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Sanctioning of Benefit Recipients

Volume 578: debated on Thursday 3 April 2014

[Relevant documents: Second report from the Work and Pensions Committee, The role of Jobcentre Plus in the reformed welfare system, HC479, and the Government response, HC 1210.]

I beg to move,

That this House notes that there have been many cases of sanctions being wrongfully applied to benefit recipients; and call on the Government to review the targeting, severity and impact of such sanctions.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting me this debate. The process of sanctioning benefit recipients is now being used on an enormous scale—almost 1 million sanctions a year. Even the right-wing Policy Exchange think-tank acknowledged in a report published last month that about 68,000 benefit claimants each year are having their welfare payments stopped unfairly. Given that the penalty for the first infringement is the loss of benefit for four weeks, for the second the loss of benefits for three months and for the third the loss of benefits for three years, the number of people being driven into destitution by administrative diktat is enormous. Even the Policy Exchange admits that 8% of that number should never have been sanctioned.

I presume that everyone accepts that fall-back sanctions have to be applied in extreme cases where there is deliberate and real non co-operation with the obligation to try to find work and where no good reasons have been found for such behaviour. Those sanctions should be proportionate and reasonable and not exercised punitively or with a view to achieving targets or objectives—whatever we call them—for removing people from the unemployment list.

From the evidence that I have collected from my constituency surgery, Citizens Advice, YMCA, the excellent Work and Pensions Committee report on this issue and the Library, it is abundantly clear that the standards that the DWP likes to claim always apply in sanctioning cases far too often certainly do not. I wish to cite a number of cases drawn directly from those sources.

A security guard at a jobcentre turned away a man with learning disabilities who had arrived 20 minutes early to sign on. The man then returned two minutes late to sign on and had his JSA sanctioned for 4 weeks.

A man was sanctioned for four weeks because he had not known about an appointment as the letter had been sent to an address that he had left a year ago, even though Jobcentre Plus was aware of his current address.

A woman claiming employment and support allowance had been diagnosed with cervical cancer and had given the back-to-work scheme provider a list of her hospital appointments. She was sanctioned for failing to attend an appointment on the middle day of her three-day hospital stay. The woman had two daughters but her ESA was reduced to £28 a week. She asked for reconsideration, but had heard nothing five weeks later.

A woman was sanctioned for failing to attend provider-led training when the receptionist had rung to tell her not to come in because the trainer was ill. She was subsequently told that she should have attended to sign the attendance register.

A woman whose ESA was sanctioned had her benefit reduced from £195 to less than £50 per fortnight because she missed a back-to-work scheme appointment owing to illness. Her sister had rung two days beforehand to say that she could not attend and arranged another date, when she did attend.

An epileptic man had his JSA sanctioned for four weeks because he did not attend a back-to-work scheme meeting as his two-year old daughter was taken ill and he was her sole carer that day. He rang the provider in advance, but was told this would still have to be noted as “did not attend”. During the four-week sanction he suffered hunger, hardship, stress and an increase in epileptic attacks, but he was not told about hardship payments or food banks or how to appeal the sanction decision.

Lastly, a man in Yorkshire and Humber was sanctioned for allegedly failing to attend back-to-work scheme events. He had in fact attended, and the provider had no record of any failures. His hardship request was not processed, his housing benefit was stopped, and he fell into rent arrears and had no money for food, gas or electricity.

These are not isolated or exceptional cases.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman because I respect his concern about these matters, but I will not give way again because we are short of time, with the Government having put on two statements before this debate.

Is there any rational reason why in any of those cases the Jobcentre or others should not have reversed the decision if it was clear that the wrong decision had been taken? Why is it necessary to go through a full appeals system when clearly human inspection can say this is wrong?

I very much agree with that. Jobcentres Plus have the right to “reconsider”, which is a euphemistic term, and they sometimes do, but I agree that appeals often take three or more months, and are extremely bureaucratic, long-winded and difficult. Far more effort should be put in before the decision is taken to sanction, so that we get sensible decisions and long appeal procedures are not required.

Before I turn to what should be done to change policies and procedures that are patently not working properly, I want to make two wider points. First, everyone who can do so should seek work. The overwhelming majority of the jobless are desperate to find work. However, when 2.4 million people are on the dole queues today and there are only 558,000 vacancies, three out of every four simply cannot find a job whatever they do. A report in the Financial Times this week says that there are 3 million under-employed people who would be keen to work full time if only the jobs were available. The real problem in Britain today is not people failing to try to get work, but the Chancellor’s obsessional austerity policies that contract the economy and fail to provide the job opportunities that people are desperately looking for.

I do not object to the use of sanctions in the tiny number of cases in which they might be needed as long as they are proportionate and reasonable. However, I do object to the hounding of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, often for trivial, ill-considered or utterly unjustified reasons, and driving them into destitution when those who caused the financial crash and the longest recession in this country for 140 years get no sanction at all. It is a classic case of one law for the rich and another for the poor.

What should be done? Plenty. Sanctioning is being used on far too large a scale. The practice is not only unduly harsh and, obviously, causes severe hardship, but is often counter-productive. The YMCA cites three people’s comments about its effects. One says:

“I was unable to look for work as much as I could before”.

Another says:

“It stopped me from searching for work as I had no money to get to different employers”.

A third person says:

“My focus turned to survival rather than gaining employment”.

Citizens Advice makes the crucial observation—I think this was the point that the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) was making—that front-line advisers do not have sufficient time to get to know a claimant and understand their needs. That explains why there are so many reports of cases such as that of a person with no computer skills being required to apply for work online, a person with no driving licence who is required to apply for a job for which driving is essential, and a wheelchair user who is required to apply for a job that is physically demanding.

Benefit off-flow—a horrible bureaucratic phrase that treats human beings like counters—is, perversely, the key performance measure used by Jobcentre Plus. Disallowances—that is the euphemism used by the Department for Work and Pensions—are included in the off-flow data for people coming off the unemployment list, so staff have an in-built incentive to use them to achieve what they perceive their management expect of them.

Much more could be done to prevent situations that cause sanctioning from arising in the first place because it is clear that in a great many cases people simply do not understand what is required of them. Regrettably, there is a toxic yet pervasive culture in Jobcentre Plus of “Sanction first; think later”, as is shown by the shockingly large number of sanctions against young people—there were 39,000 last year—that are subsequently overturned or, to use that wonderfully euphemistic word, “reconsidered”. Serious, thoughtful effort is needed to do everything possible to secure compliance, with which we all agree, without a sanction being necessary. There should be more common-sense discretion and much less of a rush to action: action should be taken only as a last resort.

Much more attention should be paid to the impact of sanctioning on claimants. An Oxfam report published last May estimated that 500,000 people were reliant on food aid—I suspect that that figure has now nearly doubled—and that more than half of people who turned to food banks did so as a direct result of having their benefit payments delayed, reduced or withdrawn altogether. In 21st-century Britain, can forcing hundreds of thousands of people onto food aid, which is usually associated with third-world countries, conceivably be justified when the root cause of the problem is the Chancellor’s failure to grow the economy and create jobs because of his obsession with prolonged austerity? I think not, which is why I submit to the House that there is an urgent need, as my motion demands,

“to review the targeting, severity and impact”

of sanctioning as it is currently applied.

I am pleased that the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) has managed to secure the debate, although sadly it was scheduled at short notice, so I do not think that all hon. Members who might wish to be present are in the Chamber.

