Monday 14th December 2015

(6 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Committee (3rd Day)
17:07
Relevant document: 13th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Amendment 57
Moved by
57: After Clause 15, insert the following new Clause—
“Review of application of sanctions
(1) The Secretary of State must, before the end of the financial year ending 31 March 2016, provide for a full and independent review of the sanctions regimes attached to working-age benefits, including but not limited to jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance and income support, to determine whether they are an effective and proportionate means of meeting the Government’s objectives.
(2) The terms of reference for the review must include consideration of—
(a) the application of sanctions to lone parents with dependent children;(b) the application of sanctions to claimants who are disabled;(c) the effectiveness of sanctions in moving claimants into sustained work; and(d) any other matters which the Secretary of State considers relevant.”
Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I speak to Amendment 57, tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton, and with the support of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor. Its purpose is to provide for a full, independent review of the operation of the sanctions regime, to determine the effectiveness of sanctions in moving claimants into sustained work as well as any adverse impact on particular groups. It echoes a recommendation made twice by the Work and Pensions Committee but rejected by the Government.

The Government gave three main reasons for rejection in response to the committee’s recent report on sanctions. First, they wanted the improvements already made to bed in. Welcome as the improvements may be, they do not meet all recommendations from either the committee or the earlier Oakley review. There is evidence from many quarters that problems persist. Secondly, the Government argue that international evidence is clear that benefit regimes tied to conditionality get people into work. Last week the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pointed to how the international evidence is not unequivocally in support of the value of sanctions and getting people into sustained work and achieving positive, longer-term outcomes. In any case, I do not see the relevance to the case for a review of this sanctions regime. Similarly, the Government point to wide agreement that sanctions play a vital role in supporting conditionality—up to a point, provided they are,

“applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately”,

to quote the Work and Pensions Committee. But the whole point is that few agree that they are. That is why we need an independent review that goes beyond the narrow remit of the Oakley review, helpful as that was.

Last week the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, referred to the toxic effect of sanctions. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, cited some of the evidence, drawing on her experience as a member of the Fawcett inquiry into the impact on women, particularly lone mothers, rather spoiling the rosy picture painted by the Minister on Wednesday night.

There is also evidence from a wide range of organisations, such as Gingerbread, Citizens Advice and local advice agencies, including an Advice Nottingham report I helped to launch the other day. More evidence has emerged since our last sitting from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty, in the foreword to which the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed shock at sanctions’ contribution to widespread hunger and reliance on food banks; and from Crisis, which published a study from Sheffield Hallam University that found that sanctions were leading to homelessness and exacerbating the situation of those already homeless, particularly those with mental health problems. I do not have time to document this evidence, but I want to interrogate some of the department’s responses to the Work and Pensions Committee’s recommendations, drawing on an analysis by Dr David Webster of Glasgow University, to whom I am indebted, as I am for his regular analysis of the sanctions statistics. I am glad to say that these show some improvement recently, but the rate remains well above the pre-2010 rate.

The response to the committee’s report was perhaps spun to give the impression that it had conceded rather more than it had. In particular, what was dubbed acceptance of a yellow-card system looks more like a deferred red card to allow for representations to the referee. I am sure my colleagues know that I do not normally draw on football metaphors. The recommendation was that the:

“DWP pilot pre-sanction written warnings and non-financial sanctions”,

for first-time incidents of non-compliance. The response was to,

“trial arrangements whereby claimants are given a warning of our intention to sanction, and a 14-day period to provide evidence of good reason before the decision to sanction is made”,

and to,

“provide further evidence to explain their non-compliance”.

That is a welcome improvement but I am sure noble Lords can spot the difference. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, himself, in a previous role, called for first-time non-compliance to be met with a written warning rather than a sanction. The Oakley review called for the trial of non-financial sanctions for first-time failures. SSAC, too, favours such an approach.

In eliding it with a recommendation for an independent review, the department also rejected without explanation the call for an evaluation of the efficacy and impact of the four-week minimum sanction period under the 2012 Act, compared with a minimum period of one week. Perhaps we could have an explanation now.

The current chair of the Work and Pensions Committee has written to the Secretary of State to express his disappointment at the refusal to accept the recommendation on monitoring the destination of sanctioned claimants. As he argues:

“Monitoring employment outcomes is surely fundamental to understanding … the ultimate aim of getting claimants back into work and out of poverty”.

