Tag: bedroom tax

Why won’t ministers come clean about the impact of cuts on disabled people? – Frances Ryan


B
ack in 2014, armed with only a laptop and phone, disabled campaigners started a hunt for the truth. As policies including the bedroom tax, the abolition of disability living allowance, and the rollout of controversial out-of-work sickness benefits hit, War on Welfare (Wow) called on the coalition government to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of the wave of disability cuts to measure the effect on disabled people. It resulted in a debate in parliament – the first time disabled people had secured a debate in the main chamber of the House of Commons – but no action

Now, four years on, Wow has gained the backing of a cross-party coalition that wants Theresa May’s government to calculate the overall impact of the so-called welfare reforms on disabled people. Every party except the Conservatives is in favour of a Commons debate on conducting this assessment, including the DUP. In light of the pressure over Northern Irish abortion reform, their support for detailed analysis of the impact of Tory disability cuts is another awkward clash between May and the DUP’s 10 MPs propping up her administration. But more than that, it’s a sign of hope that ministers may have to finally investigate just what damage their disability cuts are causing – from the social care crisis to cuts to multiple parts of the NHS, to the disastrous rollout of universal credit; now delayed for an extra year until 2023

Last week’s damning report by the National Audit Office (NAO) on universal credit castigated the system’s inability to protect and support “vulnerable claimants”. It follows the revelation this month that the government was forced to say it would repay thousands of severely disabled people made worse off under the UC system ahead of the high court ruling last week that it was “discriminatory” to have docked two disabled men’s benefits after transferring to UC. Following pressure from disability groups, this week ministers made another U-turn, this time to stop repeatedly testing some disabled people for personal independence payments.

The government’s austerity programme has resulted in multiple reductions in income since 2010 that have hit disabled people all at once and disproportionately. Being hit by the bedroom tax is tough – but losing your sickness benefits as well after being found “fit for work” is even harder.

If you need an insight into the damage these policies have done, just go to Wow Voices, a website set up by campaigners that features disabled people explaining the impact of cuts on them. One woman with terminal breast cancer writes of how, for the last 18 months, she’s been told she needs to be reassessed for her benefits every six months, and she’s frantic about the thought of losing her support. “I’ve cried more about this than my terminal diagnosis,” she says. 

The UN’s damning report in 2016 into the UK’s “violations” of disabled people’s rights has put further pressure on the government over its treatment of disabled citizens. Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s own cumulative impact assessment shows that families with a disabled adult and a disabled child will lose £5,500 a year by 2022 as a result of tax and benefit changes – contradicting the government’s claim that such analysis would be “too complex” to do. 

This month, research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found around 650,000 people with mental and physical health problems were officially destitute in the UK last year – that means being so poor, they can’t afford deodorant, the electric, or regular meals – with social security changes found to be a key cause. It’s bad enough for ministers to take away state support from disabled people en masse, but to refuse to analyse its effects is the definition of irresponsible. The Conservatives must finally shine a light on the impact that disability cuts have had. What are they so afraid of?

 

Related

The government response to the WoW petition is irrational, incoherent nonsense on stilts

The government refuse to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of welfare “reforms”. Again

 


I write voluntarily, to do the best I can to raise awareness of political and social issues. In particular I research and write about how policy impacts on citizen wellbeing and human rights. I also co-run a group on Facebook to support other disabled people going through ESA and PIP assessments, mandatory reviews and appeals.

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled and don’t have any paid employment. But you can contribute by making a donation and 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.

A word of caution about Esther McVey’s ‘u-turn’ on housing benefit for young people

youth obligationThanks to Joe Halewood for the screenshot

A little background on the “Youth Obligation”.

Thenational living wage(which is actually an inadequate rise in the minimum wage) was one of the centrepieces of the Osborne budget back in 2015 – which does not apply to those people under 25. Osborne exhorted young people to “earn or learn” in a budget speech that also cut their entitlement to receiving benefits and student grants, prompting serious complaints that young people had been unfairly targeted.  

The policy to end automatic entitlement for the housing element of Universal Credit was announced by David Cameron and Osborne in 2014 and was introduced last April. Housing and homeless organisations warned last year that it will cause grave hardship and force cash-strapped councils to meet higher costs for emergency accommodation. The plans of a review, and potential for a government u-turn on the housing element payment for young people were actually announced last year.

The controversial policy has now been dropped to “reassure young people” they will “receive the help with housing costs that they need.”

McVey said: “The change I am announcing today means that young people on benefits will be assured that if they secure a tenancy, they will have support towards their housing costs in the normal way.”

Matt Hancock released details of ‘radical plans’ in August 2015 “to end long-term youth unemployment and decades of welfare dependency.” He “pledged that the cross-government Earn or Learn Taskforce he chairs will create a ‘no excuses’ culture to support youth employment. ” 

However, we know by now that ‘targeted support’ is a euphemism for draconian welfare conditionality and sanctions. Of course the Conservatives’ ideas were not original. They were imported from the neoliberal Tony Abbott led coalition government in Australia, who announced their ‘earn or learn’ programme back in 2014. Like our own Conservative government, the neoliberal Abbott administration framed welfare as a “trap”, claiming the existence of a ‘culture of dependency’, a radical New Right myth extended from the likes of Charles Murray, which has been thoroughly debunked over the last few decades.

