4.37 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Tom Brake): It is a pleasure to respond, for what will be the last time in this Parliament, to the pre-recess Adjournment

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debate. Earlier, we heard that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has previously taken this debate, referred to Members who contributed to the debate as characters from different TV series. I would, perhaps, liken those sitting here today to characters we would all recognise from our local pub. There is the one who always bangs on about how immigrants take our jobs. There is the one who always goes on about medical problems. There is always one who only ever drinks orange juice. There are others who will insist on talking about birds at great length. Finally, there will be another who will always complain about their trains being late—that is me, incidentally.

This debate was, as always, opened very effectively by the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess). As usual, he ran through a large number of issues, and I will try to respond to at least some of them. I think he started by suggesting that, following the renovation works, we might never return to this place. He will be relieved to hear that I suspect his concerns in that respect are unfounded. He referred to the facilities being empty and the prices being too high, and then went through a long list of local issues, including scrap metal, energy prices and the world athletics—and I want to commend his schools, Southend high school for boys and Southend high school for girls, on qualifying to represent England at that event. He also referred to the Music Man project and to Councillor David Stanley, and then proceeded to plug that event. He did not tell us what the ticket prices would be, but he no doubt would have done so if time had allowed, as well as providing us with a link so that we could purchase tickets online. He also referred to the talent show that is being launched as part of the alternative city of culture events in 2017. I think that the House would like to be assured that he will be taking part in that talent show himself.

The hon. Gentleman referred to all-party parliamentary groups. Initially, he described them as “farcical”, but then went on to describe the very significant role that he plays in a number of APPGs. He rightly highlighted the fact that, following the significant loss suffered in the Philippines after the cyclone struck, the authorities there took the necessary action. That shows that, if countries take steps to deal with climate change, mitigation can have an effect, even if it is not always successful in reducing the amount of damage inflicted on the infrastructure of a country. He referred to Bahrain, and I will come back to that subject shortly. He also mentioned Iran.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) might want to talk to him, if he has not already done so, about the fire safety issue that he identified. The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to something that Members on both sides of the House are concerned about—the issue relating to firefighters. He said that if a firefighter failed a fitness test through no fault of their own and did not qualify for ill-health retirement, they would be redeployed or receive an unreduced pension. That is a significant concession that is worth underlining.

Lyn Brown: May I say something to the right hon. Gentleman—very gently, as it is Christmas—about the repeated statement that firefighters in those circumstances will get redeployment or a full pension? If he reads the statutory instrument that was laid today, he will see that

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the Minister is going to ask the fire and rescue authorities to do that, but that there is no requirement for them to comply. We will not be doing anyone a service by continuing to repeat that there is to be a requirement for jobs and full pensions to be guaranteed.

Tom Brake: As I understand it, the situation will then be monitored to ensure that that happens.

The hon. Member for Southend West also referred to his own personal contribution to the work done by maternity wards, in that he has five children. I congratulate him on that. He mentioned the mental health manifesto. He also talked about the all-party parliamentary hepatology group. He started that point with a reference to the season of good will, then referred to obesity, hepatitis and alcohol misuse, which was a bit of a downer. He was making a serious point, however.

If I were to refer to all the other things that the hon. Gentleman mentioned in the debate, I would not have time to refer to anyone else. However, his most important subject was the one he raised at the end of his speech. It is a concern that he has raised repeatedly, and it relates to his local health service. I am sure that the Department of Health, his clinical commissioning group and the trust in his area will have heard his arguments loud and clear.

The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), who is no longer in his place, referred to the estuary airport. I agree with him that that project was never going to happen, because the airlines would not have wanted to pay for it or to pass on the costs to their passengers. He referred to the important role of London assembly members in holding Transport for London to account, and I would like to congratulate Caroline Pidgeon and Stephen Knight on the role that they play in the assembly in that respect. The hon. Gentleman supported the idea of Transport for London being more open to engaging transport users in the system, and I agree with him on that. He referred to local authority funding cuts, which other Members have also raised; that is clearly an issue. Labour Members have accepted that the deficit needs to be addressed, and that is one way of doing it. If they find it unacceptable, they must come up with a financial alternative, but I am afraid that none has been forthcoming.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) referred to Gatwick, where other aviation proposals have been made, raising concerns about some of the financial aspects and the projection of passenger number increases. If the intention is for an increase from 30 million to 90 million by 2050, clearly there will be a need for significant public transport investment in infrastructure around Gatwick.