I support the Government’s general financial strategy, so I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman about austerity. Clearly we have to bring the deficit under control, so we have to be aware of the costs of the welfare system. I support a number of the changes to the system that the Government have introduced, but some have caused complications. I am worried about the impact of the changes to council tax benefit, which need to be reviewed because they have created odd results. My Labour opponent has taken to encouraging people to move from West Bromwich to Birmingham because that allows them to get more benefits from the council tax payer. I think that that is wrong, because it puts pressure on our local taxpayers, but it arises because Sandwell, which is where West Bromwich is, has a different rule from Birmingham on qualifying for council tax benefit.

Like all hon. Members, I have an office that deals with casework, and we learn a lot from the people who come to see us. I worry, however, that people who are sanctioned do not come to see me because only four sanctions cases have come through. We are a reference agency for the local food bank. We have made four references to it, although, oddly enough, they did not involve the people who were sanctioned, because we have generally found that we can deal with such cases. I worry about what is happening that we do not see because, although we can read the statistics, we do not see the people affected, and I like to understand individual cases so that I can find out what is going on. I have been involved in welfare rights casework for coming up to 25 years, so I have seen the system’s various changes and got used to concepts such as non-dependent deductions. Those things are complicated and difficult for people to understand.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) would love to be able to participate in the debate, but she has to be at another meeting, so she has asked me to quote her comments about a case from her constituency. She says:

“I have had many constituents who have been sanctioned completely inappropriately over the last 18 months. In all cases the removal of benefits has caused intense distress and suffering to people who are very vulnerable. This is a typical case—I shall call her Jenny. Jenny has profound mental health problems, learning difficulties and physical health problems. Her health problems and disabilities make it very difficult for her to organise herself and her own life. This is the reason that she finds it so difficult to hold down a job and the reason why she is on benefits. Jenny needs a great deal of support to function. Instead of which, when she missed appointments, her benefits were sanctioned, leaving her without any money whatsoever for more than 4 months. During this period Jenny was destitute and reliant on the food bank. The safety net of the welfare state that should support a woman who is too vulnerable to support herself entirely let her down.”

Those comments highlight the sort of cases that we should be especially worried about: those involving people who get confused by everything and are not quite sure what is going on, and all they find is that they do not have any money. Such people have visited my advice bureau. They know that they do not have any money but they do not know why. However, we have been able to deal with such situations.

Although the Opposition might think that the Government are out to get people, I do not think that that is true. The Government are trying to encourage people into work and to give support to those who need it, but we need to consider how we can review the sanctions process so that we do not trap people in destitution. If someone has no money, it is difficult to get a bus fare. A day’s bus fare in Birmingham is £3.60, which does not sound much to someone in work who is earning a lot of money, but it creates a bit of problem for someone who is on £71.70 a week and suddenly finds that they have no money at all.

That has a knock-on effect for housing benefit. We have marvellous computer systems that minimise the amount of paperwork that people need to do because benefits can be passported. If somebody gets JSA or some form of means-tested benefit, they automatically qualify for housing benefit as well. The problem is that when they come off JSA because they are sanctioned, the computer says no and suddenly they are taken off housing benefit as well. In fact, because they have got money, they qualify for housing benefit, but they have to put in another claim. This is the problem for people who have difficulty understanding how the system works. They know they have no money, but they do not understand why the council is asking them to pay rent. The danger with that is that they come for advice too late, and we end up trying to backdate housing benefit some months in a situation where people always qualified for it but had not claimed it.

The Government say that targets for sanctioning have been stopped, but there needs to be a review of how some of the agencies are operating. They seem to be referring too many people for sanctions, which creates problems. Then there is the question of delays on appeals. Obviously, a reconsideration is far better than an appeal, and there are mechanisms for that. We need to make sure that the advice agencies such as Citizens Advice get good co-operation from agencies such as Jobcentre Plus so that the process does not end up being over-bureaucratic.

I happened to ask a question about cases on appeal being stayed, because I discovered that the Department has had a tendency to stay cases. A thousand cases were stayed for more then six months. If there is a massive commercial dispute between two wealthy companies about an issue of copyright or patent, the fact that the court has not yet made up its mind does not affect either of them, but if somebody is destitute and depends on a food bank, it is a big issue if their case is stayed.

The Department needs to look at the cost-effectiveness of fighting some of these cases, and consider whether it might be better to cave in if a reasonable case is being made by the appellant. The amount of money being provided is not that great and the administrative cost of dealing with the case is quite high. One of the reasons that the Department does not turn up at tribunals from time to time is the administrative cost of doing that. I understand that the Department cannot give in all the time—there is no question about that—but there needs to be a cost-effectiveness calculation of fighting claims too hard, accepting that at the other end is not a large company that can wait, but somebody who is destitute and desperate for cash. Even though they may have family support and the like, I see people with very serious problems.

A further question that should be considered is whether the sanctioning system is designed the wrong way. I agree with the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton—we need a system to support compliance—but we should look at the way the universal credit sanctioning system has been designed, rather than the way the JSA sanctioning scheme works. The JSA sanctioning scheme is to a great extent punitive. It gives people a kick for doing something that the system deems to be wrong, whereas the universal credit system is designed to enforce compliance, so as soon as compliance starts, money starts again. That is what the system should be doing. We are waiting for the rest of universal credit and want to see that as soon as possible, but if the Government could bring in at an earlier stage the universal credit sanctioning system, we would have a system that is seen to be doing what it says on the tin and encouraging people to work with the system.

If, under that system, the easiest way of getting paid is for people to do what they are asked to do, rather than to fight it through an appeal process that can potentially take years to be settled, there would be a far better result for people. These are people without any other source of revenue, apart perhaps from support from families. Some people do not even have family support. We need to think about how the system is seen from those people’s point of view.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton on asking for this debate, and on his persistence and his willingness to stand in at the last minute. Many hon. Members are concerned about the issue as they see it in their constituency surgeries, and the Government need to review some aspects of the process.

This is obviously a day for my Select Committee’s reports. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) referred to the report that we published a few months ago called “The role of Jobcentre Plus in the reformed welfare system”, in which we had a whole section on sanctions. Very helpfully, the Government published their response to that report today, so the debate is timely.

Sanctions as we know them today have probably existed from the 1980s, although there has always been conditionality as part of the rules for getting unemployment allowance. I suppose the question today is to what extent the use of sanctions has increased in recent years. Certainly there has been a huge increase since the Welfare Reform Act 2012 was passed. Dr David Webster of the University of Glasgow, the leading academic authority on benefit sanctions, told my Committee that

“the severity of the regime has increased drastically under the Coalition Government and is increasing further.”

He also highlighted the common misconception that benefit sanctions affect only a small minority of benefit claimants. In the period 2008 to 2012 around one fifth of JSA claimants were sanctioned, approximately 1.4 million people. Official data show that, since the introduction of the new rules which have already been referred to, the proportion of JSA claimants sanctioned every month is around 5%, which is approximately 60,000 people. In the period from the introduction of the new JSA rules to June 2013 there were 553,000 sanctions, an increase of 11% on the same period a year earlier. There were 860,000 JSA sanctions in the year to June 2013, the highest number in any 12-month period since records began in their current form, and probably the highest number ever. The number of employment and support allowance sanctions—it is a new development that people on a disability benefit can be sanctioned—in the period December 2012 to June 2013 was double that in the same period a year earlier.

Despite all this, by May 2013 the report to the Secretary of State found

“no evidence of a secret national regime”

to set targets for the number of sanctions imposed. However, the Public and Commercial Services Union told my Committee that the expectations placed on Jobcentre Plus staff to sanction claimants were “targets by another name”. The argument about whether such targets exist continues to this day.