The Secretary of State’s response to this crucial recommendation referred simply to quality-assuring universal credit statistics, with a reference to other unspecified factors that might affect claimant destinations, which was not very encouraging. Surely the department wants to know whether sanctions are moving claimants into sustained work and what happens when they are not. The Crisis study found that, perversely, sanctions were pushing some of those affected further from the labour market and that homelessness service users were begging, borrowing and stealing to meet their daily need. Indeed, some actually said that they were trying to get put into jail because it would be better than destitution. Surely the department wants to know the impact on the health and well-being of those sanctioned and their families, which, again, the Crisis study and others have shown can be very negative. These are all issues that an independent review would address and that I really believe that the department itself surely wants to know the answer to.

17:15
I will finish by putting a human face on the operation of sanctions. I recently co-hosted with my noble friend Lord Beecham the presentation of a report, Our Lives: Challenging Attitudes to Poverty in 2015, which recounted 20 true stories, illustrating the damaging effects of previous social security reform and the endurance and efforts to survive of the people affected. One of the women whose stories were told, called Sally in the report, spoke at the meeting, which was also addressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro. People were very moved by her account of how her disabled son, who lived with her, was sanctioned. It is a shame that the Minister could not hear her, so I am enabling him—and her—to hear an edited version now.
Sally’s son had had extensive back surgery, which limited him in what he could do. He was forced to leave college in order to sign on. She explained that,
“once on JSA, Chris had no consideration shown for his condition, but was bullied and pressured and put down, judged. He was sent for jobs he could not do because of his back. The disability adviser was the same and no help. On the way to an appointment at the back to work scheme provider, his bus was held up with a number of roadworks and with no credit on his phone, he panicked. He arrived 10 minutes late and signed in at reception. The adviser sat glaring at Chris for a while as she typed away, before walking over to him and going at him verbally abusing him including a threat of a sanction. When the sanction happened I couldn’t believe it. In tears I asked an adviser what am I meant to do, chuck him out? She told me, ‘Fine, let us know when you’ve done it because we need to update the change of circumstances’. It was soul destroying. I had to support him on my benefits. I felt disrespected. They showed such callous, unfeeling indifference. In shock and shame and embarrassment, I went to a church food bank, their humanity and kindness and awareness of the huge struggles we all face made me weep. I still keep in touch with them.
Seven months later at the tribunal the papers clearly showed the adviser had lied [a regional manager of the work scheme provider had accepted that Chris should not have been sanctioned as he signed on but was just a bit late]. I felt sick to my stomach and really disturbed the whole time and I hated the politicians who spoke on the telly who strongly maintain that sanctions are rare, that it’s a last resort”.
She praised the tribunal and the food bank and finished by observing, “There but for the grace of God go any one of us in need”. Afterwards, when I asked her if I could have her speaking notes, because I said to her that I wanted to try to relay what she said to this House, she added—she said, “Please say this”, although she did not want to say it herself in the meeting—that her son had said to her at one point, “If it wasn’t for you, Mum, I’d throw myself on the tracks and kill myself”. This is what this inhumane system is doing to people. Its operation must be reviewed. I beg to move.
Earl of Listowel Portrait The Earl of Listowel (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I attached my name to this amendment because in past experiences of working with young people in hostels, I have often seen how the administrative machine makes mistakes and causes young people such hardship. On Friday I visited the First Love Foundation food bank in Poplar. I spoke with young people and families asking for help from the foundation. I heard that often, because of mistakes in sanctions, or because of sanctions, children were going hungry. I was also told of the case of a man who would be sanctioned if he failed to finish a course he was on, but who would also be sanctioned if he failed to attend the other course he was supposed to be doing. He was put in an impossible situation. This amendment is a reasonable request to make of the Government and I hope the Minister will accept it.

Baroness Manzoor Portrait Baroness Manzoor (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I accept everything the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, have said. The last time this Committee sat, noble Lords touched on the question of how we can learn lessons if we do not put reviews in place. If we do not review sanctions, how will the Government assess whether they have been effective or whether they can be adjusted to get people back into work? That is surely what it is about and why sanctions have been put there in the first place. We must have an independent review and I hope the Minister will look seriously at this issue.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Portrait Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I do not object to reviews in principle. I have done some for the Government and I am now doing the official review of Part 2 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act, which covers the impact on non-party political campaigning. They have a useful role and, in light of the work I have done for the Government, it would be strange if I objected in principle to what the noble Baroness and the other noble Lords proposing these amendments are saying. I leave aside the question of whether there is a real purpose here: the noble Baroness rather disregarded the Oakley review and other things as being of little value. If reviews are to have worthwhile purposes, they need to meet certain tests. Other noble Lords will have their own tests, but I will share three with the Committee this afternoon.

