Labour Pledges "Transparency" Overhaul of Benefits Sanctions For People With Disabilities
Shadow disabilities minister Vicky Foxcroft has told PoliticsHome that a Labour government would ensure better transparency over benefits sanctions at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
The DWP, led by Conservative MP for Central Devon Mel Stride, currently publishes general data on the number claimants on means-tested benefits that have been sanctioned. Benefit claimants on means-tested benefits can be sanctioned if they miss an appointment or fail to meet the conditions of their payments; sanctions include reduced payments, or payments being suspended.
But the government does not currently collect data on whether those sanctioned have a disability. Instead a claimant's work coach is able to take into account reasons a disability might have led a person to meet the conditions of their payments on a case-by-case basis.
Labour has said if they were to get into government at the next general election, expected to take place before the end of 2024, they would publish data on the number of people sanctioned by the DWP who have disabilities, arguing that transparency of data at the DWP is important to build trust with disabled people.
"How do you get things right when you've got a department that isn't transparent enough? Transparency is really important," Foxcroft told PoliticsHome.
Responding to Labour's plans to publicise data on the number of disabled people sanctioned, a DWP spokesperson said: “We support millions of disabled people each year and always work to provide a supportive and compassionate service, and we regularly publish sanctions data.
“Our focus remains on helping those who can, find and move into work.
"The majority of claimants agree that the potential for sanctions means they are more likely to look for work or take steps to prepare for work."
Thomas Hamilton-Shaw Policy Manager at disability equality charity Scope is supportive of Labour's proposal. He told PoliticsHome publishing data on the numbers of disabled people sanctions would help "expose the impact they have".
“Sanctions and removing financial support ramps up misery for disabled people in a cost of living crisis," said Hamilton-Shaw.
“There are a million disabled people in the UK who can and want to work, but are denied the opportunity.
“We’d like to see the DWP move away from a sanctions based regime and towards one that works with and supports disabled people.”
Last year the DWP was criticised for a lack of transparency after then work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey blocked publishing a study into the number of deaths among claimants after sanctions – claiming it was not in “the public interest” and contained “sensitive information”.
The information commissioner has since ordered the government to publish the study because there is a “strong public interest in scrutiny and understanding of the information available to those deciding whether to continue with a controversial policy such as sanctioning benefits”.
While Foxcroft said the party is concerned about reports of suicides after benefit sanctions, it has not yet decided whether a Labour government would publish figures of deaths of claimants who had received sanctions.
But she did say Labour would review the assessment process for what the conditionality of certain benefits means for disabled people who interact with the benefit system.
“We don't want to be giving people sanctions and so forth for those that can't work,” said Foxcroft.
“We want to review the assessment process to make sure that it's not as intimidating and not as fearful as it is at the moment.
“When you say ‘the DWP’ to many disabled people it just fills them with terror.”
She also said Labour would not reassess disabled people with conditions that are permanent or likely to get worse, instead giving disabled people the option to reach out if their condition worsens and they may be entitled to more money.
“If we know that some of these conditions are not going to improve, we can have a light touch – we can write to them and say: 'if you want to be reassessed, you can but you don't have to be'", said Foxcroft.
"And that's kind of changing the culture as well.”
She added: “From a financial point of view, why waste money on assessments when we know somebody's condition is not going to be improved?
“It's a waste of money – we're paying for those assessors, we're paying for the whole process, as well as the impact on somebody's life as well.”
More broadly on the issue of how the DWP is perceived by disabled people, Foxcroft also said it was important to consult disability stakeholders with "skin in the game" to tackle the culture at the DWP which leaves disabled people feeling "fearful" during assessment.
"We know it will take a long time to make sure that we do that," said Foxcroft.
"But also making sure that people are getting the support that they need – that's how we do things differently, is making sure that trust in the system."
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe