Work and Pensions Questions

2nd November 2015

Benefit Sanctions

2. Callum McCaig (Aberdeen South) (SNP): If he will make an assessment of the potential effect of benefit sanctions on claimants’ mental health. [901923]

7. Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP): If he will make an assessment of the potential effect of benefit sanctions on claimants’ mental health. [901929]

15. Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP): If he will make an assessment of the potential effect of benefit sanctions on claimants’ mental health. [901937]

The Minister for Employment (Priti Patel): Many factors affect an individual’s mental health. To assess the effect of sanctions in isolation of all other factors would be misleading. A number of checks are built into the system to support all claimants, including those with mental health concerns.

Callum McCaig: That answer is disappointing. Opposition Members are concerned about the terrible damage that the ideological cuts being made by the Government are doing to the most vulnerable in our society. For the last two weeks at Prime Minister’s questions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) has asked the Prime Minister about suicides following benefit reductions. Will the Minister publish the details of the investigations forthwith?

Priti Patel: The Department carries out reviews to identify whether any lessons can be learned. I should emphasise that the Information Commissioner has considered this issue and upheld the Department’s decision not to publish the details because of the level of personal information they contain. For that reason, it would be unlawful to release this information.

Joanna Cherry: In 2014, the Scottish Association for Mental Health, Scotland’s leading mental health charity, published research that found that 98% of its service users said that their mental health had deteriorated as a direct result of welfare reform. Further research this year by the same charity at the facility it runs in my constituency at Redhall walled garden confirmed that benefit sanctions had been detrimental to the mental health of service users there. What steps will the Government take to address the adverse effects of benefit sanctions on those with mental health problems?

Priti Patel: Sanctions play an important part in the labour market by encouraging and supporting people to go back to work. Jobcentre Plus staff are trained to support claimants with mental health conditions during their job search and such individuals have access to more expert advice, should it be needed.

Gavin Newlands: Is the Minister aware that her disastrous and failing sanctions regime is not only causing untold misery to the people who are sanctioned, impacting on their wellbeing and mental health, but having a devastating impact on their families? A recent Citizens Advice Scotland report highlighted the fact that children are indirectly punished by sanctions. In the light of those alarming findings, will she reassess the impact of sanctions on the wellbeing of the family? Do they pass the Prime Minister’s family test?

Priti Patel: Our sanctions system is robust and there is clear evidence that it works. The hon. Gentleman mentions support for the family. It is this Government who are supporting the family through our new life chances measure and, importantly, ensuring that work pays, which is how families get out of poverty and how the life chances of children and families improve.

Maggie Throup (Erewash) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that the number of cases that result in sanctions is falling? Does that not show that jobcentre staff are working with claimants to help them engage with their search for employment, and that most people who are unemployed want to work?

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend is right. Jobseeker’s allowance sanctions have decreased by more than 40% over the last year. Importantly, the principle behind the sanctions system is that it helps individual jobseekers to comply with the reasonable requirements that they develop and agree in discussion with their work coaches to help them prepare for and move into work.

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): People with mental health problems face particular barriers in getting them back into the labour market and productive work. Does the Minister agree that the Government should take all steps necessary to make sure that people with mental health problems are not sanctioned unnecessarily and that we show flexibility in making sure that they get back into the labour market?

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend raises some fundamental points. Our staff are trained not only to support claimants with mental health conditions during their job search but, importantly, to provide more expert advice and support should they need it. To return to my earlier point, claimants are asked to meet only reasonable requirements, taking into account their circumstances and capabilities and, of course, their mental health conditions.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): I welcome the Department’s recent decision to trial a yellow card system for 14 days for those being sanctioned in various places. I also welcome the Department’s decision to place advisers at several food banks, to trial whether that would also help with some of the benefits transition problems. When does my right hon. Friend expect the Department to have enough evidence to share with us the outcomes of the trials?

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend is right: the trials are important and are bringing together more support and advice for individual claimants. I would expect to see more information and details of the trials early in the new year.

Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): May I also thank the Government for accepting the “Feeding Britain” report’s call for a yellow card system? Before they report to the House on a good warning system for people about the impact of sanctions coming down the road, they will need to begin the trials. Is there any chance of the Minister being able to tell us when the trials will begin and when they will be completed?

Priti Patel: I thank the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee for his question. We are working out the details and I would be very happy to discuss with him the details of when we will roll out the trials quite shortly.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The so-called yellow card pilot scheme is an admission by the Government that the sanctions regime is not working and that, in particular, it is badly failing people with serious mental illnesses. Why are the Government waiting until next year to introduce the pilot scheme? In the meantime, will they please just stop sanctioning people who are seriously ill?

Priti Patel: I respectfully disagree with the hon. Lady. Claimants are asked to meet only reasonable requirements, taking into account their circumstances. As the pilots get under way, I think she will find that this is about how we can integrate support for claimants and, importantly, provide them with the support and guidance to help them get back to work.

Dr Whiteford: I listened carefully to the Minister’s response, but the reality is that people with mental health problems are being disproportionately sanctioned, and that has been evident for some time. Why will the Government not listen to voices across the House, including those on the Work and Pensions Committee, and subject the sanctions regime to a full independent review?

Priti Patel: I would make a few points to the hon. Lady. For a start, the Government have been listening and we have responded to the Work and Pensions Committee, which is why we will be trialling and piloting the new scheme. I reiterate my earlier comment: our staff are trained to support claimants with mental health conditions and there is no evidence to suggest that such claimants are being sanctioned more than anybody else. We provide the support through our jobcentres and our claimants are asked to meet only reasonable requirements.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): The Minister may have inadvertently slipped up there. There is clear evidence from last year that 58%—more than half—of people with mental health conditions on the employment and support allowance work-related activity group were sanctioned. That is equivalent to 105,000 people. According to a Mind survey, 83% say that their health condition was made worse as a result. The Government’s own evaluation of their Work programme has shown not only how ineffective it is, with 8% of people with mental health conditions getting into sustained work, but that their punitive sanctions regime just does not work, so why will the Government not commit to undertaking an independent review of sanctions?

Priti Patel: Labour has clearly now changed its policy on sanctions, which of course it used to support. The sanctions system is kept under constant review, and we are trialling an early-warning system, as recommended by the Work and Pensions Committee. I would have thought she welcomed that. Sanctions play an important part in the labour market by supporting people, particularly those with health conditions, into work. [Interruption.] Labour Members have conveniently forgotten that ESA sanctions and ESA were put in place by a Labour Government. The sanctions system is clear, fair and effective in promoting positive behaviours to help claimants back into work.

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Employment Support: Young People

5. Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): What support his Department is providing to young people seeking work. [901926]

The Minister for Employment (Priti Patel): Tackling youth unemployment is a priority for this Government. We are determined that young people should not slip into a life on benefits. That is why our Department provides a broad range of support for young people, in addition to the standard Jobcentre Plus offer.

Stuart Andrew: Having experienced periods of unemployment in my youth, I am acutely aware of how tough it can be on individuals. Does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that youth unemployment in my Pudsey constituency has fallen by 49% in the last month? Is that not proof that the economic plan is delivering the jobs and apprenticeships needed to give job security for our young people?

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That fall in unemployment is due to the fact that the economic plan is working and the economy is growing. However, we also recognise that young people need tailored support so that they can secure employment opportunities, and we have therefore introduced adviser time in jobcentres, work experience placements, the Work programme, Help to Work and the innovation fund.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): The tax credit system has undoubtedly played a major role in encouraging people to take up employment by making work pay, and has made a massive contribution to the employment figures that Ministers frequently cite. Are the Government aware that if they proceed with their tax credit cuts, some people will pay a huge effective tax rate—perhaps as high as 93%—and that that will be a massive disincentive for those who actually do go out to work?

Priti Patel: The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. By making changes in both the welfare system and the tax system, we are ensuring that work pays. The hon. Gentleman will be fully aware that next April we will 

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introduce a new national living wage, which will boost the incomes of people receiving low pay, and will be supplemented by childcare measures. Those will serve as pure incentives that will support them and help them into work.

[Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) says, “Give us the evidence.” Where is the evidence and where are the facts that she and her team are providing?

[Interruption.]

If the hon. Lady has data to prove her case, she is welcome to share them with me, but the Government know for a fact that more people will be better off as a result of the new national living wage and free childcare, and because it will pay to be in work rather than depending on welfare, which is the policy that the Opposition are offering.

Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the National Apprenticeship Service, South Staffordshire College, Staffordshire University and those running advanced people management courses, all of whom will join me this month at an apprenticeship seminar that I am holding to help create new career opportunities for young people seeking work in Cannock Chase?

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Apprenticeship fairs and engagement with employers are the right way to encourage young people not just to train and acquire new skills, but to secure new career opportunities through apprenticeships. I commend her for the work that she is doing in her constituency, and wish her well with her apprenticeship fair.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): The Minister seems to have forgotten that not only are people under the age of 25 losing their tax credits, but they will not receive the higher minimum wage when it is introduced next year. Does not the tax credit cut mean that the Tories really are not the party for workers, and does that not apply doubly to young people?

Priti Patel: I remind the hon. Gentleman that the last Labour Government introduced a minimum wage at a differential rate for young people, so we will take no lectures or lessons from his party. Let me also emphasise that when it comes to supporting young people, this Government are focusing on developing the skills and work experience of our young people through the youth obligation. That, too, is something that his party completely neglected when it was in government.

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Long-term Unemployment

17. Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): What progress he has made on reducing the number of people in long-term unemployment. [901939]

The Minister for Employment (Priti Patel): Long-term unemployment has continued to fall and is down by well over 250,000 compared with 2010, falling to its lowest level in over six years.

Mrs Gillan: I applaud the Government’s current work in reducing the number of people in long-term unemployment, which is really impressive. May I particularly welcome the commitment to halve the disability employment gap? Does the Minister realise, however, that only 15% of autistic adults are in full-time paid employment? What progress will she make to address the gap in this specific disability and provide autistic people with the opportunities they deserve?

Priti Patel: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is more to do in this space. We have over 200,000 more people with disabilities in work than this time last year. We will build on that and continue to secure opportunities for autistic adults to get a job and remain in employment.

21. [901944] Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of the dramatic fall in long-term unemployment in Southend West of 49%? Please will she reassure me that the Government will continue to pursue the economic policies that have made this happen so that we reach the happy position where there is a job available for everyone who wishes to work?

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the record levels of employment in his wonderful constituency and across Essex, which is booming when it comes to private sector jobs. We can never be complacent. The claimant count has nearly halved since 2010, and it is encouraging that we see through our long-term economic plan, with more and more people in private sector employment than ever before.

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Topical Questions

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): According to the Office for National Statistics, nearly one in four jobs in my city of Sheffield pays less than the real living wage. On the day that the living wage is being increased to £8.25 an hour, will the Secretary of State congratulate the Living Wage Foundation on its work and outline what he will do to ensure that more people are paid the real living wage, which is now over £1 an hour more than the Government’s bogus national living wage?

The Minister for Employment (Priti Patel): This Government are very clear that it is through our welfare policies that we are ensuring that work pays. As the hon. Gentleman heard me saying earlier, we are introducing a national living wage next April which will ensure that work always pays and that people in the country are given a pay rise.

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Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): Will the Minister tell the House what actions the Department is taking to support the small businesses in Romford and the London borough of Havering that are seeking to provide support and training to adults so that they can develop skills for successful employment?

Priti Patel: I know that small businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency are flourishing and expanding at an impressive rate. Jobcentre Plus works with a range of providers to make specialist courses available, covering information and communications technology as well as many construction courses. In particular, we are working with businesses to ensure that the local labour market is growing in the right way and that people are getting access to the skills they need.

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Michelle Donelan (Chippenham) (Con): Does the Minister share my view that a huge part of tackling youth unemployment is ensuring that people leave the education system work-ready? What has been done to help achieve that?

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what she says. I know that she is doing a great deal in her constituency to champion apprenticeships, which of course support young people not just in getting into work, but in developing long-term careers.

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