It’s time to get rid of targets for sanctioning
Some months ago the Trussell Trust, who help communities and volunteers – including in our own area – run local foodbanks, suggested that one of the reasons for the increase in the numbers of families using foodbanks throughout the UK is the escalation of “sanctioning” by the DWP.
At that time the Tory Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith said that statement was false and accused the Trussell Trust of acting in a party political way in support of Labour campaigns in Parliament and the media.
Last week, an all party inquiry published a report entitled “Feeding Britain” which set out the evidence for the rise in hunger in the UK, and some stark statistics.
Amongst the poorest – those in the bottom 10 per cent of household incomes – the overall proportion of household incomes spent on food, housing and utilities increased from 31 per cent in 2003 to 40 per cent by 2012.
The cost of living crisis is all too real for very many families – including lots who are in work, although sometimes on short hours or part time contracts because that is all they can get.
The report highlighted that the biggest single reason given for foodbank referrals were from benefit related problems. This reflects the same situation I hear from our local CAB workers, foodbank volunteers and constituents who come to see me at my weekly and monthly surgeries.
In the last year or so there has been a dramatic increase in the number of cases I have dealt with where people have been “sanctioned” by the DWP – sanctioning is the government word for having benefits withdrawn.
Sanctioning, applied proportionately and sparingly, may have a part to play where individuals on some benefits chose very deliberately and repeatedly not to engage in, for example, applying for a job.
But it seems instead the culture has become to find a way of applying a sanction – time and again I have had constituents contact me because they have been sanctioned, often for trivial and minor reasons – rather than the DWP accepting a reasonable explanation.
Often, I have been able to intervene and have the decision overturned when it is pointed out just how ridiculous it is – but by then, often, people have had no money at all for several days. I am always conscious that it is likely to only be a minority who contact me – many others will suffer in silence.
When the result of that is families struggling to afford food, then it underlines the need for some common decency and compassion in the way in which these penalties are applied. Very few people want to be reliant on benefit, and many find themselves needing support because of an unexpected change in circumstances.
Applying penalties in an arbitrary way, and what suspiciously looks like trying to meet targets, should not be a major feature of the welfare state.
A recently redundant father being given a six week sanction for failing to attend a job interview because of a late change in his young daughter’s hospital appointment – a real example in Birmingham – is not about dealing with abuse of a system, but is an abuse within the system.
Apart from drawing attention to this reality when so many are focussed on the consumption excess that goes with Christmas, the report also served a useful purpose. Interviewed by Andrew Neil on the BBC this weekend, Iain Duncan Smith was forced to admit that, yes, sanctions and delays in the benefits system do lead to people using foodbanks.
Perhaps he could give the Trussell Trust an apology for his earlier outburst and, better still, get rid of targets for sanctioning.
Last week, along with other local parents, I sat proud and enthralled by the nativity play at my children’s school. I was also lucky enough to attend other Christmas shows, plays and concerts in some of our other local primaries.
While I might have the obvious bias about who I thought were the best two angels in a particular nativity, every play I saw was a delight and a real credit to the teachers, children and parents involved.
Along with James Kelly, I also welcomed the Rutherglen and Cambuslang Rock ‘n’ Pop Chorus to their festive performance at the lively and busy Rutherglen Exchange shopping centre on Saturday.
Fair to say they can hold a tune much better than either of us!
On song Tom Greatrex MP and James Kelly MSP, with the Rutherglen and Cambuslang Rock ‘n’ Pop Chorus