I have received a number of lobbying emails on the subject of JSA sanctions, and the vote in Parliament last night. I wanted to reproduce my response, so constituents can see why I made the decision I did.
Many thanks for your email on this important subject. I apologise for the length of the response but I think it is important to explain the detail of the decision to abstain and the contents of the Bill. The Guardian newspaper was not correct and it is unfortunate that they chose to publish this story with no substance whatsoever.
There has been a bit of confusion over the Jobseekers (Back to Work) Bill and what it is seeking to resolve. This Bill is not about the much mentioned Poundland case, nor is it a Bill that would stop the Government workplace schemes. Some commentators have said that defeating this Bill would stop those dreadful schemes but that is not the case. The Bill is primarily about the sanctions that were applied to JSA claimants. It is not about the dreadful situation of the Government forcing people onto work schemes and that is why it must be seen as being simply about sanctions that were applied to people for not being correctly informed of the consequences of not participating in work experience schemes. The explanantions not being as detailed as they should have been in regulations and in letters to JSA claimants were the main issue.
All Governments since 1911 have had a sanctions regime of some description in the system. There were sanction regimes in place for Labour’s flagship work schemes of the past in the New Deal and the successful Future Jobs Fund. Sanctions are an appropriate way to ensure that there is fairness in the system and that those who do the right thing and try to get themselves back into work are not disadvantaged by those who do not participate.
The reason the Government are in such a mess is due to their complete incompetence in their work programmes. It is a mess of their own making. It is also a symptom of them being completely incompetent at improving the economy and getting more jobs to get people back into work. Their economic plan is not working and that can be emphasised by there not being jobs for people to get employment. That is where their work schemes fall down as there can only be fairness in the system if there are jobs for people to do. It is statistically correct to say that the Governments work programme is such a disaster that it would be more effective to do nothing.
This is why Labour are calling for a compulsory jobs guarantee for every young person unemployed for more than 1 year and for every adult out of work for more than 2 years. A proper back to work programme that offers a guaranteed REAL job at its conclusion is the only way to get people into employment, off benefits and paying tax.
The Government’s total incompetence has resulted in a figure of £130m being due to all people who were sanctioned since 2011 not just those who were on the work place schemes. The result would be that where claimants were sanctioned for refusing to sign on or refusing to apply for jobs, attend skills training or were consistently refusing paid jobs, they would have received the money back also. This would have been exceptionally unfair to people who are doing the right thing. Most people who are unemployed are desperate to get back into work and it would have been unfair to them to allow those who are not engaging but on support from the tax payer to be compensated. The fact that it is called “Job Seekers Allowance” should mean that those who are not seeking work should be encouraged to do so and if that is not forthcoming, sanctions should be applied.
This is why the Labour Party demanded safeguards in the Bill to ensure that it could clear up the Governments mess and assist the people that were affected in the work schemes. This relates directly to the £130m as the Government was persuaded to accept our safeguards in terms of:
1. The Government will guarantee that appeal rights are protected for JSA claimants who have been WRONGLY sanctioned. This means that people who had good cause for not participating will still be able to claim their JSA back and that includes all people who were wrongly sanctioned for not participating in the work place schemes. Good cause makes it wide enough to allow appeals for those who are caught up in this case without compensating those who were not seeking work. This should cover all those claimants who were sanctioned illegally, as upheld by the Courts.
2. The Government must launch an independent review of the entire sanctions regime, with an urgent report to parliament. This would allow an analysis of where sanctions are being applied, to whom and expose the cases where sanctions should not have been applied. The urgency of this should assist with the people who wish to appeal as per point 1 above.
These 2 safeguards are clear in their intention to ensure that all those Job Seekers claimants who were sanctioned for not participating in the workplace schemes due to the scheme instructions and information letters being defective should get their JSA refunded through an appeal process.
Finally, it is the case that the coalition Government have a working majority of 100. Had Labour not pushed for these changes and amendments to the Bill then it would have passed easily without there being a mechanism for the compensation of people who were wrongly sanctioned as a result of the Court rulings. That is the critical point and is a matter of justice and fairness. It is also the case that the sanctions regime would have continued unrevised and that, too, would have been unjust and wrong. By insisting on these safeguards we have made sure that this is a better Bill, resolves the court ruling, compensates those who were affected and reviews the sanctions regime. Otherwise, it would have been a dreadful Bill that punished those who should not have been punished in the eyes of the law.
I was satisfied, after these changes were made, that something had to be done. I lodged my abstention in order to allow the government the opportunity to sort the problems of their own creation. I still disagree with the government’s policy in this area, which is why I did not vote in favour. We cannot have a welfare system which does little to support people back to work. I believe people who can work should not be able to claim benefits with no obligation to find a route back into work. Constituents tell me consistently that they also find this unfair.
The decision to abstain was not an easy decision. This issue has generated strong feelings about the injustice of unpaid work and I appreciate why some of my colleagues decided to vote against the motion, but this was not the subject of the Bill. It may be that you disagree with my decision but I hope you can see my reasoning for doing so.
Please do not hesitate to get back in touch should you require more information on this or any other matters.