First is the question of timing. The full impact of legislation takes time to emerge. In these circumstances, we are obviously seeking to change people’s behaviour. Their first reaction may not be their last and further reactions—good or bad—may emerge over the months and years after the legislation comes into effect. The amendment suggests 31 March 2016 as the date by which the review must be set up into whether sanctions are an,

“effective and proportionate means of meeting the Government’s objectives”.

I doubt whether it is possible to adhere to that timescale and reach meaningful outcomes, given the complexity of the subjects we are discussing and the likely evolution of events and behaviours. I am therefore concerned about the timing.

The second question is about the remit, which is too narrow. Each statute contains a number of pieces, as in a jigsaw. If one piece of the jigsaw is moved, all the other pieces have to move as well. The amendment looks at just one piece and does not pay enough attention to the wider implications, strategic aims and objectives of the Bill as a whole. Its benefits and value suffer as a result of its proposers making it so narrow.

The third question is the terms of the review. To be worth while, a review has to be reasonably even-handed as it sets out. I notice that the word “sanctions” is used four times in the amendment. By no stretch of the imagination can “sanctions” be said to be a neutral word: it is a pejorative term. The review sets out with these terms in order to arrive at, and find, a particular outcome.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham Portrait Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that the word “sanctions” is employed in my noble friend’s amendment because that is the word the Government choose to use?

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Portrait Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In these circumstances, a word such as “provisions” would be a better and more even-handed way of looking at the measure.

From my point of view, the timing proposed in the amendment is too soon, the remit is too narrow and the terms of reference are designed to achieve only one result. Therefore, I hope that my noble friend will reject it.

Lord Beecham Portrait Lord Beecham (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I also have a slight reservation about my noble friend’s amendment, but it is not the kind of semantic quibble which the noble Lord has just advanced, if I might term it that way. I would like to see the review of the out-of-work benefits regime and sanctions, which she rightly calls for, extended to certain other aspects of the welfare system as it is now operating.

In debates in your Lordships’ House, I have referred before to the area in Newcastle I represent as a councillor. It is a ward in the west end of the city with high levels of deprivation and a life expectancy 12 years lower than that of the area where I live, some 12 minutes’ drive away. The ward has six primary schools, two of which are Roman Catholic schools. All the schools, together with the Excelsior Academy, founded by a Conservative philanthropist, provide breakfast clubs for their pupils. The ward is served by the largest food bank in the country and poverty is a very real local issue.

On 26 November, I was contacted by a constituent, a single parent with two very young children, whose child tax credit payments had been stopped for eight weeks. The family was left with £33 a week child benefit and £117 a fortnight income support. The children’s milk tokens had also been stopped, and formula milk needed by one child who suffers from asthma could no longer be afforded. The parent of these children could not top up the gas meter, when required, to the usual extent.

Concentrix, the firm dealing with my constituent under contract to HMRC, had initially stated that it would take six weeks to check the eligibility for child tax credits. I forwarded the details and my reply to the constituent to the local Member of Parliament, and advised my constituent that I had done so and would also endeavour to take up the matter with the Minister. However, three days later, on 1 December, I was again contacted by my constituent, who told me that a further telephone conversation had taken place with Concentrix. The initial response—now nine weeks after payments ceased—was that inquiries were ongoing. A request was then made to speak to a supervisor. Initially, that led only to an assertion by the supervisor that the mandatory reconsideration was being carried out by another department which did not accept calls from claimants. However, after it was said in the course of this telephone conversation that the local Member of Parliament had been informed about the case, the problem was miraculously resolved and payments immediately resumed, even though for weeks Concentrix had claimed that this could not be done by the department to which the calls had been made.

This sorry saga raises serious questions about the administration of the child tax credit system in general, and by Concentrix in particular. Of course, it is right that claims should be validated, but your Lordships might think that even six weeks seems like a long time for payments to be suspended, let alone the nine weeks which had elapsed in this case and the even longer period which, but for the mention of the Member of Parliament, would otherwise have ensued.

