My submission to independent review of the Work Capability Assessment

Today I’ve made a submission to the fifth independent review of the Work Capability Assessment – the controversial test that determines whether people receive Employment and Support Allowance, which is the main benefit for people who can’t work due to ill health or a disability.

You can find a copy of my submission here, but the main points I make are:

  • Despite the work done as part of the previous four reviews, the Government have failed to properly reform the WCA and, as a result, there are still far too many people being incorrectly assessed as Fit for Work.
  • The letters sent to claimants are often confusing and can lead to real hardship if, for example, people don’t appeal incorrect decisions within the relevant time limit.
  • To improve the accuracy of the assessment process better use should be made of written medical evidence from professionals such as GPs, and Ministers should drop targets that require assessors to declare a fixed number of claimants Fit for Work.
  • To reduce the current backlog of over 700,000 outstanding assessments, Ministers should pause the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants and ensure existing ESA claimants aren’t reassessed to regularly.
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August 2014 Newsletter

portcullisbanner_Copy.2.1.1Westminster Report

Bad IschlDomestic UK politics may have been winding down in July (except here in Scotland, of course) but internationally there has been an alarming spiral of violence. During July I was listening to Radio 4’s five minute daily slot ‘counting down’ from the Sarajevo assassination to the outbreak of World War 1. With our historical knowledge, the counterpoint of the events following the assassination at Sarajevo with ordinary news items such as suffragette demonstrations, concerts and sporting events, and Irish problems bubbling up, is poignant. But there are also frightening parallels 100 years on when so many people are facing the horrors of conflict. Many constituents have been in contact with me appalled by the grossly disproportionate response of the Israel incursion into Gaza. The killing continues in Syria and Iraq, while Ukraine remains fragile.

I recently visited the summer villa of Emperor Franz Joseph in Bad Ischl, where he signed the declaration of war on Serbia. If he, or indeed other world leaders, had known what would follow would they have made different decisions? Part of my holiday reading has been a new book on the run up to WWI by Margaret McMillan. ‘The War that Ended Peace’ and what struck me was the confidence of many political leaders that they would be able to resolve matters diplomatically as they had in previous crises. But instead they fell off a cliff. (To avoid sounding like the class swot, I had lots of lighter holiday reading also!)

‘Office time’ on Employment and Support Allowance
As I mentioned last month, people often ask why the MPs aren’t in the Commons chamber all the time to listen to and speak in debates. Although I’m one of the most active MPs in this regard – I spoke in three separate debates on social security and welfare reform over the last month (see here, here and here) – I still think it’s important that we have ‘office time’ to do research on policies that we want to see changed. One of my main focuses is Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – the main benefit for those who can’t work as a result of ill health or a disability – and the results of my office time were highlighted on three separate occasions last month.

My main concern with ESA is that too many claimants are being incorrectly assessed as ‘Fit for Work’ and refused benefit. Last month the Minister who was then responsible for this policy, Mike Penning (who has since been reshuffled to the Home Office), admitted that over 700,000 applicants were waiting for an assessment. At the time he tried to suggest this had been an issue under the last Labour Government, but when I looked into this, I discovered that the backlog was a mere 28,300 when the current Coalition Government took over in May 2010! I highlighted this in a letter to him on 3 July, and when I receive a response from his successor Mark Harper I’ll post it on my website.

I’ve also used my office time to write to the UK Statistics Authority over the figures the Department for Work and Pensions publish on ESA. I believe the number of incorrect decisions is being artificially supressed as only statistics on the number of successful appeals to judges are published – overturn figures for informal appeals (officially referred to as ‘reconsiderations’) to civil servants are not. Last month I secured a commitment from the Department that they will start to publish this information by the end of this year, and I issued a press release on 9 July, which was picked up by Third Force News.

