Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Wallace.)
It is a pleasure to introduce this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
During the September recess I organised a community consultation across my constituency. With 63 meetings over three weeks, the consultation raised a wide range of issues. A dominant theme from some of my most vulnerable constituents, and from those in the voluntary, community and faith sector who work with them, was the impact of benefit sanctions. I cite the example of the Cathedral Archer Project, which works with the homeless. The project has been visited by Ministers and is held up as a model of good practice in taking people off the streets and getting them back into society by giving them skills and a home. The project’s work has been fundamentally changed by the response that some of its clients receive when they start—
I didn’t catch it from you, Minister.
Some of the project’s clients, in their first home, will suddenly receive a letter that they either cannot read or do not understand, and they will therefore miss an appointment and find themselves sanctioned, out of their home and back on the streets. They go to the jobcentre and are told, “Go along to the Cathedral Archer Project. They will feed you.” That transforms the role of an important local charity from making a strategic intervention to help people off the streets, into homes and into work to just being a crisis centre.
I am pleased to have secured this debate to raise such concerns directly and to make some practical proposals on how the Government can address the issue. Much of what I have to say is based on the work of Sheffield Citizens Advice, which is a great organisation that provides vital support to people across our city, finds solutions and supports people in complex situations. In doing so, it saves public money by averting crisis further down the line. In May, the organisation’s social policy group produced a report on the experience of jobseeker’s allowance sanctions based on the previous 12 months. I am pleased that the report’s author is in Westminster for today’s debate. The Department for Work and Pensions received a copy of the report when it was published, and it has been in correspondence with Sheffield Citizens Advice. I sent a further copy to the Minister before today’s debate so that we can properly consider its recommendations.
I must stress how helpful it is for such evidence to be gathered and presented so clearly by those working directly with the people affected by Government policy, with concrete recommendations about what can be done to improve the system. I hope the Minister will treat that work by people on the front line as seriously as it deserves to be treated. I make it absolutely clear at the outset that neither the report nor my contribution opposes the principle of sanctioning within the benefit system. Applying sanctions to those who are deliberately not seeking work, who are unavailable for work or who have no intention of working can disincentivise such behaviour and, in combination with the right support and training, can help people on the road to getting a job that provides not only an income but self-esteem, purpose, socialisation and accomplishment, but—and it is a very big but—any sanctioning regime has to be humane. The Sheffield Citizens Advice report clearly shows that there is an increasing number of incidents where the system is neither humane nor—this is important—serving its stated purpose of getting more people into work. In fact, the system is having the opposite effect in many cases.
Some of the stories outlined in the report will be all too familiar to hon. Members. I will briefly share the experiences of a couple of my constituents that are not detailed in the report. One constituent prefers to remain anonymous, so I will call her Mary. She was made redundant from a job as a cleaner, so she had to sign on for the first time in her life. She was told by an officer at the jobcentre that her next appointment with a job adviser would be on her signing-on day. She was told that there was no need to come in and sign on in the morning because she could do it when she came in for her 3 pm appointment. That information was wrong: the job adviser appointment was two days before Mary’s signing-on day. We all make mistakes, but it is simply and clearly not right that Mary, who had gone to the jobcentre for help to find a job, was punished for the officer’s mistake. It was an honest mistake, but it was a mistake, and she faced the consequences. Mary had to borrow money to get by, and I am pleased to say that she is now back in work with a cleaning job, but she got there despite the system, not because of it.
Mary understood what she needed to do, but she was wrongly advised. There are plenty of examples in the Sheffield Citizens Advice report of people who are not clear about what is expected of them:
“Alan was given a 4 week sanction for not actively seeking work. Because of his limited literacy/numeracy skills he had been enrolled for an 8 week course in English and Maths. He thought that as he was taking this course he did not need to complete his work search book for that period.”
That was an honest mistake. The report continues:
“Tony is in his mid 50s and is vulnerable because of his learning disabilities and dyslexia. He can’t read or write. Despite the fact that he gets significant support with looking for work from a local Job Club, he was sanctioned for not doing ‘enough’ jobseeking.”
Another constituent, coincidentally also called Tony, thinks he was sanctioned because the activity on his Universal Jobmatch account was considered too low by the jobcentre. I say that he thinks that was the reason for his being sanctioned because he has not yet been notified of the reasons for the sanctioning. Tony is eager to find employment and has completed an IT course through the jobcentre to help him find work online. He does not have access to a computer at home, so he spends much of the day at the central library waiting for his turn on the computer to show activity on Universal Jobmatch. That is in addition to going to workplaces in Sheffield looking for work, but he has been sanctioned. As a result of that sanctioning, he has been referred to the Salvation Army food bank in my constituency.
The question is whether sanctions are the right response to such situations, and not only because of their impact on people. Will they actually bring about the behavioural change that they purport to seek? Might the sanctions hinder, rather than help, the people who are affected?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. The emphasis should be on how we root out those who are abusing the system. If the sanctions are harder on some people than on others, how do we get a mechanism that will root out those who are abusing the system by not turning up for appointments? When I speak to benefits centres in Northern Ireland, they tell me that a large number of people are abusing the system. How do we get a system that provides a level playing field for all?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. There are people who take advantage of any system, there are people who avoid their tax obligations, and so on. The point I am seeking to make is that if we design a system with the stated objective that he describes—supporting people back into work and taking sanctions against those who deliberately avoid it—we have to measure the effectiveness of the system against its stated objectives. My contention is that the operation of the system is failing that objective, so I ask myself why these seemingly illogical sanctioning decisions are being made.
Coincidentally, last Thursday I was out knocking on doors and meeting constituents, and I knocked on the door of a jobcentre worker. She described to me a range of issues that she faced in her daily work. I happened to mention that we were having this debate this morning, and she immediately responded by talking about the pressure that she and her colleagues felt they were being put under to impose sanctions.
That is a serious point. Indeed, in a survey of staff within the Department for Work and Pensions that was conducted by the Public and Commercial Services Union, 23% of union members surveyed said they had been given explicit targets for referring claimants for sanctions; 36% stated that they had been placed on a performance improvement plan for not making enough sanctions referrals; and 10% said that they had gone through poor performance procedures for not making enough sanctions referrals.
