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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, March 31, 2022


Benefit Sanctions

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-03259, in the name of Kaukab Stewart, on impacts of benefit sanctions. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I ask those members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with concern a recent paper by researchers from the University of Glasgow examining the impact of social security sanctions internationally on the labour market, and wider social impacts; understands that it found that any temporary positive impacts on employment carry with them negative impacts for job quality and stability in the longer term, along with increased transitions to non-employment or economic inactivity; further understands that the studies reported significant associations between sanctions and increased material hardship and health problems, and found some evidence that sanctions were associated with increased child maltreatment and poorer child wellbeing, and considers that this is further evidence of what it sees as the ineffective and punitive nature of the sanctions regime in the UK, which it considers negatively impacts people across Scotland, including in the Glasgow Kelvin constituency.


Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

Thank you, Presiding Officer, for giving me the time today to bring to the chamber my first members’ business debate. Less than a year ago, I never thought that I would be standing here as the first woman of colour to be elected to the Scottish Parliament. Having come from a very modest family background, I am well aware of the importance that benefits can have in supporting families at times of unemployment and redundancy.

I put on record my thanks to the research team at the Medical Research Council and to the chief scientist office, which funds the social and public health sciences unit of the University of Glasgow, which is based in my constituency. Glasgow university has a long pedigree of developing and applying the latest methods of multidisciplinary research, in order to identify mechanisms that can bring about change, and of developing and assessing policies and programmes to improve health and reduce inequalities.

The motion in my name is based on research that was recently published in the Journal of Social Policy by Drs Marcia Gibson, Serena Pattaro and Nick Bailey. I hope that Marcia and Serena will shortly be able to join us in the public gallery to hear the debate.

That research was one of the most comprehensive reviews of the international quantitative research evidence on the labour market and the wider impacts of benefit sanctions. The body of qualitative research has already established that intensified sanctions and conditionality have had important implications for public health and health inequalities. The new scoping review reported positive impacts for employment, but the research also reported negative impacts for job quality and stability in the longer term, along with increased transitions to non-employment or economic inactivity.

Today, I will focus on three important issues that arise from the study. First, benefit sanctions mask the impact that they have on children and young people through no fault of their own. The United Kingdom Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee reported in 2018:

“Children play no part in a failure to comply with conditionality, yet when a sanction is imposed they feel the effects just as acutely.”

How can anyone penalise a child because of the consequences of a parent or guardian’s actions, over which the child has no control? It is heartening to know that the Scottish Government took a different path when employment services were devolved. Gone were the mandatory schemes and in came the new Scottish approach of dignity, respect and fairness, in order to improve outcomes.

My second issue concerns benefit sanctions and a subsequent reduction in welfare payments. They are a false economy and often hide the true cost to Government of increased crime, poorer physical and mental health and an increased need for social care. The wider impact that poverty has on individuals, families and communities can manifest itself, for example, in family breakdown and, sadly, an increase in the number of children entering the care system.

Sir Robert Devereux, the former Department for Work and Pension permanent secretary, admitted as much when he was asked whether the reduction of the welfare budget under his watch had led to increased costs for other Whitehall departments, such as health and justice. He did not know. He was concerned only with reducing DWP spending. Therefore, while the DWP was being rather smug at its success in cutting welfare costs, other departments were faced with picking up the pieces and paying heavily for it. Who knows what the true cost to society is? Members just need to think about the huge rise in food banks since benefit sanctioning really took off.

The third issue that I will focus on is a request—actually, it is a demand. The DWP needs to give researchers access to data in order to ensure that there is robust independent scrutiny of the results of benefit sanctions. How many sanctions have been issued? How long are they? What impact have sanctions had on job searching activities? What was the quality of the jobs that were found? How long did they last? How many people took a low-quality job in order to escape that draconian regime? Originally, sanctions could have lasted anything from six months to three years. Although Amber Rudd reduced the maximum time to six months, that is still a longer sentence than people receive for some criminal convictions.

I draw members’ attention to the 94 reviewed studies from across the world. What would give us the 95th? The UK releasing appropriate data to allow independent research to be conducted. Today I have written a letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, calling on her department to promptly grant access to anonymised data from the claims and sanctions histories of the Department for Work and Pensions to the research team in Glasgow so that its inquiry can be completed. I encourage my colleagues across the chamber to add their names to that letter, which I will issue shortly.

