Skip to main content

Benefit Sanctions

Volume 724: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2022

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered DWP’s policy on benefit sanctions.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. I refer colleagues to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, particularly my position as chair of the PCS parliamentary group as I will be mentioning some issues that appertain to staff who work in the Department for Work and Pensions. There are three components to what I want to raise this afternoon: the latest figures on sanctions, the policy itself and some of the challenges, and the pressures facing DWP staff.

The latest figures on sanctions are shocking. In my written question 88916, I asked,

“how many benefit claims were subject to sanctions in the last three months for which data is available by constituency; and how much was the (a) total and (b) average sum of benefit income lost by claimants due to sanctions in each constituency.”

Members can refer to that particular written question and answer. In June 2022, just over £34 million was clawed back by the DWP in Great Britain. In July, it was £34.9 million and, in August, it was over £36 million, so the figures are increasing month on month. In Scotland, the August figure was £2.3 million, and in Glasgow South West the figure was £57,000. The average deduction in August was £262 a month, which is a considerable sum of money to deduct from someone’s social security. The figures suggest that the aggressive attitude we saw between 2013 and 2015 is back among us. The raising of the administrative earnings threshold means that 600,000 more claimants could be subject to a sanction, and that will include raising the number of people responsible for delivering the benefits being sanctioned, as I will come on to.

We know the history of benefit sanctions. The coalition Government said their Welfare Reform Act 2012 would

“lay the foundation for a clearer and stronger sanctions system that will act as a more effective deterrent to non-compliance.”

They made changes in three main areas. First, they extended the scope of conditionality and sanctions within the same claimant groups. Secondly, they increased the length of sanctions for certain groups. Thirdly, they introduced the concept of escalating sanctions, with longer sanction periods for second and third sanctionable failures within a 12-month period.

However, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd, had concluded that three-year sanctions were rarely used and were counterproductive, and ultimately undermined the goal of supporting people into work. The Work and Pensions Committee report in 2018 found that some claimant groups, such as single parents, care leavers and people with health conditions or disabilities, were disproportionately vulnerable to and affected by sanctions.

A few months ago, a vulnerable constituent contacted me after she had been sanctioned for missing an appointment, despite being assured that she did not need to attend it for very good and sensitive reasons. She was an older woman who had been through extreme trauma and who had no access to the internet and no mobile phone credit. Does my hon. Friend agree that a more humanised approach must be taken by the DWP?

I thank my good and hon. Friend for that intervention. I will mention similar specific case studies, and there are clear questions for the Department to answer on this matter.

Going back to the Work and Pensions Committee 2018 report, it criticised the fact that a sanction incurred under one conditionality regime continues to apply even if the claimant’s circumstances change and they are no longer able or required to look for work. The report said that the sanction serves no purpose in such circumstances, and the Work and Pensions Committee recommended that it be cancelled. It further criticised the fact that the decision to impose a sanction is made by an independent decision maker

“who has never met the claimant and who cannot be expected to understand fully the circumstances that led to them to fail to comply.”

It therefore recommended that work coaches should be able to recommend

“whether a sanction should be imposed”.

The Government responded to the report and each of the Work and Pensions Committee’s recommendations in January 2019. They agreed to evaluate the effectiveness of reforms to welfare conditionality and sanctions, and said that it would be focused on whether sanctions within the universal credit regime are effective at supporting claimants to search for work. The Government said they would look to publish the results in spring 2019, but that did not happen, and DWP Ministers were still saying in July 2020 that the Department was committed to conducting an evaluation and that it would look to so by the end of 2020. In January 2022, however, The Guardian reported that the Department for Work and Pensions had refused a freedom of information request from Dr David Webster to release a copy of the evaluation.

In February, it was reported to the Lords that the Department had not published its evaluation of the effectiveness of universal credit sanctions because it lacked robust legacy data. The former Secretary of State told the Work and Pensions Committee—in fact, it was in answer to the Chair, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), who is present—that she had noted that the evaluation had been commissioned by a previous Administration, and she explained that the notion of a sanction acts not only through its imposition on a claimant but, importantly, through its effect as a deterrent. That raises a couple of questions.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his points about the Select Committee’s report, and I pay tribute to him for his work on this subject. I understand that his membership on the Committee will shortly come to an end, but I thank him very much for all his work.

The hon. Gentleman will have heard the new Secretary of State say that he will want to have a fresh look at whether some of the things that the Department has refused to publish in the past should have been published. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this particular report should be high on that list of priorities?

It should be among the highest. I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his very kind words, which I appreciate. I have enjoyed working with him, and he chairs the Committee very effectively indeed. He is absolutely correct to say there is a real question about reports that are currently unpublished but should be published, and I will come to some of them in my remarks.

I would argue that the dugs in the street—or the dogs in the street, for those not from Scotland—could give us a comprehensive picture of sanctions and their effects on people. When I secured the debate, Feeding Britain and the Independent Food Aid Network asked for case studies and examples. I raised one with the Secretary of State at the Select Committee hearing about a Glasgow South West constituent who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and severe anxiety, and who has extreme difficulty communicating with others. The local jobcentre applied a sanction after she failed to attend in-person appointments, despite the fact that, as part of a claim for employment and support allowance, it was agreed three years ago that reasonable adjustments would have to be made and that telephone meetings would be arranged for her. It raises the issue of the financial losses that occur, but the Department for Work and Pensions argued that there was no change of circumstances and that no sick notes were handed in.

We also have the example of an individual in Motherwell. A young mother who had escaped domestic violence was sanctioned for failing to attend an appointment, despite the fact that she had advised the Department for Work and Pensions that she needed to care for her autistic child on that particular day.

In the city of Liverpool, clients have commented that DWP job coach appointments have come through to their phone journals at times when they had no credit for data or access to wi-fi. By the time that each was able to afford to that phone data, they had missed the appointment and been sanctioned. Digital exclusion will increasingly affect clients who are unable to afford a basic smartphone and/or a contract for data access. They then face longer journeys to their jobcentre as a result of one of the busiest jobcentres in that city, Toxteth, being due to relocate, making access harder for local people.

In Coventry, we are advised that the vast majority of sanctions are due to people not attending an appointment, but many are now told of their appointments through an online journal so, again, people with no access to internet are being told that they are going to be sanctioned.

In Somerset, we hear of the case of someone with severe mental health issues and anxiety, whose job coach assured her that any correspondence would go to the principal carer. Ordinarily, she was informed of her appointments via a journal entry. The job coach cancelled a planned appointment and arranged a new one, but put it on that job coach’s to-do list, not through the online journal. This is an area that has to be looked at, because that person was subject to a sanction.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate, and on all his work on the Select Committee. Is he as worried as I am that this is just a further iteration of the DWP sanctions issues going back to 2012? I particularly remember David Clapson, who was the first case that I came across—a former soldier who was sanctioned. He could not afford to keep his refrigerator on, his insulin went off, and he died as a consequence. Is the hon. Member as concerned as I am about sanctions potentially resulting in deaths?

