[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for such an important debate, Mrs Riordan. I hope that you and all Members present enjoyed the festive period. As we return to Westminster, it is important to recognise that not everyone will have been able to enjoy it. We have seen unprecedented demand at north-east food banks over Christmas, and it is not hard to see why. On my website, I publish pie charts of the issues raised with me by constituents. If Members visit www.chionwurahmp.com —I recommend that everyone does regularly—they will see that benefits is consistently among the top two or three issues. For example, my office dealt with 28 benefits cases in November, 36 in October and 32 in September.
MPs all over the north-east are aware that a particular challenge of benefit cases is that they almost always involve someone vulnerable. Those claiming benefits are by definition going through a tough time. They may have lost a job, have an illness or disability, or be in low-paid or part-time work, or they may be caring for young children or relatives, making it harder for them to work. They need our support. They need our care, a helping hand to get their lives back together, and concern for and understanding of the challenges they face. As the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), has said:
“Jobcentres, and the HMRC offices that currently administer tax credits, are vital public services that British citizens pay for with their taxes. People who use them have as much right to expect fair and respectful treatment as patients in an NHS hospital, parents dealing with their child’s school, or victims reporting a crime at a police station.”
It has become increasingly clear to me that that is not the experience of my constituents.
I have dealt with cases in which the only explanation for the cruel and inhumane way people were treated is that the employees of the Department and its agencies—public servants—have forgotten, or been told to forget, that benefit claimants are people: human beings with lives, loved ones and feelings. That is why I want the Minister to answer for the treatment of benefits claimants in the north-east and the culture in the Department for Work and Pensions that results in that treatment. I am going to raise a number of cases from my constituency to illustrate my point. I know that the issue extends beyond the north-east, but I want to focus on my region. I know from speaking to colleagues that they have many similar cases, and we can see how well represented the region is by the Members present.
The first case concerns a constituent whom I will not name for reasons that will become evident. Each constituent I do name has given me their express permission to do so. In January last year, my constituent was found hanged in his home by a neighbour. He was well known to Newcastle Welfare Rights, from which he had received considerable support in his dealings with the DWP. He had been in receipt of employment and support allowance, and previously incapacity benefit, and he was engaging well with NWR until November 2013, when he underwent a work capability assessment. The social worker who accompanied him had to spend two hours with him afterwards.
After he scored zero points and was found fit to work, NWR sought evidence from psychological services, and wrote to the Department, stating:
“The recent news that Mr…is not entitled to ESA support has had a significant impact on his mental health…he was acutely distressed; he struggled to talk, he was having thoughts of suicide, he had also started drinking alcohol to cope and had struggled to leave the house…His main emotion was one of fear and unfortunately this has reawakened traumatic memories of abuse in the past”.
The letter went into a lot more detail, but was disregarded by the DWP. The decision remained unchanged.
Over Christmas 2013, my constituent attempted to take his life using prescribed medication and attempted hanging. He had daily input from the local mental health trust crisis assessment and treatment team, and regular input from NWR. In January 2014, NWR submitted another letter from his psychologist that said that his
“distress and subsequent suicide attempt are directly related to the ATOS/benefits decision recently made”.
The letter went on to state that the psychologist was aware that my constituent was “highly anxious” prior to the assessment
“and required a significant amount of support following the interview.”
The psychologist’s professional opinion was that if he
“was found to be ‘fit for work’ this could directly lead to further suicide attempts and subsequently result in him successfully killing himself.”
That was a warning, and, tragically, that is exactly what happened.
As one can imagine, his suicide had a serious impact on the NWR team, especially those who were working to support him. They told me they were numbed and deeply saddened that their efforts were not enough to prevent his suicide. The neighbour who found him was also deeply affected and continues to require psychological support.
The second case that I want to highlight concerns another of my constituents, Mr Roy Hails, an IT specialist who was recently made redundant. He was determined to find work and applied for every suitable job while claiming jobseeker’s allowance, but was sanctioned by the jobcentre when his work search record was judged inadequate—in the week that his father died. Think about that for a moment. I happened to know Mr Hails’ father and the long and complex illnesses that he suffered from. I also know what a close family they were, and what a loss to his family and the community Mr Hails senior was. Regardless of that, is there anyone in this Chamber—or, indeed, in this country—who does not believe that a son should be given the opportunity to grieve for and bury his father, whether or not he is claiming benefits? The culture that this Government have put in place is such that people are not being given that opportunity.
Members are no doubt familiar with the play “Antigone” by Sophocles, in which the heroine defies a brutal Government to bury and mourn for her brother. It is a sad indictment of the Conservative party when an ancient Greek playwright, dead for more than 2,000 years, is more in touch with the needs and values of this country than the Government.
After I wrote to the director general for operations, the Department did find an exception by which a bereaved claimant can be excused from signing on or job search requirements for up to two weeks. However, the officials who dealt with Mr Hails were unaware of it; they thought that that the Government they work for would prevent a man from grieving for his father. What does that say about the culture the Government are promoting? Mr Hails told the Jobcentre Plus in Newcastle that his father had died and that was why he had not been searching for jobs, but they still thought it appropriate to sanction him.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate. Does she share my deep concern about the rumours that there are league tables in DWP offices, and that people who are working very hard are being brought to task for not sanctioning people enough? They are told that they are underperforming. If that is the case, we will face these issues for ever and a day, as long as a Conservative Government are in charge.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will not call what I too have heard rumours, because it is clear that jobcentres are measured on the number of sanctions they issue. There may not be official targets, but the numbers are measured and published, so of course they are compared. I know from speaking to former and current DWP employees that they are under pressure to sanction people, almost regardless of how hard they are trying to find a job.
My third and final example concerns another constituent, Adam Ross Williams. What happened to him occurred just before Christmas. In November, the jobcentre wrote to Adam to say that because he had failed to complete and return a JSA2 claim review form, which he had never received, all payments to him were going to be suspended. He immediately called to ask why the form had not been sent to him by recorded delivery or handed to him at the jobcentre, which he has to attend. He also asked if he could complete the form by phone. He was told that that was impossible and that he would have to wait for another form to be posted to him.
The form finally arrived just before Christmas, almost one month after he had requested it, during which time he had no income, going without and relying on handouts from friends and family, “when I was lucky”. Of course, many other claimants in similar situations are forced into debt, and in particular to use payday loans.
Adam’s circumstances had not changed and the form he was sent was exactly the same as the one he had first filled out. He filled out the second form, took it to his local jobcentre and asked them to fax it straight over to the DWP. However, he immediately got a phone call from the DWP saying that they had not received his form and asked if he would be willing to complete the form over the phone, which is what he had wanted to do in the first place. We must remember that all this happened just before Christmas, which is a really stressful time for everybody, particularly those on a low income or, as in this case, no income.