Since 2010, the coalition and successive Conservative Governments have claimed that the Government has been helping people to find and use open Government data. However, despite numerous requests, freedom of information requests and assurances given to successive work and pensions committees that such data would be released, it is still not available. I ask myself why. What is it that they do not want anyone to find out? Why would they not want robust independent scrutiny to validate their evidence and confirm their success?

This Parliament has debated the impact of benefit sanctions for nearly 10 years now. Despite a Scottish approach, new voluntary employment support services and the new Scottish child payment, the management of social security support for the unemployed is reserved. Reserved it may be, but the sanctions have a knock-on effect for the Scottish Government.

It is time for us to be open with our data. It is time for the UK Government to step up to the mark and be open with its data. Only then can we truly learn from its analysis of what works, what does not work and—literally—who pays for failure. Once again, children bear the brunt of adult decision making.

I look forward to contributions to the debate from across the chamber.

Marie McNair joins us remotely.


Marie McNair (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

As a long-standing campaigner against the negative impacts of the so-called “welfare reforms” of the UK benefits system, I am keen to participate in the debate. I congratulate Kaukab Stewart for securing it and for highlighting the important work done by the researchers on behalf of Glasgow university.

It is no surprise to see that they conclude that benefit sanctions do not work and that, in fact, they have a detrimental impact on claimants and their children. The UK sanctions regime has inflicted much misery and hardship on many of our constituents for many years, for no real positive return. It was introduced as part of a callous war on welfare for political impact and gain. It is a vehicle for penalising those who are in need of benefits that has been used by successive UK Governments for many years. The Tories, Labour and the Liberals have all used them. In fact, Dr David Webster, an honorary senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow, has pointed out that the number of sanctions in the UK rose to among its highest levels when the Labour Party’s John Hutton was secretary of state at the Department for Work and Pensions.

The main benefit to which sanctions are now applied is, of course, universal credit. So, the appalling sanctions regime is added to all the other unjust parts of that benefit: the five-week wait that forces people into debt, the removal of the premiums for disabled people, the two-child policy and its appalling rape clause—the list goes on.

In his recent regular briefing on sanctions, Dr Webster points out that there is a “rapid rise” in benefits sanctions again. He states that the harshening of the conditionality policy with the introduction of the DWP way to work scheme is also bound to increase the numbers of sanctions, despite that approach being widely criticised.

I thank Inclusion Scotland for its very helpful briefing, in which it points out that sanctions have resulted in many disabled people and their families experiencing greater poverty in work than when they were unemployed. More will face such poverty in the future as universal credit is rolled out. The briefing also agrees with Dr Webster’s analysis that the number of sanctions has seen a big increase recently, to the extent that we will see the highest annual figure for total sanctions on all benefits since 2016.

Inclusion Scotland also points out that disabled claimants were between 26 and 53 per cent more likely to be sanctioned than non-disabled claimants. The rhetoric from the Tories and others that sanctions are not impacting on disabled people is blown out of the water by those statistics. Quite frankly, any politicians who are immune to the hardships that sanctions are causing need to get out more. I have seen the impact at first hand when volunteering at a food bank in my constituency. I have seen the look of despair and the empty kitchen cupboards that sanctions cause.

I pay tribute to advice agencies, council staff, food banks and the caring communities in my constituency for everything that they do to assist people who are struggling because of benefit sanctions. Out of concern about the impact of that harsh policy, the Scottish Government has amended the Scottish welfare fund guidance to allow crisis grants to be awarded. That is just another example of us having to mitigate the inhumane Westminster welfare policy. Given the likely rise in the number of sanctions, it is even more important that the Scottish Government makes sure that it is widely known that support is available.

I am in no doubt that a policy that leaves people and their families with no money or less than they need cannot have anything good in it. It will have no part to play in a compassionate Scotland that has all the welfare powers that are needed to look after our citizens and help our young people to thrive.


Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

A well-run and effective welfare state stands to benefit not just the people who rely on it directly for support but wider society, as it allows many people to continue engaging in society even when times are tough, and times are just that—tough.

While the country begins to recover from the global pandemic, wrestles with inflation and deals with the humanitarian and supply-chain crises resulting from President Putin’s war in Europe, there has been and continues to be a tremendous amount of pressure on the people of this country, who turn to the welfare state to relieve some of that pressure on their and their families’ lives.

I take a moment to commend the front-line employees and agents of the DWP who, day in and day out, are working hard to ensure that people are supported by every system and lever that is available to them. Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting one of the new Jobcentre Plus centres here in Edinburgh to see the joined-up thinking that is taking place. In debates such as this, it is sometimes easy to vilify the people on the front line. I urge all the speakers in the debate to minimise that kind of contribution.