The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) touched on the issue of local government and the tough financial settlement. She referred to the NHS pay rise, where people have been given a minimum of a 1% increase across the board, although I agree that that is not the full pay increase that some had been expecting. She referred to the need for more doctors and nurses. I am pleased to say that there are 9,000 more doctors and 3,000 more nurses. Perhaps more helpfully, she referred to John’s Campaign, which is about allowing carers to stay in hospital. I can confirm that, by means of an exchange of texts, the relevant Minister has confirmed that he would be happy to meet her and campaigners to discuss that issue.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who is not in his place, referred to the A303. Anyone who has gone to that part of the country will welcome the investment being made in that road. He referred to the need to accelerate the implementation of rural broadband, on which, again, we would all agree. He also referred to the Devon Freewheelers, talking about bikers who deliver body parts—he paused at that point and we all started to worry about what this meant, but it turned out to be about transplants. We should certainly support such charities. I believe he was calling for NHS funding, but often charities work because they are charitable enterprises. I am sure, however, that anything the Government can do to support them in terms of publicity and ensuring that they can operate effectively will be done.

The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) referred to hysteroscopy, as she did last year, and it was equally as uncomfortable for us listening to it as it was 12 months ago. I am pleased to hear that the Minister with responsibility for public health did respond to her, but clearly she has identified that there is an ongoing issue and so I will follow that up again and make sure that she gets a further response, which I hope will clarify that things have moved on and what further can be planned. She also raised the issue of pancreatic cancer, the silent cancer. More needs to be done to raise the profile of that, so that we have a better chance of early diagnosis. I commend her for drawing that to the House’s attention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) rightly drew attention to North Korea and the horrendous situation there. Anyone who is in any doubt about that can still go on to Google Earth to look at the concentration camps in North Korea. I commend to all Members “Escape from Camp 14” on Shin Dong-hyuk. I have read it and it sets out in the bleakest terms possible exactly the conditions political prisoners and others in North Korean camps are kept in.

The hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) referred to the estuary airport. [Interruption.] He is not in his place. He then talked about a housing development of 5,000 homes and he did a very effective job of opposing those plans—it was as effective a job as he did when he was supporting them before he defected to the United Kingdom Independence party. It is Christmas—a time for caring, reflection, forgiveness and good will—and I know he is running a fundraising campaign whereby he is seeking £7.30 contributions from each and everyone to support his legal case against the Conservative party. I am not sure how many people will want to contribute to that appeal fund.

We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), who will be very relieved to hear that it is perfectly in order for schools within the national curriculum to discuss the 1812 to 1814 war. I will, if he wishes, set out afterwards precisely how that is possible. We have given teachers the flexibility to do that. Clearly I hope that many teachers will have listened to his pleas for them to pick up this issue and will respond accordingly.

We had a contribution from the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on the subject of the base in Bahrain. The Leader of the House responded to that point in some detail this morning, drawing on the knowledge he had gained from his previous role as Foreign Secretary. The hon. Gentleman and I have been

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lobbied by representatives about the human rights situation in Bahrain. Although the Foreign and Commonwealth Office thinks that some positive steps have been taken, it is clear that there are still areas that need to be addressed. In particular, more needs to be done on the accountability of police personnel and the investigation and sentencing of those alleged to have committed torture and mistreatment. There is a recognition that action needs to be taken.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to local authority funding and the private rented sector, which he does on a regular basis, and I commend him for that. He will be as disappointed as I was—indeed as almost everyone was in this House—that the Bill about revenge evictions put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) was talked out.

We then had a positive and informed contribution on the subject of trains and the reliability problems that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) faces on his service. I can commiserate with him on that matter, as the works at London Bridge at the moment are causing chaos on the Southern and Thameslink services, which frustrates me virtually every day of the week when I attempt to get into this place. I will refer to the Secretary of State for Transport his plea for faster electrification of the Felixstowe and Nuneaton line.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on again raising the case of Shaker Aamer, to which the Government accord high priority. He again called on the Prime Minister to raise the matter with President Obama, and I will ensure that that request is conveyed to him. The Prime Minister last raised the matter in June 2013, but there have been interventions since from the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. The hon. Gentlemen is right to continue to raise that particular issue.

