Category: Welfare “reforms”

Select Committee launch inquiry into ‘effectiveness of welfare system’ as UN rapporteur condemns Conservative policies

Image result for philip alston

The Work and Pensions Select Committee have launched an inquiry into ‘effectiveness of welfare system.’ The Committee say the inquiry was launched as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty makes an investigative visit to the UK, and it will consider how effectively our welfare system works to protect citizens against hardship and chronic deprivation.

The Committee have noted that the UK’s welfare system is currently undergoing fundamental reform, in the transition to Universal Credit alongside other major and largely untested reforms like benefit sanctions and the benefit cap. 

Image result for universal credit roll out cartoon

The Committee’s latest work on Universal Credit examined how Government will (or won’t) safeguard some of the most vulnerable members of our society as it implements this huge programme of change.

After the recent Budget, Members from across the House expressed concerns on this issue, including some senior MPs telling the Government that continuing the freeze on benefits in place since 2010 was “immoral”.

Previously, the Work and Pensions Committee inquired into the local welfare safety net in response to changes in the Welfare Reform Act 2012—which replaced several centrally administered schemes with locally run provision—and further changes in the Summer 2015 Budget.

The Committee looked at whether these changes represented “localism in action” as claimed, or rather, created a postcode lottery of service provision, with people falling through the gaps or “holes” in the welfare safety net and the costs shunted on to local authorities, services and charities.

The Committee concluded that welfare ‘reforms’ risk leading people into severe hardship and called on the government to:

  • Ensure reforms such as the benefit cap do not inadvertently penalise groups who cannot actually adapt to it or offset its effects, and that appropriate mitigation strategies are in place.

    For example, some people cannot find or move to cheaper housing, because none is available, or cannot move in to work because they are a single parent and there is no appropriate childcare in their area. 
  • Conduct robust, cross-departmental evaluation on the impact of local schemes on the most vulnerable households 
  • Co-ordinate with local government better to ensure more consistent quality of provision

Since then indicators strongly suggest that chronic deprivation is on the rise. These include numbers of households in temporary accommodation, rough sleepers, and people referred to foodbanks, says the Committee.

Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“We are now seeing the grim, if unintended, consequences of the Government’s massive welfare reforms across several major inquiries. Policy decision after policy decision has piled the risks of major changes onto the shoulders of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and then onto local authorities, services and charities scrambling to catch them if and when they fall.

The welfare safety net ought to be catching people before they are plunged into debt, hardship and hunger. Instead it appears to be unravelling before our very eyes. The Committee now wants to find out whether the Government’s policies are sufficient to save people from destitution—and, if not, what more needs to be done.”

We do have to wonder how much evidence it will take before the government concedes that its draconian welfare policies are discriminatory, ideologically driven,  empirically unverified in terms of their efficacy and profoundly damaging; creating poverty and extreme hardships for historially marginalised groups. 

Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has discussed a ‘Government in denial’ in his scathing report. He draws pretty much the same conclusions that many of us have over the last few years. He says that “key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned.”

Much of the contract has been dismantled, including access to justice via legal aid, as well as universal welfare, health care, social housing and many other social gains and safety net provisions that were a fundamental part of the post war democratic settlement.

This is a consequence of the Conservative’s coordinated and sustained attack on democracy, public services and establised ideas about universal rights and citizenship, since 2010. It’s very difficult to see this as anything else but an ongoing and intentional attack. 

The government’s ‘mean spirited’ welfare policies have intended outcomes. They are codified expressions of how a government thinks society ought to be structured.

Alston draws the same conclusions as I have since 2012; that the harms and suffering being inflicted on the most politically disadvantaged citizens is part of “a radical social re-engineering’, and nothing to do with any economic need for austerity.”

In other words, the all too often devastating consequences of Conservative welfare policies are deliberate and intended. 

Alston says that the government’s policies and drastic cuts were “entrenching high levels of poverty and inflicting “unnecessary” hardship in one of the richest countries in the world.

“When asked about these problems, Government ministers were almost entirely dismissive, blaming political opponents for wanting to sabotage their work, or suggesting that the media didn’t really understand the system and that Universal Credit was unfairly blamed for problems rooted in the old legacy system of benefits,” he said.

Yet another example of  the government’s strategy of loud and determined denials and sustained use of techniques of neutralisation.

When it was announced that the UN was investigating the impact of government policies and severe poverty in the UK, Conservative Minister for the 17th Century, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said: “Surely the UN has better ways of wasting money?”

A government gaslighting  spokesman said: “We completely disagree with this [Philip Alston’s] analysis. With these Government’s changes, household incomes have never been higher, income inequality has fallen, the number of children living in workless households is at a record low and there are now one million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010.

“Universal Credit is supporting people into work faster, but we are listening to feedback and have made numerous improvements to the system including ensuring 2.4 million households will be up to £630 better off a year as a result of raising the work allowance.

“We are absolutely committed to helping people improve their lives while providing the right support for those who need it.”

Of course, the empirical evidence does not support this government statement.

Send the Committee your views

The Committee is now inviting evidence, whether you are an individual, group or organisation, on any or all of the following questions. 

Please send your views by 14 December 2018.

  • How should hardship and chronic deprivation be measured?
  • What do we know about chronic deprivation and hardship in the UK?
  • Is it changing? How?
  • Why do some households fall into poverty and deprivation?
  • What factors best explain the reported increases in indicators of deprivation like homelessness, rough sleeping and increased food bank use? 
  • What about the local variations in these markers of deprivation?
  • Do Jobcentre Plus procedures and benefit delays play a role?
  • What role does Universal Credit play in in relation to deprivation, or could it play in tackling it?
  • Is our welfare safety net working to prevent people falling into deprivation?
  • If not, how could it better do so?
  • What progress has been made on addressing the issues identified in the Committee’s 2016
    Report, (described above / link)?
  • What are the remaining weaknesses, how should these now be addressed?

Send a written submission

Related

Universal Credit is a ‘serious threat to public health’ say public health researchers

 


 

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‘Pointlessly cruel’ sanctions regime must be reassessed, says Commons Select Committee

A protest in Kentish Town, north-west London, against benefit cuts and sanctions.

The Work and Pensions Committee has published a report this month regarding the findings of an ongoing inquiry into welfare conditionality and sanctions. 

The Committee says in the report:“Of all the evidence we received, none was more compelling than that against the imposition of conditionality and sanctions on people with a disability or health condition. It does not work.

“Worse, it is harmful and counterproductive. We recommend that the Government immediately stop imposing conditionality and sanctions on anyone found to have limited capability for work, or who presents a valid doctor’s note (Fit Note) stating that they are unable to work, including those who present such a note while waiting for a Work Capability Assessment. Instead, it should work with experts to develop a programme of voluntary employment support.” 

The report concludes that “The human cost of continuing to apply the existing regime of benefit sanctions – the ‘only major welfare reform this decade to have never been evaluated’ – appears simply too high. The evidence that it is achieving its aims is at best mixed, and at worst showing a policy that appears ‘arbitrarily punitive’.” 

The Committee says the Coalition Government “had little or no understanding of the likely impact of a tougher sanctions regime” when it introduced it in 2012 with the stated aim, as the NAO describes it, that “benefits, employment support and conditions and sanctions together lead to employment.”

At that point, the Government promised to review the reform’s impact and whether it was achieving its aims on an ongoing basis. But six years later, Government “is none the wiser.” 

As one expert witness suggested, “if it was not for the embarrassment, the Government would have suspended Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) sanctions altogether as soon as that National Audit Office finding came out that sanctioned ESA claimants were less likely to get into work.”

Some groups ‘disproportionately vulnerable’

The report highlights that single parents, care leavers and people with a disability or health condition are disproportionately vulnerable to and affected by the withdrawal of their benefit. The Committee says that “until the government can show unequivocally that sanctions actually help to move these claimants into work, it cannot ‘justify these groups’ continued inclusion in the sanctions regime’.

In the meantime, and until that positive link is proven, people who are the responsible carer for a child under the age of 5, or a child with demonstrable additional needs and care costs, and care leavers under the age of 25, should only ever have a maximum of 20% of their benefit withheld.”

The report authors go on to say: “The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must urgently evaluate the effectiveness of the reforms to welfare conditionality and sanctions since 2012, including their impact on people’s financial and personal well-being.

“Until the Government can point to ‘robust evidence that longer sanctions are more effective’, higher level sanctions should be reduced to 2, 4 and 6 months for first, second and subsequent failures to comply”.

The report goes on to say: “Government should also “immediately stop imposing conditionality and sanctions on anyone found to have limited capability for work, or who presents a valid doctor’s note” stating they cannot work. Instead, it should work with experts to develop a programme of voluntary employment support for those who can get into work.”

