Some services on those lines, such as those running into Enfield, were then devolved to Transport for London. In fact, those were the higher-performing services, in terms of punctuality, so a new baseline had to be set for what good looks like for the remaining services. The Department is still having that conversation, so at the moment there is no firmly agreed baseline for the PPMs, although it is worth noting that the numbers on punctuality started to tick up in the summer before taking an unfortunate dive in the past couple of months. The reasons for that are severalfold, but they fall into two main groups. First, there was a series of fleet issues, partly relating to the old rolling stock. Secondly, there was a series of infrastructure problems, particularly relating to the classic adhesion problem of leaves on the line. Research I have seen shows that the preparation of the lines and the scraping-off of the leaves is not what it

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could be and is not done as assiduously by Network Rail as it is in other parts of the country. That is definitely something to work on.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden said, capacity on the line is so stretched that a minute of delay exacerbates a series of problems for many commuters. Sadly, the ongoing station improvements at Chelmsford, which we all welcome, are a long way behind schedule as a result of a contractual dispute between the original contractor and the train operating company that has to retender. The train operating company is working hard to fix that problem. My right hon. Friend the member for Chelmsford said that there were some serious engineering overruns. Although there have been only four main ones over the past 12 months, their impact has been substantial. As he rightly pointed out, the most recent caused a shut-down of services at 11 am.

There has been a root-and-branch transformation of Network Rail’s approach to engineering works, particularly after the problems we saw last Christmas. Whether the works are major or minor, there is now a zero-tolerance approach to overrunning. The route operating directors are far more involved in decision making. I am disappointed that that is not coming through in these cases. I am particularly disappointed to hear about the late-running freight train, because it is policy that freight is always sequenced behind passenger trains, particularly during commuting hours, so I am disappointed to hear that that has not happened.

There are infrastructure problems on the line, but my right hon. Friend and other colleagues will welcome the fact that, since we last spoke in January, £170 million has been invested in railway lines from London to Norwich on a series of upgrades, and there has been a £20 million investment at the start of this short direct-award franchise, which includes the refresh of the existing rolling stock and some improvements on the class 317s and 321s.

I want to say a couple of words about disruption before I turn to the challenge of rolling stock and what is specified in the franchise. We are at a critical point for the railways. We are investing an unprecedented amount in railway and, indeed, road infrastructure over the next five years and that investment has to deliver on the ground. It is no good saying, “We have 2,000 engineering projects and, oops, three of them went bad.” That is unacceptable when thousands of people face disruption. I am pleased to tell my right hon. Friends here today that there has been an enormous review of engineering plans, a lot of contingency planning, and an evaluation of what happens in stations. I personally met the gold commanders at the various stations to assure myself to the best of my ability that the works will happen. The train operating companies have been present in all those review meetings.

It is fair to say that we are waiting for the new franchise to unlock the journey time improvements that we know are so crucial to the “Norwich in 90” campaign. I congratulate my right hon. Friends present, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who has just joined us, because the aspiration would not be so advanced without Members’ assiduous campaigning. I hold it up as the poster child for what people need to do if they are trying to make improvements through rail spending in a region. However, until the franchise is in place and we get firm performance

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measurements, we will not see the level of improvement that we all expect, particularly for those constituents paying £3,728 a year.

We are in the process of letting the invitation to tender. I pay tribute to Members present for highlighting the importance of new rolling stock, but I want to say gently that the days of the Department absolutely specifying exactly what train operating companies should buy and do are over, which is a good thing. The commercial sector is involved in the industry so that it can bring its best innovation to bear, but the specifications that we have put in the franchise cannot be delivered without new rolling stock on many routes or substantial improvement to the newer existing rolling stock. I think we will all be pleased with what comes back in the bids. In this invitation to tender, the emphasis on rolling stock quality is greater than it has ever been. Its importance is firmly recognised

However, I do not want Members to feel that everyone is sitting around doing nothing and waiting for the franchise to happen. I have just been reading the correspondence that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford has had with the current managing director of the franchise holder, Abellio Greater Anglia, in which he says that it has

“engaged an external company to assist us in a major transformational change for our Engineering Team.”

The company is really trying to nail down the planning-led approach to engineering. The letter continues:

“The stated objective is to increase productivity by 30%, which will lead to greater reliability and availability”.

The franchise holder is therefore working hard to improve operations with the existing fleet.

I want to touch on suicide, about which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford has spoken movingly before. While the instances of suicide on the line have actually fallen on a year-on-year basis, it is still an absolutely tragedy when it happens and it can create enormous disruption for passengers. AGA is addressing shortfalls in measures to prevent suicides and is working on all sorts of services, particularly from organisations such as Samaritans, with which AGA is working closely, but it is an ongoing battle. New technology, such as intelligent CCTV that can identify people who exhibit behaviour known to result in a possible attempt on their life, is being trialled in the new control room in Romford, but it will take time to roll the programmes out across the network.