To sustain an ideological commitment to ‘small state’ antiwelfarism, neoliberal welfare narratives are reduced to a language about creating ‘incentives’ and discipline as opposed the traditional established narratives that portray a safety net provision to support people in meeting their basic survival needs (food, fuel and shelter). 

The traditional justification for paying citizens social security in order to ensure they can meet their fundamental needs has been ludicrously turned on its head and presented as a ‘malfunction’ of welfare – apparently it ‘creates poverty’ instead of alleviating it – by neoliberals.

In addition, welfare dependency arguments are based on a number of false assumptions and prejudices, because of the ‘small state’ ideological commitments of neoliberals.  There is a long tradition, stretching back to the Poor Law Amendment act of the 1830s, of political capitalists trying to use welfare to ‘improve’ the poor. Conservatives and some of the economic liberals (as opposed to social liberals) tend to present ‘problems’ with welfare in a moralistic way – they say it systemises “perverse incentives”, or that it it rewards “immoral behaviour”. The goal of welfare reform from this perspective is therefore justified as being about paternalism: administering and imposing discipline, instilling the “right attitude” and coercing behavioural change, rather than alleviating absolute poverty.

The “Youth Obligation” is simply an extension of that approach.

Reservations’ have been expressed about the Youth Obligation’s mandatory requirement that young jobseekers apply for a training opportunity or work placement after six months of claiming support. 

The Youth Obligation programme, in areas where full universal credit is running, requires claimants aged between 18 and 21 to undergo ‘intensive job-support training, including work experience, skills workshops, mentoring, help with job applications and interviews, and training in maths, English and IT.’

Those young people still unemployed after six months are given compulsory vocational training and work experience in a sector with a high number of vacancies or encouraged to take up a traineeship.

The youth homelessness charity Centrepoint commissioned the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) to seek the views of vulnerable young people, as well as training providers and charitable organisations who work with them, to further explore the possible implications of the Youth Obligation for the most disadvantaged young people.

Young people surveyed, who had experience of unemployment and/or were living in supported accommodation, consistently stressed that they would only be encouraged to engage in a training opportunity or work placement if it was linked to their career aspirations, or if it did not present other barriers such as being too far to travel or not providing sufficient pay. If Jobcentre Plus were unable to provide access to high-quality opportunities they could see value in, many felt that they would simply disengage and stop claiming benefit.

Previous research has shown how homeless young people find it difficult to meet the conditionality terms of their benefit claim, and are disproportionately affected by benefit sanctions compared to the wider claimant population.

However, it is inexcusable that the state considers it is justified in withdrawing financial support that is meant to ensure people can meet their basic living requirements, if young people, living in a wide range of circumstances, cannot meet the inflexible, behaviourist conditionality requirements, including those of the work fare scheme.  

The ‘U-turn’ on housing costs for young people

 The UK government has announced today that it will amend social security regulations so that all 18 to 21-year-olds will be entitled to claim support for housing costs within the scope of Universal Credit provision. The announcement has been timed for the upcoming local elections in May.

The government says its ‘rethink’ is in line with their Homelessness Reduction aims, which comes into force next month, ‘reiterating its commitment to eradicate rough sleeping by 2027’.

Young people will also be given “comprehensive and intensive work-focussed support”, whether they are ‘learning’ or ‘earning’, as part of the ‘Youth Obligation’. Young people will need to sign up to this commitment to be eligible for housing support.

Work and Pensions Secretary of State, Esther McVey, said: “We want every young person to have the confidence to strive to fulfil their ambitions.

“For those young people who are vulnerable or face extra barriers, Universal Credit provides them with intensive, personalised support to move into employment, training or work experience; so no young person is left behind as they could be under the old benefits system.

“As we rollout Universal Credit, we have always been clear we will make any necessary changes along the way. This announcement today will reassure all young people that housing support is in place if they need it.”.

Denise Hatton, Chief Executive for YMCA England & Wales, said: “YMCA welcomes today’s announcement by the Government but we have long argued that the policy was flawed from the outlet and would not deliver what the Government said it would.

“Our 2015 research showed that scrapping housing benefit for young people wouldn’t drive them to ‘earn or learn’ as the majority would find it impossible to find training and employment without having a stable and safe home.

“By removing automatic entitlement to housing support, the Government took away a vital safety net from some of the country’s most vulnerable young people, who have no choice but to rely on it during their times of crisis and need.

“Reinstating housing benefit allows thousands of young people across the country to get the helping hand their need and support them to get their lives back on track.”

Margaret Greenwood MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “Labour welcomes this major U-turn and the fact that the Government have enacted another policy from our popular manifesto.

“However, housing support has been frozen until 2020 and young people still face major problems in finding affordable housing.