Sanctions have no effect on in-work claimants

Randomised Controlled Trials have shown sanctions had no effect on in-work claimants’ outcomes, and work coaches are not yet equipped to get enough decisions right. Sanctioning people who are working is too great a risk for too little return. DWP should not proceed with conditionality and sanctions for in-work claimants until full roll-out of Universal Credit is complete, and even then, only introduce sanctions on the basis of robust evidence that it will be effective at driving progress in work. 

Comment from Work and Pensions Committee Chair Frank Field MP

 “We have heard stories of terrible and unnecessary hardship from people who’ve been sanctioned. They were left bewildered and driven to despair at becoming, often with their children, the victims of a sanctions regime that is at times so counter-productive it just seems pointlessly cruel.

While none of them told us that there should be no benefit sanctions at all, it can only be right for the Government to take a long hard look at what is going on. If their stories were rare it would be unacceptable, but the Government has no idea how many more people out there are suffering in similar circumstances. In fact, it has kept itself in the dark about any of the impacts of the major reforms to sanctions introduced since 2012.

The time is long overdue for the Government to assess the evidence and then have the courage of its reform convictions to say, where it is right to do so, ’this policy is not achieving its aims, it is not working, and the cost is too high: We will change it.”

The Work and Pensions Committee are currently looking into the Government’s plans for moving people who are already claiming benefits onto Universal Credit, which merges six “legacy” benefits into one, single, monthly household payment. The Government calls this “managed migration”. The Committee is also looking at the impact of the changes announced by the Government in the 2018 Budget.

Most recent evidence session: 24 Oct 2018 – Work and Pensions Committee – oral evidence | PDF version (268 KB) | Published 27 Oct 2018.

Evidence given by Steven McIntosh, Director of UK Poverty Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns, Save the Children, Dalia Ben-Galim, Director of Policy, Gingerbread, Joe Shalam, Researcher, Centre for Social Justice, Jonathan Broadbery, Head of Policy and External Relations, National Day Nurseries Association Gaynor Rowles, Hairdresser, Lucy Collins, Beauty technician, Vikki Waterman, Administrator, Thuto Mali, full time mum.

Watch this evidence session.

 


Related

New research shows welfare sanctions are punitive, create perverse incentives and are potentially life-threatening

 

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Council told me to submit an FoI for the details of my housing benefit award and alleged DHP ‘overpayments’

Image result for Discretionary housing payments

Last year I fell into difficulties because my housing benefit was decreased. I struggled to make up the shortfall to pay my rent. I also had to pay council tax as my council tax benefit was reduced. I made an appointment with my local council welfare service, who advised me to claim Discretionary Housing Payments. They supported me in working out my monthly expenses and they found that I was over £200 a month short to meet my basic living costs, including rent. I was very ill at the time with a severe flare up of lupus and my mobility was extremely poor. 

The welfare service contacted occupational therapy on my behalf, and they organised an appointment for an assessment, and subsequently, for the provision of some aids and adaptations in my home because I often struggle getting about. The welfare service advised me to claim Personal Independent Payment (PIP) and supported me with my claim. I had such a distressing experience claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) in 2011, having to appeal the decision, then almost immediately after winning at tribunal, I was sent for a re-assessment, that I had put off claiming PIP for six years, even though I needed the support very much. The distress and strain caused by each assessment, including the one for PIP, has exacerbated my illness.

The housing team decided that Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) would be awarded for a year. This is a fairly standard award length. The DHP was to help cover the extra cost I had because of the deductions being made to my housing benefit while my son was at home. He took six months out from university because in February 2017 I developed pneumonia and sepsis. I was very seriously ill and almost died because I developed severe sepsis and septic shock. My son supported me after I came home from hospital, while I recovered, which took several months.

When I was awarded PIP, my housing benefit was amended and an increase in my award was backdated to the date of my claim for PIP. Because my son was staying at home, deductions had been made – the bedroom tax – because he was classed as a ‘non dependent’, even though he had no income for that period, as he is a student. The council tax charge arose because of the same reason. Although my rented property is a private one, my local council nonetheless call the non dependent deduction a bedroom tax. 

Councils are not allowed to make deductions for non dependents from people who have a PIP award with the daily living component. I came across this rule on the government site. I notified the council and explained the rule, as they didn’t seem to know about it. I was then reassessed and awarded the money that was deducted from my housing benefit for the bedroom tax, and the council backdated the amount they repaid to when I first made my PIP claim, which was from late July to April, 2017.

I received a letter explaining how my housing benefit had been worked out again. I then received a letter from the Discretionary Housing Payments section of the council, saying I had been overpaid DHP from April to July. This is because my housing benefit had increased and the increase was backpaid.

I was told I had to repay the DHP. It was deducted from my housing benefit without further discussion – leaving me short again for my rent and defeating the objective of DHP. I had claimed DHP early last year because of the bedroom tax shortfall. 

I was not informed about the rule that councils cannot make deductions for non dependents if someone is awarded the daily living component of PIP, I had to find that out myself. Nor did the council indicate that if my housing benefit was increased by the housing benefit section retrospectively, that would mean I may have to repay my DHP. I was not informed that if the housing benefit sector had made an error, I may be expected to repay the DHP awarded. However, the error occured through no fault on my part, so I ought to have challenged the claim of overpayment, but I did not know the rules about this at the time.

I was not informed at the time I made my claim for DHP that if I got my PIP award, my housing benefit would increase and that the increase would be backdated to the date of my PIP claim. It’s also reasonable to assume that the housing benefit office would have taken into account that I had a DHP award when they paid me the money for the  deductions they had made over that period. 

Money was taken from my housing benefit to recover the DHP, which left me in hardship again every month. This defeats the whole stated purpose of DHP awards.

However, I have since learned that DHP ‘overpayments’ are only deemed as such in certain circumstances, which are not applicable in my case. I should not have been asked to repay my DHP.

I also learned that deductions for overpayments CANNOT be made from ongoing housing benefit awards, Universal Credit awards or any other benefit. Housing benefit and DHP are seperate awards.

The council have violated rules that are clearly stated on the council’s own website as well as those set out in the government guidance for DHP

In a document called Discretionary Housing Payments Guidance Manual on the government website, it says: “A DHP cannot be recovered from on-going HB or UC. This is unlike HB overpayments where there is a regulatory provision to allow recovery from on-going HB. There are also no provisions for the recovery of overpaid DHPs from other prescribed benefits.”

It also says:  “You can only recover a DHP if you decide that payment has been made
as a result of:

 a misrepresentation or failure to disclose a material fact by the claimant (either fraudulently or otherwise), or
 an error made when the application was determined.”

Neither of those criteria apply. When the application was determined, I was not in receipt of PIP. The bedroom tax and council tax deductions were being made, and that  predated my application for DHP and was not through any fault of my own. The non dependent deductions continued until after I had notified the council of my PIP award, and I had to inform them of the rule about PIP daily living component and non dependent deductions myself before they reassessed my claim, because I read the rules about this on the government PIP website last year. 

I was then awarded the total amount that had been deducted for a ‘non dependent.’ I had to ring several times before the council tax I had paid was given back. The council had not even considered repaying me those deductions. I was not informed at any time that I may be asked to repay any of the DHP award, and I think it is fair to assume that the housing benefit department took the DHP award into account when they made their decision to pay me the deductions they had taken, and when they calculated the amount I was owed. 

The DHP section claimed I was overpaid despite the fact that this doesn’t tally with government guidelines, which outline what circumstances may be defined as an overpayment. None of the criteria applied to the circumstances of my claim. The guidance states that if the claimant has not contributed to an error, then they should not be asked to repay any DHP. 

The money was deducted from my housing benefit award from towards the end of last year, and throughout most of this year – I had to ring and ask for the weekly deductions to be reduced early this year as they were causing me hardship. The minimum deduction the DHP section said they could make was £10 per week, and they had been taking £20 per week.

It seems the council are not aware of the rules that apply to non deductions and PIP, or to DHP awards and the rule that says ‘recovery’ cannot be made by making deductions to ongoing housing benefit/Universal Credit. But it is too late for me to query or challenge the recovery as all of that DHP award period has now been taken from my housing benefit. I only found the government DHP guidelines this year, because another problem has arisen.

It seems that people who claim any support have to become welfare specialists in order to understand the rules and guidelines because many administrative authorities don’t seem to know them. Or perhaps they know about them but are reluctant to apply them until they have to.

Yet today I checked the council’s website and found a section on DHP administration, and the rules I have cited here are clearly written in their own guidlelines. 