I will finish with a couple of quick points about fares and the future approach to the railways. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend talk about the fact that fares have been held down by an RPI-plus-zero accelerator this year and for the duration of this Parliament. It will be the first time in 10 years that fares will rise more

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slowly than wages, which is a good deal that is worth some £700 million over the Parliament to rail users. For that money, however, commuters from our constituencies expect to get a reliable service. With all the investment, it is imperative that franchise holders deliver their services, which is why the franchising process has been improved and is securely focused on passenger benefits, and that, ultimately, Network Rail delivers on its responsibilities in a way that does not create disruption through late-running engineering works.

Sir Simon Burns: Does the Minister agree that the rail service operator tends to get the blame for problems such as overrunning engineering work, faulty track or signal failure because it is at the sharp end, although it is in fact not responsible? Network Rail and its maintenance department are responsible. We do not want both organisations at each other’s throats, but it seems a little rotten for the rail operators to get the blame every time.

Claire Perry: As a former Rail Minister, my right hon. Friend understands this better than almost anyone. He is absolutely right to say that various players are involved in problems that occur, but our constituents do not care. They just want to pay their fare, feel that they are getting a reasonable quality journey and get to work and then home to their families on time. One-off disruptions are clearly a problem, but the really insidious problem is the daily disruption on the parts of the network where we are undertaking massive improvement plans which leads to people being unable to say when they are going to pick up the kids from day care or when they will be in for a meeting in the morning. We are focused on such issues and we are addressing them. Most fundamentally, whether it is Network Rail or the operator or my Department, it is about putting the customer front and centre of railway decisions.

I will share briefly my theory of railway management. The railways have historically been run by gentlemen—only 17% of the workforce across the whole network is female—who probably had trainsets on their bedroom floors as little boys, but the problems with trainsets are twofold. First, all the trees are evergreen—bits of broccoli will do—and do not shed their leaves, so leaf adhesion is never a problem. Secondly, there are no teeny-tiny passengers to stuff into the train as it whizzes around the floor. I have been told by a departed senior person in the railway industry that were it not for passengers, the timetabling would be perfect. I assure all Members here that that my Department and I utterly reject that view. We will do all that we can, working with Network Rail and the operators, including Abellio Greater Anglia, to ensure that passenger interests are put front and centre of this unprecedented investment in railways.

Question put and agreed to.

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Benefit Sanctions

4.29 pm

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered benefit sanctions.

I thank you for taking the time to chair the debate, Ms Dorries; it is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair. I also appreciate the time that right hon. and hon. Members from across the House have taken to be present in Westminster Hall, especially given our sombre and difficult discussions in the main Chamber.

It is important to state that the Scottish National party accepts the need for some level of conditionality in the social security system and that sanctioning has been part of the system for many years. However, of great concern to us is the evidence that points to claimants being sanctioned in a hasty manner and at an increased rate, and the evidence that social security sanctions link directly to the exponential rise in the use of emergency food aid, or food banks.

We cannot allow conditionality and sanctioning to be a fig leaf for social security cuts. There is strong evidence that sanctions are being applied too quickly, with half of them being overturned on appeal. People cannot live off fresh air, so it is understandable that the Trussell Trust, the Poverty Alliance, Oxfam and others have directly linked increased food bank dependency to social security sanctions, delays in welfare payments and low incomes.

I will focus my contribution this afternoon on the report of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions entitled “Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review”, which was published on 18 March this year, and on the written statement from the Secretary of State in response, dated 22 October. The report stated that

“expert and academic witnesses reported that the international evidence on the specific part played by the application, or deterrent threat, of financial sanctions in successful active regimes was more nuanced and far from clear-cut.”

Evidence from the University of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine highlighted their comparative analysis of the social security sanctions systems applied in the European Union and in the USA, which indicated variable effectiveness in getting claimants back into work and that the UK’s system was one of the most punitive.

What was of great concern to me was the Committee’s view that it was

“concerned that support for claimants was likely to reduce or stop during a sanction period, as the claimant might stop engaging with JCP or the contracted provider.”

That correlates with the anecdotal evidence that I have from constituents, family members and friends who have decided against claiming the social security support to which they should be entitled because of the undue stress and aggravation that the system places on them, including sanctions, work capability assessments and threatening letters—often wrong—about alleged overpayments. We should not be getting ourselves into a place where people are becoming so exasperated by the system that they are self-denying the support available to them, whatever the consequences.

