Compassion and Fairness

As a Labour MP, I believe those who can work should work. In his budget, the Chancellor announced “universal support”, which he described as a new approach to helping more people with disabilities into work.

He has yet to tell us how he plans to fund “universal support”, an issue I raised in the budget debate. Is it new money or will it come from existing budgets? If it’s funded from the existing Access to Work programme, it means he’s taking money already allocated to support people with disabilities and help employers meet the cost of equipment or other adjustments.

It will also be useful to know how the department can deliver “universal support” when the government has been busy closing Job Centres and reducing staff numbers.

The Chancellor also called for tougher sanctions. In 2019, the government promised to release details of a report commissioned into the effectiveness of sanctions after an inquiry by the Works and Pensions Select Committee, on which I serve, concluded there was no evidence they have a positive impact on employment but can add to health problems and cause unnecessary suffering. The Department of Works and Pensions reneged on that promise but has been ordered to release its findings. Sanctions are a punishment, where the DWP withholds benefits because a claimant is judged not to have properly complied with their requirements. They are arbitrary, with different officers exercising different judgements over remarkably similar situations. This can be a real issue for those with mental health problems or little understood conditions. As well as a loss of benefits, the threat of sanctions can lead to people taking jobs that further damage their health.

Concerns have been raised by coroners presiding over inquests into deaths of those who have suffered sanctions. One such tragedy was Errol Graham who starved to death after losing his ESA payments.

It’s a mark of a civilised society that we provide welfare for those in need. It shouldn’t be incompatible with encouraging the maximum number of people into work, but requires compassion and fairness.

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