Taking Action on DWP Sanctions: Private Members Bill

Today a Private Members’ Bill on sanctions was debated in Parliament which, if passed, will require assessment of a benefit claimant’s circumstances before the implementation by the DWP of sanctions.

All MPs know, from our constituency casework, just what a damaging and devastating effect sanctions can have on our most vulnerable constituents.

That is why I have been campaigning to stop the Government’s punitive sanctions regime for nearly 4 years now, ever since the Coalition Government introduced their new sanctions regime in 2012. I have quizzed the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, specifically on this issue when on the Select Committee and have worked with people who have been affected by sanctions.

In January 2015 instigated the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s inquiry on sanctions. The evidence to the Select Committee as part of the ‘Benefit Sanctions beyond the Oakley Review’ Inquiry was shocking. The Select Committee made over 20 recommendations, including stopping financial sanctions for people who were sick or disabled on ESA and for other vulnerable claimants.

Unfortunately the Government refused to accept the Select Committee’s recommendations on stopping financial sanctions, stopping sanctions to people who are in low paid work receiving tax credits or Universal Credits, and on setting up an independent body to investigate deaths associated with a sanction or to track what happens when claimants are sanctioned and stop signing on. Labour agreed to implement every recommendation.

This Government’s punitive, divisive and unjust sanctions regime must go. The narrow focus on getting claimants ‘off-flow’ has led to hundreds of thousands of poor, harmful and counterproductive decisions.

You can read my blog piece on this week’s National Audit Office report here.

You can read my contribution to the debate below:-

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): After the previous speech, which I will come on to, I welcome the opportunity to use a slightly different tone in this debate—certainly when it comes to the evidence. I start by offering warm congratulations to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) on bringing the Bill forward. She rightly deserves credit for her work, and her conciliatory tone is to be commended. She is absolutely right that, as the hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) was saying, this debate is about continuing the listening process and trying to improve a flawed system. The Bill does just that.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South outlined her personal views, but she put them to one side and, like so many Members, spoke about the car crashes that are happening in the sanctions system. I want to provide two examples that I received just last night and this morning—that is how frequently such things are happening. Nearly a million people were sanctioned last year. It is not an insignificant number. The two cases are exactly the same. Both people were due to go in for surgery just days before a work capability assessment and were signed off for eight works. When they asked whether they had to go to the assessment, they were told that they did or else they would be sanctioned. It is absolute nonsense. This sort of thing is going on up and down the country, and I will come on to some other examples.

The hon. Lady was right to highlight the unfortunate narrative that was indicative of the Government until fairly recently. The shirker/scrounger language set a tone and tried to shift the public’s perception.

John Nicolson (East Dunbartonshire) (SNP): Does the hon. Lady share my enormous concern—it sounds as though she does—with that scrounger tone? My father was the manager of the largest social security office in Scotland, and he always said that the problem was not people claiming what they were not entitled to; it was all the people who did not claim what they were entitled to because of the sense of shame and the narrative propagated by Government Members.

Debbie Abrahams: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Reflecting his father’s experience, many jobcentre advisers have been saying similar things and that they are absolutely horrified by what they are experiencing.

Helen Whately: The hon. Lady made an important point about tone. Members from all parts of the House should conduct this debate with a compassionate tone, but she seems to be putting words into the mouths of Government Members—words that have simply not been said. Is there a Government source that she can refer us to that uses the language that she was using a moment ago?

Debbie Abrahams: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We all need to be responsible for the language and the tone that we use. Unfortunately, we have seen some of that in today’s debate. I refer Members to the earlier National Audit Office report that was published this week. A headline in a paper suggested that the one in four claimants who had been sanctioned were somehow fraudulent. That was the disgraceful tone of the headline in a major newspaper, which distorted the evidence.

Helen Whately rose—

Debbie Abrahams: I am sorry, but I am going to carry on.

We must ensure that all of us, as leaders, use the appropriate language. I can point to speeches that have been made in the past in which that has not been the case.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South has outlined the provisions of her Bill, which requires an assessment of social security claimants’ circumstances before a sanction is applied. Measures in the Bill include a code of conduct for those responsible for imposing sanctions and the important principle of just cause, which is applied in defined circumstances. It will be applied, for example, where undertaking a job is in clear conflict with the claimant’s caring responsibility, and where there is just cause for not undertaking particular employment or job-search activity. In such cases, it is proposed that sanctions should not be applied.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the need for assessment for hardship payments after a sanction has been applied. Again, that is absolutely right. It was in fact one recommendation from the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry on this issue last year.

