John McDonnell – 2022 Speech on Benefit Sanctions

The speech made by John McDonnell, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, in Westminster Hall, the House of Commons, on 13 December 2022.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate. I concur with all that has been said about his past work, both on the Work and Pensions Committee and more generally on this issue.

I have a simple question to ask the Minister. What is his understanding of the increase in this recent period? It is true that conditionality has always been an element of our social security system since the second world war, but there has been nothing on this scale. What worries me is the dramatic increase—comparing the figures now with the figures before the pandemic—and therefore the significant increase in the past year after the worst parts of the pandemic. Like others, my experience of conditionality and the use of sanctions has largely centred on the impact on constituents who live the most chaotic of lives. They have difficulty complying with the various requirements that are made of them and, in some instances, actually even understanding the conditions that are attached to them. Living those chaotic lives means that they become intensely vulnerable.

I will go through the figures again, so that I have this clear. The monthly universal credit sanctions reached a peak of 58,548 in March. They have now fallen back to an average of 45,100 in the last quarter—that is two and a half times the average in the three months before the pandemic, so there has been a 250% increase in that period. Sanctions as a percentage of UC claimants subject to conditionality are currently at 2.5% per month; in the three months before the pandemic it was 1.4% per month. The monthly sanction rate on unemployed UC claimants in July 2022 was higher, at approximately 2.8%—or one in 36 claimants—for those in the planning for work category. The number of UC claimants who were serving a sanction in August was 115,274, after a peak of 117,999 in July. That is more than three times the pre-pandemic peak of 36,771 in October 2019.

It just goes on like that. The figures on the scale of the sanctions being imposed at the moment are quite staggering. According to the report by Dr David Webster, which I believe was produced for the Work and Pensions Committee, the average sanction is about 11 weeks. For most of my constituents, surviving beyond 11 weeks becomes almost impossible—even just getting by.

Margaret Ferrier

In response to a written question, the Minister said that data on the average length of sanctions

“is not readily available and to provide it would incur disproportionate cost.”

The length of a sanction is directly associated with the level of hardship faced by claimants. Does the right hon. Member share my concern that the Department is seemingly not tracking essential data that should inform policy making?

John McDonnell

I fully concur and agree. That is the main question that I will come on to. I will add that, although there was an increase in sanctions in the recent period, a lot of this concerns people being sanctioned for not seeking or being unable to increase their hours. We are now going into a recession—well, we are in a recession at the moment. Based on the Government’s figures, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that the number of unemployed people will increase by half a million, and the Bank of England suggests that it will most probably go above 2 million. It becomes much more difficult to find or secure work overall or to increase hours. That will increase the pressure on those who are already on the edge of being sanctioned.

My fear, which has consistently been identified as a problem, is that the system is not working; it is not dealing effectively with people who have chaotic lives. There are some conditions attached and criteria that work coaches take into account, but in no way do they embrace fully the nature of the individuals they are dealing with. The decision maker never actually gets to see the individual either to do a proper assessment. When the individual comes to me in my constituency surgery and I get a fuller understanding of their life, I can understand why they have slipped up at some stage and why the system is not working to give them the support they need to get back into work and earn a decent income.

Debbie Abrahams

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful point. I will just pick up on what he said at the start of his speech about conditionality. There is currently no evidence that supports the efficacy—let alone the humanity—of sanctions at all. A University of York study, which was published in 2018, showed absolutely that they had no effect on out-of-work conditionality or on in-work conditionality. What is the purpose of this programme?

John McDonnell

I was going to come on to that. My question to the Minister is: what is his understanding of how this increase has taken place? What are the factors behind it, because it does then lead on to questions about the efficacy of the whole process? Looking at the excellent House of Commons Library briefing, we can see that there was a Work and Pensions Committee report in 2015, a National Audit Office report in 2016, a Public Accounts Committee report in 2017, the welfare conditionality project in 2018 and another Work and Pensions Committee report in 2018. All of them reached the same conclusion as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams): there is no connection between this programme and effectiveness in supporting people getting into work. There is a bizarre situation: the raison d’être of this whole process has been challenged consistently—almost annually—by independent and objective reports, yet the Government have not moved. What does the Minister believe are the reasons for this increase?

I would also like to ask another question. If the Minister cannot answer it today, I would like him to write to us with an answer. I am really worried about the impact that the sanctions and the whole process of conditionality has on the mental health of the constituents I deal with. I am anxious that the Government should at least assure us that they have in process a mechanism for monitoring that, learning lessons from that monitoring, then coming back to the House to explain what improvements will be made. I am worried about the mental health consequences because, as we go into recession and we have a cost of living crisis, people have a fear of sanctions being levelled against them, which pushes some over the edge. To be frank, we have seen too many people lose their lives, unfortunately sometimes as a result of suicide because of the pressures that they have been under as a result of these types of measures that have been introduced over this period. I would welcome the Government’s reassurance that there is monitoring of the mental health consequences and that there will be a report to the House about how that is being addressed and any lessons that can be learned.