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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 02 November 2016

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, National Health Service (Audit Scotland Report and Service Development), Sectarian Behaviour and Hate Crime, National Health Service, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Welfare Conditionality Study


Contents


Welfare Conditionality Study

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-01360, in the name of Sandra White, on the welfare conditionality study. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with concern the first wave findings of the welfare conditionality study that was carried out by researchers from several leading universities, including the University of Glasgow and was presented to MSPs on 7 September 2016; understands that it found universally-negative experiences of conditionality, which it reported as creating both “widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment” among service users and leading some people to turn to crime in order to survive because of the sanctions that they faced; recognises the report’s conclusion that the common thread linking stories of successful transition to work was the availability of individual support rather than the threat of sanctions; notes that the report includes what it considers to be deeply disturbing service users' accounts of the conditionality; understands that some described the system as “intimidating, dehumanising and disempowering”; congratulates the University of Glasgow and the other researchers on what it considers to be its important work, and looks forward to the next wave of findings being published.

17:39  

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I thank the researchers at the University of Glasgow and their partners across the United Kingdom who have collaborated on the welfare conditionality research that has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The project, which is looking at conditional welfare in the UK, started in 2013 and will finish in 2018. The motion highlights the first wave of findings. I also thank the media that have covered the research, and particularly the Daily Record for highlighting the human costs of the conditionality, which are shown in the research.

Researchers were looking at two main areas:

“how effective is conditionality in changing the behaviour of those receiving welfare benefits and services?”

and

“are there any particular circumstances in which the use of conditionality may, or may not be, justifiable?”

The findings are undoubtedly a stark reminder of the complete and utter failure of the UK Tory Government to provide meaningful support to those who need it. I will give members a snapshot and an overview of the findings.

Sanctions often came as a shock, without warning, with many of the interviewees believing that they had been compliant. Loss of income through sanctioning was usually disproportionate; for example, interviewees had no money for food for a whole month because they were five minutes late for an appointment.

There were variations in the expectations of different job coaches, contributing to mistrust in the system, which was often viewed as deliberately designed to catch claimants out so that they could be sanctioned.

There was the material impact of sanctions, both the short-term crisis and the long-term paying off of debt. Sanctions can result in rent arrears, eviction threats and homelessness.

There were very few cases where sanctions worked at all. The issues that interviewees said prevented them from finding work are not helped by sanctions. A high number of sanctions are still caused by Department for Work and Pensions administration errors.

There was poor implementation of easements and flexibilities for particular groups, such as homeless people and lone parents. We should pay particular attention to the fact that levels of awareness about that particular group are low.

There is also the inadequacy of support, which is neither intensive enough nor tailored enough to be effective in helping people overcome barriers to work.

One of the most galling findings from the report is the fact that sanctions do nothing at all to help people find work. The running theme behind examples of people getting into work was the availability of appropriate support rather than the threat of punishment. The research demonstrates that the very foundation of the sanctions regime is flawed. The fact is that people by and large want to work and in many cases have long histories in employment before their circumstances changed.

I have no doubt that members across the chamber will all have many cases of constituents who have fallen victim to the sanctions regime and have sought their advice and support. The report highlights many cases and, with your indulgence, Presiding Officer, I would like to highlight a few to put into perspective the reality of the situation for welfare service users. I do not like the word “welfare” and I try not to use it, but it is the word that the report uses.

Take, for example, a man in his fifties who was made redundant and could only find part-time work. He is relying on universal credit to top up his wages. Prior to universal credit, he would have had the opportunity to apply for working tax credits, which would have been free from conditionality. In his own words, he describes his interaction with the system:

“The first moment I walked into the Jobcentre I felt criminalised ... you’re looked down upon ... to me it was as if I’m signing up to a prison.”

The man’s problems did not end there. There was a long delay in receiving the universal credit payment as well as administrative errors that resulted in three months of rent arrears. He requested that the housing element of universal credit be paid directly to his social landlord, but that did not happen. He has been taken to court over the rent arrears that accrued and now he feels that everything is looming over his head and he is suffering from depression and anxiety.

One lady who is disabled said:

“It is demeaning, condescending ... painful ... damaging, it actually makes your disabilities worse”.

A man who had a history of paid employment until an accident prevented him from working has had to manage his treatment and hospitalisation for on-going problems while being sanctioned for not replying to a letter that was sent while he was in hospital. He said that it was “a very hard time” that he went through:

“I’m not only coping with an illness that affects your daily life, but I’m also affected that somebody has just clicked a button and just stopped my benefits, stopped the bit of income that’s coming in ... when they took it away they gave me this telephone number”.

They told him that he was to phone his local council, which might be able to help him. Unfortunately, when he rang the council, he was told:

“you don’t qualify because you’re not getting this type of benefit.”

This research clearly illustrates that the sanctions regime is dehumanising and ineffective and pushes people into destitution and reliance on food banks, often through no fault of their own.

