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.

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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