Finally I followed up a debate I led on the support given to ESA applicants during the reconsideration process last month with a further letter to Mike Penning on 7 July. While people are entitled to claim ESA at a reduced ‘assessment rate’ when they initially apply, their only option during the reconsideration period – which claimants have to go through if they want to appeal – is to claim Jobseekers Allowance. In the debate the Minister claimed that Jobcentre Staff should relax requirements placed on those challenging ESA refusals so that sick and disabled people aren’t sanctioned for not looking for work. However I’ve had a lot of evidence that this isn’t happening on the ground, leaving vulnerable people without any income for periods between seven and ten weeks. I’ll post any reply I receive on my website.

News in Brief
Guide Dogs receptionOn 2 July I lent my support for a campaign by the charity Guide Dogs to make sure all new buses have audio visual (AV) next stop announcements, which are vital for blind and partially sighted bus travellers.

Later that day I met up with my constituent Julie Rattray, who is a Cancer Research UK ambassador. CRUK are campaigning to beat cancer sooner, so that in 20 years’ time three quarters of people who are diagnosed survive.

Gordon AikmanAnd on 9 July I met up with another campaigning constituent – Gordon Aikman. As I mentioned in my last newsletter, Gordon has been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. He’s already raised more than £40,000 for MND Scotland – a charity that funds and promotes research into the disease and provides support to people affected (you can donate here). He’s now campaigning for more Government money for research and support, and you can back his campaign at gordonsfightback.com.

Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill
DRIP BillOn 10 July the Government announced that it was bringing forward a new law to require companies like mobile phone and internet firms to retain data on when, where and with whom people communicate for between six months and two years. This sort of data is used by the police and intelligence agencies to investigate organised crime, terrorism and online child abuse.

In April the European Court of Justice declared that the EU Data Retention Directive was too widely drawn. As a result the UK regulations that permitted data retention in the UK were also struck down, despite the fact that they were much narrower and more proportionate than the Directive itself. The so-called DRIP Bill will reintroduce these requirements.

The Government announcement came such a short time before the summer recess that the bill was rushed through over just three days. This did however allow my party to secure a series of concessions, including an independent review of the legal framework governing data access and interception, extra checks and balances, and a ‘sunset clause’ that means this new law will expire in 2016.

Over 130 constituents asked me to oppose this new law, but I concluded that it is appropriate to take steps to reinstate the limited powers which were being already being exercised. This wasn’t a decision I reached lightly, and I am more than happy to discuss this in writing or in person with any constituents who remain concerned.

Sanctions Report Finally Published
Last year the DWP commissioned a report into the operation of sanctions on people receiving Job Seekers Allowance and taking part in the Work Programme. This has been long awaited but was only published on the very last day of the parliamentary ‘term’. The remit was restricted and it was not a thorough review of the sanctioning process, as called for by many including the Work & Pensions Select Committee. One of its conclusions was that some claimants lacked understanding of the process and reasons for sanctioning. This was particularly true for more vulnerable groups and those with ‘specific barriers to work.’ The DWP has accepted the recommendation for improving communications, rewriting letters etc., so hopefully they will get on with this. Some of the recommendations are only accepted ‘in principle’ which is worrying.

While better communications will help, there remains a serious concern about the circumstances in which some people are receiving sanctions, the increasing numbers being sanctioned and the financial and health impact on those affected.

Personal Independence Payment assessment review
Personal Independence Payment is gradually replacing Disability Living Allowance as the main benefit to help people with the additional costs of living with a disability. PIP was introduced for new claimants in April 2013 and existing DLA claimants will begin to be reassessed in October 2015. Eventually the Government expect 170,000 people to lose all support and 160,000 to be awarded PIP at a lower level to DLA. My party and I voted against these plans when they were proposed by the current Government, but unfortunately they were pushed through.

Ministers have now launched an independent review of the PIP assessment process and anyone can submit evidence up to 5 September. I will focus on the delays people are facing before they are given a decision on whether they qualify for support, which is driving vulnerable people to real hardship. However I’d be keen to hear from constituents about their experience of the assessment process – please email me at sheila.gilmore.mp@parliament.uk.

