Reposted from Commons debate – Daily Hansard
Take it away Lisa …
[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): It has been almost five years since the coalition Government took office, so we are far beyond the time when it was even remotely credible to claim that everything that has happened in this country is the fault of the previous Government. The truth is that the choices that we make as a country have an effect. With a few months to go until the general election, this is a good time to assess the Government’s impact on the most vulnerable people in this country and to look again at the Prime Minister’s claim, five years ago, that he would not balance the books on the backs of the poorest. What a joke that statement now seems.
The rise in food banks has been the most visible sign of the devastation caused to towns such as mine, Wigan. In the past three months, my local charity, the Brick, has handed out more than 1,000 food parcels to families who cannot afford to eat. The first thing I want to say is this: be in no doubt that the situation has become much worse under this Government. Ministers have constantly said that food banks are the fault of the previous Government, but let me give them the facts. There were 3,000 food bank users in 2005, and 40,000 by 2010. By 2012, that had exploded to 128,000 people queuing for food parcels in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Under the Labour Government, food banks fed tens of thousands of people a year; they now feed a quarter of a million people in this country, and the numbers are rising.
Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She may not be aware that we had never had a food bank in Oldham until 2012. In that year, 849 food parcels were delivered; last year, 5,000 people ended up receiving support, including 1,500 children. The numbers are going up inexorably. Would my hon. Friend like to comment on the suffering that those people are experiencing?
Lisa Nandy: That experience is mirrored in my constituency. The Brick gave out 6,097 food parcels in Wigan last year. I spent a day helping its volunteers to do that. Many of the food parcels were cold boxes—I had never heard of a cold box before I spent the afternoon at my local food bank—for people who cannot afford the gas or electricity required to heat up some soup or a tin of beans. Our credit union, Unify, the charity Compassion in Action and Citizens Advice have given out loans, furniture and fuel payment vouchers in increasing numbers in the past four years. Yet people were told by the Conservative hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) that unfortunately their food bank use has become a habit. How utterly offensive.
The real causes are obvious. In my constituency, one can track almost exactly when the cracks in the community started to show. In October 2012, the Government introduced a new sanctions regime that affected nearly
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6,000 families in my borough alone. It had an immediate impact. In early 2013, the manager of the Brick, Trish Green, said:
“We have been operating since 2008 but recently we have seen more families, more young people and people who have lost their jobs using the service…It also affects every part of the borough and we distribute food parcels throughout different communities, not simply the more deprived areas.”
That is mirrored across the region: as pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), between 2012 and 2014, the number of people accessing food banks in the north-west exploded, growing by 238%. That was not, as the Conservative Minister for Business and Enterprise, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) said, because
“more people know about them”.
The vast majority of food bank referrals were because of benefit sanctions, although delays, debt, low-paid work, loss of job and family crisis were all common reasons.
Most of my constituents who have used a food bank were referred to it after being refused help by the jobcentre. A quarter of them had been told that they had not participated in an employment programme, and a fifth had been told that they had failed to attend an adviser interview. Let me give the Minister an example. Just yesterday, a man got in touch with me who had taken on temporary work over Christmas. He had notified the jobcentre of the start and finish dates of that temporary work, but was told that he had missed an appointment with the jobcentre to give the information that he had already provided. He was sanctioned. The jobcentre was closed on the day when he was supposed to have attended an appointment, so he was paid just 1p for the whole of January. He found out yesterday that he has been given £26 for the whole of February. Will the Minister tell me how someone in this country is meant to live on a penny a month?
Quite separately, two other people got in touch with my office, one a woman, the other a young man. Both had been sanctioned in the past few months for attending the funeral of a family member. In both cases, the individuals had notified the jobcentre of the reason why they could not turn up to sign on. I was thinking about what on earth people are supposed to do in that a situation. It reminded me of a line from Kafka, which states that
“it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.”
When death is not a good enough reason to change the rules, what sort of society have we become?
We find increasingly that people are sanctioned for being just a few minutes late for appointments to sign on. My local councillor, Jeanette Prescott, said that
“several times this year I have had to refer a gentleman with learning difficulties to Denise (the local Reverend) for food due to him having sanctions on him for turning up late (once by 4 minutes). The gentleman can’t tell the time and is a recluse. He has been found sitting in his flat in the dark with no electric or gas. He won’t ask for help. Only for the old neighbours watch out for him and contact myself heaven knows what would of happened to him. I was informed he has to get a letter off the doctor for an electric card…The lad turned up at my door the other night. He hadn’t eaten for 5 days. He looked like he was dying.”
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Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I hope that the hon. Lady appreciates that people who work very hard, and who might be earning very small amounts from working 50 hours a week, have to turn up to work on time. If they are late for their employment, they might be sanctioned by their employer. It is important that those who are seeking employment learn the discipline of timekeeping, which is an important part of securing and keeping a job.