I know that the Government will say that there is no pressure to sanction, but the DWP acknowledges that statistics on sanctions are collated centrally and that local jobcentre managers will be contacted if their performance is out of line with that of other jobcentres. If this is a matter of good management, and no league tables are being compiled and no targets are being set, why is a lower level of sanctions seen as a sign of poor performance by a jobcentre manager?
Turning to how the situation can be improved, I start on a positive note. The Government’s independent review of jobseeker’s allowance sanctions carried out by Matthew Oakley was certainly a welcome step. Although its remit was limited—I will come on to that point shortly— it made some important suggestions about how communications and processes within the JSA sanctioning system can be improved.
I will not go into details, but a key point to take from that review is the lack of understanding between the claimant and the jobcentre. That chimes exactly with what Sheffield Citizens Advice is saying: too many claimants are not being adequately or appropriately informed of what is expected from them in the first place. They are not being informed about what they have done wrong when they have been sanctioned, and how to avoid the situation happening again.
The Sheffield Citizens Advice report chimes with the points that Matthew Oakley made. It says:
“A common experience is that they realise that no money has been paid into the bank first and then later get a letter stating that their benefits have been stopped.”
Will the Minister say what school of behavioural economics that sort of approach comes from? If a jobseeker does not understand the agreement that they have entered into, how does sanctioning achieve its aim, and how can sanctioning serve as a disincentive if a jobseeker does not know what behaviour triggers a sanction?
Perhaps Tony, whom I mentioned earlier and is mentioned in the report, was told that he needed to do more jobsearching, or perhaps he was sent a letter to that effect. That might be the case; I am not clear on that point. However, I know from talking to other constituents that such letters have led to sanctioning when they have not been responded to properly. The problem is that Tony cannot read; he has learning disabilities. He wants to work, but in that context the letter is meaningless, so what is the Minister doing to ensure that jobcentre staff are sensitive to such barriers—the barriers that claimants face in engaging with them? As I have said, it is positive that the DWP has responded to the Oakley review by setting up a specialist team to look at communications, but I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on the work of that team and outlined exactly what has changed as a result of its work. Will she also address some of the other recommendations in the report when she responds to the debate?
Many claimants tell Citizens Advice that they were not aware that they had been sanctioned until they contacted the jobcentre after finding out that they had no money in their bank account. Subsequent decision letters are often poorly worded, and without a clear explanation as to the misconduct that led to the imposition of sanctions. I urge the Minister to respond to the following proposals to address this issue: the wording of decision letters should be reviewed, so as to provide more detailed information about what led to the sanction, and to give information about the possible knock-on consequences of not responding to the decision letter; a sanction should not be put into effect until the decision letter notifying the claimant has been sent and a reasonable time for it to be delivered has passed; and notification letters should clearly inform the claimant of their right to challenge the sanction, explaining how to do so and, where appropriate, how to access hardship payments.
I say that because the Sheffield Citizens Advice report details how sanctions are often imposed because claimants failed to carry out agreed steps or activities even though many of them face barriers—through language, caring responsibilities or health problems—that mean they could not reasonably have carried out the agreed steps. That is an important point: they could not reasonably have been expected to respond. Other claimants do not understand what has been agreed and, according to the report, jobcentre staff are not aware of the genuine barriers that some claimants face.
I urge the Minister to respond to the following proposals to address this situation. First, jobcentres should make claimants aware that they have a say in the content of jobseekers’ agreements, and that this is a two-way process that should have claimants’ full engagement. It is supposed to be a partnership leading people into work. Claimants should be made aware that they have a right to have the agreement reviewed if they are not happy with the content.
Secondly, jobcentres should take whatever steps are necessary to be certain that all relevant factors that could possibly act as a barrier to work have been taken fully into account when deciding on the content of a jobseeker’s agreement. I have already cited some of the barriers that exist. Thirdly, jobcentre staff should be invited to awareness training about the practical and specific difficulties faced by some claimants; those difficulties may be learning disabilities, mental health issues or language barriers. I make this proposal because the Minister will agree that without workable, reasonable and well-understood agreements between jobcentres and claimants, the process is bound to fail, and if it fails it will clearly cause extraordinary hardship. I visited a food bank that I helped to establish in the heart of my constituency. The increase in the demand for its services is in significant part due to the increase in benefits sanctioning—the same is reported by other food banks across the city.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In my constituency, Compassion in Action provides a food bank that covers the whole of Wigan. The charity’s statistics show that 37% of the people who go there do so as a result of being sanctioned. One individual who had gone to the food bank had actually received training for a month with a guaranteed job at the end of it; he had found that job himself. His employer was willing to say to jobcentre staff that he needed the individual there every day that month, but the individual was sanctioned for that month and Compassion in Action kept him fed.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which echoes many reports I have received from the food banks in my constituency. The desperate level of hardship that we are talking about needs to be understood in the House. We understand that food banks provide a weekly food parcel, but when I recently spoke to colleagues at the S2 Food Bank in Sheffield, they pointed out that they were now receiving demand for food parcels containing cold food that would not require heating as people did not have enough money not only for food but for basic fuel supplies. People are living in houses or flats illuminated by candles and eating cold food provided by food banks. That is desperate hardship.
I am deeply troubled by some of the substance of this debate. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government argue that nobody should go without essentials as a result of a sanction, and that they should receive hardship payments. Can he imagine why the evidence on the ground that he is presenting falls so far short of the Government’s obvious intent?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I will come to that point; often a part of the communications breakdown is people’s lack of awareness of the hardship payments that they are entitled to. The Government have to deal with precisely that issue as part of the challenge.
In the time I have left, I want to stress the inhumane nature of some of the sanctioning I have referred to. It is clear that, if claimants do not understand agreements, they will not keep them and sanctioning will not have its desired effect as a deterrent against non-jobseeking.
On the point raised a moment ago, my experience is that some people without dependents or without other needs do not get hardship payments. In Scotland, we have the Scottish welfare fund—our equivalent of devolving responsibility for hardship payments to local authorities—but authorities were telling people, at least initially, that those who had been sanctioned could not apply for help from it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important clarification. Although hardship payments are available to some vulnerable groups—as I said in response to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker), there is a problem even there, and communication is breaking down—there are many groups to whom payments are not available. One recommendation, which the Minister should address, is that access to hardship payments should be given to all householders, not just those in certain defined groups.