I have been heartened by the slightly different tone taken by the new Secretary of State, particularly in what has been said about work capability assessment and sanctions for homeless people and other vulnerable groups. I see this Bill as an important step forward, as it builds on what we have said should be happening. It would also make the process much fairer. I support this Bill in abolishing the punitive sanctions regime that the Tories and the Liberal Democrats introduced in the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

Let me provide a bit of background to what has been going on over the past four years. We have heard about the exponential rise in sanctions that have been applied to people on JSA, incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance, but we did not really touch on the new application to people on universal credit who are in work. I am referring to the taxpayers who the hon. Member for Bournemouth West was talking about—the taxpayers who are already contributing to the Exchequer and who are, through the universal credit regulations, likely to be subjected to a sanction. That would be the case if, for example, they are not working full time, or if they have not got a permanent contract and want a few days off. They can be sanctioned and that is happening now.

I have been campaigning on this issue for more than four years. A constituent came to me after he had been sanctioned. He was in the middle of a work capability assessment when he suffered a heart attack. He was told by the nurse undertaking the assessment that he needed to go to hospital. He did that, and two weeks later he had a letter in the post saying that he had been sanctioned.

I mentioned another case to the Minister when we were in an interview recently. John Ruane from my constituency has a brain tumour, which means that he has three to four epileptic fits a week. His clinical team contacted me because he was refusing to have a life-saving operation on the grounds that he feared he would be sanctioned. He had already had his ESA stopped after a work capability assessment—that is another story, which I cannot go into today, but which certainly needs to be looked at again. He was frightened of being sanctioned. Fortunately, I have been able to intervene and his ESA has been re-established, but that fear of being sanctioned is what people are experiencing.

Yet another constituent of mine, who was a Jobcentre Plus adviser for more than 25 years, came to me four years ago, saying how troubled he was about the targets that he was being set—or aspirations as a Member said earlier—to sanction claimants. Targets were being set for sanctions even when people had done nothing wrong. He explained how the system works—that appointments would be made when people were meant to come in for a work-related interview, and the people would then not be told. That was investigated by the Department for Work and Pensions and, shamefully, it did nothing.

Michael Tomlinson: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Debbie Abrahams: On that point alone.

Michael Tomlinson: The hon. Lady mentions sanctions. Does she approve of the sanctions regime overall, or would she also advocate getting rid of it in its totality?

Debbie Abrahams: I said, “On that point alone,” and the hon. Gentleman has not asked specifically about the investigation of the fraudulent activity that was going on in the DWP, so I am afraid I am not going to respond to his intervention. [Interruption.] I will come on to putting our position very clearly to the Minister.

This Jobcentre Plus adviser said people were being set up to fail to get them off flow. If claimants are off flow, they are not signing in. Not only do they not count in the JSA claimant statistics, but they are not drawing social security support. Wednesday’s National Audit Office report estimated that, last year alone, £132 million was not paid in social security support, but a significant amount—not quite as much as that—was spent on administering the sanctions process.

What many people are surprised to hear is that sanctions apply immediately and last for a minimum of a month. They are referred to a DWP decision maker, as we have heard, to decide whether they should be upheld, but that in itself can take a month. On top of that, although housing benefit payments are not meant to be stopped, they have been, and that was confirmed during the Select Committee inquiry last year. As has also been said, the ensuing debt builds up, and Sheffield Hallam University has shown the implications for sanctions-related homelessness.

Then I started to hear about the deaths of claimants following a sanction—first Mark Wood, and then David Clapson, and there have been many more. Of the 49 claimants who died between 2012 and 2014, and whose deaths were investigated by the DWP, 10 followed a sanction. By the way, I am still waiting for the Department to get back to me on the peer review details of nine subsequent claimant deaths.