It gets worse: another error

From April this year, the council had been making more ‘non dependent’ deductions for my other son who, they now tell me, was assumed to have left home because he was in university. That, they told me, left me with a ‘spare room’. The council did not tell me they had reduced my payments, or provide any explanation. The DHP section were also making deductions from my housing benefit, though my award from DHP was ended at the time. That is not supposed to happen according to the government and my local council’s rules.

The government guidelines say that if there is a deemed overpayment of DHP, it cannot be deducted from an ongoing housing benefit or universal credit award. I did not know this at the time, and the deductions continued until September, when I rang the council to ask why my housing benefit payments were so low, leaving me with a huge shortfall to find for my rent. I did know about the DHP deductions, but had assumed that the council were acting according to the rules. They told me that my son had left home and gone to university. I explained that he had not. Again. 

My youngest son left university last September. While he was at university, he returned home out of term times, and was therefore legally classed as living at home. 

The council had previously assumed my older son had left home too when he first went to university, but I found the rule on the government website that says if students return home – out of term times, for example – then they are legally classed as living at home and non dependent deductions cannot be made in these circumstances.

I challenged the decision to reduce my housing benefit at that time, because the council benefit office notified me of their intention. They ended the deductions for the ‘spare room’, because I provided evidence that my son returned home outside of term times.

However, I had NO notification about the decision to deduct money from my housing benefit for my younger son – a ‘bedroom tax’ – or any explanation why my benefit was reduced. He returned home out of term times (so was legally classed as living at home) and anyway, the dates that the housing benefit office applied the bedroom tax, my son had already left university and returned home permanently. As I am in receipt of PIP daily care component, they cannot make deductions for a ‘non dependent’ from my housing benefit. 

I challenged the underpayments and was paid the money that was deducted, again, as it was the councils’ mistake because they did not notify me about why they were making deductions, and gave me no opportunity to challenge the decision.

With the recent letter explaining how the reimbursment had been worked out from the housing benefit section, there was a notification from DHP section dated 25 September this year, thanking me for a claim I never made this year – they had retrospectively made an award and backdated it to last year, which I thought was very odd at the time I got the bundle of documents in the post.

Now, low and behold DHP section are claiming once again that I have been ‘overpaid’ for the period they retrospectively made the award (my rent allowance was more than £60 a month short at the time leaving me with more than £80 per month to find for my rent. DHP administrators now say they want more than half of what I was reimbursed by the housing benefit section back. However, as far as I was aware, that reimbursement was my shortfall in housing benefit, FROM the housing benefit office, which is not the same thing as DHP. The council can’t tell me what deductions had been made by DHP section and what deductions were made for the bedroom tax from the beginning of April to September this year

Going through my bank statements, I can see something isn’t right with what the DHP section are claiming because it doesn’t seem that I was paid the DHP for the most recent period. The amounts I received for housing costs were way too low, even accounting for the deductions for my son, made in error on the housing benefit sections’ part. And the housing benefit section would surely not reimburse DHP payments as they are seperate thing. Yet DHP section claim I have been ‘paid twice’. To complicate things further, DHP were making deductions from my housing benefit over some of this period too for the previous ‘overpayment’. 

I went through the housing benefit amounts I was originally paid on my bank statement over the last year and a half. The amounts I got over the period varied. Up until late September, 2017, it was clear that I was getting DHP, as the shortfall between my housing benefit and rent was £50. Then my overall housing benefit amount dropped by a further £20 fortnightly. This is the period that DHP now claim I was ‘overpaid’, yet I can’t see any evidence they actually paid me my award over this time span on my bank statement.

It’s very confusing and the lack of transparency regarding payment details means that I am struggling to work out exactly what was deducted for bedroom tax, what DHP were deducting at the time, and what they were actually paying me, since they claim they were making payments.

I asked the council yesterday for a breakdown of information regarding this matter yesterday and I was advised, unbelievably, to submit a Freedom of Information (FoI) request.

I’m not sure that people can submit FoIs about themselves. I think he probably meant meant a Data Subject Access Request (SAR), on reflection. However it should not be down to me to have to inform the council of the rules they ought to be following and to have to interpret badly worded advice. It’s reasonable to expect that council advisors give correct information and advice. 

In any event, bearing in mind that I have a month to submit my request for a review, and SARs often take quite a bit of time (and there’s no guarantee that the information will be provided), I think this was absolutely appalling advice. I asked for a precise breakdown of my payments and deductions – something you would expect a council to provide as a matter of transparency and as reasonable practice, and was subsequently presented with bureaucratic barriers to accessing that information.

The advisor I spoke to seemed as confused as me. I told him that DHP section are not permitted to make deductions from my ongoing housing benefit award, and he asked me where I got that information from. He then claimed that DHP can be deducted from a DHP award, implying that is what has happened. However, I pointed out that my DHP award had ended in April 2018 (it was awarded for one year) and DHP had been making deductions since then until October this year. He fell silent at that point. 

On my local council’s website, it says: “Where a DHP is found to have been overpaid the Benefit Service will consider whether it is appropriate to recover it in full, in part or not at all. As a general rule overpayments caused by official error will not be recovered, unless the customer caused or contributed to the error or was aware that too much was being paid.”

I did not cause or contribute to the error, nor was I aware if too much was paid or not.

It also says: “Notifications to the customer on overpaid DHP’s shall offer the opportunity
to seek a re-consideration.

63. Under no circumstances will recovery be sought for DHP from housing
benefit payments or universal credit payments due to the customer.”

So the advisor was claiming to be unaware of the council’s own rules, and furthermore, the council HAVE made deductions from my housing benefit award for DHP ‘overpayment’ from April to September this year when the council’s own rules state clearly that DHP administrators should not do so. 

It also says on the council’s website: “DHP overpayments can be written off in accordance with the authority’s current write off policy.”

If the council don’t consider that is an option in my case, as a disabled person who has been deemed ‘vulnerable’, it is highly unlikely they will for others in similar circumstances. 

I have now received an invoice for the amount DHP claims I was overpaid. However, the invoice has defined the overpayment as ‘housing benefit’, which is of course incorrect. I have been given 7 days to pay the amount. 

DHPs are discretionary and not subject to the statutory appeals mechanism, but they are subject to mandatory review.

Reading the government guidelines, the options available to DHP administrators are to a involve a debt collection agency and/or to take me to court if I don’t/can’t pay. I can’t pay. 

The council have told me to write a ‘complaint’. I was not informed of any further options.

However, reading the government guidlelines, my options are to ask for a review. If the matter is unresolved after that, I may then refer this matter to an independent council ombudsman. I can also ask for a judicial review. 

I shall be pursuing each of those options as necessary, if the situation remains unresolved.

I’m an ill and disabled person in receipt of PIP and the ESA support component. The council health and adult care section have assessed me and provided aids and adaptions in my home. The support I received from the council’s welfare service and occupational therapy has been excellent.

The housing benefit and DHP offices, however, have let me down very badly. My claim for DHP has actually increased my hardship in the longer term, and rather than mitigating the effects of government welfare reform and alleviating consequential hardships that affect vulnerable people, as intended, it has made my situation worse and caused me a significant amount of confusion, anxiety and distress.

I suffer with cognitive difficulties because of my illness, and trying to sort out mistakes made by the council and research the rules that the council ought to know about and apply has been both extremely stressful and difficult. I lost a night of sleep going through my bank statements yesterday. All of these events have seriously undermined my trust in the housing benefit and DHP offices, as these mistakes span over 2 years.

All of this very clearly highlights just how unfit for purpose government provision for ‘those most in need’ actually is.

I have two children, one still at university, both still live at home. I think that the political term ‘non dependents’ is a particularly nasty and authoritarian redefinition of adult children in poorer families, that undermines family bonds and attempts to redefine family relationships in terms of financial arrangements.

Neither of my younger sons can be defined as ‘non dependent’ because they still need a lot of financial and other kinds of support from me. I have a modestly sized 3 bedroomed house which has been adapted to meet my needs. There are no ‘spare rooms’, and my rent is actually relatively low. That said, the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) has been frozen for some years now, which means people like me have a large shortfall between the amount of housing benefit they can claim and the rent costs. 

The bedroom tax was a particularly spiteful Conservative policy aimed at the poorest citizens, and it has disproportionately affected disabled people. It’s a very authoritarian government that feels comfortable dictating the precise amount of living space some citizens are permitted, but then does not make any further provision to ensure that people can actually meet those mean spirited specifications. 

