The work and pensions secretary has been asked to “anticipate” the number of benefit claimants that he thinks will lose their lives due to government plans to reintroduce the “harsh and severe” benefits sanctions regime first launched 10 years ago.
Labour’s Debbie Abrahams told Mel Stride that the “punitive” nature of that regime, introduced by the 2010 coalition government, had been “so detrimental” to claimants, particularly those in vulnerable situations.
Stride was giving evidence yesterday (Wednesday) to the Commons work and pensions select committee.
Abrahams highlighted evidence that showed the impact of sanctions on disabled people, including government research which showed that sanctions were “harmful and counter-productive”, and long-term research by academics which showed imposing strict conditions on claimants was ineffective and harmful.
She also pointed to the death of David Clapson, who died in July 2013 after being left destitute by having his benefits sanctioned.
He had diabetes and died from an acute lack of insulin, three weeks after having his jobseeker’s allowance sanctioned.
Because he had no money, he couldn’t afford to pay for electricity that would have kept the fridge where he kept his insulin working, and he had also run out of food.
Abrahams said: “In your response to this committee will you provide an assessment of what you consider to be the impacts of reintroducing the harsh and severe sanctions regime that was introduced back in 2012 and include please your anticipation of deaths of claimants.”
Stride said he had met nobody working for DWP so far “who has anything other than complete compassion and care as an attitude towards people in the kind of situation [she described]”.
He said it was “very easy” to describe ministers and DWP officials as “heartless and uncaring” when discussing sanctions and that was “most certainly not the case”.
Stride said the sanctions regime was “fundamentally the right system” but he added: “I’m not going to argue that it is always perfect on every single occasion.
“I do think that within the way that the system is designed and operates there are appropriate protections in there.”
But Abrahams told him: “It is the punitive nature of the 2012 sanctions regime that was introduced that is so detrimental to vulnerable people especially, but to all people as well.”
She also raised concerns about a return of the “narrative” that had returned over the last few weeks “that claimants are shirkers, they are workshy”.
She asked him: “Do you not think that that language… is detrimental to the claimants who we want to encourage to come into the jobcentre?”
Stride said: “I totally agree, I think it is entirely wrong to demonise large numbers of people in the way in which you are suggesting may be happening, I think that is completely wrong.”
After questioning from the SNP’s David Linden, Stride had admitted earlier in the hearing that he could not remember ever having met or spoken to a single benefit claimant who had been sanctioned by DWP.
He also admitted that he did not know the average amount that a claimant loses when they are sanctioned.
Linden told him it was £600.
Stride said he accepted the “vast” sanctions system was not “entirely perfect” but that the “fundamental principles and the processes employed here are pretty right”.
He told Linden that sanctions were there “for the purpose of trying to have a system that ultimately ends up with more people going into work and work being the way out of the kind of difficulties and pressure you’re rightly describing”.
But Linden told him: “I meet people just about every week who have been subject to conditionality and what a lot of them tell me is that being sanctioned pushes them into destitution.
“They have to be fed by local foodbanks, they have to rely on the charity of people in their community. They experience mental health crisis as a result of that.
“If you’re looking to get people back into work, plunging them into further poverty and destitution is not a particularly good way of doing that.
“It seems to me perhaps your understanding of sanctions is very theoretical and not actually based on how it interacts with people on the ground.”
Stride insisted that the government took a “measured and proportionate approach to sanctioning”.
After Conservative MP Nigel Mills asked about his new disability benefits white paper, Stride told the committee that plans to scrap the work capability assessment would address the “fundamental flaw” in the system that meant there was a “disincentive for somebody who’s receiving disability or health benefits to try work and see if they can get into work and hold down a job”.
He said this was because of the fear that if the job did not work out, that person might not be able to return to the out-of-work disability benefits they received previously.
He said the new system – which would not be introduced until after the next general election – would see those eligible for a new universal credit health element restricted to those who also received the extra costs benefit personal independence payment.
He said this “could be a very, very powerful change which I think and I hope will help hundreds of thousands of people be able to try work and move into work”.
But Mills said the new system appeared to “raise the bar” for those who would currently be seen as not fit for work but would not qualify for PIP.
Katie Farrington, DWP’s director general for disability, health and pensions, claimed DWP was “not trying to raise the bar”, that “this is not about saving money by the back door” and that the measure was intended to be overall “broadly cash neutral” over time.
She said that “many of the people who do not currently claim PIP could come and do so”.
But Mills told her: “Many is not all.”
He suggested that DWP would be “moving that fear to a slightly different benefit… and with more money at stake” because those who now received PIP and tried work would now be concerned about losing their entitlement to PIP if they found a job and were later re-assessed because of the “pervasive fear” about “the way that these assessments happen”.
Farrington told him: “The PIP system is not designed to be anything to do with your ability to work or indeed your personal income, it’s all about the effect that the condition has on you and your life.”
Picture: Debbie Abrahams (above left) and Mel Stride
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