Social Justice

DWP could be 'fantastic' under Labour, says ex-minister Stephen Timms: 'Don't write the DWP off'

In an exclusive interview with the Big Issue, the chair of the work and pensions committee Sir Stephen Timms spoke about his hopes for the future of the welfare system and employment under a Labour government

labour/ starmer and reeves

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who could be the next prime minister, alongside shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves. Image: Flickr/ Keir Starmer

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has the capacity to do a “fantastic job” under a Labour government, according to the chair of the work and pensions select committee.

Sir Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, said: “I don’t think we should write the DWP off. I don’t think our work on the committee pushes us into doing that.”

In an exclusive interview with the Big Issue, Timms said he hopes Labour reforms social security. He wants a less “hostile” benefits system which supports people into employment, rather than “forcing” them into unsuitable jobs.

“I think there is every possibility for the DWP to do a fantastic job,” Timms said. “Hopefully in the future they will.”

An MP since 1994, Timms served under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in several roles, including as minister of state for the DWP and later shadow minister.

“In the early Labour government days, you would talk about Jobcentres as helping people,” Timms said. “People didn’t laugh at you. That was reasonable.

“Now, most people find Jobcentres pretty unpleasant. They feel the Jobcentre is trying to catch them out. I think Jobcentres should be places that you go to be helped, not hit.”

The Conservative government is on a mission to drive benefit claimants into work to boost the economy, but its “punitive” tactics have faced criticism.

As the Big Issue has reported, sanctions and rhetoric can exacerbate people’s mental and physical health conditions and push them further away from work.

Timms said: “Benefit levels are now so low that people are forced to take the first job they come across, even if it’s not the right job for them.

“There’s an increasing suggestion that one of the reasons for the UK’s low productivity problem is we’re forcing people into the wrong jobs. And therefore, the British economy isn’t as productive as it should be.”



Shadow work and pensions secretary Liz Kendall recently said there would be “no option for a life on benefits” under a Labour government, while setting out plans to encourage unemployed young people into work.

Questioned over this, Timms said: “The system has to make work feasible and accessible. There are an awful lot of people at the moment, young people especially, who are out of work on the grounds of poor mental health and Liz Kendall has talked about that, rightly.

“But once adequate support is in place, it’s reasonable for the system to expect people to take up the opportunities on offer. And I think people want to take up those opportunities.”

Kendall told The Sunday Times: “I do not want Jobcentres to places of fear. I want Jobcentres to be places where you can go get the support you need to get work, where businesses want to come because they get the best possible people. But what I don’t want is to have a situation where work coaches are spending all their time assessing and monitoring people, not giving them the opportunities they need.”

Timms said Social Security Scotland is setting a strong example and making “headway in setting out less hostile system for social security”.

The work and pensions committee recently published a report outlining how benefit levels in the UK are “too low” to cover basic living costs, calling on the government to introduce a new benchmark for benefits.

It suggests, for example, using the methodology in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust’s essentials guarantee, which estimates universal credit falls short by £30 each week.

“I think that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust have done a very good job of this, looking at how much it takes to survive,” Timms said. “It’s quite hard to look at the essentials guarantee and conclude they have been over-generous.”

Timms welcomed the decision to uprate benefits and the local housing allowance, in addition to the extension of the household support fund.

But the fund, given to councils to support people facing financial hardship, has only been extended by six months. It means a “lifeline” support for families is once again at risk of being stripped away, at a time when council budgets are already depleted.

“There’s a strong case for making the household support fund permanent,” Timms said. “If we accept there is an important role for local authorities in supporting people facing hardship, they need to be given the resources to fulfil that responsibility.

“Once the household support fund goes, then there will be quite a lot of councils who will not be able to provide any local welfare assistance at all.”

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