Debbie Abrahams MP: The Tories are scapegoating vulnerable social security claimants

There is no evidence that ratcheting up sanctions incentivizes people into work

Jeremy Hunt

Debbie Abrahams is the Member of Parliament for Oldham East and Saddleworth

Jeremy Hunt’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester confirming ‘tougher sanctions’ for social security claimants is an increasingly desperate attempt to distract from his own Government’s failures.  

Stuck in a rut with a party in civil war and consistently behind in the polls, the Tories are desperately searching for scapegoats as they try to cling on to power. They have landed on an old favourite – scapegoating vulnerable social security claimants. 

Having been a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee for many years, Jeremy Hunt’s comments left me feeling incredibly angry. The very serious consequences of this dangerous rhetoric, demonising social security claimants still further will, I believe, increase the potential harm to claimants’ physical and mental health, many of whom are only surviving with support from Foodbanks.

At the height of a cost of living crisis and following thirteen years of cuts to services and support, Hunt’s rhetoric will only increase the anxiety and insecurity felt by sick and disabled people.

There is no evidence that ratcheting up sanctions incentivizes people into work. But there is evidence of people who’ve gone through a work capability assessment (WCA), been found fit for work and within a few months subsequently dying. As we know from the people who appeal against their WCA decision, the vast majority of these appeals are successful and have their decision overturned. Many people who are initially assessed as fit for work are in fact incapacitated.

Last year, there were over 519,000 sanctions of Universal Credit claimants, with the average sanction length of 12 weeks; sanctions are more than three times higher than before the pandemic.

The Chancellor spoke about people choosing “a life on benefits” as though this is a luxury choice rather than a last resort for some of the most vulnerable people. Ninety percent of people on Universal Credit cannot afford essentials; even with the £20 a week uplift to UC during the pandemic, it was still the lowest level of out of work support in the OECD.

Last year, the DWP investigated dozens of deaths and serious harms of social security claimants, which many believe is just the tip of the iceberg.

This autumn the Work and Pensions Select Committee will be holding an inquiry to look into the DWP’s responsibilities for safeguarding vulnerable claimants, and to understand the scale and causes of these claimant deaths.

I am not alone in believing that punitive sanctions – the stopping of financial support from DWP to claimants – have contributed to these deaths.

In June I held an adjournment debate in Parliament about the tragic death of Errol Graham who starved to death after his payments were stopped. When Errol was found by bailiffs he weighed just four and a half stone. In twenty-first century Britain, this is an indictment on us all.

I deplore the Chancellor’s attempts to blame social security claimants for the Conservatives economic failures, using them as a political football to get applause for his speech.

Incredibly, the Chancellor spoke about the importance of accessing NHS services that may be preventing people to work as though he was unaware of the waiting list for services. He’s not an innocent bystander commenting from the sidelines. Waiting lists were increasing well before the pandemic because of their consistent failure to consistently increase health spending in line with our neighbours in Europe and other advanced economies.

I suggest they look at the evidence including the widening inequalities, the increasing poverty and declining health of the population, and take responsibilities for their failures that have led to this. They have vilified and scapegoated claimants, and contributed to rather than tackled, the underlying structural inequalities that prevent people from working. This is yet further evidence of the need for a paradigm shift from a social security system that divides between workers and shirkers to one that is supportive and enabling.

If the Tories continue on the path they are, we know that families across the country will experience the same pain that Errol’s did.

So the next time the Tories try their Norman Tebbitt tribute act, we should tell them that it’s time to get on their bike and get out of Government.

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