Sanctioning is not only ineffective in many circumstances, but deeply damaging. That is particularly the case when it has a knock-on effect on housing benefit and council tax support for those on the lowest incomes. A claimant and their family can soon find that they face rent arrears and that they are unable to pay basic bills. In the case of council tax, non-payment is punishable by imprisonment.
Often, people find themselves in that situation without adequate warning, so they have no time to plan for the shortfall. Emma, another Citizens Advice client mentioned in the report, came very close to losing her home as a result of the knock-on impact of a JSA sanction. Sadly, she is not alone. When margins are tight, the slightest change in income can trigger a downward spiral into deep money problems. The system is not designed for that, and rightly so—how would someone in such dire straits be able to find a job?
The DWP agreed to change its IT software and amend the notification sent to local authorities when a sanction has been applied to allow housing benefit to continue without interruption. Action on that was promised by the autumn, but it is now December. Can the Minister assure us today that that relatively minor change, with the potential to make a substantial difference to the lives of some of the poorest people in our communities, is happening or is imminent?
Will the Minister respond to the report’s proposal that all households, as I said a moment ago, have immediate access to hardship payments to avoid the situations I have talked about? Will financial redress be considered where a sanction is found to have been incorrectly applied, resulting in significant consequences and distress for those involved?
There is much more to be said on the issue, and I have asked the Minister a number of specific questions. I want to end with one point.
Before my hon. Friend finishes, will he tell us whether the research found evidence of people having to resort to payday lenders or loan sharks to get over the immediate problem of a lack of cash? Did that then create problems for them further down the road because they had lost a lot of their ability to pay back those loans, even when they had been wrongly sanctioned?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and for the great work she has done as Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, along with the other members of the Committee. She is right to highlight the link between benefits sanctioning and payday lending. As she will know, payday lending is a concern to me. With colleagues from all parties in the House, I introduced a private Member’s Bill on high-cost credit.
I have subsequently worked with colleagues on the all-party group on debt and personal finance to push the Financial Conduct Authority to introduce effective regulation of payday lenders, and I am delighted that we have made some progress on that. However, that is only part of the solution. We are dealing with the consequences of poverty—people resorting to payday lenders—but not the causes, and one of the most significant causes is benefit sanctioning. I am therefore pleased that my hon. Friend raised that point.
I apologise to my hon. Friend for being a little late. Is he aware of the evidence from Oxford university, which shows that one in four JSA claimants who are sanctioned leave JSA and that more than half of them do not get into work? Using sanctions to get people into employment has therefore proved ineffective.
I was not aware of that research, so I am doubly grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. That makes the point powerfully that the sanctioning regime is failing to achieve its stated intention. Even leaving aside the hardships and all the consequences of sanctioning, we still need to look carefully at the issues I have raised because of the failure of sanctioning to meet its stated objectives.
So far, the Government have resisted calls from the Work and Pensions Committee, Citizens Advice and others for a full review of the sanctioning system. I have commended the work of the Oakley review, but that focused only on the practicalities of the current system. I understand the Select Committee is conducting its own inquiry, which I strongly welcome, and I am sure Citizens Advice and many others will engage fully with it.
Why, however, are the Government refusing to address one fundamental question: is the sanctioning system proving effective at getting people into work, which is its stated intention? Why is there no performance evaluation of the system against that criterion? There is no shame in that, whatever the answer—even if it is that, no, the system is not proving effective. However, we need to know the answer as policy makers; if we do not even ask, we are showing enormous contempt for the people whose lives are being dramatically affected. I hope the Minister will give us a commitment on that today.
Order. It might be helpful before we proceed any further if I point out that I intend to call the two Front-Bench spokespeople at 10.40 am to begin the winding-up speeches. I do not intend at this point to impose a time limit on speeches, but, depending on how things go over the next few minutes, I may decide to do so.
One of the things that has troubled me most in my parliamentary career has been when serious allegations have been made about the unintended consequences of benefits reform. In some cases, it is alleged that it has led to people’s deaths.
In the Library brief, I read an article from The Independent about the cases of Mark Wood and David Clapson. Mr Wood died. He had a number of mental health problems and was found starved to death. Apparently, he thought that he deserved only £40 a week, and when a member of his family gave him money, it is alleged that he gave it to charity. Mr Clapson also died. He was a former soldier and a type 1 diabetic. It is said that his benefits were cut. The article says:
“He had no food in his stomach, £3.44 in the bank and no money on his electricity card”,
so he could not run the
“fridge where he kept his insulin.”
Those are appalling cases. The DWP has apparently said of Mr Wood:
“The coroner attributed Mr Wood’s eating disorder and food phobia as the likely cause of his death”
and Mr Clapson had not appealed or applied for a hardship payment. In the system set up to help such people, it may well be that unforeseen circumstances arose that led to the deaths of both those men.
The Government explain that the majority of claimants do not receive a sanction and that vulnerable claimants can receive hardship payments immediately if they are sanctioned. It seems to me that in the cases of both Mr Wood and Mr Clapson, there should have been immediate hardship payments, if not a suspension of the sanction in the first place.
Why do such decisions get made? First, it is because the state is not an instrument of compassion and kindness. In the end, it is an instrument of rule following and coercion. Something is going on in the system when the Minister’s and the Government’s good intent, which I do not doubt for a moment, goes through a set of rules, procedures, structures and bureaucracies that ultimately leads to some edge cases in which people may even die as a result of the system. Why does that happen?
The other question is why people working within the system allow these things to happen in front of them. I have observed that people with the least are often the most generous, and those who are the closest to human suffering usually feel the most for the people they see suffering, so why do these things happen? I am afraid that I found myself turning to the Milgram experiment, which gave a psychological explanation of why people obey authority. It is just a fact—this has been shown repeatedly—that people will obey the rules far beyond their personal morality regarding the consequences. I ask the Government to think about how the incentives for staff could be changed to allow their personal morality to flourish in the system, so that the small minority of cases that are clearly illogical and wrong never arise.
