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Benefit Sanctions

Volume 594: debated on Monday 9 March 2015

The Department does not make an estimate of the amount of benefit withheld as a result of sanctions. The sanctions system is in place to ensure claimants comply with reasonable requirements in order to move off benefits and into work.

Although the Department might not make estimates, outside experts do, and they now calculate that the amount of sanctions applied is greater than all the fines that magistrates courts in this country impose, but a fine in a magistrates court is imposed only after someone has been able to put their case. Might not the Government consider something like a yellow card system so that before a fine is exercised, people have the chance to bring in outside advisers to help them put their case more effectively?

The Government do not make estimates because they would be wildly inaccurate, like the figures that the right hon. Gentleman has given. That is because only a maximum figure could be given that did not take into account hardship payments, which could be 80%, or that people already had a job, and there would be so many inconsistencies. The last Government—he was a Minister in the Department—did not make such estimates either.

No, no. I was calling the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) to ask about Question 4. Several hon. Members were on their feet in respect of this question.

Does the Minister agree that it is important for us to acknowledge the role that sanctions play as the ultimate backstop in support of our welfare system, particularly as 70% of claimants say that they are more likely to abide by the rules when they know that their benefits are at risk if they do not?

Sanctions have been around since the benefit came into being, to ensure compliance, to enable the Government to have a backdrop to the social security they provide, and to enable the support to be matched by work to enable people to go into a job. As the secretary-general of the OECD said:

“The United Kingdom is a textbook case of best-practice on how good labour and product markets can support growth and job creation.”

Freedom of information requests to the Department for Work and Pensions have revealed that of the reviews of 49 deaths of social security claimants, 33 called for improvements into how the DWP operates nationally and locally. What changes have been introduced, and how have they been associated with sanctions on claimants?

As the hon. Lady will know, we are always improving what we do and always making things better. We brought in the Matt Oakley review to look at better communications, and we work with claimants always to ensure that sanctions are applied only correctly. We know that the vast majority of people work within the system. For employment and support allowance claimants, over 99.4% work within the rules, and with jobseeker’s allowance claimants, it is over 94%. It has to work, but we always look to see how we can get it better.

Given how poorly served people with mental health problems are by the Work programme, and given the fact that the Minister told me in an answer that the Department does not currently have available to it information about the proportion of people with a mental health problem who are sanctioned, is it not time that the Government did that research and made sure that we had back-to-work programmes to help people with mental health problems?

We know that over 99.4% people on ESA and with a mental health condition are not sanctioned, so only 0.6% are. Again, we look to see how we work with people; and for very vulnerable people there is clear guidance on what counts as good cause, so they would know how and why they would not be sanctioned. We always know we need to do more. We have various pilots going on that seek better to understand people with mental health conditions.

Over 143,000 benefit sanctions were imposed in Scotland in the two years from October 2012, and one in four food bank users is using them because of delays in the benefit system. Yet today we read in the Financial Times that the Tories are planning to cut 30,000 jobs from the Department for Work and Pensions if they win the next election, most of them in the nations and regions. Is this not a recipe for further chaos and misery? Do not both claimants and DWP staff deserve better?