Adam asked for an emergency payment and he was assured that he would get a phone call confirming that he would be paid. No phone call came, so he checked with the benefit inquiry line and was told that no emergency payment had been requested, so nothing could reach him until after Christmas. And yet all that had been needed was to ask him to confirm that his circumstances had not changed. When I hear stories such as this, I wonder whether the system is designed to hound people such as Adam, who are seeking work.
I could go on for hours—I could give 300 examples, not just three—but I know that many Members from the region wish to speak, and I also want to say a little about the broader context. There are people on benefits who are abusing the system; there are what are known as “scroungers”, who take what they can get and consider benefits both a lifestyle and a right. However, they are a very small proportion of those on benefits. It is estimated that 0.7% of welfare spending is lost to fraud, in comparison with the 1.3% lost to overpayment because of mistakes.
It is of course important to tackle fraud and error, but does the Minister think it necessary to place adverts on buses in my constituency saying:
“Think you know a Newcastle upon Tyne Benefits Cheat? Report them anonymously”?
Stunts such as that fuel misconceptions about benefits and fraud. Is it any surprise that people estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than is actually the case? Perhaps the Minister can tell us how much that campaign cost and how the Department plans to measure how much money has been saved by it. I have yet to see adverts encouraging people to turn in tax evaders, despite the Treasury itself estimating the “tax gap” at £34 billion and tax campaigners suggesting that the true figure could be much, much higher. Or is this process more about, as one person complained to me, fostering a culture of suspicion and bitterness towards claimants? That is the outcome, and certainly that is how many of my constituents have come to feel.
I will quote from what Adam said to me:
“In summary, I am absolutely disgusted at how I have been treated. I feel entirely let down by my government, and like a second class citizen. What have I done to deserve this?”
I did not mean to interrupt my hon. Friend before she reaches the end of her excellent contribution, but I wonder whether she, like me, has had cases involving former service personnel who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and, in some instances, even earlier conflicts. They were in receipt of incapacity benefit and other benefits due to their war disablement, but under the new system—the work capability tests—they have been thrown off those benefits. Does she have such disgraceful cases in her constituency? I will raise those I have come across with the Minister when she replies to the debate.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent contribution herself. I am not using all the examples I have, because I have so many. However, I am aware of the way some veterans in my constituency have been treated, and of the disgraceful impact it has had upon their lives. I look forward to hearing from her about the cases in her constituency.
My constituent, Adam, went on to say:
“How can it be right that an unemployed person…not only has the shame of completely having to rely on the government for my next meal but can have my only income arbitrarily stopped? A civil servant promises to get an emergency payment to me then what…? Forgets? So now I have to wait an extra week. Christmas is ruined…I can’t even go see my little girl, let alone put the heating on or buy some food.”
I want to make it clear that I am not blaming those who work in jobcentres or in the DWP. As I mentioned earlier, I have spoken to current and former jobcentre officers, and they have told me how they are pressurised to sanction claimants and how, as one former agent told me, the atmosphere changed immediately following the general election. Their job was no longer to help claimants into work but to “find them out”. I accept that mistakes are sometimes made, but it is the organisational culture that the Minister is responsible for, and I am sure she will want to take responsibility for it, as any business leader would. I would welcome her comments on this issue. I am sure she will acknowledge, as I do, that this challenge is not an easy one, but that much more needs to be done. That means supporting those in work, and not vilifying those seeking work or unable to work.
Five charities have come together for the Who Benefits? campaign. I know the Minister prefers charities to be seen and not heard; that is the Victorian mindset of this Government. However, the Children’s Society, Crisis, Gingerbread, Macmillan Cancer Support and Mind often work with people who find themselves in receipt of benefits. The charities are campaigning because they believe that
“politicians should do more to listen to, understand and act on the realities of people’s lives”
and to focus on
“the real reasons that people are struggling to address, like low wages, the high cost of living and the housing crisis”,
rather than demonising those on welfare benefits.
I have a number of specific questions for the Minister. First, will she make it clear in her own words how much she recognises the challenges that benefits claimants face, and outline the kind of nurturing, supportive environment that she is seeking to establish? Secondly, what measures are in place to ensure that benefit claimants are nurtured and supported, and that those who work for the DWP and its agencies treat them with dignity and respect? Thirdly, what assessment has been made of the impact of measuring and comparing the number of sanctions meted out by jobcentres? What other measures have been looked at, such as measuring the number of claimants in every jobcentre who found and stayed in work for six months? Fourthly, what sanctions are in place for those who are not respectful towards benefits claimants, and are those sanctions applied to Ministers? Fifthly, why do the Government refuse to acknowledge the link between increased sanctions and increased food bank usage? Finally, why did the recent Oakley report on sanctioning not extend to all benefit claimants? I look forward to the Minister’s response.
When the Minister’s office wrote to me asking what this debate would be about and what my concerns were, I wanted to give her lots of time to prepare for it, so I made it clear to her that the debate would centre on the culture and treatment of benefit claimants, and that I would cite examples where that culture and treatment had not met the standard that I hope the Minister aspires to. I would also like to reassure her that I have studied the recent Westminster Hall debate on benefit sanctions, on 2 December 2014. I have read the questions posed by my hon. Friends in that debate and her response to them. I think it fair to say that there is not a strong correlation between the two. I assure the Minister that she does not need to repeat the points made in that debate about the importance of getting work, the history of sanctions or the role of incentives to work. I and the vast majority of benefit claimants are familiar with them. No one wishes to make it easy for freeloaders, or foster a culture that does not recognise the value of work. That is not what the debate is about. Will she ensure—unlike on the last occasion—that she saves some time to address our concerns? They are important.
The sense that claimants are being treated as second-class citizens, scroungers and cheats has a terrible impact on their well-being and, in particular, their mental health. I have some experience of that. I was brought up largely on benefits. We were a one-parent family. My mother was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and also suffered from breast cancer. It was hard for her, not only because of our poverty but because of her shame at taking handouts. I am so glad that she did not have to face the sort of vilification and abuse that benefits claimants face now—abuse caused in part by a sustained campaign from those on the right of the political spectrum. Contrary to what many of them would imagine, I was brought up with a strong work ethic and to believe that the state should provide a robust safety net for those who need it. I am not proud that I grew up on benefits, but I am not ashamed either. I want to know what the Government are doing to prevent the demonisation of those claiming benefits.