The Oxford and LSHTM research examined official data on sanctioning rates, employment rates and benefit off-flow from 2005 to 2014 in 375 local authority areas

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in the UK. The study found no relationship between local sanctioning rates and employment rates, but it found a strong relationship between sanctioning rates and off-flow, and that that relationship had become stronger since 2011, when there was an escalation in conditionality brought about by the introduction of the mandatory back to work schemes, followed by the changes in the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

For 2011 to 2014 the study estimated that for every 100 jobseeker’s allowance sanctions applied there was an associated off-flow from JSA of 42.4 persons. The study claims that only about 20% of those leaving benefit following a sanction reported having found employment, so what about the rest? Part of my primary concern is that the sanctions regime is being used as a fig leaf for social security cuts, whether direct or indirect, and that there is little evidence that the stated aim of Government regarding sanctions—that they push people into work—is playing out in reality.

That view is supported by Crisis in its March 2015 publication, “Benefit sanctions and homelessness: a scoping report”. The report highlights the fact that the number of JSA sanctions per 100 claimants has almost tripled between 2001 and 2014; that the average monthly number of JSA sanctions has rocketed from 35,000 up to October 2012 to nearly 85,000 thereafter; and that there has been a threefold increase in employment and support allowance sanctions between March 2013 and March 2014. I do not believe that all of a sudden, upon the election of the coalition Government and beyond, jobseekers and social security claimants became less compliant. Something else appears to be in play.

The Committee report was damning about the sanctions regime as it stands. The Secretary of State’s response was published in the House on 22 October. It focused on three main areas: the so-called yellow card sanctioning system; automated sanctions letters; and the at-risk or vulnerable groups. I will address each in turn.

The statement was a step in the right direction—we acknowledge that—but my colleagues and I none the less have significant concerns about the direction of travel. The Work and Pensions Committee called for a full and independent review of the sanctions regime, which we in the SNP have long called for, but the Secretary of State announced a trial yellow card system. A 14-day warning is welcome and a step in the right direction, but the introduction of the trial yellow card system shows that the existing regime is failing. Perhaps the Government will consider a real yellow card system, which would have not only a 14-day timescale for appeal, but a “first offence” warning without sanction. Perhaps the Minister will consider that.

I am also concerned that the Department will be reintroducing the automated system for sanctions letters, which will open the regime up to more mistakes being made than is already the case. I hope that the Minister will advise what support will be made to claimants to allow them to appeal quickly and at no cost to them. I would also appreciate the Minister’s guidance on how incorrect sanctions will be avoided under the automated system. At present, according to the Government’s March figures, 50% of the sanctions dished out are overturned on appeal. The Secretary of State said in his statement that the yellow card system would be trialled “early next

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year”, but no further detail has been forthcoming. Perhaps the Minister present will give this debate an exclusive and explain where, when and how the trial will work.

A commitment was also made to consider extending the at-risk group to include homeless claimants and those with mental health conditions, which would be important—that is important to all Members. I hope that the Minister will consider the issue carefully. My pitch today is for the Minister’s consideration to end in confirmation that people with mental health conditions and the homeless will be included in the at-risk groups and therefore exempted from the most excessive sanctioning levels. We want a root-and-branch review, but the immediate introduction of protections for those with mental health conditions and for those who are homeless will provide protection in the interim.

The Crisis report that I quoted earlier suggests that not only are homeless people disproportionately at risk of being sanctioned, but that sanctions in themselves increase the risk of homelessness as claimants are forced to cut back on housing costs. Clearly, homelessness only pushes people to the margins of society and further from the labour market, so we have strong evidence that sanctions force people into temporary and long-term destitution.

Where is the evidence to suggest that the stick is forcing people into work, which is what the Government claim as they apply the sanctions? How does removing people’s ability to pay their bus fare to a job interview, to buy an appropriate interview outfit, or to buy the food that they need to think clearly help a jobseeker into work? My argument is that it does not. Sanctioning simply pushes people further from the labour market and into destitution. Indeed, it would appear that the Government are struggling to justify sanctioning as well. In order to convince the public of sanctions’ worth, in August this year it was discovered that the Government had used fabricated quotations from fictitious people talking about their positive experiences of the welfare and sanctions system.

We cannot ignore the clear and absolute need for a full and independent review of the sanctions regime. There is little or no empirical evidence to suggest that sanctioning aids people into work that is relevant to their abilities and desires—never mind well paid or secure work—while there is a plethora of evidence that the existing set-up is driving people towards food banks and poverty. The Government cannot stick their head in the sand about the consequences of austerity at all costs and the impact of sanctioning social security claimants.

