The issue of inappropriate sanctions for people on social security has become a ‘hot topic’ in recent weeks with today seeing the intervention of scores of church leaders who have written to David Cameron branding his Government’s changes to the welfare system as a ‘national crisis’ and ‘truly shocking’.
I have pursued this issue repeatedly at Work and Pensions Select Committee meetings with both the Secretary of State and his number two, Esther McVey MP. I raised with them the evidence of an ex-Jobcentre Plus whistleblower and the stories of my own constituents’ unfair treatment under this Government’s welfare reforms.
On Monday evening I appeared on Newsnight to debate inappropriate sanctions with Tory MP, Nadhim Zahawi. You can watch the report and interview on iPlayer here until 24th February (report at 14 minutes, interview at 23 minutes). Unfortunately, as I was in the Salford studio, I only got one ‘bite at the cherry’ to raise the large number of concerns I have about the effect of the Government’s reforms on those unfairly sanctioned and their families.
I was going on to to say what the effects of sanctions are on the many people who have contacted me; that it is inconceivable that this is not affecting the unemployment figures; and that the focus of Jobcentre Plus and the DWP should be on support for people on social security, not a sanctions culture.
I am extremely concerned that this Government is using underhand tactics to get as many people off benefits as possible to massage the unemployment data. Unfortunately, it’s taken the misery of hundreds of thousands of people being unfairly sanctioned, through no fault of their own, to bring this to light.
After promising the Work and Pensions Select Committee in November last year that an independent investigation into the ‘appropriateness’ of the government’s benefit sanctions system would be set up Employment Minister, Esther McVey, now seems to be backtracking.
In a letter to me this month, the Minister now says she will be setting up a review that ‘will look more widely at the sanctions regime. I am extremely concerned that this seems like a deliberate attempt to water down the commitment the Minister gave to the Committee when I demanded the Government set up an independent investigation into the ‘appropriateness of sanctions’.
No-one is arguing with the fact that anyone who is on benefits should do all they can to find appropriate work, but sanctions must be applied proportionately, with claimants clearly understanding their responsibilities, and the potential consequences of not meeting these. No targets should be set for the use of sanctions.
However, I believe that this Government has gone beyond the pale by creating a culture in which Jobcentre Plus advisors are being expected to unreasonably sanction claimants.
The Work and Pensions Select Committee’s most recent report on The role of Jobcentreplus in the reformed welfare system also recommended an independent review of sanctions policy.
Below is a transcript of the Newsnight interview from 17th February 2014:
Victoria Derbyshire: “Let me ask Debbie Abrahams. Is it wrong to ask someone to apply for a certain number of jobs and then, if they don’t, they face sanctions”
Debbie Abrahams MP: “The principle of sanctions has always been there. It’s been there for over 100 years.”
Victoria Derbyshire: “So you agree with sanctions?”
Debbie Abrahams MP: “The principle is important. I would agreed with Nadhim in terms of… that it should be seen as a last resort. But the evidence that both the Select Committee have taken and also the Government’s own social security advisory committee have taken, has shown they’re not fair, they’re not appropriate and they’re not proportionate. Since the new…”
Victoria Derbyshire: “I wonder though, Debbie Abrahams, if you ever worry that the benefits system as it has been enables people to say on benefits sometimes indefinitely.”
Debbie Abrahams MP: “I think again, that has been grossly distorted in the media. If I can just mention in terms of the new sanction regime, introduced in October 2012, between October 2012 and June 2013, 1.53 million people were sanctioned and we have considerable evidence, not just me as a constituency MP, but as I say we have taken from across the board – from the Citizens Advice Bureau, from, as I say, the Government’s own social security advisory committee – to show they are inappropriate. I had one constituent who had done everything required of him in terms of job seeking. He’d turned up and was applying for loads of jobs, he was still sanctioned. And we had a whistleblower again who has come forward, a former JCP advisor, who supported the evidence that I had as a constituency MP and I’ve since been inundated in terms of what’s going on about a sanctions culture within the Work and Pensions Department.”