I thank the hon. Lady, who is a good friend, for her intervention. She has done fantastic work in this area, which I very much support. I am concerned about the effects that sanctions have, and that the whole deductions policy has. The effect that taking money away from people has on cost of living payments is another real issue, which I will come on to.

I would also add that, based on exchanges I have had with Ministers past and present, people can be sanctioned if they refuse a zero-hours contract job. Someone could be in a position where they have secure work, but less hours. The Department is encouraging people to increase their earnings, so if that person refuses a zero-hours contract and insecure work, they will be subject to a sanction.

Then, we have the position of the DWP staff themselves. Some have received letters saying that they need to increase their earnings. It is no wonder that they are going on strike, is it? There is an anomaly here: many thousands of DWP staff are paid so poorly that they are claiming the same benefits they deliver, while sharing an office with someone who could then sanction them because they have not increased their earnings or their hours. I find that completely and utterly bizarre, and I hope that Ministers will look at PCS’s concerns and maybe treat the situation of DWP staff separately. It seems to me that the Department that is delivering social security should not be taking social security away from the people who are delivering it.

Food banks across the Independent Food Aid Network see a newly hungry person referred as the result of a sanction every three days on average, so I have a number of questions for the Minister. Does he agree that the current sanctions policy is forcing people to use food banks if they are not to go hungry? To that end, will the Minister undertake to publish the Department’s evidence review on the drivers of the need for food aid, which was promised two years ago, yet remains under wraps? As the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham, has outlined, that is one of the reports that remains unpublished, and it is something that we want to see.

The Department’s own serious case panel agreed at its October meeting that

“there should be further collaborative work undertaken through the appropriate governance routes to explore strengthening the mechanisms which protect our most vulnerable customers in respect of sanctions.”

Will the Minister explain to us what that collaborative work will look like, and when it will take place? Will he also undertake to commission a study into any correlation that exists between the distance someone lives from their nearest Jobcentre Plus and the likelihood of them being sanctioned; the prevalence of poor mental health and vulnerability within households on universal credit and the likelihood of them being sanctioned; and the prevalence of digital exclusion within households on universal credit and the likelihood of them being sanctioned? We know that the Department has closed jobcentres; we also know that has made it more difficult for people to attend jobcentres and that they may be sanctioned for not attending a jobcentre.

Will the Minister also provide an update on the Department’s most recent trials of the yellow card early warning system in two areas, including any plans to roll out that system further afield? I do not accept that there should be conditionality in the system, but if we are going to have conditionality it seems sensible to me that there should be a yellow card system, or some sort of warning system, in place before the decision is made to issue a sanction. Given that the present system seems to rely heavily on individual discretion, which is resulting in people becoming destitute, does he agree that a fully national roll-out of a yellow card system is needed sooner rather than later?

As I have indicated, people being subject to a sanction could mean—indeed, has meant—that they do not receive their cost of living payment, but that decision could be reversed if they appeal and win their appeal. However, it seems to me that if there are 6,600 universal credit claimants who have missed out on that first cost of living payment because of sanctions, the Department for Work and Pensions should look at that situation. It seems to be a double punishment. The cost of living payment is in place so that people can meet their basic living needs and if they are sanctioned, it appears that there is something very wrong.

I agree with my hon. Friend that sanctioning people on the lowest of incomes at any time is grossly unfair, but at this time, when even many people in well-paid work are struggling to pay their bills, it is obscene. I had not been aware, so I thank him for highlighting it, that some people are not getting the cost of living payment that the Government say we need to survive.

I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on securing this debate, but on asking the questions that led me to discover that this summer £153,000 was taken from my constituents by DWP sanctions. Will he join me in saying to his constituents, as I am now saying to my constituents in Glasgow North East, “If you have your benefits sanctioned, do not take it lying down. Contact me and I will fight this for you, because this is wrong and nobody should have to live on less than the minimum income”?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and she is absolutely right. We are in a cost of living crisis. During the pandemic, the Department rightly took the view not to sanction people. We are now in a cost of living crisis, and if we did not sanction people during the pandemic, we should not sanction them during a cost of living crisis either. That seems to me to be a sensible approach.

My hon. Friend is also correct in highlighting the great work that constituency office staff do in helping the most vulnerable to see off these attacks. We have all dealt with cases of people being sanctioned; I think that every single constituency office across these islands has had to deal with that.

In closing, I will mention some of the staff concerns. There are concerns that jobcentres have been told by senior managers and Ministers to “up their game” when it comes to sanctions. There are very real concerns about the culture and certainly there is a view that there needs to be a mind-shift towards supporting people in what is important and that punishment has not achieved anything. There is very limited and patchy evidence that sanctions actually work.

There is inter-office competition, whereby different offices’ statistics are compared, pushing for higher sanction and deferral rates, and labour market decision makers are using box-ticking exercises. Pressure is put on the work coaches themselves, through tighter timescales and pushing people to physically attend the jobcentre, with the harms that causes the long-term employed. There are also real effects on disabled claimants who are thrown into a group of those most likely to get a sanction, and the relative rate of sanctions for claimants with disabilities—all of that really needs to be explored further.

Sanctions appear to be back with a vengeance, and that shift of approach requires parliamentary scrutiny. As someone who believes that conditionality has not worked, I think we need a change in approach to put the claimant and their needs at the heart of the social security system. The Department must accept the Select Committee’s recommendations to introduce either a yellow card system or another warning system, because failure to do so would mean the Department going back on its word in how it responded to previous Select Committee reports. I look forward to hearing whether colleagues have to say, including whether they accept—as I do—the need for change and reform.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate. I concur with all that has been said about his past work, both on the Work and Pensions Committee and more generally on this issue.

I have a simple question to ask the Minister. What is his understanding of the increase in this recent period? It is true that conditionality has always been an element of our social security system since the second world war, but there has been nothing on this scale. What worries me is the dramatic increase—comparing the figures now with the figures before the pandemic—and therefore the significant increase in the past year after the worst parts of the pandemic. Like others, my experience of conditionality and the use of sanctions has largely centred on the impact on constituents who live the most chaotic of lives. They have difficulty complying with the various requirements that are made of them and, in some instances, actually even understanding the conditions that are attached to them. Living those chaotic lives means that they become intensely vulnerable.