I regret the forthcoming departure of the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall). Having been on a Select Committee tour to Brazil and Venezuela with him, I can say that he is excessively good company and one of the friendliest, most considerate and courteous Members of this House. We will all miss him, as will the customers of his store. He also thanked the Whips Office, which is probably rather rare in this place.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) talked about sight loss. I commend him for the work he is doing on that issue and draw to his attention the importance of ensuring that sight tests are available for people with learning disabilities, which is an issue I have taken up recently given the high level of prevalence of sight impairment within that group. He raised the matter of sight loss advisers and the need for expanding eye clinic liaison officers, and I will draw these point to the attention of the Department of Health.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) raised a number of issues, including that of his constituent, Lauren, and the runaround that he is getting from NHS England in relation to the services or support that will help her to deal with gastroparesis. As he has often done in this place, he referred to a number of issues to do with care, on which he is a real champion, and he referred to the two reports

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on residential care and home care. He asked me to pursue with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs the subject of agencies that pay less than the minimum wage to carers, and of course I will do that. He talked about the need to ensure that there was parity of esteem in relation to the millennium development goals and the role that the Department for International Development is playing. Finally, he referred to the short time frame for the renal consultation. As I understand it, that is necessary because the changes need to be implemented by 1 April next year, and it will be difficult to achieve that if the consultation period is extended. I am sure that he will follow that up with the Department of Health if he does not feel that that is satisfactory.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove referred to the A555, for which he has consistently campaigned along with my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) since 1997. Phase 2 might be his legacy, but that might be in the next Parliament. I am sure that he will be able to get his name attached to it in some shape or form and I hope that the money for that phase will be forthcoming. He raised the issue of fires in houses, which he could take up with the all-party parliamentary group, but I will ensure that it is drawn to the attention of the appropriate Minister as there is clearly a potentially significant issue that could affect not only that estate but many others around the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) is a regular attendee at these events and I welcome him again to this one. He referred to a number of significant events in his constituency and the need for a rapprochement between the electorate and Westminster. He also referred to English votes for English laws, which we need to move on quickly. However, I do not think we can rush it and there are issues that need to be considered alongside it, including the devolution of more power below the level of England and, in my view, the need for a constitutional convention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) raised a number of local issues and I commend him for his work in campaigning to improve the NHS in his area as well as the campaign he is running to ensure that his A and E is returned to a 24-hour-a-day service. I wish him well. He also referred to libraries, and I think we collectively support the network of libraries in our constituencies and will want to see them strengthened by the provision of the sorts of things recommended in the recent report, such as wi-fi provision, innovation and ensuring that they can operate as a network. My hon. Friend referred to other issues that affect many Members of Parliament, including nuisance telephone calls and copycat websites, which I think we can all do a lot to campaign against through our use of our own social media, for instance. He also referred to local councillors and I want to take this opportunity to commend them for their work.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) referred to the Recall of MPs Bill. I do not know whether he noticed that Lord Campbell-Savours was rather lacking in festive spirit when he described the changes that the hon. Gentleman had implemented as ones made by boys in short trousers in the shadow Cabinet. Perhaps he can take that up with Dale later.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a debate on foreign policy, which I shall certainly pass on to the Leader of the House, although I think that contrary to the impression

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that was given we are not a zombie Parliament. We have important business to transact and that might be a matter for the Backbench Business Committee. I thank the hon. Gentleman for thanking members of staff individually, some specifically for what they have achieved in the House.

In conclusion, Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank you and wish you a merry Christmas. I wish all Members in the Chamber, the Clerks, the officers of the Serjeant at Arms, the staff who care for us here and our own staff a merry Christmas.

Let me finish where we started the debate with the final words of the hon. Member for Southend West. I thank the emergency services that will be looking after us over the Christmas period. I thank the ambulance service in St Helier, the fire service in Wallington, the police in Sutton and the NHS staff in all our hospitals, particularly at St Helier hospital. I know that they will be working over the Christmas break to keep us all healthy and safe, so merry Christmas to them all.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): May I also take this opportunity to say thank you to all right hon. and hon. Members? I wish them all the best for Christmas and a peaceful new year, as well as all the visitors of this House and the staff who keep this place going.