Moving to the substance of the debate, I have a couple of points that I would like to raise. I have a feeling that many representations will be made about sanctions over the next few minutes that will not be strictly accurate. Sanctions will be painted as a regular excuse to deny help to people who need it by heartless agents of the state. However, that simply does not match up to reality. Sanctions are used infrequently and executed only after careful consideration.

In her opening speech, Ms Stewart asked for data. Let me give her some data from the Partick jobcentre, which is in the constituency that she represents and is also mentioned in the motion. According to DWP figures for that centre, no one was sanctioned between July 2019 and July 2020. We can therefore see that the handing out of a sanction is not something that is done liberally and without thought but rather a tool that is used in a targeted and thoughtful way.

It is also worth noting that the University of Glasgow study that is cited in the motion is yet to be published and is not specific to the UK. Rather, it has a much broader international focus, so we should be careful of mapping its findings directly on to the UK. I close by advising caution to people who would use that unpublished paper, which is not specific to the UK, simply to make political points. We should keep in mind that the way in which sanctions are portrayed in the media and by people who have their own political agenda is not always accurate, and that sanctions are, to use the language of the Scottish Government, a “targeted and proportionate measure”.


Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

The benefit system in the UK is set up not to help people into work or provide stability but to punish people who are not in work, and it does so regardless of whether they are able to work. Disabled people are more likely to be sanctioned, more likely to end up worse off financially when they take up part-time work, and more likely to experience serious harms when they are sanctioned.

The system is not only punitive; it is also discriminatory. Jeremy Balfour just reassured us that sanctions are not carried out liberally; the point is that they are carried out. I frankly do not care whether someone has missed a job interview for a reason that is not deemed good enough; no reason is good enough to remove somebody’s recourse to purchase food and fundamentally stay alive. However, that is what the UK Government does, and frequently.

There needs to be more recognition that people’s lives—particularly the lives of many who need to rely on universal credit—are not predictable or rational enough to be measured by some inflexible flowchart in DWP offices. To give just one example, in 2016, I had to rely on universal credit after the loss of a job. I soon reported that I had found work—a full-time job in the Scottish Ambulance Service—and my monthly payment was duly reduced to £0 a month. My new steady income made me look sensible enough to convince a landlord that I deserved a roof over my head, so I moved into a studio flat and got on with my life.

One lunchtime, I unlocked my phone to find that I had missed a call and had a stern voicemail message instructing me to get in touch as soon as possible. After an impromptu 45-minute performance of Vivaldi, I got through to be told that I had to attend an interview the next day, as I had failed to fill in a change of housing circumstances form. It should be noted that that change of housing circumstances would have qualified me for higher housing support and had come to the DWP’s attention when it received my change of address form. I had committed the horrendous crime of secretly moving into a flat and then clyping on myself by covertly sending the DWP my new address.

I explained that I could not attend the meeting, because I would be at work, and I was threatened with a sanction on my £0 payment. The DWP carried on phoning me daily for almost a week. I then received a letter underlining my transgressions at the address that the DWP insisted that it knew nothing about.

For me, the DWP’s nonsensical approach to my getting a job and a secure tenancy was just ludicrous rather than life threatening, but it is an indicator of how an uncaring, inconsistent and often incomprehensible process cannot be rigidly applied to real lives. Many others learn that lesson in a much harsher way.

One of my constituents had to isolate with Covid and ended up in a desperate situation when the stay-at-home guidance meant that she had to cancel a coach meeting at short notice. She and her children suddenly found themselves stuck in a home that they did not know whether they would have money to heat, while waiting for those advocating for her to convince the DWP that quickly and cruelly cutting her already insufferably low income was not right or reasonable. That situation is not unusual.

As Kaukab Stewart outlined, the sanctions situation is so bad that the DWP will not even tell us how bad it is. That same DWP publicly admitted that it had wrongfully pressured disabled people to accept less support than they were legally entitled to, and it will not give researchers access to data on sanctions. The research that the University of Glasgow has undertaken is therefore vital to help us understand more about what the DWP will not tell us. I thank the university for its work and my colleague Kaukab Stewart for bringing it to the chamber today.


Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I am happy to add my name to the calls against the inhumane UK benefit sanctions regime, under which so many have suffered. I am glad that the issue is being recognised in Parliament today, and I congratulate Kaukab Stewart on her motion. The research that the motion mentions confirms what I am sure many of us already knew from seeing the direct impacts that social security sanctions have on those who have to endure them.

Although not specifically related to sanctions, the direct human costs of the DWP’s inhumane practices are highlighted perfectly in the film “I, Daniel Blake”. I encourage any member who has not seen that film to do so, as it brings home the realities of being out of work and trying to access basic support. I mention that to members across from me on the Tory benches, in particular, because it is their Government in Westminster that insists that sanctions are effective.

Only two months ago, we found out that the UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions blocked sight of an evaluation of the effectiveness of benefit sanctions, which the DWP commissioned back in 2019 as part of its internal research on the benefit of sanctions. At that time, the DWP promised to make the findings public. I do not doubt that the research had similar findings to those of the paper that we are talking about now, which means that it was a political choice to continue punishing people, even though it is obviously not an effective policy. On top of that, we found out this month that, shockingly, the DWP blocked data from a study on whether benefit sanctions are linked to suicide.

Thankfully, there is now a massive amount of published evidence that shows that threatening claimants with the loss of benefits does not incentivise them to take up unsuitable jobs; instead, it has direct impacts on their physical and mental health and even on economic activity, which is what proponents of sanctions claim is their main purpose. The evidence all shows that, plainly and simply, cruelty is at the centre of those political choices. Previously, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation made the point clear, when it said:

“Sanctions are going too far and causing destitution.”

In Scotland, we now have the opportunity to change some of the culture through the expansion of benefits under Social Security Scotland. I call on the Scottish Government to make it clear that, for new benefits that are administered by Social Security Scotland, it will not pursue a sanctions regime. I have already been told by a number of constituents in one of the pilot areas for the new adult disability payment that accessing information on the eligibility criteria was difficult and there was a lack of clarity, which caused stress and confusion. I understand that transfers and changes of benefits will be difficult but, from the outset, it must be a better system than the one that people faced under the DWP.

I hope that the Scottish Government listens to the criticisms of the new system that people raise as we go forward, and that it commits to making it much fairer. I hope that we all continue to speak out against the DWP’s unfair and meaningless sanctions, which do not help anyone.


Paul McLennan (East Lothian) (SNP)

I thank Kaukab Stewart for securing the debate.

The University of Glasgow study makes a major contribution to our understanding of the current impact of sanctions. The evidence from studies and charities that is outlined in the report suggests that sanctions

“have a wide range of negative impacts, including increased hunger, material hardship and debt, inability to pay bills, and deteriorating health.”

The report states that, given the evidence of potential harms, policy makers should consider limiting sanction policies that remove benefit income from households that are already likely to have very limited incomes or savings.

My constituency of East Lothian was the first in Scotland to pilot universal credit. In what my council colleague described as an “experiment in cruelty”, two thirds of council tenants fell into rent arrears and were left without any money for weeks on end. A report by the local citizens advice bureau found that more than half of the people who were moved on to universal credit in East Lothian were, on average, £44 a week worse off.

Like the rest of the UK, East Lothian was hit hard by the implementation of universal credit, and claimants continue to be penalised with cuts and unfair and unjust sanctions.

The new law that was passed last month reduces from three months to four weeks the period during which claimants can seek a job in their preferred sector without being forced to look elsewhere for work. Claimants can now be hit with sanctions if they do not take a job offer after four weeks, no matter the sector. The emergency bill went through unscrutinised and has come under fire for being “unjustified” and

“with no clear means in measuring success”.

The new rule lacks legitimacy, reinforces an insecure workforce and creates an environment that does not value meaningful employment.

In the previous three months, food bank usage in East Lothian has grown by 40 per cent, 28 per cent and 54 per cent respectively. Statistics show that more than 90 per cent of people who use the service are working poor. That proportion has grown in the past few years and months.

Boris Johnson has indicated that he wants to see a highly skilled, highly motivated workforce. Benefit sanctions will not achieve that. In fact, they will be counterproductive. This is all about the stick—there is no carrot.

The UK Government claims that sanctions are used to motivate claimants into getting jobs, but its own publications admit that, although claimants are more likely to enter jobs, they are often low-paid jobs with limited retainment. In fact, evidence from the London School of Economics and Political Science shows that sanctions are unhelpful in moving people into work. Instead, just the threat of sanctions creates unmitigated distress that gets in the way of finding work and has potentially life-altering negative consequences.

Benefits sanctions, cuts and austerity are plunging children into poverty. Rising energy prices and the cost of living is expected to increase the poverty rates across Scotland and the UK. The Scottish Government has put in place six new benefits, including the Scottish child payment, to mitigate the impact of those toxic policies.