In conclusion, I appeal directly to the Minister: if she cannot listen to me or the SNP, will she please listen to the cross-party Select Committee, or to the likes of Oxfam, the Poverty Alliance, the Trussell Trust, Crisis and a swathe of other third sector organisations about their concerns about sanctioning, and will she instruct an independent review of the system? While such a review is carried out all sanctions should be halted as a new system is agreed.

I thank you, Ms Dorries, for your time this afternoon and I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their consideration.

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4.39 pm

Corri Wilson (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.

The UK Government brought in the sanctions regime to tackle the perceived culture of worklessness, which they used to justify the introduction of sanctions and conditionality as measures to change people’s behaviour and to incentivise people to find work. However, as I have recently been involved in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill Committee and listened to many hours of evidence from stakeholders, I know it is widely accepted, except perhaps by this Tory Government, that sanctions have a negative impact on people and our society. They are linked to poverty, homelessness, debt, stress, anxiety and mental health deterioration.

Recent studies suggest that the Government’s introduction of sanctions on JSA claimants has led to a significant rise in the number of people leaving unemployment benefits, but, as has already been mentioned, they are not returning to work. After June 2011 an estimated 43% of people who received sanctions went on to leave JSA altogether. As my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) mentioned, less than 20% of that group are recorded as having found employment.

Sanctions do not appear to help people return to work; they appear to help people slide out of view, and that in itself has huge implications for the welfare system. Despite a number of groups highlighting that, there has still been no comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of sanctioning, looking not just in narrow terms of unemployment benefits but at the bigger picture of health, homelessness and other social costs.

Sanctions come from a black and white place where people need to be punished for not doing as they are told. However, as we all know, life is not that straightforward. How can someone battling mental health or addiction who, owing to their chaotic lifestyle, misses an appointment be expected to respond to sanctions that ultimately plunge them into greater chaos?

The welfare system was designed to be a safeguard to help and support people in a time of need, yet that safety net had been ripped from under many people’s feet, leaving them vulnerable, in extreme hardship and in some cases at very real risk. Both Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have said that sanctions are responsible for a significant increase in homelessness and rough sleeping. According to Quarriers, one in three homeless young people has been sanctioned.

Having worked in the Department for Work and Pensions for 20 years, I know that staff are in an impossible position when implementing these regimes. They often take the brunt of the claimants’ frustration and anger at the system. When I worked there, sanctions were used in extreme cases. They have their place, but a decision to impose them was not taken lightly. However, it seems that they are now the norm, leaving people destitute.

According to the Money Advice Service, a fifth of adults in the UK are over-indebted. In my constituency, 22% of people have reported being at least three months behind with their bills. Almost a third of them have a household income below £15,000 and rely on state benefits. Imposing sanctions, even for a short time, can throw hard-up families into arrears on rent and household

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bills that can take them months or even years to recover from. It could be argued that hardship payments are available, but people need to jump through hoops to get them and they are stripped of their dignity in the process.

People on universal credit have to pay back their hardship payments at a rate of 40% of benefits: the same amount by which hardship payments are less than benefits. In essence, universal credit sanctions last 3.5 times longer than their nominal length. These people do not need a brutal sanctions regime; they need a fairs day’s work for a fair day’s pay. People do not want to be on benefits. They want to be safe, have a roof over their head and food in their belly and to have some money in their pocket to spend. Austerity measures mean cuts, cuts and more cuts, with less spending resulting in fewer jobs.

The answer is to take measures to increase employment and grow the economy and then allow the DWP to revert to supporting people into employment, addressing the barriers to that and allowing staff to do their jobs. The key to doing that successfully is a positive relationship between the DWP adviser and the claimant, with the adviser having the autonomy and resources to address barriers to work.

4.44 pm

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for bringing the constantly relevant issue of benefit sanctions to Westminster Hall today. I am afraid that, in the time I have, I will barely be able to scratch the surface of trying to understand the Government’s approach to sanctions, which needs a comprehensive mauling. I do not have time to do a lot, but I will give it a try.

Before we can decide whether a system is fit for purpose —this applies to any policy—we first need to establish what it intends to achieve. The official Department for Work and Pensions line is that the system will help “motivate” people to look for work. Though Ministers insist that their approach to sanctions is backed up by evidence, it has never been quite clear where their supposed evidence is. It certainly does not come from the Department itself.

Recently, when I asked Ministers for statistics on the number of people who have moved into work after being sanctioned, they admitted that they had no idea. I refer the officials to question 11860, which I asked on 14 October and was answered on 21 October. Presumably there are therefore other reasons for their apparent obsession with the conspicuously “tough” approach brought in with the new rules, which are like sanctions on steroids. They were introduced in 2012 and our suspicions should have been raised when the DWP sent out press releases boasting of the record numbers of people being sanctioned.