Before I call the next speaker, I remind the Chamber that several Members want to take part in the debate. I want to give the Minister enough time to reply to all the points raised, so I would be grateful if Members kept their speeches to about six minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing the debate and on her passionate speech. We all know how the changes under this Government have victimised benefits claimants, and we have all met people who have suffered because of the harsh sanctions regime, but it is not only the law that has changed; the culture has changed, too. The jobcentre is a very different place from what it was just a few years ago. The focus has changed. It is no longer about getting people into work; it is about getting them off benefits by any means necessary.
My hon. Friend gave several examples, and things are no different in South Shields. Constituents of mine have been refused a private room to discuss intimate personal or medical issues, and have felt humiliated at having to hold such discussions in a public area. One man who was suffering from serious back pain and could barely climb the stairs was told that he could not use the lift because it was for staff only. The general attitude of staff is confrontational and sometimes downright rude. One man was told that he had to shut his mouth and get out when he disagreed with staff.
To highlight one of the difficulties with the staff, who generally do a fantastic job, the press reported on the assessment of a lady who is blind and has a guide dog. The person doing the assessment held three fingers up and asked the blind lady, “How many fingers am I holding up?” The lady said, “I am blind.” The person said, “That has nothing at all to do with it. I have to ask you the questions.” That is the way disabled people—in this case, a blind person—are being treated by some of the staff in jobcentres.
I have noticed that compassion and understanding are being completely removed from the jobcentre. There are no grey areas anymore; it is black or white. When I went to my local jobcentre to discuss some of my constituents’ complaints, I was shocked by how dismissive the local management team were. They explained that they refused to offer a private room because they did not want to set a precedent. In other cases, they simply said that they did not believe what I and my constituents were telling them. The whole attitude was completely negative and showed the confrontational way in which jobcentres now deal with claimants. In fact, the attitude shown to me was so appalling that I complained to the regional manager. It was not that I was particularly fussed by how they spoke to me; my concern was that if they speak to a Member of Parliament in that way, how on earth are they treating our constituents?
Jobcentre staff are ultimately there to provide a service, and to help people find work. If someone has special requirements, staff should be allowed to accommodate them. The Government’s hard-line approach and the pressure on staff to meet targets mean that the focus has changed and the majority of hard-working staff, who I genuinely believe want to do their jobs properly, feel hindered and frustrated about being unable to do so. When I was looking for work, advisers were there to guide jobseekers into work or training that was right for them. It was a process that treated people like human beings. That is important when people are already feeling low or marginalised because of their unemployment. That is not how the system works today. Now the role of the jobcentre is to police the unemployed and punish them for making even the smallest of mistakes. If they are five minutes late for an appointment, there is no mercy or discussion—their benefits are simply cut off. Where once staff were there to advise, they are now told to check up on claimants, to police them and to catch them out.
As far as I am concerned, our jobcentres are no longer providing a good enough service. Staff are under pressure to get people off benefits by any means necessary, and there are perverse incentives to push people on to make-work courses. Constituents have complained that they have been ordered to take the same CV writing courses over and over again as a substitute for genuine support. That is a complete waste of time and does not get them into work. What it does, however, is remove them from the unemployment figures. Like those on the Work programme, they are not employed in any meaningful sense, but they do not show up in the figures. I make it crystal clear to the Minister that being on the Work programme or stuck on make-work training courses does not constitute employment, no matter how much her Government would like us to think so. The only purpose of the schemes is to help a jobcentre meet its targets, because it can use the courses as evidence that it has provided training or work-related activity, or use non-attendance as a reason to sanction benefit claimants.
In any organisation, the attitude of those at the top filters down. That is why the culture change at the DWP fits right in with the ugly attitude that the Government have taken towards people on benefits. They have encouraged and continue to encourage the public to think of claimants as spongers or skivers, so that working people struggling to get by will blame the unemployed man or woman next door, claiming their £70 a week, instead of the tax-dodging companies that cost our economy billions every year. The way claimants are treated is nothing to do with getting people into work; it is about scapegoating the poor and making them a target for the anger and frustration the public feel during a time of serious hardship. It is downright nasty politics, and the Government should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing the debate, and I applaud the graphic, detailed way in which she outlined the problem faced by all Members of Parliament in the north-east. Sadly, the cases she outlined are not unusual. They are common—even the case where the gentleman died. There has been more than one such example in recent times in the north-east, and that is completely unacceptable.
I will start by talking about the staff at Jobcentre Plus and the DWP in general. They work hard and are put under enormous pressure. Staffing levels have diminished dramatically since 2010. We hear anecdotally about the pressures of informal targets on sanctions—we all know they are in place—from people who are too frightened to say something, so they tell us off the record. I sympathise enormously with them about the job they are being asked to do every day.
The other thing I want to discuss before I go on to the example I will talk about is the north-east’s economy. I have lived in the north-east my entire life. I live two miles from where I was born, which is very common in the north-east. We are a close-knit, supportive community, and that is replicated throughout the north-east, not just the part I am from. We have had high unemployment throughout my lifetime—obviously, there have been peaks and troughs, but it has been consistent. Although more jobs are available at the minute, their quality has to be questioned: a lot involve zero-hours or temporary contracts, so they give no stability.
We have a lot of people who, through no fault of their own, rely on benefits. We are also a low-wage economy. Furthermore, most people’s families do not have massive wealth, so if people fall on hard times, their families do not have the wealth to support them informally. If somebody’s benefits are sanctioned, they really do have no money. They cannot go to their families to ask for a little help, because their families simply do not have the money. It is not that they do not want to help—they simply do not have the finances to.
The other thing to say about the background of people in the north-east is that we are a hard-working area. Life is pretty tough for many people, but people have an ethos of working hard, paying their way and doing a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. That is the mindset of people in the north-east, and I take great offence when I read or hear about people criticising the area and talking as if people there were just scroungers, because that simply is not the case. I have no truck with people who really try to fiddle the system, and I would be the first to remove their benefits and sanction them, but they are not the norm, and they are not the people we are talking about.
People who need to claim benefits should be treated with dignity and respect, not only by those they deal with at the DWP and Jobcentre Plus, but by the rest of society. They should not be made to feel that they are worth any less than the person next to them because, for whatever reason, they have to live on benefits. However, the treatment people receive often falls short; in some cases, it is absolutely appalling and unacceptable.
I want to give an example of a case study I have had. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, I get a staggering number of cases every week. A few months ago, I had a constituent who was unable to attend an appointment at Jobcentre Plus because he had suffered an asthma attack and was in A and E. He telephoned his adviser to tell them, although, to be fair, it would have been perfectly reasonable if he had not managed to do that. However, he did, and he spoke to the receptionist about the Jobcentre Plus appointment that had been scheduled for that day, which he would clearly be unable to get to. He explained his reasons and, on returning from hospital, he sent a letter.