The Tory Government approach to benefit claimants is to presume guilt and to punish disproportionately. Not only does that fail to help jobseekers to find work, it puts many people in the position of being penniless. We in this Parliament have an opportunity to shape services to fit the needs of the users, rather than having the one-size-fits-all approach of the UK Tory Government, and I welcome the commitment from the Scottish Government that participation in work programmes will be voluntary. Our social security system must be person centred and must treat people with dignity and respect at every stage of their journey into work, focusing on developing their skills to fulfil their employment potential.

Although the Scottish Parliament will take over responsibility for employability programmes, and some responsibility for social security relating to disability is to be devolved, the UK Government remains entirely responsible for some decisions and, in particular, the decisions over claimant conditions and sanctions. I hope that the minister will touch on that aspect in summing up.

What kind of society do we want to live in? One where we protect and support people when they need protection and support, or one where we actively work to demonise those in need? I will always opt for a society where we protect, support and nurture. The UK Tory Government must halt the sanctions until an immediate review of the claimant conditionality and sanction regime has been carried out. For the sake of all our citizens, I hope that it will do that.

17:46  

Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

I congratulate Sandra White on securing a debate in Parliament on this very important matter, even if I did not agree with everything that she said in her remarks. I would like to start with some facts.

First, sanctions are, and always have been, an important part of our welfare system. It is right that they are in place for those few who do not fulfil their commitment to find work. Sanctions prevent abuse in the system and create fairness for taxpayers.

Secondly, sanctions affect only a tiny number of claimants.

Sandra White

Will the member take an intervention?

Adam Tomkins

I am afraid that I do not have time to take interventions this evening.

Only about 2 per cent of jobseekers are sanctioned and a quarter of 1 per cent of employment and support allowance claimants are sanctioned. That is to say, 399 of every 400 claimants of employment and support allowance are not sanctioned at all.

Thirdly, the UK has a far less strict sanctions regime than those operating in most European countries. Indeed, there are only seven European Union member states with a less strict regime than the one that is operating here. If we are out of line with the European average, it is because we are more lenient than others, not stricter.

Fourthly, I point out that the Scottish Government’s expert working group on welfare, which produced a report in 2014 about what social security would look like in an independent Scotland, argued:

“there is a general acceptance that receiving benefits will inevitably imply some form of conditionality”.

The report stated:

“The social security system”

of an independent Scotland

“will be based on positive conditionality with expectations on individuals and the State.”

The Minister for Employability and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

Will the member give way?

Adam Tomkins

I am afraid that I do not have time to give way this evening.

It is far from clear how such conditionality would be any different from the reformed and vastly reduced sanctions regime that is in operation now in the United Kingdom.

Getting people into work is a good thing. I think that we now all recognise that work—for those who can—represents the best route out of poverty. Getting disabled people into work is a good thing, which is why I welcome the fact that there are 360,000 people with disabilities in work now in the UK who were not in employment two years ago. However, I recognise that the disability employment gap remains far too big, which is why we on the Tory benches have a commitment to halve it. I have invited the Scottish Government ministers to join us in that commitment, but that invitation has yet to be taken up, I am sad to say.

This evening is an opportune time to be debating these matters. Just this week, the UK Government published its work, health and disability green paper. The green paper makes it plain that a higher employment rate is not merely good for the economy but vital to the health and wellbeing of our citizens, including our citizens with disabilities. That is why it really matters that the disability employment rate is even lower in Scotland than it is in the UK as a whole. I have already said that it is too low in the UK, but it is even lower in Scotland, where only 42 per cent of people with a disability are in employment.

We hear a lot in this Parliament about dignity, fairness and respect, but I ask this: how is it treating disabled people with fairness and respect to subject them to a welfare system that parks them on benefits, tells them that they are not fit for work and denies them the dignity of employment? That is why—like Mark Atkinson, the chief executive of Scope UK, and like members of the House of Commons, including, to be fair, Dr Eilidh Whiteford, speaking for the SNP—I applaud this week’s green paper, because, in its very opening paragraph, it expresses an understanding that the disability employment gap is

“one of the most significant inequalities in the UK today”

and is, indeed, an

“injustice that we must address”.

However, this issue is not all about work. The social security system must do all that it can to move people off benefits and into employment but, at the same time, it must also support those of our fellow citizens who, for whatever reason, genuinely cannot work.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Close now, please.

Adam Tomkins

That is why it is important to record, in closing, that spending on disability benefits has increased since 2010. It went up by £3 billion in the previous session of the Westminster Parliament and, in this session, £50 billion will be spent in the United Kingdom on disability benefits. That represents more spending on disabled people in every year of the current Parliament than was the case when the Conservatives came to power in 2010.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I will just say that, if people do not take interventions, I would not expect them to go over their speaking time, even in a members’ business debate.

17:51  

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the debate and congratulate Sandra White on securing it.