With 40 per cent of children in poverty coming from a single-parent household, at its peak, around one in five single parents a year was referred for a sanction, and one in seven had a sanction imposed. Such measures only push single-parent households further into poverty.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that benefit sanctions have a disproportionate effect on young people under 25, and there is also evidence of severe impacts on homeless people and other vulnerable groups.

There is a strong link between benefits sanctions and increased poverty. Those who are on the breadline cannot afford to have the little amount of income support that they receive removed as a cruel and archaic punishment.

I stand by the Scottish Government, which wants a Scottish social security system that treats people with dignity, fairness and respect, and does not impose life-altering sanctions on the most vulnerable people in society. Politics is all about choices and priorities. The UK Government has made the wrong choice and the poorest in our society will suffer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Before calling the next speaker, I advise that, because of the number of members who wish to speak in the debate, I am minded to accept a motion without notice under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Kaukab Stewart to move the motion without notice.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Kaukab Stewart]

Motion agreed to.


Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

I start by congratulating Kaukab Stewart on giving us the opportunity to discuss benefit sanctions and I thank the University of Glasgow researchers for their very important work.

When a new drug is developed, it must go through careful testing and it will not be approved unless there is clear evidence that it does what it claims to do, and does so safely. It is strange, then, that we do not apply the same principle to benefit sanctions. Hundreds of thousands of benefit sanctions are issued each year, yet there is little evidence that they have significant positive impacts. On the contrary, there is strong evidence to suggest that they have a range of highly negative outcomes for individuals and for society at large.

I want to highlight the mental health impact of sanctions. Take some of the poorest people in the country, make them live on an income that does not stretch to putting three meals a day on the table and heating the house properly, and then threaten to remove even that meagre amount at any moment. That is a recipe for a mental health crisis, and a reality that too many people face, such as Charlie whose electricity was cut off on Christmas day because of sanctions. He told University of Essex researchers:

“There was this image which will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. On Christmas day I was sat alone, at home just waiting for darkness to come so I could go to sleep, and I was watching through my window all the happy families enjoying Christmas and that just blew me away. And I think I had a breakdown on that day and it was really hard to recover from and I’m still struggling with it.”

A University of Glasgow study tells the same sad story: every 10 sanctions applied per 100,000 people were associated with an additional eight people experiencing anxiety and depression and an additional one person receiving mental health treatment. It is therefore no wonder that the National Audit Office found that receiving an employment and support allowance sanction resulted in reducing disabled claimants’ time in employment, which is precisely the opposite effect to that intended.

Meanwhile, the DWP refuses to acknowledge the harm that it is causing.

All that is also before we consider the equalities impacts. An LSE study found that

“Independent of age and gender, White claimants were less likely to be referred for a sanction, and less likely to ultimately receive a sanction, than were claimants from other ethnic groups. Black claimants and claimants of Mixed ethnicity were ... more likely than claimants from other groups to be referred and sanctioned.”

Benefit sanctions, quite simply, are racist.

However, there is another way. I am proud that it was Greens who first pointed out that the devolution of employability programmes to this Parliament was an opportunity to reduce the number of sanctions. That is why fair start Scotland has been, from the outset, entirely voluntary. Moreover, it works. Participants benefited from “not feeling pressured” by the service and felt more able to engage with the support on offer willingly and more effectively.

Finland’s nationwide trial of universal basic income—something that the Scottish Greens have long supported—removed all requirements to seek work and, in doing so, did not reduce a person’s likelihood of becoming employed and led to less mental distress and fewer feelings of depression and loneliness. Those are the things that we should be talking about and focused on.

Benefit sanctions are not only dangerous and a form of violence against some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our communities; they do not help people find work and, indeed, can make doing so even harder. Most fundamental of all, they contravene basic human rights. We all have the right to live in a warm safe home, to have food and to have clothing. It is what we pay social security for—and it should never, ever be taken away.


Siobhian Brown (Ayr) (SNP)

I congratulate Kaukab Stewart on securing the debate and welcome the opportunity to speak in it.

As we have heard, a recent paper by University of Glasgow researchers notes that the cruel and heartless benefit sanctions imposed by the UK Government have a significant impact internationally on the labour market and have negative widespread social effects. What is more, they do the exact opposite of what they are intended to do, in that they result in unemployment and economic inactivity as people are forced into low-quality jobs that they are not matched to.

I want to highlight the work of Dr David Webster of the University of Glasgow, whose research on the labour market contributes to the work of the Child Poverty Action Group. His most recent publication in February states that

“the rapid rise in UC sanctions which was noted in ... November 2021 ... has continued.”