“The sight of young people sleeping on our streets has become all too common under this Conservative Government. Behind the homelessness figures, there are many young adults having to sofa surf or remain living with their parents.

“Labour will invest in genuinely affordable housing, regulate the private rented sector and ensure that all young people have a secure home.”

SNP’s Social Justice spokesperson Neil Gray said: “This major u turn from the Tories shows they have finally realised that penalising young people – as they had done until now – is simply callous and could only lead to a rise in homelessness for young people.

“Any change of policy in the shambolic and damaging roll out of UC is welcome – but we need to see detail from the DWP on what they mean by saying young people will need to sign up to a ‘youth obligation‘ before accessing this much-needed benefit – how that will work.

“We also need clarification on whether or not these changes will be linked in any way with sanctions. Our young people need support into work and into homes and not to be penalised as they start their life by having vital financial support removed from them.

“The SNP Scottish Government has always mitigated this callous policy and provided support to under 21s through the Scottish Welfare Fund, and the social security bill ensured this support would be in legislation – at an estimated cost of up to £6.5 million by 2020.

“It is shameful that it’s taken the UK Government till now before realising this policy was just wrong from the start.

“The Tories think they make any cuts in welfare and get away with it – £4bn in annual cuts to Scotland by the end of the decade. now they have u-turned on this, they can reverse all these cuts and realise people need a helping hand up not pushed into poverty.”

The other catch

As Joe Halewood scathingly points out, the amount of housing costs payable under Universal Credit to young people may be limited to the shared accommodation rate (SAR) for 18 – 21 year olds in private sector housing. There are limited exemptions from SAR, but some only apply to people of certain ages. The outcome of these changes to young people’s housing support is that the majority of single young people aged under 35 who are unable to work, looking for work or on a low income will be living in houses that have multiple occupation. 

Today’s announcement neglected to include the information regarding the reduced rate of housing benefit under the Local Housing Allowance rules. Social housing more generally is difficult to access, but young people are even more constrained. This is, in part due to  a decrease in the number of social housing completions. There is currently little political support for social housing from the government.

During the Spending Review and Autumn Statement 2015, Osborne announced an intention to restrict the level of Housing Benefit, or the housing element of Universal Credit, claimed by tenants in social housing (council and housing association ‘stock’) to the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rate. LHA rates currently apply to most Housing Benefit claimants living in the private rented sector and entitlement is related to household size. A delay in applying the LHA caps and an extension to all Universal Credit claimants was announced during the Autumn Statement 2016, after many charities and academics raised concerns regarding the likely negative impacts. 

Housing Benefit restrictions based on the size of the property occupied have applied to tenants in the private rented sector since 1989. However further changes to legislation were made in 2011, which restricted the number of rooms permitted per child under the age of 18 if they were same sex, and under 16 if they weren’t. Children under those ages are expected to share a bedroom. 

Theresa May dropped the plans to cap housing benefit for social housing and supported accommodation, which had been blamed for an 85% decline in new homes being built for vulnerable people last October.

The prime minister told MPs in the Commons that it would no longer roll out welfare changes that would have resulted in people living in sheltered accommodation having their housing benefit capped in line with private sector rents. The changes were set to save the Treasury £520m by 2020.

May said it was important to “ensure the funding model is right so all providers of supported housing are able to access funding effectively”.

Several schemes for new housing for vulnerable people have either been postponed, cancelled or face closure, a drop from 8,800 to just 1,350 homes, a survey for the National Housing Federation found last year . Uncertainty over the proposed changes to housing benefit have been blamed by many for the decline.

Critics said the LHA rates would have created a postcode lottery and had no relationship to the cost of providing specialist housing in supported accommodation, which include homes for war veterans, disabled people and women fleeing domestic violence.

The shadow housing minister, John Healey, said his party was “winning the arguments and making the running on government policy” but said it would look closely at the detail. 

Labour was due to call on the government to rule out cuts to supported housing during an opposition day debate, but following the climbdown, Healey said the prime minister now needed to commit to a system “which safeguards the long-term future and funding of supported housing”.

The Conservatives’ had originally planned the move to apply LHA rates to Housing Benefit claimants living in the social rented sector, which would have meant that the SAR would also apply to council and housing association tenants under the age of 35 from April 2019 if they are in receipt of Universal Credit, or if their tenancy began or was renewed after April 2016 and they are not living in supported accommodation. (Source: House of Commons Library research briefing, 13 November 2017).

I can’t help but wonder what caveat Esther McVey was referring to in her dissembling use of the vague phrase “in the normal way”. 

‘Securing a tenancy’ isn’t an easy task for young people who need to on very low incomes. Young people tend to have low eligibility for social housing, with priority being given to families. There is a lack of social housing that is suitable for young people, also. Furthermore, The traditional presumption that younger people have recourse to the parental home has been challenged by the introduction of the ‘spare room subsidy’, which finacially penalises parents in social housing for keeping a room free in case their adult children may need to return.