In September, I was delighted to sponsor in Parliament a briefing event that presented the interim findings of the groundbreaking research on sanctions and conditionality that we are debating tonight. I know that some members who are in the chamber this evening attended that event, and am sure that they would agree that it was a helpful and informative briefing. It was organised through the welfare reform network, which is run by policy Scotland at the University of Glasgow. I want to thank again Dr Sharon Wright, Professor Peter Dwyer and Dr Sarah Johnsen for their helpful presentation on the research, which was conducted by academics from six universities across the UK.

I am sure that members across the chamber will agree that there is increasing awareness of the impact of sanctions and conditionality on constituents and their families. The research is particularly useful in helping to place in a wider context the individual cases that we hear about. Although the research focuses on conditionality, which is reserved to Westminster, there are important implications for this Parliament in respect of our considering how we operate the social security powers that are now under the Scottish Government’s control.

As the motion highlights, the study found universally negative experiences of sanctions. Linking of continued receipt of benefit services to mandatory behavioural requirements has created

“‘widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment’ among service users”.

Members have mentioned some of the other key points that the study raises. For example, sanctions have often come as a shock, without warning, with many interviewees believing that they had been compliant. Loss of income through sanctioning has also usually been disproportionate to the so-called crime. For example, as Sandra White said, having no money for food for a whole month has sometimes been the result of a person’s being just five minutes late for an appointment.

The research found few cases in which sanctions had actually worked. The running theme behind examples in which people had got into work was availability of appropriate support, rather than the threat of punishment. Worryingly, however, there was a view that the system is designed to catch claimants out so that they can be sanctioned. Those are very real and serious concerns that have been expressed by some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, so it is vital that we not only listen to them but learn from what is being said by those people who know the welfare system best—the people who rely on it. All too often, debates on welfare become arguments about facts and figures. However, what the study does effectively is highlight the human consequences of welfare sanctions and conditionality.

I know that Adam Tomkins said that he believes that few claimants had been affected by sanctions, but the research shows that of the 481 welfare service user participants in the study, 134 were in Scotland. Some of the case studies from our communities highlight truly shocking examples of the consequences of sanctions. One male welfare user in Scotland said:

“My daughter could not attend school for two weeks. I didn’t have any money for that; you have to give her some money every day for some lunch and for a bus.”

Barnardo’s Scotland, in its briefing ahead of the debate, highlighted the difficulties that were experienced by another parent. She was 10 minutes late for an appointment because of an unforeseen incident with one of her children. She was sanctioned, which had a devastating impact on her family: she was without money for four weeks and was unable to buy fuel cards for her gas and electricity meters or feed her children. Those examples alone should set alarm bells ringing for all members about the consequences that decisions can have on the very people whom our welfare system is supposed to protect.

Members will be aware of the new film “I, Daniel Blake”, which highlights the devastating reality. Far too many people need our support but are simply not getting it. It is encouraging to see such a film shine a light on those experiences—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Draw to a close, please.

Neil Bibby

The more people are made aware of such circumstances, the better.

I conclude by thanking again all those who were involved in this important study. Its findings should serve as a wake-up call and should make the Tory Government think again about the damage that its welfare policy is doing.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Due to the number of members who wish to speak in the debate, I am minded to accept, under rule 8.14.3, a motion without notice to extend the debate by 30 minutes.

Motion moved,

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

Motion agreed to.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you.

17:56  

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

I thank Sandra White for the debate and welcome the findings of the welfare conditionality study. The findings support the view of many members that for too many users the welfare sanctions system is draconian, dehumanising and ineffective.

The study illustrates that linking receipt of benefits to mandatory behavioural requirements is too often a very blunt instrument that creates

“anxiety and feelings of disempowerment”

among service users. The detrimental impact of sanctions is not only financial; it is material and emotional and can have serious health repercussions for the individual.

Many users do not understand the reason for the sanctions that have been applied to them. Poor communication, as well as the health and personal circumstances of the service user, can lead to unfairly imposed sanctions. Many sanctions are subsequently overturned on appeal. However, appeal is not an easy process and the impact on users who are waiting for the appeal can be devastating.

A young man in his early twenties who was living independently in my constituency of Rutherglen suffered a severe orthopaedic trauma eight years ago, which led to several major surgical interventions to rebuild his limb. He was at the same time diagnosed with severe epilepsy and was therefore simultaneously under the care of two senior consultants who both, individually, confirmed his inability to work long term. He was forced to attend an Atos assessment with his leg in plaster and using crutches, but was deemed to be fit to work due to his ability to use his fingers to text on his mobile phone. That ability was used to reduce his qualifying points and his benefit was withdrawn. No regard was given to the medical evidence from his consultants. That ridiculous decision was overturned on appeal, but the process took nearly six months. Had it not been for the intervention of his parents, he would have been out on the street and starving. As it was, they were able to assist, but the short-term financial impact on them was not insignificant. Thankfully, he was able to get the support of his family. Many young people in similar circumstances are not so fortunate and can end up in severe debt, evicted and needing to use food banks regularly to survive.

Ken Loach, the director of the critically acclaimed film “I, Daniel Blake", which highlights the negative experiences of benefits claimants who have been unfairly targeted by the DWP sanctions regime, last week accurately called the situation “conscious cruelty”. The University of Glasgow research has shown—as in the example that I cited—that sanctions often come without warning, with users believing that they had been compliant. That is consciously cruel. The research also found that loss of income through sanctioning was disproportionate to the perceived infringement—for example, claimants having no money for a month due to having missed an appointment by a few minutes. That is consciously cruel. The material impact of rogue sanctions on claimants’ debt can result in rent arrears and homelessness. That is consciously cruel. Thankfully, Atos has gone, but the sanctions system remains, and it remains consciously cruel.

Prior to my career in nursing, I worked for two years in the then Department of Social Security. It was at the height of the Thatcher era and over the period of the miners’ strike. At that time, the ethos in the department was completely different from the target-driven dehumanising ethos that prevails today. I can assure Adam Tomkins that it was not a system that used benefit sanctions—which he thinks have always been in the system. I will correct his figure on the number of sanctions of disabled people: it is 3,000 out of 85,000. Of course, the main purpose of the service was to help people to get back into work. However, at a time when major industries were being closed down or privatised, with mass redundancies and few other work opportunities, the ethos was very much one of support, and not judgment. How times have changed.

In designing a social security system for Scotland, we have the opportunity to build dignity and respect back into the administration of some benefits and work programmes. I therefore welcome the commitment from the Scottish Government that under a Scottish social security system, employability support programmes will be voluntary and the Government will help to ensure that people are not sanctioned by the DWP when they are on those programmes.

18:01  

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I join others in congratulating Sandra White on bringing the debate to the chamber and in applauding and thanking the researchers for their work. It was my intention to say that we have all heard of or dealt with cases involving the devastating and harrowing impact that sanctions can have, but perhaps Mr Tomkins and his colleagues have not or, if they have heard, they have not listened, which would be more worrying.

The effect of removing people’s only means of support has a mental and physical health impact on them and their families but, unfortunately, the situation is even worse when we consider what jobseekers are being asked to do and how likely that is to improve their chances of finding employment. Around 65 per cent of participants leave the work programme without having gained and stayed in a job for at least six months. The figure is considerably higher for participants with health conditions or disabilities, around 85 per cent of whom have not entered and stayed in employment for at least three months. For those who are considered furthest from employment, the figure is as high as 94 per cent.

The report gives clear reasons why that might be the case. Claimants are asked to apply for jobs regardless of whether they are appropriate. The study’s interim findings show that people are being forced to apply for jobs that they tell Jobcentre Plus and employment programme providers they cannot do because of disability, ill-health or childcare responsibilities, yet those organisations insist on claimants applying. The report of interim findings cites the ridiculous case of a Scottish universal credit claimant who was asked to apply, under the threat of sanction, for a job as a driving instructor, despite the fact that he had said that he did not have a driving licence.

Much of the support offered is of a generic nature when, as others have said, it should be person centred. It has been limited to things such as help with writing CVs and job search skills. Individualised packages of support are needed. Sick and disabled jobseekers who were interviewed in the study reported being offered only that very general kind of support.

The DWP’s own survey of work programme participants found that over 70 per cent of those on the programme with a health condition were not offered health-related support to help them find work. Providers have openly admitted that there is not sufficient funding in the work programme to pay for on-going specialist support to help participants with disabilities and health conditions. The Centre for Social and Economic Inclusion reported that work programme providers spend as little as £545 to provide up to two years of support for employment and support allowance participants.

One of the few positive messages to come out of the report is that on the great work done by Jobcentre Plus disability advisers. Perhaps inevitably, in the topsy-turvy world of the DWP where nothing seems to make sense, those advisers are now being withdrawn from jobcentres and mainstream jobcentre staff will be expected to provide specialist disability support. The structure of the contracts, which prioritises job outcomes, means that those who are relatively close to the labour market are offered the most support and that more disadvantaged jobseekers are provided with very little practical help.

If the purpose of sanctions is to help benefit recipients into work by enforcing, under the threat of sanction, participation in employment programmes and other schemes of support, and if that support is unlikely—in some cases very unlikely—to help them find employment, the whole basis of the sanctions regime is brought into very serious and fundamental question.

We can now use the powers in the Scotland Act 2012 to chart a different course. Sandra White spoke about dignity and respect, and those principles should underpin our approach.

Although sanctions are not devolved, powers over the employment programmes—some of which are currently compulsory—have now been devolved and new programmes will operate from spring next year. Those will involve a more supportive approach in which people are encouraged to take up offers of employment support not because they are bullied into doing so, but because there are genuine opportunities to find work.

I was very proud to stand for election earlier this year on the only party manifesto that pledged to use the new powers over employment services to reduce significantly the numbers of benefit sanctions that are applied in Scotland. My colleague Alison Johnstone, who has worked with others on that issue, called on the Scottish Government to use the powers in that way and released a plan that explains how it could be done.

