My colleague Mhairi Black MP sponsored a private member’s bill to reform the benefits sanctions regime which was debated in the House of Commons on Friday 2 December. I spoke in this debate hoping to appeal to the government to get rid of the worst elements of sanctioning.
Here’s some of my speech:
“My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) took us on an incredible journey through the sanctions system, explaining why we need the Bill to pass, and many of my colleagues and many Labour Members made really powerful interventions—but then things just started to go wrong. I am standing here feeling like I am banging my head on a brick wall. I feel powerless. As an MP, I feel that I can do nothing to get the message through and to make people understand.
If I feel powerless, depressed and, to be honest, close to tears at times, how on earth must somebody who actually has no power and who is at the mercy of this Government when they are using the benefits system be feeling.
As MPs, we often have to manage the expectations of our constituents. I would say that I am pretty good at fighting for them, sometimes tooth and nail—as no doubt are many others who have talked about supporting people in difficult situations—but we have to let them know that we do not have a magic wand. If I did have a magic wand and could make it do something today, I would get rid of the pernicious sanctions in the benefit system, because they are cruel and unnecessary.
I always say that the Conservative party knows the cost of everything and the value of absolutely nothing, but the sanctions do not even tick the Conservative box of being cost-effective. The irony is that, despite all their clamouring to reposition themselves as the party of working people—that is even more laughable—the Tories are simply showing their true colours by allowing the system to persist.
My hon. Friend’s Bill is based, quite rightly, on the premise that having a decent job is in an individual’s interest… I agree with that, and the vast majority of people will try their level best to get one where one is available. The Government, with their usual deeply cynical view of humankind, have developed this policy based not on their view of the value of work, but entirely on their disdain for those who happen to be without it.
I am going to talk about my mother. My mother regularly told me—I was a not-too-confident child—that I was as good as anyone else. She said that I was no worse and, being Scottish, no better, but as good. Let me tell those on the Government Benches today—not all of them need to hear this, but most of them do—that the same goes for us all.
My constituents, whether they are in work or not, and whatever their reason for being out of work—whether illness, lack of jobs or a lack of self-confidence—are every bit as good as every one of them. Government Members are not better than my constituents. They may have been treated better in life and had better opportunities, but that does not mean that they deserve better, because they do not.
I will argue on three levels:
First, there is the financial argument. I will use only factual arguments, and the sanctions regime costs us more to run than it saves—that is before we look at the long-term hidden costs.
Secondly, there are the academic arguments. Conditionality in the welfare system does not work. It is not me making that argument; it is academics. I will share their findings, and let us see whether Government Members have actual evidence to the contrary—not opinions, but evidence.
Thirdly, I will make the moral argument, and here Government Members can make a counter-argument because we all have a different moral compass—morality can be subjective, a matter of opinion. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that anybody who thinks it is right that we sanction the benefits of people who are already in poverty needs their compass reprogrammed pronto.
Someone does not have to use the words “benefits scrounger” to imply that somebody is a benefits scrounger; they just have to apply vicious sanctions to them because they were five minutes late for an appointment, or because they attended hospital with their wife when she was giving birth.
I will share the story of two of my constituents, who I met during the election campaign a year and a half ago. I bumped into them and their beautiful two-year-old daughter on the street, and they told me that the day she was born, he went with his wife as she gave birth. Does anybody here think there is anything wrong with that? Does anyone think that the right decision was to say, “Sorry, I’m going to sign on”? He forgot all about it in the euphoria—well, euphoric for him, if not for her—and was at his wife’s side as she gave birth. The following day he went in, euphoric—“I’ve had a baby”—but apologising, and they sanctioned that young couple, and that tiny little baby. Her first ever birthday gift was a six-week sanction—not a single milk token, not a single pound to support that family.
When I hear such stories—it is not an isolated case; I have heard so many like it, as I have said before—I find it difficult to retain a calm demeanour.
My priority is to support my constituents.