There are also issues about the approach taken by Concentrix in dealing with the matter, not just the length of time taken. This US-owned company, another beneficiary of the passion for outsourcing these services, was featured in an article in the Independent in February. Staff claimed they were under pressure to start 40 or 50 inquiries a day into possibly fraudulent claims without any initial cause. In effect, they were asked to fish for fraud. As of August, the Mumsnet website carried 91 cases of applicants complaining about how they felt intimidated by the company’s approach and its demands, for example, for original documentation such as bank statements, rent payments or catalogue, fuel and other bills, which were often prefaced by unsubstantiated and false assertions that claimants were not lone parents but were living with someone.

All of this is symptomatic of a deeply troubling approach to an important component of our welfare system, or, as I prefer to characterise it, our system of social security, which in so many ways the provisions of this Bill threaten to undermine.

A week last Friday, I watched a recording of JB Priestley’s powerful and moving play “An Inspector Calls”, set more than a century ago, which deals with the tragic history of a young woman driven to suicide by poverty and the withholding of what was then known as poor relief. I am not, of course, suggesting that we are in a similar position today or that this Bill, however imperfect, will take us back there. But I believe it is time for an inspector to call not only on Concentrix but on HMRC, the department and the Government as a whole to review not just how the system is administered, but the implications for those in need of the policies embodied in this Bill.

17:30
I have already tabled a Written Question to the Minister to ask specifically about Concentrix. The question, which the noble Lord will no doubt be answering shortly in written form, so I do not expect him to answer it today, was:
“To ask … what provisions the contract with Concentrix regarding child tax credits and other benefits makes concerning the time within which decisions must be made about the eligibility for such benefits once they have been withdrawn, and … how the company has performed against any such requirements in respect of the number of cases in which that period has been exceeded”.
This is but one example of the potentially serious problems posed to people in dire circumstances by a system which relies on a commercial organisation performing what ought to be a public service as if it was a routine exercise under which it seeks to find, expose and penalise people who abuse the system, but in a way which causes distress and worse to people who are quite innocent of any such charge and who will be denied benefits, even for a period of weeks, before a decision is made.
In addition to the serious matters raised by my noble friend Lady Lister about sanctions in a slightly different context, I urge the Government to look very seriously at reviewing the operation of this system and, in particular, the operation of the company administering it, admittedly not on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions but on behalf of HMRC.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Portrait Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, perhaps I may make two points on this very important subject, which will become more important as universal credit comes to be rolled out. That will happen significantly over the coming months and it is causing fear and anxiety that the sanctions regime, which at the moment affects individual benefits, as colleagues know, will start to be applied on a much wider scale on a wrapper which contains within it six benefits. The stakes are therefore a lot higher and, as I said last week and as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, mentioned, I am getting strong signals that people are worried about universal credit, in a way that I hoped they would not be because of the extra 1 million people who will be embraced on full rollout. In steady state, universal credit will bring that new degree of conditionality, so we need to be careful to answer some of the questions that have been raised.

Some of the casework that we have heard about obviously needs to be thoroughly investigated, and we need to try to deal with that as much as we can. However, the issue for me is about working with interest groups, such as Gingerbread and others, to try to bridge the gulf—and it is a gulf at the moment—with what the Government say is actually happening. The noble Baroness, Lady Evans, did a valiant job against the clock last week in trying to set out what the Government believe to be the circumstances. I would just report that that explanation, while done in good faith, was met with incredulity by some of the specialists working in this field. It may be that they are dealing with families which are predisposed to the risk of the sanction effect, particularly in the lone-parent client category. But we really need to try to bridge the gap between what the Government think is happening and what the pressure groups, which we have all worked with for years and whose judgment I trust, feel is happening before universal credit gets too much further rolled out.

I am in favour of a review of the generic kind suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. Speaking for myself, what really needs to happen concerns decision-makers, particularly skilled and experienced decision-makers. The problem is that the people who I get access to in Jobcentre Plus offices are more likely to be experienced because, if I was the departmental manager, I would want visitors such as me to see experienced hands and I have been doing that for a long while, so I have factored that in. I am presupposing that the training and guidance have been rolled out properly; the departmental expenditure limit makes that harder and harder but the explanation of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, last week, which I accepted, was that you can front-load the staff because you save money on administration with the technology. But I am absolutely convinced that these decision-makers with experience are skilled and savvy enough to know whether a case in front of them is missing essential evidence. I do not think that they have enough discretion at the moment about freezing the application until they are satisfied that they have the information in front of them.

The trouble is that these cases are visited on them through the technology system, so they are not able to see the case all the way through in the way that case officers could in the old days. Jobs get passed around the system, which is technologically clever and efficient, but that deprives the decision-makers of being able to say “Look, there’s something missing here. I want this attended to, and within two weeks I need this other information. If it is absent, their sanction will be applied but if we can find it, I’d be much happier”. I do not think that that flexibility exists.