Constituency Report

Baileyfield: Modern ‘colonies’ for Portobello?
I had the opportunity to see the proposals coming forward from Aldi and Crudens for the former Scottish Power site at Baileyfield. As many people will know, there have been a number of planning applications for this site. Initially there was a proposal for a very large supermarket against which there was a vigorous community campaign , which was successful not just at the Council’s Planning Committee but also at appeal (given that apparently most of the big supermarket chains are moving away from very large stores, Portobello was clearly ahead of the curve here). Next came an application for over 700 flats which was also refused. A third iteration with slightly fewer flats and slightly reduced height, got to the stage of a public exhibition but went no further. It featured a now fairly standard layout of large flatted blocks set amidst car parking and sterile landscaping. I remember saying at the exhibition how good it would be if the developers would look around at some examples of Edinburgh style building, like the traditional ‘colonies’ which combine density with individuality. I’ve written about colonies before, so I was pleased to see that the latest proposals are for only around 250 housing units, of which half would be flats and half ‘modern colonies’. There is of also a plan for an ALDI store fronting on the High Street (beside the Kwikfit). On the whole I think this is a lot more promising than what went before, but I realise that as with all planning issues there will be different views. The formal application has not yet been submitted.

Lochend Secret Garden
Lochend GardenThis month I had the delight of attending the AGM and Open Day of the Lochend Secret Garden, now in its third season. The range of flowers and produce was impressive. This success is all down to the hard work of the Steering committee and all the people who are gardening here. Not content with the original garden the group is extending its activities into new challenges. A strip of grass in Lochend Quadrant is being turned into ‘The Orchard’ – from plain grass (picture) to this (second picture). If you are inspired by this example, why not contact the Council to ask about doing something similar, or contact one of your local councillors?

Save our Southside meeting report
On Sunday 20th July, over 70 Southsiders attended a meeting organised by myself, the Southside Association and Sarah Boyack MSP to discuss a community response to the flurry of applications for student accommodation in the area. The purpose of the meeting was not to discuss each application but to get residents thinking about the Southside they would like to see developed. Residents overwhelmingly said they want to live side by side students, but numbers need to be rebalanced with more affordable family housing being developed. Notes from the meeting have been circulated to those in attendance, and are available on my website.

After the initial meeting many residents said they are keen to form a working group to further discuss their response, and think about how they communicate it to planners, the University and developers. Residents are due to meet again on Wednesday 20th August from 7.00pm in the Grey Room, Nelson Hall.

Lutton Court Appeal Allowed
On Wednesday morning the Scottish Government Reporter with responsibility for determining the Lutton Court appeal published his report and decision, allowing the appeal developers submitted after the Council refused the application. Residents in the area are devastated and I am hugely disappointed. This was a key test of the Council’s policy which has failed, having massive consequences for the Southside. The appeal process was conducted on paper which gives the developer much greater opportunity to make its case, while residents are unable to ensure their concerns are truly heard by the Scottish Government reporter. More could have been done to involve them, starting with having an accompanied site visit. I would like to see Planning Officials urgently review its policy and guidance on student accommodation so it can better manage the flurry of applications recently submitted.

Dumbiedykes Bus: “Use it or lose it”
Bus service 60I am delighted to announce that a new bus service, 60, serving the Dumbiedykes and Southside, will start on Monday 25th August. The service will run throughout the day Monday to Friday on a half hourly basis. After years of campaigning, residents will finally see the return of a service, which will be a real boon for the elderly and those who struggle to get up the Pleasance. The service was cut several years ago because there was insufficient usage, however community leaders are spreading the “use it or lose it” message to make sure that the service cannot be cut in the future. Those over 60 can use their concessionary card but must make sure they are ‘beeped’ onto the bus so that numbers are recorded.

