Esther McVey and Chris Hayes at the Work and Pensions select committee. Photo: BBC Democracy Live screengrab
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Grieving relative confronts DWP minister Esther McVey after benefit sanctions inquiry

The sister of a diabetic who died after having his benefits cut wept after hearing the minister say there is state support for vulnerable people.

Esther McVey, the Employment Minister, was handed an image of David Clapson – the man found dead in his flat from diabetic ketoacidosis, two weeks after his benefits were suspended – following a select committee inquiry into benefits sanctions this afternoon.

In the emotional confrontation, Clapson’s younger sister, Gill Thomspon, presented the image to McVey and said: “A diabetic cannot wait two weeks.” A reference to the amount of time a Jobseeker's Allowance claimant, when sanctioned, has to wait to receive a hardship payment.

When Thompson discovered her brother’s body in July 2013, she found his electricity had been cut off, meaning the fridge where he stored his insulin was no longer working. Speaking to the Guardian in 2014, Thompson said: “I don’t think anyone should die like that in this country, alone, hungry and penniless . . . They must know that sanctioning people with diabetes is very dangerous. I am upset with the system; they are treating everyone as statistics and numbers.”

During the committee hearing today, McVey and Chris Hayes, Labour Market and International Affairs director, were subjected to an intense grilling from the Labour MPs on the cross-party committee surrounding the adverse effects of sanctioning, targets by Job Centres and deaths related to cuts in benefits. The committee chair, Dame Anne Begg, said that in some circumstances sanctioning was leaving people “destitute”.

When asked by Labour MP, Debbie Abrahams, how many peer reviews the DWP has carried out following the death of a claimant, McVey conceded that the figure was 49. Although it’s worth pointing out that a Freedom of Information request by the Disability News Service found that the DWP had carried out “60 peer reviews following the death of a customer” since February 2012. McVey refused to comment on individual cases but said that none of the reviews had found a link between benefits sanctioning and the death of a claimant.

“I think you’re inflaming this,” McVey added. “We followed and looked at what we did, how best we worked in supporting the individuals . . . but we ensured that we followed all of our processes correctly.”

Tensions escalated during the hearing, and at one point the committee member Paul Maynard, a Tory MP, appeared distressed by the opposition’s questioning of McVey and threatened to leave the committee hearing.

Although sanctions have long had cross-party support, new regulations introduced in October 2012 mean that a claimant could be sanctioned for a longer period of time. Some have called this rigorous, while others have opted for the word punitive. The Labour MP, Glenda Jackson, was firmly of the view that it is punitive: she hounded the Employment Minister over the alleged use of targets in Job Centres across the country and citied evidence from the Public and Commercial Services Union.

But despite the mounting evidence – substantial amounts were officially submitted to the inquiry – McVey echoed previous statements issued by the DWP and said: “Categorically, there are no targets for benefits sanctions.”

Speaking to the New Statesman after the hearing, Abrahams said:

Once again Esther McVey has shown a stunning disregard for the mountain of evidence provided during this inquiry from individuals, academics and organisations who have seen first-hand, or worse experienced, the effect of this government’s inhumane approach to sanctioning, especially against vulnerable people.

I can’t imagine how it must have felt for people like Gill Thompson, who has battled so hard to get answers about her brother’s death, to have to listen to Esther McVey say support is there for vulnerable people who are sanctioned.

And, once again she point-blank refused my demand for a second, full, independent inquiry into sanctions. Anyone who’s been following this inquiry and heard the evidence will fully understand why the government will never allow a full inquiry. They have too much to hide and too much to lose.

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn

 

 

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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.