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Jobseeker’s Allowance (Sanctions)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

4.59 pm

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): I am very grateful to Mr Speaker for this opportunity, following my point of order in the Chamber last week. My aim is simple: to obtain from the Minister an answer to a straightforward parliamentary question to which I have—in vain—been seeking an answer for the past year and a half.

We know from the Trussell Trust that about a quarter of a million people went to a food bank in the past year because their benefit had been sanctioned and they did not have enough money to buy food for themselves and their family.

5 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

Stephen Timms: Published official figures show that the number of people sanctioned rose from about half a million in the year before the election to a million in the past year. That figure includes sanctions subsequently overturned on appeal. The Minister has been quoted as saying, and has said from time to time, that only a very small fraction of claimants receive a sanction. That is a fair comment about any given month, but in fact about a quarter of jobseeker’s allowance claimants get a sanction at some point during their claim.

The increase from half a million to a million is obviously a big one, but it is not clear why, from very few people before the election, the number forced to use a food bank because of a sanction has rocketed to a quarter of a million. Early last year, I tabled a parliamentary question to ask not how many people had been sanctioned, but how much money was being taken away from them all. I received an answer from the Minister’s predecessor on 25 March last year which I found very helpful.

The Minister’s answer showed that in the year before the election, the amount of benefit withheld from fixed JSA sanctions was £11 million—that is, a little less than £1 million per month. In April to October 2012—the latest period for which data were available at that time—the amount was £60 million, so £10 million per month. That represents a tenfold increase in the amount withheld, as opposed to a twofold rise in the number of people affected. It struck me that that was the beginning of an explanation for why so many people had been forced to use a food bank as a result of a sanction: the amount of money being taken away was greatly increased.

Those data went up to October 2012. In that month, a new and significantly harsher system of sanctions was introduced. The minimum period for a sanction was increased to four weeks and it became possible to remove claimants’ benefits for a full three years. We do not yet know precisely how many people have received a three-year benefit sanction, but it appears that the number is already over 1,000 across the country, so there seems little doubt that following the tenfold increase between the election and October 2012, the amount being withheld in sanctions must have increased substantially further since October 2012.

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Once the financial year 2012-13 was over, I again tabled a written parliamentary question to obtain an updated answer to my earlier question, in order to find out how much had been withheld in the second half of the financial year 2012-13—that is, after the changes introduced in October 2012. This time, the Minister’s predecessor provided me with a much less helpful answer. Dated 24 June 2013, it appears at column 30W:

“An estimate of the amount withheld as a result of benefit sanctions cannot be made for a number of reasons. Primarily, we do not know what benefits and payments the claimants would have received had the sanctions not been applied.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2013; Vol. 565, c. 30W.]

I was puzzled by that, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I know you understand, because a perfectly good answer had been provided to the same question three months earlier. Early this year I had another go, as I told Mr Speaker, in a three-page letter which he described in responding to my point of order as “a substantial academic essay”. I should say that I also forwarded that letter to the office of the Minister, so that she knew exactly what the simple and straightforward question was to which I was seeking an answer through this debate.

The current Minister, who is in her place today and who had by then taken over, told me in a written answer on 5 February, at column 268W:

“The information is not available in the format requested.

Trends in sanctions are better understood by looking at the number and type of sanction decisions—which are routinely published (the last publication, covering sanctions to end June 2013, was published in November 2013”—[Official Report, 5 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 268W.]

Again, the information was provided in the format requested on 25 March 2013, so I could not understand the rationale for that answer saying that it could not be done in the format I had requested. The Minister’s suggestion to me that trends in sanctions are better understood by asking something else made it hard to avoid the inference that she simply did not want to reveal the answer, as her predecessor willingly had done.

On 9 April this year, I tried again, at column 300W, and was equally unsuccessful. Last month, I tried yet again, with Question 215334, and received this answer:

“The Department does not estimate the amount of benefit withheld as a result of benefit sanctions.”

Yet on 25 March 2013, the Department did provide precisely such an estimate. On 25 November, hoping to understand why an answer that could be given in March 2013 could not be repeated now, I tabled this question:

“Pursuant to the Answer of 24 November 2014 to Question 215334 and the Answer of 4 July 2013, Official Report, column 736W, (a) on what date and (b) for what reason his Department stopped estimating the amount of benefit withheld as a result of the application of sanctions.”