I will go through the figures again, so that I have this clear. The monthly universal credit sanctions reached a peak of 58,548 in March. They have now fallen back to an average of 45,100 in the last quarter—that is two and a half times the average in the three months before the pandemic, so there has been a 250% increase in that period. Sanctions as a percentage of UC claimants subject to conditionality are currently at 2.5% per month; in the three months before the pandemic it was 1.4% per month. The monthly sanction rate on unemployed UC claimants in July 2022 was higher, at approximately 2.8%—or one in 36 claimants—for those in the planning for work category. The number of UC claimants who were serving a sanction in August was 115,274, after a peak of 117,999 in July. That is more than three times the pre-pandemic peak of 36,771 in October 2019.

It just goes on like that. The figures on the scale of the sanctions being imposed at the moment are quite staggering. According to the report by Dr David Webster, which I believe was produced for the Work and Pensions Committee, the average sanction is about 11 weeks. For most of my constituents, surviving beyond 11 weeks becomes almost impossible—even just getting by.

In response to a written question, the Minister said that data on the average length of sanctions

“is not readily available and to provide it would incur disproportionate cost.”

The length of a sanction is directly associated with the level of hardship faced by claimants. Does the right hon. Member share my concern that the Department is seemingly not tracking essential data that should inform policy making?

I fully concur and agree. That is the main question that I will come on to. I will add that, although there was an increase in sanctions in the recent period, a lot of this concerns people being sanctioned for not seeking or being unable to increase their hours. We are now going into a recession—well, we are in a recession at the moment. Based on the Government’s figures, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that the number of unemployed people will increase by half a million, and the Bank of England suggests that it will most probably go above 2 million. It becomes much more difficult to find or secure work overall or to increase hours. That will increase the pressure on those who are already on the edge of being sanctioned.

My fear, which has consistently been identified as a problem, is that the system is not working; it is not dealing effectively with people who have chaotic lives. There are some conditions attached and criteria that work coaches take into account, but in no way do they embrace fully the nature of the individuals they are dealing with. The decision maker never actually gets to see the individual either to do a proper assessment. When the individual comes to me in my constituency surgery and I get a fuller understanding of their life, I can understand why they have slipped up at some stage and why the system is not working to give them the support they need to get back into work and earn a decent income.

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful point. I will just pick up on what he said at the start of his speech about conditionality. There is currently no evidence that supports the efficacy—let alone the humanity—of sanctions at all. A University of York study, which was published in 2018, showed absolutely that they had no effect on out-of-work conditionality or on in-work conditionality. What is the purpose of this programme?

I was going to come on to that. My question to the Minister is: what is his understanding of how this increase has taken place? What are the factors behind it, because it does then lead on to questions about the efficacy of the whole process? Looking at the excellent House of Commons Library briefing, we can see that there was a Work and Pensions Committee report in 2015, a National Audit Office report in 2016, a Public Accounts Committee report in 2017, the welfare conditionality project in 2018 and another Work and Pensions Committee report in 2018. All of them reached the same conclusion as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams): there is no connection between this programme and effectiveness in supporting people getting into work. There is a bizarre situation: the raison d’être of this whole process has been challenged consistently—almost annually—by independent and objective reports, yet the Government have not moved. What does the Minister believe are the reasons for this increase?

I would also like to ask another question. If the Minister cannot answer it today, I would like him to write to us with an answer. I am really worried about the impact that the sanctions and the whole process of conditionality has on the mental health of the constituents I deal with. I am anxious that the Government should at least assure us that they have in process a mechanism for monitoring that, learning lessons from that monitoring, then coming back to the House to explain what improvements will be made. I am worried about the mental health consequences because, as we go into recession and we have a cost of living crisis, people have a fear of sanctions being levelled against them, which pushes some over the edge. To be frank, we have seen too many people lose their lives, unfortunately sometimes as a result of suicide because of the pressures that they have been under as a result of these types of measures that have been introduced over this period. I would welcome the Government’s reassurance that there is monitoring of the mental health consequences and that there will be a report to the House about how that is being addressed and any lessons that can be learned.

Before I call Grahame Morris, I note that there are a few speakers left. I do not want to set a time limit. If we could have an informal time limit of around seven minutes, that will allow everyone to get in. We will see how we get on.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I will endeavour to heed your advice about the timings. I thank my good and honourable friend and comrade, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), for securing this important debate. I also congratulate him on his assiduous work in questioning Ministers, both in the Chamber and with the use of written questions. I also thank him for sharing the figures that he has discovered—the constituency-based figures—with other Members.

In my remarks, I will first go over the purpose of universal credit and look at the level of sanctions. I also want to stress the human cost of sanctions. Universal credit is the last line of the social security safety net. It is set at a level no one should fall below. By any standard, it is set at a very low level. Let us just remind ourselves that for a single person under 25 the standard allowance—this is a monthly allowance not a weekly allowance—is £265.31. There are additional premiums for disability and so on, but the standard allowance is intended to cover council tax, utilities, food, clothing and other bills. Sometimes the housing element does not meet the full rent, so there is a top-up element for rent as well.

For a couple over 25, the standard allowance is £525.27. In a functioning economy, housing, heat and food should not be scarce commodities. They should be readily available, whether an individual is retired, employed —many people are in low-paid, insecure employment—or in receipt of social security. Universal credit should alleviate poverty. Instead, sanctions are entrenching hardship and destitution. It is a terrible shame that the Government do not put the same effort into hunting down tax evasion and apply sanctions against the very wealthy individuals who evade payment of many millions of pounds in the tax that they owe.

The level of sanctions is excessive. I thank again the hon. Member for Glasgow South West for highlighting the figures and sharing them. He mentioned that throughout the whole country the figures are as follows: in June 2020, there was over £34 million in sanctions; in July 2022, a little under £35 million; and in August 2022, £36,397,000—£36.5 million basically. If we total those together, sanctions at that level is almost half a billion pounds a year.

Where is the one-nation, caring and compassionate Conservative party, if the Government force people into poverty and destitution, particularly those who are vulnerable? My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) quoted the figures for his constituency, but the figures are worse for my constituency of Easington. Deductions amount to roughly £75,000 a month from people who are in the direst hardship before the deductions for advance payments, for bedroom tax, or overpayments caused by administrative error or neglect.

The hon. Member for Glasgow South West made a great point about digital exclusion and the number of people who simply cannot access the system because they do not have even a basic smartphone or the wi-fi connectivity to be able to do that. The consequence is rising poverty, growing queues at food banks, and now the need for the voluntary and community sector to create warm spaces to accommodate people and at least give them a hot drink and some shelter, particularly in this terrible cold weather that we are experiencing. Sanctions harm society and can have tragic consequences.