Events in Parks Decision Due Soon
On 26 August the Council’s Transport and Environment Committee, will make a decision whether or not to charge market rents to commercial enterprises who use public parks, and seek to limit the length of time events can be held in a park, including the Meadows. Friends of the Meadows & Bruntsfield Links has been running a petition for much of the summer which will be submitted in advance of the meeting. As I reported last month, I share residents concern the intensive use of the park is damaging the Meadows which struggles to recover every year. FOMBL are calling for events to be limited to a maximum 15 days so that they can continue to go ahead but the park has time to regenerate. To sign the petition, head to www.ipetitions.com/petition/fombl.

Post Referendum BBC Radio 4 ‘Any Questions’ Invitations
I’ve received a bundle of invitations from Greyfriars Kirk to hand to constituents who are keen to attend the recording of Any Questions on Friday, 19th September, the day after the referendum. Doors open from 6.30pm and you can turn up on the day to see if you can get a seat at the recording, however if you would like an invitation, please email me your details.

Local Development Plan consultation begins
As I mentioned in my previous newsletter the City of Edinburgh Council recently approved the Second Development Plan. The new Development Plan Scheme is available to view online or in Council libraries. You can make written representations on the Second Proposed Plan from 22 August to 3 October 2014. For more information head to edinburgh.gov.uk/localdevelopmentplan.

Edmonstone Development
Several applications to develop the Edmonstone estate have now been to committee to be determined. Developers propose building on this land which is in the ‘greenbelt’ and is currently dangerously unstable due to the underground mine workings. One application, for residential dwellings, was refused at committee on 30 July, while proposals for a cemetery and crematorium were granted on Wednesday. I fear that the application may have been a Trojan horse to allow further development on this part of the Greenbelt.

Revised Waste and Recycling
I have received a number of enquiries about how the revisions to waste recycling service will affect them. To encourage more recycling and to make the chore simpler, most recyclables will soon go straight into your green wheelie, with a new grey wheelie being provided for domestic waste. Full details of the rollout, and the streets affected are on the Council’s website.

Awards for All Scotland Reopens for Applications
Awards for All Scotland reopened to applications on 4th August 2014. The BIG Lottery Fund in Scotland took the decision to pause Awards for All Scotland to new applications from 9th May until 4th August to focus on assessing and administering grants related to building a legacy from the Commonwealth Games.

Awards will be prioritised for projects where beneficiaries are mainly BME, disabled, LGBT, older or carers. For details on the scheme, head to biglotteryfund.org.uk/awardsforallscotland.

Dates for Your Diary

Be Arty Be HealthyWednesday, 20th August – St Margarets House (151 London Road) Redevelopment Pre-application Exhibition – from 4-8 pm – Piershill Library – for more information enter 14/02137/PAN at bit.ly/10KV9iP

Wednesday 20th August – Save Our Southside: working group meeting – from 7.00pm – Grey Room, Nelson Hall

Tuesday, 2nd September – deadline to register to vote in the referendum – details and forms available at www.lothian-vjb.gov.uk

Wednesday, 3rd September – deadline to register to vote by post in the referendum – details and forms available at www.lothian-vjb.gov.uk

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Save Our Southside Meeting Report

On Sunday 20th July, over 70 Southsiders attended a meeting organised by myself, the Southside Association and Sarah Boyack MSP to discuss a community response to the flurry of applications for student accommodation in the area.  The purpose of the meeting was not to discuss each application but to get residents thinking about the Southside they would like to see developed.  Residents overwhelmingly said they want to live side by side students, but numbers need to be rebalanced with more affordable family housing being developed.   Notes from the meeting have been circulated to those in attendance, and are available below along with the handout provided at the meeting.

After the initial meeting many residents said they are keen to form a working group to further discuss their response, and think about how they communicate it to planners, the University and developers.  Residents are due to meet again on Wednesday 20th August from 7.00pm in the Grey Room, Nelson Hall.