Both Members who have already spoken talked about inappropriate sanction referrals. We received evidence of quite a number of those, but in the light of Mr Deputy Speaker’s strictures, I will not detail them. Suffice to say that many were silly and inappropriate. With the application of common sense—that was the phrase that we used in our report—they could have been avoided or should have been picked up at review stage. About 50% of sanctions are overturned on review by a decision maker.

Many hon. Members will have received postcards from constituents that were probably sent to them by Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam, which asked my Select Committee to hold an inquiry into the use of food banks. Those postcards arrived in my office when we had already embarked on our inquiry into Jobcentre Plus. We had already decided that that would form part of the inquiry. Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam, in their report, “Walking the breadline”, found that sanctions were a significant factor in the recent substantial rise in referrals to food banks. They estimated that some half a million people in the UK were “reliant on food aid”, and that “up to half” of people who are referred to food banks need help

“as a direct result of having benefit payments delayed, reduced, or withdrawn”.

DWP was unable to provide information on the number or proportion of JSA claimants who chose to sign off benefit during a sanction period, or for longer, which is the reason that they would come off the claimant count. That might explain why there is some disparity between the figures for the number of people looking for work and the official unemployment figures.

The Committee recommended that Jobcentre Plus should look at the impact of sanctions on the use of food banks, but the Government have effectively rejected that in their response.

The Committee was also keen to see a second independent review of the sanctions regime, in addition to the one already being conducted by Matthew Oakley. Indeed, we thought that we had got the Employment Minister, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), to agree to that when she gave oral evidence. Matthew Oakley is considering the clarity of DWP’s communications with claimants, the whole issue of sanctions, the appeals process and the availability of hardship payments.

We had wanted that second independent review to examine: whether sanction referrals were made appropriately, proportionately and fairly across the jobcentre network; whether there is a the link between sanctioning and the claimant count that could explain some of the disparities in the figures; and whether the regime was achieving its aim of encouraging claimants to engage more effectively with employment support. There is no point having sanctions if we do not know whether they work. Are they making people look for work more thoroughly than they otherwise would? That is our question. We do not think that Matthew Oakley’s inquiry will answer that, because it is not in its remit.

The Committee thought that the Employment Minister had promised that second review, which is why our report states that we welcome that commitment. Unfortunately, that is not what she meant, because the Government’s response states that there will be no second review along the lines we were asking for, and which we thought the Government had agreed to.

I appeal again to the Government to consider setting up a second independent review, and not just of the administration of sanctions, but of their effectiveness. Do they actually work? Do they change the behaviour of the people affected? If they are not changing people’s behaviour and so are purely punitive, the Government should be honest about that, because they must be saving money as a result. I do not think that most people would accept the application of sanctions that are purely punitive. If they are changing people’s behaviour, that is a different matter.

Does my hon. Friend share my puzzlement about the Government’s about-turn, given that the Minister wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton and referred to the second review’s terms of reference? It is therefore very surprising now to be told that it will not happen at all.

I share my right hon. Friend’s disappointment, because we honestly thought, even before we published the report, that we had got the Minister to agree to such a review. I hope that the Government will think again, because they need to be satisfied, just as everybody else does, that the regime is not intended simply to save money in the welfare system through punitive sanctions, but has a real purpose in ensuring that people who are not fulfilling their obligations under the agreements they signed and who are trying to play the system should be sanctioned in certain circumstances. Sanctions should certainly not be applied if there is no reason other than to punish the individuals concerned.

I know that my time is up, Mr Deputy Speaker. I hope that the Minister, who is listening patiently, will take that back to the Department and that we can get a second independent review of the workings of the sanctions regime.

I want to make one or two brief comments. I will start with an anecdote that seems typical of what other Members have alluded to this afternoon. It does not relate to my local Jobcentre Plus, but comes from the son of a friend. He attended his local Jobcentre Plus to apologise for the fact that he could not attend his routine interview because he had a job interview at the same time. He was told that he would lose his benefits, which seems absolutely inexplicable. There was also someone on the door, almost a bouncer, who stopped him getting past to explain the situation to someone who might have been a bit more reasonable. I do not know how often that happens, but clearly there are occasions when unwise decisions are made.

The other side of the coin is that I have heard evidence, also anecdotal, that some claimants are unco-operative and that, despite repeated requests for documents, attendance or information, still do not comply, and sanctions are only brought in at that stage when nothing else has worked. Perhaps the Minister will refer to that when he responds to the debate.

The right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) referred to food banks. From a few cases in which I have met individuals who use food banks and discussed their circumstances with them, I know that they often have debt repayments to make. Their benefits are certainly insufficient for that, because they were never intended for debt repayments. The underlying problem is that people are getting into debt that they cannot manage or cope with, and that is what is leading to the increased use of food banks.

The whole benefits system is, after all, a contract with the taxpayer. We must be fair both to the taxpayer and to claimants. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) referred to the compliance system under universal credit, which sounds to me like a great improvement. I support his suggestion, if it is at all possible to implement it, to improve the situation for claimants and the taxpayer.

No one disputes the fact that there is a place for sanctions in the benefits system, because there has to be a fair way of dealing with the minority of claimants who deliberately and repeatedly fail to comply with requirements. However, I think that everyone would agree that sanctions must be fair, that they must not be unduly harsh or punitive and that they cannot be based on information that is inaccurate or misunderstood. For many people who are sanctioned, their understanding of the regime fails the test.

Ultimately, we all want to get people back into the labour market if they are fit and able and there are jobs for them. Sanctions that are disproportionate and unfair, ironically, will have precisely the opposite effect; they impoverish people and leave them less able to move from welfare to work. The sanctions regime was ramped up in late 2012. As we have heard, the imposition of a sanction means the temporary suspension of jobseeker’s allowance for a minimum of four weeks. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) said, it is different for universal credit, which is “until engagement” plus seven days, which seems a lot fairer. The maximum sanction period is three years. Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, has rightly described that as “excessively harsh”.

I understand that the Government like to see themselves as taking a tough and no-nonsense approach, which implies that large numbers of claimants are really benefit cheats, but the fact is that, in my constituency and many others, overly harsh sanctions mean that families are going without essentials. A minimum of four weeks without benefits can lead to desperate measures, and many of my constituents are visiting food banks for the first time. I have evidence of that. Three advisers from my local citizens advice bureau were recently offered employment by the council on the welfare support desk in Wigan Life Centre. During February and March, those three workers assessed 560 applications for food bank parcels as genuine. Of those, 130—in only two months—were identified as stemming solely from the application of a benefit sanction. Ironically, I think that those were the lucky ones. They were not like the young man with learning difficulties who came to see me in my constituency office. He had been eating out of bins for three weeks because he did not understand the letter he received and thought that his benefits had been taken off him permanently. He had got the letter too late to attend the interview.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) that the sanctions are also counter-productive. Disproportionately long sanctions create barriers to the search for work. The four-week minimum means that claimants spend more time dealing with acute needs, such as obtaining food and heating, than looking for a job. Bureau advisers have reported to me that they see many clients who have been sanctioned spending a significant amount of time seeking alternative means to pay for essentials, such as food and utilities. Indeed, they are being forced into the hands of payday lenders, so they are getting into debt. As the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) said, benefits are not intended to pay debts.

Since the changes of late 2012, the number of people being sanctioned has soared. After the implementation of the new sanctions system in October 2012, there was an 11% rise in sanctions for jobseekers. The most recent full-year data show a 24% year-on-year rise in the number of sanctions for jobseekers. For ESA, the whole year shows an increase of 156%. In the period just after the ESA sanctions regime changed in December 2012, there was a 98% increase. That is a huge increase, and I cannot believe that that number of people deliberately did not engage with the system.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South that we need to review the effectiveness of the sanctions regime. If the sanctions are getting more onerous, why are more people being caught by them? Surely we would expect harsher punishments to bring people into line and lessen infractions, if indeed their behaviour is deliberate. What better evidence is there that these reforms are being driven by cost-cutting targets and have little to do with helping people to find work? Jobcentre staff are incentivised to get people off the dole; they should be rewarded for getting people back into employment.