It was after David’s death, and when I had met his sister, Gill Thompson, who is absolutely devastated—I pay tribute to her for the campaign she has launched to try to raise awareness of what is happening—that I managed to persuade the Select Committee to undertake an inquiry into sanctions that would explore the impacts of the Government’s 2012 sanctions regime. We found that, between 2012 and 2014, 3.2 million sanctions were applied. At a peak, in one month in 2014, 90,000 JSA claimants were sanctioned. The sanctions for sick and disabled people increased fivefold. One in five JSA claimants were sanctioned at that time; as we have heard, that has increased to one in four. Single parents and people with mental health conditions were particularly affected. Again, the variation across the country was quite staggering.

We found that 43% of claimants who are sanctioned leave JSA—they move off flow, distorting the JSA claimant count. Over 80%—this is a really important point—of those leaving JSA after a sanction do so for reasons other than work. One would think that the Government would want to know what was happening to those people and where they were going. If they are not going into work, what exactly is happening to them? One recommendation from the all-party Select Committee inquiry was that we should follow up these cases. As the NAO has shown, that has not happened. We do not know what happens to the nearly half of the JSA claimants who leave and the 80% who do so for reasons other than going into work.

The rise in food bank usage was also linked to the increase in sanctions, and both the physical and the mental health issues of claimants were found to be exacerbated by the punitive sanctions regime. The Select Committee made more than 20 recommendations, including for the pre-sanction process that the Bill also calls for. It also said that all financial sanctions on vulnerable JSA and ESA claimants, as well as those on people who are on universal credit and in work but not full-time work, should be stopped.

Fundamentally, the Select Committee called for an independent inquiry into sanctions as a whole, and the NAO made the same recommendation in its report on Wednesday. Unfortunately, the Government did not accept the majority of the recommendations. They made some moves on hardship payments. We have heard about that already and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Wednesday’s NAO report was the third in a month reaffirming and adding to the Select Committee inquiry’s findings. There is no evidence that sanctioning someone motivates them or modifies their behaviour in such a way that they move into work. Even the Government’s own behavioural insights team found exactly that in its review. We have discussed the fact that one in four JSA claimants were sanctioned between 2010 and 2015, and I have mentioned the appalling headline that said that they were abusing the system. As I have said, the Jobcentre Plus whistleblower said that claimants are being set up to fail.

We also know that 42% of UC decisions about sanctions took longer than 28 days, and that £132 million was withheld last year. Last month, the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics quantified the association between the increase in sanctioning and food bank usage: for every 10 sanctions, five more adults were referred to food banks.

Kirsten Oswald: I echo the hon. Lady’s sentiments and her comments on the correlation between sanctions and food banks. Does she agree that it is a sad situation that Scotland now has not only food banks, but school uniform banks, and that that is directly linked to the inability of families, through no fault of their own, to support their children in going to school?

Debbie Abrahams: Absolutely. Last week, the food bank in my own area launched a fuel bank, because people are choosing between heating and eating. That is what is going to happen up and down the country this Christmas.

Where do we go from here? I hope that, given the evidence and the new tone being used by this Government—I was disappointed with the autumn statement, but I am an eternal optimist and hope that the Minister is listening—they will support the Bill and implement it at the earliest opportunity.

I turn to the question asked by the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) about our position. I made it very clear in my conference speech in September.

Michael Tomlinson: I wasn’t there, but the hon. Lady can invite me next time!

Debbie Abrahams: I will certainly do that. The hon. Gentleman is very welcome to cross the Floor.

I said—and this was widely reported at the time—that we want to scrap the system. We must be driven by evidence, and the evidence shows that it does not work. It does not motivate people or change behaviour. All it does is have a very harmful effect on the most vulnerable in society. It also has some very difficult spin-off effects.

Michael Tomlinson rose—

Debbie Abrahams: I am coming to a conclusion. As part of my party’s sanctions review, I want to explore approaches that better reflect the change that I want to see in the culture of our social security system. I want it to be based on support and positive reinforcement, not harassment and punishment. Again, if we look at the evidence from the Netherlands, we see that such an approach is much more effective at moving people into sustainable employment.

Our social security system is, like our NHS, there for all of us in our time of need. It is based on the principles of inclusion, support and security for all, and it should assure all of us of our dignity at all times. I do not think that we can say that about the present system, and we certainly cannot say that about the sanctions system. I hope that the Government are listening, because this is so important. I implore them to implement the Bill.

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