This autumn I held 61 ‘Big Conversation’ events across my constituency, listening to the issues people wanted me to raise in Westminster.
I heard lots of concern about the way some of the most vulnerable people were losing their benefits for weeks on end, as a ‘sanction’ for failing to respond to a letter or for missing an appointment. Sanctions are leaving people without money and forcing them towards food banks, payday lenders and spiralling debt.
So last week I secured a debate in Parliament to put ‘benefit sanctions’ under the spotlight and to challenge the Minister responsible. Of course it’s right for sanctions to be applied to those who deliberately don’t seek work. But under this government, the system’s gone badly wrong. A Job Centre worker told me how she felt under pressure to sanction claimants and managers face performance reviews if staff don’t sanction enough people.
This top-down sanctioning culture is creating real injustice. A powerful Sheffield Citizens Advice bureau report highlighted shocking examples. Mary, made redundant from her cleaning job and signed on for the first time her life. She was sanctioned for missing an appointment because the Jobcentre had told her the wrong date. It was a simple mistake, but Mary paid the price. So did Alan, who was sanctioned while on a literacy and numeracy course to help him get a job.
Sanctions are supposed to incentivise work, but irrational decisions like these have the reverse effect. That’s why I called on the Minister to review the system. Sanctions might suit a government seemingly intent on returning to the 1930s, reducing wages and demonising those without jobs as scroungers. But people who have paid in to social security all their working lives are getting punished at the point they need it most.
Labour will scrap sanctions targets and shift focus to helping people into work - not finding reasons to stop benefits - getting people working and paying taxes to improve their health and well-being and reducing the deficit. Here’s an idea for George Osborne - instead of sanctioning vulnerable people, why not make the bankers and speculators who crashed the economy pay their fair share?