Last month, I was pleased to hear the Minister for Employability and Training commit to operating those new programmes on an entirely voluntary basis, and I commend that approach. It will require significant investment in schemes of support that go far beyond the current DWP schemes.

Finally, I turn to the costs of complying with benefit conditionality, which can be considerable. That is an issue in particular for benefit recipients in rural areas, where the cost of transport from recipients’ homes to the nearest jobcentre to attend appointments or to the nearest library in order to use computers to apply for jobs can eat significantly into the scant amount that those people are paid in benefits.

Dignity and humanity will be the hallmark of the way in which we use the newly devolved powers, but we can apply that approach to the entire system only when we have the ability to use all the powers, which will come with independence.

18:06  

Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

I apologise to other members and to you, Presiding Officer, as I have to leave after giving my speech because I have another appointment.

I, too, congratulate Sandra White on bringing the debate to the chamber, although I take part with a heavy heart because the evidence that the first wave report presents is not new. It is now more than two years since the Welfare Reform Committee in the previous session of Parliament, of which I was a member, published its “Interim Report on the New Benefit Sanctions Regime: Tough Love or Tough Luck?” in 2014.

The report examined the consequences of the DWP’s decision in 2012 to introduce a more punitive system of sanctions for those on jobseekers allowance and employment and support allowance. It is important to highlight that to address the point that Adam Tomkins made: there has always been an element of conditionality in the system, but the 2012 changes introduced a far harsher regime. It included three categories of sanctions—higher, immediate and lower, extended the length of sanctions to a maximum of three years and speeded up the rate at which sanctions started, which meant that people could be faced with destitution almost overnight.

The committee’s report found that the number of those on jobseekers allowance who were penalised increased very rapidly throughout 2013, from 3 per cent at the start of the year to almost 6 per cent by the end. The committee stated in the report that it believed that there was

“a deliberate policy … to drive up the level of sanctions to previously unheard-of levels through managerial pressure on JobCentre staff.”

The report identified a number of failings, such as

“a consistent failure to notify people that they are being sanctioned and why ... misapplication of sanctions ... A failure to appreciate that many people on benefits do not have the necessary IT skills at day one to utilise the DWP’s Universal Jobmatch facility”

and

“The lack of a deadline for decision-making on DWP reconsiderations”

when a mistake had been made.

The committee’s 2014 report is only one of a number of publications that have exposed the sanctions regime since 2012. A substantial body of evidence has been gathered by organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Child Poverty Action Group, the churches, Citizens Advice Scotland and others, but they have all been ignored.

Conservatives still insist, as they did in 2012, that many benefit recipients welcome the “jolt” that sanctions give them. That is the term that was used in evidence to the Welfare Reform Committee. Two years later, there is very little in the findings of the first wave report to suggest that anyone is jolted into work by a sanction. In contrast, as others have said, there is the sudden onset of destitution and the stigma that accompanies it; the feeling of being disempowered along with feelings of deep resentment, desperation and depression; and the question of how someone can present themselves as an attractive and confident potential employee when they cannot afford soap and water and they are crippled with anxiety about how to feed their kids.

To address the point about disabled people, I note that Inclusion Scotland reported official figures that showed that, from the introduction of the regime in 2012 until March 2014, 14,000 people on employment and support allowance—those are people who have an incapacity of some sort—found a job or a positive outcome as a result of the work programme, to which conditionality is attached.

However, in the same period, sanctions were dealt out to almost 42,000 ESA claimants. That means that a disabled person on the work programme was three times more likely to be sanctioned than they were to find a job. Far from jolting people into work, sanctions send claimants tumbling further downhill into illness and continued unemployment.

I will conclude with a bit of historical context and talk about the 1834 report into the English poor law, which was written by social reformer Edwin Chadwick. At the time there was also a system of conditionality: it was the workhouse—or the “poorhouse”, in Scotland. It was designed to be so unpleasant that working class people would be deterred from seeking the help to which they should have been entitled—morally, at least.

One supporter of the regime told Chadwick:

“The workhouse should be a place of hardship, of coarse fare, of degradation and humility; it should be administered with strictness—with severity; it should be as repulsive as is consistent with humanity.”

Thirty years ago, Margaret Thatcher spoke about the desirability of a return to Victorian values. The punitive sanctions regime that David Cameron’s Tory Government introduced suggests that that has been achieved. Like the threat of the workhouse, it is designed to degrade. However, it is worse than that. The Victorian workhouses and poorhouses provided food, heat, light and shelter, as was “consistent with humanity”, as Chadwick’s correspondent might have put it. The sanctions regime that we are talking about can deprive its victims of those basic necessities. It does not even merit the term “Dickensian”; it is truly inhuman.

18:11  

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

When I read the report, I was, of course, concerned about the issues that it raised, namely that sanctions are creating feelings of anxiety and disempowerment among service users and that many people who were involved in the study reported negative experiences.

I really do not want welfare service users in Glasgow or any other part of Scotland to feel anxiety about the welfare system. I also do not want the debate to become a bear pit in which members attack policies, the essence of which the public at large agree with, at least in principle.