It has been pointed out that the vast majority of decisions are correct. In the 12 months to June 2014, decision makers considered 1.76 million JSA cases and imposed 850,000 sanctions or disentitlements, but fewer than 15% of those decisions were changed on reconsideration or appeal. Some 15% were changed after review and fewer than 1% after appeal, and that was often because the claimant brought forward new evidence. The problem I am most concerned about is how in the tiny minority of cases where a different decision really ought to have been made, it was not made.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech. He might not be aware of the Select Committee inquiry and the report we published earlier this year that clearly showed that the pressure on Jobcentre Plus advisers to get claimants off-flow—off the books—was such that it was distorting what should happen. He mentioned the rules in society, but the rules and culture being set up within the Department contribute to those tragic cases.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, because I was not aware of the report. I will be sure to dig it out after the debate and have a good look at it.
My point is that I do not doubt the Government’s good intent or that the overwhelming majority of the people working in the system do an extremely difficult job that is demanding both on their skills and talents and on their emotions; but I have to ask why it is that in a tiny minority of cases things go so badly wrong. The hon. Lady made a good point about the systems that are put in place. How do people end up feeling incentivised to sanction people whom they otherwise might not sanction? Why do they not notice that someone has a mental illness such as a food phobia and feel able to refer them to help elsewhere? How can that possibly be? I am absolutely convinced that every Member of this House believes not only that we should have an ultimate social safety net, but that there is one there that should be and largely is effective.
I will finish my speech with some obvious suggestions for the Government, which I feel sure they will have considered. First, it is obvious that everything should be clearly communicated to people, taking into account issues such as those the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned, where someone cannot read. It is obvious that a person cannot be expected to comply with rules that have not been explained to them. The rules should be explained simply and people’s understanding of them confirmed. It is not enough sometimes just to send a letter—if people cannot cope with life, they will not open their correspondence. Secondly, how can we expand the capacity of individual members of staff to exercise their personal moral judgment in cases, so that we do not end up with a type 1 diabetic with no money to pay for the electricity to keep the fridge on for his insulin? I suggest that all staff should have a duty to inform claimants of their right to appeal and to apply for hardship payments.
I am absolutely sure that the Government intend to drive people into work, and that is right. If people can work, they should work; it is good for them and it is good for society. I am also absolutely sure that the Government intend to bring hope to people who are without it. I just hope very much that we can deal with all the issues around the edges and set up a system of welfare that works for everyone, all the time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this debate. I want to look at two particular groups affected by sanctioning and how changes could improve their situation. The first group is single parents.
Gingerbread, which supports and campaigns on behalf of single parents, published a report in November called “Single parents and benefit sanctions”, which looked at some of the issues. Its concern is that single parents appear to be more likely than other claimants to receive what is called a “non-adverse sanction decision”, where it is decided not to sanction. Single parents receive such decisions in 41% of cases compared with 32% of other claimants, which means that more inappropriate referrals are being made for single parents. Someone might say, “Okay, they don’t actually get sanctioned in the end,” or, “The sanction is overturned within the reconsideration period,” but it increases anxiety and the difficulty people face while they go through the process. A substantial minority of decisions are overturned not before the sanction is applied, but afterwards, during the initial reconsideration period. In that post-sanction period, 26% of low-level sanctions applied to single parents are overturned, 46% of intermediate-level sanctions—that is very high—and 17% of high-level sanctions. That suggests a relatively high proportion of wrong decisions, which is particularly important for departmental working.
The Gingerbread report also cites a previous piece of research done for the DWP and published in 2013, which looked at lone parent obligations in the period towards the end of the previous Government. That DWP study showed that in getting people back to work, the effects of voluntary and tailored back-to-work support were greater than the effects of programmes based on increasing conditionality. Tailored support had a higher success rate. That is important because it was the DWP that commissioned the report.
If single parents or any other group are to be involved, it is particularly important that the claimant commitment that people are expected to enter into is individually tailored. We are told by Ministers that it is individually tailored, but the experience of many constituents is that it does not appear to take their circumstances into account. There are single parent flexibilities in the system, which allow the conditionality applied to single parents to be tailored to their particular needs, but Gingerbread found that in a number of cases that was not happening. When universal credit is rolled out beyond the 17,000 people currently on it, to the whole of the UK, only one in 12 of the lone parent flexibilities will be carried over in its entirety. Gingerbread is concerned that universal credit makes it less likely, not more likely, that single parents will be protected by conditions that take into account such things as school holidays, school hours and the difficulties of working evenings and nights for lone parents responsible for their children.
Gingerbread makes some practical proposals—it has not just put out a report that says, “This is all awful.” It suggests that at the start of a claim there should be a thorough diagnostic interview with a specialist lone parent adviser—a jobcentre provision that seems to have become less common of late—to give appropriate conditionality; that similar processes should be applied if that particular person is later referred to the Work programme; that if claimants receive a sanction, they are given better information on hardship payments and how to appeal, as mentioned by other hon. Members; and, of course, that lone parent advisers be reinstated.
In a worrying trend, another group that appears to be increasingly affected by sanctions is those on employment and support allowance in the work-related activity group who have been through the work capability assessment and have been assessed as not fit for work at this stage. These people are not expected to be job-ready, but they can be referred to the Work programme if their prognosis is that they will be fit again within 12 months, and people are increasingly being referred. Most sanctions for this group appear to arise from the Work programme experience. The number of ESA sanctions in June 2014 was 5,132, up from 1,091 in December 2012. The rise over that period was steady and it is still going up. Of the sanctions, 431 were for failure to attend a mandatory interview, but 4,700 arose from a failure to participate in a work-related activity, which basically means the Work programme. Many of these people have mental health problems or learning disabilities, so we must ask why this group is being increasingly sanctioned and how effective that can be.
However much some deny it, there is a link between the increasing use of food banks and a decision that has been made about benefits. Some of those decisions involve delays, but a survey undertaken this year by the Child Poverty Action Group, Citizens Advice Scotland and other organisations found that 20% to 30% of food bank users said that their household’s benefit had recently been stopped or reduced because of a sanction. I do not deny that often there is a backdrop of other, wider problems, as shown by the report. Many people have a background of homelessness, recent marital separation, relationship problems, ill health or bereavement, but it is against that backdrop that sanctions have a particularly dramatic impact, because people in a more stable family situation can more often get help from family members.
Ministers in this Government sometimes give the impression that the growth of food banks is somehow a ploy by anti-Government campaigners to make them look bad, but I genuinely have not seen that before. Had it been a problem during, say, the Thatcher Government, I am sure that we would have known about it and would have been shouting about, so it is a relatively recent phenomenon.