Last month, in the unelected House of Lords, the junior DWP minister Baroness Stedman-Scott was adamant when she said:

“we are not having tougher sanctions.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 February 2022; Vol 818, c 1011.]

However, that is simply not true. In November, there were nearly 50,000 claimants serving a universal credit sanction, well above the pre-pandemic peak of 36,780—and, yes, I did say “pre-pandemic peak”.

As we look forward from Covid and aim to build a fairer society for everyone, the Conservative Government is increasing cruel and ineffective sanctions—and we should be in no doubt that they do not work. The UK Government has announced the new way to work initiative, which has the noble ambition of getting half a million people into work by June. How is it going to do that? It will use the threat of sanctions to force claimants to look for work more quickly outside their chosen sectors and to widen their search into fields where they have no experience after just four weeks. According to Dr Webster,

“It is bound to increase the number of sanctions”

handed out by the DWP and will result in

“worse matches between people and jobs, damaging earnings, morale and productivity”.

That is exactly what we do not need right now. We often talk about evidence-based approaches to policy—well, there is the evidence.

Of course, the UK Government is not interested in the evidence. In his research, Dr Webster found that

“Under Secretary of State Thérèse Coffey, the DWP appears to have adopted a comprehensive policy of blocking information on the effects of benefit sanctions.”

That raises the question: what do they have to hide? Dr Webster is not the only one to think that. The chair of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, Stephen Timms MP, has said:

“This emerging pattern of obstruction suggests that a culture of secrecy is entrenched in DWP.”

The UK Government’s ignorance results in people having to make choices between heating their homes and feeding their children. That, unfortunately, is Great Britain in 2022. It is the real experience of people who are being hit hard by the cost of living crisis, which the Conservatives have no intention of doing anything meaningful about.

That ignorance is forcing people into the arms of food banks in my constituency. The volunteers at food banks do a fantastic job, but they should not be needed in 21st century Britain—although, of course, Jacob Rees-Mogg thinks that food banks are “rather uplifting”. Kind, compassionate and caring conservatism that is not.

Although I am glad that we are getting a chance to debate the matter, members should be under no illusion: Boris Johnson does not care what we have to say. He does not even care what his own MSPs have to say. What is the way out of this mess for the people of Scotland? I know what it is. It is most certainly not Boris’s benefit-sanction Britain. It is that Scotland becomes an independent country with full powers showing more compassion to people who need it.


Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

I thank Kaukab Stewart for securing the debate. Colleagues have outlined extremely well how benefit sanctions are inhumane, callous and cruel. They are nothing but a symptom of the UK Tory Government’s out-of-touch and hostile attitude to the people who most require support.

Sanctions have consequences. Evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that benefit sanctions increase the risk of homelessness and put financial and emotional stress on families, which harms children. Ms Stewart described that in detail. Sanctions also cause health harms.

Tackling poverty and the cost of living crisis already have many challenges. We have heard about people choosing between paying their bills and buying food—between heating and eating. There is no evidence that sanctions work.

In 2018, I supported a constituent who had battled the DWP for three years before contacting me to receive the support to which she was entitled. I contacted the local MP, who is now the Secretary of State for Scotland, to help, because the DWP is a reserved matter. He offered no support, provided no help and said that he had full confidence in the DWP’s decision making. Because of the issues with the DWP and the extreme stress that that piled on her, my constituent sadly took her own life, leaving a young son and her partner behind. That directly links to what Alex Rowley said about suicide being linked to sanctions. It is a tragic case that simply highlights how the UK Government and the welfare system do not treat people with dignity and respect.

I will highlight the particularly negative impact of benefit sanctions on rural areas, including across Dumfries and Galloway. Rural transport is hugely challenging, particularly for people who are on welfare support and are more reliant on public transport to attend jobcentre appointments. Jobcentre appointment times do not coincide with rural transport timetables, but I have found the jobcentre’s approach to accommodating the needs of people who live in rural settings to be extremely inflexible. One person whom I supported was sanctioned and lost 100 per cent of his income because his bus was five minutes late.

That punitive approach appears to be continuing, now that face-to-face appointments have resumed following removal of Covid-19 protections. I call on the minister to work with the UK Government to consider the need for a flexible and person-centred approach to appointments for people across rural Scotland, and for not penalising people for living rurally. I welcome the fact that, in contrast, Social Security Scotland considers rural needs by offering telephone appointments and advisers who will even visit people in their own homes.

