Michael McMahon MSP

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Meeting of the Parliament 18 December 2014 : Thursday, December 18, 2014
Michael McMahon

I am sure that that would be worth considering, but I cannot, as the convener, comment on that because the committee did not take evidence on it. Anything that I would say would be a personal opinion, and I cannot give personal opinions in my speech.

The link must be acknowledged by the UK Government, which can no longer ignore the evidence. The Government must recognise that people are struggling to meet their basic need for food directly because of its actions. To be fair to Alex Johnstone, he was not supportive of that view. However, we all believe that it is important that food bank provision does not creep into welfare state provision. Food banks should be recognised as a community charitable response for individuals who are in crisis; they should not be welded into the infrastructure of the welfare state. They are a sign of a Dickensian model of welfare that should have no place in a prosperous nation. Ultimately the necessity for food banks should be eliminated.

That said, we have seen on visits to food banks in our local areas the current need for their vital support among individuals who are often desperate. We praise the dedication and commitment that is shown by food bank volunteers and we support the action that has been taken by the Scottish Government to provide support through the emergency food aid action plan.

I want to introduce members to Denis Curran. Denis runs Loaves & Fishes, which provides food aid in East Kilbride and Glasgow, and he is just one example of volunteers’ dedication and commitment. He spoke passionately at the committee of the desperate need of the people who turn to food banks, and he spoke of people with wee children coming to him after walking three or four miles in need of food. He told the committee:

“They are frightened and insecure, and they have no money.”—[Official Report, Welfare Reform Committee, 4 March 2014; c 1282.]

People in Scotland care about these things. There is a YouTube clip of Denis’s appearance at the Welfare Reform Committee, which almost 200,000 people have now viewed. I do not know whether that is a record for a Scottish Parliament appearance, but it tells me that Denis is not the only one who feels passionately about this issue.

I turn to the Smith agreement. I do not want to say too much about the agreement: I will leave others to talk about the ins and outs, and I am sure that there will be many views. The committee has yet to examine the agreement and therefore does not have a view on it. However, it seemed to us that it would be fruitless to have in Parliament a debate about welfare without acknowledging that the Smith agreement is likely to lead to substantial changes in this area and to greater responsibility for Parliament.

In November, we took from academics some evidence on devolution of welfare benefits, prior to the publication of the agreement. The academics’ views were very mixed; some believe that devolving welfare benefits is an all or nothing proposition, whereas others believe that it would be possible to devolve areas of activity provided that their devolution was thought through and coherent. I guess that we are about to test that proposition.

In the future, we will have responsibility for a range of benefits including attendance allowance, carer’s allowance, personal independence payments, industrial injuries disablement allowance, severe disablement allowance, the regulated social fund and discretionary housing payments. However, we will not, of course, have responsibility for the white elephant—if I can call it that—that is universal credit. The new responsibilities will result in expenditure of £2.5 billion to £3 billion a year, which is equivalent to our current budget for education and lifelong learning.

We have some major responsibilities to take on and some hard thinking to do on how we will manage them. I hope that as well as looking back to some of the work that the Welfare Reform Committee has undertaken, this debate will look forward to the work that we will all have to do to make a success of our new welfare responsibilities.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the Welfare Reform Committee’s 2nd Report 2014 (Session 4), Food Banks and Welfare Reform (SP Paper 537), its 4th Report 2014 (Session 4), Interim Report on The New Benefit Sanctions Regime: Tough Love or Tough Luck? (SP Paper 552) and the welfare proposals contained in the Report of the Smith Commission for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament.

14:57  

Meeting of the Parliament 18 December 2014 : Thursday, December 18, 2014
Michael McMahon (Uddingston and Bellshill) (Lab)

I will attempt to set the scene for the debate, which focuses on three interlinked topics: the Welfare Reform Committee’s report on the new more severe sanctions regime that is being operated by the Department for Work and Pensions; the committee’s report on food banks and the link between the growth in their use and welfare reforms; and the Smith commission agreement on further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament.

Although this is the last debate before Christmas, I am afraid that some of what I have to say will not be very merry. The tone will perhaps be a little Dickensian and more in tune with “A Christmas Carol” than with any Christmas cheer.

Let us look first at sanctions and the view that the committee came to in its report. However, before I start, I should say that the views that I will express were agreed by the committee and published in the report, although members will be unsurprised to hear that committee member Alex Johnstone demurred on the findings.

In late 2012, the Department for Work and Pensions introduced a new benefit sanctions regime that increased the severity of sanctions for people who are on jobseekers allowance and employment support allowance. Under the regime, claimants may be sanctioned for up to three years. You heard me right, Presiding Officer: they can be sanctioned for up to three years. Before members think that that is just a notional level of sanction, the last time we checked the figures 79 people in Scotland had been sanctioned for three years.

The new regime has led to a significant increase in the number of sanctions that are being applied, despite the fact that numbers of people on the relevant benefits have dropped. The rate of sanctioning for jobseekers allowance increased rapidly through 2013 from 3 per cent at the start of the year to 5.7 per cent at the end of it.