I know that the guidance is all online and people can see it, and that it all makes sense when read in a cold situation. But in a hot family situation, an experienced decision-maker should be given more latitude in looking at the papers which they have and estimating what other evidence, which because of their experience is likely to exist somewhere else, would make a difference. That would save a lot of money in successful appeals, which would be spawned once the evidence was received, and make the client’s experience a whole lot better. There are things that could and should be done, but my plea, as it is all through the Bill, is that we have to get these things straightened out to the best of our possible ability before universal credit is rolled out to 7.7 million households across the country by 2020 or thereabouts.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham Portrait Baroness Hollis of Heigham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I would like to ask the Minister a question. Concerns have been expressed to me by legal advice centres and the local equivalents of CABs and so on. Anybody who is threatened with a sanction can obviously appeal or ask for a second opinion, and that would then go to an independent decision-maker. How long will that independent decision-maker take to arrive at their judgment? The advice I have been getting is that that is where it is being held up and that there are sometimes waits of six, eight, 10 or 12 weeks before a decision is made. As a result, there is a long queue for the independent decision-maker.

However, you cannot go to appeal, where the original decision may quite possibly be overturned, until it has been reviewed by the independent decision-maker. I am in favour of the department reviewing its own internal decision-making before we go through to the tribunal appeal process, but only if that is done speedily and competently, as well as fairly. Can we be reminded of those statistics, because I am advised in case after case that it is being used as a narrow gateway? It puts a lot of delay in and doubles the difficulties of the sanction procedure.

Then there is an entirely different question, not connected with that at all, which goes back to the Minister’s words towards the end of the last Committee day on work conditionality and sanctions and on the preparation for work interviews for those with a toddler aged two years or more—although the requirement to work does not bite until the toddler is three. Are people required to attend such work interviews or work preparation without their toddler? Consider a situation in which a lone parent has recently had to move, perhaps six months before, from a privately rented, mouldy property on an insecure tenancy to another property, and there is no support system in place. The little two year-old boy still does not speak, although he perhaps has the beginnings of a bit a temper. That child still needs to be fed and to have his nappies changed, but there is no local support network in place and the little boy has never been looked after by anyone other than his mother. Given that we are not talking about a work placement or continuous employment, as would happen when that toddler is three years old, but about attending, often on quite short notice, a work interview or work preparation training, may I have the Minister’s assurance that the lone parent may bring her two year-old toddler with her? In that case, are the jobcentres appropriately staffed and do they have provision for nappy-changing facilities and the like for such small infants?

Earl of Listowel Portrait The Earl of Listowel
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I correct something I said earlier? On my visit to the food bank in Tower Hamlets on Friday, the principal reasons given for people coming to food banks were mistakes in benefits and their own lack of knowledge about their entitlements; it was not to do with sanctions brought against them. I have checked my notes and apologise for my mistake.

Lord McKenzie of Luton Portrait Lord McKenzie of Luton (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I speak enthusiastically in support of Amendment 57, moved with her customary precision and passion by my noble friend Lady Lister. I am pleased that it also has the support of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, my noble friend Lord Beecham, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, with his particular focus on getting these things sorted out before we get fully into universal credit.

The amendment seeks a full and independent review of sanctions attached to working age benefits, with particular reference to their application to lone parents and disabled claimants. The review should also focus on the effectiveness of sanctions in moving claimants into sustained work. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, posed three tests for a review, based on timing, remit and even-handed terminology. I think that we have established that the terminology involved is that which the department itself uses. On timing, the issue here is that the hardship and detriment people are suffering because of the sanctions regime is happening to them now. They do not have the time to wait for a fuller, more extended review. On the remit, I doubt whether my noble friend would have great problems in seeing that expanded. We would be interested to know quite how much further detail the noble Lord wants.

The proposition follows a call from the House of Commons DWP Committee in its March 2015 report, referred to by my noble friend. We know the call has been rejected, but we hope that this debate will help the Government to change their mind. This is of course inextricably linked to conditionality issues, which we debated at some length on Wednesday. We can agree that conditionality has long been a component of social safety nets and needs a system to support compliance. But as the amendment makes clear, as did my noble friend in moving it, the system should be applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately, and with a clear focus on improving sustained employment outcomes. It should not be seen as a substitute for effective support to help individuals back into work.