There would be more faith in the sanctions regime if it were based on good decision making and proper assessments of individuals, but all too frequently people cannot comply with it. I was recently given a case by my local citizens advice bureau. A mother attended with her 19-year-old son, who did not engage with the interview. He looked down, and he patently could not read the letters he had received. His mother answered all the questions. Every time he was asked a question, he just looked at his mum for an answer; he clearly could not understand. He lives at home with his parents. In July 2013, he applied for universal credit, which he was awarded. However, he did not attend his interview in September, or his seven other interviews, so he got a low-level sanction. On 9 December, he got a medium-level sanction. In all this time, his mum had not seen the letters. He obviously could not read them and did not understand what was going on.

Eventually, his mum found the letters, inquired of the jobcentre what was going on, and found that her son had been sanctioned for 891 days. She accompanied him to interviews in February and March but was told that nothing could be done about lifting the sanctions. He went to my local citizens advice bureau, which is in touch with the specialist support unit to establish whether this is consistent with regulations and whether anything can be done. It is obvious that the people at Jobcentre Plus did not have the time to assess this young man, to put it generously, and did not see that he would not understand any of the sanctions letters or requirements on complying for work.

There is plenty of other evidence of poor communication. In Wigan, a significant number of ESA recipients applying for food parcels have complained that the letters notifying them of the work capability assessment were not received until after the date of the assessment, causing them to be sanctioned. Others have said that they could not attend because they had a hospital appointment and only learned of the sanction when their JSA failed to arrive.

We clearly need a better understanding of the individual needs of claimants. If we are going to apply this sort of regime, Jobcentre Plus staff need to have the time and the ability to assess the people who are applying for benefits and ensure that the sanctions are fair. There are two ways of encouraging people into work—the carrot and the stick. It does not seem fair that on many occasions the wealthy get the carrot of tax cuts and the people on benefits get the stick of unduly harsh sanctions.

Nearly 1 million people have had their benefits stopped—the highest number since jobseeker’s allowance was introduced in 1996—but 58% of those who appealed their sanctions won. That is what this debate is about.

Labour Members do not say that people should not be sanctioned, but we do say that sanctions should be fair. They should be imposed only when claimants wilfully do not do everything that they have agreed to do—unlike the young man I recently met at a protest against Atos, who was like so many people on benefits. He wanted to work, but had suffered a rugby injury and was on ESA. He has worked in construction and had had his own window cleaning company that employed two other people. He went to university but then got his rugby injury, which triggered chronic migraines. He also got depression. The medics are currently trying to work out whether the migraines cause the depression or the depression causes the migraines.

The young man was sacked from his last job because he had three days off with a migraine. He went on to ESA for three months, after which he was sent for another assessment. He contacted Atos to say that he could not attend because he was in hospital, but he was still sanctioned. He appealed, and Atos actually apologised. He was told that he would not have to have another assessment for at least a month, but was then immediately sent for more assessments. He gave up and went on to JSA, but not before he had attempted suicide. He suffers from a double whammy: as a 30-year-old, he has had to give up his flat because he is entitled only to the shared room rate. We should not be treating ill and disabled people in this way.

After pressure from Labour Members, the Government agreed to arrange for an independent inquiry into benefits sanctions. When will we see its report? I, for one, am disgusted by the way in which sanctions are being applied unfairly, without good cause, and with no humanity. I wonder how Mr Oakley, who is conducting the inquiry, is going to produce the report, given that when my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) asked how many benefit claimants had been sanctioned for different periods of time, the Minister—not this Minister but the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey)—replied that the information was not readily available and it would cost too much to get it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is not just the number of sanctions but their length? The minimum period is four weeks, so those who are sanctioned spend too much of their time trying to deal with the acute financial problems that that causes rather than looking for work, which might be the purpose of the sanctions in the first place.

Absolutely; I agree. If the purpose of a sanction is to give somebody a bit of a shock—to say, “Look, you need to comply with the things that the Department is asking you to do”—then it does not need to be four weeks long, a year long, or three years long. We need action to get the person to comply with what they need to do; we do not need them starving, becoming homeless and living in the cold. As my right hon. Friend says, those things do not allow them productively to seek work.

I am a parliamentary patron of the YMCA, which has undertaken research and produced a report called “Feeling the Benefits”. The YMCA found that in the first seven months after the reforms of October 2012, more than a quarter of a million young people were sanctioned—1,000 every day. It also reported that there has been a significant increase in the number of vulnerable young people being sanctioned, detrimentally affecting their physical and mental well-being. Eighty-four per cent. of the young people surveyed reported that they had had to cut back on or go without food. They said things like: “I didn’t cope, I had no one.” Another said: “It’s how long they left me with no money, knowing I was pregnant and had to buy my own food.” Another said: “I was unable to eat and it was lucky that the YMCA could help.” Another said: “You have a much more negative attitude to life as a whole.” Another said: “It cost me my home and food.” Another said: “I went three months living on food parcels, which is really degrading because you lose all your dignity. It’s not just physically hard, it’s mentally hard.”

The YMCA reported that sanctions, instead of helping those young people get into work, actually made it harder. One said: “It stopped me searching for work as I had no money to get to different employers.” Another said, most tellingly: “My focus turned to survival rather than gaining employment.” The young people accepted the need for sanctions for those not doing what is required of them, but all believed that they had to be fairly applied. Three quarters of them felt that the way in which sanctions were currently being applied was not fair. They believed that there were three main areas where communication had failed: they were not given enough support on how they could avoid being sanctioned, an explanation of why they had been sanctioned or practical advice on what they could do once they had been.

The YMCA is calling on the Government to do a number of things, including ensuring that key information on the welfare system is better tailored and communicated to young people. It says that a claimant should have an individual as a single point of contact within their local Jobcentre Plus, who should remain constant wherever a claimant is in the system—whether on a work programme, work experience or wherever.

The YMCA also proposes that young people should receive a clear explanation, in writing and face to face, of why they have been sanctioned, and that claimants who are homeless or in emergency accommodation should be exempt from the same job search rules until they have found somewhere to live. It seems an absolute nonsense that we expect someone who is living on the streets to apply for so many jobs per day when what we need to do is get them into accommodation and make sure they are feeding themselves properly, and then deal with the issue of work. It is a hierarchy of needs—first of all, people need food, water and somewhere to live.

The YMCA has also proposed that where claimants are living in supported accommodation, as well as providing the claimants themselves with information about a sanction, Jobcentre Plus should provide that information to the supported housing provider. There is an absolute logic there: if a young person who is in difficulty and is being supported is suddenly sanctioned and so is no longer able to pay their rent, they run the risk of falling out even of the supported system.

The YMCA also proposes that a duty be placed on Jobcentre Plus to provide people being sanctioned with a suitable notice period and an opportunity to have the decision reconsidered prior to removing any benefit payments. I will go on to talk about cases in which, if a proper review had been done in the first place, the sanction would never had been applied and people would not have been left in dire circumstances with no money for a period of time. I hope the Minister will take the time to read the YMCA’s report and will take action on its contents.