A few weeks later, he received a letter saying that he had failed to comply with the scheme’s requirements and that his jobseeker’s allowance would be sanctioned for one month. Extraordinarily, the letter went on to say that an asthma attack was not a sufficiently good reason for missing an appointment. I am an asthmatic myself, and I know how crucial it is for people to get to hospital pretty darn quick if they have an attack that is out of control. The difference between not getting treated correctly in a timely fashion and surviving is paper-thin, and we read every year about the tragic cases of people who have not got to hospital quickly enough. However, if people get to hospital in time, they can be treated and brought back to health quite easily. The time element is crucial, which is why I said that, although my constituent took the time to ring, it would have been acceptable if he had not.
Miraculously, when my constituent came to me and I got involved, the decision was overturned. The most annoying thing is not that it was overturned—that was absolutely the right thing to do—but that it was made in the first place and that my constituent ever had to come to me. That is the problem, and that is what needs sorting out.
If people are ill, or have other genuine reasons for not being able to get somewhere at a certain time, they need to be treated fairly. They need to be treated like anybody else in any other system, and to be believed. In this case, my constituent had discharge letters from hospital; there was no question but that he had been at hospital, but that was not seen as a reason not to attend an appointment. That is just one case, but it graphically explains the problem.
I do not want to go over other cases, because we all have them. The people we are talking about are vulnerable. Many have not always been on benefits, and the unemployment that has arisen in the last few years is new to them. They are not part of a culture of benefit claiming. Treating them in this absolutely inhumane way is wrong and unacceptable—there is no other way of saying it—and it reflects badly on the DWP, the Government and, in broader terms, us as a society. We should be proud of the fact that we have a safety net for people who fall on hard times.
Let me take the debate slightly further north. I was recently astonished to read reports that the DWP was issuing stories and details about people they alleged were scroungers to the media to feed this attitude that my hon. Friend describes. This is therefore coming from the top, not just from a local office level.
That is not something I have read of, but it would not surprise me, quite honestly.
This week, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions held its first oral evidence session on benefit sanctions beyond the Oakley review. The review was highly critical of what was going on, and I look forward to seeing what comes of that. The Minister needs to accept our comments as constituency MPs who have witnessed the same problem at different jobcentres and offices. It is not one office that is to blame; this is about a culture. I hope that she will listen and act on our comments, because we are genuine people, and I am sure that the way we have described the system working is not what she would intend. I am interested to hear her comments on the situation as it actually is.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. It is also a pleasure to take part in this important debate. I congratulate my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), on securing it. It is enormously important to the people we represent that we debate these issues and tease out things that are just not acceptable.
At the heart of the problem is the mismatch between the pressure on DWP staff and what is actually obtainable for the citizens we represent in the circumstances of the north-east of England. The inflexibility of the regime—especially the ESA regime—is at the heart of many of the individual cases that have been raised so far and of the one or two constituency cases I will raise in a minute.
The restricted nature of the jobseekers labour market, as opposed to the broader north-east labour market, is a significant factor in this, as is the Department’s practice of churning people through projects, a further period of JSA and then more projects, and of migrating them from incapacity benefit to the new ESA, when their chances of actually securing sustainable employment are not that strong.
People come to my surgeries, as they do to all Members’ surgeries, but when their opening gambit is, “You are my last hope,” my heart sinks, because I know the system is failing them and that they have been referred to me, as their Member of Parliament, by others who are trying to help them or that they feel they have nowhere else to go.
One chap I met—I will call him Mr A because I do not want to put his name into the public domain—is 62 years old. He has been a labourer all his life. One look at him told me that his days of being a labourer were over. He is on ESA. He is certainly not capable of manual work any more, but he is to be churned through a range of schemes to train him for jobs that I do not think he will ever be able to do. I went to visit Ingeus, and I do not take as harsh a view of the Work programme as my colleagues. I thought that much of what Ingeus was doing, as one of the Government’s contractors, was sensible and well founded; but I was struck by how different the labour market that it was dealing with was from the broader labour market in the north-east of England. The spectrum of all the jobs across the north-east of England is not there for people on ESA. A much narrower range of overwhelmingly service-sector jobs is open to them. I do not think that it will work for the chap who came to see me.
The same will be true for another constituent, who was referred to me by the Newcastle Society for Blind People, which was trying to help her. She is 60 years old and epileptic. Her eyeballs were removed in childhood, so she is absolutely blind. She has a carer; he cares for her, but cannot read or write. She has been transferred from incapacity benefit to ESA; therefore, the system will find her a job. She cannot write or see, but can read Braille. She uses a thumbprint for her signature. I have asked the DWP to write to her in Braille. After a lot of haggling between the Department and me, it has agreed to note my request. Perhaps I may gently put it to the Minister that there are a number of ways for MPs to deal with issues of this kind: the first might be for me to ask her politely to get the Department to do a bit more than just note my request.
Given my constituent’s age and circumstances, and the obvious hardship that she has endured throughout her life, it is not fair to her to kid her on that somehow she will now find a job she can do without overcoming every one of the hardships that confront her. It seems just wrong—almost inhuman—to put her through the sort of exercises that the Department is putting her through. It is harsh and unreasonable. I once did the Minister’s job. I was the first Minister for Work when the Department was created under the previous Labour Government. In my time as a Minister I did not come up against a case of this kind, referred to me by a Member of Parliament from either side of the House. Had I done so, I would have intervened straight away to help the victim of what I would regard as oppressive treatment.
Another constituent of mine, a 62-year-old, was sanctioned for a year for not complying with JSA. As his sanction—it actually went on for a year and a month—came to an end, he was told that he would be sanctioned for another 13 weeks, but not given a reason. He was then told that he had to fill in a JSA10 form at a jobcentre. He went there and was told that the form did not exist any more, and that he had to ring the benefit delivery centre. The centre staff told him that he had to go to Felling to fill in a declaration, and he walked from Newcastle to Felling. Hon. Members might ask why he walked, when we have some very good integrated transport arrangements in Tyne and Wear. The walk is not a direct one, because there is a river in the way, and it means going to the centre of Newcastle—in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central—over the bridge and along the south bank. My constituent walked because he does not have any money to pay for his travel.
