John spoke about on welfare conditionality yesterday evening, in a Member’s Business debate brought by SNP MSP, and Convenor of the Parliament’s Social Security Committee, Sandra White. Ms White’s motion read:
Motion S5M-01360: Sandra White, Glasgow Kelvin, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 09/09/2016
Welfare Conditionality Study
That the Parliament notes with concern the first wave findings of the welfare conditionality study that was carried out by researchers from several leading universities, including the University of Glasgow and was presented to MSPs on 7 September 2016; understands that it found universally-negative experiences of conditionality, which it reported as creating both “widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment” among service users and leading some people to turn to crime in order to survive because of the sanctions that they faced; recognises the report’s conclusion that the common thread linking stories of successful transition to work was the availability of individual support rather than the threat of sanctions; notes that the report includes what it considers to be deeply disturbing service users’ accounts of the conditionality; understands that some described the system as “intimidating, dehumanising and disempowering”; congratulates the University of Glasgow and the other researchers on what it considers to be its important work, and looks forward to the next wave of findings being published.
John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green):
I join others in congratulating Sandra White on bringing the debate to the chamber and in applauding and thanking the researchers for their work. It was my intention to say that we have all heard of or dealt with cases involving the devastating and harrowing impact that sanctions can have, but perhaps Mr Tomkins and his colleagues have not or, if they have heard, they have not listened, which would be more worrying.
The effect of removing people’s only means of support has a mental and physical health impact on them and their families but, unfortunately, the situation is even worse when we consider what jobseekers are being asked to do and how likely that is to improve their chances of finding employment. Around 65 per cent of participants leave the work programme without having gained and stayed in a job for at least six months. The figure is considerably higher for participants with health conditions or disabilities, around 85 per cent of whom have not entered and stayed in employment for at least three months. For those who are considered furthest from employment, the figure is as high as 94 per cent.
The report gives clear reasons why that might be the case. Claimants are asked to apply for jobs regardless of whether they are appropriate. The study’s interim findings show that people are being forced to apply for jobs that they tell Jobcentre Plus and employment programme providers they cannot do because of disability, ill-health or childcare responsibilities, yet those organisations insist on claimants applying. The report of interim findings cites the ridiculous case of a Scottish universal credit claimant who was asked to apply, under the threat of sanction, for a job as a driving instructor, despite the fact that he had said that he did not have a driving licence.
Much of the support offered is of a generic nature when, as others have said, it should be person centred. It has been limited to things such as help with writing CVs and job search skills. Individualised packages of support are needed. Sick and disabled jobseekers who were interviewed in the study reported being offered only that very general kind of support.
The DWP’s own survey of work programme participants found that over 70 per cent of those on the programme with a health condition were not offered health-related support to help them find work. Providers have openly admitted that there is not sufficient funding in the work programme to pay for on-going specialist support to help participants with disabilities and health conditions. The Centre for Social and Economic Inclusion reported that work programme providers spend as little as £545 to provide up to two years of support for employment and support allowance participants.
One of the few positive messages to come out of the report is that on the great work done by Jobcentre Plus disability advisers. Perhaps inevitably, in the topsy-turvy world of the DWP where nothing seems to make sense, those advisers are now being withdrawn from jobcentres and mainstream jobcentre staff will be expected to provide specialist disability support. The structure of the contracts, which prioritises job outcomes, means that those who are relatively close to the labour market are offered the most support and that more disadvantaged jobseekers are provided with very little practical help.
If the purpose of sanctions is to help benefit recipients into work by enforcing, under the threat of sanction, participation in employment programmes and other schemes of support, and if that support is unlikely — in some cases very unlikely — to help them find employment, the whole basis of the sanctions regime is brought into very serious and fundamental question.
We can now use the powers in the Scotland Act 2012 to chart a different course. Sandra White spoke about dignity and respect, and those principles should underpin our approach.
Although sanctions are not devolved, powers over the employment programmes — some of which are currently compulsory — have now been devolved and new programmes will operate from spring next year. Those will involve a more supportive approach in which people are encouraged to take up offers of employment support not because they are bullied into doing so, but because there are genuine opportunities to find work.
I was very proud to stand for election earlier this year on the only party manifesto that pledged to use the new powers over employment services to reduce significantly the numbers of benefit sanctions that are applied in Scotland. My colleague Alison Johnstone, who has worked with others on that issue, called on the Scottish Government to use the powers in that way and released a plan that explains how it could be done.
Last month, I was pleased to hear the Minister for Employability and Training commit to operating those new programmes on an entirely voluntary basis, and I commend that approach. It will require significant investment in schemes of support that go far beyond the current DWP schemes.
Finally, I turn to the costs of complying with benefit conditionality, which can be considerable. That is an issue in particular for benefit recipients in rural areas, where the cost of transport from recipients’ homes to the nearest jobcentre to attend appointments or to the nearest library in order to use computers to apply for jobs can eat significantly into the scant amount that those people are paid in benefits.
Dignity and humanity will be the hallmark of the way in which we use the newly devolved powers, but we can apply that approach to the entire system only when we have the ability to use all the powers, which will come with independence.