In a typical release last year, the then Employment Minister, now unemployed—many in Wirral West would say deservedly—Esther McVey presented those figures as evidence that the Government were

“ending the something for nothing culture.”

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If this system is about anything more than political posturing, the Government are doing an awfully good job of hiding it. After all, their own impact assessment for the 2012 changes acknowledged that there simply was not evidence to show that harsher sanctions would actually lead to more people moving into work. What we now know, thanks to a study published not by the Department but by academics from the Universities of Oxford and London in January, is that many of those who were sanctioned between 2011 and 2014 stopped claiming benefits altogether, but just 20% did that because they had found work.

Sanctions not only do not help people get into work, but make that much more difficult. That is especially true for those most in need of help with the transition from unemployment into work. People with mental health problems, for example, now make up a majority of people in the work-related activity group within ESA. In a survey conducted by Mind last year, 83% of people in that group said that the so-called help they had received, either from jobcentres or Work programme providers, had actually made their mental health worse, and 76% said that their experiences caused them to feel even less able to work than before. We have those findings on the one hand and on the other we have a sixfold increase in the number of sanctions for people on ESA.

The Government should go beyond their rhetoric and take a good hard look at the impact that these sanctions are having in the real world. Of course, most of us are already painfully aware of the reality behind that rhetoric. We have seen the evidence not just in our constituency surgeries, but in the ever-growing lines of people queuing outside our local food banks.

According to the Trussell Trust, since the new regime was introduced in 2012, 83% of food banks have seen an increase in the number of people urgently needing their help. We all acknowledge the extraordinarily valuable service that food banks provide in our local communities, especially to the most vulnerable, but that is not the only reason we have to be grateful for the Trussell Trust’s work: in recent years, it has scrupulously documented the stories people tell when they go to food banks, explaining why they need help. That has made an extremely important contribution to the wider sanctions policy debate.

The record compiled by the Trussell Trust provides the most comprehensive document we have had to date of the nastiness and ineffectiveness of the Government’s approach. Examples from food banks across the country include: sanctions in Richmond for missing appointments, despite not having enough money for the bus fare; sanctions in Birmingham for not providing enough evidence of applying for jobs online, even when the person involved told them they could not use a computer; sanctions in Nottingham for missing appointments to attend funerals and for visiting a loved one in hospital; and sanctions in Crosby for missing an appointment because the claimant was going to a job interview—an irony that seems to be lost on Ministers. If there is any logic or reason behind any of that, I simply cannot see it.

The Labour party agrees with the Scottish nationalists on this issue. It is not that we do not believe that there should be some form of conditionality behind jobseekers obtaining benefits, but frankly, the sanctions regime has gone far too far. Such stories—there are plenty of them,

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and plenty more where they came from—make a mockery of the Government’s claim that sanctions apply only to those who fail to “play by the rules” or who are

“wilfully rejecting support for no good reason”

as the former Employment Minister used to say.

It should now be clear to anyone capable of thinking straight on sanctions that the entire system is so fundamentally broken that it is almost beyond repair. We urgently need a root-and-branch reform, and we can do that only on the basis of evidence. We therefore ask yet again, as does the Work and Pensions Committee, for a full and independent review to consider the fundamental questions of what these sanctions are supposed to achieve, whether they are working and, even if they are, how much they are costing.

That is what my colleagues and I have pushed for repeatedly during recent debates on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. As the Bill moved through the Commons, we tabled an amendment to it in Committee and on the Floor of the House that would have forced the Government to set up a comprehensive independent review to address those issues. Every single Member on the Government Benches voted against establishing such a review. I asked the Minister this question at the time, and I will ask her again today: if the Government are so sure of their ground when it comes to sanctions, why are they so frightened of an independent review? Exactly what are they afraid of? I am still waiting for an answer to that question, but I am not holding my breath.

Several hon. Members rose

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): Order. There has been some confusion, which I will put down to the fact that SNP Members are new and may not yet be fully au fait with how Westminster Hall and Parliament work. It is normal practice, when a Member wants to speak, to catch the eye of the Chair and to rise. I left time, following the speech by Mr Gray, for other Members to rise, and nobody gave any indication that they wanted to. This is unusual, because the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson has already spoken, but given that we are okay for time, you may make some brief points, Mr Boswell. Although my daughters frequently accuse me of having eyes in the back of my head, I cannot read your minds and do not know that you want to speak.

4.53 pm

Philip Boswell (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for securing the debate and for his insightful and informed speech on the subject. We represent neighbouring constituencies, and I see he has become as aware of and concerned as I have about the extent of benefit sanctions in the North Lanarkshire area and their far-reaching impact on not only the individual being sanctioned but their family, who are also affected.