I want to quote a BBC article dated 10 May 2021. It is a moving piece entitled “Deaths of people on benefits prompt inquiry call”. The article states:

“Cases where people claiming benefits died or came to serious harm have led to more than 150 government reviews since 2012”.

It highlights cases, including this one:

“Ms Day, 27, who had been diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder, had previously said her benefit claim left her feeling ‘inhuman’, her sister told the BBC.”

After Ms Day’s death, the inquest concluded that the authorities made 28 errors in managing her case.

In another case:

“Errol Graham starved to death in 2018 while seriously mentally ill. His benefits were stopped when he failed to attend a work capability assessment and did not respond to calls, letters or home visits from the DWP. When his body was found, Mr Graham weighed four-and-a-half stone (30kg) and his family said he had used pliers to pull out his teeth.”

We need to end the sanctions culture. It harms society, leaves the poorest in destitution and places the sick, the ill and the disabled in extreme circumstances in which they can often see no way out. The Minister can act by introducing a moratorium on sanctions. Sanctions should not be used routinely; they should instead be reserved as a last resort for the most extreme circumstances and cases. This is a matter of life and death. The Minister has an immense responsibility to safeguard those in need and the vulnerable. I urge him not to fail them as his predecessors have failed them, and to end the sanctions culture we have today.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing this important debate and on all the amazing work he does on this issue. As we know, inflation is at a 40-year high, energy bills are rising, real wages have fallen for the last 13 months, the number of people living in deep poverty is increasing and we are living through a cost of living emergency. It is in that context that sanctions are being applied to people in receipt of social security benefits.

I have to start by reiterating the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris). Sanctions are by their nature punitive, but continuing to operate them in such an aggressive manner in the worst cost of living crisis for a generation is actively harmful to the individuals who suffer, as my hon. Friend illustrated with horrific examples of people who have lost their lives as a result, but also to the wider economy and society. The scale of sanctions is totally unacceptable. They simply drive people into far greater debt and greater poverty, and punish people for things that are no fault of their own. People are in these situations because they may have lost their job or fallen on difficult times, and they are being punished for that. We should be supporting people in those circumstances.

It is little wonder that the Public Law Project has said that sanctions “do not work” and has referred to them as “a presumption of guilt”, or that the Welfare Conditionality project has found:

“Benefit sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek, or enter paid work. They routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes”.

Yet despite the overwhelming evidence that sanctions do not work, the DWP is using them more and more. Statistics from November show that more than 320,000 adverse sanctions decisions were made across the UK this year alone, up to July. The number of people subject to sanctions continues to grow. In August 2022, 115,000 people—6.5% of all recipients—were subject to them in one month. We can compare that with August 2021, when the figure was only 18,000. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), I would be particularly interested to hear the Minister explain why there has been such an astronomical increase in the use of sanctions. Why that has happened is just beyond me.

The latest sanctions were worth, on average, £262 a month. That is nearly a third of the average UC payment. This is a full-frontal attack on universal credit recipients that must end.

In my opinion, the Government should end completely the sanctions regime, especially during this inflation and cost of living crisis, just as they did during the covid pandemic. They need to conduct a review of the impact on poverty, ill health and employment. They can also look to improve the application of easements and allow decision makers to cancel sanctions—the list goes on of measures that the Government could and should introduce.

I want to take this opportunity to say something about the deductions that are taken from almost 2.1 million claimants to repay debts. I recently submitted a written question on the issue to the DWP, which responded that 3,300 universal credit recipients in my constituency of Cynon Valley are subject to deductions for debts and overpayments. That is 52% of all recipients. A majority of those who use universal credit as a lifeline are having some taken away. People cannot afford those deductions. I back campaigners’ calls to convert them into grants or to write off the debts completely, which would be a much better solution. The Government must seriously consider those proposals, and at least adopt the Work and Pensions Committee’s recommendation that debt repayments be paused.

From the contributions today and the overwhelming evidence, it is clear that the sanctions system is ineffectual and extremely cruel to the most vulnerable people in our society, whom we should be supporting and helping. Prior to entering this place, I worked for many years as an advice worker, and I worked with lots of people who were suffering from homelessness. I also volunteered in a food bank. The number of people who had to access the service because their benefits had been stopped was unbelievable. They were people who were in work or who were suffering mental health problems. There were families. A gentleman who came in with his three children had been unable to attend his benefits appointment because one of his children was ill; he was sanctioned for two weeks. In the 21st century, that is absolutely appalling. It beggars belief.

The use of decision makers who are not known to the individuals being sanctioned is completely inhumane. I worked with a lot of older people who are digitally excluded and unable to navigate the system. People are penalised because they are excluded from a system that is, quite frankly, designed to prevent people from accessing an entitlement. That is what benefits are: they are an entitlement that people should be allowed to access.

The sanctions system completely fails to achieve its stated objective, which is to encourage compliance and people’s return to employment. It has the opposite effect, and I talk from experience: it alienates, unfairly punishes and stigmatises people. All of that has a serious detrimental impact on people’s health and wellbeing. Instead of punishing people, the Government should overhaul the social security system, so that it provides people with an adequate payment that prevents poverty—rather than pushing people into poverty, as the current system does—encourages and enables people to find employment, and treats people with dignity. The current system does not treat people with dignity.

Other measures might include the reinstatement of the £20 UC uplift and its extension to those on legacy benefits, the ending of the five-week waiting period and the removal of the two-child limit. Lots of changes could and should be made to the social security benefit system. With 40% of UC claimants in work, it is clear that wages in this country are insufficient, which is why I and many others here support the campaign for a £15 minimum wage.

The crisis that the Government’s approach is causing is the reason for the increasing calls in Wales, for instance from the Bevan Foundation, for a Welsh benefits system. The Welsh Affairs Committee has said that the Government should assess the merits of devolving the administration of benefits to Wales, as happened in Scotland. In yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on pensions, I said that £1.7 billion of pension credit is unclaimed. The figure for unclaimed means-tested benefits is £15 billion. Some 7 million people in this country are not claiming what they are entitled to. I really wish the Government would spend more time ensuring that those people who are not claiming get what they are entitled to than punishing people in dire straits.

There are many problems with the Government’s approach, but very little interest in a solution. I would be interested to hear from the Minister why there has been such a significant increase in sanctions and what evidence the Government have that they work. All the evidence that I have seen is to the contrary. Can the Minister respond on the suspension of punitive sanctions, debt and overpayment deductions, the role of the decision maker and the question of devolution in Wales? Let me finish by congratulating again the hon. Member for Glasgow South West on securing this debate. I fear that we will revisit this issue if things do not change.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on introducing this important issue that it is very appropriate to debate at this time. I will start by saying what this debate is not about. It is not about benefit fraud, in case the Daily Mail or others thought it was. That is rare—far rarer than tax avoidance—but it is dealt with by criminal prosecution, and rightly so because it is about public funds.