When he got to Felling the official gave him a telephone number that he had to ring. It would have been possible either to give him that without requiring him to undertake the journey, or to ensure that he had the money to make the journey on public transport, rather than having to walk. My constituent then got another phone call from the Department—which was being proactive, for once—telling him that he faced further sanctions because he had missed an appointment with his work provider. He had not missed any actual work, the House will understand —just a meeting with the provider. He missed the appointment because, as he had informed the Department, his residency at the Salvation Army on City road was closing down, and his mail was not being satisfactorily redirected. That is an issue that will apply to other people who have lived in that facility, which was quite well known on Tyneside. He spent 45 minutes on the telephone begging for a hardship payment, because he had no money at all to live on. He eventually got an £86-per-fortnight payment—just think of living on £86 a fortnight—and was then told that he stood to be sanctioned again and that his national insurance contributions would be withheld as well.
My office intervened. MPs always get the credit for dealing with these cases and it is actually our staff who do it. This is probably an appropriate time to thank our staff, who work very hard, not least on wading through pretty intransigent responses from the Minister’s Department. It is certainly not how we originally envisaged Jobcentre Plus operating when it was rolled out more than a decade ago. My assistant’s intervention meant that the matter was finally resolved in a satisfactory way; but we should not be putting people through such turmoil. The system should be on their side. It is meant to be run by the state for the citizens of the country—and it just is not. It should not be necessary for us to have to take such matters up with the Minister directly. I hope that she will take from the debate the fact that things are going wrong with case work, and that there is a need to intervene directly to turn around the culture in the Department that allows that to happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship so early in the new year, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing this important debate. I am conscious of the time and the fact that several of my hon. Friends want to speak, so I want to make several quick points, based on the experience of constituents who have contacted me.
The first point is about the rise in the use of sanctions in the past couple of years. Most people would accept the principle that if people flagrantly and persistently fail to adhere to mutually accepted requirements, they should face consequences. I have a constituent who failed to attend 22 out of 26 appointments, without any real explanation, and it is difficult to argue against some sanction in that case. However, like my hon. Friends, I have noticed a large increase in the number of sanctions imposed, often for a first or light transgression, and often with no regard to the context. Life is not so black and white. If it were, everyone who went over their parking meter allocation by a minute would be fined automatically, and I think there would be outrage at that.
A constituent contacted me about his experience of realising, on the date of his appointment, that he had missed the time. He phoned up the same day to apologise and make another appointment, which was offered for the following day. He turned up and went through the interview, and was then sanctioned by post. The staff did not even have the respect to do it face to face. He was left with no income—no means of feeding himself or heating his home—for an entire month, on the basis of one missed appointment.
There have recently been roadworks at the junction of Raby road and Middleton road in the centre of Hartlepool, which have caused chaos. All road users have been affected, including bus passengers. A constituent of mine was late for her appointment because her bus could not navigate Raby road and was delayed on the first day of the roadworks. That was not her fault. She had no way of knowing it would happen; but she was sanctioned and left without money for a month.
One of my constituents was told that her appointment for a work capability assessment was cancelled; she was then sanctioned for failing to attend the cancelled appointment. If it were not so serious it would be ludicrous. Another constituent was sanctioned for a month, and left with no means of feeding herself or heating her home, because she missed an appointment once. The reason she missed it was that on the day of the appointment she was burying her grandfather, having been at his deathbed for the previous week. In all those cases, and in others, I have been able to get the sanctions overturned; but that itself raises some issues. Is it an efficient use of taxpayer resources to apply a sanction, only for staff time to be employed in overturning it? How robust, efficient and effective is the process if that continues to be the case?
My second point is about jobcentre culture. Front-line staff do not have any flexibility to determine whether a benefit claimant has failed to comply with a requirement. They have to see things in black and white and they cannot provide personalised support. The system is geared not to help individuals, but merely to process them.
Claimants can suffer appallingly as a result of their treatment. Jobcentre Plus is not seen as a place that assesses people’s skills and training needs and helps them get back into work, but as a negative place where any contact results in the delay or stopping of benefits. It is seen as somewhere where claimants are punished and belittled, rather than helped. I have constituents who have independently told me that Jobcentre Plus staff have said to them, “But you sit on your backside all day watching ‘Jeremy Kyle’, don’t you?” That cannot be acceptable. What is the Minister doing about that top-down, politically driven culture? It is demoralising for staff and claimants, and something needs to be done.
My third point relates to personalised support. Hartlepool, like other parts of the north-east, has a large number of men—it is largely men—who worked in manual occupations for most of their working lives. Many reach their late 50s and find that, because of their personal circumstances, the fact that they are becoming ill or changes to the economy, those occupations are no longer available to them. The jobcentre is simply not interested in helping them secure a new job. Through its indifference and latent hostility, it is consigning my constituents and those of other hon. Members to the scrap heap long before their time.
A constituent came to see me who had worked in factories for 35 years and had been made redundant. He was a hard worker and a proud working man. He had never been on the dole in his life, but he said that the jobcentre was treating him like a leper because he had asked for assistance. He was told to apply for benefits online, and was not given an answer or any support when he said that he did not have a computer, had never used one and did not even know where to begin. There are many people like my constituent in Hartlepool and the north-east. The digital divide is creating social exclusion that is affecting the most vulnerable people. What will the Minister do to address that?
My final point is a technical one. Will the Minister take action to ensure that jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance sanctions result in the suspension, rather than the closure, of claims? The different public agencies are not talking to one another. Will the Minister also ensure that her Department distinguishes between claims that are closed because the claimant has gained employment, and claimants who are sanctioned and are entitled to housing benefit on the grounds of low income? If the Department provides local authorities with that additional information, it will ensure that those claimants’ entitlement to housing benefit continues and that they do not lose their houses as a result of that culture and their treatment.
My constituents deserve better, as do many others in the north-east and elsewhere. They are treated shabbily and with contempt. They are proud people who want to work. The Minister should be trying harder.
Several hon. Members rose—
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing the debate and on her touching personal and factual speech.
My office, like those of my hon. Friend and other Members here today, receives many enquiries from constituents who have problems with their benefits and are at the end of their tether. My excellent staff always do their best to resolve their problems. In some instances, as has been said, constituents turn out to be swinging the lead, but when they have a genuine case we see the unnecessary distress that can be caused, and we do our best to help them.
Anybody here who has experienced unemployment—I know that some colleagues have—know how miserable it is to go through the process of signing on at the jobcentre, and they know the feeling of rejection when job application after job application does not even receive a response. When somebody gets an interview and it is unsuccessful, it adds to the feeling of deflation and their confidence goes down even further. That is why people’s experience at the jobcentre is so important.
