Skip to main content

Jobseeker’s Allowance (Sanctions)

Volume 589: debated on Thursday 18 December 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

I am very grateful to Mr Speaker for this opportunity, following my point of order in the Chamber last week. My aim is simple: to obtain from the Minister an answer to a straightforward parliamentary question to which I have—in vain—been seeking an answer for the past year and a half.

We know from the Trussell Trust that about a quarter of a million people went to a food bank in the past year because their benefit had been sanctioned and they did not have enough money to buy food for themselves and their family.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

Published official figures show that the number of people sanctioned rose from about half a million in the year before the election to a million in the past year. That figure includes sanctions subsequently overturned on appeal. The Minister has been quoted as saying, and has said from time to time, that only a very small fraction of claimants receive a sanction. That is a fair comment about any given month, but in fact about a quarter of jobseeker’s allowance claimants get a sanction at some point during their claim.

The increase from half a million to a million is obviously a big one, but it is not clear why, from very few people before the election, the number forced to use a food bank because of a sanction has rocketed to a quarter of a million. Early last year, I tabled a parliamentary question to ask not how many people had been sanctioned, but how much money was being taken away from them all. I received an answer from the Minister’s predecessor on 25 March last year which I found very helpful.

The Minister’s answer showed that in the year before the election, the amount of benefit withheld from fixed JSA sanctions was £11 million—that is, a little less than £1 million per month. In April to October 2012—the latest period for which data were available at that time—the amount was £60 million, so £10 million per month. That represents a tenfold increase in the amount withheld, as opposed to a twofold rise in the number of people affected. It struck me that that was the beginning of an explanation for why so many people had been forced to use a food bank as a result of a sanction: the amount of money being taken away was greatly increased.

Those data went up to October 2012. In that month, a new and significantly harsher system of sanctions was introduced. The minimum period for a sanction was increased to four weeks and it became possible to remove claimants’ benefits for a full three years. We do not yet know precisely how many people have received a three-year benefit sanction, but it appears that the number is already over 1,000 across the country, so there seems little doubt that following the tenfold increase between the election and October 2012, the amount being withheld in sanctions must have increased substantially further since October 2012.

Once the financial year 2012-13 was over, I again tabled a written parliamentary question to obtain an updated answer to my earlier question, in order to find out how much had been withheld in the second half of the financial year 2012-13—that is, after the changes introduced in October 2012. This time, the Minister’s predecessor provided me with a much less helpful answer. Dated 24 June 2013, it appears at column 30W:

“An estimate of the amount withheld as a result of benefit sanctions cannot be made for a number of reasons. Primarily, we do not know what benefits and payments the claimants would have received had the sanctions not been applied.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2013; Vol. 565, c. 30W.]

I was puzzled by that, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I know you understand, because a perfectly good answer had been provided to the same question three months earlier. Early this year I had another go, as I told Mr Speaker, in a three-page letter which he described in responding to my point of order as “a substantial academic essay”. I should say that I also forwarded that letter to the office of the Minister, so that she knew exactly what the simple and straightforward question was to which I was seeking an answer through this debate.

The current Minister, who is in her place today and who had by then taken over, told me in a written answer on 5 February, at column 268W:

“The information is not available in the format requested.

Trends in sanctions are better understood by looking at the number and type of sanction decisions—which are routinely published (the last publication, covering sanctions to end June 2013, was published in November 2013”—[Official Report, 5 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 268W.]

Again, the information was provided in the format requested on 25 March 2013, so I could not understand the rationale for that answer saying that it could not be done in the format I had requested. The Minister’s suggestion to me that trends in sanctions are better understood by asking something else made it hard to avoid the inference that she simply did not want to reveal the answer, as her predecessor willingly had done.

On 9 April this year, I tried again, at column 300W, and was equally unsuccessful. Last month, I tried yet again, with Question 215334, and received this answer:

“The Department does not estimate the amount of benefit withheld as a result of benefit sanctions.”

Yet on 25 March 2013, the Department did provide precisely such an estimate. On 25 November, hoping to understand why an answer that could be given in March 2013 could not be repeated now, I tabled this question:

“Pursuant to the Answer of 24 November 2014 to Question 215334 and the Answer of 4 July 2013, Official Report, column 736W, (a) on what date and (b) for what reason his Department stopped estimating the amount of benefit withheld as a result of the application of sanctions.”

