A couple of weeks ago we highlighted the discussions that had taken place in the House of Lords concerning the benefits up-rating bill and the strength of feeling around it. Yesterday, in discussions about the Jobseekers (Back to work schemes) Bill – more commonly understood as being about the ‘Poundland case’ - it was the turn of the MPs. The discussion based around the government’s proposal to introduce emergency legislation which would mean that they would not have to re-pay £130,000,000 that had been withheld from people whose benefits had been sanctioned illegally.
Two of the strongest interventions came from MPs from the North East – Ian Lavery of Wansbeck and Grahame Morris from Easington. Below are some of the comments that they made in opposing the bill, which went against the wishes and official position of the Labour leadership. Politicians often get a hard time in our country at the present time and are often accused of being ‘out of touch’ with what is happening in ‘real life’. The comments below suggest that this might well be an unfair accusation in some cases. I appreciate that I could be accused of regional – or indeed political – bias in highlighting these contributions to the debate. I fully accept the regional bias charge and would also remind readers that the official Labour position was to abstain from the bill. (For info, 6 North East MPs voted against the bill – the two below, Ian Mearns, Dave Anderson, Mary Glindon & Nick Brown, three voted for the Bill – Guy Opperman, James Wharton and Ian Swales – but I couldn’t find contributions form them. The rest didn’t vote, from what I can gather). However, in order to redress the potential political bias somewhat, I have given the final word to Iain Duncan Smith, and have emphasised some of his comments as they may be of particular interest….
The Bill is being introduced to save the taxpayer up to £130 million, yet it deprives the most vulnerable people who have been on workfare and are looking to better themselves in employment. It has been introduced to deny £130 million compensation to 300,000 people who would like decent employment with decent wages, terms and conditions. The Government have introduced emergency legislation to prevent those people from getting only what the Court of Appeal says they deserve. That is an absolute outrage.
I am certain that the 300,000 people the Court says have a claim because of the illegal actions of the Minister’s Department should receive it—there is no doubt about it. The Bill is being introduced by the DWP and the Government to deprive many hard-working people, and many people who want to be hard-working, of any finance whatever. Is that in the best interests of the economy? It is an absolute disgrace. Those people will spend money in the economy. They might get £50, £100 or £72 a week, but they will spend it, because it is the only money they have. The Minister should not seek to deprive those people and leave them with no finances whatever.
The Bill turns my stomach. The impact assessment states: “A retrospective transfer of public money to this group of claimants would represent poor value to the taxpayer”.
What a disgrace to say such a thing in Government documents with reference to the people I have mentioned 10, 15 or 20 times previously. That will not give them self-esteem. They are doing their very best.
Members of Parliament discuss with constituents, and often people away from the constituency, the merits and otherwise of policies. I often meet people with a very different view from the people the hon. Gentleman has met. That is not to say that that has not been said, but the people I meet want decent jobs. They want the opportunity to get up in the morning and go to work for a decent wage. They would accept the minimum wage even though, at this point in time, it is not high enough. Where I live, 25 people are after every single job in the jobcentre. That means that 24 are not getting employment for every single opportunity. People want to work for the best intentions and the right reasons. They want self-esteem and finances. People where I live want to work—I am sure that extends throughout the country.
Saying that paying claimants the money that the Court says they should be paid—the result of the ruling means that the £130 million can be paid—does not represent good value for the taxpayer is an absolute disgrace. It is not the type of language we would expect from any Government. It is not right to talk about people as, “This group of claimants.” They are ordinary people with feelings, and many of them want to get on in life.
The impact assessment states: “If the Department cannot make these retrospective changes, then further reductions in benefits might be required in order to find the money to repay the sanctions.”
That is blackmail of the highest order—I make no apology for the strength of my feeling on that. If people are due finances, they should get them, particularly following a court ruling, but the Government are saying, “If we pay these people, we might have to cut benefits for other people as a result because that is where we have to find the money.” That is emotional blackmail. It is totally and utterly bang out of order. They are trying to set people who are looking for work and on benefits against each other. That is absolutely unacceptable.
Some 300,000 people will be denied their legal rights if the Bill is passed. This is just another ideological attack on the unemployed and the less well-off, despite a High Court judgment. Why does the Minister not just accept the court of law? Give these people what they are entitled to. It is the Minister’s mess. Why should they suffer?
