David Linden – 2022 Speech on Benefit Sanctions

The speech made by David Linden, the SNP MP for Glasgow East, in Westminster Hall, the House of Commons, on 13 December 2022.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to him for all the work he does in fighting poverty and in his role as a trustee of Feeding Britain. I am very much looking forward to joining the Work and Pensions Committee in the new year, and I sincerely thank him for the work that he has done on the Committee. I wish him well as he takes on his new Front-Bench responsibilities.

This has been a good, albeit one sided, debate. I often find myself questioning the point of having such debates, because while Opposition Members have showed up to talk about what happens in our constituency surgeries, the only reason the two Conservative Members are present is that they are compelled to be here. The Conservative party has some new red wall MPs. Surely people visit their surgeries to discuss the punitive sanctions regime. It ill behoves any of those Members intending to stand for re-election that they do not bother their backside to turn up and talk about the very thing that we know has an impact on many of our constituents.

This debate is certainly timely, not least because recent data produced by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre shows that benefit sanctions for young Scots have nearly doubled since 2019, which is the last comparable year for such statistics. The British Government certainly like to talk ad nauseum about their rather underwhelming kickstart programme. However, those statistics show that the DWP is only seeking to kick young people when they are down. I shall return to that slightly later when I discuss the wider context of the debate.

My hon. Friend has already referred to the figures that he has uncovered via parliamentary questions. In my constituency of Glasgow East, £55,000 was deducted from universal credit payments in August alone, simply as a result of benefit sanctions. At a time when businesses are struggling and we have all just celebrated small business Saturday over the last week or two, I remind the House that that cash could have been spent at small businesses in the likes of Parkhead, Barrowfield and Lilybank. If the Conservative party does not get that from a compassionate point of view, it should consider it purely from the point of view of economics. Instead, the DWP has pressed ahead with a regime of conditionality that pushes people into destitution. To be frank, that is something for which the state ultimately bears the cost anyway, so it is also short sighted in that respect.

The Scotland-wide figure for deductions from UC deductions by way of sanctions is even more eye-watering, at £2.3 million in August this year. Destitution is not cost-free for the state, and there is already a rich body of evidence out there from the likes of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that shows the true cost of, for example, homelessness as people are pushed into destitution by a failing social security system. While 85% of welfare spending in Scotland is reserved to this institution, the Scottish Government are doing their level best to mitigate the very worst effects of Westminster’s assault on benefits.

Whether hon. Members are Unionists or nationalists, surely we can all agree that devolution, be it in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland, cannot simply be a sticking plaster for inadequate social security policies designed in Whitehall. For example, the Government in Edinburgh spend £80 million a year of their devolved budget on discretionary housing payments, purely to nullify Westminster’s bedroom tax. To be blunt, that is £80 million that could be spent on health and education, but the Scottish Government are having to spend it trying to clean up the mess that has been caused by Westminster. Indeed, using our limited social security powers, next year the Scottish Government will spend an extra £311 million on the game-changing Scottish child payment of £25 a week. That is in stark contrast to the British Government’s outrageous two-child policy and associated rape clause.

We can begin to see a pattern emerging. In essence, DWP policy means that devolved Peter is being robbed to pay the price of reserved Paul. The same is true with the sanctions regime that my hon. Friend has highlighted today. Sanctions combined with deductions from universal credit mean that almost £2 billion per annum is snatched away from the very poorest people on these islands. As they face going hungry, that is when the third sector, which is already close to breaking point, needs to step in and pick up the pieces. To illustrate that, I will provide an example from my constituency.

The Halliday Foundation helps people in poverty with free meals and furniture as they seek to rebuild their lives. It is funded by local government, which, in turn, is funded by central Government. So all that happens is that central Government sanction a constituent and then the Halliday Foundation has to step in to support them with the financial resources that have been provided by local government. Put simply, that is a total mess and a complete waste of taxpayers’ money, and it shows that moving people into destitution is something that the Government bears the cost of anyway.

There is also an additional negative dimension to sanctions, which is very relevant just now and which I want to highlight to the Minister, backing up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West. Data shows that almost 700 Scottish households were denied the first £326 cost of living payment in September, simply as a result of sanctions. Let me make clear to the Minister that the freezing temperatures we are experiencing do not bypass houses and say, “Oh well, we’ll not go to minus 7° because that house has been sanctioned.” The decision to exempt sanctioned individuals from the cost of living payment is wrong and should be put right without delay.

In my five years as a Member of this House, it has become clear that Whitehall does not know best when it comes to designing a strong, robust and compassionate social security net. Indeed, Ministers and senior officials who preside over this disastrous sanctions regime clearly do not understand what it is like to sit in a cold library in Glasgow’s east end on a Friday morning speaking to constituents who literally have nothing to live on. On Friday, I met a constituent from Greenfield who is a kinship carer for his grandson. We have had debates in this Chamber about the importance of kinship carers and the vast amounts of money they save the Government. However, our failing social security means that state support is so low that my constituent told me that he has rationed his primary school-age grandson to just two baths a week because he cannot afford the energy bills.

The very fact that my constituent told me it costs 70p to run a hot bath shows just how close to the breadline that man is living and how much our social security system is failing the people who need it most. Indeed, he told me that he cannot afford to turn on the Christmas tree lights for fear of running up an energy bill that he simply cannot afford, not least because he is on a prepayment meter. These are the sorts of people who are impacted by the actions of a Department for Work and Pensions that day after day plunges the most vulnerable people in our constituencies into abject poverty—something that should shame the fifth richest economy in the world. This Government have the absolute temerity to prance around the world in their Brit-branded ministerial plane preaching about global Britain, when all the while my constituent cannot afford to run a hot bath the night before sending his grandson to school. It is utterly shameful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West outlined a better way of doing things, perhaps via the yellow card warning system, and Ministers would do well to engage with us on ameliorating a system that is currently doing so much harm. Indeed, it is no wonder that the Glasgow Centre for Population Health has attributed over 330,000 excess deaths in the UK to austerity since 2010. It has long been the case that Governments of both colours in this House have talked a tough game on welfare—I certainly prefer to call it social security—but the cat is now well and truly out of the bag. For too many people who had no understanding or experience of benefits, the pandemic lifted a veil on a social security system that has been found to be utterly inadequate. We know from polling that the public will no longer buy into the lazy picture painted by politicians in London of this being a fight of strivers versus skivers; this is now firmly the fight of abject poverty versus fairness and decency.

The only way to ensure that fairness and decency win is to end the punitive benefit sanctions regime and build a proper, robust social security system, underpinned by dignity, human rights and respect. In Scotland, we have already started that journey, but in truth most Scots know that it can only be completed with the full powers of independence. Nothing I have heard in this debate or, indeed, in my time in this House has convinced me that, with Westminster, the sanctions regime would end. That is why Scotland can, should and must make its own decisions on all social security, as with other policies, because Westminster is not working for us, and we all know that that is why Labour and the Conservatives are petrified of Scottish democracy prevailing.