The Conservatives have tended to place an emphasis on home ownership and the private sector in particular, for example: “We want to support the private rented sector to grow, to meet continuing demand for rented homes” (HM Government, 2011; Cameron, 2014).

It has always been the case, historically, that younger people are most strongly represented in the private rented sector,because this sector is the most readily accessible to this group.  A survey (Shelter, 2014) found that less than a quarter (23 per cent) of working adults aged 20-34 living in the parental home wanted to be there, and that the lack of affordable housing was the main stated reason for still living at home. At the same time, wider changes in the economy and labour market have made it harder for young people to enter, remain and progress in employment. 

Under the Localism Act, 2011, local authorities are now empowered to discharge their homelessness duty to households deemed statutorily homeless through the offer of a twelve-month private rented sector assured shorthold tenancy. Younger single
people, who as ‘non-priority’ cases have largely been excluded from social housing provision as a consequence of their perceived lower level of need, are now increasingly in competition for property with ‘priority’ households that have in the past been offered a social housing tenancy.

The failure to meet the housing needs of young people is predicated on a presumption that the parental home will always be available if affordable privately rented property is not available. However as I have stated, the bedroom tax prevents parents from keeping a room for their adult children, in the event of them returning home. The government has consistently failed to respond to the housing option constraints place on young people.

To date we have seen every indication that the implementation of Universal Credit is about cutting the level of support that people received under the old system, to the point where even some of its proponents have feared it has become too mean and inadequate to work for those it is meant to help.

Disabled people, for example, are set to lose the disability premiums under Universal Credit that are currently payable under the employment and support (ESA) benefit. The disability income guarantee is set to be abolished for new claimants who are disabled, and the cut will affect many of those who have a change of circumstances, too, such as moving to an area with full Universal Credit roll-out while they are still claiming ESA.

Crisis and other charities have campaigned against the SAR, saying that the modest single room rate would exclude people from housing and increase the risk of homelessness for people in the under-35 age group. (The definition of ‘young person’ was also changed by the government, from under 25  to under 35).

Charities were also concerned that there was not enough accommodation to cater for people under the age of 35 who would require rooms in shared accommodation. There were also concerns that people would be pushed into unsuitable housing or into sharing accommodation inappropriately.

In January, government statistics revealed it would not make the savings ministers had originally thought because most young people claiming housing costs fell within the exemptions that were published alongside the legislation. This indicates that young people claim housing costs because they need to, rather than just because of a ‘lifestyle choice,’ as the government had previously implied.

David Orr, chief executive at the National Housing Federation, said: “It’s very good news the government are restoring housing benefit to 18-21 year olds.

“This benefit cut has been creating great confusion over whether young people were eligible for these vital funds. Housing associations have told us that as a result they have seen more young, vulnerable people sleeping rough, or forced to depend on unscrupulous private landlords and dangerous accommodation. This was a policy that made no sense and today’s decision is a positive sign they are listening on welfare reform.”

It’s only taken the government five years and immense amounts of pressure from the opposition, charities and academics to see the damage and harm that these policies are causing. The small concession has just restored provision for young citizens to meet a basic survival need, which should never have been removed in the first place, in a wealthy, so-called civilised society.

However, any support provided under Universal Credit is precarious, and constantly under threat from the extended, draconian sanction regime, which includes punitive financial penalties and the withdrawal of lifeline support to people in work but on low pay or working part-time hours. Even if young people manage to navigate the series of ordeals built into the rigid and old school behaviourist conditionality of the Youth Obligation, there are further ordeals awaiting, even if they find work.

Young people are very likely to be low earners who require additional Universal Credit support to meet living costs, and because the ‘national living wage’ is paid only to those aged 25 and over, this simply adds to the problems experienced by this social group. The government welfare ‘reforms (a euphemism for cuts) were never about “making work pay”. They were about dismantling our social security system, a cut at a time.

Now the government have perhaps realised that those social groups that have been disproportionately targeted for affected by their austerity programme are actually comprised of voters too. The Conservatives are currently attempting to engage with young people to persuade them vote for them. 

There is still a long way to go before we may celebrate such a small concession on the part of a government that has demonstrated over and over just how much it despises our vital social security safety net. The same government that introduced the bedroom tax and two welfare caps, cuts to disabled people’s vital lifeline support and has presided over a deregulated job market offering increasingly insecure, poor quality and low paid employment for the past eight years, whilst steadily dismantling our essential social safety net.

Image result for housing benefit claim


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Nothing about you without you – the Labour party manifesto for disabled people

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FOREWORD

Over the last seven years disabled people have borne the brunt of the cuts inflicted on them by the Conservative Government and the Coalition before them.

The cuts have had a detrimental effect on the lives of disabled people, cutting living standards and undermining their access to education, social care and to justice.

Two years ago the United Nations (UN) convened a committee to investigate state violations of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). Last year the UN published their report and concluded that the Conservative Government had committed ‘grave, systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities.’

This is a damning indictment of the treatment of disabled people by the Conservatives, one which shames us as a country.

