Written by Rachel Reeves and Stephen Timms, November 20th
This week’s report from Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), the Church of England and The Trussell Trust makes shocking reading for anyone who believes our welfare state is there to ensure nobody in our society falls into extreme want or deprivation.
The Trussell Trust has previously reported that 913,138 people were given three days emergency food and support in 2013-14 – more than ten times as many as in 2009-10. This important report, based on extensive interviews and analysis of food bank data, suggests that around a third of food bank users were waiting for a decision on their benefits, and between 20 and 30 per cent had seen their benefits reduced or stopped because of a sanction.
This suggests something is going badly wrong with the operation of our safety net under this Tory-led government.
Jobcentres, and the HMRC offices that currently administer tax credits, are vital public services that British citizens pay for with their taxes. People who use them have as much right to expect fair and respectful treatment as patients in an NHS hospital, parents dealing with their child’s school, or victims reporting a crime at a police station. There is always a danger, as pioneering social policy researcher Richard Titmuss famously warned, that services seen as being “for the poor” risk becoming poor services – which is why we must remember that the social security system is there for all of us, and no one knows when they might have to rely on it.
So we urgently need to get a grip on the delays and administrative errors that can mean the difference between eating and not eating for people trying to make a few pounds last for days. As MPs we have had to refer people to food banks because of problems like this. In one case a mother who worked three jobs as a cleaner but ended up living on payday loans because she had been forced to wait months on end to get the tax credits. We should take this kind of system failure as seriously as we do a delay to an important medical appointment or a failure to respond adequately to a crime report.
We also need to ensure that sanctions are fair and proportionate, and based on transparent procedures and appropriate safeguards. Sanctions have been part of our social security system since its foundation, and the principle of mutual obligation and putting conditions on benefit claims were integral to the progressive labour market policies of the last Labour government, from the first New Deals to the Future Jobs Fund.
We in the Labour movement have always believed that the right to work goes hand in hand with the responsibility to prepare for, look for, and accept reasonable offers of suitable work.
But, under Iain Duncan Smith’s regime at the Department for Work and Pensions, we have seen an exceptional rise in the proportion of people sanctioned – with one in four sanctions overturned on appeal. The government has refused to provide any explanation of this increase – but numerous sources have reported that the increase is being driven by unofficial targets imposed on jobcentres by the DWP. At the same time the limited, but nonetheless revealing government review of JSA sanctions secured by Labour has confirmed a systemic failure adequately to inform claimants of rules, reasons for decisions, their rights to appeal or to apply for hardship payments.
The combined effect is pointed to by charities as a key driver behind the increasing reliance on food banks, as well as rising youth homelessness according to another worrying report out today. For Jobcentre staff, who want to focus on supporting and engaging jobseekers, targets for sanctions are an unwelcome distraction from their efforts to build a relationship with those they are trying to help, and risk bringing the entire system of mutual responsibility into disrepute.
That’s why we have pledged that there will be no targets for sanctions under a Labour government so that jobcentre staff are focused on helping people into work, not simply finding reasons to kick them off benefits. We will also ensure that rules and decisions around sanctions are fair and properly communicated, and that the system of hardship payments is working properly.
It is deeply concerning that rather than preventing hardship, our social security system at present seems to be exacerbating it. And while we applaud the work of charities like the Trussell Trust, Oxfam and the volunteers and churches who are on the frontline of responding to these problems, our aim in the 21st century must surely be that the inspiring energy and generosity they exemplify can be directed to higher goals than simply ensuring people have enough to eat.
Rachel Reeves is the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Stephen Timms is Shadow Employment Minister