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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump