House of Commons
Friday 2 December 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I beg to move, That the House sit in private.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 163), and negatived.
Benefit Claimants Sanctions (Required Assessment) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Before I start to explain the Bill, I want to thank the people and organisations that have been incredibly helpful and supportive: the Child Poverty Action Group; the Scottish Association for Mental Health; Gingerbread; Citizens Advice Scotland; PCS; the House of Commons Library staff, who have done a power of work on this; and all the researchers in the SNP team. I also thank my colleagues for coming out to support me today. I give a particularly big thank you to Tanya, one of the researchers. She is an absolute belter of a person, and I really appreciate everything she has done.
To understand the logic behind the Bill, we need to appreciate that people feel anxious. They are terrified of the process that they will have to endure if they lose their job. We can debate whether that fear and anxiety is legitimate, but the reality is that people are scared.
We need to examine the current process that people have to endure. If a claimant is deemed to have failed to meet a condition of jobseeker’s allowance—failing to attend an interview, being unavailable for work or leaving a job voluntarily—they are subject to benefit sanctions, meaning that their benefits are stopped for period.
The final decision on whether to sanction is made not by Jobcentre Plus work coaches or Work programme providers, but by Department for Work and Pensions decision makers. If a work coach or adviser believes that the claimant has not fulfilled their requirement, a “doubt” can be raised and referred to a decision maker in a sanction referral. That mysterious decision maker is unknown to the claimant and uncontactable. Normally, if we have an issue or are dissatisfied, we phone a number or speak to a manager, but a claimant referred for a sanction has no number to phone the decision maker to explain why they failed to meet a requirement. There is no means of finding out who this person is who ultimately has their livelihood in their hands, which only adds to the unhealthy, insecure atmosphere that drives so much anxiety and pessimism. The decision maker should attempt to obtain evidence from the claimant, as well as from the work coach, and make a decision on whether to apply a sanction based on a “balance of probabilities”—whatever that means.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and getting a large number of people here on a Friday morning. I have had a careful look at her Bill. Is she advocating getting rid of conditions or sanctions entirely? That is the tone of her speech, which is in contrast to the detail of her Bill.
I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman my copy of the Bill, because he will see that that is not what I am trying to do. It is quite hard to pass a private Member’s Bill, so while my colleagues and I would want to get rid of the sanctions regime altogether because we disagree with it, I am trying to use this Bill to make a small, genuine change that the Government can hopefully get on board with. I am not trying to be controversial.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) in congratulating the hon. Lady on securing an admirable turnout among her colleagues. She wrote in The National on 16 July:
“If we must have a sanctions regime”.
To be absolutely clear, is the hon. Lady’s position that she would prefer not to have a sanctions regime at all?
I cannot emphasise enough that if I had the power I would get rid of sanctions altogether, but I am not trying to do that right now. The Bill tries to amend sanctions.
There are two major problems in the current system, the first of which are the guidelines. Under the current regime, a sanction may be imposed if a claimant has good reason. The JSA legislation was amended to provide that “good reason” was to be set out in guidance rather than in the regulations themselves. That is the problem—it is only guidance. The Government argued that not setting out particular circumstances or situations in legislation allows the decision maker
“to take into account all reasons considered relevant when determining good reason.”
The decision maker’s guide on the guidelines explains:
“Good reason is not defined in legislation.”
“DMs should take into account all the relevant information about the claimant’s circumstances”
and their reasons for actions.
“Claimants will be given the opportunity…to explain why they have not complied with requirements and it will remain the responsibility of the claimant to show good reason for any failure and to provide information and evidence as appropriate to explain why they have not complied.”
That sounds fair enough when we just read it, but how does a person provide hard, concrete evidence that their bus was 10 minutes’ late, or that their train was delayed?
Let me set out where the whole idea behind this Bill came from. I am a member of the Work and Pensions Committee. We were looking into jobcentres, and we paid a visit to South Thanet, which is what I would describe as a leafy, prosperous, happy Conservative suburb with not many real hard issues. When we went to the jobcentre, I was desperate to pick holes in the sanctions regime—desperate to sit there and say, “It’s horrible, it doesn’t work, it’s horrendous and people endure horrible things.” I am glad to say that I could not do that. Within the jobcentre, the sanctions regime was working as best as it possibly could. There were hardly any sanctions, because time after time the staff were patient and understanding. They worked incredibly hard to make sure that nobody ended up in that position.
I appreciate the fact that this Conservative constituency, geographically, economically and socially, does not have anywhere near the same pressure and problems as many other constituencies throughout the UK, including mine. In my opinion, that jobcentre was just lucky—lucky because of the personalities and the attributes of its staff. That was why the sanctions were not as harsh as they were in constituencies such as my own.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the opportunity to introduce the Bill, but I must correct her: South Thanet is not a leafy suburb. It is one of the most deprived parts of south-east England, and the population there—[Interruption.] Members of the Scottish National party should not be selective in their championing of those suffering poverty. The truth is that South Thanet, which I shall visit later today, is a disadvantaged area that over the past 20 or 30 years has suffered as a result of the changes in the economic climate in this country, and it is mischaracterised by the hon. Lady.
Order. I always listen with the keenest interest to the right hon. Gentleman. From now on, however, interventions should be brief, and I think that we have now treated adequately of the matter of South Thanet.
I note the right hon. Gentleman’s point of view. I invite him to come up and see Ferguslie Park, where he will see what real deprivation looks like.
When I was listening to the intervention of the right hon. Gentleman from Surrey Heath—that other incredibly deprived area of the south of England—I was struck by the Foreign Secretary’s difficulty with language this morning, when he was trying to say:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”
In my constituency, I have had people sanctioned because they were ill, because they had children who needed to be looked after and all sorts. Each of us has heard examples of how people have been sanctioned for a shocking amount of ridiculous reasons. There are some examples of people who have been sanctioned for missing an appointment at the jobcentre because they were at a job interview. It is ludicrous.
I congratulate the hon. Lady not only on getting the debate but on the tone of her speech. If it is true that the system works in some places, is that not a reason to retain it and ensure that it works everywhere rather than to change it?
I am not saying that the systems works perfectly everywhere. As I have said, I disagree with the system as it stands just now. However, if I am to be realistic and try to make some small changes, South Thanet is a place where sanctions are not as harsh as they are all over the rest of the UK—they are not as harsh as they are in different constituencies.
I want to go on to explain why this Bill should go through, and I have examples of jobcentres that are not doing not too badly with the current system. There is a dramatic variation throughout the UK as to how many sanctions are applied and why they are applied. The fact that sanctions are being applied inconsistently across the board is backed up by this week’s National Audit Office report, which found that some Work programme providers make more than twice as many sanction referrals as others dealing with similar groups in the same area. The NAO report concludes that
“management focus and local staff discretion are likely to have had a substantial influence on sanction rates.”
When I secured this private Member’s Bill, I opened up a public consultation whereby individuals could answer a series of 10 questions, telling me their thoughts on the current regime and my proposed changes. Out of those responses, it was very clear that people felt that there was a Government-created point of view driven by much of the mainstream media that anyone claiming benefits is a scrounger and a chancer. They are made to feel as though they are lazy, work shy and someone who is leeching off the state and taxpayers’ money.
I will do something quite unorthodox here and quote from what probably constitutes a national treasure, Kevin Bridges. He rightly said that if politicians really think that people are choosing to be vilified by those with power all so that they can sit in their boxers watching “Storage Wars” on a Tuesday afternoon eating Quavers, then they are really not living in the real world. I know that anyone who is in touch with reality knows that that image could not be further from the truth. One respondent worded it better than I ever could when they said that there is a belief that claimants are scroungers and liars. They said that where there is a good Jobcentre Plus management, that attitude is less and probably also accounts for the variations in the application of sanctions.
It is worth noting and putting it on the record that I am not slagging off or criticising jobcentre staff. I am criticising the lack of direction and clarity that they have to operate under and the fact that they have to endure an ever-increasing workload with increasing responsibility without clear instructions.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that the Government are taking their eye off the ball with regard to the broad scope of this matter? We are seeing substantial numbers of staff leaving the DWP as result of the introduction of universal credit. Nights out are being held in Glasgow on a weekly basis by those leaving centres in Glasgow, which serve the whole of the United Kingdom. It is a disgrace, because we are losing the knowledge of the staff from the DWP, which has a gross impact on those dealing with sanctions.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We are all aware of people who have felt horrible when they were working in jobcentres—they felt under pressure in having to treat people as though they do not deserve attention. He is quite correct to say that the DWP and these jobcentres are under increasing pressure, and it is putting an unhealthy level of anxiety on to the staff, never mind the people who are claiming the benefits.
Does my hon. Friend agree that some of the staff who are under all that pressure will now face sanctions themselves and will have to impose sanctions on their colleagues? That is nothing short of disgraceful, and will only serve to make them feel even worse about themselves and even worse about the jobs that they do.
I could not agree more.
A respondent to the public consultation stated that staff are human, and that
“they can make mistakes, like or dislike clients and their individual views can affect how they deal with the individuals on their caseload. If they don’t like or trust someone, they are much more likely to sanction than if they like or have sympathy for the individual.”
Again, I must emphasise that this is not a criticism of jobcentre staff, who do a tremendous job given the system with which they have to work. It is recognition that we are all human, and that we all have our bad days and our grumpy days, but unless there are clearcut rules and regulations of conduct in place, that bad day could translate into ruining someone else’s day—and that simply cannot happen when they have someone else’s livelihood and survival in their hands. This creates a postcode lottery of sorts, and a situation whereby the way in which a person is treated is completely dependent on where their assigned jobcentre happens to be, who they get as a work coach and what mood that coach happens to be in.
I thank my hon. Friend for selecting this vital topic for debate. Does she agree that the National Audit Office’s report makes it clear that the rise and fall in referrals from 2010 to 2016 cannot simply be explained away by claimant behaviour? The Government would have us think that that is the case, so can she confirm that it absolutely is not?
Yes, I can, and I will touch on that later.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on the thoughtful speech she is making, albeit that I disagree with some aspects of it, which I will come to when I have a chance to speak. She said that a decision might be affected by the mood of somebody working in the jobcentre or by whether they happen to like the individual. Yet, a little earlier, when she talked about how the process works, she made the point that the decision maker is separate from the individual’s normal work coach, which avoids that personal dynamic, so what she says does not make sense.