On 1 December, the Minister sent me this answer:

“The Department has never estimated the amount of benefit withheld as a result of benefit sanctions.”

As you will appreciate, Mr Deputy Speaker, I know that that was not right, because the answer I received on 25 March 2013 contained a table headed “Benefit withheld from fixed JSA sanctions (£ million)”, so the Minister’s predecessor provided precisely the estimate that her latest answer claims never to have been provided. The Minister’s answer went on:

“The answer of 25 March 2013, Official Report, column 986W, on social security benefits, contained a calculation of the amount

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of jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) that claimants would have received if they had continued to be on benefit for the length of a fixed sanction. This is not the same as the amount withheld as a result of sanctions.”

I thought, perhaps a little naively, that the Minister was finally giving me a hint about how to obtain the information I wanted, so on 2 December I tabled this question:

“How much additional jobseeker’s allowance in total claimants subject to a fixed sanction would have received if they had continued to be on the benefit for the length of time of their sanction in (a) 2012-13 and (b) 2013-14.”

Unfortunately, my optimism was ill-founded and short-lived. On 5 December, I received a repeat of the refusals I had previously received:

“The Department doesn’t make an estimate the amount of benefit that would have been withheld as a result of benefit sanctions.”

As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I have already pointed it out several times in this debate, the Department did make precisely such an estimate in the written answer to me dated 25 March 2013.

I have now, over a period of a year and a half, tabled six written parliamentary questions to obtain straight forward and important information that was provided in a written answer in March 2103, but in all that time and with all that effort, I have so far drawn a complete blank. In exasperation, I appealed to Mr Speaker for advice, and he suggested this debate as a way to enable the Minister finally to provide the requested information.

I have discussed this matter with Dr David Webster of Glasgow university, the leading academic authority on benefit sanctions. He estimates that the amount of benefit withheld in sanctions is now running at £300 million per year. If that is the case, it is important that Parliament knows it. It should not be necessary for people to make speculative estimates—the Minister should provide the answer. She will no doubt want also to provide various caveats, clarifications and health warnings, as did the initial answer on 25 March 2013, but she should provide Parliament with the basic information being sought.

In preparing for this debate, I had a look at the ministerial code, which says:

“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest which should be decided in accordance with the relevant statutes and the Freedom of Information Act 2000.”

That is all I am asking for. I believe that as a Member of this House—ever grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to Mr Speaker for upholding the privileges of Members— I am, and we are, entitled to a substantive answer.

I applied for this debate within minutes of Mr Speaker giving me his advice. One unexpected result was that I have received a number of representations expressing real worry about the impact of current jobseeker’s allowance sanctions. The Salvation Army has told me:

“The more stringent conditionality introduced into the benefit system under this government and the resulting rise in benefit sanctions are having a profound effect on many of the people we work with…we urge the government to review the system and ensure that adequate systems are put in place to make sure that benefit sanctions are applied in a way that is both appropriate and proportional.”

St Mungo’s Broadway has said:

“Under current sanctions regimes St Mungo’s Broadway clients are under threat of being sanctioned for failing to meet conditions

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which do not help them to enter and remain in work or which they cannot meet. People who are homeless are more likely to be sanctioned than other claimants.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated in a report published in September:

“Sanctions are now used much more frequently within the welfare benefits system. The severity of sanctions has also increased and conditionality is now applied to previously exempt groups (e.g. lone parents, disabled people). Benefit sanctions are having a strongly disproportionate effect on young people under 25, and there is also evidence of severe impacts on homeless people and other vulnerable groups.”

In a striking representation, Barnardo’s says:

“Particularly worrying…is the impact that the harsher conditionality regime is having on our services which work primarily with young people. Barnardo’s run a number of services which work with vulnerable young people, for example services which offer support to care leavers, homeless young people, or teenage parents. Amongst this subset of services over two thirds (67%)”—

in a survey it carried out—

“said that the increased conditionality and greater use of sanctions were having an impact on their service users. Our services report that sanctions often happen because of misunderstanding on the part of the young people...The impact of sanctions on this group of young people, who often lack family support, is to plunge them into destitution, leaving them reliant on insecure credit, and often resulting in them ending up in rent arrears, putting their tenancy at risk. As one service manager commented: ‘We have a number of care leavers being sanctioned which results in extreme poverty.’”