The Scottish Government itself acknowledges that sanctions are necessary in the welfare system. In 2014, its expert working group on welfare concluded that although it did not agree with the way in which the UK Government was implementing its sanctions policy, conditionality was nevertheless necessary.

Jamie Hepburn

Will the member take an intervention?

Annie Wells

Not at the moment, sorry.

Jamie Hepburn

At what point will the member take an intervention?

Annie Wells

I have not even been speaking for a minute. I ask the minister to let me make some progress, please.

Jamie Hepburn

I will do my best.

Annie Wells

It is not the existence of welfare conditionality that has caused controversy; rather, it is the way in which the approach has been implemented. There must be a case for a light form of conditionality, at the very least.

Jamie Hepburn

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

Annie Wells

Not yet. I want to make progress.

There is an acknowledgement in the report by some professionals that enforcement, coupled with support, could act as a positive catalyst for change.

Would the minister like to intervene now?

Jamie Hepburn

Indeed. I thought that it was telling that the member talked about light-touch conditionality or a light-touch sanctions regime. I do not think that any member of this Parliament does not accept that criteria have to be applied in any social security system. However, the approach must be proportionate and sensible. Given everything that Annie Wells has heard in this debate about the lived experience of people who have had sanctions applied to them, does she accept that the current approach is hardly one of light-touch conditionality?

Annie Wells

I am saying that there must be light-touch conditionality and that the Scottish Parliament must work to make that case, to ensure that such an approach is taken. I am not for a minute saying that the things that I heard from Sandra White and Neil Bibby did not happen, but we need to put the issue into perspective. The number of sanctions is less—

John Finnie

Will the member take an intervention?

Annie Wells

Not at the moment. I am running out of time. I am sorry.

When it comes to mandatory support from Jobcentre Plus or the work programme, there are examples of good practice and positive accounts from welfare service users, particularly when it comes to trying to deter users from harmful lifestyles. Even the Joseph Rowntree Foundation made the key point in a report in 2014 that

“with appropriate support, interventions including elements of conditionality or enforcement may deter some individuals from anti-social behaviour and street-based lifestyles.”

Sandra White

Will the member take an intervention?

Annie Wells

I am in my last minute

With the devolution of employment services to Scotland, why does the Scottish Government not seize the opportunity to work further on that basis?

I would like to bring perspective to the debate and remind members that fewer than 2.5 per cent of jobseekers allowance claimants and only 0.26 per cent of ESA claimants in the UK are sanctioned.

As always, it is right to question the Government on these issues, but to constantly bring them to the forefront of debate seems disproportionate. I wonder why those who are linked to the SNP Government are bringing up the same issues over and over again when the Government has its own battles to fight and its own welfare reform powers to work with. Often repeated in this chamber is the claim that the Scottish Government has control over only 15 per cent of the benefit budget, yet it now has the ability to top up any reserved benefit that it sees fit.

As my colleague Adam Tomkins highlighted, in many EU countries we see tougher benefit sanctions than we see in the UK. In 2014, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden all ranked higher in terms of the percentage of those sanctioned.

Of course, I welcome any work in this area but I would reiterate that sanctions are by and large rare occurrences. We need perspective when it comes to conditionality and we need to be able to at least acknowledge the benefits of a welfare system that incorporates some aspect of it.

18:16  

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

I thank Sandra White for bringing the debate to the chamber and offer special thanks to Glasgow university and the other universities that were involved in compiling the report. It provides evidence on things that we have probably known for some time. Some of us have seen the movie “I, Daniel Blake”, which has taken the country by storm. I must say that the Scottish Tories are out of touch if they do not appreciate that the system that they are defending is becoming a more topical issue by the day. The report is disturbing reading, and the issue affects many Scottish families and individuals.

The Scottish Tories are missing this point: there is evidence to show that there are high numbers of sanctions—I will come to that—but the issue is the disproportionate nature of the sanctions regime that we have now. Joan McAlpine, who is not here, highlighted the sharp change that there has been in sanctions. That is the point that we are addressing.

Claimants can be anyone whom we know. They are not all from the same group of people. Any one of us or anyone from our families would be required to have conditions if we were unemployed and claiming benefits.

The research confirms that under-25s face substantially higher sanctions and that younger claimants face direct discrimination and are more likely to be sanctioned than any other group.

Members have talked about the ethics of conditionality that is designed to change the behaviour of welfare claimants. Of course there should be a system of some kind to ensure that people meet the basic requirements to claim their welfare benefits, but however the policy started the debate is about the fact that it has lost its way and has to change. It is disproportionate, cumbersome, unresponsive to people’s real needs, lengthy, punitive and inhuman. Most of all, as Sandra White said, it does not even work.

I believe that the policy also distorts the employment market, because people are forced to take jobs for which they are overqualified or which are not on the career path that they wish to take. They must take those jobs, because they will not get benefits if they do not. As has been discussed in other debates, that can lock people into a circle of low-paid employment from which they cannot get out.