On 1 December, the Minister sent me this answer:

“The Department has never estimated the amount of benefit withheld as a result of benefit sanctions.”

As you will appreciate, Mr Deputy Speaker, I know that that was not right, because the answer I received on 25 March 2013 contained a table headed “Benefit withheld from fixed JSA sanctions (£ million)”, so the Minister’s predecessor provided precisely the estimate that her latest answer claims never to have been provided. The Minister’s answer went on:

“The answer of 25 March 2013, Official Report, column 986W, on social security benefits, contained a calculation of the amount of jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) that claimants would have received if they had continued to be on benefit for the length of a fixed sanction. This is not the same as the amount withheld as a result of sanctions.”

I thought, perhaps a little naively, that the Minister was finally giving me a hint about how to obtain the information I wanted, so on 2 December I tabled this question:

“How much additional jobseeker’s allowance in total claimants subject to a fixed sanction would have received if they had continued to be on the benefit for the length of time of their sanction in (a) 2012-13 and (b) 2013-14.”

Unfortunately, my optimism was ill-founded and short-lived. On 5 December, I received a repeat of the refusals I had previously received:

“The Department doesn’t make an estimate the amount of benefit that would have been withheld as a result of benefit sanctions.”

As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I have already pointed it out several times in this debate, the Department did make precisely such an estimate in the written answer to me dated 25 March 2013.

I have now, over a period of a year and a half, tabled six written parliamentary questions to obtain straight forward and important information that was provided in a written answer in March 2103, but in all that time and with all that effort, I have so far drawn a complete blank. In exasperation, I appealed to Mr Speaker for advice, and he suggested this debate as a way to enable the Minister finally to provide the requested information.

I have discussed this matter with Dr David Webster of Glasgow university, the leading academic authority on benefit sanctions. He estimates that the amount of benefit withheld in sanctions is now running at £300 million per year. If that is the case, it is important that Parliament knows it. It should not be necessary for people to make speculative estimates—the Minister should provide the answer. She will no doubt want also to provide various caveats, clarifications and health warnings, as did the initial answer on 25 March 2013, but she should provide Parliament with the basic information being sought.

In preparing for this debate, I had a look at the ministerial code, which says:

“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest which should be decided in accordance with the relevant statutes and the Freedom of Information Act 2000.”

That is all I am asking for. I believe that as a Member of this House—ever grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to Mr Speaker for upholding the privileges of Members— I am, and we are, entitled to a substantive answer.

I applied for this debate within minutes of Mr Speaker giving me his advice. One unexpected result was that I have received a number of representations expressing real worry about the impact of current jobseeker’s allowance sanctions. The Salvation Army has told me:

“The more stringent conditionality introduced into the benefit system under this government and the resulting rise in benefit sanctions are having a profound effect on many of the people we work with…we urge the government to review the system and ensure that adequate systems are put in place to make sure that benefit sanctions are applied in a way that is both appropriate and proportional.”

St Mungo’s Broadway has said:

“Under current sanctions regimes St Mungo’s Broadway clients are under threat of being sanctioned for failing to meet conditions which do not help them to enter and remain in work or which they cannot meet. People who are homeless are more likely to be sanctioned than other claimants.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated in a report published in September:

“Sanctions are now used much more frequently within the welfare benefits system. The severity of sanctions has also increased and conditionality is now applied to previously exempt groups (e.g. lone parents, disabled people). Benefit sanctions are having a strongly disproportionate effect on young people under 25, and there is also evidence of severe impacts on homeless people and other vulnerable groups.”

In a striking representation, Barnardo’s says:

“Particularly worrying…is the impact that the harsher conditionality regime is having on our services which work primarily with young people. Barnardo’s run a number of services which work with vulnerable young people, for example services which offer support to care leavers, homeless young people, or teenage parents. Amongst this subset of services over two thirds (67%)”—

in a survey it carried out—

“said that the increased conditionality and greater use of sanctions were having an impact on their service users. Our services report that sanctions often happen because of misunderstanding on the part of the young people...The impact of sanctions on this group of young people, who often lack family support, is to plunge them into destitution, leaving them reliant on insecure credit, and often resulting in them ending up in rent arrears, putting their tenancy at risk. As one service manager commented: ‘We have a number of care leavers being sanctioned which results in extreme poverty.’”

There is now, therefore, very widespread concern about what is happening, beyond the very striking conclusion in the report published last month by the Trussell Trust, the Church of England, Oxfam and the Child Poverty Action Group that between 19% and 28% of people driven to use food banks were there because of a benefit sanction.

Parliament is entitled to be told what is going on, so will the Minister inform the House how much is currently being withheld from jobseeker’s allowance claimants in benefit sanctions?

As this is the last parliamentary business before the Christmas recess, I want to start by wishing you Mr Deputy Speaker, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and all other Members and parliamentary staff a merry Christmas and happy new year. I also thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate in order to bring closure to the matter and give him the clarification he seeks.

Sanctions are not a tool to save money, nor were they ever designed with that purpose in mind. In fact, sanctions play a vital role in supporting the conditionality of a regime. They encourage claimants to comply with the requirements that are designed to help them move into or prepare for work. Sanctions have always been a part of the benefit system since they were first designed and introduced. Successive UK Governments have applied sanctions.

There is a link between entitlement to benefits and engagement with the labour market. As Matt Oakley said in his review:

“Benefit sanctions provide a vital backdrop in the social security system for jobseekers”

and are a

“key element of the mutual obligation that underpins both the effectiveness and fairness of the social security system”.

We know that, internationally, most developed economies use sanctions. As the OECD said recently:

“There seems little reason to doubt that, especially in countries with high levels of benefit coverage of the non-employed working-age population, the success of activation policies in relation to unemployment is critical to achieving high employment rates.”

To go back to the right hon. Gentleman’s parliamentary question, the response made it clear why we cannot estimate, and have never estimated, the amount of benefit withheld because of a sanction. The Department does not make an estimate of the amount of benefit withheld as a result of benefit sanctions. Sanctions are designed to ensure claimants comply with their requirements to move off benefits and into work.

The answer of 25 March 2013 on social security benefits—Official Report, column 986W—made it clear that it is not possible robustly to estimate the actual amounts withheld, as we do not know what would have happened in the absence of sanctions. For example, some claimants who leave benefits during a sanction may do so irrespective of the application of the sanction, while others may do so because of the sanction.

As the right hon. Gentleman has pointed out, we provided some data in the response to the parliamentary question. The Department wrongly interpreted the question to mean the maximum amount of benefit that claimants would have received had they remained on benefits for the length of the sanction, rather than to mean a total. It is impossible to calculate such a total, and trying to do so would lead to the Department handing out inaccurate information.

It must be noted that the original response clearly set out the reasons why that is the case. Let me run through them. First, the data provided were for the maximum amount that claimants would have received, and should not be interpreted as absolute. In fact, we made it clear that the figures were “overestimates”.

Secondly, the data could not take into account claimants who had left benefits during a sanction, such as those who might have moved off benefits and gone into a job or education, or moved on to another benefit. As we know, employment is now at record levels—up nearly 600,000 over the past year—so many people are moving off benefits and going into work. The rate at which people are doing so is now faster: nearly 80% of them have moved off benefits within six months.

Thirdly, the calculation does not net the figures for hardship payments. It is not possible to take into account the hardship payments that would have been received, which puts up to 80% of the benefits back into payment.

Fourthly, the amount of benefits withheld is not readily available for JSA-varied sanctions. During the period covered in the parliamentary question—2009 to 2012—the sanctions system changed, which resulted in more fixed level sanctions so that claimants could be clearer about the consequences of not meeting the requirements designed to help them into work.

It was therefore clear that the information handed out was not right, and that such a total could not be provided. That came to light when follow-up questions were asked, including in the other place. We do not routinely collect information of benefits withheld because of a sanction that has been imposed, or of benefits that would have been claimed had someone not lost their entitlement. We therefore cannot produce the figures without making a number of assumptions and judgments about people’s behaviour, and any resulting figures would be very misleading.

