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Social Security: Claimants

Volume 777: debated on Wednesday 30 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the light of the public debate around the film “I, Daniel Blake”, they plan to set up a review of the treatment of claimants in the social security system.

We aim to keep all our policies under constant review to ensure that they continue to function effectively and fairly. The film is one person’s interpretation of the benefit system. I make it clear that our staff, who work incredibly hard day in and day out, are committed to supporting the most vulnerable and helping people who are able to find work to get a job.

My Lords, I fear that Ministers have missed the point of this powerful and well-researched film, summed up in the final words of Daniel Blake’s demand for respectful treatment:

“I am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less”.

What will the Government now do to transform a culture of suspicion and sanctions, the costs of which are highlighted in today’s damning National Audit Office report, to a culture of citizenship for the sake of both claimants and staff?

The staff of the DWP, who I think are effectively being attacked in that Question and by its implications, have really transformed the way that they approach this. With the work coach transformation they are tailoring requirements to the needs of individuals, following a thorough discussion with them on what their needs are in order to get them to play an economic part in this country.

My Lords, despite my years of trying to persuade the Department of Work and Pensions to recognise the severity of CFS/ME, is the Minister aware of how utterly demoralised people who have to undergo assessments feel if they are not believed? Even when the derogatory assessment has been overturned by a tribunal, it takes them months and months to regain their self-esteem. Can the Minister please get this matter in hand once and for all?

I thank the noble Countess for that question. We have been working on this issue with her and her group for some years now, and I am under the impression that we have made a lot of progress on ensuring that the illness is thoroughly recognised.

My Lords, the film shows people being sanctioned for a number of reasons which are clearly not serious. For example Katie, a single mum, is moved to Newcastle when she is made homeless and because she is a few minutes late in getting to the jobcentre, because she cannot find it in a new city, her benefits are sanctioned. Can the Minister tell the House that that would not happen in real life? He normally comes here and tells us that sanctions are very rare and a last resort but we discovered from today’s NAO report that over the last five years, 24% of all JSA claimants were sanctioned. Is it any wonder that our food banks are filling up with people using them who are sanctioned for trivial or unjust reasons? Is this not a disgrace?

There were a whole load of statements there that are simply not true. In the example which the noble Baroness uses, there would clearly be a good reason for someone not being able to fathom the transport in a new place. There are an enormous number of protections for people in the sanctioning process, which has about seven or eight steps: there is a check by the work coach; it goes to the decision-maker; there is provision of information back to the person, who can challenge it with the decision-maker; it can go to dispute resolution, mandatory consideration and then the tribunal. This is not the easy process that is implied. Sanctions are treated very seriously. They are an integral part of the system and are treated with all due seriousness.

My Lords, given that the National Audit Office has today said that there is limited evidence that benefit sanctions work but rather that they result in “hardship, hunger and depression”, can the Minister update the House as to whether Her Majesty’s Government will now commit to a substantial review of the use and implementation of sanctions?

I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle on her first question. I hope they will not all be as painful in future as this one. I cannot make that commitment. As is said in the report, the reality is that sanctions work. There is a lot of external evidence of sanctions having a substantial impact on employment uptake, whether you are looking at the evidence from Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark or Germany. Our own survey shows that people on both JSA and ESA are more likely to accept the rules of the system with the sanction system behind it.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that if the National Audit Office is about anything it is about looking for value for money? Will he confirm that one of the important findings of the NAO is that in the fiscal year 2015 there were, for example, DWP sanction benefits savings, so called, just shy of £100 million net of hardship payments? However, the NAO came to the conclusion that the department had done no overall assessment of any kind of the downstream consequential impacts on other public services, so it is impossible to know whether the prosecution of sanctions as currently carried out by the department is effective value for money.

I am in a difficult position because we are about to make our response to the NAO report, which is a formal process, so I do not have that response. Clearly the NAO concentrates on value for money. It wants more evidence and the department will be looking at providing it with some of that evidence in reply.

My Lords, the Minister must know that the Government’s own review of mandatory workfare shows that a young person is twice as likely to find work if they drop out of the scheme and three times as likely to find work if they do not participate in the first place. Will the Minister accept that the Government’s review has validity and update social security practices accordingly?

If the question is about how the benefit system works for the young, we are now running one of the lowest levels of inactivity we have seen for young people. In the benefits system as a whole, we are looking at the highest-ever employment rate and one of the lowest levels of poverty since the 1980s. Household incomes at an all-time high, we have the lowest levels of children in workless households since records began and the lowest income inequality. If the noble Baroness is saying that the system is not working, how do these figures stand up? We are transforming the system and producing real results.