We all have stories to tell. We all know about the man who was sanctioned for going to a hospital appointment, even though he told the employment office that he was going. The problem is that once something goes wrong in the system, it is very difficult to communicate to the DWP that it has made a mistake. Its way of dealing with claimants’ problems seems to be exceptionally lengthy.

People who turn to the state in most cases do not have a slush fund to revert to. They may be lucky enough to have families who can help them out, but people often have no one to turn to when sanctions of four weeks, 13 weeks or 26 weeks are imposed on them. It can take up to six weeks for the DWP to reconsider a decision and, as we read in the report, it can take up to a year for an appeal, which is simply not good enough on anyone’s terms. People should have the basic human right to appeal against a decision and have their appeal heard speedily. We would not accept the situation in our courts, and I do not think that we should accept it in our welfare benefits system. According to David Webster, who has done work on the issue, between 2013 and 2014 1 million sanctions were imposed on those claiming employment support allowance and jobseekers allowance—the highest rate since JSA was introduced.

The work programme is evidence in itself. Those who work for the work programme were told to increase sanctions for clients. That is in the evidence; it is in black and white. A former employee has testified to it. That cannot be right. The former employee says that that is what happens when we privatise the public and place financial targets on human needs.

The unemployed deserve better than this. This has no place in a modern Britain or a modern Scotland, and we are not talking about isolated cases—they are real cases. Of course, we need a sanctions system, but we need one that treats people with respect, dignity and fairness and one that is easy to navigate so that people understand exactly what is happening to them when they are in it.

18:21  

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak in the debate. I had not intended to do so—I had intended to listen to Sandra White’s speech and the other contributions—but I find myself becoming more and more concerned by what I am hearing, particularly from the Conservatives.

I do not believe that it is the Scottish Government’s job to mitigate decisions that are made elsewhere and a system over which we have no control, but we are already doing that. We mitigate the bedroom tax and we have introduced a Scottish welfare fund that steps in and helps those who have been sanctioned by the DWP. I do not think that it is the job of Scottish taxpayers to fund a discredited system that is failing in every respect. When the number of appeals against sanctions is running at 50 per cent, we must ask ourselves why the system is being allowed to continue when it is obviously broken.

More than anything, what has compelled me to speak is the figures produced by the Department for Work and Pensions that have been cited by the two Conservative members who have spoken this evening. Those figures show that fewer than 6 per cent of JSA claimants and fewer than 1 per cent of ESA claimants have been sanctioned. However, David Webster of the University of Glasgow has called those figures a

“gross and systematic misrepresentation”,

arguing that a “large minority” of claimants are affected. The freedom of information request that he submitted to the DWP produced figures showing that 18 per cent of JSA claimants were sanctioned in 2013-14. So concerning were the figures that the DWP released that the UK Statistics Authority has stepped in and has asked the DWP to produce a more comprehensive analysis of sanction rates among JSA claimants, supported by a clear explanation.

What is going on? The DWP is looking at the average number of claimants who are sanctioned on a month-to-month basis, which would be fine if claimants claimed only for a month. However, taking the figures on a month-to-month basis is actually a gross misrepresentation and does not reflect the exceedingly high number of sanctions for JSA claimants. That is a really important point. The UK Statistics Authority, which is the watchdog authority, has told the DWP that it needs to produce objective and impartial sanctions statements. Would it not be good if we also had impartial and objective sanctions statements from all areas of the chamber rather than a gross misrepresentation of what is happening to our citizens?

If only one citizen was being subjected to cruelty in the system, it would be one too many for a civilised organisation and a civilised country.

18:25  

The Minister for Employability and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

I join other members in thanking Sandra White for securing the debate. My notes say that I should thank all members for their speeches, but I thank only some of them for their contributions.

A number of salient points have been made. We have heard truly desperate stories about the impact of sanctions on individuals and their families. The research that is the subject of today’s debate and which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and developed by a consortium of research bodies is detailed, comprehensive and moving.

As Neil Bibby set out, members had the benefit of an information session with Dr Sharon Wright from the University of Glasgow and her colleagues who were involved in the work. Unfortunately, I could not attend the session, but my officials had a productive meeting with Dr Wright and her colleagues that has helped to shape our thinking.

Those who were at the information session will have heard that, for many people, sanctions come as a shock—not a jolt—because they do not know what is happening. Members will have heard that, as Sandra White said, many sanctions are still being put in place as a result of administrative error, and that even when the DWP has agreed flexibilities in the system, those flexibilities are often not implemented. The report provides yet more clear evidence of what the Parliament has heard for some time and what we have debated more than once—the fact that the current UK Government’s benefit conditionality and sanctions regime causes suffering, which is not just in material terms, as it also has a negative emotional and health impact on those who are affected by it.

The research is part of a growing stack of reports that highlight the negative impacts of benefit sanctions. For some years, research has pointed to the effect of sanctions. As Joan McAlpine mentioned, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that the system is having a disproportionate impact on young people, with severe impacts on vulnerable groups, such as those who are homeless. It further found that, although sanctions raise the number of exits from benefits, long-term outcomes for job quality, employment retention and earnings are unfavourable.

