Most people would have thought that Lord Freud would have gone into hiding after his comments that some disabled people were ‘not worth’ the minimum wage.
That he would be right now trembling in some dusty bunker, grasping at a bottle of whisky, swallowing tranquillisers and contemplating a loaded revolver on a desk in front of him.
The dapper gent found time last week to pontificate on the government’s success in renaming”client-facing people” “Job coaches” and other “transformations” his department has brought into the world.
During his generously paid attendance at the House of Lords, that is.
A few half-hearted and meaningless words (‘full and unreserved apology’) about his vile statement and the old boy is away again!
Sanction “safety nets”, encouraging Monetary Policy Committees, transforming roles, work coaches….
Does he ever stop?
Tuesday, 21 October 2014.
House of Lords.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in implementing the Oakley report on Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud) (Con): We welcome the findings of Matthew Oakley’s review and have published our response, in which we accepted all his recommendations. We know that sanctions play an important role in conditionality, and it is crucial that the system is operated effectively and fairly. We are taking forward all recommendations and have already completed a number of improvements.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab): My Lords, as welcome as any improvements are to this punitive sanctions regime, given that Mr Oakley himself acknowledged the narrowness of his brief, the historically high level of sanctions and the accumulating evidence, including from food bank providers, of the hardship that they are causing, will the Minister now accept the growing demand for a more thorough, independent review of the whole sanctions system, as called for by the Work and Pensions Committee?
Lord Freud: I will respond to the noble Baroness in a moment, but first I would like to take this opportunity to repeat briefly the apology that I made last week. I want to make a full and unreserved apology for the comments that I made at the Conservative Party conference. Of course disabled people should be paid
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at least the minimum wage, just like everybody else, and I am profoundly sorry for any offence that I caused.
I turn to the noble Baroness’s question. Matthew Oakley found that benefit sanctions provide a vital backdrop in the social security system for jobseekers, and the OECD has ranked the UK as mid-table for the strictness of its sanctions regime. My right honourable friend Esther McVey has looked at these recommendations more widely and has made sure that we are reviewing claimant communications for all JSA claimants, not just the ones whom Matthew Oakley looked at, and that we are introducing a new IT interface to make sure that our relationship with local authorities works more smoothly.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con): My Lords, does my noble friend think that the largest annual fall in unemployment ever recorded, which was announced the other day, and the fact that 116,000 more disabled people are in work, might just have something to do with the painstaking work that he has done, both for the previous Government and for this Government, in bringing about the welfare reforms that are bringing to so many people, able bodied and disabled, the opportunity of a place in the workplace?
Lord Freud: As my noble friend said, the issue is that we are doing everything we can to help people into the workplace. It was a very encouraging assessment from the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, which said:
“A tightening in the eligibility requirements for some state benefits might also have led to an intensification of job search”.
That echoes something that the deputy governor had said a little while before. It is apparent that our reforms are working, with employment up by 1.7 million since 2010 and record numbers of people now in work.
Earl Attlee (Con): My Lords, the Oakley review suggested that some claimants do not understand—or even open—their correspondence about sanctions. What are we doing about this?
Lord Freud: Matthew Oakley was very concerned about the communications aspects of talking to claimants about sanctions. We have taken that point very seriously. Indeed, we have accepted his recommendations on that and are going further; we are reviewing and improving all our claimant communications on sanctions across every benefit, and we aim to ensure that people understand that they have received a sanction and why they have received it. We have introduced a claimant communications unit that tries to get the language right—because, as many noble Lords know, some of the language that the DWP put out in the past was clunky at best.
Baroness Sherlock (Lab): My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister has taken the opportunity to read the evidence that was given to Matthew Oakley when he did this report. I accept that sanctions are a necessary part of the system, but it is quite clear that many people have been sanctioned who have done literally
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nothing wrong. Look at the evidence from the CAB of the man sanctioned twice for missing appointments with his Work Programme provider; in fact, he had been to all the appointments with a company to which it had subcontracted him, but he was sanctioned. Then there was the man who was sanctioned after being told to be in two different places at once and the woman who was sanctioned for being in hospital having treatment for cervical cancer, despite having given advance notice of her hospital appointment to the system before she went in. I could go on. There is a very real risk of claimants starting to believe that the Government are more concerned with cutting their benefits than getting them into work. Will the Government sort this?
Lord Freud: My Lords, it is clearly utterly important that the sanctions regime is fair to people. We have put in layer on layer of protections and safety nets in the machine. People have, to start with, five days to respond to the letter saying that we are looking at a sanction. Then it goes to a decision-maker and then, if claimants do not like that, to a mandatory reconsideration, which is an extra layer. Then you can go into the tribunal process, and we have hardship. We are putting many measures in to make sure that we run this system as fairly as we possibly can.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (LD): My Lords, I associate myself with the remarks made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. Having worked with him closely in the past four or five years, I think that the Minister plays an absolutely crucial and effective role in the important reforms that are designed to assist low-paid families in this country, and if he was not here, things would be harder to deliver on time and on budget. However, the scale of sanctions surprises me, with 800,000 or 900,000 sanctions per year. That is not something that I expected ever to see. The claimant commitment that we have is beginning to appear to be used as a coercion document to get people to do things that they do not really want. Will the Minister look again at the report that Professor Paul Gregg did some years ago, which suggested that the way in which to get an appropriate use of sanctions is to involve the claimants at an early stage in a joint enterprise to get a claimant commitment to work?
Lord Freud: My Lords, we have really transformed the role of the client-facing people in Jobcentre Plus and turned them into work coaches; that is what the claimant commitment does. It is something that has been done very recently. The relationship between claimants and the work coaches has changed very substantially already.