum amount of tax to be paid by everybody. It is planned that that will be in the Finance Bill for the coming year. I share his view that we need a system that does not allow people to escape their tax obligations and that that should be a general principle.
I also share the view of the hon. Member for Easington on who should pay more into the system in times of austerity: it should be those who are better off. As it happens, we disagree about whether the better-off now pay more or less. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) intervened on him to point out the hard truth for a Labour MP that during the whole of the Labour Government, the top rate of tax was lower than it is now and lower than it will be after the change this year. There is no backing away from that. I think that that was regrettable, whatever the explanation. However, I want mainly to talk about the Bill.
I understand why the Government read the judgment from the Court of Appeal and have come to the House. The Court did not overturn the principle that people should do some mandatory work while on benefits, but it found—to put it bluntly—that there was a flaw in the paperwork sent to people requiring them to do that. I would have preferred the Government to go to the Supreme Court and wait for that judgment before seeking parliamentary approval to change the law in relation to a large number of cases. I understand the financing and the logic, but I am always nervous when we do not wait for the courts to adjudicate.
I have not talked about this with the Minister but I assume that the Government are nervous that they will not win in the Supreme Court, which is why they have come before the House now. I am nervous about that, but it is not my principal concern about the Bill. My principal concern is about the system that the Bill will continue, which is—to put it bluntly—bigger than the Bill itself. I am sure that will have been the subject of a speech from those on the Labour Front-Bench, just as I have heard that point in speeches from Labour Members who have already spoken.
Despite difficult economic times, I am happy that over the past few months my constituency, which, as colleagues know, is just over the river, has begun to see a reduction in unemployment, both generally and among young people. It is not a huge reduction—I am not naive about that—and when I checked a minute ago it was still ranked 214th in the country in terms of the percentage of those who are unemployed. We are still in the top half of the table, and 5.9% of the population are still not in work although they would like to be. Nevertheless, the figure has come down from its peak of 6.2% in September and October 2011.
I am concerned that we are still running a system—I would be happy to continue this conversation with colleagues from the Department—that does not work or achieve what the Government wish it to achieve, and I will illustrate that point with four constituency cases from recent months. The first concerns a constituent called Mr RE—I will use initials in all cases because I do not have permission to share the details—who wrote to me in autumn last year. I then wrote to the Jobcentre Plus manager for my constituency, with whom I have a good professional working relationship. Mr RE told me that he wished to dispute a sanction on his JSA claim. He said he had received a letter from Seetec, the providers of mandatory work activity in my constituency, asking him to attend a mandatory work placement in June 2012 at the British Heart Foundation and a charity shop quite near to where I live on the Old Kent road.
On 21 June, the day before Mr RE was due to start, he received a letter from a voluntary organisation for vulnerable adults inviting him for an interview the following Monday—25 June. He told me that he intended to train as a social worker and that a work placement such as the one offered by Sova, the voluntary body, included a requirement to apply for an MA course in social work. He therefore needed to make that interview a priority. He had only a day’s notice, which he needed to spend in preparation and buying appropriate clothing. He telephoned Seetec as soon as possible to advise that he would not be able to start his work placement on 22 June, but said he would be available from 26 June onwards.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Let me just finish this example. Mr RE told me that Seetec was unwilling to discuss the matter and that nothing was resolved. He found the telephone staff rude, abrupt and unwilling to hold a sensible discussion. He went for his interview with the voluntary organisation for vulnerable adults and—as he said he would—he attended the mandatory work activity the following day. Three days later he received a letter advising him that as he had not started his placement on the date originally requested—22 June—he was no longer required to attend. He then received a letter informing him that his JSA claim, and that of his partner, would be suspended from 1 August until 30 October last year. I protested that that was a completely inappropriate penalty because it seemed to me that he had good reasons for not attending his placement on 22 June that were directly related to finding work. Furthermore, he had telephoned the provider to explain the reasons, and he attended the work placement as soon as he was able. I stated my view that the system was clearly failing. As it happened, in the end, a review found in his favour. Jobcentre Plus said originally that he did not tell it of the work placement, but it gave in when he queried that. Jobcentre Plus has cancelled the sanction.