We believe in a social model of disability, a society which removes the barriers restricting opportunities and choices for disabled people. As such we will build on the previous Labour government’s commitment to disabled people in 2009 as signatories to the UN CRPD. A Labour government will incorporate the UN CRPD into UK law.

We are proud of the manifesto we have developed with, and for, disabled people, and would like to take the opportunity of thanking everyone who has taken part in Labour’s Disability Equality Roadshow over the last year. We have crossed the length and breadth of the country to engage with disabled people and their carers, capturing their views on what needs to change for disabled people to live full and independent lives.

We will continue to work with disabled people in government, fulfilling our promise of ‘nothing about you, without you’.

Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party

Debbie Abrahams, Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary

Marie Rimmer Shadow, Minister for Disabled People.

To access full CONTENT click here (PDF)

After seven years of punitive policies and systematic abuse of the human human rights of disabled people by the coalition and Conservative governments, it is such a profound relief to see Labour have developed this manifesto, using consultations as a democratic opportunity to HEAR and include us in political decision making, and will strongly support disabled people and their families. I am proud to have contributed to this via the consultation held in Newcastle.

Here is a brief summary of some of Labour’s policies:

  • Labour will make it a priority to repeal the numerous cuts in social security support for people with disabilities. They will do this through a new Social Security Bill that will be passed within the first year of the new parliament.

  • Labour will reverse the £30 per week cut that the Tories recently imposed on disabled people who receive Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

  • Labour will scrap the Bedroom Tax that has cruelly and disproportionately hit over 400,000 families with disabled members with punitive charges for “spare” rooms that are often used to store medical equipment, or for carers to sleep in.
  • Labour will end the pointless and needlessly expensive continuous reassessments of disabled people with permanent disabilities, chronic illness and degenerative illness.

  • Labour will end the privatisation of disability assessments so that disabled people never again have to face the indignity degradation of having to prove their disability to some corporate bureaucrat with targets to throw as many disabled people off their benefits as possible.
  • Labour will scrap the discriminatory and degrading Work Capacity Assessment (WCA) regime that costs billions more to administer than it actually saves in reduced payments in social security support for disabled people.
  • Labour will end the privatisation of disability assessments so that disabled people never again have to face the indignity degradation of having to prove their disability 
  • Labour will scrap the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment regime too.
  • Labour will replace the WCA and PIP assessment regimes with a system where personal advisers help to provide every disabled person who feels capable of work to develop a tailored personal plan, adopting a genuinely holistic approach. Those who feel they can’t work will be supported without punishment or threat of uncertainty.
  • Labour will incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into UK law. And observe the law.
  • Labour will scrap  the draconian sanctions regime that has consigned hundreds of thousands of disabled people to absolute destitution. 
  • Labour will increase the Carer’s Allowance by £11 per week to bring it into line with the rate of unemployment benefit. 
  • Labour will reverse the Tories’ assault on the Bereavement Allowance.

The Labour Party manifesto is a fantastic demonstration that they have been listening to the concerns of disabled people and their families.

The manifesto presents a set of policies that will make people’s lives better.

I’ve summarised a handful of policies here, so be sure to read the full document.

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 Alex Cunnigham, me, Debbie Abrahams and Gail Ward at the Disability Equality Roadshow in Newcastle

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

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Theresa May’s ritualistic Tory chanting: “getting people’s lives back on track”

Earlier this month, Theresa May surprisingly unveiled a £40 million package designed to prevent homelessness by intervening to help individuals and families before they end up on the streets. It was claimed that the “shift” in government policy will move the focus away from dealing with the consequences of homelessness and place prevention “at the heart” of the Prime Minister’s approach. 

Writing in the Big Issue magazine – sold by homeless people – May said: “We know there is no single cause of homelessness and those at risk can often suffer from complex issues such as domestic abuse, addiction, mental health issues or redundancy.”

“So I believe it’s time we changed our approach. We can no longer focus on tackling the symptoms and immediate consequences of homelessness. We need to put prevention at the heart of a new approach.

“As a first step towards this change, I’m announcing a new £40 million package to both prevent and tackle the causes of homelessness. This will include £20 million for local authorities to pilot innovative initiatives to tackle the causes of homelessness – helping to find solutions for families and individuals before they reach crisis point.”

Earlier this year it was revealed that under David Cameron’s administration homelessness in England had risen by 54 per cent since 2010

This reflected the sixth consecutive annual rise, with households becoming homeless in London increasing to 17,530 (9 per cent) in the last year alone and 58,000 households across the whole of England.

That’s during six consecutive years of the Conservatives in Office, and six years of savage austerity measures that target the poorest citizens disproportionately, by coincidence.

Or by correlation.

There are a few causes that the prime minister seems to have overlooked, amidst the Conservative ritualistic chanting which reflects assumptions and prejudices about the “causal” factors of social problems and a narrative of individualism. It’s a curious fact that wealthy people also experience “complex issues” such as addiction, mental health problems and domestic abuse, but they don’t tend to experience homelessness and poverty as a result. 

