‘Sunderland is not a city of scroungers’ – MP defends Wearside amid benefits row

HITTING OUT: Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott.
HITTING OUT: Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott.
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THE case of a Sunderland man whose benefits were suspended after he was hospitalised with an asthma attack has been highlighted in Parliament.

Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott raised the issue while speaking in a debate on the impact of benefits sanctions in the North East.

It was right to punish those who exploited the system, she said, but genuine cases should be treated with respect.

Ms Elliott said: “We are a hard-working area. Life is pretty tough for many people, but people have an ethos of working hard, paying their way and doing a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.

“That is the mindset of people in the North East, and I take great offence when I read or hear about people criticising the area and talking as if people there were just scroungers, because that simply is not the case.

“I have no truck with people who really try to fiddle the system, and I would be the first to remove their benefits and sanction them, but they are not the norm, and they are not the people we are talking about. People who need to claim benefits should be treated with dignity and respect, not only by those they deal with at the DWP and Jobcentre Plus, but by the rest of society.

“However, the treatment people receive often falls short; in some cases, it is absolutely appalling and unacceptable.”

She highlighted the case of a constituent who had been taken to accident and emergency with a serious asthma attack.

“He spoke to the receptionist about the Jobcentre Plus appointment that had been scheduled for that day, which he would clearly be unable to get to. He explained his reasons and, on returning from hospital, he sent a letter,” said Ms Elliott.

“A few weeks later, he received a letter saying that he had failed to comply with the scheme’s requirements and that his Jobseeker’s Allowance would be sanctioned for one month. Extraordinarily, the letter went on to say that an asthma attack was not a sufficiently good reason for missing an appointment.”

The decision had been overturned on appeal: “The most annoying thing is not that it was overturned — that was absolutely the right thing to do — but that it was made in the first place and that my constituent ever had to come to me.

“If people are ill, or have other genuine reasons for not being able to get somewhere at a certain time, they need to be treated fairly. They need to be treated like anybody else in any other system, and to be believed.

“The people we are talking about are vulnerable. Many have not always been on benefits, and the unemployment that has arisen in the last few years is new to them. Treating them in this absolutely inhumane way is wrong and unacceptable.”

Work minister Esther McVey defended the Government’s record and told the debate, secured by her Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah, that the sanction rate for Jobseeker’s Allowance was between five and six per cent a month and less than one per cent for Employment and Support Allowance.

“In the past year, the number of people sanctioned actually decreased,” she said.