Image result for discretionary housing benefit reasons for awards

 

Related

Discretionary Housing Payments Guidance Manual

 


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The Centre for Social Justice say Brexit is ‘an opportunity’ to introduce private insurance schemes to replace contribution-based social security

Image result for demolition of welfare state UK kittysjones

I’ve written two lengthy pieces about the new report and submission this month to the UNCRPD – UK Independent Mechanism update report to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (published October 2018 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission) – which provides an independent assessment of the UK Independent Mechanism (UKIM) on the “disappointing” lack of progress by the UK governments to implement the UN’s recommendations since August 2017. You can access the articles here and here

The UKIM report says that the government “has not taken appropriate measures to combat negative and discriminatory stereotypes or prejudice against persons with disabilities in public and the media, including the government’s own claims that ‘dependency’ on benefits is in itself a disincentive of employment.” 

This is important because it shows just how embedded traditional Conservative prejudice is in policy design and within the practices that social security administration has come to entail. 

Image result for welfare state UK

The idea that welfare somehow creates the problems it was designed to alleviate, such as poverty and inequality, has become almost ‘common sense’ and because of that, it’s a narrative that remains largely unchallenged. The Conservatives believe that generous welfare provision creates ‘perverse incentives’. Yet international research has shown that generous welfare provision leads to more, better quality and sustainable employment. 

Moreover, this ideological position has been used politically as a justification to reduce social security provision so that it is no longer an adequate amount to meet citizens’ basic living needs. The aim is to discredit the welfare system itself, along with those needing its support. The government have long wished to replace the publicly funded social security provision ultimately with mandatory private insurance schemes.

The idea that welfare creates ‘dependency’ and ‘disincentivises’ work has been used as a justification for the introduction of cuts and an extremely punitive regime entailing ‘conditionality’ and sanctions. The governenment have selectively used punitive behavioural modification elements of behavioural economics theory and its discredited behaviourist language of ‘incentives’ to steadily withdraw publicly funded social security provision.

However, most of the public have already contributed to social security, those needing support tend to move in and out of work. Very few people remain out of work on a permanent basis. The Conservatives have created a corrosive and divisive myth that there are two discrete groups in society: tax payers and ‘scroungers’ – a class of economic free riders.

This intentionally divisive narrative of course is not true, since people claiming welfare support also pay taxes, such as VAT and council tax, and most have already worked and will work again, given the opportunity to do so. For those who are too ill to work, as a so-called civilised society, we should not hesitate to support them.

The government’s mindset is very disciplinarian. In their view, everyone else needs ‘corrective treatment’ to ensure that society is shaped and ruled the way they think it ought to be. The government believes that rather than addressing social problems – many of which are created and perpetuated by their own policies, such as growing inequality and absolute poverty – can be addressed by ‘incentivising’ people to ‘behave’ differently. In other words, they believe that people can be punished out of poverty, being ill, being out of work, and from being less “competitive”, cost effective citizens, letting down the Conservative’s constructed, overarching neoliberal state.

The ’round table’ report from the Centre for Social Justice 

Public policies that are supposed to address fundamental human needs arising from sickness and disability are tainted by a neoliberal idée fixe. The leitmotif is a total corporacratic commodification of human needs and relationships. This has entailed the government permitting private companies to build toll gates to essential support services, building hierarchies of human worth within the closed and entropic context of a competitive market place, where resources are “scarce” and people are being herded; where the only holding principle that operates is profit over human need.

In a report from the Centre for Social Justice (an Orwellian title if ever there was one) called REFORMING CONTRIBUTORY BENEFITS (2016), David Cameron is quoted in the introduction: 

“We have already come a long way in the last 5 years. In the last Parliament we created Universal Credit so that work would always pay. We capped benefits so we struck the right balance between incentivising work and supporting the most vulnerable. And we set up the largest programme to get people into work since the 1930s with over a million people coming off themain out of work benefits and over 2 million getting into work. But when it comes to reforming, we still have further to go …” David Cameron, June 2015.

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) is a neoliberal right wing think tank, founded by Iain Duncan Smith. The CSJ has played an important role in the design and development of Universal Credit. 

In the opening paragraph, the report says: “William Beveridge’s original blueprint for a welfare state had personal contributions at its core. Indeed, there is widespread consensus that the contributory principle inculcates a degree of responsibility and ownership in a system that has been criticised for breeding dependency.” (My emphasis).

These are views widely held by neoliberal Conservatives, not everyone else.

As UKIM pointed out in their report, the term “welfare dependency” is itself controversial, often carrying derogatory connotations that the recipient of welfare support is unwilling to work. This narrative has diverted attention from the structural factors that cause and entrench poverty, such as government policy, labour market conditions and economic change. Instead of focusing on how to tackle the root causes of poverty, the Conservatives have focused instead on attacking the supposed poor character, morals and psychology of those needing social security support.

This narrative transforms individual experiences of  social inequality and being in poverty into a personal failing, rather than a failure of the state. The ideas came from political writers such as Lawrence M. Mead. In his 1986 book Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship, Mead argued that American welfare was too permissive, giving out benefit payments without demanding anything from poor people in return, particularly not requiring the recipient to work. Mead viewed this as directly linked to the higher incidence of social problems among poor Americans, more as a cause than an effect of poverty. Neoliberal governments in both the US and UK found these ideas appealing, and the government of Margaret Thatcher imported several other similar US ideas. 

Charles Murray argued that American social policy ignored people’s inherent tendency to ‘avoid hard work’ and to be ‘amoral’, and that from the ‘War on Poverty’ onward the government had given welfare recipients disincentives to work, marry, or have children in wedlock. His 1984 book Losing Ground was also highly influential in the welfare reforms of the 1980s and 90s, and remains so among neoliberal Conservatives. 

Murray exhumed social Darwinism and gave the bones of it originally to Bush and Thatcher to re-cast. Murray’s culture of poverty theory popularised notions that poverty is caused by an individual’s personal deficits; that the poor have earned their position in society; the poor deserve to be poor because this is a reflection of their lack of qualities, poor character and level of abilities.

Of course, this perspective also assumes that the opposite is true: wealthy and “successful” people are so because they are more talented, motivated and less lazy, and are thus more deserving. Just like the widely discredited social Darwinism of the Victorian era, proposed by the likes of Conservative sociologist Herbert Spencer, (who originally coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and not Darwin, as is widely held) these resurrected ideas have a considerable degree of popularity in upper-class and elite Conservative circles, where such perspectives provide a justification for extensive privilege. In addition, poor communities are seen as socialising environments where values such as fatalism are transmitted from generation to “workshy” generation.

Charles Murray and Lawrence Mead clearly made an impact on the international policy debate in the 1980s, partly due to the legitimisation that they received from the support of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations for their central claims. They were particularly influential in the growth of work fare and a welfare system based on punishment and psycho-compulsion. Murray claimed the underclass of poor people avoid work because of the “overgenerous” nature of welfare benefits. Mead argued that a “culture of poverty” meant that workfare policies are required to ‘reintegrate’ and ‘incentivise’ the ‘unemployed poor.’ 

This toxic brand of neoliberal anti-welfarism, amplified by the corporate media, has aimed at reconstruction of society’s “common sense” assumptions, values and beliefs. Class, disability and race narratives in particular, associated with traditional prejudices and categories from the right wing, have been used to nudge the UK to re-imagine citizenship, human rights and democratic inclusion as highly conditional.  

Leaving the European Union provides an opportunity for the government to shift what is left of social security from public to private provision

The round table paper discusses the ‘further reform’ to welfare that Cameron hinted at:

One of the reasons why this has not happened so far has been the commitment to EU rules on maintaining a benefit programme that is exportable. The British Government succeeded in establishing that Universal Credit would not be exportable as long as contributory benefits were.

Had contributory benefits been abolished whilst UK social security was bound by EU law, this would have exposed Universal Credit (the significantly larger budget) to exportability. In light of the British vote to leave the EU, however, there is now the possibility of reforming contributory benefits without breaching EU law.” 

The authors of the report say reforming welfare would mean “[a] new insurance model would also allow competition, greater diversification and, finally, the opportunity for claimants to take control over their long term financial support.” 

During the roundtable discussion, participants discussed a “potential solution”  put forward by private company Legal & General. The report itself carries legal & General’s logo. 

The suggestion was to replace the contributory benefits system with a low premium social insurance scheme delivered by employers through an auto-enrolment structure. This new social insurance scheme would take the form of a ‘rainy day guarantee’, where beneficiaries would make regular payments into the scheme, which would protect against the risk of “future income shocks as a result of long term sickness or unemployment.”

The target for the new social insurance scheme would be individuals from “the professional and skilled class who have fewer transactional experiences with Government. They are less likely to suffer a shock to income from illness or sudden unemployment and often need support  infrequently and for less than six months.”