Handout
DRAFT Save our Southside Community Meeting Notes

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Press release: Work and Pensions Committee urge Ministers to pay disabled benefits during appeals

Sheila Gilmore MP today welcomed a report from the Work and Pensions Select Committee – of which she is a member – that calls on the Government to pay sick and disabled people benefits while they appeal against incorrect ‘Fit for Work’ decisions.

Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) provides support for people who cannot work due to a health condition or disability. Entitlement is determined by the controversial Work Capability Assessment (WCA). Previously claimants who were declared ‘Fit for Work’ and wished to challenge their decision were paid ESA at a reduced rate throughout the appeal process. However since October 2013 claimants have had to submit an informal appeal – known as a mandatory reconsideration – to a DWP civil servant, and only if they are still refused benefit can they take their case to a judge.

During mandatory reconsideration, a claimant’s only option is to claim Jobseekers Allowance, which entails applying for jobs and attending an interview. As a result many sick and disabled people have been refused JSA or sanctioned, leaving them stuck between benefits and without any income. The DWP Committee have today called on the Government to pay claimants ESA during the mandatory reconsideration process.

In addition current statistics show that, since it replaced Incapacity Benefit in 2008, one in ten ESA claimants who are declared ‘Fit for Work’ successfully appeal this decision and are awarded ESA. However it emerged last year that the proportion of incorrect decisions could be a lot higher, as figures on the outcomes of mandatory reconsiderations were not being published. The DWP Committee have today called on Ministers to publish these statistics.

Sheila Gilmore said:

I regularly meet sick and disabled people who are unable to work but who have been declared fit to do so following a flawed ESA assessment.

Since last year people in this position have been forced to claim Jobseekers Allowance when they initially challenge an incorrect decision. Many are refused or quickly sanctioned, leaving them stuck between benefits for periods of up to ten weeks.

Ministers should implement the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s recommendation that claimants are paid ESA throughout the application process. This shouldn’t cost the Government any money, unless DWP are already factoring in sick and disabled people being unable to claim JSA.

Until recently we thought that the assessment was getting about one in ten fit for work decisions wrong – far too many in most people’s eyes – but since it emerged that the Government were withholding key figures, the reality could be much worse. Again the Government should do as the Select Committee says, and publish this data without delay.

Notes to Editors

  • The key paragraph of the Committee’s report reads: ‘However, DWP needs to set a reasonable timescale for the MR process, rather than this being left open-ended. The current illogical arrangement whereby claimants seeking MR are required to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) instead of ESA should be abolished. Official statistics showing the impact of MR on the number of appeals and on outcomes for claimants should be published as a matter of urgency.’
  • Sheila Gilmore led a debate on mandatory reconsideration statistics in the House of Commons on 9 April 2014 where she summarised the issue as follows: ‘I acknowledge this is quite a hard argument to follow so let’s say, hypothetically, 100 people claim ESA. We are initially told that 50 are awarded benefit and 50 are declared Fit for Work. We are then told that 25 of this latter group successfully appeal their decision, so we can say that the assessment process is getting one in four decisions wrong. What if we then found out that 25 of the 50 who were initially awarded ESA only got benefit following an informal appeal to a civil servant? We would have to say that the assessment process was getting one in two decisions wrong – a level of performance significantly worse than previously thought.’
  • For more information Sheila Gilmore maintains dedicated pages on mandatory reconsiderations and reconsideration statistics on her website.
  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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Jobcentre Plus debate

On 28 January 2014 the Work and Pensions Select Committee – of which I’m a member – published a report on the performance of Jobcentre Plus. On 10 July 2014 I spoke in a House of Commons debate on our report, and I’ve reproduced my speech in full below.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, and to speak on this very important matter.

One thing that has come out of this report, and has been clear in speeches from across the Chamber, is a recognition that in fact on the whole jobcentres are doing a good job and should be retained for the purposes that they have. A few years ago there was some uncertainty about that. I know that the coming of the Work programme and the change of Government meant that some people—particularly people working in jobcentres—were concerned that the jobcentre’s role could be ended.