The deregulated private sector and increasingly precarious tenancies

“This Government is therefore, very pleased to support Bob Blackman MP’s Private Members Bill, with its ambitious measures to help reduce homelessness.”

Blackman, the Conservative MP for Harrow East, said he welcomed the Government’s decision. He added: “Throughout my 24 years in local government prior to becoming an MP, I saw the devastation that can be caused by homelessness first hand, with too many people simply slipping through the net under the current arrangements.

“By backing this bill, the Government is demonstrating its commitment to an agenda of social justice and also shows that it is willing to listen. I look forward to working with Ministers going forward in order to bring about this important change in legislation.”

Crisis, the national charity for homeless people, welcomed the Government’s commitment but warned that unless “MPs [need to] offer their support at the bill’s second reading on Friday, this historic opportunity could easily be lost”.

Jon Sparkes, the charity’s chief executive, added: “This is a credible and much-needed piece of legislation which now has the backing of the Government, the opposition and the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. The cross-party consensus is there, and we hope that MPs from across the political spectrum will come together on October 28 to vote on the bill.

“Helping people to stay off the streets and rebuild their lives is about basic social justice – it’s the right thing to do – but it also makes good economic sense. New research from Crisis has revealed how preventing 40,000 people from becoming homelessness could save the public purse up to £370m a year, or just over £9,000 per year for every person helped. The logic is clear: preventing homelessness saves lives, but also reduces public costs.

“For 40 years we’ve had a system that fails too many homeless people and turns them away at their time of need. The Homelessness Reduction Bill could help put an end to that injustice once and for all. It is a major opportunity to improve the rights of people currently shut out of the system, whist continuing to protect families with children.”

Lord Porter, the chairman of the Local Government Association, which represents councils and had opposed an earlier draft of the Bill, said granting councils the ability to build homes would be a more effective step towards ending homelessness and the housing crisis in general.

“Councils want to end homelessness and are already doing everything they can within existing resources to prevent and tackle it. However, there is no silver bullet, and councils alone cannot tackle rising homelessness. The causes of homelessness are many and varied and range from financial to social,” he said.

“After having worked closely with Bob Blackman, we are confident that the new Bill, if it does go through Parliament, will be in a better place.

“However, it is clear that legislative change alone will not resolve homelessness. If we are all to succeed, then all new duties proposed in the Bill will need to be fully funded. Councils need powers to resume our role as a major builder of affordable homes.”

The shortage of housing and the impact of the Government’s welfare “reforms”

The 2013 annual State of the Nation report by the charities Crisis and Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) revealed that the number sleeping rough had risen by six per cent in England this year, and by 13 per cent in London. There has been a 10 per cent increase in those housed temporarily, including a 14 per cent rise in the use of bed and breakfast accommodation.

Writing just a year after the highly controversial Welfare Reform Act was ushered through the legislative process on the back of Cameron’s claim to the “financial privilege” of the Commons , the report authors explicitly blamed the Government’s welfare cuts for compounding the problems caused by the high cost and shortage of housing as demand outstripped supply. The researchers found found that the cap on housing benefit made it more difficult to rent from a private landlord, especially in London, and claimed the controversial “bedroom tax” has caused a sharp rise in arrears for people in public housing, particularly in the Midlands and North.

A separate survey by Inside Housing magazine showed that councils and housing associations are increasingly resorting to the threat of eviction, as the loss of an adequate social security safety net is causing increasing hardship for social housing tenants. The reduction of council tax benefit for people who were previously exempt from paying council tax has also contributed significantly to experiences of material hardship, too. 

Ministers have emphatically denied that their reforms have contributed to the return of homelessness. However, homelessness has now risen in each of the five years since the Coalition was formed – after falling sharply in the previous six years, and has continued to rise throughout 2016.

The government’s welfare policies have emerged as the biggest single trigger for homelessness now the economy has allegedly recovered, and are likely to increase pressure on households for the next few years, with the new benefit cap increasing the strain, according to the independent research findings in the Homelessness Monitor 2015, the annual independent audit, published by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The housing minister, Kris Hopkins, said the study’s claims were “misleading”. Local authorities had “a wide range of government-backed options available to help prevent homelessness and keep people off the streets,” he said.

“This government has increased spending to prevent homelessness and rough sleeping, making over £500m available to local authorities and the voluntary sector,” he added.

It hasn’t worked. This is because, despite Theresa May’s claims, the government tends to simply address the effects and not the real causes of homelessness. Unless the government actually address the growing inequality, poverty and profound insecurity that their own policies have created, then homelessness and absolute poverty will continue to increase.

Hopkins added that the government had provided Crisis with nearly £14m in funding to help about 10,000 single homeless people find and sustain a home in the private rented sector.

Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “Homelessness can be catastrophic for those of us who experience it. If we are to prevent a deepening crisis, we must look to secure alternatives to home ownership for those who cannot afford to buy: longer-term, secure accommodation at prices that those on the lowest incomes can afford.”