The research is supported by findings that were published in October by the Behavioural Insights Team, which is a social purpose company that is part owned by the UK Government. It stated that the UK Government’s welfare conditionality policies can lead to poor claimant decision making and, in turn, result in lower-quality and lower-paid work outcomes. Even the UK Government’s own social purpose company highlights that its system is working against supporting the very outcomes that we regard as crucial measures of delivering successful employment support in Scotland—good, sustained jobs and a decent level of income.

In the latest in a long list of reports, the University of Oxford has published research in the past fortnight that found that, when the rate of sanctioning increased in local authorities, the rate of food bank use also increased. I see that the Social Security Committee, of which Ms White is the convener, has today published further evidence from Sheffield Hallam University.

All the research tallies with the experience that many of us have as elected members. I will always remember two cases. The first was of a young man who attended one of my surgeries to report his concerns that, when he informed the DWP that he might not be able to turn up for an appointment at the jobcentre because he had to attend a funeral the next day, he was threatened with sanctions. The second involved a woman who had faithfully turned up to every single appointment at the jobcentre. One day—the first time that she was unable to attend on time—she turned up five minutes late for understandable reasons and she was sanctioned. Can there be a more ludicrous example of the system than that which John Finnie highlighted, where an individual who could not drive was told that they had to apply for a job as a driving instructor or face sanctions? That speaks to the existence of a ludicrous system.

Incidentally, Annie Wells said that we had to get into perspective the numbers who have been sanctioned and Adam Tomkins said that they are a tiny number. According to the latest statistics, as at March, about 1,330 people were receiving sanctions in Scotland. I do not consider that to be a tiny number. Irrespective of the numbers that are involved, behind those numbers are individual human beings who will bear the human cost of such decisions. I very much agree with Clare Adamson’s point that one adverse impact for one individual is one too many. Ms Wells and Professor Tomkins will perhaps want to reflect on that.

To be fair, Ms Wells and Professor Tomkins were correct that the expert group that the Scottish Government established to inform the decisions that we might have taken in the event of a yes vote in 2014 set out that there should be criteria and conditionality in the social security system. As I said in my intervention on Ms Wells, I do not think that any member would suggest that there should not be criteria that can be applied to those who receive benefits, but the issue—Pauline McNeill made this point well—is to do with proportionality and the practical application of specific conditionality. Everything that we have heard in the debate suggests that the DWP and the UK Government are getting that wrong.

Annie Wells suggested that the Scottish Government should focus on what we can do with the devolution of some social security powers. I am happy to turn to that. We have already set out that we will, in effect, abolish the UK Government’s punitive bedroom tax in Scotland as soon as we can; that we will extend winter fuel payments to families with severely disabled children; that we will increase carers allowance so that it is paid at the same level as jobseekers allowance; and that we will use our powers over universal credit to offer Scottish claimants a choice about how often they receive their payments and whether to have their rent paid directly to their social landlord. We will also introduce a jobs grant to help young people aged 16 to 24 who have been unemployed for six months when they start work. Those are real decisions that will use the powers that are coming to the Parliament to make a difference to the lives of people here in Scotland.

However, Sandra White is correct to say that sanctions policy remains outwith the Scottish Government’s hands. I see that I am running up against time, Presiding Officer, but this is an important point to make. Sandra White invited me to set out how we will use the devolved employment support programme to do things differently. That does not come without its challenges, because we know that we face a significant reduction—an 87 per cent reduction—in the funding that we get from the UK Government but, in delivering devolved employment support, we have an opportunity to do things differently in Scotland and to take a different approach, and that is what we will do.

As I set out clearly on 5 October when we debated the future of devolved employment services, I firmly believe that attendance at the new programme should be on the same basis as that for other Scottish Government employability and skills support—in other words, it should be voluntary. Those who attend a programme should do so without the ever-present threat of sanctions hanging over them. People who attend our programmes should be there because they know that they will receive high-quality support to get into work; they should not be there because their benefit will be stopped if they do not attend. I have written again to Damian Green to confirm our intentions on the matter, and I have asked my officials to take forward urgent discussions with the DWP.

I understand that Mr Green will tomorrow attend a meeting of the Social Security Committee. I am sure that Professor Tomkins will take the opportunity to tell him what a good job he is doing, but I hope that other committee members will take the opportunity to discuss sanctions with him and to urge him to address the suffering that is being inflicted on those who survive on the very lowest levels of income. I hope that members will also take the opportunity to impress on Mr Green the Scottish Government’s determination—and the Parliament’s expressed will—that devolved employment programmes will not interact with the UK Government’s horrendous sanctions regime.

I conclude by thanking Sandra White for securing the debate. I hope that we will not have to debate welfare conditionality too many times in the future. Ultimately, I believe that the powers in question should be in the Parliament’s hands so that we can do things rather better.

Meeting closed at 18:33.