Skip to main content

Benefit Sanctions

Volume 601: debated on Monday 2 November 2015

2. If he will make an assessment of the potential effect of benefit sanctions on claimants’ mental health. (901923)

7. If he will make an assessment of the potential effect of benefit sanctions on claimants’ mental health. (901929)

Many factors affect an individual’s mental health. To assess the effect of sanctions in isolation of all other factors would be misleading. A number of checks are built into the system to support all claimants, including those with mental health concerns.

That answer is disappointing. Opposition Members are concerned about the terrible damage that the ideological cuts being made by the Government are doing to the most vulnerable in our society. For the last two weeks at Prime Minister’s questions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) has asked the Prime Minister about suicides following benefit reductions. Will the Minister publish the details of the investigations forthwith?

The Department carries out reviews to identify whether any lessons can be learned. I should emphasise that the Information Commissioner has considered this issue and upheld the Department’s decision not to publish the details because of the level of personal information they contain. For that reason, it would be unlawful to release this information.

In 2014, the Scottish Association for Mental Health, Scotland’s leading mental health charity, published research that found that 98% of its service users said that their mental health had deteriorated as a direct result of welfare reform. Further research this year by the same charity at the facility it runs in my constituency at Redhall walled garden confirmed that benefit sanctions had been detrimental to the mental health of service users there. What steps will the Government take to address the adverse effects of benefit sanctions on those with mental health problems?

Sanctions play an important part in the labour market by encouraging and supporting people to go back to work. Jobcentre Plus staff are trained to support claimants with mental health conditions during their job search and such individuals have access to more expert advice, should it be needed.

Is the Minister aware that her disastrous and failing sanctions regime is not only causing untold misery to the people who are sanctioned, impacting on their wellbeing and mental health, but having a devastating impact on their families? A recent Citizens Advice Scotland report highlighted the fact that children are indirectly punished by sanctions. In the light of those alarming findings, will she reassess the impact of sanctions on the wellbeing of the family? Do they pass the Prime Minister’s family test?

Our sanctions system is robust and there is clear evidence that it works. The hon. Gentleman mentions support for the family. It is this Government who are supporting the family through our new life chances measure and, importantly, ensuring that work pays, which is how families get out of poverty and how the life chances of children and families improve.

Will the Minister confirm that the number of cases that result in sanctions is falling? Does that not show that jobcentre staff are working with claimants to help them engage with their search for employment, and that most people who are unemployed want to work?

My hon. Friend is right. Jobseeker’s allowance sanctions have decreased by more than 40% over the last year. Importantly, the principle behind the sanctions system is that it helps individual jobseekers to comply with the reasonable requirements that they develop and agree in discussion with their work coaches to help them prepare for and move into work.

People with mental health problems face particular barriers in getting them back into the labour market and productive work. Does the Minister agree that the Government should take all steps necessary to make sure that people with mental health problems are not sanctioned unnecessarily and that we show flexibility in making sure that they get back into the labour market?

My hon. Friend raises some fundamental points. Our staff are trained not only to support claimants with mental health conditions during their job search but, importantly, to provide more expert advice and support should they need it. To return to my earlier point, claimants are asked to meet only reasonable requirements, taking into account their circumstances and capabilities and, of course, their mental health conditions.

I welcome the Department’s recent decision to trial a yellow card system for 14 days for those being sanctioned in various places. I also welcome the Department’s decision to place advisers at several food banks, to trial whether that would also help with some of the benefits transition problems. When does my right hon. Friend expect the Department to have enough evidence to share with us the outcomes of the trials?

My hon. Friend is right: the trials are important and are bringing together more support and advice for individual claimants. I would expect to see more information and details of the trials early in the new year.

May I also thank the Government for accepting the “Feeding Britain” report’s call for a yellow card system? Before they report to the House on a good warning system for people about the impact of sanctions coming down the road, they will need to begin the trials. Is there any chance of the Minister being able to tell us when the trials will begin and when they will be completed?

I thank the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee for his question. We are working out the details and I would be very happy to discuss with him the details of when we will roll out the trials quite shortly.

The so-called yellow card pilot scheme is an admission by the Government that the sanctions regime is not working and that, in particular, it is badly failing people with serious mental illnesses. Why are the Government waiting until next year to introduce the pilot scheme? In the meantime, will they please just stop sanctioning people who are seriously ill?

I respectfully disagree with the hon. Lady. Claimants are asked to meet only reasonable requirements, taking into account their circumstances. As the pilots get under way, I think she will find that this is about how we can integrate support for claimants and, importantly, provide them with the support and guidance to help them get back to work.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s response, but the reality is that people with mental health problems are being disproportionately sanctioned, and that has been evident for some time. Why will the Government not listen to voices across the House, including those on the Work and Pensions Committee, and subject the sanctions regime to a full independent review?

I would make a few points to the hon. Lady. For a start, the Government have been listening and we have responded to the Work and Pensions Committee, which is why we will be trialling and piloting the new scheme. I reiterate my earlier comment: our staff are trained to support claimants with mental health conditions and there is no evidence to suggest that such claimants are being sanctioned more than anybody else. We provide the support through our jobcentres and our claimants are asked to meet only reasonable requirements.

The Minister may have inadvertently slipped up there. There is clear evidence from last year that 58%—more than half—of people with mental health conditions on the employment and support allowance work-related activity group were sanctioned. That is equivalent to 105,000 people. According to a Mind survey, 83% say that their health condition was made worse as a result. The Government’s own evaluation of their Work programme has shown not only how ineffective it is, with 8% of people with mental health conditions getting into sustained work, but that their punitive sanctions regime just does not work, so why will the Government not commit to undertaking an independent review of sanctions?

Labour has clearly now changed its policy on sanctions, which of course it used to support. The sanctions system is kept under constant review, and we are trialling an early-warning system, as recommended by the Work and Pensions Committee. I would have thought she welcomed that. Sanctions play an important part in the labour market by supporting people, particularly those with health conditions, into work. [Interruption.] Labour Members have conveniently forgotten that ESA sanctions and ESA were put in place by a Labour Government. The sanctions system is clear, fair and effective in promoting positive behaviours to help claimants back into work.