I recently met senior officers in my local Jobcentre Plus. We had a very productive discussion about the difficulties faced by many people and the particular difficulties faced by those whose lives are most chaotic. But as soon as I asked about sanctions, the atmosphere absolutely changed. I asked about targets, and they said that there were definitely no targets—I accept that. However, they then went on to talk about the performance management of Jobcentre Plus staff. An adviser will be spoken to if they do not refer claimants for sanctions often enough. That means the adviser cannot exercise common sense or accept explanations for why a claimant is a few moments late or has been unable to attend their interview that the rest of us would see as perfectly acceptable. The claimant potentially loses benefits immediately until the decision maker either accepts the reasons or applies a sanction. That could push the claimant into debt, leaving them with no food or money for rent, and getting them into difficulty with their housing.

I have been told that people have been given an appointment on a Sunday and have then been told that they should have realised that the appointment was for a day on which the jobcentre would not be open. They have therefore had their benefits suspended because they were not able to sign on and see their adviser—on a Sunday. There are cases of people who have applied for more jobs than are required but because they did so through a job club or through their own initiative rather than applying on universal job match the jobs were not counted and the claimants were sanctioned.

The young man who is now a volunteer in my office was given a job advert once as he was leaving the jobcentre and was told that he may like to apply for the job. The first line of the job description asked for a qualification that he did not have so he did not apply for it. He was honest: the next week he went in and said—even though he could have fibbed and said that he had applied for the job, as the jobcentre staff would not have known—that he had not applied for it and gave his reasons why. They sanctioned him, even though he had applied for more jobs than he needed to.

Another case is that of Peter, who was sent to a Work programme provider. He turned up when he was told to but was told that the programme did not exist and that he should go home. He went back to the jobcentre and explained the situation. The work provider backed up his story, but he was still sanctioned for four weeks, because the provider and the jobcentre could not get their story straight.

I am aware that you are asking me to wind up, Mr Deputy Speaker, although I have many more cases that I would love to tell the House about—really dire, terrible cases, in which my constituents have been wrongly treated and, it seems to me, punished simply for trying to do the right thing. One thing I would say is that if the jobcentre would only talk to the person, find out what had happened and why, start from a point of believing their story and carry out the investigation before they applied the sanctions, we would not have people living in such misery.

Although I hate sanctions, I accept that some people do not engage or do the things that they are called on to do to receive benefits. I accept that those people should face sanctions, but those sanctions have to be based on common sense. If someone is in hospital or at a job interview, or is held up by a traffic accident, they should not have their benefits cut off. If they cannot read, are ill on the day of the appointment or are given the wrong day by the jobcentre they should not be left with no money to feed themselves and their family. The current sanction regime is not fair, is not working properly and needs to be changed.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) and the Members on both sides of the House who secured today’s debate. Like other Members who have spoken today, I have been disturbed by the surge in constituents coming to me because they have been sanctioned in circumstances they consider unfair, and I am profoundly concerned about the way in which the new sanctions regime is working in practice. There is a broad consensus that there is a role for sanctions in those cases where an individual is determined not to comply with requirements, but sanctions need to be proportionate, consistently and properly applied and, if they are to act as any kind of deterrent, the last resort, not the first recourse. It is clear to me from what we have already heard today, from cases in my own constituency and from the evidence collected by Citizens Advice Scotland that the sanctions regime is not functioning as it should. In the time available, I will focus on just a few of the most pertinent issues.

The first is that sanctions are being applied in ways that are not always proportionate to the infringement, and do not adequately take into account claimants’ personal circumstances. Like the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson), I have personal knowledge of a case in which a claimant was sanctioned because they were attending a job interview at the time when they were supposed be at the jobcentre appointment. Citizens Advice has highlighted a string of similar cases. That is just nonsense—it is absolutely crazy. There are also instances of people being sanctioned who had hospital appointments or family funerals to attend. Most of us in work would expect our employer to be flexible about allowing leave of absence in such circumstances; it is only reasonable to allow jobseekers a similar degree of flexibility to deal with unavoidable personal circumstances such as hospital appointments or illness.

Some of my biggest concerns are about people who are living with health conditions or disabilities. Mental health problems or mild learning disabilities in particular are sometimes invisible—indeed, they might not even be diagnosed—but they can play a huge role in why someone struggles to find and stay in work, or why they may be struggling to comply with jobseeking requirements. I have encountered a number of people sanctioned who have low levels of comprehension, and in some cases cognitive impairment and very limited literacy. They have not deliberately flouted requirements; they have failed to understand them. It has been hard for my staff to explain the situation to them and it is very difficult for them to comply with what is expected of them.

Frankly, some of the people I have dealt with are very vulnerable individuals. Sanctioning has only exacerbated that vulnerability, in some cases pushing people into severe hardship and reliance on assistance from local food banks. Food bank use has soared in my constituency, which is one of the wealthiest parts of Scotland, and one of the main drivers of that has been the malfunctioning of the sanctions regime. We need to do a much better job of identifying disabled people, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities, and should make sure not just that they have the necessary support to find suitable employment but that communication with them takes account of their ability to comprehend and process the information they are getting, and takes account of their health.

Another major concern that has not been dwelt on today relates to the challenges of job searching in rural areas. I am very fortunate to represent an area where unemployment is among the lowest in Scotland, but it is also one of the most rural parts of Scotland, with a very high proportion of people living in the countryside or in small villages. Public transport is very limited and there is a shortage of affordable housing. Those on the lowest incomes, who have the least choice about where they live, often find themselves in the most rural parts, where both the rents and the demand for housing tend to be lower. They may or may not have access to a bus service, but if they do it is likely to be fairly infrequent, there may be no direct route to where they have to attend interviews, and fares are really expensive. As of next week, a day bus ticket will be £7.70 for the Buchan area and £9 for Banffshire. For somebody living on benefits, that is a huge proportion of their spending power—money that they really need to be spending on heating, food and other essentials of daily life. If we expect people to attend interviews some distance from their homes, we need to understand that it could be expensive and difficult for them to do that.

Many parts of my constituency do not have broadband access, and even where it is available it costs significantly more than comparable services in urban areas. That makes it very difficult for claimants: it means they may have to travel to a public library to do even the most rudimentary job search. That costs them a lot of money—money that they just do not have. Citizens Advice Scotland has highlighted cases where sanctions have been applied to people in rural areas who then find themselves with no money to enable them to travel to jobcentres or libraries, thus compounding their original offence and leaving them facing further sanction. That seems entirely counter-productive and it compounds the rural isolation and poverty already faced by people on very low incomes.

The sanctions regime is not working as it should. There is significant evidence of sanctions being applied incorrectly, inconsistently, inappropriately and disproportionately. Looking ahead to the introduction of universal credit and a single household payment, I am worried about the significant potential for the situation to get a lot worse. Whole families could be pushed unnecessarily into severe hardship and destitution by all the extra costs and unintended consequences. Unless we deal with these problems now, we will store up much greater problems for the future, so I urge the Government to look at their guidance, review it and make sure that their regime is actually fit for purpose.

I wonder whether it is a sign of the times that more Members sat in the Chamber to debate badgers than are present to debate the poor and the vulnerable.

I will begin by placing on the record my belief that personal responsibility and compliance are extremely important for individuals seeking employment. However, the current regime seeks to penalise those who offer responsibility but are, for various reasons, disproportionately sanctioned. In many cases, that means abject poverty not just for them, but for the people around them. I am totally convinced that this period in our history will be looked at by generations to come with horror. It is possible that people will think that MPs acted in a barbaric fashion. We are living through an era in which being disabled, poor or disfranchised basically attracts state punishment rather than help. That is a sad indictment of these times.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Is it not incumbent on Members to look on those who are vulnerable and on the margins with respect and to offer them support rather than condemnation and punishment?