As part of our inquiry, we invited a senior DWP official to give evidence on their views of the sanctions regime. In fact, we have invited DWP ministers but, over two years, we have failed to convince any of them to give evidence in public to the committee. That rather saddens me. Perhaps in the post-referendum era we will be more successful.

We took evidence from Neil Couling, who is the most senior United Kingdom official responsible for jobcentres. I think that it would be fair to say that his evidence rather took us aback. He reported:

“many benefit recipients welcome the jolt that a sanction can give them ... Some people no doubt react very badly to being sanctioned—we see some very strong reactions—but others recognise that it is the wake-up call that they needed, and it helps them get back into work.”—[Official Report, Welfare Reform Committee, 29 April 2014; c 1452.]

He also suggested that jobcentres receive thank you cards from sanctioned claimants.

I have to say, having taken significant evidence, including at first hand from people who have been sanctioned, that the committee does not recognise that description of the sanctions regime. Instead, we see many weaknesses in the regime and in its application. Those are leading to a climate of fear around jobcentres, rather than one that encourages people to engage with them and find their way back to work.

In our report, we list seven weaknesses in the system. I will repeat them. There has been

“A consistent failure to notify people that they are being sanctioned and why.”

I will come back to that. There has been

“A lack of flexibility”

in the application and, indeed,

“misapplication of sanctions reducing the likelihood of people finding work.

There has been

”A failure to appreciate that many people on benefits just do not have the necessary IT skills ... to use the DWP’s Universal Jobmatch facility”

which is often a condition of benefit.

There was also

“A failure to make those sanctioned aware of the availability of hardship payments”

The DWP is apparently unable to provide figures for the number of people who receive hardship payments. There has been

“The consistent triggering of a stop in housing benefit as a result of a sanction, which should not happen”,

but does,

“and can lead to significant debt being incurred even for a minor sanction.

There is

“The lack of a deadline for decision-making on DWP reconsiderations, leading to delays in redressing wrong decisions”

and finally, there has been

“shunting of the costs of dealing with sanctioned claimants on to other agencies: local authorities; health boards; third sector agencies; etc.”

Perhaps the most serious of the weaknesses is the first—the failure to tell people that they have been sanctioned. We learned that it seems to be a common occurrence that people first realise that they have been sanctioned when they go to a hole in the wall and cannot get any money.

It turns out, that for some sanctions, there is not even a duty to tell people that they have been sanctioned. How on earth can sanctions work to encourage patterns of behaviour if people are not told that they have been sanctioned or why?

The weaknesses of the current sanctions regime are reflected in the outcomes of reviews of sanctions decisions. The statistics can be read in many ways, but four in 10 decisions to apply a sanction are overturned on review. There has been some debate about whether formal targets for the number of sanctions exist—some people argue that they do, but the DWP is clear that they do not. What is clear to the committee, however, is that whether or not formal targets exist, there is now a deliberate policy to drive up the number of sanctions to previously unheard-of levels, through managerial pressure on jobcentre staff.

The committee is not automatically opposed to a benefits system that incorporates conditionality, but we share the view of Citizens Advice Scotland that sanctions must be used only as a last resort for people who have consistently and deliberately refused to engage with jobseeking requirements without good reason. We believe that if sanctions are to be used they should be applied appropriately, consistently and with greater levels of discretion and support. We believe that the current operation of the sanctions regime is not in line with those principles.

Sanctions are also disproportionately affecting some of the most vulnerable groups of claimants—in particular, the disabled, single parents and young people, including those who have recently left care. In many cases, rather than being the driver to get people back into work that the DWP claims they are, sanctions are getting in the way of people getting back to work. In its report, the committee makes a number of suggestions for improvements to the operation of the sanctions regime. More important than those, however, is the need for a sea change in the culture of the policy from being punitive to being supportive.

Another key aspect of our recent work has been food banks. We found that welfare reform is a significant cause of the rise in demand that is being experienced by providers of food aid. We strongly contest the United Kingdom Government’s assertion that the growth in use of food banks is due solely to increased publicity and people choosing to use food banks as an economic choice. We found that there was a 400 per cent rise from the previous year in the number of people who were receiving assistance from food banks. A staggering 71,000 people—more than 49,000 adults and 22,000 children—were using Scottish Trussell Trust food banks. That is 22,000 children asking, “Please, sir—can I have some more?”

Our views have been supported by recent evidence. The Trussell Trust’s most recent figures for Scotland, covering the period from April to September 2014, show that food bank use has increased by 124 per cent over the previous year’s figure. Benefit issues are a major contributor to that increase, with 28 per cent of those who attend food banks doing so because of benefit delays and 18 per cent doing so because of benefit changes. Almost half the people who are attending Trussell Trust food banks in Scotland are doing so because of welfare issues.