I think the hon. Lady is confusing two separate issues. What I am saying is that, when we speak of referrals, there is a huge disparity between different jobcentres in different parts of the UK because the guidelines can be interpreted differently by different people. Therefore, instead of having these vague and unclear guidelines, which can be interpreted by different people in different ways, my Bill seeks to create a formal code of conduct, whereby it is clear who should be exempt from sanctions and for what reasons.
I very much appreciate my hon. Friend’s support for staff who work in jobcentres. Many years ago, I worked in a jobcentre, and these jobs are very challenging. It is clear that there is not sufficient guidance or an appropriate framework in place to allow people to make the system work as it should.
I completely agree.
The Bill is made up of 11 clauses, and it makes changes to the current legislation on the administration of certain social security benefits. It prevents a claimant in receipt of certain social security benefits from having their benefits reduced or restricted unless two requirements have been met.
I will focus on the first requirement. We want to introduce a formal code of conduct and a list of sorts, whereby an individual’s personal circumstances must be taken into account before any sanction can be applied. The Bill would also require that, before drawing up and reviewing a claimant commitment, which many individuals I have come across simply sign in the same fashion as most of us say we have read the 300-page terms and conditions when we buy a phone, download something or update our phone, the person has to be given advice—not guidance—on their rights and entitlements, and that advice has to be in writing.
Secondly, the Bill requires claimant commitments to include details of the person’s caring responsibilities, mental health, physical wellbeing and housing situation, before any sanction can be applied.
I fear that the hon. Lady has just contradicted her own point. She says that the claimant will not read the claimant commitment, but she is making it a requirement that they have written guidance. What makes her think they will read the written guidance if they cannot be bothered to read the commitment?
I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I did not explain myself clearly enough. What I am saying is that formal written advice, not guidance, has to be given to people so that they can fully understand what a claimant commitment means. I have come across lots of people—not just in my own constituency office—who have signed a bit of paper that has been shoved in their face, thinking it means they will get their benefits, but without fully appreciating or having been told exactly what it means. Part of the reason they are sometimes not told exactly what it means is the lack of clear and concise instructions for jobcentre staff. That is what I am trying to formalise in the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that consistent patterns show that some groups find it particularly difficult to comply with claimant forms? Single parents are particularly badly affected, as are people with mental health problems. They have consistently been shown to be sanctioned disproportionately.
Yes, that is a point I am about to touch on.
Let me give a few examples of the kinds of responsibilities that should be taken into account. A report from Gingerbread found evidence that single parents are being inappropriately referred for a sanction in the first instance, or wrongly sanctioned, as a result of the decision-making process. Responding to the National Audit Office report on sanctions, a Gingerbread research officer said:
“Our own research has found that single parents are more likely to be unfairly referred for sanction than other JSA claimants; job centre advisers are getting it wrong far too often. We hear from single parents who are threatened with sanctions if they don’t take jobs that are unsuitable and unsustainable. We’re particularly concerned that new rules starting in April will mean even more single parents with young children are at risk.
Despite the mounting evidence that sanctions are ineffective, costly for the government and hugely damaging for those who are sanctioned, the government has done very little to fix this broken system.”
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am going to make a wee bit of progress first.
A single mother or a carer, for instance, might have an appointment, but their child or dependant might be sick, or they might be called to school to collect their child. The Bill would recognise their caring commitment to that child, and it would mean that they should not and could not be sanctioned. Similarly, if a mother has an appointment at half-past 8 in the morning and cannot attend, there should be a formal code of conduct so that jobcentre staff can see that, between the hours of seven and nine, she is getting the wee uns to school, so, of course, she cannot go for a job interview.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on calling this debate. She has just described the system as broken. Could she please help me, then, with the fact that, on average in each month last year, more than 96% of JSA claimants and more than 99% of ESA claimants were not sanctioned? In other words, the vast majority of JSA and ESA claimants understand the system and are complying with it. It is not broken, as she asserts.
I would say that the hon. Lady has not got her facts correct—
Hold on a second. If the hon. Lady looks back, she will see in the NAO report out this week that a quarter of all people who receive JSA have been sanctioned at some point. That is what the facts are.
Another interesting statistic from the NAO report was that over a quarter of those who were sanctioned actually had their sanctions lifted on appeal. Does that not say all we really need to know about how sanctions are injudiciously used?
The hon. Lady has just made a brilliant point. We see that all these sanctions can be overturned later. That has cost the Government more money in administration, and it has caused more heartache, anxiety and pressure for individuals who have committed no crime and who should not have been sanctioned in the first place.
It is also worthy of note that, in relation to the recent Concentrix scandal, 90% of the cases have been overturned in the past few months on appeal, and the money has been given back to the claimants. That just speaks to the fact that the system is in disarray, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House will listen to the point my hon. Friend is making and to the up-to-date statistics that are available, including about the 90%.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point; it is evident throughout different parts of the Government just now that the administration has become problematic, but today I want to focus on the fact that tens of thousands of single parents face the risk of being wrongly sanctioned by the jobcentre. Two in five sanction referrals and decisions against single parents are actually overturned, which shows just how faulty and flawed the system is. Surely we could make this small, uncontroversial change, prevent a lot of hassle to begin with and, hopefully, save some money.
Earlier in the week, I spoke in a debate on employment and support allowance and personal independence payments. More than 65% of decisions are overturned on appeal, which means that your Government’s system is broken. Over 80% of the claims affect women who are predominantly single parents. Your system—the Government’s system—is broken.
I have no system, so mine is not broken, but that of others might be or might not be.
Will my hon. Friend join me in reminding everybody that, despite the percentage of cases that are overturned at mandatory reconsideration, the vast majority of people do not ask for a mandatory reconsideration, because nobody tells them that they can do that and they do not know how to do so? We are talking only about the percentages of people who actually ask for a reconsideration.
My hon. Friend makes a brilliant point. It is covered by the second part of the Bill, which I will touch on later.
It is clear that DWP decision makers are not making any genuine assessment but are simply rubber-stamping referrals, because the proportion of people being sanctioned for not actively seeking work has risen to 98%. No real consideration is being given to the individual’s circumstances and life.
On health, “Living at the Sharp End”, a recent Citizens Advice Scotland research report on the causes and impacts of gaps in income for Scottish citizens advice bureau clients, found that benefit sanctions were one of the top five causes of a period of no income. One of the most striking findings from an analysis of the report’s 47 case studies is the impact that gaps in income have on the mental and physical health of clients in the sample. Of those case studies, almost a third mentioned worsening mental health issues as a result of a gap in income, and two of them explicitly mentioned suicidal thoughts.
I ask Members to think of the process that people already have to endure. As I said at the beginning, they are already terrified before they go into the jobcentre, never mind when they end up as part of the sanctions process. [Interruption.] If an individual suffers from depression, anxiety or any other mental health condition, the system as it stands completely neglects what life is like for them when they are having a bad day or are struggling. In response to a Scottish Government consultation in October 2015, the Scottish Association for Mental Health said:
“The number of sanctions applied in Scotland doubled in the last year, and individuals with mental health problems are disproportionately affected.”
The Health Committee is conducting an inquiry into suicide and the causes of suicide. Since the crash of 2008 and the increase in the number of unemployed people, we have seen a sharp rise in the number of suicides, particularly among middle-aged men, who suffer at rate of 3:1. The idea that the financial changes that this country has seen over the past seven or eight years have had no impact is, frankly, wrong. How people are treated really matters, not just for the quality of their life, but for whether they survive.
My hon. Friend makes her point succinctly.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend heard the comment that we think we heard from a Conservative Member—I have no doubt that it will be corrected if we misheard it—but I was convinced that they suggested that a major cause of stress for claimants is that, “They are terrified they might get a job.” [Hon. Members: “Shameful.”] Does my hon. Friend agree that anyone with that kind of attitude is not in any position to judge those who are actively trying to find employment?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. If that comment was made, I suggest that the person who said it gets to their feet and puts it on the record. I suggest that, if someone has that point of view and thinks it is acceptable to speak in that way about our most vulnerable people when it is the Government’s job to look after them, they are not fit for government.
The point is that the best way to help people is for them to find work. The fact of the matter is that there are more people in work in this country than ever before, so people have no reason to be terrified about going into a jobcentre. They ought to be looking forward to it, because the likelihood is that, under this Government, they will find a job.
For the purpose of Hansard, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to rise to his feet and confirm or deny whether he made that statement? His silence is a shame.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being very generous. I am sure that her constituents, like mine, do not want to see people who are able to work simply staying at home and taking whatever money they can, but that is not what the Bill is about. It is not about stopping sanctions for people like that; it is about doing what our constituents want and looking at the issue more humanely. They, like us, see this Government acting in a way that is bringing real stress and distress to families unnecessarily.
The hon. Lady is spot on and I am glad that she gets it.
As part of our public consultation, Sean in Glasgow confirmed the need for exceptions for those with mental ill health. He said:
“I live in Glasgow and suffer from a few mental and physical health conditions which affect my ability to work, and have affected my Jobcentre claims in the past (a couple of times, I’ve been too depressed to go to a meeting and my claims have been cancelled—my depression and isolation at those times left me sitting around, hungry and alone, with no money, and too depressed to deal with it), so I feel I’m qualified to talk about this topic and, indeed, recently contacted the Minister for Mental Health to discuss possible ways in which we can ameliorate the mental health burden on the NHS and increase levels of care for sufferers at the same time.”
Last week I tabled a written question asking the DWP for an estimate of the number of people in Scotland subject to a benefit sanction who have had to use food banks. The answer I received was:
“The Department does not hold this information.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government cannot possibly continue to deny the link between sanctions and food bank usage if they are not collecting that vital information?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. As I have said multiple times in this Chamber and outside it, one of the things that saddens and depresses me most about the society we live in just now is the fact that use of the phrase “food banks” has become normal. Although we should support our food banks, they are now considered to be a legitimate add-on to the state and people are told that they should just go to them.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that important point. Tomorrow I will support Tesco in a neighbourhood food collection. It is fantastic that Tesco is doing that, but is it not shocking that in today’s society we are having a public collection of food for people?