I welcome the contributions made by all who have participated in the debate. I think I can safely say that every Member in this Chamber will have met constituents who have faced unfair benefit sanctions. The other week, I heard from a constituent who was faced with a four-week sanction after failing to attend a jobcentre

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meeting. The reason he missed the meeting was because he had a job interview—ridiculous! He is currently in the process of appealing the DWP’s decision, but in the meantime, he is faced with the prospect of trying to get by in the run-up to Christmas without any income whatever.

As has rightly been stated by many hon. Members, benefit sanctions have made a direct, substantial contribution to the increased use of food banks. From October 2014 to October 2015, the Coatbridge food bank has seen a 35% increase in referrals. According to Chris Baxter, the food bank’s manager, a substantial contributing factor to that increased use is benefit sanctions. I thank Chris and his staff for their efforts.

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): Order. Please make your key points. You have a few minutes each. You cannot deliver your speech, I am afraid, because the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson cannot respond to your points.

Philip Boswell: Sorry; I was cutting out large sections of my speech, but I will be more ardent in my efforts.

Emily Thornberry: On a point of order, Ms Dorries. I do not know if this will help with your chairing, but may I make it clear that the Labour party sees entirely eye to eye with the Scottish nationalists on this issue? There is unlikely to be anything they raise that I would want to argue with them about.

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): Thank you very much for that.

Philip Boswell: In addition to causing a rise in food bank use, benefit sanctions contribute to the rising fuel poverty seen throughout these isles. According to Citizens Advice Scotland, benefit sanctions have directly contributed to the 130% rise in fuel poverty in Scotland, with 40% of Scots now living in fuel poverty—a statistic I find completely unacceptable.

Ultimately, benefit sanctions condemn the individuals faced with them to a cycle of poverty, given the impact on food poverty and high-interest debt, as many individuals take out long-term loans with high interest rates. Benefit sanctions also condemn the children of the people faced with them. We now live in a country where a growing number of people are punished for being poor—poor and paying for it—from the day they are born, and are provided with little means by which to escape poverty, so that they will always be poor. That needs to change, and ending the system of inhumane benefit sanctions is a first step in that direction.

4.56 pm

Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for securing this important debate.

The Government continue to claim that the claimant commitment ensures that requirements for claimants are reasonable, but their own research shows that around half of claimants say that the commitment contains actions that do not take account or consideration of their personal circumstances, are unrealistic or simply

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do not increase their chances of finding work. The Government are ignoring Work and Pensions Committee recommendations, and I hope the Minister will be more receptive today and note my concern that those recommendations do not appear to have been adequately considered.

Sanctions remove all of a claimant’s jobseeker’s allowance and all of the personal allowance component of ESA, leaving people in a position of utter destitution. Hardship payments are supposed to be available to people who have been sanctioned. However, unless they are deemed vulnerable—a very tight definition that does not even consider homelessness as a sign of vulnerability—they cannot apply for two weeks.

I can put myself in the shoes of those who fall foul of the sanctions regime. If I were reliant on benefits to survive, I would probably have little or no savings. I honestly do not know how I would survive for two weeks with no income. Even if I were successful in my hardship application, I would receive only 60% of my sanctioned benefit. I have concerns that the current system has the potential to push otherwise law-abiding people to criminality in order to survive. It is abhorrent for people to face destitution, and it is thoroughly heartless of the Government to continue with such a ruthless system. I welcome the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh), which seeks to introduce automatic hardship payments for sanctioned claimants and to remedy some of the problems in the current system.

The sanctions regime is also incredibly unfair on front-line staff in jobcentres. I am aware of a recent incident at a jobcentre in my constituency that resulted in staff having to phone the police. The reason for the incident was that a person who had been sanctioned and, as I understand it, not adequately notified of the sanction, visited the jobcentre to protest, and the situation escalated. That does not seem to be an isolated incident. From what I can tell, there is a broken process in place.

In summary, I would like responses from the Minister to the following questions. Can figures for the number of people arrested during their sanction period for shoplifting offences be provided? What is the reasoning behind the two-week hardship rule, and has it been recently reassessed? What consideration has been given to the private Member’s Bill on automatic hardship funding and to the practices of notification of sanctions for all those affected?

4.59 pm

The Minister for Employment (Priti Patel): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing the debate, because it not only allows all Members to reflect their reviews on this important issue, but gives us a chance to discuss conditionality alongside full employment and how we can encourage and support people back into work. The hon. Gentleman raised points that we have discussed previously. As he is a new spokesman for his party, I congratulate him on that and I look forward to working with him.