The Work and Pensions Secretary said that in return for claiming unemployment benefits, jobseekers have a responsibility to do everything they can to get back into work, and that sanction should be a last resort. However, the examples we have heard today show that the Government are not keeping their side of the bargain and that sanctions are far from being used as a last resort.
I have two examples of people at different stages of their working lives that illustrate how my constituents have been short-changed in the jobseeker’s allowance process. The first concerns a single mother who works as a dinner supervisor for less than 16 hours per week. She is entitled to a top-up of JSA, and she dutifully always sends the necessary wage slips every month. She was shocked when her benefits were stopped because her wage slips had not been received. My office got in touch with the MP hotline. We got further copies of her wage slips and sent them in again, only to find that those had disappeared too. The issue was sorted out in the end, but in the meantime her benefits were stopped and she fell into rent arrears, all through no fault of her own.
A single, older constituent who had paid her taxes and national insurance for more than 40 years was referred to the Work programme. She attended appointments with Ingeus three times a week, and her job adviser was satisfied that she met the job search requirements. She was pleased when she managed to find a part-time job, but when she went to the jobcentre to tell them about the new job, the adviser wanted to see her jobseekers’ diary. She had shown it to the Ingeus adviser, and thought she would not need it at the jobcentre. She was told that she had not demonstrated that she had performed an adequate job search, and her case was referred to a decision maker. She was left without any money for more than a week, which caused her a great deal of hardship as she started her new job. Fortunately, she won her appeal, but that was no consolation for the poor treatment she received.
I worked in the former Department of Social Security back in the 1980s, so I know that staff take pride in their work and want to help people. I cannot help thinking that the Government cuts to the public sector are putting more pressure on staff in our jobcentres and that consequently, claimants in the north-east and across the country do not receive a fair and proper service. Evidence shows that advisers interpret the guidelines for sanctions inconsistently, which means that claimants in similar circumstances can receive completely different decisions. That should never happen.
I watched some of the first session of the Work and Pensions Committee’s inquiry into benefit sanctions this morning, and I was surprised to hear that the sanctions process is not monitored. How can the Government possibly measure its success? North Tyneside citizens advice bureau told me that, according to the monitoring of a similar scheme in Canada, sanctions have little or no effect on claimants’ behaviour. I have written to the Secretary of State about the examples I have outlined. I hope the Minister can give my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and our constituents some positive answers, and that in the future jobseekers receive the fair treatment they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing this debate. She spoke with great passion, authority and personal conviction, and we should listen to her.
At the start of the day in the Main Chamber, the Speaker’s Chaplain leads the main prayer in which we undertake to
“seek to improve the condition of all mankind”.
That sentiment is hardly likely to chime with my constituents who have had recourse to the benefits system or who have suffered sanctions.
The creation of the welfare state by the great post-war Labour Government ranks among our nation’s greatest achievements. It was created with the conviction that in a wealthy nation such as ours, nobody should fall into the depths of deprivation and extreme poverty. British citizens fund vital public services with their taxes, with the understanding that when people lose their jobs or fall on hard times there will be a safety net and a network of support to assist them and help them back to employment. We expect anybody who uses those services to be treated with dignity and respect.
There is a consensus among the public that the existence of such a system is right and civilised. However, under the Government, we have witnessed policies that seek to redefine the role of the welfare state and the status of those who depend upon it. Our society includes those who, through luck, hard work or talent, are unlikely to ever need to depend upon the state. Those people are often entrepreneurs or committed and hard-working individuals who work in businesses and create wealth and jobs. It includes those who have the potential to make great contributions to our society, but require support to achieve what they are capable of, and it includes a small minority who need more than just a gentle nudge to engage with employment and contribute towards society. It also includes vulnerable people who live at the margins of our society, and who have not been as fortunate as others and are in need of our support, compassion and love. The Government, however, have lumped together all those who have to use benefits. The notion that has permeated this Government’s welfare reforms has been that joblessness is the personal and moral failure of the unemployed to which there is an “all stick and no carrot” solution, plunging them into destitution. It is almost a case of, “If we make people’s lives more difficult and more unbearable, somehow there will be a positive outcome.”
Since the existing regime was introduced, 1.4 million jobseeker’s allowance sanctions have been imposed. My constituents are sanctioned more than any others in the north-east, with more than 1,000 sanctions applied against JSA claimants in Middlesbrough between April and June last year, 300 more than in any other constituency. Ministers would have us believe that each of those sanctions was a just act that punished workshy people for failing to demonstrate that they were looking for employment. Every hon. Member present knows, however, that that is often not the case. We are inundated with stories from our constituents who describe a punitive regime that punishes benefit claimants for things beyond their control. The human cost is unacceptable.
One case is that of a single mum who works part-time as a lunch-time supervisor at a primary school while undertaking training to become a classroom assistant. She is in receipt of in-work benefits. Despite her asking for the interviews to be arranged outside her working hours, they were constantly arranged during them, meaning that she faced sanctions. She failed to attend one interview that was due to take place on the day that her father died. In the distress of the moment, she forgot the appointment, but when she rang the jobcentre the next day to apologise and explain that her dad had died, it was not accepted as a valid reason for missing her appointment. She was sanctioned for a month.
Another case is that of a 19-year-old homeless boy with no family, a baby and no support network, who has little in the way of formal education and limitations in his ability to communicate. He failed to complete a particular form correctly, which was beyond his capacity. He was duly sanctioned and left destitute. He then stole food from a supermarket in the hope and desire that he would be sent to prison, so that he would have something to eat and somewhere to sleep.
The number of such cases is shaming and a damning indictment of the Government and their policies. The Government refuse to explain the increase, but numerous sources have reported that it is being driven by unofficial targets imposed on jobcentres by the DWP. That is unacceptable. Introducing targets or expectations for jobcentres on sanctioning benefit claimants is a perversion of the values of the welfare state. People’s benefit entitlements ought to be decided on the basis of need, not on an arbitrary target set in Whitehall.
One important issue that has not been discussed in the debate is the coalition decision to withdraw the independent living fund, which hundreds if not thousands of disabled people in our area, the north-east, depend on. Does my hon. Friend agree that that decision should be reviewed? The independent living fund is there to help disabled people. If it is withdrawn, disabled people will end up in abject poverty.
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely valid point. That the circumstances of people dependent on such a vital source of income should be reduced—we saw on the television last night the people protesting outside this place—is an absolute horror and brings shame upon us all.
