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Benefits: Sanctions

Volume 764: debated on Thursday 10 September 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the operation of sanctions on benefits.

We have made a number of improvements to the sanctions systems and are implementing further changes following recommendations made by the Oakley review. We are now focusing on embedding those changes and improvements. We will keep the operation of the sanctions system under review to ensure that it continues to function effectively and fairly.

I wonder if the Minister has read the leaflet that his department published for disabled people, which featured Zac and Sarah. Sarah had been sanctioned for failing to produce a CV, but it ended happily. Sarah said:

“My benefit is back to normal now and I’m really pleased with how my CV looks. It’s going to help me when I’m ready to go back to work”.

An FOI request established that Sarah does not exist. The picture was a model and DWP invented the quotes. Real people’s experience of sanctions is very different. Food banks repeatedly see desperate people sanctioned for trivial or, frankly, mystifying reasons, and the scale of sanctions is now such that a fifth—no, almost a quarter—of all JSA claimants were sanctioned in the last five years. Will the Minister please now do what the DWP Select Committee asked: respond to its report and conduct a major review of sanctions before the whole system is discredited?

Let me clarify this. The sanctions level runs at around 5% on a monthly basis. That level is the running rate of sanctions and other figures are simply wrong. On the first point that the noble Baroness made, we do use illustrative examples where they are real, and we make it clear where they are not. In this case, it was wrong—and we have said it was wrong—to have made illustrative examples look as if they were real.

My Lords, I was involved in an inquiry earlier this year on behalf of the Fawcett Society into the effects of the welfare reforms. One of the greatest problems for clients seems to be the errors on the part of staff, as a result of which a woman can go to a post office for some money at the end of the week and be told, “Sorry, you are sanctioned”, because the message had not been passed on that her child was ill so she could not attend an interview—that sort of thing. Can the Minister tell the House what action his staff are taking to stamp out these errors in communications with clients?

Clearly, one error is one error too many. We work to try to eliminate the error rate, and we have layers of safeguards, for both JSA and ESA, to make sure that we review these cases at each level so that we get it right. Some, of course, will creep through.

We have done surveys on this and found that people say that the sanctions regime encourages positive behaviour. According to the figures we have, which have been published, 72% of JSA claimants and 61% of ESA claimants say that it impacts on their behaviour.

My Lords, the Feeding Britain report showed that some people have been sanctioned for missing or being late for appointments when it is not their own fault. Is it not possible for the staff at Jobcentre Plus to be given some discretion in whether or not to apply sanctions? Along the same lines, is it fair that some people in rural communities have to spend £7 or more on bus fares to get to routine appointments when the likes of me, who can well afford bus fares, are entitled to a free bus pass?

Jobcentre Plus people do have discretion. There is some, although less, discretion for Work Programme providers. We layer up that discretion with decisions from our decision-makers. It can then go to mandatory reconsideration and on to appeal, so there is a system to allow these things to be reviewed very flexibly. On the other point, the decision that older people should get free travel is one which was made by several Governments in the past.

My Lords, the Liberal Democrats have not had a turn in this Question. If we proceed quickly to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, we might then be able to have a question from the Labour Benches.

My Lords, would the Minister consider asking the Social Security Advisory Committee to conduct a review of sanctions policy on ESA claimants, as they did for JSA claimants with the Oakley review?

The reality is that the number of ESA claimants being sanctioned is very small—it is running at around 1%—and we look at those cases very carefully. We do not have any plans to look at that specifically at this stage, given that it has steadied out.

My noble friend Lady Sherlock’s figures on the number of appeals are absolutely right: they are based on the annual figures. The DWP is sheltering behind monthly figures, which will not do. We know—as I am sure the Minister will agree—that over 50% of those who appeal after being sanctioned have their sanctions overturned, having lived for many weeks, sometimes months, without their benefit. Can the Minister tell the House how many of those sanctioned have mental health problems?

Where people’s sanctions have been found to be wrong, they recoup that money. Meanwhile, we have an established process of hardship payments, by which people can now get paid within three days where that is appropriate, to deal with that problem.