Things had already changed substantially in jobcentres. The bad old days—going into a grim office with rows of chairs that were firmly battened down to the ground so that they could not be lifted, to talk through a glass screen to somebody who was behind that glass screen in case someone became extremely angry—had been replaced by an attempt at a more informal atmosphere. People were sitting at a table with their adviser rather than the adviser being on one side and the person using the service on the other, which had felt quite hostile. In some quarters there is concern that taking a heavy approach, through some of the things that I suggest have been happening, could bring that sort of atmosphere back. That would be regrettable. I very much want us not to go back to those days.

Despite some of the remarks that get thrown about in other debates—particularly when we are in the main Chamber—I think we all share the aim of wanting as many people as possible to have the opportunity of employment; we also want to avoid a situation in which people are having long spells of unemployment. It has never been my party’s policy to want people to be unemployed or to think that that is in any way a good thing. Indeed, I have campaigned and argued—and marched, in the past—precisely because we see it as a bad thing. We know it is bad for people’s income, and therefore for their well-being in lots of ways. It is also bad for their mental health and well-being, and their feeling of being a valued part of society. There are a whole host of reasons why we want to see low unemployment.

My party recognises—and again, I hope it might be a shared recognition—that employment is a necessary but not always a sufficient way to get a decent standard of living. That has been one of the differences. It is a simple argument that if people get into employment, all will be well, but, as we have seen of late, that is not necessarily the case with very low-income work and the problems that come with that.

Where we differ sometimes is on the means of achieving the end. That perhaps arises partly from the different perspective there sometimes seems to be about why people are unemployed and their attitude towards employment. Neither the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) nor the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) made this sort of comment, but sometimes there is a feeling that the assumption is that there are plenty of jobs out there—in many areas, there are not—and if only people would get a bit of backbone, which we can give them by whipping them into line, they would no longer be unemployed.

I would argue that that is not the case. An interesting piece of research has been published on universal credit. There was a very early survey of two groups of people: one of people who were about to be claimants of universal credit—it was in its very early days—and one of claimants of jobseeker’s allowance. They were matched for similar areas, ages and experience, and they showed remarkably similar attitudes. There were asked whether it was better to be employed than not employed and so on. I do not think there is a fundamental difference of opinion.

The Select Committee’s report is a serious attempt to find ways of improving performance. In its initial response, the Government seemed to be less than sympathetic to some parts of it, but I hope that as we move forward there may be an opportunity to take such matters into account.

The Chair of the Select Committee spoke at length about what the performance targets should be, and the measure of performance being off benefit. We know and I think the DWP knows that only some of those who leave benefit go into employment. There is a whole host of reasons why people may leave benefit without going into employment. A few retire because they reach retirement age. Some lose their entitlement to benefit but do not necessarily become employed. After 26 weeks on contributory JSA, people cease to be entitled to it if they do not qualify for income-related JSA. Many people will not qualify for income-related JSA because they are living with someone who is in employment, even if it is only part-time employment. If there is a source of income in the household they will cease to be entitled to benefit. They may be off benefit, but they will not necessarily have progressed into work.

It is significant that the unemployment figures produced by the Office for National Statistics and the figures for claimant count are moving quite widely apart. Of those who are unemployed on the unemployment count, 47% are not in receipt of an out-of-work benefit. We are talking about almost 1 million people because the number who are unemployed is still over 2 million—2.1 million people are still unemployed according to the general definition of unemployment.

It is tempting for people to say that the claimant count is down in their area, and for Ministers to say that the claimant count is down in someone else’s area, but there is a serious issue with people who are not being counted. Not only are they not being counted, they are not being helped. We should deal with the serious issue of why the gap is growing. There are other reasons. Some people on employment and support allowance lose that allowance after a year if they are in the work-related activity group. They may be off benefit, but not receiving assistance towards resuming employment.