We are not saying that there should not be any conditionality in the system. I was struck by a report by Paul Gregg that was prepared for the DWP before the last election. His fundamental recommendation was that sanctions must be linked with personalised support. In the foreword to the report, he states that there are
“a number of risks associated with conditionality that need be designed out as far as possible at inception”
of the system. The problem is that the risks have not been designed out properly, which is what causes severe hardship among some of those sanctioned; some people are then directed to inappropriate courses or jobs, which do not help them to move forward; and some are pushed outwith the system altogether.
Paul Gregg’s proposals are interesting when juxtaposed with what has actually happened. He recommended that for a first offence, if we want to call it that, there should be a formal warning built into the system. Interestingly, that there should be such a stage prior to sanctions being applied has also been recommended by Policy Exchange, which is far from left-wing. A second offence would result in the
“loss of one week’s JSA”
and a third offence would lead to the loss of two week’s worth. Interestingly, he recommended that after a fourth offence there should be
“be an investigation by Jobcentre Plus…to determine the underlying reason”
and to talk to those who gave the individual support in order to find out what was actually going on before applying “a non-financial sanction”. He thought it would be a small group, but one that had to be looked at in some detail. Those proposals, and the need for personalised support and a much less draconian system than the one applied by the Government, are worth considering.
In conclusion, perhaps the Minister will be good enough to cut out of her reply the usual generalisations about how good work is for people, with which we all agree, and how it is the route out of poverty. Yes, being employed is a necessary part of moving out of poverty, but it is insufficient in many cases. We can bypass that debate because we keep having it and we are not moving forward. No Labour Member and, indeed, few people that I meet in my constituency think that people should not work if they can, but we do have concerns about the system for deciding who is fit for work. Will the Minister concentrate instead on why sanctions referrals and sanctions have increased, particularly in relation to the ESA group? What is her response to the specific recommendations of organisations such as Gingerbread? What is she doing to evaluate whether sanctions actually work to increase the number of people entering employment, which is meant to be the answer? What research has she commissioned to find that out?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this important debate. I was sorry to hear the aggressive tone with which the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) concluded, because this debate needs elevating above party politics.
I am proud to represent a constituency that has this country’s fourth most deprived ward, which is where our local jobcentre is sited. Just over the road in Blackpool South is the most deprived ward in the country. Our jobcentre deals with a vast range of highly vulnerable people with complex needs, including mental health problems, learning disabilities and addictions of one sort or another.
The walk from the jobcentre to my constituency office is 30 seconds, and I have dealt with numerous cases involving the word “sanctions” over the past four and a half years. I have seen the ebb and flow and the changing patterns in how the Department for Work and Pensions has sought to deal with the matter. It would be wrong of me not to make the effort to visit the local Jobcentre Plus to discuss why all this is occurring, what is going on and what is lying behind it. What truth lies behind the things that I read in the newspaper about targets and inappropriate sanctions? There is an element of black and white here.
The system has problems, many brought out by the Oakley review, that the Government are now dealing with by accepting the review’s 17 recommendations. However, I would welcome confirmation from the Minister that that acceptance applies not only to the sanctions imposed on those participating in the back-to-work schemes that fell within the remit of the Oakley review, but to the two thirds of sanctions that were not covered by Mr Oakley.
It is a fair point that there is a lack of clarity about what people understand they are being asked to do. The welfare state is a complex thing to navigate in the first place, which is why we have bodies such as Citizens Advice. A lot of it can be off-putting.
There have been a lot of references to the citizens advice bureaux, which issued the valuable report mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and provide help to the most vulnerable. Many of those bureaux, however, are under threat as local authorities are hard-pressed and cutting their budgets. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that today’s debate demonstrates the value of the advice and the saving to the state?
I agree entirely. One of my caseworkers also works part-time at the local citizens advice bureau; her experience in the one role helps her in the other, and vice-versa.
What is not made sufficiently clear to all claimants of jobseeker’s allowance is that participation in any activity to get claimants closer to the workplace, whether computer or other skills training, does not invalidate the obligation to continue job-seeking activities. That is often the golden thread running through so many of the sanction cases that come across my desk. That central and essential point is somehow lost on people and, given that it is so central, I urge the DWP to make it much clearer.
What might be driving the ESA issue in particular, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh East mentioned, is the lack of freedom that Work programme providers have not to refer an infringement on for a further decision. That seems to be building into the system an accelerator of the number of referrals on potential sanctions. I urge the Minister to look at how we can build more flexibility into the system so that Work programme providers may choose not to refer if they deem that the claimant has a good reason.
I was struck by the reference of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central to the number of increasing incidents. We can all argue over the figures—some people cite 4.5 million—and I am sure that we will argue about them in the Select Committee, but the essential point to me is that any change in the welfare state or in any particular benefit inevitably creates confusion for those who have to administer the system and for those seeking to navigate it as claimants.
We have seen tremendous changes in the benefits system in recent years—new benefits coming in and new requirements being placed on claimants, none more so than the claimant commitment—and that has required a great degree of comprehension on the part of many of those applying for JSA. Many have none the less found the new document off-putting. Yes, it is certainly personalised, but it is still a matter of putting ticks in boxes as they apply to the individual, so the personalisation is a little limited. It still requires a variety of boxes to be ticked, rather than being built around the needs of an individual. That still creates problems.
I am also struck by the number of people making the journey over to my office from the jobcentre who say, “I have been sanctioned”, when on investigation no sanction is officially part of the story. To me, that was an anecdotal impression—that people said that they were being sanctioned, but were not being sanctioned—so I was intrigued to read in the Oakley report that DWP research had found that 28% of JSA claimants had said that they had been sanctioned in some way, shape or form. Once the case load was reviewed, it turned out that only 11% of claimants had been sanctioned.
I am not saying that those individuals were in any way seeking to misrepresent what had occurred. Once again, benefit claims can be complex, and the amount that one receives each week can change according to a wide range of factors, such as social fund repayments, late payment of bills or the Child Support Agency—the list is endless.
I am conscious that I am taking a lot of time, so I would like to get through my comments rather than give way. I do apologise.