The idea that individuals and citizens in our society are reliant solely on the charity of others to eat and to feed their children shows that we are sliding backwards down a hill to Victorian times.
We also have to acknowledge the increase in malnutrition in this country, particularly micro-malnutrition, which means a lack of vitamins and minerals. People who are living precariously with low-paid jobs tend to have poor nourishment, and if they are reliant on food banks they have no access to fresh food, given that the vast majority of them do not provide it. We are, therefore, laying down problems for the future.
What Sean in Glasgow got across was that one of the main reasons behind the anxiety that prevents people from having nutritious food and from feeling confident enough to get out of their bed if they are depressed and to get a healthy diet comes down to the pressure that the system as it stands puts on mental health.
I am going to make a wee bit of progress.
When someone suffers from mental health issues, there is no escape. It does not matter what is happening around them—it is in their head. No matter who they speak to or where they are, they are looking at life through a prism of utter fear and intimidation that exists only in their head. It takes over their entire life and their entire perspective on everything. It affects all the decisions that they make.
I ask Members to imagine feeling like that and then being told that, because their bus was late, they will not have any income to buy food or deodorant, to put money in the electricity meter or to feed their kids for a week. That is the reality of what many people are experiencing.
May I add to that the fact that women are, unfortunately, unable to access sanitary provision? As a result, they are reliant on the “big society”, as Government Members refer to it. Food banks provide tampons and sanitary products to women who cannot afford to buy those simple products because the Government’s sanctions regime penalises them.
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. The fact is that we have people who are in desperate need not just of food, but of everyday products.
The hon. Lady gives the impression—inadvertently, I am sure, because I know that she would not wish to mislead the House—that people who are sanctioned receive no money. She gives the impression that there is no pot of money in the benefit service from which people can claim in the event that they are sanctioned, but claimants who are sanctioned can apply for hardship payments equivalent to 60% of their normal benefit payment; JSA claimants who are seriously ill or pregnant can receive 80%, if they qualify for hardship payments; and all ESA claimants who meet the criteria for hardship can receive payments. Does she agree?
No, I do not agree. At no point did I say that people in that position do not have access to any funds; what I said is that many people are left with absolutely nothing because they do not know about the fund, and they do not know that they can claim from it. Apart from anything else, they do not know how to. Someone who is depressed and anxious, and who is all over the place worrying about where their children’s next meal is going to come from, does not have time to think and worry about how to go down the paper trail to get a mandatory reconsideration.
My hon. Friend has taken us to a point in the debate where we have to talk about the disproportionality of sanctions. Criminals who are fined by a court for crimes that they have committed lose less money than people who have been 10 minutes late for an appointment or gone to another interview.
Perhaps I can correct the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). On sanctions, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities said:
“Opportunities to apply for hardship payments exist, but few people appear to have been informed thereof; the payments are also modest, discretionary, subject to strict access rules and of a temporary nature.”
I think that that clarifies the point.
My hon. Friend is right, because numerous studies over numerous years have shown us the reality that the system serves only to create and exacerbate mental health problems. Is it really surprising that being unable to afford food and skipping meals have implications for individuals’ health? When umpteen reports tell us that something is wrong, and when the UN tells us that something is wrong, surely it is not controversial to make a small change such as the one I am suggesting.
I think the most powerful part of my hon. Friend’s speech is what she is saying about the impact on people’s mental health. We can look at the pounds and pence that the Government are saving through their measures, but they are storing up an immense problem. Who pays for that? It is the taxpayer. If we cannot appeal to Government Members’ humanity, at least we can appeal to their love of money.
My hon. Friend has put it succinctly, and I would probably agree. Part of the reasoning behind the Bill is to try to make the system not just a bit more humane, but a wee bit more economical—a bit more value for money.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the NAO report sets out the clear calculation that when the hardship payments and the cost of running the sanction system are added in, the Government are not actually saving any money?
That point speaks for itself. This is not a political argument; it is factual. The system is costing money; it is not giving us good value for money. It is causing a lot of distress and hardship for many people.
Over the last seven or eight years, pressures on the mental health services in this country have increased. It may not simply be that the sanctions regime is not saving money; the regime is likely to be costing money, because it is driving more people to require support.
I think everyone on the SNP Benches agrees with that.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful point about mental health and the need to have a better system of sanctioning those who, for whatever reason, fall foul of the rules. However, in Scotland recently mental health spending has been falling as a proportion of overall health spending, and child and adolescent mental health spending is significantly lower in Scotland than it is in England. Will she join me in challenging the Scottish Government to increase mental health spending, particularly on child and adolescent mental health services?
I understand the political point that the right hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but I do not want to drag us into a political debate in which we argue about Scottish budgets and so on. I remind him that Members cannot keep putting pressure on the Scottish Government and asking them to fill every single hole that this Tory Government creates, while cutting our money. As I say, I am not interested in going down the path of that argument. I am trying to be constructive and ensure that the Government can get on board with what I am suggesting.
Housing is a major issue when it comes to people being sanctioned. Research by Citizens Advice Scotland found that when people cannot pay for essentials such as food, electricity and gas, they are likely to accumulate arrears and fall into debt. The accumulation of rent and council tax arrears puts people at risk of eviction. For people who are in social rented housing, as 29% of Citizens Advice clients are, that places a burden on the local authority and the Courts and Tribunals Service, as well as adding to the hardship and vulnerability experienced by those individuals and their families.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful point about mental health, which is, of course, incredibly important. Does she accept that housing benefit is not taken away when a benefit sanction kicks in?
I appreciate the point that the hon. Lady makes, but with the greatest respect, she misses the point. When people are under extreme stress, they accumulate debt. That is how, as the study says, they end up in arrears, which puts pressure on councils, local authorities and the individuals themselves.
In a report published in December 2015, Crisis found that homeless service users are disproportionately affected by sanctions. In the past year, 39% of the survey sample had been sanctioned, and three quarters of the survey respondents who had been sanctioned said that it had had a negative impact on—surprise—their mental health. Overall, 21% of sanctioned respondents said that they had become homeless as a result of the sanction. The simple fact is that, no matter how we look at it or how we arrive at this point, no Government should make their citizens homeless. It does not matter whether that is happening to 21% of people affected, or whether the figure is higher or lower. One person made homeless is too many. This Bill is an attempt to prevent that situation from ever arising.
Is it not the case that aspects of support normally provided by central Government end up being a burden on local government? We do not allow families to live in doorways in cardboard boxes, so they will end up in temporary accommodation, which is funded by local government.
My hon. Friend has just echoed the arguments that have been made on that point.
I want to move on to the second main part of my Bill. It deals with hardship payments—my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) spoke about them earlier—which I view as the second-biggest problem in the system. Currently, when a sanction has been imposed, a person may be able to get a reduced-rate hardship payment, but such payments are not awarded automatically—a person will need to apply for them. Again, we must remember that we are talking about human beings who are often very vulnerable. Whether because of their mental health, their physical health, their financial situation or their caring responsibilities, they are up to their eyeballs in stress already, and when they hear the dreaded word “sanctions”, the situation becomes 10 times worse.
The system is not designed to guarantee that everyone will be listened to. Some people might be lucky enough to be listened to. The system might be fine, as I said at the beginning, in jobcentres that are managing to make this skeleton of a system kind of work, but there is no guarantee that it will be the same for everybody. When an individual hears that they are being referred for—that dreaded word—a sanction, their world often falls apart and they are thrown into utter chaos.
As the hon. Lady may be aware, the
NAO has said that
“the Department has limited evidence on how people respond to the possibility of receiving a sanction, or how large this deterrent effect is”,
and that the use of sanctions is
“linked as much to management priorities and local staff discretion as it is to claimants’ behaviour.”
Does she agree that we are moving into a postcode sanctions lottery regime?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is precisely why I am trying to bring in something to formalise what should already be in place to ensure a bit of consistency between different jobcentres and constituencies in the UK.
To expect someone who is up to their eyeballs and whose life is in chaos because they have heard the word “sanction” to know the system inside out, to know what they are entitled to and to know when and how to apply for it is simply unrealistic. It is not the reality of what genuinely happens. Some might accuse the Government of deliberately creating the system in that way to create a disincentive for people to challenge and claim what they are entitled to receive, as we know that the amount of unclaimed benefits to which people are entitled vastly outweighs the some 0.8% of benefits that are fraudulently claimed. However, I will let people make up their own minds.
We are realistic, and we know that the UK Government will impose sanctions. The Bill would therefore include in the code of conduct an assessment for hardship payments, so that anyone subject to a sanction would automatically have their situation considered. If someone is sanctioned, jobcentre staff should immediately assess them to see whether they qualify for a hardship payment, rather than it being the individual’s responsibility to initiate an assessment. That makes perfect sense. If jobcentre staff have a stressed person in front of them who is in a difficult position and in an emotional state, they should be the responsible participant. They are the one who is supposed to be doing the job that the Government do, which is ensuring that no one falls through the gaps. That is not a big ask; it is logical to ask, “Is this person qualified for a hardship payment?”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for incorporating part of a private Member’s Bill that I tabled last year on the automaticity of hardship payments. That speaks to the whole point of her Bill, which is about the inconsistent application by jobcentres of what should be available to people in such situations. She is trying to make a minor change to ensure that everyone across the country has access to the same level of service from people working in jobcentres to make sure that nobody is left behind.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Again, I make the plea that the fundamental logic behind the Bill is that citizens should not be made homeless or destitute by their Government. They should not be left with absolutely nothing in their pockets because of the Government. It is our responsibility to look after our citizens. It is therefore perfectly logical to assess an individual at the point of sanction to see whether they qualify for a hardship payment.
One thing I have noticed in my constituency is the hard work of DWP staff, in conjunction not just with local authorities but with community planning partners across my constituency. Those staff are now being withdrawn from food banks, which undermines that conjoined work, thereby undermining the entire process that the Government want to introduce.
We have all experienced that and can see it in our own constituencies. Again, I have not introduced the Bill to be controversial. The Bill seeks to tighten what is already in place, to tidy it up and to offer a wee bit of security and consistency for all people throughout the UK.
Is there any evidence to suggest that sanctions help to reduce unemployment?
No, there is not. If anything, the evidence shows the opposite. This is not about getting rid of the sanctions regime altogether, as some people would wish.
No, I will make some progress.