The Homelessness Monitor study 2015 found:

  • Housing benefit caps and shortages of social housing has led to homeless families increasingly being placed in accommodation outside their local area, particularly in London. Out-of-area placements rose by 26% in 2013-14, and account for one in five of all placements.
  • Welfare reforms such as the bedroom tax contributed to an 18% rise in repossession actions by social landlords in 2013-14, a trend expected to rise as arrears increase and temporary financial support shrink
  • Housing benefit cuts played a large part in the third of all cases of homelessness last year caused by landlords ending a private rental tenancy, and made it harder for those who lost their home to be rehoused.

The study says millions of people are experiencing “hidden homelessness”, including families forced by financial circumstances to live with other families in the same house, and people categorised as “sofa surfers” who sleep on friends’ floors or sofas because they have nowhere to live.

Official estimates of  the numbers of people sleeping rough in England in 2013 were 2,414 – up 37% since 2010. But the study’s estimates based on local data suggest that the true figure could be at least four times that.

The Department for Work and Pensions also announced last month that it was cutting funding for homeless hostels and supported housing for disabled people by reducing supported housing benefit rent payments for three years. The homelessness reduction bill in the current policy context is yet another example of how Conservatives don’t seem to manage coherent, joined up thinking. 

“The Government’s proposals will compromise the right for people with a learning disability to live independently, and must be reconsidered urgently,” Dan Scorer, head of policy at the learning disabilities charity Mencap, warned after the announcement.

Meanwhile Howard Sinclair, the chief executive of the homelessness charity St Mungo’s, said the cut would leave the homeless charity with £3 million a year less to spend on services. 

“The rent reduction will threaten the financial viability of some of our hostels and other supported housing schemes and offers no direct benefit to vulnerable tenants who mostly rely on housing benefit to cover their housing costs,” he said.

It’s just not good enough that the Government simply attempts to colonise progressive rhetoric, claiming they stand for social justice, when they very clearly don’t walk the talk.

Conservative neoliberal “small state” anti-welfare policies are increasing homelessness. The bedroom tax, council tax benefit reductions, housing benefit reductions, welfare caps, sanctions, the deregulation of private sector, the selling off and privatising of social housing stock have all contributed to the current crisis of homelessness.

It was particularly remarkable that May claimed the government are “doing the right thing for social justice” yet the Conservative policy framework is, by its very design, inevitably adding to the precariousness of the situations those people with the least financial security are in.

Someone should explain to the prime minister that “social justice” doesn’t generally entail formulating predatory policies that ensure the wealthy accumulate more wealth by dispossessing the poorest citizens of their public assets, civilised institutions and civilising practices gained through the post-war settlement.

Devolving responsibility for the housing crisis and lack of adequate social security provision to local authorities that are already strapped for cash because of government cuts, and with an ever-dwindling housing stock, won’t help to address growing inequality, or alleviate poverty and destitution.

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Related

From homes fit for heroes to the end of secure, lifelong social housing tenancies

Update

Let’s Pressurise MP’s To Attend the Vote On the ‘Once In a Lifetime Homelessness Bill’ – template letter to MPs, courtesy of the Dorset Eye


 

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Labour pledge to scrap punitive Tory sanctions and the Work Capability Assessment

Debbie Abrahams MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said that she will scrap punitive benefit sanctions and the discredited Work Capability Assessment, at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. The pledge was echoed by newly re-elected party leader Jeremy Corbyn in his main speech to the conference. He said a Labour government would be “scrapping the punitive sanctions regime and the degrading work capability assessment.”

Here is a transcript of Debbie’s excellent speech:

“It is a real honour to stand here before you as the Party’s spokesperson for Work and Pensions, my first time on the Conference platform.

Conference, we live in troubling times. Our nation seems more adrift than ever. Our troubles often seem insurmountable.

But when I’m faced with complexity and difficulties, I recall some wise words: “The more complicated something is, the more important it is to define what your simple truths are.”

So, what are my ‘simple truths’? First, I am a socialist. I believe that society is stronger – can achieve more – when we stand together, and that every citizen has an equal stake in our future.

It is to me a simple truth that a nation aspiring to decency and fairness does not punish the disabled and disadvantaged.

It is to me a simple truth that the way a government prioritises finite finances reveals its authentic self.

So when this Tory Government imposes the bedroom tax on disabled people but gives tax breaks to millionaires, then their own simple truths are laid bare.

It is to me a simple truth that where the dignity of rewarding work is deprived to millions through a lack of quality jobs, the rise of zero-hours contracts, and indignities heaped on loyal work forces by the likes of Sports Direct and BHS, then social and economic progress is stunted.

And it is also a simple truth that targeting the most vulnerable in our society damages the least vulnerable, too. If you haven’t already, please read the Richard Wilkinson’s and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level.

This shows that societies with a wider gap between rich and poor experience higher levels of infant mortality, lower life expectancy, poorer mental health, and less social mobility.

To me, as a former academic, it is a simple truth that evidence-based policy must replace policy-based evidence. That’s why I’m a socialist. Because all the evidence points to another simple truth.