Finance Committee 17 December 2014 : Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Michael McMahon

Your expectation is that 90 per cent of solicitors want to file an online return. If 80 or 70 per cent make use of it, does that mean that the system was not ready?



Finance Committee 17 December 2014 : Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Michael McMahon

How much have you projected will be done by paper? What is your expectation of the level of paper returns, regardless of whether there is a contingency?



Finance Committee 17 December 2014 : Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Michael McMahon

Will that contingency be considered to have been put in place only if all returns are done on paper?



Finance Committee 17 December 2014 : Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Michael McMahon

You have told us that you have a contingency plan and that, had it been necessary to put it in place before now, it could have been, but that it is more likely that it will not be required until February, if at all. What is the contingency? What is the plan?



Finance Committee 17 December 2014 : Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Michael McMahon

You explained that a decision to bring people in earlier would have increased the cost of staffing, but the overall costs have already risen by £2 million. You said that you were

“managing the project very tightly and are ensuring that it delivers what it needs to deliver and stays within budget.” —[Official Report, Finance Committee, 26 November 2014; c 25.]

The project was already not within budget. How much more would it have gone up and how much more will it go up?



Finance Committee 17 December 2014 : Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Michael McMahon

What else would they have been doing other than their jobs?



Finance Committee 17 December 2014 : Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Michael McMahon

You have taken to task the point made in the report that only one member of staff is responsible for this. I understand your explanation for that, which is that other staff were available and part of the team. What else were those staff doing if they were not directly hands on, as the individual member of staff was? Were they deployed to other responsibilities at that time?



Finance Committee 17 December 2014 : Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Michael McMahon

When you were here in November, you said to the committee:

“There has been a lot of progress but there is nothing negative that I need to report.”—[Official Report, Finance Committee, 26 November 2014; c 29.]

That seems strange. You must have known of Audit Scotland’s report at that time, and known that the criticisms existed. Did you just ignore the criticisms when you said that to us?

Vote DetailMSP VoteResult

S4M-11901.3 Neil Findlay: Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce—As an amendment to motion S4M-11901
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11901.1 Mary Scanlon: Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce—As an amendment to motion S4M-11901
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11830.2 John Swinney: The Smith Commission—As an amendment to motion S4M-11830 in the name of Ru
>> Show more
NoCarried

S4M-11830 Ruth Davidson: The Smith Commission—That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the Sm
>> Show more
NoCarried

Amendment 6 moved by Dr Richard Simpson on motion S4M-11826 Maureen Watt: Food (Scotland) Bill—That
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11825.3 Claire Baker: End of Year Fish Negotiations—As an amendment to motion S4M-11825 in the n
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11825.2 Jamie McGrigor: End of Year Fish Negotiations—As an amendment to motion S4M-11825 in the
>> Show more
YesDefeated

S4M-11825.1 Tavish Scott: End of Year Fish Negotiations—As an amendment to motion S4M-11825 in the n
>> Show more
AbstainDefeated

S4M-11825 Richard Lochhead: End of Year Fish Negotiations—That the Parliament welcomes the successfu
>> Show more
AbstainCarried

S4M-11763.3 Margaret Burgess: Private Sector Rent Reform—As an amendment to motion S4M-11763 in the
>> Show more
NoCarried

Search for other Motions lodged by Michael McMahon
EventIdTypeSub TypeMSP NameParty NameConstituencyRegionTitleItemTextFormattedAnswer DateAnswerStatusIdExpectedAnswerDateAnsweredByMspApprovedDateSubmissionDateMeetingDateProductionStatusIdRecordStatusIdStatus DateOnBehalfOfConsideredForMembersBusinessCrossPartySupportRegisteredInterestSupportCountSupportDateIsEventLinkCurrentMinister
Motion S4M-11840: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, On Behalf of Welfare Reform Committee, Date Lodged: 09/12/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11220: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 15/10/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-11175: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 09/10/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-10370: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 17/06/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-10129: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 26/05/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-09800: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 23/04/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-09594: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 02/04/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-09190: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, On Behalf of Welfare Reform Committee, Date Lodged: 27/02/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-08873: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 28/01/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Motion S4M-08793: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 17/01/2014 Show Full Motion >>
Search for other Questions asked by Michael McMahon
EventIdTypeSub TypeMSP NameParty NameConstituencyRegionTitleItemTextFormattedAnswer DateAnswerStatusIdExpectedAnswerDateAnsweredByMspApprovedDateSubmissionDateMeetingDateProductionStatusIdRecordStatusIdStatus DateOnBehalfOfConsideredForMembersBusinessCrossPartySupportRegisteredInterestSupportCountSupportDateIsEventLinkCurrentMinister
Question S4W-23667: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 11/12/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03779: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 24/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4W-23199: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 17/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03729: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 10/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03671: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 03/11/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03621: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 20/10/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03581: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 29/09/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03553: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 22/09/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4O-03514: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 15/09/2014 Show Full Question >>
Question S4W-22080: Michael McMahon, Uddingston and Bellshill, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 10/07/2014 Show Full Question >>

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