This Bill is a genuine attempt to change a system that is already causing so much pain and heartache to individuals. I consulted on the Bill, and I received more than 9,000 responses. Some 98% of those responses were from people who agree with the Bill.
I give credit to the film, “I, Daniel Blake”. I went to see it again earlier this week, and it was even more hard-hitting the second time. I genuinely urge everyone in this room to go and see that film, because sanctions hit real people. They are not statistics. They are human beings who are struggling and suffering due to the actions of the state.
The public are watching, and we owe a debt to Ken Loach for focusing our minds on the human costs. His film tells the story of a 59-year-old joiner from Newcastle, Daniel Blake, who suffers a heart attack at work.
I was glad to join my hon. Friend at the cinema. I heard the sedentary intervention by the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who has now left the Chamber. Well, the film might be a drama, but it is certainly not fiction. It depicts the day-to-day reality that so many people are experiencing. We have heard dozens of examples of exactly those kinds of cases in our constituency surgeries, and it does a disservice to the people depicted in the film and, indeed, to its director to talk it down in that way.
The hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who has just left the Chamber, said that the film is fiction, which is exactly the kind of attitude that genuinely disappoints me in this House. The minute that people hear something they do not like, they leave and say, “Rubbish.”
Stick to the facts.
I can hear the hon. Lady heckling me. Well, I will show her that the facts are that sanctions are hurting people and leaving them with no food in their cupboards and no money in their electricity meter. Sanctions are leaving people with nothing. To sit there and simply say, “Stick to the facts” just shows how ignorant and out of touch from reality she is.
I will not take an intervention from the individual because we have all heard enough from her. I suggest that she listen to what the reality is for so many people.
The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) is right that sticking to the facts is important. My city of Dundee was dubbed sanctions city 2014, and I am frankly ashamed that it still has that title today. Let there be no doubt that we also have the busiest food bank in Scotland. For anyone here who thinks that is a work of fiction or that these are not the facts, I make it clear that the sanctions city of Dundee also has the highest use of food banks in Scotland.
Like my hon. Friend’s city, my constituency had one of the highest sanctions rates in 2014-15. I have seen that first hand not only because I live there but through this job. I have seen what sanctions do to people. I have seen the spiral that it puts people’s lives into—the downward spin that they cannot stop, because it just gets worse and worse.
Just to give some facts, my constituent Bryan suffers from severe disability as a result of childhood polio. His personal independence payment was withdrawn because he failed to attend an appointment as a result of an undelivered letter. Bryan phoned the office to say what had happened to the letter, but, despite that, his PIP has been withdrawn and as a result, he has lost his disability living allowance. He is no longer in receipt of any disability benefit. He lost his entitlement to disability tax credits, and he has lost his Motability car. His appeal, which I am supporting, will not be heard until next year. Are those not the facts and the reality of the situation?
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her intervention, because we all have constituents who have suffered under the system as it stands. We can see at first hand just how cruel and heartless the system can be to people who are left behind.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, time and again, we hear stories such as that told by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry)? This Chamber is becoming the appeals chamber for the DWP. That is not what we are here to do. We are not here to address the mistakes of this Government. We are here to make good legislation and to stand up for people in our society. The Government should listen to my hon. Friend and accept her Bill.
I thank my hon. Friend very much. To go back to my point, “I, Daniel Blake” shows the kind of situation raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). Daniel Blake is forced to move on to jobseeker’s allowance because the DWP says that he is fit for work, and he is left in limbo, while he waits on a mysterious decision maker to decide whether he is actually fit for work, despite the doctor having already made it clear that he is not. Blake is then told by his DWP work coach that he is not making enough effort to get a job, and he is subsequently referred for a sanction.
A constituent of mine missed an appointment because his baby daughter was rushed into hospital as an emergency, and he was therefore sanctioned. He came to my office when looking for the nearest food bank. As a nation, should we not be absolutely ashamed that this sort of thing is happening, and should not the Government hold their head in shame?
I entirely and completely agree. That is the perfect example of someone who, under the Bill, would be exempt from a sanction because of their caring responsibilities. Those in charge would see that someone whose child is ill or has an emergency of course needs, as a parent, to be with them.
May I add another example? A constituent of mine with three young children approached me to tell me about her issue with Concentrix in November last year, when she was sanctioned for six weeks over Christmas. Her children went without at Christmas as a result of this Government’s policy, only to discover that that was later overturned. This is a Government who allow families to go without for six weeks over Christmas.
In many ways, the fact that the Bill has come before the House so near to Christmas may actually be a good thing. A number of people I have met or who have stopped me in the street up in Paisley or Johnstone have told me, “I don’t know what to do over Christmas. I don’t know where to get food. I don’t know if I can afford to get the kids any presents and be able to survive and have lighting in the House.” That is not the kind of society that I want to live in. It is not the kind of society that any Government should be proud of. The Government would be daft—it would hurt them in the polls at the next election—not to see the damage they are doing to society. Surely, when the Government hear stories like those we are telling today, they should think, “We need to change something here.” I have tried to make the Bill as palatable as possible to enable the Government to adhere to it.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No. I am going to make a wee bit of progress.
There is a cracking and very powerful bit in the film. As I was saying, Daniel Blake has to go around giving out his CV and all that to prove that he is trying to find work to get any money at all. At one point, a guy phones him up and says, “Listen, I want to offer you a job.” Blake says, “I can’t come into work,” and he asks, “Why not?” Blake replies, “Because my doctor says I’m not fit.” He says—
Hold on, and listen.
He says, “You’re a scrounger. You’re just lazy. You’re going around applying for jobs, but then you tell us that you’re not fit. You’re just wasting everyone’s time.” We can see the logic behind the fact that there are those in the general public who think—they are led to believe this by the rhetoric of this Government and the mainstream media—that people on benefits are scroungers and that they are lazy. It is the perfect example in the film of when we see that this guy is struggling and is hurting”—
No. Please listen to the point.
This guy is in a really difficult position: he is caught in a vicious cycle in a system that continually allows him to fall between the cracks, which is all to the detriment of him, his life, his mental health—and, to be honest, his physical health—and his financial situation. The worst thing about the film is that at the end of it I know, especially because of my job, that it is true. I know that people are really experiencing exactly what is shown in that film.
The hon. Lady said she wanted facts, so if she does not want fiction, here are some individual examples.
In response to the survey, Connie Dobson said:
“Nearly all people I have supported, had no idea they were about to be sanctioned until the meagre payment they so desperately anticipate, which barely covers their living/caring costs, as it is, isn’t available at the bank on the date it was due. Some don’t receive letters at all re their sanction, and those who do, receive them after the payment was expected, leaving them in undue hardship, without any means to buy food and other essentials”,
such as nappies and sanitary ware, and they
“are unable to top up their…gas/electricity”
to keep themselves warm.
Another respondent said:
“In my experience of being on JSA a few years ago one of the problems was that it was very difficult to contact my (or any) adviser by phone. The advice given was that if you failed to turn up to sign on (or meet any other of the claimant commitments) without good reason you could face a sanction. It also said that you should contact your adviser ASAP to let them know that you would be late/missing an appointment etc. The problem was they almost never answered the phone! They should not be allowed to sanction someone if it is impossible for them to contact the Jobcentre and give an explanation! One of the biggest problems with the sanction regime is that they do not take in to consideration peoples personal circumstances.”
A female respondent, who is only 23, from sanctions city—Dundee—highlights the real cost of the regime on our constituents:
“I wholeheartedly agree with all of the above! I am a 23 year old female student in Dundee and the majority of my life was ruined by these sanctions. I found myself in a position with very little support and due to benefit sanctions along with very little advice, information and resources was left unable to feed, clothe and look after myself. These sanctions also affect any housing benefit which low income families depend on which resulted in me being homeless with my small son, twice. I am now in a much better position no thanks to any help from the government, in employment, have my own flat and am studying with hopes to pursue a career that helps people facing such hardships as it’s clear that something is seriously wrong.”
Such comments are made not just by individuals but by organisations such as those that I thanked at the beginning. Those organisations exist purely because they want to help people. Because they deal with these things day in, day out, they are the real experts.
The hon. Lady is making a very powerful case, and the individual cases she is bringing to mind are deeply affecting. Does she have a sense of how many people currently sanctioned would not be sanctioned if her Bill were made law?
I do not have the exact figures, but from the experience of my constituency office, most of the sanctions cases I have dealt with that have been overturned would have been prevented altogether had the provisions been in place.
I promise that this will be my last intervention, but I could not resist intervening. One thing that really struck me in the National Audit Office report is where it says:
“The Department has not used its own data to evaluate the impact of sanctions in the UK.”
How would the hon. Lady have such information when the Government do not even bother to keep it? I am sure that she agrees with me that the Government’s lack of intellectual interest in the effects of the regime is absolutely outrageous.
I sincerely thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. The problem is an overarching one, not just for this issue, but for all the different aspects of Government, in that their records are very poor. In the Work and Pensions Committee we have seen the complete lack of data collated by the Government.
As I was saying, the organisations that do this work day in, day out and deal with these people every day know what is happening. In fact, in many ways they know better than we sometimes do, because we are always stuck in this place and they are on the front line, dealing with individuals and listening to cases.
The Scottish Association for Mental Health has said:
“SAMH calls for all MPs to support this Bill. People with mental health problems are among the most vulnerable of benefit recipients, have been disproportionately targeted to be sanctioned and are among the least likely to understand or be able to comply with the conditions attached to their benefit. Sanctioning this group of people serves no purpose other than to make their illness worse and their personal circumstances even harder to cope with—making employment a less, not more, likely outcome. Ensuring that a pre-sanctions assessment of benefits claimants’ circumstances is carried out should lead to a reduction in the numbers of people inappropriately sanctioned; as well as not pushing vulnerable people into financial hardship and making them more unwell, the reduction in cancelled or appealed sanctions should also benefit the public purse through reduced administration costs. SAMH notes the NAO’s report on sanctions…and calls on the UK Government to rethink this punitive approach.”
I very much thank my hon. Friend for the case she is making, particularly on mental health. I have a clinically depressed constituent who was given an indefinite ESA sanction for failing to attend a work-focused appointment. His sanction persisted for six months because he was just too sick to do anything about it. Does she agree that her Bill would go some way to addressing the issue of people not being able to comply and not being able to do anything about it?