We support the approach that says that the design and application of sanctions need to be considered alongside conditionality and employment support. The three go together. The coalition Government initiated the Oakley review, although as we have heard it was narrow in its remit. It focused on JSA claimants and back to work programmes, but the number of sanctions overwhelmingly associated with the Work Programme represented only some one-third of the total JSA sanctions in 2013.

17:45
So why a review now? There are a number of compelling reasons. The sanctions system was made significantly more onerous in the 2012 welfare reform legislation, with the higher-level sanctions potentially extended to three years. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how many three-year sanctions have been applied. Your Lordships will recall that at the time we were told there would only be a handful. How many have there been? We have JSA sanction levels amounting to 100% of the benefit, and there is a high threshold for access to hardship payments. There has been an unprecedented use of sanctions in recent years, with 6% of all claimants on JSA being sanctioned every month. In the space of less than three years, from October 2012 to 31 March 2015, 971,000 individual JSA claimants have been sanctioned—a truly staggering number.
There is concern that the sanctions system is actually discouraging claimants from staying on benefits. The share of the unemployed who are not claiming JSA continues to rise, meaning that such individuals not only are receiving no financial support but are not receiving any support to get back into work. It is also a matter of concern that a growing number of sanctions are being applied to people who have a health condition that limits their ability to work. The experience of ESA claimants appears to be overwhelmingly negative. Being sanctioned was found to have a series of so-called unintended consequences, pushing individuals into debt and hunger, straining relationships and exacerbating mental health problems.
There is evidence that young people are being disproportionately sanctioned. A report from Sheffield Hallam University, commissioned by Crisis, referred to an emerging evidence base that homeless service users are disproportionately affected by sanctions. They may be twice as likely to be sanctioned as the wider claimant population and this can be due to systemic and personal barriers rather than an unwillingness to comply.
There is also a series of horror stories that are received routinely in the postbags of MPs—reference to which was made when this issue was debated in another place. Specific cases were raised in your Lordships’ House last week and again today, including the harrowing examples given by my noble friends Lady Lister and Lord Beecham. There are always dangers in extrapolating from a few high-profile issues but the breadth of these examples is truly troubling. At the extreme, there are circumstances involving the suicide of claimants, and the department’s case for rejecting information about the circumstances where the claimant was subject to a benefit sanction is, frankly, pretty thin. Policy changes from such incidents are a proper area of inquiry.
There is also concern about the quality of some of the information emanating from the DWP on sanctions statistics. A leaflet had to be withdrawn because of manufactured comments. Changes to the way statistics are presented, as we have heard, have been recommended by the UK Statistics Authority following representations from Frank Field MP in his role as chair of the Select Committee. These touched upon multiple sanctions, where he pointed out that, for the application of more than a million low to intermediate sanctions and 137,000 decisions to apply high-level sanctions, there was no way of knowing for how long individuals had been without money. He also expressed concern about what happens to claimants once they have been sanctioned. What data does the Minister have which can help us on this point?
Prompted by Dr David Webster of Glasgow University, who we have heard about, the UK Statistics Authority is to write to the DWP—it may have done already—with a range of recommendations in an endeavour to obtain further clarity on what is actually happening on sanctions. This will include recommendations on repeat sanctions and hardship payments—at least a start to lifting the veil.
My noble friend has done us a service by bringing forward this issue. Given the pivotal role that sanctions are designed to play in helping deliver full employment and make progress in halving the disability employment gap, we need to be assured that the system is fit for purpose. An independent review must assist at this time. As my noble friend said, surely it is in the department’s interest to know, as well.
Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the amendment, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, would put into statute an independent review of the sanctions system. However, we are not sure that that is necessary, as the Government already keep the operation of the sanctions system under constant review to ensure that it continues to function fairly and effectively.

There is clear evidence that sanctions are effective with more than 70% of JSA and more than 60% of ESA recipients saying that sanctions make it more likely that they will follow the rules, but, where we identify that there is an issue, we act to put it right. This is clearly shown in the improvements already made to the JSA and ESA sanction system following the recommendations of Matthew Oakley’s independent review last year. However, as I said, we do not stop reviewing the process to ensure that it is fair and effective. That is why we have accepted, or accepted in principle, many of the recommendations made by the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s recent report into sanctions.

The chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, the right honourable Member for Birkenhead, has welcomed our response and our willingness to work with the committee to ensure that the conditionality system works as it should. In our response to the committee, we announced that we will trial a sanctions warning system giving claimants a further two weeks to provide evidence of good reason before a decision is made. We believe that this will help to strike the right balance between conditionality and fairness.