What interests me is that sanctions appear to be becoming a shorthand for a wider range of issues in the welfare system, all of which undoubtedly need to be addressed. Meanwhile, the issue of conditionality is almost getting a worse name for itself than it should be. Conditionality is not always responsible for all the problems that individual claimants are bringing forward and identifying. We need to drill down to what exactly is occurring.
We obviously have the endless debate about whether Jobcentre Plus employees are expected to hit particular sanction levels. I try to take a pragmatic view. If I am managing a process and I have an outlier branch of my network that is producing figures that I do not recognise, I will of course investigate. I specifically asked my Jobcentre Plus advisers in Blackpool whether that was occurring, and I was assured that it was not. I can only take their word for it, but I understand such concerns. I suggest to those concerned that entering into a potential sanctioning process can often bring out some of those underlying problems—[Interruption.] Was it something I said? I see that the hon. Members for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) are leaving the Chamber.
On the underlying problems, one gentleman who came to my office had not completed any of his back-to-work activity, but he was then found to be functionally illiterate at the last-but-one stage before he was due to be sanctioned. The sanction was not applied and his literacy issues were then dealt with; Jobcentre Plus employees can use discretion and can already get to the bottom of what is causing some of the problems. I revert to the underlying point of Mr Oakley’s report, which is that the system is not fundamentally broken. He states that quite explicitly. Improvements can certainly be made but, as a system, conditionality is not fundamentally broken.
The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth made a point about the sizeable numbers exiting JSA totally. I hope that the Select Committee will investigate that important issue, because one of the challenges in Blackpool has been to estimate the size of the black economy. The suspicion is that many people, who until the introduction of the new claimant commitment were able to maintain their job-seeking activity while working in the black economy, could no longer juggle both balls and therefore voluntarily chose to exit JSA. It is a persuasive narrative and I would like the Committee to investigate the extent to which it holds true. Does it depend on the size of the black economy in any particular local economy? What estimates have been made? That is another important issue to be drilled down into.
I want to ensure that other people can speak, so my final point is that, as we have all been saying, conditionality has to be part of any functioning welfare system, but it must be done in such a way that it is also seen to be humane. The Litchfield review of the work capability assessment was always careful to make the point that there is such a thing as institutional justice. People will accept an adverse decision if they have confidence in the process that they have gone through and feel that they have been given a fair opportunity to have their say. The fact that institutional justice is part of the welfare state is an important factor in making it work in the interests not only of those claiming, but of those funding and administering it.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on bringing to the House such an important issue, which concerns me greatly and can have a devastating impact on many people’s lives and on communities up and down the country, including my constituency.
I wonder why “sanction” is used, because the word means “approved”, and people are in fact being disapproved—that is just something to ponder. That sanction may be imposed if a claimant is deemed not to have complied with a condition for receiving the benefit in question. Since October 2012, according to House of Commons Library figures, 1.4 million people have been sanctioned. Sanctions give people a huge problem, as they have four weeks at the very least without any finance—four weeks without the means to live, to put bread on the table or to feed the kids. That is what sanctioning means, and it is unacceptable.
This morning, I had a look on the internet and I found a site that gives some incredible examples of how and why people are sanctioned, and it is worth noting one or two, if not more. The first is the case of an Army veteran who volunteered to sell poppies for the Royal British Legion at a local supermarket in memory of his fallen comrades. He had applied for lots of jobs, including one at the supermarket where he was selling the poppies, but without any success. He was sanctioned for four weeks.
Another fellow got a job interview that was at the same time as his jobcentre appointment, so he had to reschedule that appointment. He tried to do so, but the people at the jobcentre said he did not have a good enough reason for not being there, so he was sanctioned for four weeks. That is four weeks with no food and little electricity, suffering greatly—in 2014, in the sixth richest economy in the world.
In another example, somebody’s relative died during the night, and their partner rang the jobcentre the next day to ask whether they could come in on the following day. Their partner was told that yes, of course they could, but after they went in, they were written to. They replied, explaining the situation in writing, but were sanctioned for six weeks for not replying.
There is a fellow in my constituency who I have seen three times now; I have also mentioned his case in the House. He is 62 years old. He suffers greatly because of a heart condition and has to go to hospital regularly. He has been sanctioned again. The last time he came to see me he had been living on blackberries, apples and mushrooms from the local field. Is that what we want from sanctioning?
There are two ways to look at this issue. We could suggest that the Government did not mean those sorts of things to happen with sanctioning, and that those cases are one-offs. In that case, we might think they would put them right, but I am not sure they are inclined to do that. They see them as consequences, but I see those people as human beings—not as consequences or as collateral damage, but as human beings, like me and like everyone else in this Chamber. The other view is that the Government are aware of the consequences of sanctioning and are prepared to put up with them.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. He has given some extremely good reasons why people ought not to have been sanctioned. Under the system, if people give a good reason they should be exempt from sanctions, so has he considered why that system has broken down in those cases?
I have given lots of consideration and thought to sanctions. My view, which is not perhaps the view of the party that I am proud to represent, is that sanctions are inappropriate in this day and age, in any way, shape or form. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) that there has to be something in place for the odd person who, as we all know, swings the lead. That does happen, but those people are then put at the top of the agenda, as if everybody was swinging the lead when they are not.
People do not want to be on benefits. People on benefits are not the wealthiest in this world—they are not living a life of luxury but are merely existing. As I have said before, that is not good enough—it really is not. That is not just because of Government policy, but because of a whole array of things. As politicians we have a duty to make sure that we look after the residents of this country.
I have given a few real examples. I have another one: there is a man in my constituency who was sanctioned only two weeks ago. He had got a job, but he was not going to start it for a fortnight; he did not look for any employment after he got it, because he had a job. He was sanctioned because he had not put enough work into finding a job, when he had already found one. That is absolute nonsense. If anyone thinks any different I would be incredibly surprised.
If we look at the class of people who are being impacted by the sanctions, it is the vulnerable and those who are desperate. They are not scroungers, as many people try to portray them—a lot of them are extremely desperate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central mentioned, a lot of people who are being sanctioned do not have anything to eat, so they are referred to the local food bank. Although the next point depends on the figures we have read and want to accept, there are in the region of 500,000 people attending food banks because they do not have enough food. These are families and single parents—people with kids—who have not got a scrap or a morsel on the table to feed themselves. No one here wants that to happen, so why is it happening?