Equally, I do not believe that anyone is suggesting that there should be no sanctions. What is required is an appropriate form of sanctions in every walk of life, whether in a social club or a political party. If someone transgresses, there have to be repercussions. If we breach the rules here, we can rightly face sanctions. I am a former chair of the judicial panel of the Scottish Football Association; even in sport, if someone breaks the laws through misconduct on or off the park, they will rightly face some challenge. The issue is that the extent of it is far too great, certainly at a time of huge austerity.

More importantly, it is about the reasonableness and proportionality of sanctions. Players do not get banned sine die for two minor yellow cards in a football match, yet people are facing something that would almost bring them to the end of their life. Equally, it is about the circumstances in which these sanctions are being imposed. There has to be some understanding of the individual we are dealing with and the circumstances in which they are living, as opposed to having draconian measures.

It is well over 40 years since I graduated in law. I did welfare law as part of my law degree. At that stage, it was national insurance and supplementary benefit. Even then, when supplementary benefit was brought in in the Beveridge plan, it was set at a level that was the very minimum upon which someone could live. But our circumstances have changed since then. Not simply have we gone through mass unemployment; we have moved towards a gig economy and people in vulnerable occupations. We have moved away from the national insurance supplementary benefit scheme to universal credit. That has caused challenges and difficulties, but it seems that the moral compass has been lost. We have lost any element of compassion. Looking back, sanctions did apply to national insurance and supplementary benefit, but they were proportional, reasonable and certainly not to the extent that we have today.

Three issues follow from that. As has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West and others, punishment is being exacted upon those who work in the Department for Work and Pensions. They are threatened with punishment, and potentially with dismissal, if they do not get their number of sanctions up. That is simply unacceptable. This should be not a target-driven system, but a welfare state and a welfare system. It should be about the individual and the circumstances, not any spurious targets.

We know from PCS and other whistleblowers that many people worry that if they do not enforce a sanction against an individual, they will face consequences. That is simply unacceptable. That is not simply from the PCS; we know it from welfare rights officers. Any welfare rights officer in any constituency will tell a similar tale. It even goes beyond that. We see it in fiction on television and cinema screens. It is a few years now since “I, Daniel Blake” came out—an award-winning movie that highlighted the difficulties and, indeed, tragedy of the sanctions scheme. It is a few years past now, but the circumstances remain. I am fortunate to have been a friend of that film’s writer for over 40 years, and I know that although the movie was fictional, it was based on fact. As we would meet and discuss, he would tell me about the meetings he had had with people at food banks, trade union representatives and welfare representatives. He told me stories, such as that of the woman who had a miscarriage, who was unable to get to her appointment with the DWP and who was sanctioned, or the young father who rushed to the hospital to be at the birth of his child, whose sister phoned the DWP to say, “He cannot come; he’s gone to see the birth of his child. Surely that will be okay.” No, it wasn’t, because when he next turned up, he found himself sanctioned.

Those stories are not fiction: they are fact, and that is simply unacceptable. That is why it was not Paul Laverty but Ken Loach, who filmed the movie, who described our benefits system as “institutionalised cruelty”. The sanctions system is institutionalised cruelty, because we are taking the most vulnerable people—those who have the least income at a time of inclement weather, rising costs and enforced austerity, when work can be hard to find as unemployment figures are going up—and treating them harshly.

It is not even as if it works. As other Members have mentioned, many of these people, if not most of them, have significant challenges, whether with mental health, educational difficulties, or—as shown in “I, Daniel Blake”—simply being able to access IT. In some instances, it can be the inability to access the equipment; in other instances, it can be a generational gap. I am challenged by IT systems, and people of my age who do not have access to those systems will be even more challenged. Sanctions do not help those people; what they require is more of a mentoring scheme.

In summary, what we have to do and what the Minister must try to move towards is a system that by all means contains sanctions for those who fundamentally breach it, because that is unacceptable to those who pay their taxes and abide by the law, but where an individual is challenged, they have to be supported. Where an individual has reasonable, proportionate circumstances and an explanation, they most certainly should not be punished, and we most certainly should not see people being treated harshly as a result of a tick-box system to get the figures up. That is fundamentally wrong. It would not apply in most private businesses, and it certainly should not apply in a welfare state.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this valuable and important debate.

The Government claim that evidence clearly shows that their sanctions regime is clear, fair and effective in getting people into work, so why are they hiding data from experts who want to study that effectiveness? Benefits sanctions are an utterly inhumane blunt instrument that have not been shown to be effective in their supposed aim. Instead, almost every study that has looked at the benefit sanctions regime seems to include the word “cruel”—indeed, it is “pointlessly cruel” according to a Select Committee report, and “cruel”, “inhumane” and “degrading” according to academics. That is what the experts conducting those studies have found.

The sanctions regime is enormously disproportionate and punitive: a complete withdrawal of support for missing a single jobcentre appointment. Examples of people sanctioned because of illness, a lack of wi-fi connectivity or other reasons outside their control are easy to find. That cruelty can be imposed with little effective scrutiny for up to three years. The organisation Feeding Britain reported that in Leicester, one woman with two children was sanctioned after she missed appointments as a result of going to Iraq to look after her sick father. It left her in a terrible state, with bills and rent arrears. Another referral over the summer had his appointment with his work coach rearranged because the work coach was not in. He was then sanctioned because whoever was standing in for the work coach rearranged the appointment to be earlier, and he missed it.

The UK is an international outlier in this cruelty. Indeed, the UK is unique among OECD nations in using sanctions to punish claimants. A Bristol University Press publication on the impact of sanctions shows that they are largely ineffective and often make people more likely to remain out of work. This consciously cruel regime is operating at record levels—more than double its pre-pandemic numbers—in the middle of a cost of living crisis, and a huge number of working people in my constituency of Leicester East are being sanctioned for not accepting zero-hours contracts to top up their incomes.

Of course, the more vulnerable a claimant, the greater the impact of this conscious cruelty. The Government cannot claim to be unaware of this, as they have been repeatedly warned by MPs, academics and advocate groups about the huge damage being done. Rethink Mental Illness recently called for an immediate halt to sanctions, with the group’s chief executive officer describing them as

“incredibly damaging to people’s mental health”

because of

“the massive financial and psychological impact”

of sanctions and of the fear that they might be imposed.