“The infrastructure of this new social insurance scheme could replicate that of the auto-enrolment pension products that have been phased-in under the previous and current Governments. Employers could offer new employees access to a ‘social insurance product’ that could be administered by a private sector organisation, though partially facilitated by the Government.”

The authors also say: “During the roundtable discussion, a significant question emerged over whether a new social insurance product would be compulsoryor voluntary. One concern raised in discussion was that a voluntarysystem risks not gaining a critical mass that enables it to function,whereas a compulsory programme could undermine public confidence in the state welfare system.”

Yes, the one that most citizens have already contributed to. It is not ‘state’ welfare, it is publicly funded welfare.

The report continues: One of the barriers to wide-spread acceptability of a private insurance model ahead of a state-contributory benefits model is the emotional reaction by claimants who have paid taxes but are no longer entitled to a benefit payment. Many trust the system to pay out – any alternative outcome could undermine trust in the state welfare system.

“Herein lies a problem: many people place a high degree of trust inthe welfare system, only to be disappointed when it delivers less than they expect it to. Part of the challenge in proposing an insurance model, therefore, is to communicate the benefits compared to the state system.”

The benefits to whom, exactly? Legal & General and the wider private insurance sector ?

More of the rub: “Another challenge is the extent to which a new social insurance model could be extended to include both unemployment and sickness support currently covered by ESA and JSA contributory benefits. PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) has estimated that the annual cost of sickness absence in the UK is almost £29 billion. (Hyperlinks added by me). 

“Insurance premiums are calculated on risk and probability, such that if the risk and the probability are high,the premiums will also be high. From an insurance perspective, unemployment is seen as a greater long-term risk than sickness. Company efforts to mitigate the risk may thus mean premiums riseto an amount greater than the £11 per month previously stated.” 

Prioritising private business profit over collective human needs: the neoliberal model

In their conclusion and policy recommendations, the authors say:  

“As this report has discussed, the contributory benefits system is ripe for reform and the proposition of a social insurance model poses a potential solution. With regards to the implementation of a social insurance programme to replace contributory benefits  participants at the roundtable discussion made the following conclusions: 

  •  Premiums should be treated as income in the Universal Credit system, promoting use of the social insurance system.  
  • The notion of a social insurance model must be communicatedcorrectly; Lessons can be learned from past government announce-ments on, for example, privately run prisons.
  • The support of business is essential, and communication must be clear as this is another product that sits alongside auto-enrolled pensions, the new lifetime ISA, and the apprenticeship levy
  • High opt-out rates risk destabilising the functionality of a voluntary model, and will therefore determine the necessity of a mandatory system or at the least an opt out model.
  • Individuals who do not draw down on their insurance pot could be offered financial recourse in the form of either a savings or pensions benefit.

“Overall, the opportunity to reform contributory benefits has arrived,the political and economic climate allows for it, and the presence of a strong alternative policy makes it possible and practical.”

You can read the full report here.

Some thoughts

The government says it believes that:

  • the current [welfare] system is too complex
  • there are insufficient incentives to encourage people on benefits to start paid work or increase their hours

The government are aiming to:

  • make the benefit system fairer and more affordable
  • reduce poverty, worklessness and welfare dependency
  • reduce levels of fraud and error. 

However,  ‘worklessness’ and ‘welfare dependency’ are contested categories based on assumptions and not empirical evidence. 

Our welfare state originally arose as a social security safety net – founded on an assurance that as a civilised and democratic society we value the well-being and health of every citizen.

There was a cross-party political consensus that such provision was in the best interests of the nation as a whole at a time when we were collectively spirited enough to ensure that no one should be homeless or starving in modern Britain.

As such, welfare is a fundamental part of the UK’s development –  our progress – the basic idea of improving people’s lives was at the heart of the welfare state and more broadly, it reflects the evolution of European democratic and rights-based societies.

Now the UK “social security” system is anything but. It has regressed to reflect the flawed and discredited philosophy underpinning the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, to become a system of punishments aimed at the poorest and most marginalised social groups. The Poor Law principle of less eligibility – which served as a deterrence to poor people claiming poor relief is embodied in the Conservative claim of Making work pay: benefits have been reduced to make the lowest paid, insecure employment a more appealing option than claiming benefits.

Back in the 1970s, following his remarks on the cycle of deprivation, Keith Joseph established a large-scale research programme devoted to testing its validity. One of the main findings of the research was that there is no simple continuity of social problems between generations of the sort required for his thesis. At least half of the children born into disadvantaged homes do not repeat the pattern of disadvantage in the next generation.

Despite the fact that continuity of deprivation across generations is by no means inevitable – the theory is not supported by empirical research – the idea of the cycle of “worklessness” has become “common sense.” Clearly, common perceptions of the causes of poverty are (being) misinformed. The individual behaviourist theory of poverty predicts that the same group of people remain in poverty. This doesn’t happen.

However, the structural theory predicts that different people are in poverty over time (and further, that we need to alter the economic structure to make things better). Longitudinal surveys show that impoverished people are not the same people every year. In other words, people move in and out of poverty: it’s a revolving door, as predicted by structural explanations of poverty.

Therefore the very ideological premises of Conservative welfare policy is unevidenced and fundamentally flawed.

Problems with social security provision delivered through private insurance schemes

The National Insurance Scheme (NIS) provides cash benefits for sickness and disability,  unemployment, the death of a partner, retirement, and so on. Citizens already  earn entitlement to these benefits by paying National Insurance contributions;

  • The National Health Service (NHS), which provides medical, dental and optical
    treatment and which is normally available free of charge only to people who live in
    Great Britain and Northern Ireland; 
  •  The child benefit and Child Tax Credit schemes, which provide cash benefits for
    people bringing up children; 
  •  Non-contributory benefits for certain categories of disabled persons or carers; 
  •  Other statutory payments made by employers to employees entitled to maternity,
    paternity and adoption leave.

The government’s ‘low tax low welfare view of society, coupled with a decade of very low wages and rising costs of living has created ‘tax constraints’ that conflict with the demands made on the welfare state, the government says. Substituting private insurance for tax-financed welfare provision is being touted as some kind of painless way out of those self imposed ‘constraints’.  

However, in general, switching from tax-financed social security to private insurance, where premiums are related to each individual’s risk status, will be ‘regressive’, that is, it will benefit the better-off at the expense of the less well-off. Certain citizens will not be offered cover because their level of risk is too high to make it profitable and economic for private insurance companies. This will also add to the regressive effects. Certain risks will be excluded from cover as a result of the nature of the insurance market.  

If the state still provides some kind of safety net, it may end up with all of the ‘downside risk’ but none of the ‘upside gain’: if things turn out badly and insurers are unable to meet their commitments, the state has to fill the gap created, but if things turn out well, it is the insurers who keep the surplus and profit.

In discussing the future of the welfare state, the question of whether the private sector should take on some of the insurance functions currently provided by social security has  almost inevitably arisen. However, much of this debate has a purely ideological basis.

Switching from social security to private insurance generally increases costs for those on low incomes; premium levels for products mean that those with average incomes and average risk also lose. For many insurance products, women, older people and those in poor health lose the most. 

For many with higher incomes, the role of permanent health insurance is already filled by long-term occupational sick pay while for those with lower incomes, affording enough cover to get clear of means-tested benefit entitlement is difficult. 

Uncertainty over future long-term care needs and costs makes policies virtually impossible to assess, for both consumers and providers, making reliance on private insurance a dubious proposition. The nature of the risks leads to policies which limit coverage and exclude some groups, including those without good employment records and people with disabilities.

Tax-financed provision offers not only the most equitable but also the most efficient solution, minimising costs to average-risk as well as high-risk and low-income ‘consumers’ and preserving the advantages of unified public finances.

Furthermore, it retains the integrity of the original aims of the welfare state and ensures a democratic state.

UKIM’s report to the UNCRPD raised other concerns about the potentially negative impact of Brexit on the human rights of disabled people, which you can read about here.

 

Related

This explores the overlapping neoliberal ideas aimed at the reform of both welfare and health care in the UK – Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper

The Poverty of Responsibility and the Politics of Blame 

The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

 The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

A critique of benefit sanctions:  the Minnesota Starvation Experiment and  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

Stigmatising unemployment: the government has redefined it as a psychological disorder


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Meet Liam and Michelle. It’s time to listen to the voices of homeless people about the fatal flaws of Universal Credit

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On Wednesday, I travelled down to Westminster to meet with John McDonnell, Margaret Greenwood, Mike Amesbury and Marsha de Cordova and a group of disability rights campaigners, journalists, researchers and organisations. One of the issues we discussed during the meeting was the harm and distress that the roll out of Universal Credit is creating for some of our citizens.