When ESA was introduced, the previous Government commissioned an ongoing survey of those found fit for work. It looked at a group of people after three months and after a year. The significant finding was that 43% of those who had been found fit for work after a year were neither in employment nor on an out-of-work benefit. I do not know whether things have got better or worse. I do not know where those people are now and whether they eventually got fit and found work, or found themselves back on ESA—I suspect that that was the case for many of them—and DWP does not know either. That research did not go further than that and was not recommissioned. If we do not have such information, we have no way of telling whether policies are helping or working.

As I said during a debate I had on employment and support allowance, I suspect that quite a lot of people are not getting better and their health is not improving, and that they reclaim ESA sooner or later. That may be an explanation for the fact that the total number of those on that benefit has not fallen as much as the fit-for-work decisions. There is a mismatch there.

That ties in with some of the other things we have said here about jobcentres and DWP’s attitude to following through what happens to people, and we should look at that. Even if it becomes easier in future to track people in employment through things such as real-time information and, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) said, some of those who now go off benefit stay on benefit with the universal credit, those who come off benefit for other reasons are simply lost in the system.

That brings me to sanctions and pressure on people. It is not necessary to exaggerate the position because this is really happening to people and we all have examples. The fact that so often when people ask for a decision to be reconsidered, especially if they ask through their MP or an advice agency, that decision is often overturned, and overturned quite quickly, suggesting that something was wrong with the initial decision making. That must give pause for concern because if the initial decision making was right, that would not be happening. In the meantime, people are finding themselves without income. Their housing benefit, if they had it, will be suspended at the very least and they will have to contact that department to get it sorted out

What worries me is the people who do not come to us or to an advice agency. What happens to them? Many of them will not be aware of sources of help. I had a constituent who eventually came for help, but he had been sanctioned for six months. He had a learning disability that was not fully acknowledged by his family. He was not a young man—he was in his late 30s or early 40s—and he had just given up. He was not signing on. He would not have been receiving any money anyway, but he was no longer part of the system, and that is a worry. He had family. His pensioner parents were supporting him from their own limited income. He was not destitute or on the streets, so there was not that sort of high drama, but the family were struggling to support him. He had fallen out of the system because of his learning disability. That is why he had not done what he should have done and co-operated. Somehow, that was not picked up. We need to know how many such people there are.

Many people would be concerned that the pressure to get people off benefit also applies to people on ESA. We thought that eligibility for ESA was tested for. We all know about the issues surrounding the work capability assessment, but people who have gone through that, been awarded ESA and been placed in the work-related activity group are not, by definition, fit for work at the present time. They do not need to be hounded back into work because the system has said that they are not ready to go back into work. So why are so many of them being sanctioned?

The number of people on ESA who are being sanctioned is rising. The latest available figures are for December 2012 to December 2013 when there was a fourfold rise in the number of people in that position being sanctioned. The number rose from 1,102 a month to 4,789 a month, but that was not because there had been a similar increase in the number of people in that group, so we cannot just say it is the same number. The number of people in the work-related activity group had gone up by considerably less than that. Many of these people were sanctioned for failing to co-operate with the Work programme, and the number of people on ESA being referred to the Work programme seems to have been going down during the same period in which the number of sanctions have gone up. That is a matter of considerable concern, especially if these people are the least likely to get help and to be able to reinstate their benefit position and will be counted as some kind of success for a jobcentre. They are likely to be people with mental health problems or learning disabilities.

There are what are often regarded as scare stories, in some respects. Yesterday, an article in The Guardian had yet another apparent whistleblower from among Jobcentre Plus employees saying that their performance was indeed measured by the proportion of people they got off benefit, and that included people on ESA. This is not just a JSA matter. It may not be a specific target that is stuck up on a wall, but it is about the performance of that employee, and they are expected to get people off benefit, including people who, by definition and by test—who have already been through the work capability assessment—are not regarded as being fit for work, and I think that is a matter of considerable concern.