We hear Ministers suggest that food banks are a great thing—we are all in this together and there is great community spirit in seeing people giving food to people who do not have anything. There is a factory in my constituency where, instead of paying proper wages, they are setting up a food bank. I am getting slightly off the issue now, Mr Howarth, but it is all connected to sanctioning and to the fact that the people at the very bottom are desperate and are looking merely to exist. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said that the majority of people using food banks are there because of sanctions or delays to their benefits in one form or another. That needs to be looked at.
It is generally accepted that thousands of disabled people are being sanctioned. The group that really concerns me is the mentally ill—there are people who are mentally ill who are being sanctioned through no fault of their own. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) mentioned two prime examples. One was the 44-year-old man living in the Prime Minister’s constituency who starved to death because he had been sanctioned and did not know what the process was. That was in the Prime Minister’s backyard. There was also the case of the individual with type 1 diabetes. Those are just a couple of cases. I say to the Minister that we really need to have a proper look at who is being sanctioned and the consequences of sanctioning them.
I have been involved with the DWP work force for quite some time. Regardless of what might be said today, pressure is being put on people who work in DWP offices and deal with applications to ensure that their targets are as good as those of other offices. Basically, if their individual targets are not good enough, they are brought in to see the manager and are coerced into ensuring that their performances increase in line with those of other people in their section and other sections in other DWP and jobcentre offices. There are unofficial league tables. That will be denied, but I can prove that it is the case.
In concluding, I place on the record my thanks to the CAB in Wansbeck, which does a fantastic job. It is bursting at the seams with people with nowhere to go, no food to eat and no electricity when they get home. The people at the CAB do a fantastic job, although again they are being hit greatly by the cuts. Without them, a lot of people would suffer even more. I have one simple question for the Minister: is there ever any reason here in the UK for depriving people of a means to live?
I welcome the opportunity to respond to the debate, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing it. I also congratulate Sheffield Citizens Advice and Tim Arnold, who produced the report that was the basis of much of what my hon. Friend said. I welcome the thoughtful debate, with contributions on both sides expressing grave concern about what has been happening with benefit sanctions.
My hon. Friend made the point that sanctions have been part of the social security system since it was established. It is right that there should be sanctions for people in receipt of benefits who do things they should not. However, it is clear that the sanctions system has gone badly wrong, that in too many cases it is no longer fair and proportionate, and that terrible damage is resulting from that.
The hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) both mentioned one of the most harrowing cases, involving the diabetic ex-soldier David Clapson, who died, as his sister said, “penniless, starving and alone”, because three weeks after his benefit was stopped for missing a jobcentre appointment his electricity card had run out and his refrigerator was not working, so he was not able to keep the insulin on which his life depended. He died as a result.
That is an extreme case and should not have happened. No one in the Chamber today became a politician to preside over such harrowing events. We need changes to prevent them. I want the Minister to tell us more about the implementation of the Oakley review, whose recommendations were designed to introduce such changes. Such things seem still to be happening at the moment.
Certainly a very large number of jobseekers now feel that jobcentre staff are there primarily not to help them but to catch them out and find grounds for sanctioning them. That has done terrible damage to the reputation of jobcentres. I am sure that the perception is often unfair, but it is very widely held because of the destructive preoccupation with sanctioning. At some point, a major programme of renewal for Jobcentre Plus will be needed. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions was right to make the case that as a first step jobcentres should be evaluated on the basis not of benefit off-flow, with all the perverse incentives that that has created, but of sustained job outcomes—the same measure used in the case of Work programme providers.
There has been some discussion in the debate about the contentious issue of targets for sanctions. I am sure that the Minister will reaffirm in a few minutes that there are no targets for sanctions, but it is clear that that is not how many Jobcentre Plus staff understand the position. Indeed, it is not too difficult to find out why they think that there are targets for the implementation of sanctions. The Minister provided a written answer on 15 October 2013 to my question on whether Jobcentre Plus advisers’ regular personal reviews included discussions of the number of benefit sanctions that they handed out. She confirmed:
“Jobcentre Plus uses advisers’ personal reviews to monitor performance, to inform these they use a variety of performance data, including sanctions referrals.”——[Official Report, 15 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 647W.]
So regular reviews of Jobcentre Plus advisers feature the number of sanctions issued. That is part of the assessment. I am told that the expectation is that advisers should give out at least eight sanctions per month and that if they do not they are usually, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central mentioned, placed on a performance improvement plan, to help them pull their socks up and get them to give out more sanctions in the future. The Minister may be able to explain the difference between that arrangement and targets for sanctions. Clearly, in practice, targets are set for the application of sanctions by Jobcentre Plus staff, and if they do not meet the expectation they are in trouble.
Dr David Webster, of the university of Glasgow, has just published his latest briefing on benefit sanctions. He tells us that there were an estimated 1.03 million jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance sanctions in the year to 30 June 2014, before reconsiderations and appeals, compared with 564,000 in the last 12 months of the previous Government; so the number of sanctions handed out has roughly doubled. Dr Webster says that JSA claimants are
“sanctioned at the rate of 6.92% per month before reconsiderations and appeals”.
Ministers sometimes say that the vast majority of benefit recipients are not sanctioned, but 7% of JSA claimants are sanctioned per month, and Dr Webster also says that about a quarter of JSA claimants get a sanction at some point during their claim. He also makes the point that ESA claimants were sanctioned at the rate of 1.16% per month in June 2014. Dr Webster comments—and this picks up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore)—
“The DWP has not provided any explanation for the increase in ESA sanctions.”
There has been a dramatic increase in the number of ESA claimants being sanctioned, and it is not clear why.
The number of sanctions is one thing; another issue is their severity. To try to get a handle on that I tabled a series of questions asking for the total amount of benefit withheld as a result of benefit sanctions in each of the past four years. The Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), gave a helpful answer on 25 March 2013, with a table showing
“the total amount of jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) withheld to the nearest £ million…as a result of fixed sanctions in each of the last four years up to 22 October 2012”.—[Official Report, 25 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 986W.]
The table showed that in 2009-10—just before the election—£11 million was withheld. In 2010-11 the figure was £43 million, so it quadrupled after the election. In 2011-12 it was £45 million and in 2012-13, up to October 2012—so just for the first half of that financial year—it was £60 million. Therefore, taking the whole of 2012-13, benefit was being withheld at approximately 10 times the rate for the year before the general election.