Absolutely. This year is the 180th anniversary of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. The Poor Law contained some incredibly harsh ideas, but they seem to have found fertile ground and taken seed among a new generation of coalition MPs. The Act was based on a royal commission that was largely the work of Nassau Senior and Edwin Chadwick and that took some extreme yet strikingly familiar views. One was that poverty was essentially caused by the individual, rather than by the economic and social conditions. It was therefore claimed that the pauper claimed relief regardless of his merits; that large families got the most, which encouraged irresponsible marriages; that women claimed relief for illegitimate children, which encouraged immorality; and that labourers had no incentive to work. It was recommended that workhouse conditions should be less desirable than those of an independent labourer of the lowest class. It was a fight to the bottom. There was no attempt 180 years ago to improve the working conditions of the lowest class. They wanted people to work in a worse position, below even that of the lowest of the working class. That attitude pervades today. Mark Twain once said:

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Have we really regressed almost 200 years socially?

Undoubtedly, welfare reform is causing misery for people up and down the country. It is an ideological crusade to shrink the state, led by people who I believe simply do not care about what happens to the individuals or the consequences for communities as a whole. The approach of the Department for Work and Pensions to sanctions has been characterised by the chaotic approach to universal credit and the personal independence payment. Statistics showing that nearly 60% of decisions on sanctions have been overturned have now been removed from the DWP website. This is a regime that is targeting the most vulnerable people in our society—the very people, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) correctly says, we should be helping.

Even in the worst cases of non-compliance with the DWP rules, who actually suffers when sanctions are applied? When crimes under the law are committed, it is the perpetrator who is punished, but when DWP rules are broken, the people around that person are also punished. No thought is given to the family, the partner or anybody else associated with the individual being sanctioned. It may well be that it is one person who is sanctioned, but it results in a broad swipe at everyone in a household, family or circle of friends who have the obligation of the state transferred to them. The situation has been described as torture by hunger. Should this be happening in a civilised society? Should we be engaging in sanctioning people and forcing them to go to food banks? These are people who generally need assistance in life. The reality is that for every person sanctioned for the things the right-wing press prints on its front pages, there are thousands more who are forced into degradation as the victims of circumstance, officious advisers and cruel policy.

Let me describe one or two cases. A man in my constituency visited my offices in desperate need. He had been sanctioned after missing an appointment with a work training provider. He had a problem with his heart and he had had to visit hospital—he was sanctioned for being in hospital. The sanction was later overturned, but not before he was driven almost to starvation and the local food bank after visiting my office in a desperate state. All he had eaten for three days was field mushrooms and eggs borrowed from a neighbour. I am not sure that anyone in this House wants to see that sort of thing happen. As politicians, that is not what we are here to do.

The benefits of a man from the south-east who had been blind since birth were stopped because he was not replying to letters. The DWP was failing to send him letters in Braille or any other accessible format. He did not reply because he did not even know he had them. This man had worked for most of his life, but because of the DWP’s error he was forced to turn to a payday loan to survive. The chaotic system forced him into hunger and poverty.

So out of control is the situation that a website now documents the cruel, arbitrary and ridiculous reasons why people have had their benefits stopped. I urge hon. Members to look at it, but I have some examples:

“You get a job interview. It’s at the same time as your job centre appointment, so you reschedule the job centre. You attend your rearranged appointment and then get a letter saying your benefits will be stopped because going to a job interview isn’t a good enough reason to miss an appointment.”

Another example is:

“You get a job that starts in two weeks time. You don’t look for work while you are waiting for the job to start. You’re sanctioned.”

How ridiculous and how absurd is this system?

“You apply for three jobs one week and three jobs the following Sunday and Monday. Because the job centre week starts on a Tuesday it treats this as applying for six jobs in one week and none the following week. You are sanctioned for 13 weeks for failing to apply for three jobs each week.”

It is an outrageous situation.

There is of course a clear link between benefit delays or changes and people turning to food banks. As many hon. Members have mentioned, more than 650,000 people now use food banks, and there is a strong link between that and benefit sanctioning. Serious questions need to be asked about whether people are being deliberately sanctioned to massage the employment figures, because at any one time 100,000 people may be in the churn of those sanctioned. At such a time, they are not figures in the unemployment statistics; they are cases in a fiddling of the unemployment statistics. The Minister may wish to target that point.

In my last minute, I want to mention the pressure on staff in DWP offices. The failure to impose enough sanctions means that many of them receive performance improvement plans or notices to improve, which might ultimately result in their losing their employment.

In conclusion, as a society, we will be judged harshly by history for punishing the poor, the disabled and the vulnerable, as well as for not doing enough to stop the determined drive of Government Members to drag us back to the Poor Law of 1834, the shameful establishing of IDS UK—in dire straits.

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on his initiative, as a result of which we have had a very interesting debate.

The debate raises this question: what has become of Jobcentre Plus? As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) has just described, those who work in jobcentres say that they are under enormous pressure to sanction people’s benefits. In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton referred to the “toxic” culture in Jobcentre Plus. People who depend on it for help say that too often its main interest is now in catching them out.

As we have heard, sanctions are vital to the system. They encourage effective jobsearch, and a sound rationale for them was set out in Professor Paul Gregg’s report for the Government in 2008. They featured in the new deal and the future jobs fund, and we have made it clear that they will also feature in our compulsory jobs guarantee. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) argued, sanctions need to be applied fairly and proportionately. Claimants must understand their responsibilities and the consequences of not meeting them. That is not the case at the moment, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) correctly pointed out. The Child Poverty Action Group has referred to the frequent very vague letters from jobcentres, which people cannot understand, telling them what they are supposed to have done or not done. The Work and Pensions Committee report in January set out an approach to sanctions that makes a great deal of sense, and I must say that I was disappointed by the quite negative tone of the Government’s response.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) was right to remind the House, as other hon. Members have done, that rocketing benefits sanctions have fuelled the extraordinary growth in food bank demand. Volunteers say that a lot of people at food banks have no idea why they have been sanctioned. We might expect that Ministers, after hearing that from the Trussell Trust, would want to find out what is going on. Instead, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has refused to meet the Trussell Trust and, quite bizarrely, has accused it of having a political agenda. The Trussell Trust therefore had to make do with meeting the Prime Minister. It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the Select Committee recommendation that the Department should compile data on the number of signposts to food banks it is making has been rejected.

The first that some people know about a sanction is when they find out that there is no money in their bank account. Sanctions are supposed to incentivise people to undertake fruitful jobsearch, but if people do not know which rule they have broken and they are not told, a sanction cannot incentivise them. What has gone wrong?

Last week, at the invitation of Tesco, I visited its new store in Woolwich. The company personnel director told me that of the 400 staff the store had recruited when it opened in 2012, 100 had been chosen who had previously been unemployed. She introduced me to four of them, and it was frankly inspiring to hear how the opportunity to work was changing their lives and to hear how they are now optimistic about their prospects.

I took the opportunity to ask the four members of staff about their experience of Jobcentre Plus. Their answers were uniformly depressing. They said that advisers wanted to catch them out and to come up with reasons for imposing a sanction. One of them told me as a matter of fact that Jobcentre Plus advisers have to impose eight sanctions per month. He might have a point, because I understand that eight sanctions per month is regarded as the norm for an adviser. The Minister will correct me if that figure is wrong, but I think that it is right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) pointed out, the number of sanctions issued by each adviser features in their regular appraisals. It is therefore not surprising that jobseekers get the impression that advisers have such a target. Indeed, I suspect that jobseekers are probably quite close to the truth about what is going on.

The reputation of Jobcentre Plus is now terribly poor. Examples such as the one given by the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson), make it clear why that is the case, and there are too many examples like those given by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck.