The Parliament and the Scottish Government are constrained because we do not have complete control over welfare; we cannot mitigate every measure that is foisted on the Scottish people. The only way to truly address the unequal, cruel and callous Tory welfare system is by Scotland taking its future into its own hands and becoming a normal independent country.


Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

I, too, thank my colleague Kaukab Stewart for securing this important debate.

First, I want to take a moment to remind us all how we got to where we are today. The former Tory Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, said:

“Alongside what we have already done with the mandatory work programme and our tougher sanctions regime, this marks the end of the something-for-nothing culture”.

I repeat:

“the ending of the something-for-nothing culture”.

Let that sink in. That treats those of us who have been recipients of UK social security as if we have been taking something that we do not deserve—as if we are feckless, lazy and grubbing.

The stigma of that experience still lurks in the recesses of my mind. Thinking back to when I used my income support to buy my baby son’s babygrows from charity shops, I was not thinking about the circular economy nor about reducing, reusing and recycling. I was trying to figure out how to make the small amount of money that I had go further, in a time before baby boxes. Wow! How 24-year-old me could have done with one of our amazing levellers, the baby box. That, too, is seen by people in some quarters as being “something-for-nothing.

We should make no mistake about it: benefit sanctioning is a political choice. We have yet to be presented with any real and tangible hard facts that show that removing people’s only source of income—income at a level that is so low that it is already recognised as being the minimum amount that a person needs in order to survive—has any positive outcome. It is a choice that politicians have made and it is a culture that they have created, in our UK benefits system. It is punitive and punishing—all stick, and scant carrot.

I worked as a senior caseworker for a member of Parliament, and I will never forget the benefit sanctions cases that we had coming into the office—they were people who were in desperate need of support. I did not see, standing in front of me, people for whom hunger and destitution were an appropriate punishment for their missing an appointment—for being on a late-running bus, for being ill, for having the audacity to have to collect kids from school at the same time as a DWP appointment, or for not showing evidence of 35 hours of job searching. Who knew that a person could actually demonstrate 35 hours of job searching? That blows my mind.

I saw many people who were experiencing multiple and complex trauma being retraumatised by a system that was designed to be hostile, designed to end the “something-for-nothing culture” and designed to reduce people to being so hungry that they would open a can of soup to drink it cold, straight from the tin, in a food bank, because they had not eaten for days and their pittance of a hardship payment was gone within seconds of their receiving it.

What kind of country creates a system that is designed to punish people for being poor and for having everyday real-life situations, like those that I have outlined, happen? I ask members to imagine that, each time they missed an appointment or did not manage to finish something in the time allotted, they lost a full month’s pay. Now, I ask them to imagine losing six months’ pay while they are living a chaotic life that is beset by substance use and trauma, and is built on a foundation of adverse childhood experiences. Is that someone who is living the high life and getting something for nothing? I proffer the radical thought that the life choices of that individual would be continually knocked, and that the imposition of harsh sanctioning would, in fact, only add to and exacerbate the deep poverty that they are experiencing.

We can contrast that with our Scottish social security system, which is being created with dignity and fairness at its heart. It is lifting people out of poverty and supporting folks, instead of punishing them.


The Minister for Social Security and Local Government (Ben Macpherson)

I, too, commend my colleague Kaukab Stewart for bringing this important issue, and her research, to the chamber, and I thank all colleagues who have contributed to this important debate. It has highlighted the strength of feeling among members on all—or certainly most—sides of the chamber that the punitive sanctions that are imposed by the UK Government in respect of universal credit simply do not work.

As colleagues have articulated, the Scottish Government has, for some time now, been deeply concerned about the UK Government’s current sanctions policy for universal credit claimants. As we have heard, it allows any claimant to be sanctioned at any time, at the discretion of jobcentre staff.

Jeremy Balfour

Will the minister acknowledge that, back in November last year, 0.88 per cent of those on universal credit were sanctioned? We are talking about less than 1 per cent, so it is not something that is being used willy-nilly.

Ben Macpherson

I take in good faith the statistics that Jeremy Balfour has relayed to Parliament. However, I point out—I will say more about this shortly—that although, during the pandemic, the Department for Work and Pensions took the decision to move away from using sanctions, they are now, to great concern, being reintroduced and potentially ramped up.

In relation to something else that Mr Balfour said, I express my gratitude for the many jobcentre staff, who do important work to help people, but the discretion of jobcentre staff to impose sanctions can be problematic, as we heard in different accounts from members across the chamber—some of them personal, as in Emma Roddick’s case.