I hope that the Minister tells us that the Oakley report will be published shortly. We have been waiting for it now for some time and I understand that it has been completed. It was recognised that that report’s terms of reference were relatively limited, which is why the Select Committee asked for a more far-reaching report to look at such things as whether the sanctions actually work. Are they having the desired effect? If they are not, they become particularly pointless.

It is interesting that a report, called “Smarter Sanctions”, was published earlier this year by the Policy Exchange. The Policy Exchange is not known as a particularly left-wing or radical think-tank—at least in the left-wing sense; it is radical in other senses—and it, too, felt that there were real problems with the sanctioning system. I would not necessarily agree with some of its recommendations and conclusions, but it was clear that too many people were getting low-level sanctions—those might be just for one month, but one month, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams)said, is considerable when someone is on a very low income—and that they were being given inappropriate sanctions and wrong decisions were being made. Despite the fact that we are still waiting for the Government-commissioned report to come through, it is significant that that organisation has given voice to some concerns that people have. I hope that the fact it comes from that source would give it considerable weight.

The Select Committee recommended—and these Select Committee recommendations are unanimous—that the

“DWP take urgent steps to monitor the extent of financial hardship caused by benefit sanctions, including by collecting, collating and publishing data on the number of claimants ‘signposted’ to food aid by Jobcentres and the reasons”

for that. The Minister has to give a real explanation why that comparatively modest recommendation was rejected.

If the Government are right that, as they said in their response to our report:

“The use of food banks is not exclusive to benefit claimants”—

which it probably is not—and that it somehow has nothing whatever to do with welfare reform changes or sanctions, surely co-operating with the request to publish that kind of information might answer those points, so I would argue that doing so is in their interests as well.

Earlier speakers spoke about an issue that the Committee thought was important, which was the mismatch of aspiration and ability to deliver. A good proposal will often be made, such as that people, when they are first unemployed, should be given longer with an adviser. We all know that sometimes appointments with advisers are very short and they become routine—it is a matter of ticking the boxes and asking, “Have you done the right number of applications?”, without going into any real depth. Longer meetings sound very good, but there is a severe doubt whether they are feasible. The last speaker touched on that in relation to the arrangements that had been made when people come back from the Work programme. The sort of intensive help that is promised may not be feasible. If people are going to be asked to sign on every day, for example, how does that affect the rest of the jobcentre’s work? Will it be about someone just coming in, signing their name, and then going away again—in which case, how will it help? How will it improve the situation, unless it is intended to make people get fed up and give up? It is all very well to come up with these ideas, but we need to make them work, which may need a greater resource.

It is a sign of the failure of some of what we have been doing to date that so many people are coming off the Work programme and are still very far, it would appear, from employment. I think the employment Minister herself said, during one debate we had on the issue, that there were people in that situation who still had poor rates of literacy and numeracy, and one thing her Department wanted to do was to help those people overcome those obstacles. That is all well and good, but what has the Work programme been doing for two years, and indeed, what may well not have been happening before that?

It is a criticism of the Work programme that it really is not delivering what we were promised it would deliver. The criticisms made by many of my constituents have not necessarily been that they have been hounded. In some cases, it is almost the opposite: that it was very light touch, that they were not given much help and assistance, and that the idea of specialist help—I remember it was said that people would get help with health problems, debt problems, educational problems and skills problems—just is not happening. People are not able to get skills training and they are being told, “There isn’t the money to do that. We can’t afford to put you on that course. We can’t afford to pay for child care to let you go on that course and improve your chances of getting employed.”

The return of so many people, out of the Work programme, apparently still very far from being employable, is a very serious issue. As a Select Committee, we are looking at issues relating to people who have disabilities and long-term conditions and illnesses, and at what other things we could put in place for them. There is a concern that at jobcentre level, there are not enough specialists to help, and that the number of disability advisers is just not sufficient to help people at an early stage and not wait until very much later.

As I said, I hope that we will see further progress on many of the report’s recommendations, because if we share the same end, as I think we do, we have to will the means and the resources to make it happen.

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