Speaking of the more than doubling of the number of sanctions, David Webster of the University of Glasgow said:

“A Universal Credit claimant is now more likely”—

in the midst of the worst cost of living crisis in living memory—

“to be under a sanction than to have Covid”,

which is a truly horrifying illustration. Dr Webster also accused the Government of withholding information about the scale of the crisis they have created. That is not a new phenomenon. As we have heard, in February the Government blocked access to data for academics who simply wanted simply to study whether benefit sanctions were driving up suicide rates, bringing a vital study that was already under way to an immediate halt. Even for the Conservative party, this is an astonishing level of disregard for people’s mental health and, indeed, for their lives. It is institutional cruelty.

It is time to end the culture of secrecy about the impacts and effectiveness of the Government’s benefit sanctions policy. Will the Minister commit the Government to releasing this data? It is an open secret that information already in the public domain showed that a staggering 43% of unemployed disability benefit claimants had attempted to take their own lives because of the horrors inflicted on them, and that was in 2018—long before the sanctions reached their current appalling high level.

Sanctions are indeed pointlessly cruel, inhumane and degrading. If the Government think that the facts show otherwise, why are they hiding them?

We now come to the Front Benchers, who have 10 minutes each. If the Minister is so minded, he might leave a minute for Chris Stephens to wind up.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to him for all the work he does in fighting poverty and in his role as a trustee of Feeding Britain. I am very much looking forward to joining the Work and Pensions Committee in the new year, and I sincerely thank him for the work that he has done on the Committee. I wish him well as he takes on his new Front-Bench responsibilities.

This has been a good, albeit one sided, debate. I often find myself questioning the point of having such debates, because while Opposition Members have showed up to talk about what happens in our constituency surgeries, the only reason the two Conservative Members are present is that they are compelled to be here. The Conservative party has some new red wall MPs. Surely people visit their surgeries to discuss the punitive sanctions regime. It ill behoves any of those Members intending to stand for re-election that they do not bother their backside to turn up and talk about the very thing that we know has an impact on many of our constituents.

This debate is certainly timely, not least because recent data produced by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre shows that benefit sanctions for young Scots have nearly doubled since 2019, which is the last comparable year for such statistics. The British Government certainly like to talk ad nauseum about their rather underwhelming kickstart programme. However, those statistics show that the DWP is only seeking to kick young people when they are down. I shall return to that slightly later when I discuss the wider context of the debate.

My hon. Friend has already referred to the figures that he has uncovered via parliamentary questions. In my constituency of Glasgow East, £55,000 was deducted from universal credit payments in August alone, simply as a result of benefit sanctions. At a time when businesses are struggling and we have all just celebrated small business Saturday over the last week or two, I remind the House that that cash could have been spent at small businesses in the likes of Parkhead, Barrowfield and Lilybank. If the Conservative party does not get that from a compassionate point of view, it should consider it purely from the point of view of economics. Instead, the DWP has pressed ahead with a regime of conditionality that pushes people into destitution. To be frank, that is something for which the state ultimately bears the cost anyway, so it is also short sighted in that respect.

The Scotland-wide figure for deductions from UC deductions by way of sanctions is even more eye-watering, at £2.3 million in August this year. Destitution is not cost-free for the state, and there is already a rich body of evidence out there from the likes of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that shows the true cost of, for example, homelessness as people are pushed into destitution by a failing social security system. While 85% of welfare spending in Scotland is reserved to this institution, the Scottish Government are doing their level best to mitigate the very worst effects of Westminster’s assault on benefits.

Whether hon. Members are Unionists or nationalists, surely we can all agree that devolution, be it in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland, cannot simply be a sticking plaster for inadequate social security policies designed in Whitehall. For example, the Government in Edinburgh spend £80 million a year of their devolved budget on discretionary housing payments, purely to nullify Westminster’s bedroom tax. To be blunt, that is £80 million that could be spent on health and education, but the Scottish Government are having to spend it trying to clean up the mess that has been caused by Westminster. Indeed, using our limited social security powers, next year the Scottish Government will spend an extra £311 million on the game-changing Scottish child payment of £25 a week. That is in stark contrast to the British Government’s outrageous two-child policy and associated rape clause.

We can begin to see a pattern emerging. In essence, DWP policy means that devolved Peter is being robbed to pay the price of reserved Paul. The same is true with the sanctions regime that my hon. Friend has highlighted today. Sanctions combined with deductions from universal credit mean that almost £2 billion per annum is snatched away from the very poorest people on these islands. As they face going hungry, that is when the third sector, which is already close to breaking point, needs to step in and pick up the pieces. To illustrate that, I will provide an example from my constituency.

The Halliday Foundation helps people in poverty with free meals and furniture as they seek to rebuild their lives. It is funded by local government, which, in turn, is funded by central Government. So all that happens is that central Government sanction a constituent and then the Halliday Foundation has to step in to support them with the financial resources that have been provided by local government. Put simply, that is a total mess and a complete waste of taxpayers’ money, and it shows that moving people into destitution is something that the Government bears the cost of anyway.

There is also an additional negative dimension to sanctions, which is very relevant just now and which I want to highlight to the Minister, backing up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West. Data shows that almost 700 Scottish households were denied the first £326 cost of living payment in September, simply as a result of sanctions. Let me make clear to the Minister that the freezing temperatures we are experiencing do not bypass houses and say, “Oh well, we’ll not go to minus 7° because that house has been sanctioned.” The decision to exempt sanctioned individuals from the cost of living payment is wrong and should be put right without delay.

In my five years as a Member of this House, it has become clear that Whitehall does not know best when it comes to designing a strong, robust and compassionate social security net. Indeed, Ministers and senior officials who preside over this disastrous sanctions regime clearly do not understand what it is like to sit in a cold library in Glasgow’s east end on a Friday morning speaking to constituents who literally have nothing to live on. On Friday, I met a constituent from Greenfield who is a kinship carer for his grandson. We have had debates in this Chamber about the importance of kinship carers and the vast amounts of money they save the Government. However, our failing social security means that state support is so low that my constituent told me that he has rationed his primary school-age grandson to just two baths a week because he cannot afford the energy bills.

The very fact that my constituent told me it costs 70p to run a hot bath shows just how close to the breadline that man is living and how much our social security system is failing the people who need it most. Indeed, he told me that he cannot afford to turn on the Christmas tree lights for fear of running up an energy bill that he simply cannot afford, not least because he is on a prepayment meter. These are the sorts of people who are impacted by the actions of a Department for Work and Pensions that day after day plunges the most vulnerable people in our constituencies into abject poverty—something that should shame the fifth richest economy in the world. This Government have the absolute temerity to prance around the world in their Brit-branded ministerial plane preaching about global Britain, when all the while my constituent cannot afford to run a hot bath the night before sending his grandson to school. It is utterly shameful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West outlined a better way of doing things, perhaps via the yellow card warning system, and Ministers would do well to engage with us on ameliorating a system that is currently doing so much harm. Indeed, it is no wonder that the Glasgow Centre for Population Health has attributed over 330,000 excess deaths in the UK to austerity since 2010. It has long been the case that Governments of both colours in this House have talked a tough game on welfare—I certainly prefer to call it social security—but the cat is now well and truly out of the bag. For too many people who had no understanding or experience of benefits, the pandemic lifted a veil on a social security system that has been found to be utterly inadequate. We know from polling that the public will no longer buy into the lazy picture painted by politicians in London of this being a fight of strivers versus skivers; this is now firmly the fight of abject poverty versus fairness and decency.