I can confirm to the House that it is our intention that the trial will operate in Scotland from March 2016, running for approximately five months. A full evaluation of the trial will be undertaken, and findings will be available from autumn 2016.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked about the monitoring of the destinations of sanctioned claimants. DWP officials are currently quality-assuring the data for universal credit official statistics. As part of this review process, we will carefully consider the option of including destination data. We are not yet in a position to confirm which statistics will be provided in future.

We are also considering extending the list of JSA vulnerable groups for hardship payment purposes to include those with mental health conditions and those who are homeless. This will mean that these claimants can receive hardship payments from day one of their sanction, provided that they also meet the other criteria.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, also asked about sanctions being applied fairly. Any decision to sanction a claimant is not taken lightly, and there is a full and proper process that includes the claimant from the start. At the start of the claim, as noble Lords will know, all claimants receive a tailored claimant commitment, and the requirements take into account mental health conditions, disabilities or caring responsibilities. Any failure to meet a requirement is always thoroughly considered and claimants are given the opportunity to provide good reason for not complying before any decision to sanction is made by the decision-maker, but I will need to come back to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on the timescales that she asked about, because I do not have that information to hand.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, also mentioned the Crisis report. We absolutely understand that homelessness is a complex issue, and our priority is to ensure that individuals affected get the right support. That is why we have made more than £1 billion available to prevent and tackle homelessness and support vulnerable households since 2010, and we will continue to work closely with organisations such as Crisis to make sure that support is provided where it is needed most.

On the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, about lone parents being required to come to jobcentres without a toddler, no, requirements to attend appointments at the jobcentre should be tailored to take into account individual claimants’ caring responsibilities, and work coaches should be able to help to make appropriate arrangements, including helping to arrange appointments around childcare. I cannot speak about the range of facilities within jobcentres, but it is within the gift of the work coaches to be flexible in working with lone parents.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham Portrait Baroness Hollis of Heigham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

So I have the Minister’s assurance that any lone parent who turns up with a toddler in tow will not as a result be sanctioned?

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have already said that I cannot speak to all the facilities, but as I am writing to the noble Baroness on a previous issue I will include that in that response.

It is important that we focus on ensuring that all the agreed recommendations proposed by the Work and Pensions Select Committee are delivered and can be embedded in the design and delivery of universal credit. To clarify for the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, I say that universal credit sanctions are just on the standard element, not on the whole amount. We believe that a call for a further independent review is unnecessary to embed this in legislation.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Portrait Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The noble Baroness said earlier that a pilot was being mounted in Scotland for five months. Is that for all of Scotland, or just individual areas within Scotland? I would be surprised if it was Scotland-wide.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, it will be within a particular region of Scotland.

Sanctions play an important part in the labour market, encouraging people to comply with conditions which help them move into work. We want the sanctions system to be clear, fair and effective in promoting positive behaviours and we will continue to keep it under review so that it meets its aims, but also to ensure that it is flexibly delivered, as noble Lords said.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about sanctions statistics. We will look carefully at the point raised and consider what further information is useful to inform public debate. We have made a start on this, and our statistical releases now include additional information on sanctions.

Lord McKenzie of Luton Portrait Lord McKenzie of Luton
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can the noble Baroness deal specifically with the issue of how many, if any, three-year sanctions there have been?

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

JSA sanctions continue to decrease, and the JSA monthly sanctions rate has slightly fallen—by 15%—over the past year. Each month, on average, 95% of JSA claimants comply with the reasonable requirements placed on them. On average, 5% of JSA claimants were sanctioned each month of last year. We can provide those figures; I will write to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked about the gulf between the department and what charities say about sanctions. I can only attempt to reassure him that officials are working closely with charities to investigate concerns. For instance, we have worked closely with Crisis and Gingerbread on improving communicating sanctions and will continue to do so. I will take the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, back to the department, because I do not have some of the more detailed information that he was asking about.

On the basis of those responses, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham Portrait Baroness Hollis of Heigham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I realise that this is a sensitive issue, but the amendment in the name of my noble friend has been tabled for some time on sanctions, time, efficaciousness and the need for a review. I would have expected in the Minister’s brief the detail of how many sanctions for how long, how long the decision-making is taking, the number of people going through as a result to appeal, and the results of the appeals. I would have expected two or three pages in her brief giving her the statistical detail which would empower her to answer many of the questions which, understandably, she is taking away today. I am surprised at that, because the amendment has been tabled for some time. The department will have the statistics, and they should have been made available to us in Committee, so that we have that material here today before we consider what we—and my noble friend in particular—may or may not do on Report.

