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Benefit Sanctions Regime (Entitlement to Automatic Hardship Payments)

Volume 601: debated on Tuesday 27 October 2015

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the system of benefits sanctions; establish automatic hardship payments where sanctions have been imposed; and for connected purposes.

There are people in my constituency who have no food to eat today. Until recently, they had been claiming employment and support allowance or jobseeker’s allowance. Their social security payments have been stopped; they have been sanctioned. As things currently stand, they have no immediate right of appeal. Some of these people may have made a mistake in their paperwork or have been late for an appointment. They may lack the necessary IT skills to use Universal Jobmatch or have been asked to do something by jobcentre staff that they did not do. Whatever their actions, the consequences carry too heavy a burden. These people are now left with absolutely no means to sustain themselves. On every level, this is an unacceptable state of affairs. This is the central issue that my proposed Bill addresses. It will ensure that all those who are sanctioned automatically and immediately receive a hardship payment, and that those payments will not require to be repaid.

The current system has punished military veterans for selling poppies. It has removed the sole source of income from those who failed to complete their medical examination because they were having a heart attack at the time, and it has withheld money from people who failed to complete their job search evidence form on Christmas day. Indeed, one of my constituents was recently sanctioned on the strength of hearsay evidence that she had been incarcerated, despite that being wholly untrue. It cannot be right that sanctions are applied on that basis.

The system that administrates those punishments is deeply and fundamentally flawed. Many of those affected are not even aware of their rights. I have met constituents who were not told by staff at their local jobcentre about hardship payments or even how to appeal. That is why my proposal gives those facing sanctions an automatic right to those payments. That will ensure uniformity in their application.

In my view, anyone who lacks the means to buy food or heat their home is a vulnerable person. There is currently a formal appeals process. When invoked, 50% of those appeals against sanctions—half of them—are upheld. This is a system that is, at best, 50% correct. If another process in this land resulted in half of the judgments being overturned, there would be a national outcry.

The human impact of sanctions is such that Department for Work and Pensions staff have been required to receive guidance on how to deal with victims suffering from mental health issues who are pushed towards self-harm or suicide. It is right that staff have measures in place to help them support vulnerable people who have been driven to their limit, but it is tragic that that is a central part of our welfare system.

The DWP has not been able to use its experience to provide any credible evidence whatsoever that the system of financial penalties works to get people back into stable employment. I am particularly disappointed that the Government failed to act adequately in their response last week to the Work and Pensions Committee report. This Chamber has heard time and again that this is an ideological crusade against the poor, not an evidence-based mechanism to help people find work. It is driving people in this country to food banks.

Organisations such as the Trussell Trust and local food banks such as The Gate in Alloa exist because they identified a need that needs to be met. They should not be a necessary extension of the UK’s failing benefits system, but they are. The social security system as it exists today is not doing what it says on the tin, and the vulnerable cannot wait any longer for this Government to get it right.

Research carried out by the Child Poverty Action Group has found that 20% to 30% of food bank users said that their household’s benefits had recently been stopped or reduced because of a sanction. The same research showed that deciding to accept help from a food bank was often difficult, and it was described by participants as “unnatural”, “embarrassing” and “shameful”.

What does it say about us if fellow citizens have to rely on charity to sustain themselves? The protection of the vulnerable should be a central tenet of any Government’s work. It is not a peripheral responsibility and it should certainly not be devolved to the kindness of others.

Other research from Oxfam, presented as evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee earlier this year, shows that when women are sanctioned it tends to disproportionately affect others, because caring responsibilities often fall to women. Furthermore, charities such as the Single Parent Action Network and Gingerbread have seen a reduction in the number of DWP advisers who are aware that they are able to use flexibility when dealing with lone parents who would otherwise face financial sanction. That leads to a significant number of lone parents being sanctioned erroneously, only to have the decision overturned. According to Gingerbread, the figure is 42% for lone parents, compared with 31% of all claimants. The current regime impacts greatly on women, and that is why I am particularly proud that my Bill has the cross-party support of nine female MPs.

Six months ago the Work and Pensions Committee called for a broader, independent review of benefit conditionality and sanctions, because of its concerns about the effectiveness and operation of the current process. After considering the balanced, cross-party report for half a year, last week the Government rejected its central proposal. Instead of a fundamental review of the whole system, the Government propose what they call a yellow card system. A yellow card is something players get during a football or rugby match. This is no game. Such terminology is unhelpful and wholly inappropriate.

A complete rethink of the process is required. The tired old argument that it helps people to find work has not been proven, while the evidence of the despair and poverty inflicted on its victims is growing larger by the day. It must be reformed in this place, because the limited powers over welfare offered by this Conservative Government to the Scottish Parliament specifically preclude measures to mitigate the system I have described today. The Scottish Parliament should be given the powers required to build a humane system of social security, not piecemeal powers that can only mitigate the negative impact of Tory policies. From the sanctions regime to the tax credits fiasco, this Government continue to punish the poor. This relentless assault must come to an end.

The Bill will not address all the serious problems of this punitive system. I wish it could. I continue to support a full moratorium on all benefits sanctions until an independent and fundamental review of the whole process takes place. Under the particular parliamentary process in question, however, I believe I have proposed a simple and pragmatic measure that would address the fundamental issue of people being knowingly left in destitution.

This Bill will ensure that those who are sanctioned will automatically and immediately receive a hardship payment, and that those payments will not need to be repaid. No one should be left without by our social security system. This Government should not abandon those people who need their help the most. Ministers must reconsider their position on that fundamental issue. It is the right thing to do. My proposal would be a positive first step in protecting the vulnerable in my constituency and beyond.