The only way to ensure that fairness and decency win is to end the punitive benefit sanctions regime and build a proper, robust social security system, underpinned by dignity, human rights and respect. In Scotland, we have already started that journey, but in truth most Scots know that it can only be completed with the full powers of independence. Nothing I have heard in this debate or, indeed, in my time in this House has convinced me that, with Westminster, the sanctions regime would end. That is why Scotland can, should and must make its own decisions on all social security, as with other policies, because Westminster is not working for us, and we all know that that is why Labour and the Conservatives are petrified of Scottish democracy prevailing.

It is a pleasure to respond for the Opposition to this short and important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on introducing the debate and making a powerful speech. We have heard powerful contributions, and many who spoke drew on their own experiences of cases as well as cases brought to them by advice agencies in their constituencies.

Before the debate, I asked my local citizens advice bureau about the changes it had experienced in terms of clients with concerns about sanctions. It told me that there has been an increase in calls for help, including appeals from clients who were bedbound when the sanction was imposed because they had covid and were quarantining. I was told about someone who was sanctioned for attending a funeral and about a young woman who was forced to leave her home because she became pregnant outside marriage and feared for her safety. She was sanctioned for not wishing to return to a jobcentre near her family home in order to attend an appointment.

What has come through all of the speeches is the strong theme—it is a theme that has come up time and again whenever we have debated social security issues over recent months and years—of the impact on mental health. So many of the clients who come to us asking for help with sanctions and other aspects of social security problems are highly vulnerable and sometimes chaotic in their vulnerability, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) stated. Sometimes they have significant mental health concerns that should have been a red flag.

As we have heard, this debate is well timed because over the last few months it has become increasingly clear that the DWP’s approach to sanctions has changed in ways that Ministers have so far been unwilling to explain or justify. The evidence lies in the sheer volume of sanctions that the Department has been handing out. Let us not be distracted by the suspension of most forms of conditionality during the pandemic. That was, of course, the right thing to do, and obviously that meant there was bound to be some degree of a resurgence in sanctions once things opened up again. But that does not explain—and this point has been made several times this afternoon—why sanction levels and rates are so much higher now than they were before the pandemic.

Several Members have referred to the work of Dr David Webster, whose regular briefings on sanctions for the Child Poverty Action Group have served to bring the issue to the fore. He finds that the number of sanctions handed out per month in May to July of this year was on average 45,000, equivalent to 2.5% of people on universal credit subject to conditionality, compared with 1.4% in the three months before the pandemic. That increase in the number of adverse sanction decisions is reflected in the cumulative number of people on universal credit serving a sanction at any point in time. Dr Webster writes:

“The number of universal credit claimants who were serving a sanction in August was 115,274…more than three times the pre-pandemic peak of 36,771 in October 2019.”

Of course, there were more people on universal credit in August 2022 than in October 2019, but as Dr Webster shows, the percentage of universal credit claimants subject to conditionality serving a sanction was 6.4% in August, more than double the pre-pandemic peak of 3.1% in October 2019. And for unemployed people—those in the searching for work group—Dr Webster estimates that nearly 8% were under sanction in August 2022. My first question to the Minister is: how have we arrived at a situation where one in 13 unemployed universal credit claimants are currently under sanction?

We should be under no illusion that sanctions are just a slap on the wrist for claimants. Typically, sanctions involve the withdrawal of 100% of the universal credit standard allowance, and even the reduced rate for the lowest level of sanction is 40% of the standard allowance. And except for the lowest level sanctions, the penalties continue after the person sanctioned has complied with the rules—for seven days rising to 28 days for low level sanctions, while higher level sanctions apply for 28 days and 91 days rising to 182 days, depending on whether there have been previous failures to comply in the same year.

An increase in the sanction rate is not just a technical matter. People on universal credit do not have a margin of income that they can fall back on to weather an interruption to benefit payments—all the less as the four-year benefit freeze has permanently eroded the real-term value of benefits.

There is an urgent need to understand what lies behind the increase. Has there been a revolution in people’s behaviour or attitudes since 2019? If so, what is the evidence for that? Has the level of non-compliance with conditionality really doubled since the pandemic? Have there been operational changes leading to more sanctions being issued without any change in the level of compliance? Has there been a change in the Department’s policy on sanctions? Or is the increase an unintended consequence of other factors? in other words, is the sanctions regime out of control?

The purpose of sanctions has been well described by Professor Paul Gregg as a backstop to the system of benefit conditionality. The point is that while sanctions set at a reasonable level serve an important function, they are not an end in themselves. A sudden increase in the number of sanctions such as we have seen should be seen by any responsible Government as a cause for concern rather than for self-congratulation. It raises the fear that the sanctions tail is wagging the conditionality dog, that the Government are more concerned with signalling toughness than with improving employment outcomes, and that the purpose of conditionality has been twisted towards catching people out rather than maintaining contact with the labour market. Or, no less worryingly, it raises the fear that the number of sanctions has shot up because the Government have lost control of the sanctions regime and no longer know what they are doing.

The fact that the Government have suppressed their own research into the effectiveness of the universal credit sanctions regime is hardly reassuring. In 2018, in response to a Work and Pensions Committee report, the Department agreed to

“evaluate the effectiveness of reforms to welfare conditionality and sanctions,”

and said that this would focus

“on whether the sanctions regime within Universal Credit (UC) is effective at supporting claimants to search for work.”

It said that it would publish the results in spring 2019, but we know what happened. The research was undertaken, but earlier this year the last Secretary of State but one—the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)— reneged on the commitment to publish the results. That is the behaviour of a Government who are uninterested in learning lessons, and evasive of public scrutiny.

I thank the shadow Minister for making that important point. The same applies to the drivers of food bank use, which include sanctions.

Sanctions are indeed an important driver of the increase in food banks, which is another symptom of widespread structural failure in the system.