Members on both sides of the House by saying that, if the funds are not recovered from those who were incorrectly sanctioned, they will have to be recovered from elsewhere in the welfare budget. That is outrageous blackmail; I am sorry if that is not parliamentary language, but I find that deeply offensive. It goes against every grain of fairness in Members on both sides of the House. The view I am expressing is the view that has been unanimously expressed to me. I have received numerous e-mails and messages from my constituents over the past 48 hours, all of them asking me to vote against this Bill as it is unfair and unjust.
The Government, and especially Government Back Benchers, have characterised jobseekers who have been sanctioned as workshy and feckless—the sentiment expressed was “Are you really suggesting these people shouldn’t be sanctioned?” Let us have a look at the Work programme, however. It has gone from chaos to farce. We talk about “workshy”, but what about wage-shy employers who exploit the unemployed, with the connivance, approval and funding of the Government?
I oppose the concept of two nations, as does my party, but what will the consequences of these measures be? The Government are creating two nations. They are seeking to penalise and punish the poor for the mistakes of the rich and powerful, in part of a continuing series of policies that are badged as “austerity”. Those policies are pushing the poorest in society further into poverty.
We need to look at the situation we are in now. This is the wrong thing to do: it is unjust and unfair to give millionaires a £2,000 a week tax cut, at the same time as the right hon. Gentleman’s Government propose to deprive some of the poorest people, who have been illegally sanctioned, of large chunks of their income. It is outrageous, and it is rank hypocrisy for anyone to talk about rights with the emphasis on responsibility when it comes to workfare. If they are willing to undermine the judiciary and the rule of law, and vote for retrospective legislation to cover up the mistakes and failings of the Minister, who is asking that we legislate to place him above the law, that is a dangerous precedent to establish.
I cannot, in all conscience, support this desperate Bill, put forward by a desperate Government who have broken their own laws and now wish to forgo their legal obligations and withhold social security payments of £130 million to some of the poorest people in the country. Why do we not apply that method across the board? If the national emergency is such that it is right to deny access to social security to those who are entitled to it in order to safeguard the national economy, why do we not chase the tax exiles—those powerful individuals who own newspapers and luxury hotels, who pay no corporation tax and who have laid siege to a small Channel Island?
We are in the sorry situation of the Minister blackmailing hon. Members by threatening a collective punishment for all those in receipt of social security and welfare benefits if these changes do not go through, because the Department might have to find the money through further reductions elsewhere in its budget. I thought that it was the Secretary of State for Education and his advisers who were the bullies. It is now obvious that the Department for Work and Pensions has decided to sink to those standards by threatening Members of the House in this way, which is below what we would expect of a responsible Government and a responsible Minister.
I did not come into Parliament to penalise and punish the vulnerable and the poor for the mistakes of the Government. The Department for Work and Pensions seems to be in a state of chaos. It is trying to save money by issuing unlawful sanctions for a Work programme that is not fit for purpose. It is making arbitrary cuts to disability living allowance and employment and support allowance, and is seeking to reduce the case load by 20%. Through the bedroom tax, it is cutting the incomes of disabled people and families with children. The welfare state under this coalition Government in 2013 is failing at every turn.
What we are seeing today is an abuse of power. This is an appalling Bill. I urge the Minister to take responsibility for his actions, even at this late stage, to put a stop to the Bill and to pay those who were unlawfully sanctioned because of his failings. I will vote against the Bill and I urge other hon. Members to do the same.
Iain Duncan Smith
I am listening carefully to what my right hon. Friend has to say. As the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), has made clear and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will make clear, all of these things are kept constantly under review. We want to improve them and that is what jobcentre staff do. They are brilliant at that, by the way, and they get better and better. My point on mandatory work activity is that it is not just work experience. It is also about changing culture: finding out whether someone is working and not declaring it; and getting people used to the idea of getting out of bed in the morning and attending somewhere where they do what they have been asked to do, because they have so got out of the habit of doing that, that even attending an interview has become a problem for them. This is not just about training; it is about getting people culturally back in line so that they can then be dealt with by advisers.