There is now, therefore, very widespread concern about what is happening, beyond the very striking conclusion in the report published last month by the Trussell Trust, the Church of England, Oxfam and the Child Poverty Action Group that between 19% and 28% of people driven to use food banks were there because of a benefit sanction.

Parliament is entitled to be told what is going on, so will the Minister inform the House how much is currently being withheld from jobseeker’s allowance claimants in benefit sanctions?

5.12 pm

The Minister for Employment (Esther McVey): As this is the last parliamentary business before the Christmas recess, I want to start by wishing you Mr Deputy Speaker, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and all other Members and parliamentary staff a merry Christmas and happy new year. I also thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate in order to bring closure to the matter and give him the clarification he seeks.

Sanctions are not a tool to save money, nor were they ever designed with that purpose in mind. In fact, sanctions play a vital role in supporting the conditionality of a regime. They encourage claimants to comply with the requirements that are designed to help them move into or prepare for work. Sanctions have always been a part of the benefit system since they were first designed and introduced. Successive UK Governments have applied sanctions.

There is a link between entitlement to benefits and engagement with the labour market. As Matt Oakley said in his review:

“Benefit sanctions provide a vital backdrop in the social security system for jobseekers”

and are a

“key element of the mutual obligation that underpins both the effectiveness and fairness of the social security system”.

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We know that, internationally, most developed economies use sanctions. As the OECD said recently:

“There seems little reason to doubt that, especially in countries with high levels of benefit coverage of the non-employed working-age population, the success of activation policies in relation to unemployment is critical to achieving high employment rates.”

To go back to the right hon. Gentleman’s parliamentary question, the response made it clear why we cannot estimate, and have never estimated, the amount of benefit withheld because of a sanction. The Department does not make an estimate of the amount of benefit withheld as a result of benefit sanctions. Sanctions are designed to ensure claimants comply with their requirements to move off benefits and into work.

The answer of 25 March 2013 on social security benefits—Official Report, column 986W—made it clear that it is not possible robustly to estimate the actual amounts withheld, as we do not know what would have happened in the absence of sanctions. For example, some claimants who leave benefits during a sanction may do so irrespective of the application of the sanction, while others may do so because of the sanction.

As the right hon. Gentleman has pointed out, we provided some data in the response to the parliamentary question. The Department wrongly interpreted the question to mean the maximum amount of benefit that claimants would have received had they remained on benefits for the length of the sanction, rather than to mean a total. It is impossible to calculate such a total, and trying to do so would lead to the Department handing out inaccurate information.

It must be noted that the original response clearly set out the reasons why that is the case. Let me run through them. First, the data provided were for the maximum amount that claimants would have received, and should not be interpreted as absolute. In fact, we made it clear that the figures were “overestimates”.

Secondly, the data could not take into account claimants who had left benefits during a sanction, such as those who might have moved off benefits and gone into a job or education, or moved on to another benefit. As we know, employment is now at record levels—up nearly 600,000 over the past year—so many people are moving off benefits and going into work. The rate at which people are doing so is now faster: nearly 80% of them have moved off benefits within six months.

Thirdly, the calculation does not net the figures for hardship payments. It is not possible to take into account the hardship payments that would have been received, which puts up to 80% of the benefits back into payment.

Fourthly, the amount of benefits withheld is not readily available for JSA-varied sanctions. During the period covered in the parliamentary question—2009 to 2012—the sanctions system changed, which resulted in more fixed level sanctions so that claimants could be clearer about the consequences of not meeting the requirements designed to help them into work.

It was therefore clear that the information handed out was not right, and that such a total could not be provided. That came to light when follow-up questions were asked, including in the other place. We do not routinely collect information of benefits withheld because of a sanction that has been imposed, or of benefits that would have been claimed had someone not lost their entitlement. We therefore cannot produce the figures

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without making a number of assumptions and judgments about people’s behaviour, and any resulting figures would be very misleading.

Stephen Timms: All I am really asking for is an update of the table provided on 25 March 2013. I take the point that such a table would need a caveat attached to it and that people would need to be told that it is not what it might at first appear to be, but if we just had an updated version, the House would be happy.