I got back from my trip to the Commons, arriving by train back in Newcastle around eleven, I missed the last bus back to Durham. Outside of the train station, I met Liam, a young homeless man, and his partner, Michelle.

Liam told me that the couple became homeless because of the inbuilt failure of Universal Credit to support people both in and out of work. Liam took some temporary work over last Christmas, and was promised that there would be full-time posts in the new year. However there was no full-time work available, and Liam explained that although they had claimed Universal Credit over this period, the couple didn’t receive any support at all. As the work was part-time and the pay was low, Liam and his partner ran up rent and council tax arrears very quickly, as they could not afford to meet their basic living costs. 

When Liam’s part-time work ended, he was told at the job centre that he had to start a new Universal Credit claim. Yet government ministers have assured us that this doesn’t happen. It was during this time that the couple ended up with arrears which led to their eviction. The housing association that the couple rented their flat from significantly pressured Liam into signing an eviction order that was effective immediately. The couple lost most of their belongings as well as their home. 

Liam told me “Once this happens, it is so hard getting out of the situation”. He explained to me that when they became homeless, the couple were told at the job centre that they could no longer claim any welfare support, because they have no fixed abode. (*See below.)

The situation has quickly spiralled downwards. Liam also said that many people are just one pay cheque away from homelessness, but they don’t realise that until it happens to them. 

As Liam and Michelle are originally from another regional city, they cannot access  Newcastle Crisis for help. Michelle has PTSD, she cannot access any support for her mental health conditions, and Liam is understandably worried about her safety and mental wellbeing on the streets. It struck me how very much they both cared deeply for each other

I made sure they have some accommodation for tonight, at least. I’m not well off but gave them what I had. Liam told me he hasn’t slept for several nights, because he has to keep Michelle safe. They have to pay £15.50 for a temporary room for the night. That is the only available help they can access. As the couple cannot claim any welfare support, the fact that temporary accommodation costs them money, and of course they need to eat, leaves them with no choice whatsoever but to beg. They do access ‘People’s Kitchen’ in the city, too. But although it helps in providing food sometimes, it isn’t adequate provision for people who are homeless 24/7.

What struck me most about this couple is how friendly and humble they were, and that they are both such lovely people. One word that kept cropping up over and over in my dialogue with them was ‘invisible’. Our whole society looks the other way. Liam told me it is always assumed that homeless people are substance abusers, yet neither Liam nor Michelle drink alcohol or use drugs. It’s distressing enough to end up homeless without the additional prejudices and stigma attached to it. 

I also witnessed first hand how the local police are trying to clear the streets and prevent begging. They are prosecuting homeless people. I was asked by a policeman how long I was planning on interviewing Liam and Michelle, but what he really meant was ‘How long are you going to provide an excuse for them to be here?’ 

Often, anti-social behaviour powers are used to ban activities often associated with rough sleeping, and concerns have grown that an increase in the use of these powers is criminalising homelessness and is not addressing the root cause of the problem. 

Begging is also an offence under section 3 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (as amended). It is a recordable offence. The maximum sentence is a fine at level 3 on the standard scale (currently £1000). I’m wondering how people that cannot afford a roof over their head and need to beg for food would manage to somehow produce money to pay a fine.

Other provisions also criminalise ‘begging behaviour’: wilfully blocking free passage along a highway is an offence contrary to section 137 of the Highways Act 1980 (as amended), punishable by a level 3 fine. Using threatening or abusive words or behaviour is an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which also carries a level 3 fine. 

Voluntary sector organisations have voiced concerns that the use of anti-social behaviour powers to tackle rough sleeping is criminalising homelessness and leaving vulnerable people in an even more marginalised position. According to Liberty, a Human Rights organisation, “PSPOs don’t alleviate hardship on any level. They are blunt instruments which fast-track so-called “offenders” into the criminal justice system”. Liberty has urged the Government to rethink these powers: “handing hefty fines to homeless people … is obviously absurd, counterproductive and downright cruel”.

There is also a concern that enforcement activity in one area simply displaces street activity to another geographical area, and can sometimes lead to the displacement of activity (e.g. from begging into acquisitive crime). Moreover, it does not address the underlying causes of rough sleeping.

There was a notice up on the train station door that said begging is illegal. Liam has been prosecuted twice under section 35, and a dispersal order was served on him, preventing him from returning to the area for 48 hours. The policeman was stiffly polite, but he hovered around waiting for me to leave, which was a little intimidating. I told him I would hold conversation with whoever I chose to. I felt that Liam and Michelle were being harassed.

It was a stark contrast to the experience of homeless people outside of King’s Cross station that I witnessed. While I was chatting to them, a charity group arrived with a table and some food, which was set up right outside. The policeman there was friendly with the homeless group and chatted to them, while they ate their meal. 

Prior to becoming homeless, Liam had no criminal convictions. Now he has been criminalised for begging because he is homeless. He also told me he stole food on one occasion from the shop Greggs because the couple were starving. They seldom have enough food to get by, and the impact of hunger on their health is a major concern. 

Health care for homeless people is a major public health challenge. Homeless people are more likely to suffer injuries and medical problems from their lifestyle on the street, which includes poor nutrition, exposure to the severe elements of weather, and a higher exposure to violence (robberies, hate crime, beatings, and so on). Yet at the same time, they have little access to public medical services or clinics, in part because they often lack identification or registration for public health care services. There are significant challenges in treating homeless people who have psychiatric disorders because clinical appointments may not be kept, their continuing whereabouts are unknown, their medicines may not be taken as prescribed and monitored, medical and psychiatric histories are not accurate, and for other reasons. 

Yet despite the fact that the couple have had no support at all, Liam has gone into the job centre and local library pretty much every day to look for work. He has finally found a painting and decorating job, which he starts on Monday.  Imagine just how difficult it is to do this without access to a regular bed, clean clothes and washing facilities.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted 10 December 1948 by the UN General Assembly, contains this text regarding housing and quality of living:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

As a society, we seemed to have forgotten this fundamental human right in the punitive political era of citizen ‘responsibilities not rights’. But I have yet to see a homeless person successfully punished out of being homeless.

Prior to 1983, the term homeless implied that economic conditions caused homelessness. However, after 1983, under the neoliberal regime of Margaret Thatcher, conditions such as alcoholism and mental illness also became associated with the term in the media. This narrative was often backed up with testimony made by high-ranking Conservative officials. Yet one of the major causes of home;essness is a lack of sustainable employment and adequate wage levels.

This stigmatising approach rested on the notion that the people who are sleeping on the streets are those who are homeless by choice. I have no idea how this narrative of blaming the victims of neoliberalism gained traction, but somehow it has. It is being used to drown out the voices of those that have been failed by dismal neoliberal policies.

This claim – that homelessness is about ‘personal choice’ and an individual’s cognitive and  psychological condition, untethered it from the broader structural context, and in particular, from the New Right’s neoliberal reforms sweeping through the socioeconomic system. In the broader sense, it tended to portray homelessness as something that would exist even under the best economic conditions, and therefore independent of economic policies and economic conditions.

Homeless people may find it difficult to vote as they have no fixed address, they may not have identification documents, or a mailbox. However, equal access to the right to vote is crucial in maintaining a democracy. 

One effect of the political and media stigmatising and dehumanising project has been a total social exclusion. Homeless people experience a profound isolation. This gives the homeless community no say in how things are. Neither government nor wider society listen to them or consider their accounts of their experiences. 

Yet we can’t claim to live in a democracy when increasing numbers of citizens facing destitution and living in absolute poverty are excluded politically, economically, culturally and socially.

The only way that things will ever change for the better is if we do listen. And hear about the lived experiences of Liam, Michelle and the growing numbers of others who have been made destitute by a broken system.

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*It’s important that people know they are still eligible for Universal credit if they become homeless.

If you are told you are not at the job centre, you should challenge this.

“There is some confusion around whether or not homeless people can claim Universal Credit. 

“I would like to reassure people that support is available, and it’s incredibly important that people who are homeless – whether they’re rough sleeping, sofa surfing or living in temporary accommodation – should, and are able to, receive this support.

1. People can receive Universal Credit without an address

Usually when a person makes a claim for Universal Credit, they are asked to provide an address to register their claim to. 

If a person doesn’t have a fixed address they can register their hostel or temporary accommodation as their address, and if they’re rough sleeping they can use the job centre address.

2. People don’t need ID to receive Universal Credit

Undoubtedly, having ID makes the process of applying for Universal Credit simpler and quicker but in cases where a person doesn’t have ID, work coaches can use other methods to identify a person and help them make a claim.

This isn’t just for people who are homeless, but could be used in other situations as well, such as for people who have lost belongings in a fire or flood, or if they’re fleeing domestic violence.