It would be refreshing if the new Secretary of State took a different view of the matter. A doubling in the rate of sanctions in the context of a cost of living crisis and permanent reductions in the value of benefits is a serious matter. I hope that the Minister can give a suitably serious response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. In the limited time that I have, I will endeavour to answer the various points raised. I start by briefly addressing the point made by the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck)—that there is a reduction in the value of benefits. She will be acutely aware that UK Government welfare spending has increased from £151 billion in 2010 to £245 billion in 2022-23, and that there have been significant increases in Scotland, which I will come to. I wholeheartedly reject the suggestion that there has been a reduction in the value of benefits, not least given the fact that this Government increased welfare support for the most vulnerable by 10.1% at the autumn statement.

Let me address the original points raised by my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). I hesitate to call him an hon. Friend, because I realise that he will receive an SNP pile-on as a result. I was not aware that he is standing down from the Work and Pensions Committee after many years of distinguished service, and I congratulate him on that. As always with promotions, one never knows whether to congratulate or commiserate. I also welcome back the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) to his Front-Bench position. I believe I have held my position for 47 days, after my personal sacking over the summer and the sabbatical that I enjoyed on the Back Benches courtesy of the previous Prime Minister.

Plus one. The long and short of it is that, in that time, I have engaged at length with multiple employers, Jobcentre Plus and individual work coaches at the Department for Work and Pensions.

I will endeavour particularly to address the points raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, given that this is very much his debate. He has engaged with the Department on a number of individual cases, and I will endeavour to write to him on the specifics of the particular case that he raised most recently. I am advised that we have responded to the case that he raised today, but I undertake to write to him with more detail before Christmas. Given the circumstances that we face, the letter will obviously have to be communicated by email as well as post.

I turn to the second point. With no disrespect to the hon. Member and other colleagues who have raised this issue, I do not recognise the comments against individual DWP members of staff. Where there are particular examples of named individuals who people genuinely feel have transgressed and behaved in an inappropriate way, clearly there is a process that must be entered into.

It is certainly not the case, in any way whatsoever, that there has been a change of policy by individual Ministers—either by myself in the 47 days that I have held this post, or by previous Ministers. I cannot speak for colleagues who have held these positions.

I am sure the Minister gives that assurance in good faith, but how does he explain the rapid increase in the level of sanctions in recent months? Can he rebut the allegation that there is a sanctions regime that incentivises DWP staff to apply sanctions?

On the second point, I am not aware of any such policy or any such incentivisation in any way whatsoever. If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence of such incentivisation, he should publish it and name it individually, because there is no such evidence as far as I am aware.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the rise in the numbers. It is right to have a legitimate discussion about what is a fair and effective welfare system that supports people into work and provides value for money for taxpayers. Our work coaches support claimants by setting out the activities to move them into work or to progress in work and work more. Activities are set out in the claimant commitment, which is surely the start or base of all the discussions. They are tailored to reflect individual circumstances and take into account health conditions, caring responsibilities, current work and opportunities for training.

The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the rise in the number of sanctions. Some 98.2% of sanctions are for missing a meeting with a work coach. Such sanctions can be quickly and simply resolved by attending another appointment. The evidence is that approximately 50% of mandatory reconsiderations resolve the sanction.

I wish to address in particular the issue in relation to the most vulnerable. It is right that the most vulnerable in society receive extra support. The Government have clearly shown a commitment to that by adding a further £26 billion in the cost of living support in the autumn statement, on top of the £37 billion for 2022-23 that we announced earlier this year, in May.

Where benefit claimants have vulnerabilities, safeguards exist to ensure that they are not sanctioned inappropriately. Those with severe health and mental health conditions, those with full-time caring responsibilities and those with children under the age of one are not required to look for work and cannot be sanctioned. Many of the most vulnerable receive other elements of universal credit in payment, such as housing, child or disability support. Those payments are not affected by a sanction.

Finally, when people experience particular challenges, such as childcare difficulties, accommodation issues or bereavement, work coaches have the discretion to switch off work-related activities for a period of time. Such measures enable us to support vulnerable claimants and provide tailored support. To answer the follow-on question, we have a well-established system of hardship payments, which are available as a safeguard if a claimant demonstrates that they cannot meet their immediate and most essential needs—including for accommodation, heating, food and hygiene—as a result of sanctions. I am advised that the relevant percentage is 1.987%.

Various colleagues made specific points. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) and the hon. Member for Slough made the point that work is hard to find. I will address that point in two particular ways. First, the evidence from the labour market statistics shows that the employment rate is up 0.2 percentage points on the quarter; the number of payroll employees is up on pre-covid levels by 932,000 to a record high; and the inactivity rate has fallen. On the vacancies rate, which surely relates to the point that work is hard to find, there were 1.2 million vacancies. Although obviously it remains high, the rate has fallen for the fifth consecutive month, to 1.187 million. Inactivity, which is a long-term issue, has fallen by 0.2 percentage points on the quarter, to 21.5%.

Scotland was raised specifically, so let me give the Scottish figures. The number of people employed is at 2.725 million, up 22,000 on the quarter and up 61,000 on the year. The employment rate is at 75.9%, up 0.7 percentage points on the quarter and 1.4 percentage points on the year. Unemployment is at 93,000, down 21,000 on the year and 12,000 against February to December 2020. The number of people in workless households has fallen by 113,000 since April to June 2010.

I do not want to stop the Minister’s flow, other than to correct him: there is no Member here from Slough. I may have missed his answer to this question, but why has there been an increase in the number of sanctions on such a scale, even compared with pre-pandemic levels? Could he answer the question that we have all asked?

The answer has already been given to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris). The figure in respect of persons failing to attend an individual appointment is at approximately 98%. That 98% is for failing to attend a specific appointment.

No. I have one minute left to address this debate. In November 2018 the Work and Pensions Committee specifically said that the Committee agreed with the Government that the principles of conditionality and sanctions were an important part of the welfare system.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West on securing the debate. The Government have been utterly clear that we are fully supportive of all people who are on benefits.

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is very experienced in this place and should know better. If the Minister is not giving way, he should not be speaking.

Order. We are running out of time. Minister, I think the hon. Member for Glasgow South West would like to hear replies to his questions at least.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s debate and set out how the Government are helping to get people into work. We have intensified our support for jobseekers. We have made great efforts on in-work progression. Employment figures are up. There is more to do, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman with specifics.

I thank everybody who participated in the debate. A number of outstanding questions remain; I look forward to the Minister’s response with the specifics.

We are in a recession. There are far too many people being sanctioned. There is an impact on people’s mental health. There is a social and financial impact, and I do think we need an answer to the question of why cost of living payments have been taken off people who have been sanctioned. It is bad economics. I am offering the Minister a meeting with me and reps from the Public and Commercial Services Union. They will explain the concerns that staff have about the sanctions regime.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered DWP’s policy on benefit sanctions.