I am in no sense criticising the Minister, but Ministers are coming to this House woefully underprepared with the information they need, which is of a detailed sort, to deal with the amendments being discussed. Members on the Opposition Benches have a right to expect Ministers to have that at their fingertips.

Lord Freud Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, that was an unnecessary intervention. Most of the information that was asked for is available on public websites—in particular, on the question about the three-year sanctions. I will ensure that noble Lords have the address of that website to check.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham Portrait Baroness Hollis of Heigham
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It should not be a question of going to a website. If a question is asked on the Floor of the House, and it is on a website, I would expect the Minister to have that detail in the briefing from the Box. That is their function—that is their job. I do not blame or criticise the Minister in any respect, but I would have expected a higher level of appropriate technical briefing for her, with which to equip her to answer what are obviously technical questions.

18:00
Earl of Listowel Portrait The Earl of Listowel
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response on vulnerable groups, the mentally ill and others. Perhaps in the letter that the noble Lord has kindly offered to send me on care leavers, he can confirm that care leavers were flagged up in the welfare system and will get this special consideration before any sanction is made on them—and whether he might consider extending that. Currently, if a care leaver is participating in work or education, up to the age of 25, they are flagged up in the DWP system and special measures can be taken for them—but if they are not doing that, they do not get that support; it finishes at the age of 21. So 21 to 25 year-olds not in education or training are missing out. I encourage the Government to think about extending the kind of considerations to vulnerable groups that she was just describing to care leavers who are not in education or training but who would be called care-experienced adults. In a sense, they are the most vulnerable, because they are not in education or training but have been in care and face all the difficulties. I am sorry to speak for so long—but in that letter, I would appreciate some comments on that.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very grateful to noble Lords who have spoken, particularly those who spoke in support of the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, made the very important point that we need to be clear about this before universal credit is rolled out any further. Increasingly, I feel that we are in two parallel universes—the universe of those on the ground and the voluntary organisations and the universe of Ministers and officials. I am very glad that the Minister said that they are meeting to talk but, unfortunately, it seems as if they still operate within these parallel universes, where there is a completely different understanding of what is happening. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord McKenzie for the very comprehensive and thorough case that he made for an independent review. I am grateful, too, to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, who said that he was not opposed in principle to reviews. Perhaps we could look again at his criteria.

My noble friend made the point about timescale—that people suffering as a result of sanctions need this review now. However, I am a very reasonable person and I accept that, by the time the Bill becomes law, it will not leave very long between that and the timescale in the amendment. I would be very happy to discuss with the Minister perhaps a more realistic timescale.

On the remit being too narrow, I say that the whole point of the criticisms of the Oakley review was that it was too narrow. Indeed, Matthew Oakley himself acknowledged the narrowness of his remit and suggested that perhaps something broader was needed. So I am delighted that the noble Lord would like a broader remit than the one suggested in the amendment. The point about the term “sanctions” has already been addressed, but I just wonder how many times the Minister actually used the word; it was probably at least as many times as in the amendment itself. Perhaps, given that the noble Lord does not oppose in principle the idea of a review, he might help me to produce a better amendment for Report, if we decide to come back to this issue.

I am grateful, too, to the Minister. She started by saying that she was not sure whether the proposal was necessary. That seemed a rather tentative statement about something so important because, on this side of the House, we are sure that it is necessary. We have heard from my noble friend Lord McKenzie and others why it is necessary. She did not seem to have taken on board what I said about the yellow-card system. I welcome what is proposed, but it is not exactly the original Work and Pensions Committee recommendation. I was a bit disappointed that she did not explain why there had been that unacknowledged shift from what had been recommended. Perhaps she could write to me, and pop the letter to other noble Lords who have spoken on the specific question that I asked, about why the Government have rejected the Work and Pensions Committee recommendation that there should be a specific evaluation of the efficacy and impact of a minimum of four weeks’ sanctions. That was rejected without any explanation in the response to the report. I asked for an explanation and would be very happy to have one in writing. That said, I am grateful to her for her response. I do not think that it will satisfy the kind of organisations mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, or the people living in the universe that is engaging on a day-to-day basis with claimants suffering as a result of sanctions. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 57 withdrawn.
House resumed.