Esther McVey: I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman says, but if we want the Department to provide robust and reliable information which is not misleading, then such an update cannot be given. He says that he just wants a good answer, but such an answer would not be a good one. Surely nobody would want information to be given out to people who might be misled. As we know, all those caveats are seldom, if ever, applied, and such information would be incorrect. After the further questions, and having examined what was first handed out, the Department decided that the information provided was wrong, inaccurate and misleading.

The answer stated that it was important to focus on why there is a sanctions system. It is about making sure that people understand what is required of them, making sure that decisions are timely and correct, and protecting the most vulnerable. Fundamentally, sanctions cannot be seen in isolation. They are part of a broader system of support that includes financial support, training in employment skills and getting people into work. Because of that extra training and support, and because of the claimant commitment that we have introduced to make the system tailor-made for the individual, so that they know what sanction they would get and, at the same time, what support they would get, we have seen record-breaking results in getting people into work, the biggest fall in youth unemployment since records began, the biggest fall in long-term unemployment since 1998 and record rates of women getting into work. All that is part of a system. What we were aiming to do, and what we have done, is to get nearly 2 million extra people into work.

Stephen Timms: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Can you advise me whether it is in order for the Minister to say that she is not going to answer a question because she thinks that the answer would be misleading? Surely it is for Members of the House to determine what information they want and for Ministers to provide that information.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): The responsibility to answer a question lies with the Minister. The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has been tenacious in holding the Minister to account. That is the role of Members: to hold Ministers and Departments to account. I am sure that that will continue if he does not get the answer today.

Esther McVey: I appreciate that, Mr Deputy Speaker. That is why we are having this debate today. It is not me who is—

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. As I understand it, what the Minister has said is that an answer that was given to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) two years ago—

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Stephen Timms: A year and a half ago.

John McDonnell: An answer that was given a year and a half ago was misleading. If that is the case, would it not have been appropriate for the Minister who gave that misleading answer to come to the House at the first opportunity, as is the convention, to correct the information? As far as I am aware, there has been no correction whatever. I ask you to take this matter up, Mr Deputy Speaker, as a point of procedure with the relevant Department.

Mr Deputy Speaker: What we need to do is to get to the end of the debate. The point is well made and it has been taken on board.

Esther McVey: I do not have my glasses on at the moment. It is John McDonnell on the Opposition Benches, is it not? [Interruption.] It is. I thought that perhaps the hon. Gentleman was standing up to pass comment on something else, now that it is Christmas—the time when people should be able to stand up and apologise—or, as he said he would in front of the House, to invite me for a cup of tea—

John McDonnell: Will the Minister give way?

Esther McVey: Hang on a second. Let me finish what I am saying. For what he was reported to have either said or repeated, I say for every woman I know who has been affected by violence; for every woman I know who has actually lived by violence, I believe that what—

John McDonnell: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. [Interruption.] Order, everybody! Let us have a little bit of Christmas spirit. The Minister must give way when there is a point of order.

John McDonnell: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Allegations have been made here that have been responded to previously. If the right hon. Lady is raising matters in relation to me, I am quite happy to respond to them if she gives way.

Mr Deputy Speaker: We are not going to get into that. It is Christmas, and this is the final debate before the recess, so we ought to take on board where we are and be careful about the comments that are made.

Esther McVey: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. As the hon. Gentleman said that he would make a phone call to speak to me about this matter, I await the phone call—

John McDonnell: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. If you check the record, you will see that a point of order was raised by another Member, not the Minister, and I offered that Member the opportunity to come for a cup of tea with me on the advice of Madam Deputy Speaker. I offered no phone calls to the Minister, whom I would not wish to meet and who was awarded the Scrooge of the year award in her own constituency last week.

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Mr Deputy Speaker: I do not want this debate to deteriorate any further. It is an important debate, and I want us to stick to the facts. I do not want any more personal attacks on either side of the Chamber. I want to move forward.

Esther McVey: As I said to the right hon. Member for East Ham, the point is not whether I was withholding the information. The Department looked at the information that had been handed out and felt that it was not robust. It was not comfortable handing it out because it

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was neither reliable nor accurate, and that was why the subsequent answers were given in a series of letters and parliamentary answers. I have given the exact reply that has been deemed correct, because we obviously want the Department and the House to give out accurate information.

Question put and agreed to.

5.25 pm

House adjourned.