In conclusion, with the vulnerable being penalised along with hard-working people who do all that we expect of them, either the Government must concede that, on their watch, the safety net that marks us as a civilised society has become no longer fit for purpose, or they must admit to their audacious abandonment of the principles of the welfare state.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Riordan.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). She has done everyone a great service in securing this extremely important debate. I am also immensely pleased that so many Labour MPs from the north-east have spoken this afternoon: my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and my hon. Friends the Members for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). They all took part and have spoken with compassion and forensic attention to detail, which it would be nice to see from those on the Government Benches as well.
To understand the problem, we need to think more about the reasons why people in the north-east claim benefits. The north-east is the area of the country with the highest unemployment. At the moment, unemployment is 9%, compared with a 6% national average. An issue with sanctions is that we suspect them of forming part of an attempt to massage down the level of unemployment figures, in particular in our region. It is absolutely clear, however, that there is a serious problem for people in finding work, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East pointed out. The ratio of vacancies to claimants, when that number was last collected in 2012—again, the Government are hiding more recent numbers from us—was 4:1 in the south-east, but 9:1 in the north-east.
High unemployment in the north-east is caused by economic restructuring, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool pointed out. When people move from, say, being an administrator in the local magistrates court, they are not immediately able to go and work for a biotech company. They are bound to be unemployed for a certain time. We need a safety net to support them during that period. The Government have been boasting about the level of public spending cuts in the north-east, because they believe that we were over-dependent on public service jobs, but it behoves the Government to take a more positive attitude to the people most affected by their chosen policies.
The second problem, also mentioned by my colleagues, is the overhang of heavy industry, which means that we have higher levels of industrial injuries, disabilities and chronic illnesses. Therefore, any problems in the benefit system that relate to JSA, PIP, disability living allowance, ESA, IB or industrial injuries benefit—all areas that the Department has managed to mismanage over the past five years—weigh particularly heavily in our region. In Redcar, for example—it is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), who is a Liberal Democrat, has not bothered to turn up today—16% of the working-age population is on out-of-work benefits. That is not a lifestyle choice by the people who live in Redcar; it is because they face serious problems.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central talked about the problem of people with chronic conditions and disabilities who have wrongly been turned down for benefits. That continues to be a problem and I still have such problems in my constituency. It is incredibly unpleasant for people, creates misery, worsens their health and is a prime example of Tory welfare waste. The level of appeals has been as high as a third; the level of decisions overturned has also been a third—the Minister is looking puzzled, but I am quoting from what the Select Committee said about the ESA system in 2012. The cost to the public purse therefore has been £70 million per year. In the north-east, we are used to working with the Japanese and they have a “right first time” approach; we would like to see more of that in the benefits system.
The second set of problems involves the immense delays that we see over and over again. The situation is pitiable and particularly problematic at this time for people making PIP applications. Since April 2013, 670,000 people have made claims; as of last October, 287,000 people were still waiting for decisions. That is appalling; that is almost half. I know the problem is a continuing one, because my constituency office is looking at 35 such cases. At the moment, 900,000 people in this country are stuck in that waiting period. What is the Government response to the report by Mr Paul Gray? It would be helpful to hear something from the Minister. Again, however, we have the problem of the Government avoiding addressing the issue by delaying the publication of the statistics on waiting periods for some further months.
The final and most discussed set of problems is to do with sanctions. Everyone knows that we need some sanctions in the benefits system. Indeed, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East, I was a Minister in the DWP during the previous Parliament, and the last thing I did in that role was take a statutory instrument through the House in March 2010 to tighten up the sanctions regime.
Under this Government, however, we have seen an absolute explosion in and abuse of the use of sanctions. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) had an Adjournment debate on this issue in the main Chamber just before Christmas, to which the Minister responded. My right hon. Friend has discovered that, across the nation as a whole, the number of people sanctioned has doubled during this Parliament, that sanctions are longer and that a quarter of JSA claimants will now be sanctioned at some time during their claim. In the north-east, it is even worse. The number of ESA claimants sanctioned has increased at least fourfold and the number of JSA claimants sanctioned has doubled, meaning that in any year, 30,000 people are being sanctioned at any moment in time in our region.
It is obvious to the Opposition that that is what is feeding—I use that word deliberately—the rise in people accessing food banks. When I visited a food bank in Washington in December, the people there said that when they analyse the reasons why people are coming through their doors, benefit sanctions are by far the top reason given.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The sanctions problem is extremely alarming. For example, a constituent of mine, Mr A, rearranged an appointment he had missed—he had got confused because a close family member had died. When my office got in touch with the jobcentre, the sanction for that was overturned. Mr B was sanctioned for missing an appointment because he was collecting his ill daughter from school. The jobcentre falsely accused him of having a fictional child. The sanction was overturned on appeal, but in the meantime he was sanctioned for 13 weeks. In another case, Ms D was sanctioned because she refused to do a job at the weekend, when there was no child care.
There is a pattern to the sanctions cases that we are receiving, taking up and seeing overturned. I had a look at the Department’s guidelines on what constitutes a good reason for someone not being sanctioned if they miss an appointment. Good reasons include: domestic violence; health conditions; harassment or bullying at work; homelessness; travel time; domestic situations, such as bereavement or child care issues; learning difficulties; and legal constraints. We have heard examples of cases involving almost all of those reasons today.
Will the Minister deny this afternoon that there are any targets for jobcentres on sanctions? Will she tell us how many sanctions have been overturned on appeal? Will she also tell us how many of those overturned fall into those categories—how many people have been wrongly sanctioned because a bereavement, a child care problem or ill health have not been properly taken into account?
From what we are hearing it is clear that decision makers and people working in jobcentres are not clear about what is in the guidelines. When the Minister gets back to her office in half an hour’s time, will she write a letter to all the jobcentres across the land to tell them that those categories are there for good reasons and that she expects decision makers and people who work in jobcentres to take proper account of the guidelines that her Department has promulgated? We cannot have a set of guidelines in the left hand and a piece of behaviour in the right hand, and no connection made between the two.
As my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, however, it should not be necessary for us to come to the Minister to tell her about these problems. She should know what they are. She should have tackled them and done something about this situation. I want to know why she has not. Why has she not sorted out the sanctioning problem? I very much hope that she will be able to tell us, in detail, what she is doing about it. She must understand that she is responsible for the misery caused to thousands of people up and down this country. Of course, it is possible that Ministers in her Department do not care about the misery they are creating, in which case, as no good reasons for what is going on have been given to us, one might say that they are the ones who should be sanctioned.
The upshot of the situation is that we have seen appalling maladministration and cases of people living in a half light that make the Kafkaesque seem totally straightforward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, the number of people in the north-east accessing food banks has gone up, and in the six months between April and September last year it reached 40,000.