That was a satisfactory outcome, but it is not the only complaint that has come my way. The second case is of D.P., who contacted me on 25 January. He told me that three sanctions had been applied to his JSA claim for failure to attend appointments at the jobcentre. For the first two sanctions, he had failed to attend because he had not received the letter in the post. His representative had written to the jobcentre but it did not agree to lift the sanction. He does not understand the reason for the third sanction, which applies from 10 November 2012 to 10 May 2013, and feels he has done all he can to comply with jobcentre requirements but is still being punished. He has received such severe sanctions that, effectively, he is no longer receiving JSA. I have not yet received an answer to my letter.
I wrote about the third case on 4 March. C. McC. says she is currently claiming JSA and has been required to attend a work placement at Divine Rescue in Walworth. However, she tells me there is no work for her to do there; that she spends the day from 10 am to 5 pm unoccupied; that no training is provided; and that there are no computer facilities to allow her to work independently.
The fourth case is of a friend of a constituent. A.S. has an accounting qualification and has worked in finance. He has just finished three months’ work experience as an intern in the financial department of a local company, which was appropriate to his career plan. He is a graduate and has a relevant background. He got the placement not through the jobcentre, but separately. He was asked to attend a CV workshop while doing his internship. With the help of my office, we managed to postpone the workshop so he could complete his internship. He was told he was to do mandatory work activities—he was told he had to go and work in a Red Cross shop elsewhere in south London—with no discussion of his qualifications or experience.
The right hon. Gentleman said earlier in his speech—I tried to intervene at the time—that the problem was with the paperwork. To some extent, I accept that he is right, in that the regulations did not conform with the provisions of the Jobseekers Act 1995. However, is he aware that the Court of Appeal went beyond that by stating
“the Regulations conflict with article 4(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights which provides, subject to exceptions, that…‘No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour’”?
That is slightly more than a departure from the right paperwork.
I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for delaying his intervention. My understanding—the Minister could be helpful in this respect in her winding-up speech—is that the Court upheld the general policy principle of the employment programmes and ruled that the general principle of such employment programmes did not breach article 4(2) of the convention. The failures to be specific and to get the paperwork right meant that programmes could breach the convention. I am not disputing what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I understand that mandatory work activity is not illegal under the European convention. We need to be clear about that. Labour Front Benchers accept the principle of mandatory work activity, provided that it is decent, and accept sanctions in the benefits system.
Lord Justice Burnton made it clear—I think I quoted him before the right hon. Gentleman arrived—that this is a constitutional issue. It is not just a matter of not informing claimants, but of not informing this House.
I did hear the hon. Gentleman and I accept what he said.
My fourth constituent was sent to a charity shop. He was required to carry out mundane manual lifting work. He said that he had a problem with a back injury, which meant that the work was inappropriate. He has asthma, and therefore work in a dusty environment was not great. There was a failure to provide sufficient work for people to do, including for other people who had been sent there. There was a clear breach of the rules that state that people are meant to work four weeks for five days a week from Monday to Friday. The person at the work placement said, “You have to work on a Saturday if I say so.” Clearly, that was not in the paperwork. The crude point for the Minister is that I am not sure that a graduate seeking work in finance should be sent to a charity shop to dust shelves and move boxes. This seems to be regular and routine in the current system. The Government are spending taxpayers’ money on providing schemes that should help people back to work. I am not sure, however, that there is any intelligent management of the schemes being offered.
It is entirely reasonable for somebody who has been out of work, and has extremely low qualifications, to do a relatively low-skilled mandatory work activity. It is not reasonable if they are seeking to do something else. The Secretary of State is in his place, and he has always been very courteous and helpful in responding to such issues. I ask him and his team to consider how we can significantly improve the quality of mandatory work activity, monitor it better and ensure that we do not send people to do work that, bluntly, will be of no use to them in enhancing their job prospects. Almost nobody wants to be on benefits all the time. People on benefits struggle to make ends meet and we need to do better.
Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that to impose a sanction over a menial task on a highly qualified individual who may never use those skills again would be wrong?
We could have a complicated and long debate. Should people in this House, if they find themselves later in life to be unemployed and it is deemed appropriate that they are sent on mandatory work activity, be sent to work in a charity shop moving boxes and dusting shelves? One could argue that it would be good for us, and good for everybody—
I am listening carefully to what my right hon. Friend has to say. As the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), has made clear and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will make clear, all of these things are kept constantly under review. We want to improve them and that is what jobcentre staff do. They are brilliant at that, by the way, and they get better and better. My point on mandatory work activity is that it is not just work experience. It is also about changing culture: finding out whether someone is working and not declaring it; and getting people used to the idea of getting out of bed in the morning and attending somewhere where they do what they have been asked to do, because they have so got out of the habit of doing that, that even attending an interview has become a problem for them. This is not just about training; it is about getting people culturally back in line so that they can then be dealt with by advisers.
I absolutely understand and agree with that point. That is fine for all people of that type. In the case of my last example, the individual had been doing an internship and getting up, always being on time and being there all the time. If anybody had checked, they would have known that he had had a 100% successful record in the previous three months. There was no history of shirking, not getting up or lying in bed. Therefore, it would have been appropriate for an interview to find out about that work history, and assess and discuss what might have been appropriate.
Another constituent—a friend of mine living in Waterloo—had been out of work and claiming jobseeker’s allowance. He went to the jobcentre and was invited for an interview with Seetec, which he attended. It was about to send him to Tesco to stack shelves, but he persuaded it that there was an opportunity of mandatory work activity in a photography shop in the west end. He has photographic skills, and he persuaded Seetec, once it had spoken to the employer, that it would be a better place for him to go. I am not disputing the Secretary of State’s view that some people need to get into the culture of work, but the system fails those who are competent at work, have worked and are willing to do their bit, but get thrown into the wrong place, often to do highly inappropriate activities.
I hope that I have made it clear that I think there are underlying serious issues. I am grateful that the Secretary of State has tabled amendments and new clauses to ensure that this matter does not disappear, but comes back to us through regular reporting. My message to the House and the Government is that we need a better system, because a lot of people who are on low incomes or not working are not being well served by the system at the moment.
With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall respond to the debate.
We have heard powerful speeches this afternoon from my hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown), for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) and good speeches from the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) and the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). This is a day of acute embarrassment for the Government. They have bodged their regulations so badly that they have been struck down by the Court of Appeal, yet not once this afternoon have we heard a word of apology from the Minister for bringing forward retrospective legislation of this type on a timetable so fast that proper scrutiny is constrained. As my hon. Friend the Member for Easington said, not once have we heard even a word of contrition for the position they have put the House in.
Today’s debate has clarified one important point. The core of the Bill concerns the long-standing foundational power of the Department to issue sanctions. We think that the Department should, indeed, be equipped with such a power, but that is not to say for a moment that we subscribe to, or agree with, the programmes that it has built on those foundations. We heard from the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark that the programmes now in place, not least the mandatory work activity, are seriously flawed, are malfunctioning and are not getting people back to work, especially in those communities where unemployment is at its worst.
We will continue to argue that the Government’s back to work programmes need to be improved. Young people should not simply be confronted with the option of mandatory work activity and very little else. We do not believe that the Work programme is delivering. We believe that a better choice would be a jobs guarantee for young people and the long-term unemployed, and that the country could afford it if the Government had the bottle to introduce a tax on bankers’ bonuses and change the pension perks for the very richest. That would go a long way to delivering the kinds of changes that the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark spoke about.
It is important that on the foundations with which we equip the DWP we build good, strong back to work programmes that get young people and the long-term unemployed back to work. We have heard today from my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and other of my hon. Friends, including in interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), about the clear evidence that the sanctioning regime is malfunctioning. That is why the commitment to an independent review of the regime is so important. As the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark said, the system is clearly failing.
