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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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