My right hon. Friend is talking about the disincentives in the system that lead to more sanctions. Does he agree that one problem may be that the single measure of performance in Jobcentre Plus is the benefits off-flow, and that anyone sanctioned is counted in that way, even though they are not coming off benefits to get into work?

I agree. There are several problems with the benefits off-flow measure, and my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that that is one of them. Citizens Advice has made that point in the briefing for this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) drew my attention to a report from West Dunbartonshire citizens advice bureau called “Unjust and Uncaring: A report on conditionality and benefits sanctions and their impact on clients”, which was published just a few weeks ago. It is full of depressing examples of the kind that we have heard in this debate.

Community Links works in my constituency in east London. It produced a policy briefing on sanctions in January, which states:

“There is a culture of fear and misunderstanding surrounding sanctions: some people are afraid of making tiny mistakes such as being one minute late for a meeting.”

The briefing includes a case study of Rita, a young and strongly work-oriented woman who was employed for six years until being made redundant. She has a degree in journalism and aspires to a career, not just to a job. She was sanctioned for non-attendance at a meeting, even though she had agreed with her jobcentre adviser to participate in work experience elsewhere. We have heard a number of examples of that. She was also incorrectly sanctioned for missing a meeting while at a pre-arranged hospital appointment, even though she had informed her adviser in the official way. She avoided that sanction, but only by insisting on speaking to the line manager at the jobcentre. One sanction meant that she did not have enough money to attend a job interview. She blames the jobcentre directly for preventing her from potentially getting a job.

Rita made the following comments:

“I had times when I literally had no food and no gas. I just lay in my bed looking at the walls. I couldn’t travel or make any calls. I couldn’t even afford to get the bus to sign-on, but I knew that if I didn’t go I’d be suspended again. It’s like a vicious cycle. I turned up at the Jobcentre actually hungry. I hadn’t eaten for two days and I was scared that if I was five minutes late they would suspend me again.”

She was present on Monday this week at the launch at Church House of Community Links’ troubling study “Tipping the balance?” on the cumulative impact of welfare reform in Newham.

The evidence that we have heard in this debate makes it clear that there is a serious problem. A year ago, I asked a parliamentary question:

“what was the total amount of benefit withheld as a result of benefit sanctions in each of the last four years.”—[Official Report, 25 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 986W.]

The answer told me that in 2009-10, £11 million was withheld and that just in the first six months of 2012-13, £60 million was withheld. In cash terms, that is more than a tenfold rise.

I have since requested an updated answer. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), told me in an answer in February:

“The information is not available in the format requested. Trends in sanctions are better understood” —[Official Report, 5 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 268W.]

in some other way. It is not clear to me why the information was available a year ago, but is not available now. It is not the job of the Minister to tell us what questions she would like us to ask; Ministers are required to answer the questions that we do ask. I tabled the question again yesterday and I ask the Minister here today who is much more reasonable in these respects, to have a word with the right hon. lady and ask her this time to answer the question that she is asked.

A very large number of sanctions are overturned on appeal. Those sanctions should not have been imposed in the first place. The Policy Exchange report, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton mentioned, said:

“After reconsideration and/or appeal, 29% of those who receive their first ‘lower’ tier sanction have it overturned, meaning around 5,600 of them a month are wrongly sanctioned.”

In February, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck said, DWP statistics showed an appeal success rate of nearly 60%. Those statistics are gone from the Department’s website and have not yet come back corrected. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us what the correct figure is and when the figures, having been corrected, will be republished.

Last summer, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West reminded us, the Opposition forced the Government to set up a review of sanctions. Ministers appointed Matthew Oakley to carry it out, although they drew up rather narrow terms of reference. I have appreciated the opportunity to discuss the issues with Mr Oakley, who has set about his task with thoroughness and diligence. I hope that his report, when we see it in a few weeks’ time, will lead to important improvements. However, it is very disappointing that today’s Government response to the January Select Committee report reneges on the commitment to a further wider review.

The Policy Exchange report says:

“we recommend a series of cumulative increases in sanction duration for those who consistently fail to comply with the conditionality regime. This reflects an aim to make sanctions less punitive for those who may have made genuine mistakes”.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton said, that comes from the ideological standpoint of the Minister’s coalition partners. I hope that he will indicate whether he accepts that it is a helpful direction of travel.

Sanctions by Jobcentre Plus have become far more punitive. They explain a large part of the explosion in food bank demand. Many people have no idea why they have been sanctioned. It is agreed across the political spectrum that the system has gone wrong, as we have heard in this debate. I hope that the Minister will indicate that he understands the problem and that he intends to do something about it.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) and the Members who supported him on securing this debate. This has been a worthwhile discussion and a number of important issues have been raised to which I will try to respond in the brief time available to me.

I think that there might be more common ground between the Government and the Opposition than has been apparent. It is also the Government’s position, as a number of right hon. and hon. Members said, that we want a sanctions system that works and that is effective, proportionate and well communicated to claimants. We are united on that. I was struck during the debate by the overwhelming view—although not the unanimous view, because there was at least one exception—that sanctions have a part to play in the system. Those who sign on and claim benefit take on responsibilities. If those responsibilities are to mean anything, there have to be consequences for not adhering to them.

At the outset, it might be worth my setting out the claimant commitment, which is now central to the benefit system and to the process of rights and responsibilities. People who sign on for jobseeker’s allowance now go through the claimant commitment. When they have a first interview with a work coach, the coach reviews their circumstances and capabilities—that relates to the point that was made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford)—and completes the “My Jobseekers Profile” to capture key information. Reflecting on that, the coach sets out the requirements that the claimant must meet to be entitled to JSA, ensuring that those are right for the individual. That is how the system is intended to work. The work coach must take account of any health conditions, disabilities or caring responsibilities. Those requirements are recorded in the claimant commitment, together with a clear explanation of the consequences of any failure to comply. The commitment must be agreed by the claimant.

The coach then works with the individual to help them construct a detailed plan that sets out what they will do each week to meet their requirements. The process is designed to ensure that our expectations and requirements are reasonable, and that the claimant understands them. It is intended to provide claimants with the support that they need to establish an effective plan of action that, if followed, will ensure that they comply and that they never face a sanction. That is what the Government are trying to achieve. We do not want to sanction anybody. Clearly, there are times when people do not fulfil their requirements. When sanctions are imposed, there are mechanisms in place for challenging them. They can be overturned when people have a good reason why they should be.

I want to clarify some of the points that were raised in the debate. First, Members asked whether 60% of JSA sanctions were overturned. As has been said, the figures appeared, but there was an error in them and they were withdrawn. Revised figures are being prepared, in line with the code of practice for official statistics. Those will be presented as soon as possible. To give the House an order of magnitude, the latest official statistics, which have been published separately by the Ministry of Justice, which deals with the appeals, show that in the third quarter of 2012-13 not 60% but 17% of JSA disputes heard by the tribunal service resulted in a decision in favour of the claimant. That provides a slightly different perspective.

I will not for now, because I only have a short period and I want to respond to all the points that Members have made. [Interruption.] It was a mistake. The hon. Gentleman asks why it was 60%. There was a miscoding. That was not the correct figure.

It is important that the sanctions regime is evaluated. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for his positive comments on the work that is being done by Matthew Oakley, which is looking specifically at the sanctions regime. It is considering communications to claimants. A number of hon. Members have stated that for sanctions to be effective we must communicate to people what has happened to them and why. I accept that entirely, and if right hon. and hon. Members have examples—some of which they cited during the debate—the Employment Minister would be pleased to receive details of individual cases where the processes that we want to work are not working.