Lisa Nandy: I must say to the hon. Gentleman that taking that sort of patronising tone towards people is exactly why people throughout the country are so angry with the Government. While he was speaking, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) made the point that two Conservative Members turned up minutes late for this debate, but they will still be allowed to participate if they wish to do so. I will come on to the example of a working couple who got in touch with me recently and who have had real problems with the system. Nevertheless, I am happy to give way again if the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) wants to come back on this point: what would he expect someone with learning difficulties, who cannot tell the time, to do in that situation? He has no one to turn to for help and was sanctioned for being four minutes late.
Mr Spencer: I think that that emphasises the importance of the education system in solving the challenges that we face as we move forward. We must try to ensure that the employees of the future are in the best place to be able to take on a career and move forward with a job.
Lisa Nandy: The man I am talking about is the fourth case of someone with learning disabilities being sanctioned that I have come across in my constituency office this month. The Minister’s Department holds the responsibility for people with disabilities. I hope that she has listened to the comments made by her colleague and will take the opportunity to condemn them. I also hope that she will ensure that in future no one will be sanctioned for having learning difficulties that prevent them from being able to tell the time.
Debbie Abrahams: I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to take the opportunity to mention the fact that the universal credit regulations include the potential for introducing in-work conditionality for people who are in work but on low pay. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) should be careful in what he says. Also, people are sanctioned who have done nothing wrong. We repeatedly hear examples of people who did not know that they had appointments because they were made without their knowledge. Of course, they did not turn up to those appointments, so they were sanctioned.
Lisa Nandy: Absolutely. I could not agree with my hon. Friend more.
I want the Minister to understand the complete nonsense of the system. Another of my local councillors, Lol Hunt, got in touch with me last week to help a 53-year-old woman. That woman was awarded maximum points for ESA last year; she got no points at all this year. Absolutely nothing in her health or circumstances has changed. Councillor Hunt said that
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“she has very little food in her cupboards and is cancelling her direct debits this week for rent, gas, electric, phone etc. as she simply cannot pay.”
That is just the tip of the iceberg as to the stupidity of the sanctions regime.
The single biggest reason that my constituents were given for being sanctioned last year was that they were supposedly not seeking work. For example, in one family, a couple with two-year-old twins, one of the partners worked as a home care worker on a zero-hours contract—I am sure all Members are familiar with the situation of the many people who work in the home care industry on low pay and with insecure conditions. The hours that she was given were so few that the pay did not even cover the bus fare to work.
The wider family tried to help out, but the stepfather is out of work and the grandmother on a small pension. They were even refused a doorstep loan. The twins were living on a tin of beans and a few potatoes a day, while the adults went for days on only tea and the occasional biscuit. Relatives of mine remember such conditions in our family a few generations back, but that was before the war. One of my constituents—one of the parents—told me that
“asking for food was so humiliating but the alternative was to go hungry. We were so grateful for the help of the Brick and they made us feel like it is not something to be ashamed of.”
Contrast the actions of that local Christian charity with the words of Lord Freud, Minister for Welfare Reform, who said that
“food from a food bank…is a free good, and by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 July 2013; Vol. 746, c. 1072.]
How utterly insulting to a family such as the one I am describing. They had built up £1,000 in rent arrears, because they were not earning enough even to cover the bus fare to work. At a loss as to how to help them, the only advice that a local charity could give them was that the partner should leave her job, because it was pushing them further into debt. Reluctantly, they went to claim jobseeker’s allowance, but were told that she had left the job voluntarily and were sanctioned for three months. The mother said:
“We were receiving 15 minutes of work a day that is around £1.10 a day. If this…wasn’t a good reason for leaving a job, I truly do not understand what is.”
That is not an accident of the system, that is the system.
The level of confusion in the Government is astonishing. The Department for Work and Pensions website states:
“We expect claimants to do all they reasonably can to look for and move into paid work. If a claimant turns down a particular vacancy (including zero-hours contract jobs) a sanction may be applied, but we will look into the circumstances of the case and consider whether they had a good reason.”
Only a couple of weeks ago, however, I had a letter from the Minister stating:
“It may be helpful to explain that Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants are not required to apply for a zero hours contract job and cannot be sanctioned for refusing to accept employment under a zero hours contract or for leaving such employment voluntarily.”
She even went to the trouble of underlining some of the words in that sentence. When she responds to the debate, will she tell me how that fits with what happened to my constituents only recently? Will she tell us what the policy is? Perhaps she would like to explain it to people who are trying to navigate the system and work within it, but who find that there is no safety net.