3. You don’t need a bank account to receive Universal Credit

Having a bank account is important, and it makes it easier for people to make payments, manage money and get into work.

But we understand that a homeless person may not necessarily have a bank account. There are measures in place to make payments through other methods, including post office accounts or the Payment Exception Service, and a work coach can help people through the process of setting up a bank account when appropriate.

4. Finding a home is prioritised over finding work

You can ask Job centre staff to apply an ‘easement’ of up to one month, which means a person is not asked to look for work during this period and can focus on finding suitable accommodation. 

Work coaches have the discretion to extend the easement period further, depending on a person’s circumstances.”

If you are told that you can’t claim Universal Credit because you are homeless or have “no fixed abode”, tell the job centre advisor that

Justin Tomlinson,has said you CAN. 

Liam and Michelle, if you are reading this, wishing you the very best, and good luck with your new job, Liam. Hoping that it will help you secure somewhere to live quickly. x

Related

Two very vulnerable homeless men left to die in sub-zero temperatures

Please don’t just walk on by, we are better than this

Government backs new law to prevent people made homeless through government laws from becoming homeless

From the abstract to the concrete: urban design as a mechanism of behaviour change and social exclusion

Conservative MPs accuse citizens of ‘scaremongering stories’ about experiences of Universal Credit.

 


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Universal Credit bereavement run-on payments have been scrapped

For single use only on 10 March 2017

The government claim they value “evidence-based policy”. However, no-one knows exactly what evidence was found to justify Universal Credit, or how and why it may be applied to dismantling publicly funded social security provision for the public.

A grieving family have been forced to pay their loved one’s rent for three weeks following his death.

Ronnie Cowan, the MP for Inverclyde, has spoken out in parliament about the shocking treatment of one of his constituents because of callous Universal Credit rules concerning bereavement.

The Department for Work and Pensions have decided that if a Universal Credit claimant dies, regardless of when, they are classed as having died from the start of their four week assessment period, which can result in families being liable for their rent payments, and possibly council tax. This means that the government is outrageously clawing money from people for up to three weeks before they die and from their bereaved families. 

Cowan said: “Once again, we witness the callous nature of the Department for Work and Pensions, which classes as person as dead from the beginning of their assessment period, even if they die towards the end of that period.

“This means that family members had to meet the cost of the housing rent for a period of three weeks as the payment was stopped from the beginning of the assessment period.

“This is fundamentally wrong and highlights the cruel nature of the current system which is not fit for purpose.”

The MP has asked the government how many more families have been affected in this way because of the Universal Credit bereavement regulations.

These latest concerns follow a recent critical report from the National Audit Office (NAO) that raises questions about Universal Credit being ‘value for money.’

Employment minister Alok Sharma wrote a letter to Cowan offering his sympathies to the family involved and explained the system they use.

Not surprisingly, Cowan says that all social security powers should be passed to the Scottish Government so that a more compassionate system can be put in place.

He added: “This is something which is clearly lacking from this UK Government.

“I will be writing to the minister to ask that they sort out this issue.”

A spokesperson for Department for Work and Pensions told me: “The death of a claimant is a relevant change of circumstances affecting entitlement to Universal Credit. When a single claimant dies there are no further payments due. For the purpose of the award calculation, the death is treated as if it occurred at the beginning of the assessment period. 

“If an overpayment is caused because one member of a couple dies, an overpayment decision should be made as usual. The overpayment will be recoverable from the surviving partner.”

However, I found a universal credit full service guidance placed by the government in the House of Commons library (in the deposited papers archive.) The guidance was originally placed in the Commons library in October 2016 at the request of the then Work and Pensions Minister Lord Freud. In the death and bereavement section of the document, it says:

Bereavement run-on

“In some circumstances, payment of Universal Credit that would otherwise reduce or stop following bereavement can continue for a short time. This is called a Bereavement run-on. For example, following the death of a:

partner
 child
 person for whom the claimant was carer, see Claimant with regular caring
responsibilities
Non-dependants 

Payment of Universal Credit continues as if the person had not died for the assessment period in which the death occurs and the following two assessment periods.

The surviving member of a couple will receive a 3 month run-on for:

 the assessment period in which their partner dies
 two subsequent assessment periods 

When the 3 month run on period has ended, the surviving member of the couple will need to re-declare their circumstances. This is so a single award of Universal Credit can be made (without the need for a new claim).” 

That would be a reasonable and humane approach. 

However, later in the subsection entitled “Debt and deductions after death”, there is no further mention of the bereavement run-on. It looks as if someone with an incapacity for human compassion has amended the guidance and neglected to take out the original kinder version of the regulation guidelines. The document says:

“If an overpayment is caused because one member of a couple dies, an overpayment decision should be made as usual. The overpayment will be recoverable from the surviving partner. 

“An overpayment of housing costs paid direct to a landlord can occur due to the death of the claimant. The overpayment is only recoverable from the landlord if they had failed to disclose the death of their tenant. 

“An example is if they were aware of the death and failed to report it. Otherwise, the overpayment would be recoverable either from the estate of the deceased or any surviving partner of the Universal Credit claimant.

“The death of a claimant is a relevant change of circumstances affecting entitlement to Universal Credit. When a single claimant dies there are no further payments due. For the purpose of the award calculation, the death is treated as if it occurred at the beginning of the assessment period.”

The document also says that the Department for Work and Pensions conduct a search  for an estate in respect of all ‘customers’ who die while in receipt of Universal Credit. A comparison is then made between the information provided for the Universal Credit claim and the assets declared in their estate. 

If a person dies with outstanding debt and they leave an estate, the Department becomes a creditor of their estate. As a creditor, a claim is normally made from the estate for debts such as:

 recoverable overpayment
 Administrative Penalty
 Social Fund loan

People pay tax and national insurance to contribute towards public services, including their social security, should they fall on hard times and require support from public funds. The Conservative government now expect people to pay twice for a barely adequate provision administered within a punitive framework, and delivered within a hostile environment.  

We really need to question such an openly hostile and dehumanising system of social security that not only fails to support people, it also fails to recognise, acknowledge and accommodate the actual date that a person dies, and it fails to afford their loved ones some respect, solicitude, support, dignity and time to grieve in peace. Private moments of grief and emotional space are being heartlessly hijacked by the relentless machinery of the state.

This level of disgraceful dystopic bureaucracy potentially transforms the time in the immediate aftermath of the loss of a loved one from one of private grief and adjustment into one of inexcusable state intrusion and surveillance, and a profoundly distressing struggle for bereaved families. 

The government claims that Universal Credit is designed to make sure that “work pays” and is aimed at “incentivising” people to move into work. The Conservatives clearly think that this may be achieved by ensuring conditions for people needing support are made unbearable. Conservative ministers have also claimed that welfare “puts in place barriers to people fulfilling their potential.”

Image result for maslows hierarchy

This is a poltitically expedient reversal of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Punitive measures and a hostile environment cannot “help” people into work, nor can it alleviate poverty. It can only increase poverty and make people’s lives even more difficult, disempowering them further because of the additional burden of state inflicted cruelty on them.

History and the social sciences have provided ample empirical evidence that it is poverty, rather than a “lack of incentives,” which reduces people to an inescapable struggle for survival, preventing them from fulfilling their potential.

If people cannot afford shelter, food and fuel – basic survival requirements – how can any rational person expect that those citizens will somehow manage to extend their already very stretched, all-consuming cognitive priority and motivation for basic survival to also meet state demands for meeting unreasonable conditionality, job searching or work requirements?

Benefits Sanctions
Here is an example of severe hardship created by Universal Credit from a parlimentary debate in October last year, which took place because of an Early Day Motion (EDM) tabled by Debbie Abrahams:

Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Social Justice)

At the start of the year, Mr James Moran from Harthill in my constituency qualified as an HGV driver and managed to find work on a zero-hours contract as a driver while also receiving universal credit—exactly the sort of scenario under which universal credit was supposed to work better. Not long after gaining employment, however, Mr Moran was sanctioned, despite being in employment. As he started the process of appealing the sanction, he suffered a stroke, which meant that he was no longer able to work as a driver.

As the sanction was still in place, he returned home from hospital with no means of receiving an income. Despite getting some help from his elderly parents, Mr Moran struggled with no money whatever for more than a month. He then suffered a second stroke.

Mr Moran has advised me that the doctors who treated him in hospital at the time of his second stroke admission told him that the low blood pressure that caused the second stroke was almost certainly caused by malnourishment. That malnourishment was a direct result of a DWP sanctioning error, forcing Mr Moran to live without an income—to live on fresh air.

I wrote to the Secretary of State about the case on 1 September and have repeatedly chased his office for a reply, but I have received nothing in return to date. The six-week minimum wait appears to be built into the Secretary of State’s correspondence turnaround as well. I do not take that personally, because I gather from press reports that the Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions has had similar problems with getting the Secretary of State to put pen to paper. Perhaps he will now chase a reply.

A little later in the debate, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, Iain Duncan Smith shamefully alleged that the opposition were largely “‘scaremongering’ about the way in which the [Universal Credit] system has been designed.”

Universal Credit is clearly NOT an “evidence-based” policy, as claimed, since its architects and other government ministers refuse to recognise any evidence that contradicts their narrow ideological prejudices and assumptions. 

As Gordon Allport once commented, a prejudice, unlike a simple misconception, is actively resistant to all evidence that would unseat it.

 

 


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Research shows that Tory ‘hostile environment’ of welfare sanctions doesn’t help people to find work

Image result for welfare sanctions

The UK’s most extensive study of welfare conditionality has found that welfare sanctions are “ineffective” at “supporting” people into work and are more likely to reduce those affected to poverty, ill-health or survival crime. 

Despite dogmatic claims by Conservative ministers in recent years that rigorously enforced conditionality – including mandatory 35-hour job searches – “‘incentivised’ claimants to move off benefits into work”, the research found the positive impact was negligible.

The Economic and Social Research Council-funded study of welfare conditionality was carried out between 2013 and 2018 by researchers at six universities. It included repeat qualitative interviews over two years with 481 welfare service users in England and Scotland as well as interviews with 57 policy experts and 27 focus groups.

The five-year research programme that has been following the lives of hundreds of claimants concludes that the controversial policy of cutting benefits as a punishment for alleged failures to comply with jobcentre rules has been “little short of disastrous.”

For those people interviewed for the study who did gain employment, the most common outcome was a series of short-term, insecure jobs, interspersed with periods of unemployment, rather than a shift into sustained, well-paid work.

Sanctions generally delivered poor outcomes, including debt, poverty and reliance on charities such as food banks, the study found. Often imposed for trivial and seemingly cruel reasons, they frequently triggered high levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

The director of the study, Professor Peter Dwyer, based at the University of York, said “The outcomes from sanctions are almost universally negative.” 

One research finding is that, in many cases, the threat of sanctions had the unintended effect of encouraging a “culture of counterproductive compliance and futile behaviour” among some claimants, who learned “the rules of the game” rather than becoming genuinely “engaged with work.”  This of course is through necessity, as social security payments are claimed by people who need support to meet their basic survival needs: welfare (barely) covers the costs of food, fuel and shelter. 

The authors of the research paper conclude: “Benefit sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek or enter paid work. They routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes.” 

Many campaigners, including myself, have been pointing this out for years. It’s a fundamental truth – established by Abraham Maslow, and verified by a range of comprehensive studies, including the Minnesota semi-starvation experiment – that if people cannot meet their basic survival needs, that becomes their “cognitive priority” – their primary motivation. People caught in absolute poverty cannot then higher level psychosocial needs, until their basic survival needs are met. It takes a monstrously authoritarian government to ignore these empirical facts and to continue to punish citizens by withdrawing their fundamental means of survival.

The researchers call for a review of the use of sanctions, including an immediate moratorium on benefit sanctions for disabled people who are disproportionately affected, together with an urgent “rebalancing” of the social security system to focus less on compliance and more on helping claimants into work. 

The research report says that in the “rare” cases where claimants did move off benefits into sustained work, personalised job support, not sanctions, was the key factor. With few exceptions, however, jobcentres were more focused on enforcing benefit rules rather than helping people gain employment.

“Although some examples of good practice are evident, much of the mandatory job search, training and employment support offered by Jobcentre Plus and external providers is too generic, of poor quality and largely ineffective in enabling people to enter and sustain paid work,” the report says.

It’s very worrying that the research highlighted those citizens with “chaotic lives” – who were homeless or had addictions, for example – reacted to the “inherent hassle” of the conditionality system by dropping out of the social security system altogether. In some cases, they moved into survival crime, such as drug dealing.

Low-paid workers on universal credit who were subject to so-called “in-work conditionality” – a requirement for them to work more hours or face sanctions – in some cases elected to sign off, foregoing rent support and tax credits, to avoid what they saw as constant, petty harassment from jobcentre staff.

Welfare conditionality – the notion that eligibility for benefits and services should be linked to claimants’ compliance with certain rules and behaviours – has been progressively embedded into the UK social security system since the 1990s, although the scope and severity intensified dramatically after 2012, when the Conservative-led coalition “reformed” the welfare system.

Sanctions are imposed when claimants supposedly breach stringent jobcentre rules, typically by failing to turn up for appointments on time, or at all, or for failing to apply for “enough jobs”. They are effectively fined by having their benefit payments stopped for a minimum of four weeks (about £300) and a maximum of three years. This means that money to meet their basic living requirements is cut. 

At its peak in 2013, under the then secretary of state for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, there were more than a million sanctions. Between 2010 and 2015, a quarter of all people on jobseeker’s allowance were sanctioned, with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) issuing £132m in sanctions penalties in 2015.

Sanctions fell to 350,000 in 2016 as a series of critical reports emerged questioning their effectiveness and calling for changes, including from the all-party work and pensions select committee, the DWP’s social security advisory committee and the National Audit Office.

fresh inquiry by MPs into sanctions is under way.

Dalia Ben-Galim, the policy director at the single parents’ charity Gingerbread, said: “Rather than threatening single parents with sanctions and widening the ‘conditionality’ agenda, it would be much more valuable to enable the conditions to support employment such as affordable childcare, access to flexible work and personalised support through job centres.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Our research shows that over 70% of JSA claimants say sanctions make it more likely they will comply with reasonable and agreed requirements, and it is understandable that people meet certain expectations in return for benefits.

I wonder if this was a reference to the DWP “case studies” made up of fictitious characters and testimonies, as uncovered by Welfare Weekly ?

The DWP spokesperson continued with platitudes: “We tailor requirements to individual cases and sanctions are only used in a very small percentage of cases when people fail to meet their agreed requirements set out in their claimant commitment.”

Labour’s shadow secretary for work and pensions Margaret Greenwood said: “The current sanctions system is immoral and ineffective. It is not helping people into employment and at the same time is leaving vulnerable people on the brink of destitution, without any source of income for long periods.”

The authors of the report further conclude that the DWP’s sanctions regime:

“…compromises attempts to end child poverty. At best, current practice fails to support lone parents in the way proposed; at worst, it compounds the disadvantage they already face. The ethical legitimacy of the present system is highly questionable as a consequence.”

wrote in 2015:

Conservative anti-welfare discourse excludes the structural context of unemployment and poverty from public conversation by transforming these social problems into individua ones of ‘welfare dependency’ and ‘worklessness.’ The consequence is an escalating illogic of authoritarian policy measures which have at their core the intensification of punitive conditionality.

Such policies and interventions are then rationalised as innovative […] ultimately the presented political aim is to ‘mend’ Britain’s supposedly ‘broken society’ and to restore a country that ‘lives within its means’… bringing about a neoliberal utopia built on ‘economic competitiveness’ in a ‘global race.’

Disadvantage has become an individualised, private matter, rather than […] an inevitable feature of neoliberal […] competitive individualism. This allows the state to depoliticise social problems, while at the same time, justifying […] changing citizens’ behaviours to fit with neoliberal outcomes.

The government’s policies, founded on scapegoating already marginalised social groups, and creating “hostile environments” for the poorest citizens, including those with disabilities, who have been disproportionately weighed down with the burden of austerity, have caused immeasurable human suffering and untold damage to the very fabric of what was once a civilised society.

The answer to the problems generated by the politically imposed system of neoliberalism that fails the majority of citizens, according to the dogmatic government, is to apparently apply even more rigid neoliberal policies as an almost farcical sticking plaster. 

The Conservative’s answer to social problems such as inequality and poverty, which own policies createand extend, is to impose ideologically formulated “behavioural change” programmes on the poorest citizens, as a prop for dismally failing neoliberalism. All authoritarians are bullies and all bullies aim to change the behaviours of others. This technocratic and authoritarian approach to policy always entails the creation of scapegoats that the government then punish.

In 2002, as party chairwoman, Theresa May told the Conservatives that they were seen as the “nasty party”. Sixteen years later and under her premiership, that description of  an authoritarian and rigidly ideologically driven government has never been more apt.

Related

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

Disabled people are sanctioned more than other people, according to research

The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

G4S are employing Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to deliver “get to work therapy”

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

Sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work. Here’s why

 


I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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