The whole situation is the result of Tory welfare waste. It is a waste of public money, a waste of official time—things get done and then redone, and redone again—a waste of the efforts of people in the voluntary sector, who would much prefer to be doing creative projects, and it is certainly a waste of the lives of the people who are on the receiving end.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing the debate, as it allows me to clarify and explain some of the points that have been raised. First off, I want to speak on behalf of the 34,000 jobcentre staff who work in over 740 jobcentres across the country and see about 400,000 people a month. The attacks I have heard on them are completely misplaced.
No, they were specific quotes used by Members about what advisers had said. Those people in the past year alone have helped record numbers of people into work, and work consistently hard every day, to the best of their abilities, so I want to speak on their behalf.
I will also say that nobody, whoever they are, should be treated shoddily, badly or rudely—I think those were the words used—or as a lesser person in some way because they are on benefits. That is not allowed and should not happen. If it is proved that anybody has done that, they are answerable to me. I will not have people doing that anonymously.
I am trying to follow the logic. Apparently we were not talking about the staff, but there are people who are treating people shoddily, badly and so on; the hon. Gentleman therefore is talking about people who work in jobcentres—[Interruption.] I would like to finish my sentence.
Not at this moment, no. When people have been spoken to or treated like that, the people who have done that will be brought to account. I am saying that it is not acceptable that anybody is spoken to in such a manner, irrespective of who they are. I will defend the right of anybody to be spoken to properly and courteously. That is only right, and it is the way I would expect everybody to speak to others.
I thank the Minister for giving way, but I have to say that I have rarely heard such a cowardly defence of a position—attacking the people for whom she, as Minister, is responsible. All of us here made it very clear that this is about the culture. She shakes her head, but I hope that she has some experience of the responsibility associated with management and will therefore take responsibility for the culture that she and her Government have created, and for how people behave in that culture. If she will not do that, she is even less in touch with reality in this country than I thought.
As I said, I take full responsibility, because I would not accept anyone speaking to anyone else, irrespective of who they are, in a discourteous way. Obviously, hon. Members would like to know that, actually, claimant satisfaction has increased under this Government. It has increased in the north-east, and at the moment it stands at 81%. That is only right. We constantly monitor how people are treated and what happens.
I meet with staff, claimants and businesses daily to ensure that we are doing the best for all of them. When we talk about different people—where they have come from, their backgrounds and the various paths that they have trodden—I have always said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” That is something that I would totally live by, and which I think is only right. Anyone may be only one pay packet away from being unemployed, whether owing to redundancy, to falling on hard times or to a family matter. I live by that completely, because all of us here may know family members or members of other people’s families who have fallen on tough times and come to the state for support. It is only right that we support those people as best we can.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She said that she will not stand by anyone in the work force if such cases are proven. Therefore, if any Member can bring evidence to her, will she commit today to looking into those cases? There are probably just a few bad apples among the work force, with the rest of them doing a sterling job.
Absolutely. If anyone comes forward to point out what has happened, the people involved should be brought to task. I would like to think that these are instances of bad apples, because I do not believe that that reflects the 34,000 people who are doing a sterling job, and who have helped so many people into employment—that is their job. They come into the profession because they want to help other people, and it is only right that they do that. As for feeding stories to the media—words such as “workshy” and “scroungers” were used today—I can honestly say that I have never put forward a story like that, and I never will. That serves nobody’s purpose.
We have talked a lot about sanctions. Sanctions have existed since benefits were created. The Oakley review described them as
“a key element of the mutual obligation that underpins both the effectiveness and fairness of the social security system.”
Benefit sanctions provide a vital backdrop in the social security system for jobseekers. That is correct, and I think I heard Members from both sides of the House agree with that. [Interruption.]
I will not; I will proceed a little further. We had to ensure that we did not have different approaches and inconsistencies. We had to ensure that everyone was treated the same and fairly across the country. In 2010, 1.4 million people had spent most of the previous decade trapped on out-of-work benefits, so our mission was to renew the incentives to work and to remove barriers in people’s way and, in so doing that, transform the benefit system for those who were locked out of work but who wanted to work, so that, going forward, we could give them the best help to get them into work.
The latest employment figures nationally and in the north-east show that employment has increased by 1.75 million since the election, and by nearly 600,000 in the past year. In the north-east, it has increased by 32,000. There are a record 30.8 million people in work in the UK and 1.18 million in the north-east. Employment for women in the UK is at a record number of 14.4 million and rate of 68.1%. That has increased by 300,000 in the past year in the UK and in the north-east by 18,000.
Private sector employment has increased by nearly 640,000 in the past year—nearly 2.2 million since the election—and 60,000 in the north-east. We have done that as part of our transformation of the UK as a whole to get it back to working. There are various sources of extra support, such as the £310 million in the north-east for the regional growth fund. There are new and other companies expanding there, such as Siemens and Quorn. There is offshore development, and £20 million for research to create jobs and innovation. That shows that considerable infrastructure investment is going into the north-east.
Part of the picture—perhaps Opposition Members do not want to hear this—is about why welfare has been changing and what has been happening. How many people are sanctioned? We know that, per month for JSA, the figure is between 5% and 6%, and that for ESA the figure is less than 1%. In the past year, the number of people sanctioned actually decreased. The number of adverse decisions overturned on reconsideration is 12%, and the figure on appeal is 3%.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I repeat that we specifically asked her not to repeat the statistics that she used in previous debates, but to address the issues that we were raising. In these last two minutes, will she say what she will do to ensure both that our constituents are not treated in the ways shown in the examples we have given and that the sanctioning regime is fair? That is not how it is now.
I have been answering those points. Today’s statistics were specifically for the north-east. They show the help and support that we have given to individuals who would have been locked out of the workplace but who were given support to get into work. We have reduced the figures for worklessness and for children living in workless households; all of that is key.
On digital separation, the extra support needed there and how difficult that is for people, one of the key things is to help people who are digitally excluded to be able to use IT, because they will need that not only to claim benefits, but to get a job and a cheaper standard of living. We are providing extra support to enable people to claim benefits, and to benefit them later in life, once they have got a job.
We have provided more support than ever before with training, extra help, work experience and sector-based academies. With that comes a greater commitment from the individual. We have ensured that that is totally personalised: when each person walks through the door, they will get an intense interview with their adviser on making a claim and giving a commitment. Everything that they want to do—their hopes, dreams, ambitions and where they would like to go—is written down and formulated, so that, between the two of them, they have a claimant commitment that they can work from. They get the best out of their time, and we understand what they need so that we can help them. It is a deal between two: those who need a job and those who are giving them the support. That is key: how do we best help that individual to get a job? How do we bring about a culture that is all about support to get people into a job?