Government avoid scrutiny on DWP inquiry

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) this week finally published Matthew Oakley’s report into sanctions. The report highlights systematic problems in the way the government administers and imposes benefit sanctions, including disproportionate burdens on the most vulnerable, something I have raised in Parliament on numerous occasions.

I believe that for the DWP to conveniently publish the Oakley report on the communication and understanding of sanctions on the last day of Parliament, thus preventing it being discussed in the House is yet another disgraceful display of arrogance by Ministers, matched only by their incompetence.

Ministers in the DWP have a track record of using every trick in the book to avoid being held to account. The Oakley report was expected to be presented to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in March, so why has it only been published on the last day of Parliament? Once again, I am asking just what Ministers have to hide?

The report also found the way in which the DWP communicated with claimants was legalistic, unclear and confusing. The most vulnerable claimants were often left at a loss as to why benefits were stopped and frequently not informed by the DWP about hardship payments to which they were entitled. It also revealed serious flaws in how sanctions were imposed, with Work Programme providers required to send participants for sanctions when they knew they had done nothing wrong, leaving “claimants … sent from pillar to post”.

I have repeatedly warned Ministers about the disproportionate effects of sanctions on the poorest and of the inappropriate use of sanctions in Jobcentre Plus. I was extremely concerned that Matthew Oakley’s terms of reference confined him to the way in which sanctions are administered on mandatory back-to-work schemes, covering only a third of those claimants who have been sanctioned or at risk of being sanctioned.

Therefore when the Minister for Employment promised me at the Select Committee Hearing in November 2013 that she would establish a second independent investigation into the inappropriate use of sanctions the Committee welcomed this approach. Unfortunately, Esther McVey has since reneged upon this commitment. Even with an increasing number of Jobcentre Plus (JCP) ‘whistleblowers’ coming forward with evidence of inappropriate sanctions, she still refused to listen to the Select Committee and my most recent request for an independent inquiry earlier this month was once again rebuffed.

The Oakley report does nothing to address what JCP ‘whistleblowers’ have reported: that there is a target-driven culture in DWP where people are sanctioned when they have done nothing wrong; it is a deliberate, unwritten policy to get them ‘off-flow’, off benefits and off the unemployment register.

The Oakley Report has been published just hours before the Select Committee’s latest report into the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), in which the Committee is scathing about the Government’s incompetence in the revision and reletting of the WCA contract to Atos, of the anguish the WCA causes and condemns the ESA process as “too long and complex”.

The testimony we heard about the effects of the Work Capability Assessment process and decisions from people who have been through it were extremely worrying. The current system of assessment is just not fit for purpose, with far too many people incorrectly assessed and left lacking the proper support they need to gain employment.

The Committee found that the WCA cannot be merely ‘rebranded’, it needs to be totally rethought to ensure that the main purpose of the benefit – helping claimants with health conditions and disabilities to move into employment where this is possible for them – is achieved. I believe closer links between the DWP and the NHS are essential to tackle health or disability barriers to work. We need to provide the support and care that is needed to manage or improve health conditions where that’s possible, enabling people to work.

UPDATE: 28/07/14:

The Mirror has today run a story about the death of a former soldier, after he was sanctioned by the DWP.  You can read the story here

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