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6 October 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 4:02pm

No more “shirkers“ or “scroungers“ – let’s overhaul the culture of the benefits system

People who pay into the system should expect to be supported by it. 

By Debbie Abrahams

I have been campaigning to stop the Government’s punitive sanctions regime for nearly four years now, ever since the Coalition government introduced their new sanctions regime in 2012. I have quizzed the former secretary of state for work & pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, specifically on this issue, and have worked with people who have been affected by sanctions. These include Gill Thompson, whose brother, David Clapson, died after being sanctioned.

In January 2015, I managed to get the work and pensions select committee to agree to hold an inquiry on sanctions. The evidence was shocking. We heard of the sudden rise in sanctions, with 3.2m alone occurring between October 2012 and June 2014. Sanctions to people who were sick or disabled on Employment Support Allowance increased five-fold.

We heard from Jobcentre Plus advisers of sanction “targets” in order to get claimants “off-flow”, in benefits speak, which distorted the unemployment claimant count in the process. And we heard of the dramatic rise in foodbank use, with more than1m foodbank parcels in 2014, primarily as a result of sanctions. We heard in turn of the effects on the physical and mental health of claimants and their families.

The select committee made more than 20 recommendations, including stopping financial sanctions for people who were sick or disabled on ESA, or vulnerable in other ways, and setting up an independent body to investigate deaths associated with sanctions. 

Unfortunately, the government refused to accept the select committee’s recommendations.

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Since the inquiry, the government has been compelled to publish details of 49 claimants who died between 2012 and 2014, 10 of whom died following a sanction. It is still to publish reports on another nine claimant deaths since 2014. We have discovered that the government is watering down the guidance to jobcentre staff to identify and protect vulnerable claimants. 

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Dating back to the birth of the social security system in 1942, there have always been conditions associated with receiving state support if you’re out of work. But this government’s punitive, divisive and unjust sanctions regime must go. The narrow focus on getting claimants “off-flow” has led to hundreds of thousands of poor and harmful decisions.

Labour will overhaul the whole social security system. Starting from first principles, we will change the culture of the system, in terms of its purpose, how services are delivered and performance managed. But fundamentally, I want to change how our social security system is perceived. The government has effectively used the poisonous “shirker” and “scrounger” language to vilify people on social security as the new undeserving poor.

We believe, like the NHS, our social security system is based on principles of inclusion, support and security for all. This assures us of our dignity, should we fall on hard times or become incapacitated. Nine-tenths of disabilities are acquired – it could happen to anyone of us. I don’t want people who have paid into the system all their life to be made to feel worthless and dehumanised by a state that should be there to support them.

At our recent party conference, I set out the party’s direction of travel for transforming our social security system, including the Disability Equality Roadshow. It is going to every corner of the country, and I hope as many people will engage with this as possible.