My hon. Friend gives a perfect example of the individuals we are talking about for whom the Bill is logical and sensible.
Citizens Advice Scotland has said:
“Our evidence shows that too often the current system of benefit sanctions is leaving many of our clients facing destitution and crisis. While Citizens Advice Scotland does not in principle object to the use of sanctions in appropriate cases as a last resort, we strongly believe that no one should ever be left without any income at all.”
People should be able to meet essential living costs, and at the very least be able to heat their homes and eat. Under the current sanctions regime, too little account is taken of an individual’s circumstances before they are referred for a sanction. The Bill proposes that a person’s mental and physical health, caring responsibilities and housing situation are taken into account ahead of the imposition of sanctions. It would also improve access to the hardship payments for some of the most vulnerable by ensuring that they receive written advice about the possibility of claiming hardship payments before a sanction is imposed, and by introducing a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that any person subject to a sanction is assessed for their eligibility for hardship payments.
Before the hon. Lady concludes her remarks, will she outline for the House the approximate cost of the Bill? The explanatory notes clearly state that it will need a money resolution, so it would be useful for us to have some idea of how much it will cost.
I have the costs somewhere. In fact, if the hon. Gentleman looks in the explanatory notes, he will see them there.
I have explained how the Bill could have an impact on thousands of our constituents and am honoured to have the chance to do so. What is ridiculous about this whole thing is that I got the chance through a lottery, and that a lottery is helping to decide whether or not hon. Members have the chance to help. That is one thing for which I would criticise the House. Through sheer pot luck and because I happened to put my name beside the right number, I have the chance to make a genuine, logical, sensible, small and constructive change to the system.
Surely one of the most compelling arguments for supporting the Bill is that there is ample evidence that it will work. We know from many pilot projects across the country that that is the case. In central Edinburgh, a pilot project required Department for Work and Pensions staff to work with NHS staff on target claimants with drug and alcohol dependency. They were able to reduce the number of sanctions applied to zero. If that can happen in a pilot project, it should happen all over the country. As a matter of public policy, we should treat our citizens the same; we should not depend on the empathy and good will of individual jobcentre managers.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is worth pointing out that the logic driving the reforms is inconsistent throughout the system. The Bill should be passed exactly because we want to bring a bit of sense and reality back into the system.
There is a huge disparity between the sanctions system and the mainstream judicial system. The scale of fines is higher for sanctions than it is for courts. In our legal system in the magistrates or sheriffs courts, there is always an assessment of the offender’s circumstances before a fine is decided. In the sanctions system, there is nothing.
No, I will not give way.
The point we must remember is this: why are we prepared to take the personal circumstances of potential criminals into account, but not take into account the circumstances of people whose only crime is that they cannot find work? [Interruption.] Will hon. Members stop heckling me?
I have let the hon. Lady in multiple times, and she has sat there and not listened to a single word. She can put her hand up all she likes. Shaking her head and wishing that this was not the reality is exactly the attitude that is wrong; it is what I am trying to challenge. SNP Members experience day in, day out the hardship that the Government are causing, so I suggest she sits back and genuinely listens to what I am proposing in the Bill rather than trying to score political points and build her ego.
If the Tories are so convinced that they have adequate protections in place, why not support a Bill that formally establishes them for the most vulnerable? The UK Government will say that they already have the guidance in place, which I appreciate. That is all the more reason to protect it formally and give it statutory power and cover. The Bill would also ensure consistency across the board. In reality, the protections in the Bill go beyond the vague protections within guidance by specifically protecting vulnerable groups and putting responsibility on the Government to assess a person’s individual circumstance.
The Government say that they have already taken measures to protect claimants from sanctions when they announced their intention to undertake a trial involving warning claimants of the intention to impose a sanction on them—a yellow card system whereby people are given a period of 14 days to provide evidence of a good reason. In a written answer on 18 November, the Minister stated:
“The Jobseeker’s Allowance Sanctions Early Warning Trial in Scotland ran until September 2016 and involved approximately 6,500 claimants. Data was collected throughout the trial period to assess the extent to which the warning trial affected sanction decisions.
Qualitative interviews are currently being undertaken with a sample of these claimants to gain an understanding of how the new process affected claimant behaviour. The trial has now finished and a full evaluation is being undertaken.
The interim report will be published at the end of the year and the final report around April 2017. Findings from the trial will inform any decisions on future roll-out.”
If the Government are prepared to make small changes, then surely for the reasons I have outlined for the last wee while, it is perfectly reasonable to ask them to support the Bill, or at least to give some kind of concession or introduce a similar proposal of their own.
Fundamentally, the Bill has two points: first, to assess the individual’s personal circumstances before any sanction is applied; and, secondly, when a sanction is applied, to assess them automatically for a hardship payment. They are very small asks. As I have said, I have tried to be as constructive as possible to introduce a measure that the Government can get on board with, and to put aside party political differences and the different routes that we believe politics should go down.
My hon. Friend has given a tour de force this morning. Is it the case that support for the Bill also comes from the trade union representing staff employed by the Department for Work and Pensions—the Public and Commercial Services Union—which wants consistency across the board?
When I was first putting out the feelers to find out what people thought should be in the Bill, I went to numerous jobcentres. All the jobcentre staff I came across said that the Bill would be brilliant for them. They said it would be great because it would give clarity on what they can do. If they had a list or a code of conduct, they could say, “Right. You’ve got a child who is sick. It is clear that this does not apply”, and it would not be left to their personal judgment.
The Bill is logical and small. It protects not only our citizens and the most vulnerable people in our society, but the staff, who are under tremendous pressure in a system that is constantly changing at a rapid pace. I have genuinely tried to make the Bill one that we can pass together. I have tried to build a bridge over which all political parties can cross. I ask the Minister and all hon. Members who have sat in the Chamber today—I imagine the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) will not be joining me—to support the Bill as much as they possibly can.
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), I remind the House that there will be an urgent question at 11 o’clock, so I ask whoever is on their feet not to be too shocked when we go into it.
I join my Conservative colleagues in congratulating the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) on securing this private Member’s Bill.
There is surely a consensus on both sides of the House that unemployment is a tragedy when it befalls anyone. There can be few things in life worse than wanting to work and failing to find it. However, I begin by bringing a group of people into the debate who were mentioned only once by Opposition Members in all the interventions in the hon. Lady’s speech: the taxpayer, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig). Every benefit that is paid to a benefit claimant is paid out of the receipts that the Government take in tax. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South referred at one point to something that would cost the Government. The Government do not have any money; the Government have only taxpayers’ money.
Does the hon. Gentleman not recall the National Audit Office report that showed that this sanctions regime does not actually save any money? His point is without merit.
The hon. Gentleman is approaching this from exactly the wrong angle. The point is that the Government have an obligation to ensure that every person who is in receipt of a benefit is entitled to it. That is part of the social contract that underpins our society. It was at the very core of the Beveridge report, whereby people paid in in times of good, in times of work, and drew down in times of sickness, unemployment and retirement—drew down in terms of need.
If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should carry on in certain circumstances, where people have been demonstrated not to be legitimately in need of benefits, that is an abuse of the taxpayer. Many of those taxpayers are on very modest incomes indeed and work extremely hard to contribute to our society.
The hon. Gentleman entirely misses the point of this Bill. He listened to me enough to get part of the picture, but he has missed the point I was making entirely. When we sanction people, there is a cost to that. There is the immediate cost and the immediate saving to the taxpayer, which seems to be all Government Members care about, but the long-term costs—in health to the individual and society—are immeasurable. Let us think about that, let us not forget it and let us spend now to save in the long term.
I understood the hon. Gentleman’s point absolutely; I referred to him because he was the only Member on the Opposition Benches who mentioned the word “taxpayer” at all. I was making a more fundamental point that we need to approach these debates from the perspective that the Government have an obligation to ensure that those who receive benefits are entitled legitimately to receive them.
The point the hon. Gentleman is making is that we need to have sanctions in place because people have to be claiming benefits legitimately—fine. We disagree on that, but that is not what this Bill is about. What it is about is preventing people from being sanctioned wrongly; it is about making sure that nobody is left destitute. It is not about sanctions overall; it is about one small change to prevent hardship.
I hear the hon. Lady and I take her point absolutely, but I am afraid she did rather give the game away early in her speech when she said that in her view we should not have a sanctions regime at all—[Interruption.] That is the perspective from which I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall).
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. It has been suggested a couple of times this morning—and we need to put an end to it—that the NAO report states that the system costs money. Page 43 of the report, in figure 23, clearly states:
“The total costs and benefits to government of sanctions are unknown”.
The NAO does not come to a conclusion; it leaves the matter open. It is not saying that there is a cost. Does he agree that one cannot put a cost on how many millions and billions of pounds are saved by ensuring that everyone complies with the rules?
I entirely agree. I do not think we can put a cost on the opportunity for work. Of course, it is this Government—through the policies of those on these Benches, both in coalition and now in majority Government—who have ensured the economic conditions that have led to our having more people in work than ever before in history.
I will make a little progress, if I may, and then I will give way to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens).
We should also understand that this system of sanctions is not new; it has operated and existed for decades. It underlies a fundamental principle of ensuring that those who are being supported are not abusing the support that is being offered. There is a very real risk that the practical effect of the hon. Lady’s Bill, however well intentioned it is, would be to render the system of sanctions impotent, preventing it from encouraging claimants to meet their commitments.
It is important that we understand the historical context and practical purpose of sanctions. Conditionality has been a long-standing feature of welfare benefit entitlements in the UK since the formation of the welfare state itself. The Beveridge report spoke of the citizen having a “profound reciprocal obligation” to co-operate fully in the restoration of his earning power. Maintenance would be provided by society but
“only to the extent to which its members are willing to accept their corresponding social obligations”.
Access to full unemployment benefits has always been conditional on the recipient being involuntarily unemployed, being available for work and doing as much as can reasonably be expected to find such employment.
The hon. Gentleman has been talking about the “taxpayer” and about how benefits are not a right. Does he know that 3,665 employees in the Department for Work and Pensions are chasing benefit fraud estimated at £1.2 billion, but that only 320 employees are based in the High Net Worth Unit of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs chasing tax avoidance estimated at £70 billion? Should we not be going after the tax avoiders far more than we should the most vulnerable in our society?
First, I say to the hon. Gentleman that I did not say that benefits are not a right; benefits are a right, and a right that I fully respect and uphold. Secondly, on the point that we have heard many times—we had Opposition day debates on it when I was a bag carrier in the Treasury—as he knows, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, when he was Financial Secretary to the Treasury, reconfigured HMRC by focusing on more regional offices, so that we can have greater impact in the collection powers of HMRC and the focus it has on ensuring that the tax collected is the tax owed.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for giving way. He mentions the Beveridge report. I am reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) that it is from 1942, but in fact the sanctions regime goes back to 1911 and the setting up of the first unemployment benefits regime.
My hon. Friend and neighbour is absolutely correct. It is the reciprocal arrangement between the benefit claimant and the taxpayer, who is supporting that person in distress, that underpins the social contract that is at the core of our society.
The scope of behavioural forms of conditionality and the severity of the sanctions applied for failure to comply with the required conduct—attending appointments with the unemployment advisers and so on—have increased substantially since the 1980s. A series of social security reviews conducted by Conservative Governments between 1979 and 1997 led to the introduction of a stricter benefit regime from the late 1980s and culminated in the introduction of jobseeker’s allowance in 1996, which intensified the monitoring of unemployed claimants’ job-seeking behaviour.
It was the last Labour Government who adopted a “work first” and “work for all” approach, embracing JSA’s monitoring of claimants’ job search activities, backed up by benefit sanctions in cases of non-compliance.
The coalition Government further intensified benefit conditionality. The roll-out of universal credit has further extended the scope of the conditionality regime. Individual claimant commitments increase jobseeking expectations for most claimants. In addition, claimants of universal credit who are in work but on low income are also subject to conditionality for the first time. The current sanctions reflect the conditionality, in that longer periods of sanction are imposed for the most serious failures, such as giving up work voluntarily, refusing to apply for a suitable job, or not taking up the offer of a suitable job. Less serious failings, such as missing an appointment or not updating a CV, of course incur a shorter sanction.
I am confused about why the hon. Gentleman is trying to defend the principle of conditionality, when there is nothing in this Bill that says that conditionality would be removed. Does he not understand that there is a difference between people being required to look for work if they are in receipt of benefit and removing people’s method of staying alive if they miss an interview by 10 minutes because their child was sick or because they had a personal catastrophe? We should be looking at the individual and not treating people as a bloc.
As was acknowledged in earlier interventions, there are procedures for emergency payments, so the idea that the hon. Gentleman is perpetrating—that somehow it is these cruel, callous Tories—
Proceedings interrupted (Standing Order No. 11(4)).
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will make a statement on the aid reviews published by her Department yesterday.
The House will be aware that the Government published yesterday, “Raising the standard: The Multilateral Development Review 2016” and, “Rising to the challenge of ending poverty: The Bilateral Development Review 2016”. These reviews set out how the UK will address the global response to problems that threaten us here at home, such as the migration crisis, cross-border conflict, climate change and disease pandemics.
In the reviews, the International Development Secretary makes it clear that Britain’s aid contribution is an investment in our future security and national interest. As the reviews describe, the UK will champion an open, modern and innovative approach to development that will effectively tackle the global challenges of the 21st century while delivering the best results for the world’s poorest. This is clearly in our national interest.
The reviews are an extensive and detailed look at the UK bilateral and multilateral development systems. They confirm the geographic regions of focus for the UK, which multilateral organisations the Department for International Development will work with and the tools that will be used to maximise our impact as we tackle poverty across the globe. They also highlight best practice in the global development system, as well as examples of poor performance that will face urgent action.
The Government are clear that the global approach to development needs to adapt and reform to keep pace with our rapidly changing world. As a world leader, the UK will be at the forefront of these efforts, promoting pioneering investment in the most challenging and fragile countries, making greater use of cutting-edge technology, and sharing skills from the best of British institutions, from the NHS to our great universities. Improving the way the UK delivers aid along with our multilateral partners is vital to delivering the best results in fighting poverty and value for taxpayers’ money. Global Britain is outward looking, and we will use our aid budget to help build a more stable, more secure, and more prosperous world for us all.
I thank the Minister for his answer, although I am disappointed, given the importance of these matters, that it took an urgent question rather than an oral statement to raise them in the Chamber. Perhaps the Secretary of State did not want to draw too much attention to the fact that, despite her previous statements about abolishing her Department and claiming that our aid was being stolen and squandered, she will now, as the Minister has confirmed, continue with many of the policies of the previous Labour and Conservative Administrations, not least with the preservation of a separate Department for International Development and, on the face of it, meeting the 0.7% aid target. As the Minister said, these issues enjoy cross-party support, they are a moral duty and are firmly in Britain’s national interest.
The reviews raise many important issues—the work that the Government are doing to bear down on multilateral institutions to ensure they spend our aid well; the work in fragile and conflict-afflicted countries; our support for the global fund for HIV AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria; the emphasis on disability; and the work on women and girls—but there remain many unanswered questions. First, no data or spending plans are attached to the reviews, so will the Minister explain whether any DFID bilateral programmes will close or be drawn down over the next few years of the spending review? Will he publish data and put them in the House of Commons Library? Secondly, EU agencies, such as the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations—ECHO—and the European Development Fund, are rated among the highest-performing international agencies. Will we continue funding them, regardless of the Brexit process?
Thirdly, we see in the reviews a shift to spending aid not through DFID but through institutions such as the Commonwealth Development Corporation and a new fund called the prosperity fund, which has been given £1.3 billion of aid money that is being spent in China, Malaysia, Mexico, India and other higher-income countries, not the poorest in the world. Will the Minister explain why that is happening? Are we keeping the poverty focus? Is it even legal and in line with international development legislation? In the last few days, Lord Bates, in answer to a written question, claimed that aid was being given to China to “maximise UK-China trade”. Where are sustainability and climate change in the economic development plan?
It is good to see the commitments to humanitarian aid, but, finally and on a separate issue, will the Minister reconsider the issue of humanitarian airdrops in Aleppo?
I am conscious of the time limit and the fact that hon. Members will want to avail themselves of the opportunity to ask questions, so I shall be brief.
I welcome what was, begrudgingly and hidden beneath the veneer of criticism in the hon. Gentleman’s comments, an acceptance that in this area there is much cross-party support that cuts across the political divide sometimes separating us in this place. We are all determined to see the maximum value delivered for the taxpayer, in our national interest and that of those helped by our international aid spend. Will bilateral aid programmes close? Well, some will, I am sure, but that will be done on an ongoing basis. All programmes are always kept under review. New programmes come into existence and some programmes, when they do not deliver to the expected standard, are of course closed down, so I could not stand here and promise that no bilateral programmes will close in the years ahead. That said, there remain clear commitments to the 0.7% spend, to having a separate Department and to doing aid in the right way to deliver real change and improvement in people’s lives—as has been encapsulated in comments by the Secretary of State and in some of the findings in the reviews.
The hon. Gentleman asked about EU agencies and whether Brexit might divert funding from them. I do not want to pre-empt the process of Brexit, but I would suspect that where it could deliver value for money we would look to work with international institutions, of whatever type, in order to secure the outcomes we want—because it is on outcomes that we are focused. We want to ensure maximum value for money, help the most people and drive development in the most effective way. He also asked about climate change. International climate finance is a large part of what DFID does, and we have significant commitments in that area that we will continue to meet. The CDC and the prosperity fund each can be powerful tools in driving aid and development and have enjoyed, I think, more than a modicum of cross-party support, which I hope will continue into the future.
I welcome the reviews, but will my hon. Friend assure me that nothing in them should dissuade people from continuing to donate to excellent overseas aid charities, such as World Vision, based in my home area of Milton Keynes, for which I believe the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) once worked?
I would go further: not only should people not be dissuaded from the generosity that the British public so often show to the charities and non-governmental organisations that work in overseas development, but they should be encouraged to continue it. It is so important. It makes a real difference on the ground. My hon. Friend cited one example in his constituency, but there are many organisations that do great work, many in partnership with DFID and the Government and other international partners and actors, and many of them are making a real difference to people’s lives.
I thank the Department for finally releasing the multilateral and bilateral aid reviews. The House, the NGO community and civil society have had to wait a long time to finally read the reviews. Why did it take so long? The reviews show that DFID is working in challenging environments and delivering aid transparently—no wastages, no reason for alarm—so why has the Secretary of State continued to show little support for DFID? I hope she will now show it some support. In 2011, the development reviews included specific country-by-country data, including indicative spending levels per country. Why do the current reviews not include these important data?
The shadow Secretary of State asks why it has taken so long to publish the reviews. We live, of course, in a new global environment. We have seen many events this year—in this changing world of politics—including the vote to leave the EU, and the Secretary of State rightly wanted to ensure that the reviews, when they were published, fully took account of the new opportunities presented to us, including the chance to be truly global in our outlook and to deliver a global Britain, and of the contribution that DFID can make to that. It was absolutely right, therefore, that we took our time to ensure that the reviews took account of the changing environment and global circumstances.
I take exception, however, to the shadow Secretary of State’s characterisation of the Secretary of State as in any way needing to show more support for the Department. I have had the great pleasure to work with her in DFID since the summer, and I have seen somebody who is driving real reform and change and taking with her a Department that is buying into a vision and a strategy that will deliver more and better for some of the world’s poorest people.
I am absolutely committed to the great work that my Department does, and I have absolutely no doubt that the Secretary of State is, too. I have equally no doubt that she is the right person to drive an agenda that will push forward a Department and an area of work of which this country should be proud to partake, taking us into a new world and a new space to deliver more and to deliver better for the people who most need it—the poorest people who will receive support from the work that we do. I am proud to be in my Department; I am proud of the Ministers in my team—and that includes the Secretary of State, who is doing an excellent job.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on tabling this urgent question. My Kettering constituents appreciate that the United Kingdom is among the most generous nations in the world when it comes to international aid. I think, however, that they would also ask the Minister to attach more conditions to the aid that we give. For example, a large number of countries have a large number of their nationals in prison in this country and they refuse to take them back to put them in prison in their own country. There are also countries to which we give aid in which persecution of Christians is rife and the Governments of those countries seem to do very little about it. Top of the list on both categories would be Pakistan. Will the Minister respond to that?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Aid helps some of the world’s poorest and it helps to make a real difference to the development of those countries and the individuals who live in them. At the same time, we must use every opportunity to impress on those countries the values that we want to see adopted and to impress on them the things about which we care. I certainly do that, and I know my colleagues in the Foreign Office do the same. We are always careful to ensure that we do no harm where we spend money and deliver programmes. That remains a key tenet of what we do. My hon. Friend is quite right to raise the issue he did, but he can be assured that what he said is very high on our agenda.