To return to the evaluation, Matthew Oakley will soon complete his report. It will come to the Department and we will respond positively and constructively. We will then publish not only our response but the independent findings of the reviewers in full. There is no secrecy about that; it will be in the public domain, and rightly so, together with the actions we are taking. That is not the only evaluation. We have published a range of evidence, including the Jobcentre Plus offer evaluation and the universal credit customer survey, which provide information about customer awareness of sanctions and the effectiveness of the regime in encouraging compliance. We also monitor the use of sanctions and publish quarterly statistics. In a sense, we could have a second and third review and all the rest, but the focus is on seeing what the first independent reviewer says and publicly responding constructively to that, making changes, publishing evidence, monitoring and taking action, rather than on starting another review with another reviewer for perhaps six or nine months, or whatever, so that it is Christmas before things change. We want to get on with learning from these reviews.

The Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, who is not in the Chamber at the moment, asked about sanctions for employment and support allowance, and it is important to stress the low level of ESA sanctions. At any point, fewer than 0.5% of individuals in the work-related activity group are sanctioned, so although volumes have increased because the number of people on ESA has gone up, that rate remains low. It is not the case that people on ESA are being sanctioned all over the place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) mentioned the link to housing benefit—I felt a certain amount of nostalgia when he explained to the House where Sandwell is, because that is where I was born and went to school. He made the important point that if someone is sanctioned on jobseeker’s allowance, that should not lead to the loss of housing benefit. Although income-related JSA passports to housing benefit, housing benefit is available on the basis of low income and not necessarily on whether someone satisfies the requirements for JSA. We entirely accept that we must ensure that people are not incorrectly thrown off housing benefit because their JSA has been sanctioned in some way, and we are considering that issue as part of the Oakley review. It is not our intention for people to lose their housing benefit.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan raised an interesting question of whether, for example, someone who is sanctioned under universal credit risks losing the whole household payment. Funnily enough, that problem is sorted out under universal credit, because instead of having JSA here and housing benefit there, and the JSA computer telling the council that someone is not on JSA any more and their housing benefit stopping, if it is all one payment the sanction is just to the personal allowance bit and housing help remains unaffected. It will be better under universal credit.

I was pleased to hear from a number of hon. Members that the universal sanctions regime is attractive and responds so that when people correct whatever caused the sanction, in many cases that sanction will stop. I will pass to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Employment Minister the view of a number of Members in this debate that the sooner we move forward with the universal credit sanction regime, the better. I am encouraged by that.

On the proportionality of sanctions, there has not been much discussion about the detail of the higher, middle and lower rates, but since the system was introduced the proportion of claimants sanctioned at the highest level fell markedly after the introduction of the new system. Hardship payments are available—again, that has not been discussed much—at a rate of 60% of the benefit. People may not be aware of that, but where someone has no income it is important to be aware that hardship payments are available at a rate of 60% of benefit.

I will not, if the hon. Lady will forgive me, because I want to respond to the points already made.

There was some discussion of targets—this is a bit of a chestnut—and to be categorical, there are no targets for sanctions; that is not the way it works. The point was made that statistics are gathered at jobcentre level and among advisers on their use of the sanctions system, and again the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan—I am wrecking her credibility here—made exactly the right point. We want consistency, and we cannot know that we have that if we do not gather data on what individual advisers are doing. If people go to a jobcentre and talk to adviser A or adviser B, and adviser A sanctions everyone who walks through the door and adviser B never sanctions anyone, the system is not working.

No, I will not.

It is not that individual advisers are expected to hit a target or number; we are monitoring because we expect both distribution and consistency. That is what we are trying to do. It should not be interpreted as a target; it is simply about us monitoring what is going on.

A couple of hon. Members suggested that sanctions are about trying to massage the unemployment numbers, which is complete nonsense. Somebody who is looking for work is still counted in the unemployment figures. The figures published every month and headlined on the BBC are the labour force survey numbers, and if people are looking for work, they count as unemployed.

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue.

A further point missed by a lot of hon. Members is that two thirds of sanctions are not disallowances. Someone’s JSA might be reduced because of a sanction, but they do not come off JSA and still count in the claimant count numbers. Of all the sanction numbers, only a third are disallowances. On the unemployment figures, the JSA numbers have been coming down because of reduced inflows, not because we have been sanctioning people off benefit.

I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue. I have not given way to anybody else, and I hope he will forgive me if I am consistent. [Interruption.] If the House would like me to take the intervention, I will happily do so.

I am very grateful to the Minister. Will he confirm, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton said, that sanctions contribute to the benefit off-flow figures, which are the key to incentivising jobcentres and advisers?

As I say, in two thirds of cases where people are sanctioned, they do not actually flow off JSA. Their JSA claim is regarded as continuing, so only a fraction of those numbers count as coming off benefit. Most people are still on JSA, even though they are sanctioned. It is clearly not the case that this is anything to do with the claim—it patently is not.

I have sought to be as consensual as I can. The right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton made extraordinary remarks about the Chancellor’s approach to the macro-economy. Given that we have record numbers of people in work and record rates of employment, the idea that that is somehow mishandling the economy is extraordinary.

The key point is that we recognise that the sanctions regime needs to be kept under constant review. An independent review is under way. We will publish that and respond to it positively. If right hon. and hon. Members have individual cases they wish to draw to our attention, we are very happy to look at them. I think the House is united in saying: yes people have responsibilities, and yes there are consequences when they do not meet those responsibilities, but we all want to see a sanctions regime that is fair and proportionate. That remains the position of the Government.

The Minister talks, in his very earnest way, about the claimant commitment. He does not seem to realise that there is a complete disconnect between how the system is supposed to work and how it is actually working on the ground. We are not talking about a few isolated or exceptional examples. I quoted dozens of cases, as did hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. He needs to take account of the realities, not a dream of what he would like to be real.

The Minister picked up on my remarks about the Chancellor. The most effective way to cut the deficit is not through prolonged austerity and sanctioning, but by expanding the economy and job creation. That is exactly what has been done in the United States, which is now 5% above pre-crash levels. Here, we are 1.5% below pre-crash levels.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) made useful points about the appeal procedure taking far too long and being far too costly. There should be an attempt to combine it with the procedure for universal credit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), the Chair of the Select Committee, talked about the very high numbers, contrary to the impression given by the Minister, of people being sanctioned. Some 5%—about 60,000 people—are still being sanctioned per month. The causes of sanctions are often unquestionably trivial, wrong and lacking common-sense discretion. She spoke about the need for another survey—not just the Oakley survey on how the system works—to consider the impact on claimants and whether they are more likely to seek work.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) made the important point that sanctions should be used only as a last resort. That is clearly not the case at the present time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) rightly said that people are impoverished by sanctions and less able to find work, and that they often do not understand the process being imposed on them. DWP staff should be incentivised not for the numbers they sanction, but for the numbers they get back into work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) made an eloquent case about how people are not helped to find work, and that finding work becomes harder as a result of sanctions. She gave examples of how sanctions are often applied unfairly, as did the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), who spoke of the system not being fit for purpose, particularly in rural areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made a powerful speech, as always, which made a comparison with how sanctions work and the less eligibility principle of the Victorian poor law. He thought that no attention is being given to the impact on the victim, which is bad enough, but what about the family, the partner and the children who are being made to suffer?

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) made a very effective case for comprehensive reform. For all these reasons, I am extremely unconvinced by the Minister’s reply. However hard he was trying to convince us that his heart is in the right place, the results on the ground do not merit that. For all those reasons, I hope the whole House agrees that we need another review. We need a review that considers the impact, severity and targeting of sanctioning, and we need a reduction in the number of cases where it is used.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House notes that there have been many cases of sanctions being wrongfully applied to benefit recipients; and calls on the Government to review the targeting, severity and impact of such sanctions.