The sanctions system is why an increasing number of people and their families, in every part of our country, do not have the means to eat today. It is one of the key reasons that food bank use in Scotland and across the whole of the UK is at an all-time high. The system supporting it is flawed and needs urgent reform. That is why this Bill is necessary, so I urge this House to support me today.

I rise to oppose the Bill, but congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) on promoting it. She used to be a member of the Conservative party, but she has certainly regressed since those heady days. It seems a long time since she espoused any Conservative principles—she certainly did not do so today.

I would not want people who are listening to this debate to run away with the idea that people across the country and across this House are opposed to benefits sanctions in the way set out by the hon. Lady. In fact, many of us are very supportive of the sanctions regime. To start with, we should point out that sanctions have always played a part in this country’s benefits system—it is not this Government who introduced them. They have always been an essential part of the benefits regime, to make sure that people do what they are requested to do in return for those benefits.

Many of my constituents contact me to say that they think that the requirements on people who claim benefits, which taxpayers pay for through their taxes, should be even more onerous, not less so, as the hon. Lady seems to suggest. I refute her starting point, which is that sanctions are a bad thing. In my opinion sanctions are a good thing, and the least the taxpayer should expect is that people abide by the requirements that are understandably made of them in return for claiming benefits.

On the hardship fund, which the Bill directly refers to, the hon. Lady seemed to peddle some information that may not turn out to be quite as it seems. It should be pointed out that jobseekers who are sanctioned can apply for a hardship payment that is equivalent to 60% of their normal benefit claim, and those on jobseeker’s allowance who are seriously ill or pregnant can receive 80% of their normal benefit payment. If the hon. Lady wants it to go any higher than that, and if people are just going to have their sanction replaced in full by a hardship payment, there would be no point in having any sanctions in the first place, so I refute her point.

The hon. Lady should have pointed out in her remarks—this makes her Bill rather redundant—that those with children, all ESA recipients and anyone categorised as vulnerable can claim hardship payments from day one of their sanction. She omitted to say that in her speech. She was trying to give the impression that that is not the case, but it is the case. Although other jobseekers cannot claim for the first 14 days of a sanction, the most vulnerable people are already protected. Contrary to the point she made, claimants are regularly told about the availability of hardship payments throughout their claimant journey, and improvements have been made to the payment process to ensure that payments are made within three days. The vast majority who apply do receive hardship payments.

The hon. Lady mentioned the independent review of sanctions and the Select Committee report. She should bear it in mind that Matthew Oakley, who led the independent review of JSA sanctions, said that sanctions are

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

She did not manage to point that out in her remarks. She spoke about the Select Committee report, but the Chairman has said that he was

“pleased that the Government has accepted many of the Committee’s criticisms of its approach and…the recommendations for change.”

Hardship payments are already available to the most vulnerable people from day one of a sanction, and most people in the country support the principle of sanctions when claimants do not fulfil their obligations. I must say, Mr Speaker, that there is a book as thick as you like of the reasons people may avoid being sanctioned. The idea that people can just miss a five-minute appointment once and are automatically sanctioned is for the birds. That may well be the tale they go and tell the hon. Lady in her surgery, perhaps because they want her sympathy when they go and tell her their tale. I suspect that the truth about why they have been sanctioned is often very different from the tale they tell her. I am sorry that she just seems to accept what they say hook, line and sinker, without any criticism whatever. I know that SNP Members do not like to hear any criticism. They are not used to it in Scotland, but they had better get used to it in this House. [Interruption.] SNP Members would do well to listen to other people’s opinions from time to time. They may learn something. [Interruption.]

Order. Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil, you have yet to reach the apogee of statesmanship, which is my long-term ambition for you. Calm, like the colleagues to your left and right, is the right course—calm!

To try to get the hon. Gentleman to become a statesman may be beyond even you and your skills, Mr Speaker.

Given that the most vulnerable already have access to hardship payments from day one and that the sanctions regime in itself is a good thing, given that what the hon. Lady proposes goes way beyond the recommendations of the Oakley review and even way beyond the recommendations of the Select Committee, and given that people are already informed about the hardship payments throughout their claimant journey, her Bill is not only bad—if anyone adopted her strategy—but completely unnecessary.

I do not intend to deprive the hon. Lady of her day in the limelight by pressing the Bill to a Division, but I thought it worth while pointing out that many Members of the House and, more importantly, many people in the country, do not accept her criticisms of the sanctions regime for benefits.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Ms Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, Hannah Bardell, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Caroline Lucas, Ms Margaret Ritchie, Liz Saville Roberts, Naz Shah, Dr Eilidh Whiteford and Corri Wilson present the Bill.

Ms Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 December, and to be printed (Bill 85).

Welfare Reform and Work Bill (Programme No. 3)

Ordered,

That the Order of 20 July 2015 (Welfare Reform and Work Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:

(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.

(2) Proceedings on Consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.

(3) The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.

Table

Proceedings

Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clause 1; new Clause 8; amendments to Clauses 9 to 12

Two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this order

Remaining new Clauses and new Schedules, amendments to the remaining Clauses of the Bill, amendments to the Schedules to the Bill and remaining proceedings on Consideration

One hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced

(4) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.—(Guy Opperman.)

No. This is the programme motion. It is a good job the hon. Gentleman did not want to contribute, because he cannot—because it has been carried and we are moving on—but he will get his opportunity.