I have since tried repeatedly to get an update on that figure, and the Minister yesterday provided a written answer in response to my latest attempt. She said:
“The Department has never estimated the amount of benefit withheld as a result of benefit sanctions.”
That clearly is not true, because her answer goes on to refer to the written answer of 25 March 2013, with its reference to the table—so the Department has previously provided an answer to my question. The Minister goes on to explain why her answer does not have a very helpful figure, but I am today tabling a further question to ask whether she will at least do the calculation again, so that we can see what has happened in the intervening period. I have also tried to find out with a written question how many jobseeker’s allowance claimants have been issued with a three-year benefit sanction. Some people have been sanctioned for three whole years—not four or six weeks, as we have heard—in each month since October 2012.
It is a pleasure, Mr Howarth, to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for bringing this important debate to the Chamber. It is important for us to keep a spotlight on the sanctions regime.
Sanctions have always been part of the benefits system. As Oakley stated, benefits sanctions provide a vital backdrop in the social security system for jobseekers. They are a key element of mutual obligation underpinning both the effectiveness and fairness of the social security system. Sanctions help to ensure that claimants meet requirements designed to help to them to move into work. They are only a last resort as part of a wider agenda to help people to get a job and to move closer to the labour market.
Our approach is not to be tougher for its own sake, but to provide a clearer, more consistent and effective incentive to comply. Where sanctions are, how they are set up within the system and how they work are important. Before dealing with hon. Members’ questions individually and responding to the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, I will provide some context.
When the debate was arranged, I thought we should look at what was happening pre-2010. A system is always subject to changes, which must reflect what is happening, to make it better and support more people into work. When looking back—this probably answers the question from the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms)—we must consider how sanctions were issued.
There was widespread inconsistency in decision making, with similar cases being treated differently even within jobcentres. We had to ensure that that did not happen so we focused on how to achieve greater consistency and efficiency throughout the introduction of our quality assurance framework. No targets were set and there are still no targets, but when we see variation, whether higher or lower, in the same jobcentre, we seek to ensure that a certain standard is maintained. We would check what various advisers are doing and whether the person concerned needs extra help and support to provide equality. It cannot be right that one jobseeker is treated differently from a friend, colleague or other jobseeker. That is why we made changes.
I also looked at what was happening in 2010 and there were some startling differences. Between 2004 and 2009—this raises a different question, but it is all part of the sanctions system and the extra help given—only four out of 10 British nationals got jobs, but six out of 10 foreign nationals did. We changed that round because it is key that, as well as sanctions, we provide a system that gives the right training, the right support and the right employability skills. In addition, discipline is necessary to maintain a job. All that must be provided. Since we have done that and fundamentally changed the system, nearly seven out of 10 British nationals are getting jobs. That must be seen in the context of the changes since 2010.
I look at the jobs market and what has happened, and at the various quotes. Since 2010, there has been an increase of nearly 2 million jobs. The Opposition said they thought there would be 1 million fewer jobs, but that is not the case. There are nearly 2 million more jobs and at the same time there are an extra 200,000 vacancies, so there are about 670,000 vacancies at any one time.
We must ask whether we have the right incentives in place to get people into work, and whether we are providing the right training, discipline and employability skills for people to get a job. We must look at the issue in the round. There have been significant changes.
On the millions of jobs that the Government claim they have created, the Office for National Statistics says that 1.4 million of them involve zero-hours contracts. Does the Minister believe that the Government are encouraging people into long-term employment by offering them contracts under which they might not make even £1 a week?
The Labour party has already been brought to task by the UK Statistics Authority for talking about a significant increase in zero-hours contracts that did not happen. The contracts began in 2000 as the minimum wage was brought in. We know the number of people on them, and for the vast majority they work. When they do not work, we have not allowed exclusive contracts. We are doing something that the previous Government did not do. We want to ensure that people have a good job—not just any old job, but a job they want so that they have a career and progress. We know that three quarters of the jobs created since 2010 are full-time. I hope that answers the question.
The other key issue—for me, probably the most important thing the Government have done—is that fewer children are now growing up in workless households.
I will not give way. I am setting the scene. I will answer the questions raised, and then I will take some more interventions, but not at the moment.
We know that the best route out of poverty is to have a job and that children born into a household where no one works are three times more likely to be in poverty. This year, we have reduced that number by 390,000. We are talking about poverty, and about support and help for people to get a job and to move forward. The Government have done significantly more than anybody else to support people on their way and into work. That is the background of sanctions and why they exist, and what we must do to meet and match and provide support.
We have introduced the youth contract for young people, with an extra 250,000 extra work experience places, and sector-based work academies. This year, we have seen the biggest fall in youth unemployment—by 250,000—since records began. We are fundamentally turning the lives of those people around, and sanctions are a tiny part of a massive system of support.
The Minister is making a wide- ranging contribution, but I am conscious that she is— unintentionally, I am sure—leaving herself insufficient time to answer my specific questions. Will she meet me and Sheffield Citizens Advice to talk about them in more detail?
What I will do first, so that I do not run out of time, is to answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions. He referred to various people who did not want their names given but had reasons why they thought they should not have been sanctioned. In many cases, there will have been good reasons for the sanction, but I would like to know what happened to those people.
The claimant commitment is being rolled out to 900,000 people so that the adviser understands what support people need, what journey they need to go on and their individual circumstances, which might mean that they are more vulnerable than other people and need more exemptions or time off because they can work or search for jobs only within certain time frames. That was the point of the claimant commitment and personalising the approach, which we are doing now.
Oakley rightly raised communications, what we were doing and how we could refine the system further. We know what we have done; we have helped people into work. We know what we have done with the sanctions regime, but how do we make it better, which we need to do constantly?
Oakley made 17 recommendations, all of which we have accepted. They include reviewing letters to claimants to ensure that they understand what is going on; work with experts to ensure that communication is better; and work with local authorities to improve communication on housing benefits, to ensure that people do not have their housing benefit stopped unnecessarily, which can make things worse for people. Those recommendations were implemented immediately unless they required substantial changes to the Work programme, in which case they will be introduced as that programme changes.