Sanctions are just one of a number of issues with the current universal credit system, which is failing the people it is designed to help and should be helping, with punitive policies such as the five-week wait, which I cannot believe is still in place; the two-child limit; and the benefit cap, which the Scottish Government will mitigate, as we recently announced.

As today’s discussion has emphasised, there is long-standing evidence of the detrimental impact of sanctions, with the mental health charities Mind and Activity Alliance both reporting that sanctions can instil in many people a sense of fear and distrust of the welfare system. We are trying to change that through our new social security system, with regard to Scottish benefits.

A new study by the University of Glasgow further emphasises the wrong-headedness of sanctions and their appalling impact on people’s job stability and health, and more widely.

If the Scottish Government was in charge of universal credit, would it simply get rid of all sanctions or would it amend them and do things in a different way?

Ben Macpherson

Again, I will say more about that shortly, time allowing, but in our employability programmes, we have shown—this is a conceptual point, but we all know it instinctively from anecdotal experience—that people respond much better to support and encouragement than they do to threat and fear. That is at the heart of our social security principles, which are dignity, fairness and respect. As Maggie Chapman emphasised, they have been shown to be effective when it comes to employability through our employability programmes.

Sanctions increase hardship and lead to poorer child wellbeing. As the report concludes,

“The high proportion of adverse impacts on measures of material hardship, health and child outcomes is sufficient to give significant cause for concern.”

As others have said—Kaukab Stewart emphasised this in her opening remarks—the unintended consequences of benefit sanctions are significant. The cost to the state and to all of us as citizens in different areas is significant. The report rightly emphasises that, and the costs, of course, fall on community organisations, whether that is food banks or third sector organisations; on UK Government departments, as Kaukab Stewart emphasised; and on the Scottish Government. That is exactly why we are right to be talking about the issue today. The costs that arise elsewhere in the system are significant and detrimental.

It is clear from the research and from today’s debate that sanctions are ineffective in helping people out of long-term unemployment. That is why, unlike UK Government approaches, our employment support services are voluntary, meaning that people are not driven to take part in them through fear of benefit sanctions. Instead, they are supported.

The UK Government suspended sanctions at the height of the pandemic, as I mentioned. However, since their reintroduction in June 2021, the number of sanctions being issued has risen sharply. Almost 50,000 people in the UK received a sanction in November last year.

Will the minister take an intervention?

Ben Macpherson

I am a bit pressed for time now. I apologise to Mr Balfour.

Sanctions can cut a person’s standard universal credit payment or, in some cases, reduce it to zero. I want to make an important point in response to Alex Rowley. With regard to the Scottish social security system, no sanctions are applied to claimants of Scottish Government benefits. That is already the position. If sanctions are applied to someone who is in receipt of universal credit in the UK system, resulting in a zero award, they will still be entitled to and eligible for the Scottish benefits that are linked to universal credit. There are no sanctions in those cases, and we are doing what we can to help people if they receive a sanction in the UK system.

I ask Mr Rowley to write to me about the points that he made about information sharing in his region, and we will work together to make sure that we provide the information to give people more clarity, because we are absolutely committed to that.

I underline the fact that sanctions are nonsensical. The UK Government tells us that sanctions get people into work faster, but, as the research highlights, they are nothing more than a quick fix, and they adversely impact people’s longer-term outcomes. In many cases, sanctions are more about filling the gaps in the labour market that have been created by the UK Government’s bad economic management, including its Brexit position.

As the report highlights, sanctions are associated with a range of adverse impacts, including worsening job quality and stability in the longer term. Sanctions do not make sense and do not work. The report goes on to state that, although sanctions might get people into work quickly in the short term, they fundamentally lead to higher rates of exit to non-employment or economic inactivity, and to more rapid returns to benefit claiming. They do not help people to get into the labour market in a way that is good for them and the economy as a whole.

To back up Kaukab Stewart’s point, I think that it is important that the UK Government releases its research. I add my voice to the calls for the UK Government to issue that information in a transparent way.

Today’s debate and the research that has been generated prove that the UK Government’s punitive sanctions policy is ineffectual, unfair and fundamentally damaging to the very people the social security system should be supporting. The matter is clearly ideological on the part of the Conservative Party, which is why the UK Government does not want to release the information, but it should. That is why the Conservatives continue to have a policy position of sanctioning when it clearly does not work. They should change that position. I am glad that the vast majority of members of this Parliament have made the case clearly that our social security system should help people. When it comes to our devolved powers, that is exactly what we will focus on.

13:42 Meeting suspended.  

14:00 On resuming—