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Mr Spencer: Surely the hon. Lady has to accept that in a complicated welfare system, with officers working in jobcentres, on occasion a mistake will be made. That may happen at times. The question is, how do you put that problem right? If the rules are being set by the Government, but sadly on occasion being misinterpreted or misunderstood, we have to find a system that puts that right. Accidents will happen, but it is a question of how we put them right quickly.
Lisa Nandy: The hon. Gentleman does not seem to be listening: the rules are the problem and make no sense. I have just quoted two examples, one from the Minister and one from the Minister’s departmental website, that contradict one another. Neither makes any sense in the context of what happened to my constituents. I have written back to the Minister to ask what on earth is going on, though I have not had a reply yet. I hope that I will get a reply, and that all the people stuck in the same situation as the one my constituents just went through will get any reply at all.
In “The Trial” by Kafka, the hero of the novel, K, said:
“But I’m not guilty…there’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty?”
The priest replied:
“That is true…but that is how the guilty speak.”
That is exactly what is happening to people in the system. There is nowhere to turn, there is no way to fight their way out of the system. That is not an accident of the system, that is the system, and it is time that the Government did something about it.
The saga for the family in my constituency continued—that was not the end of it. After the sanctions were lifted, they were told that they had to sign on every day at an unpredictable time, and that for a family with two-year-old twins. One of the parents said that once her partner
“had to take our two sick, contagious children who were suffering (from hand, foot and mouth disease) with her to a job centre appointment as the adviser said you must come in, bring them on the bus with you. Even when we replied but they have a temperature of over 40 degrees his response was if you don’t come in we will have to issue a further suspension. We live in fear that our money will be stopped and this hell will never end.”
That is indeed a hell.
Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): I have great sympathy for some of the individual cases that the hon. Lady has talked about, but I want to introduce a note of perspective based on my own constituency experience. The last time I checked with my jobcentre, just before Christmas, fewer than 5% of all the people seen there had been sanctioned over the previous 12 months. We are talking about a minority, and she is talking about a very tiny minority of an already small minority. I also want to put in a word for the sanctions regime, because from the experience of what I have seen, the threat of sanctions has been of assistance in galvanising people to maintain their appointments and genuinely to seek work.
Lisa Nandy: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for trying to bring statistics to the debate, but they do not reflect the reality. Glasgow university has found that across the country, one in five have been sanctioned, and 6,000 families in my borough alone. In the past few
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weeks, research from Oxford university shows that the majority of people who have been kicked off benefits due to sanctions have not gone into work. So it is simply not true to say that we are talking only about a minority.
Furthermore, although I know that the hon. Lady fights for people and against injustice—I have seen her do so on behalf of her constituents—if such things happen to families, they must be stopped. We should not tolerate what happens to families who are trying to find work and do their best. They might have to drag ill two-year-old twins across town because of the inflexibility and inhumanity that we have somehow managed to build into the system. It is a hell of low-paid jobs, zero-hours contracts and rising living costs. Frankly, the system lacks any compassion or understanding.
Can the Minister comprehend the social isolation being caused? A 39-year-old mum got in touch with me. She is struggling to walk because of spina bifida, which has deteriorated in recent years, and she has three kids. She applied for a personal independence payment, but was told—this is common—that it could take a year. She said:
“We don’t leave the house and I need help.”
A local reverend contacted me about a parishioner who had been sanctioned. She told me:
“He was living on one bowl of porridge a day and glasses of water to stave off the hunger. He sold his TV and most of his valuables. He’s a very gentle man who cannot understand how this has happened to him.”
I was contacted by a woman who took a cleaning job for 25 hours a week in Warrington, involving two buses, a train journey and a four-mile bike ride simply to get to work. It was a minimum-wage job and the travel alone came to £45 a week. When money was missing from the first pay packet—a common experience for many families who work in that industry—she was hit with rent arrears and threatened with eviction. She said:
“We only have £3 a week after out bills are paid meaning we can’t afford any shopping or gas once again.”
People are trying, but their Government quite simply are not on their side. When they ask for help, they are sanctioned. Nothing is done to stamp out the scourge of exploitative zero-hours contracts. There is no action on low pay; the Minister’s own Department accounts for more than half of the directly employed or contracted Government workers who earn less than £7.65 an hour. What could be more symbolic than the fact that her own Department has one of the worst records in Whitehall on paying the living wage? This crisis is of the Government’s own making.
We know what the real problem is: the lack of good, sustainable jobs that command decent pay. But because the Government have absolutely no answers to that problem they hit people hardest. Instead of tackling underemployment, they hit the underemployed. Instead of tackling low pay, they hit the low paid. They pick off those people who are least able to complain and while doing so they haemorrhage money on contracts to the private sector that do little to get people into work but create the living hell that my constituents have written to me about.
We are storing up so many problems for the future. The situation is pushing more and more people in my community into debt, and one of the biggest causes of that debt is the bedroom tax, which affects 4,500 households
Rest of debate here