It’s time to get rid of tar­gets for sanc­tion­ing

Rutherglen Reformer - - Reformer View - Com­mons Com­ment

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

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