These are less multilateral and bilateral reviews than a sort of unilateral declaration of the Secretary of State’s personal and political agenda on this issue. If the multilateral system is broken, as claimed in the review, where is the determination to work with other Governments to fix the problem? Surely holding agencies to a unique set of DFID measurements will increase the bureaucratic demands and inefficiencies. In the bilateral review, there is an apparent shift from a partnership approach, working towards shared goals, to a contractual approach in which stakeholders are merely service providers meeting DFID’s own determined goals. Where is the evidence that this will be more effective and have a greater impact? Finally, I have asked this question several times: if meeting the sustainable development goals and ending poverty are not in the national interest, what is? What are the other national interests beyond building a more peaceful, secure and stable world?
There was broad range of questions there—I could spend far longer than the time I have available to answer them. It is commendable that the Secretary of State, this Department, this Government, we in this place and British taxpayers are driving performance agreements for multilateral organisations which will improve the work they do and the efficiency with which they use the funding. That will allow them to help more people over the longer term and in a more sustainable way. I think that is exactly the right approach. We should put the requirements of efficiency and transparency on organisations that receive funding from the UK taxpayer. It is commendable that that is the direction in which we have been moving.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the sustainable development goals and whether meeting them is in the national interest. I believe that they are absolutely in the national and, indeed, the global interest. We all want to see serious progress made towards addressing some of the global challenges that will affect not just us but generations to come right across the world. DFID is making a significant contribution, of which I am proud.
I congratulate the Government on their ongoing commitment to aid and to ensuring that taxpayers’ money invested in aid is well spent. Does this review not provide another example of how the UK is leading the world—not only in the amount we spend on aid, but in ensuring that it is well spent through transparency and accountability?
It is absolutely the case that the reviews provide a great example of the UK in its global leadership role, setting the pace not only on how development aid should be done, but on how to ensure transparency, accountability and value for money, so that every pound and every penny we spend makes the maximum possible impact. That is a moral imperative, because if we do not succeed in those respects, the people who could be helped will have to go without that support. I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is absolutely right, and it is the direction towards which we intend to continue to push.
The aid review showed that EU institutions were some of the best-performing global agencies. Will the Minister join me in praising them?
We work with a wide range of global agencies, many of which deliver effective programmes that make a real difference to people’s lives. As I said in my earlier comments, where we can efficiently do so, we will always look to work with multilateral organisations that can deliver change—whatever the political origination of those organisations might be.
Will my hon. Friend reassure my hard-working constituents whose taxes, of course, provide the money that enables international aid to be provided that there will be a laser-like focus on ensuring value for money? Does he agree that, in the long term, the best way to help the poorest countries in the world is for them to develop their economy, so that there is more trade and less aid?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Department remains entirely focused on driving value for money. These reviews underline that commitment, and my hon. Friend is, of course, right that we want to help nations and people lift themselves out of poverty by supporting the structures of their society and the pillars of their economy by ensuring that they can trade and generate income, so that they become less dependent on international aid. Indeed, the prosperity fund is a very good example of this Government’s commitment to that course.
Will the Minister tell us how moving to payment by results for global agencies can help them plan for long-term development budgets with any certainty or confidence at all?
If we have a payment-by-results system, in some appropriate circumstances, the certainty that those organisations will get will come from the performance that they can deliver, because they will be sure that the donors can continue to have confidence in them and the work that they do. It is absolutely right to deliver value for the taxpayer, not just because it is good and right for the taxpayer in this country, but because for every pound we derive value from we can help some of the poorest people in the world.
For young women around the world, inequality often starts with the inhumanity of a lack of sanitation, making additional privacy more difficult. Will my hon. Friend welcome the words of the chief executive of WaterAid, a charity that is doing fantastic work around the world, in welcoming DFID’s decision this morning?
I will indeed. A range of widely respected organisations have made clear their support for what is contained in these reports and the approach that the Secretary of State and DFID are following. The support coming from a range of organisations, including non-governmental organisations, and from individuals across the political divide is significant and important. I think that makes a statement in and of itself about the work we are undertaking.
The aid review rightly says that more aid should be directed to conflict-affected areas. With that in mind, will the Government consider humanitarian air drops to Aleppo—a measure that would have cross-party support?
I believe this issue has been extensively covered in the House recently. There are practical limitations on what can be done because of the circumstances in Aleppo and the very tragic events unfolding there even as we speak. The Government continue to be committed to supporting in every way that they should and can those people who are affected by the terrible events that are happening. At this time, however, I am not sure that the hon. Lady’s suggestion is practicable or deliverable.
I stand here as an advocate and supporter of this Government’s policy of spending 0.7% of our national income on international aid, and I am proud that it was under a Conservative-led Government during the last Parliament that the former Member for Witney, David Cameron, drove this policy through. Will the Minister confirm that this is still the policy that the Government will pursue? However, my constituents also want to see value for taxpayers’ money, so will he confirm that that is at the forefront of his mind as well?
I am happy to confirm that on both fronts. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to our former Prime Minister, David Cameron, who was a leader—not just in this country, but globally—on this agenda. He made commitments during his time in office that will ensure that this country is at the forefront of the debate and the forefront of delivery in the international development space. My hon. Friend’s constituents can rest assured that we are doing good things and ensuring value for money as we do so.
Where is the voice of civil society—particularly the voice of civil society in developing countries—in these reviews? Does the Minister recognise that well-supported and active civil societies are crucial in building peaceful and stable democracies that can allow economies to grow and poverty to be overcome?
That is a very important point. Civil society can be vital to holding those in power to account and ensuring that democratic systems function properly. It is an area of work in which DFID is very much engaged, and I have seen some of those projects myself when I have travelled in Africa and in other countries for which I have responsibility. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: civil society is a key driver for development and stability, and we will continue to invest in it.
I welcome the publication of the two reviews. Reading the “Multilateral Development Review”, I was interested to note how working with UNICEF on bulk orders of medicines via the Gavi programme had not only saved, potentially, the lives of 4 million to 5 million children, but saved £900 million that could be used for other purposes. Does the Minister agree, though, that one of the biggest impacts on people’s lives occurs when countries emerge from dictatorship and try to move towards a more inclusive society, and various tensions are then unleashed? Does he agree that we need to ensure that international aid remains focused on helping countries to make what can be difficult transitions to functioning democracy without ending up in the sort of collapse we have seen elsewhere?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a broad strategy across the Government, and one to which we are committed. I was pleased that my hon. Friend mentioned Gavi, which does such great work. Indeed, Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, said of the reviews:
“The UK Department for International Development’s multilateral reviews have become an internationally-recognised benchmark, casting expert eyes onto our results and processes and, importantly, letting us know when we’re veering off course.”
We remain world leaders in driving value for money and holding to account organisations that do so much good, and we will continue to do so.
May I be the first Member of Parliament to congratulate Sarah Olney on her fantastic election yesterday, when she overturned a majority of 23,000? I am sure that the residents of Richmond Park are very interested in what we are discussing today.
Will the Minister confirm that the Government’s desire to boost trade following the EU referendum will not be at the expense of the poorest countries in the world and that they remain a priority? Will he also confirm that if the most effective way of distributing aid in the future is through the European Union, the Government will not hesitate to do that?
I will, if I may, pass over the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments and focus on the latter two questions that he asked.
Trade is vital to lifting people out of poverty. If we can improve economies and their functioning in some of the world’s poorest nations, that is often the best way to ensure long-term and sustainable development. As I have said a number of times today and previously, we will always look to our international partners to ensure that when we spend UK taxpayers’ money, it is spent efficiently. That will mean considering partners that can deliver the outcomes that we want to secure, regardless of whether they happen to be founded in, based on or run through the European Union.
Does the Minister agree that when, for the price of a cup of coffee, we can vaccinate a child against the five most deadly diseases, which might otherwise very well kill them, the money is not only necessary but well spent?
Absolutely. It is one of the great tragedies that so much preventable disease none the less causes such suffering and loss of life across the world, but we are in a position to make a difference to that. Indeed, we are one of the leading nations in the fight. I have already spoken about our work with Gavi and about its opinion of the reviews. My hon. and learned Friend highlights one of the moral imperatives that underpin the commitment that we have made to continue to be proactive and, indeed, world-leading in this regard.
Can the Minister confirm that he is talking to the Department for Exiting the European Union about continued finance for projects through the European development fund, even in the event of Brexit?
I am happy to confirm that all Departments are talking to each other and working seamlessly to deliver policy and the UK national interest. That includes, of course, the new Department for Exiting the European Union.
Less money, less aid and less influence is the reality of Brexit internationally. Given the projected reductions in growth as a result of Brexit, does the Minister not recognise that it will have a profound impact on the UK Government’s ability to meet their 0.7% commitment?
I think that Brexit presents the United Kingdom with an almost unique opportunity to be a world leader, to look outwards rather than inwards, to re-establish some of its historic ties, friendships and relationships, and to drive forward its agenda and values throughout the globe. The Department has a contribution to make to that, and the Government are getting on with the work. I welcome it, but, more importantly, the British people voted for it.
The Minister has referred to Brexit a number of times, but he said at the beginning that the reviews had fully taken account of what I think he called a change of circumstance, so he is surely able to clarify the position of finance for projects through the European development fund. Will he do that?
The question has come up many times, and I have responded to it as clearly as I can. The Government will always seek to deliver the best possible value for money for the British taxpayer and secure the outputs that we want to secure. If European Union institutions were able to deliver programmes through which we could work, we would not rule out working with them in the future—nor should we—but they would be assessed along with all the others. I do not think that I could be any clearer or more straightforward in my answer to that question. The review does not ascribe too much significance to the issue, because the truth is that we will always work with the most efficient partners to deliver the best results.