All I am really asking for is an update of the table provided on 25 March 2013. I take the point that such a table would need a caveat attached to it and that people would need to be told that it is not what it might at first appear to be, but if we just had an updated version, the House would be happy.

I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman says, but if we want the Department to provide robust and reliable information which is not misleading, then such an update cannot be given. He says that he just wants a good answer, but such an answer would not be a good one. Surely nobody would want information to be given out to people who might be misled. As we know, all those caveats are seldom, if ever, applied, and such information would be incorrect. After the further questions, and having examined what was first handed out, the Department decided that the information provided was wrong, inaccurate and misleading.

The answer stated that it was important to focus on why there is a sanctions system. It is about making sure that people understand what is required of them, making sure that decisions are timely and correct, and protecting the most vulnerable. Fundamentally, sanctions cannot be seen in isolation. They are part of a broader system of support that includes financial support, training in employment skills and getting people into work. Because of that extra training and support, and because of the claimant commitment that we have introduced to make the system tailor-made for the individual, so that they know what sanction they would get and, at the same time, what support they would get, we have seen record-breaking results in getting people into work, the biggest fall in youth unemployment since records began, the biggest fall in long-term unemployment since 1998 and record rates of women getting into work. All that is part of a system. What we were aiming to do, and what we have done, is to get nearly 2 million extra people into work.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Can you advise me whether it is in order for the Minister to say that she is not going to answer a question because she thinks that the answer would be misleading? Surely it is for Members of the House to determine what information they want and for Ministers to provide that information.

The responsibility to answer a question lies with the Minister. The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has been tenacious in holding the Minister to account. That is the role of Members: to hold Ministers and Departments to account. I am sure that that will continue if he does not get the answer today.

I appreciate that, Mr Deputy Speaker. That is why we are having this debate today. It is not me who is—

Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. As I understand it, what the Minister has said is that an answer that was given to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) two years ago—

An answer that was given a year and a half ago was misleading. If that is the case, would it not have been appropriate for the Minister who gave that misleading answer to come to the House at the first opportunity, as is the convention, to correct the information? As far as I am aware, there has been no correction whatever. I ask you to take this matter up, Mr Deputy Speaker, as a point of procedure with the relevant Department.

What we need to do is to get to the end of the debate. The point is well made and it has been taken on board.

I do not have my glasses on at the moment. It is John McDonnell on the Opposition Benches, is it not? [Interruption.] It is. I thought that perhaps the hon. Gentleman was standing up to pass comment on something else, now that it is Christmas—the time when people should be able to stand up and apologise—or, as he said he would in front of the House, to invite me for a cup of tea—

Hang on a second. Let me finish what I am saying. For what he was reported to have either said or repeated, I say for every woman I know who has been affected by violence; for every woman I know who has actually lived by violence, I believe that what—

Order. [Interruption.] Order, everybody! Let us have a little bit of Christmas spirit. The Minister must give way when there is a point of order.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Allegations have been made here that have been responded to previously. If the right hon. Lady is raising matters in relation to me, I am quite happy to respond to them if she gives way.

We are not going to get into that. It is Christmas, and this is the final debate before the recess, so we ought to take on board where we are and be careful about the comments that are made.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. As the hon. Gentleman said that he would make a phone call to speak to me about this matter, I await the phone call—

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. If you check the record, you will see that a point of order was raised by another Member, not the Minister, and I offered that Member the opportunity to come for a cup of tea with me on the advice of Madam Deputy Speaker. I offered no phone calls to the Minister, whom I would not wish to meet and who was awarded the Scrooge of the year award in her own constituency last week.

I do not want this debate to deteriorate any further. It is an important debate, and I want us to stick to the facts. I do not want any more personal attacks on either side of the Chamber. I want to move forward.

As I said to the right hon. Member for East Ham, the point is not whether I was withholding the information. The Department looked at the information that had been handed out and felt that it was not robust. It was not comfortable handing it out because it was neither reliable nor accurate, and that was why the subsequent answers were given in a series of letters and parliamentary answers. I have given the exact reply that has been deemed correct, because we obviously want the Department and the House to give out accurate information.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.