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The debate has been wide-ranging, but I would like to start by restating the importance of conditionality and the role that that plays in our welfare system, and I will outline the principles behind the use of sanctions as part of the approach to help move people into employment. The hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members have made important points about the system, and I will outline some of the recent developments and the improvements that we are making following the recent report on sanctions by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions as well as the independent Oakley review.

The role of conditionality is best highlighted by the independent Oakley review, which said that sanctions are

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

The words “effectiveness” and “fairness” are particularly relevant, because we know from claimants that there is a positive impact on behaviour. Nearly three quarters of people on jobseeker’s allowance and more than 60% of those on employment and support allowance say that sanctions play a role in helping them to understand the system. They have the claimant commitment in particular, but it helps when it comes to seeking employment and it provides a framework for them. The number of sanctions has fallen by around 40% in the last year, and ESA sanctions have stabilised as well. We should recognise the point about mutual obligation that the Oakley review describes and that sanctions can provide the right support for people to move into employment.

Emily Thornberry: I do not really understand what the Minister is saying. Perhaps she can help me by explaining it a little more. Is she saying that claimants say that it is helpful for them to have sanctions and that without sanctions, they would not understand what the system was?

Priti Patel: We know from claimants that the principle of conditionality and the claimant commitment have a positive impact on behaviour. Nearly three quarters of people on JSA and over 60% of those on ESA say that sanctions make it very clear to them that they will follow the rules, in terms of the claimant commitment and their discussions with work coaches. Those rules will also help them to gain employment, so they understand the discussions and dialogue that take place with them with regard to conditionality.

Neil Gray: Further to that point and the helpful intervention from the Labour shadow Minister, does the Minister not accept that, when a claimant has been sanctioned, that removes their ability—for a long time, because these are often cases involving people who have very little means—to access the services and job interviews and all the other issues associated with getting back into work? Does she not accept that and see, in a number of cases, that it is clear that the sanction has damaged the claimant’s ability to get back into work?

Priti Patel: Specific to individuals who have been sanctioned, first, there is a proper process on sanctioning, so we must not lose sight of that. That process includes a tailored claimant commitment and an action plan, so that individuals know what is expected from them, and importantly, the support that they will access and get from jobcentres and work coaches. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned mental health, which I will come on to.

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With regards to the proper process on sanctions, we have safeguarding and hardship payments, and those provide the support arrangements for people who are subject to a benefit sanction.

Philip Boswell: If the proper process is indeed in place, why are 50% of appeals successful?

Priti Patel: As I said, a sanctions process is in place. It is a proper process that includes the claimant from the start, so the claimant is fully engaged in the process, the discussions and the claimant commitment or the action plan, which clearly states what is expected of them.

On the overturning of sanctions and appeals, I cannot comment on individual cases, but I emphasise that the claimant commitment and the action plan are undertaken with the claimant from the start. The parameters are there. The individual knows exactly what is required of them. Importantly, it is a two-way process, with work coaches and the jobcentre. They set out not only what the claimant commitment is and what is expected from the individual, but importantly, the support that they will provide to that individual.

I know that a few cases were highlighted. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned a couple of cases. I am very happy to look into those, if she would like to share them with me after the debate, and to work through those individual cases with her. I will come on to the point made by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts about individuals with particular conditions, such as mental health conditions, or with caring responsibilities or disabilities. Individuals have different circumstances, as we all recognise. It is absolutely right that individual circumstances, conditions and responsibilities are taken into consideration and that claimants are given a full opportunity to provide the good reason for not complying when a decision is made by the decision maker.

Coming back to the point about process, there is, of course, the opportunity to have a mandatory reconsideration, whereby there is a further opportunity, on an individual basis, to provide information and for more facts to be considered.

Emily Thornberry: The Minister is being very generous in taking as many interventions as she has. She has moved back to process, on which I wanted to ask her a question. She said that the number of sanctions is going down, but a large number of people are moving on to universal credit, and the Department for Work and Pensions does not publish statistics for those who have been sanctioned on universal credit, as I understand it. Will the DWP undertake to start publishing statistics on people who have been sanctioned who are getting universal credit?

Priti Patel: If I may, I will come back to the hon. Lady on that point. She will be fully aware that universal credit is being rolled out and will be rolled out fully by April next year. However, I will come back to her on the point about UC and sanctions.

I was making the point about the process and support for claimants with health conditions. In addition to looking at any other cases that Members would like to raise with me, I make the point that jobcentre staff are trained to support claimants with health conditions,

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and mental health conditions in particular, during their job search and have access to more expert advice if that is needed. With that, we are ensuring that safeguarding measures are put in place to protect vulnerable claimants, particularly ESA claimants, with mental health conditions. We have a process and a system whereby ESA claimants, when engaged with the jobcentre, can receive a home visit from a visiting officer, should that be required. It is also fair to make the point that, with the Work programme, providers must make every attempt to engage on a face-to-face level if they identify a claimant as vulnerable.