The biggest threat to global development is surely climate change. What steps is the Department taking, and what discussions is it having with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about the adoption of a co-ordinated approach to that global threat?
DFID works closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and that includes work relating to climate change. We have many world-leading projects, such as Energy Africa, which delivers renewable energy to countless thousands of homes to help people in a number of countries on the African continent. DFID is a significant contributor to the Government’s commitments on our green agenda, and we will continue to contribute through, for example, international climate finance, in which the Department plays a leading role. We are committed to that agenda, and we will continue to drive it in a development context.
What assistance will DFID give multilateral and bilateral organisations to support data collection and aggregation, and, particularly on age and gender grounds, to monitor impact and effectiveness?
The hon. Gentleman has asked an important question. If we are to understand how best to target the resources that we deploy, we need to have the data that underpin those decisions. If we are to identify the challenges that will arise in some of the poorest parts of the world before they are necessarily apparent and before it is too late to respond, we need those data and an understanding of how to analyse them. DFID is a significant investor in that context, and we will continue to be so, because we recognise the difference that our investment makes not only to the people who benefit from the results that it helps to drive and the decisions that it helps to make, but to the value for money that is secured by what we do.
Benefit Claimants Sanctions (Required Assessment) Bill
May I say that I can think of no one I am happier to be interrupted by than my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, on one of his rare visits to the United Kingdom?
Before the interruption, we were hearing from the Opposition a perception that the Government were not listening. Let me point out that, in 2013, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions commissioned Matthew Oakley
“to undertake an independent review of the operation of the provisions relating to the imposition of benefit sanctions that are imposed as a result of, or have been validated by, the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Act 2013.”
The review considered benefit sanctions for claimants of jobseeker’s allowance who were sanctioned after being referred to a mandatory back-to-work scheme in the year to 26 March 2014. It considered the process of benefit sanctions, and the understanding of sanctions by claimants. In 2014 the Oakley review was completed, and the Secretary of State received a report. The review team rigorously examined the DWP’s sanctions processes and communications, and Matthew Oakley
“commended the Department and officials for the manner in which they have approached and supported my review.”
He also stated that sanctions were
“a key element of the mutual obligation that underpins…the effectiveness and fairness of the social security system.”
The review concluded that the current system largely functioned well, but conceded that in an operation of this scale there were almost inevitably areas for improvement. It made 17 recommendations with three key themes: communications, jobcentre/provider responsibility, and safeguards. Her Majesty’s Government accepted all 17 recommendations from the Oakley review. Significant work with internal and external stakeholders has taken place to implement the recommendations and, crucially, is continuing to ensure that the system continues to function effectively and fairly.
In March 2015 the Work and Pensions Committee published the report “Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review”, with recommendations. In October 2015 the Secretary of State responded to the Select Committee accepting recommendations in a number of areas, including on vulnerability and giving tailored support to claimants. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), Chairman of the Committee, said
“We are pleased that the Government has accepted many of the Committee’s criticisms of its approach and, more importantly, the recommendations for change.”
From October 2015 onwards, the response to the Select Committee clearly outlined the work the Department had already undertaken to review the sanctions system and changes the Government intended to make and they are continuing to work on those alongside the ongoing work of the Oakley review.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the National Audit Office report will be subject to debate and scrutiny in the Public Accounts Committee, which will also produce a report and recommendations, and that that may be a more effective way of achieving the desired aim than doing it through a Bill?
I agree, and I have known the Minister for over 20 years and I know him to be one of the most moderate, reflective and compassionate people in our party. I know he will be open to ideas on how we can further improve the system to deliver the best support to those who legitimately need it most.
In seeking to build a system that has compassion within it, does the hon. Gentleman agree that my constituent who was sanctioned for missing his signing day to be at his father’s deathbed is in need of compassion from a system that is clearly failing at the moment?
The hon. Lady raises an individual case; we all have individual cases in our constituencies where the system has let people down. That is why it is absolutely appropriate that there is a full independent appeals process to correct it when it goes wrong. I would extend, through the hon. Lady, our sympathy to that gentleman; the system clearly did not work for him on that occasion. But that is why it is important that we have this continuous process of listening and improvement; that is how systems are improved.
Between October and December 2015, in terms of employment and support allowance sanctioning, the Government made significant improvements in communications between decision makers and Work programme providers to ensure that claimants received relevant safeguarding activities and reduced the risk of inappropriate sanctions.
In November 2015 the Government re-introduced automated sanction notifications for jobseeker’s allowance and ESA. In December 2015 the Government issued supplementary vulnerability guidance to work coaches in Jobcentre Plus, which includes how conditionality can be tailored for vulnerable claimants to take account of individual circumstances.
I am appalled by some of the cases I have heard mentioned in the Chamber today. Many of the cases in which I have had to intervene have been where parents have not been involved in the processes, and where perhaps younger or vulnerable people have not had support. That is where we and the processes have intervened, and it has worked for them. I have found it very difficult to hear from Opposition Members of cases where people have been in such peril, in circumstances similar to those in which I have been able to intervene and make a difference to people’s lives by working with parents, those who care for people who are vulnerable and those who are helping the claimants.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and highlights the fact that, as Members of Parliament, we can be powerful advocates for people who sometimes slip through the cracks. She also makes—if I may say so, in a spirit of cross-party consensus—the interesting point that compassion is not resident in only one part of this Chamber. All Members who come to this House to serve, come to do their very best for the constituents who elected them.
The hon. Gentleman has said that many of us have come across these experiences, and his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) has said the same—we have heard examples during the debate. The system is clearly not working; it should not come down to people having to go to their MP to get the support they should rightly have.
It is incumbent upon all Governments of all colours to work constantly to try to improve the systems under which we operate. The answer, however, is not to remove a sanctions regime—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South set out the matter very clearly; this is a Trojan horse Bill.
If I wanted to use this Bill to get rid of sanctions, that is exactly what it would say on the cover. I have explained, and I cannot be more sincere in explaining, that this Bill is not about removing sanctions. It is a genuine attempt to bring some consistency to a system that is allowing far too many people to fall through the cracks. It is about ensuring that individuals are not left without. That is compassion.
The hon. Lady was very clear in her speech to the House earlier that her view is that it would be much better to have a system with no sanctions in place. [Interruption] That is what the hon. Lady said. What I am trying to outline is the way in which the Government are working within the existing processes to improve the arrangements of the system so that we genuinely deliver benefits to those who need them, but root out those seeking to abuse the system and therefore break the social contract with the taxpayers who are working to pay those benefits.
One of the ways we have done that was when, in December 2015, we accelerated the process for considering hardship payment claims so that they are now paid within three days. The Government response to the Select Committee included the announcement that we would trial a sanctions warning system and that we would give a further opportunity for claimants to provide evidence before a sanction is applied. That would strike the right balance between enforcing conditionality and fairness. The trial started in Scotland in March 2016 and ended at the end of September. Evaluation is currently being undertaken to enable ministerial decisions on any future national roll-out.
Sanctions are not jumped to before any other considerations; they are used as a last resort. The Government have put in place a comprehensive monitoring regime to ensure that sanctions are always, and only ever, applied appropriately. Not only is the decision to impose a sanction taken by an independent decision maker, but everyone is made aware of their right to appeal, and claimants are given every opportunity to present additional evidence. It is not a form of arbitrary and cruel punishment for those who, of innocent circumstance, were forced to be late for, or miss entirely, a meeting.
The hon. Gentleman is doing his best to suggest he can empathise with people, but I wonder whether he has ever experienced not knowing where his next meal is coming from or whether he can feed or clothe his children. I also wonder what effect this sanctioning regime is having on our already embattled mental health services, which are struggling to cope as it is.
I have in fact been in those circumstances. I was unemployed and had to sign on after I graduated in 1994 in the worst graduate recession since the second world war. I experienced that again after I tried to get elected to this House in 2005 and had not got the money; I had to decide whether to pay the mortgage or the council tax on overdraft. So, yes I have been in those circumstances, and I have to say: do not ever sit there and suggest to people that we do not have the ability to empathise in this House of Commons simply because we sit on the Conservative Benches. That is the worst type of class war stereotypical nonsense, which frankly we should have moved way beyond in this House a long time ago.
Let us return to the point in question. The fact is that 94% of JSA claimants stick to their commitments and are not sanctioned, and even smaller is the percentage of ESA claimants—the main in-work sickness benefit—who are sanctioned, which stands at less than 1%. However, something being uncommon does not justify ignoring it, if it is a justified issue, which brings me on to my other point.
Department for Work and Pensions research shows that 70% of people receiving JSA and 60% of those receiving ESA said that the regime made them more likely to follow the rules. This is a sensible policy, which takes account of, and goes to great lengths never to disadvantage, those genuinely in need of benefits, but which seeks to cut down any dependency culture, ensure that those claiming benefits—
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. Has he read the NAO report published this week which shows that a quarter of all people between 2010 and 2015-16 have experienced a sanction? That is the reality; that is the real fact.
I am very comfortable with the figures that I have given the House, and I see the Minister nodding his affirmation that those figures are indeed correct.
I am happy to confirm that my hon. Friend is correct. I have the House of Commons Library briefing paper here and it confirms exactly what he has said about JSA claimants falling to around 2% in each of the first six months of 2016 and ESA claimants falling to around 1% between May 2011 and May 2016. He is absolutely right to say that Conservative Members do not lack compassion and empathy. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) was right to say that we are dealing with individual human beings, not statistics, but the statistics are nevertheless important.
I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend. I could not have put that more eloquently myself.
Sanctions regimes are not uncommon. In fact, most developed economies attach conditions to the receipt of benefits. Recent European studies in Switzerland in 2005, in the Netherlands in 2013, in Denmark in 2011 and in Germany in 2014 found that benefit cuts substantially increased employment take-up among sanctioned persons. In 2013, the Government commissioned an independent review into sanctions and implemented all its recommendations.
We should put aside the misconception sometimes portrayed by Members that sanctions are the automatic default that the system rushes towards. In fact, a claimant has to go through an incredibly long journey before they reach the point of sanction.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to tell me how that fits in with what DWP staff have told me about the aspirations that they have? They do not call them targets; they call them aspirations, and they have an aspiration to sanction a certain number of people every week.