We will continue to argue that the review should be put in place, and when it is up and running, we will be leading the evidence gathering to ensure that the House is fully aware of what is going on. We will ensure that there is a clear and loud argument that the back to work programmes in this country should be better and properly financed, and that those who have the latitude to take part in them should be asked to contribute. We want to ensure that more people get back into jobs; that is why we are in the Labour party. That is the argument that we will take to the Government over the course of the next few days.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, we will not stand by and watch the demonisation of the poor in this country. We will stand up for vulnerable people and for the things they need, and we will stand against the attacks now being perpetrated against them by this Government.
I want to thank all Members who have taken part in the debate today, and I will answer in turn all the points that have been raised. I also want to thank the Opposition for taking a measured approach in supporting and expediting this important Bill, which will ensure that we are able to give jobseekers the best possible chance to find employment, as well as holding them to account when they refuse to hold up their side of the bargain. By ensuring that the Government do not have to repay previous benefit sanctions to claimants who have failed to participate in employment programmes, and that we can properly impose sanctions for such failures, the Bill will protect the public purse as well as the fundamental principle that jobseekers have responsibilities as well as rights.
I want to clarify the Court of Appeal judgment, on which many points have been made, not all of them correct. Our main point is that the Court supports the principle and policy of our employment schemes. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) asked whether they constituted slavery under article 4 of the European convention on human rights. We are pleased to say that the Court of Appeal agreed that there was no breach of the convention.
Will the Minister give way?
I will make some progress, as I have many questions to get through.
I want to offer clarification to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris). The Court of Appeal ruled against the Government on a technical point and we are seeking permission to appeal to the Supreme Court on that point. Contrary to what the Opposition have suggested, a great deal of thought went into drafting regulations that would be flexible enough to encompass a wide range of programmes to support jobseekers. That is key; this is about flexibility for the individual and for the businesses that are taking people on. We want to get more people into jobs than ever before, and that is what we are doing.
The problem in my constituency is that there are no jobs. People can have all the training they want, but they cannot get a job. That is the problem, and it is down to this Government.
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the past 11 consecutive months have seen a rise in the number of people in jobs. Of course education, training and work experience are key, and we are doing all we can to help his constituents.
I want to talk about the scrutiny that the regulations went through. They went through the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, the secondary legislation scrutiny Committee, and there have been various opportunities for Members to raise objections. That did not happen, however, and the regulations went through. We are seeking permission to appeal against the judgment by the Court of Appeal. This is about communications with claimants, and our view is that it was clear that the claimant received information not only through communication via letter but through meeting and speaking to their jobcentre adviser.
Will the Minister give way?
I want to progress a little further.
There is one voice that we have not heard here today. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) talked about a failing system, but I want to hear the voice of the people who have been on the mandatory scheme. What have they said about it? It is interesting to note that 75% of them said that they believed they were more attractive to potential employers, and that their personal confidence had been increased by attending the programmes. Some 76% said that their ability to work as part of a team had improved; 89% spoke of the benefits of getting into a working routine; and 81% said that they enjoyed their work placement. We should all be listening to those voices, rather than making political points that are not what those people said.
How about the businesses that take people on? What do they say? Many said that the aim was to help people to get a job. That is key. What has come out goes to the nub of the argument. For some, it might have been their first experience of a work environment. We know that is true, because 1.9 million children live in homes where nobody works, so it is vital that they have the scheme.
Could the Minister explain how amendment 1 to clause 1, in the name of her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, takes us any further than where we are today?
It is to clarify the right to appeal—I did not actually hear the full question.
Can the Minister explain how amendment 1 to clause 1, which is in the name of her right hon. Friend, takes us any further than where we are today?
The right to appeal remains. That is the answer.
Companies said that the mandatory scheme helped not just them but the local community. The hon. Member for Wansbeck said we did not need a Bill. Actually the Bill is required. Slave labour was mentioned, but that is not an issue. Targets were mentioned. There are no targets whatsoever.
We know that jobseekers should have responsibility to take all reasonable steps to increase their chances of finding work. We therefore cannot be in the position where we have to repay benefit sanctions to jobseekers who fail to take all reasonable steps. For that reason, I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
19 March 2013
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
Bill read a Second time.