The debate gives me the opportunity to raise with the House the fact that for mental health claimants in particular, the Government have outlined a new joint unit, very much focused on the Department of Health working with the DWP, looking at individuals with health conditions and health barriers—mental health being one of them—and at how we can provide more tailored and integrated support to help those claimants, many of whom, it is fair to say, are on employment and support allowance and are furthest away from the labour market.

More than 60% of ESA claimants say publicly and frequently that they want to work, but we need to find the right journey and support for them to get back into work. This Government have just started that important work through the new joint health and work unit of the two Departments. That is a positive step forward, and I look forward to working with all right hon. and hon. Members to see how we can advance.

The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts mentioned the yellow card early warning system, which was announced in response to a recommendation by the Work and Pensions Committee in its recent report on sanctions. Its Chair, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), welcomed our response and, importantly, our willingness to engage with the Committee to ensure that the conditionality system works as it should. In our response to the Committee, we announced that we would trial a sanctions warning system giving claimants a further two weeks to provide evidence of good reason before a decision is made. It is important that that will strike the right balance between fairness and conditionality. We intend the trial to operate in Scotland from March 2016 and to run for approximately five months. A full evaluation of the trial will be undertaken, and the findings will be available from autumn 2016. As I said, I am happy to discuss the findings and the roll-out as it continues.

We have responded positively to the independent Oakley review. As a result, we have worked with behavioural insight experts to enhance our engagement, our approach and the way in which we communicate sanctions. We have published a JSA sanctions fact sheet through Government channels; we are improving the clarity of the JSA and ESA hardship application process; and we are making improvements to the payment process to ensure that payments are made within three days. We are very clear about that, as we stated in our response to the Work and Pensions Committee. We have accepted all 17 of the Oakley recommendations to improve the process, and we will undertake a number of improvements to JSA and ESA sanctions. The Chair of the Select Committee made it clear that he is pleased that the Government accepted its approach and many of its comments on sanctions, and particularly our willingness to change.

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Food banks have been mentioned. We are trialling the DWP working with food banks in Manchester, and we will report back on the observations from that.

In conclusion, the employment support offered by jobcentres has been based on conditionality, but it has also been personalised to help people into employment with wide-ranging provision of skills and employability support. There are clear expectations on people under the conditionality system, such as work search expectations, which we have touched on in the debate. A key part of our employment and support programme is the principle of conditionality, and we will keep our sanctions process under constant review to ensure that it continues to function effectively and fairly. We will also work with the Work and Pensions Committee, and we will take on board the views and comments that have been aired this afternoon.

5.14 pm

Neil Gray: I thank all Members for their contributions. They have all been fair, but also have shone a light on what is going on for many hon. Members locally. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) made an impassioned speech based on her knowledge of the system from her working life. That brought great scope to the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell) made another fantastic speech, elaborating on local issues that we share, as we represent neighbouring constituencies. I am sorry that given the circumstances, which are understandable, he could not elaborate further, particularly on issues such as fuel poverty. I know he was very keen to get across points about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) made good points about how any one of us who might find ourselves relying on social security support at any point in our lives would respond to being sanctioned. She also mentioned the Bill being promoted by our hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh), which I fully support.

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I greatly appreciate the comments of the Labour shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). I thought that her position was rightly very close to that held by the SNP. She reiterated that the research showed that just 20% of the 42% of people who had left JSA after being sanctioned had reported finding work. I thank her for her supportive comments and for her flexibility over how the debate happened this afternoon.

I also thank the Minister. I appreciate her personal comments to me, but also the way she made her contribution. She acknowledged that the points that Opposition Members have been raising are important, and I welcome that. She mentioned hardship payments. We have to realise that they are at a level far less than the normal income that people are used to. Even though people are receiving those payments, we have to consider the impact on their lives in the short, medium and long term.

The Minister said that circumstances had to be taken into consideration, but she stopped short of saying that the at-risk groups would be expanded to include people with mental health conditions and the homeless. I hope that we can work on that over time. She said that 60% of ESA claimants say that they wish to get back into work. My experience is that far more would work if they could, but they feel that they have been unfairly assessed. The cuts to ESA that are to come will hinder people who need that extra support to get back into work, particularly those with mental health conditions. I hope that the Minister will take that issue away and consider it with colleagues.

I thank the Minister, my colleagues, the Labour shadow Minister and you, Ms Dorries. I look forward to making further progress on these matters in the coming weeks and months.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered benefit sanctions.

5.17 pm

Sitting adjourned.