By building a society where the hope of progress is genuine and realistic and not forlorn, where every citizen feels themselves an equal participant in our nation, and where government is seen to be working for everyone, we create a virtuous circle of growth, stability and contentment.

For all the Prime Minister’s warm words, it is by her actions we will judge her. She has been a senior member of a government that has chosen to visit austerity on the most vulnerable in society. She has been a senior member of a government that continues to rain down on our education system ideological reforms with little or no evidentiary justification. And she has been a senior member of a government where the number of foodbanks increased ten-fold in 4 years.

Conference, inequality is not inevitable. We are all here precisely because we know that change is both possible and necessary.

Today there are 3.9 million children living in poverty, and children’s charities are estimating that will be 5 million. Conference, children being in poverty affects not just their childhood but their whole future life chances.

And the five million disabled people living in poverty because of the extra costs that they face associated with their disability, is set to increase as a result of even more cuts in social security support.

While I am proud of the last Labour Government’s success at reducing pensioner poverty, women and the lowest paid remain at high risk of falling into poverty in their retirement.

This injustice is being extended to 2.6 million women born in the 1950s, who have been short-changed by this Government bringing forward their state pension age.

The pensions system that I want to see ensures dignity in retirement, and a proper reflection of the contribution that older people have made, and continue to make, to our society.

This Government has fostered an insidious culture of fear and blame to justify their programme of cuts, deliberately attempting to vilify social security claimants as the new undeserving poor.

I wanted to show you the trailer from Ken Loach’s new film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ as I think it sets out so clearly much of that is wrong with the current social security system.

I believe there is a better way, a fairer way. One where Britain is the centre of a new industrial revolution with industries and technologies as diverse as our people.

To achieve this, we need to invest in our greatest asset – our citizens – nurturing a highly skilled workforce and rebuilding our country.

For too long the labour market has been dominated by poor quality, low paid, insecure jobs resulting in two thirds of children living in poverty coming from working families. Four in every five people working in low paid jobs are still stuck in them ten years later.

For those unable to work through illness or disability, we need to transform our social security system to one that is efficient, responsive, and provides basic support. Time and time again, I hear of how worthless the system makes people feel. For the vast majority of people who have paid into it all their working lives, this is like a slap in the face. People often feel desperate, have been left destitute and have even died.

I want to change the culture of our social security system and how the public see it. I believe that, like the NHS, it is based on principles of inclusion, support and security for all, assuring us of our dignity and the basics of life were we to fall on hard times or become incapacitated, giving us a hand up, not a hand out.

Work should always pay more than being on social security, but being in work shouldn’t mean living in poverty and neither should being on social security.

The Labour Party has already pledged to get rid of the discriminatory and unfair Bedroom Tax. But I want to go further.

I want to scrap the discredited Work Capability Assessment and replace it with a system based on personalised, holistic support, one that provides each individual with a tailored plan, building on their strengths and addressing barriers, whether skills, health, care, transport, or housing-related.

This Government’s punitive sanctions system must go too, so Job Centre Plus and employment support providers’ performance will not just be assessed on how many people they get off their books.

I want to see disabled people better supported into and at work. We will halve the Disability Employment Gap – and when we say it we mean it. And we will tackle other labour market inequalities too.

I believe in a fair and just Britain, where everyone can get on and no-one is left behind.

Labour’s policies will deliver prosperity for all and tackle the inequalities and poverty in Britain today.

I challenge the Government to deliver theirs.”

 


I just wanted to add a note of clarification, as some people are claiming that it isn’t the intention of the Labour party to scrap sanctions entirely. There has always been a degree of benefit conditionality, since the inception of the welfare state. This has not previously been particularly problematic, and a reasonable degree of government accountability and protecting the “public purse” has always been expected from the public.

However, the Conservatives introduced a very harsh and punitive regime in 2012, extending the use of sanctions to include previously protected social groups, such as lone parents and sick and disabled people. The severity and length of the sanctions was also radically increased, and as we know from evidence gathered since 2012, it is these changes that have caused so much hardship and distress for many people.

We also know that sanctions are very often applied unfairly, and that one of the main aims of them is to cut costs and reduce the welfare state. Instead of supporting citizens, our social security is now about coercing citizens into “job seeking” rule-following and conformity, regardless of the employment market conditions and other social and economic constraints.

The Conservatives introduced these changes because they think that coercive “behavioural change” techniques may align citizens’ behaviours with neoliberal outcomes. Their sanction regime is founded on a nudge theory – that we have a “cognitive bias” called loss aversion. The Conservatives expect that by manipulating this alleged bias – using the fear of financial loss – people will comply and get a job. That assumes, of course, that the cause of unemployment is something that happens within an individual, and not because of political decision-making and socioeconomic conditions. 

In this context, sanctions are a punishment for non-compliance with politically defined outcomes, directed entirely by economic dogma. It’s a form of operant conditioning. It does not take into consideration the real structural socioeconomic barriers that people face in finding appropriate work. Instead the individual is held responsible for the failings of a competitive, market-based system.

The stigmatisation of people needing social security – the political and cultural use of dehumanising metaphors and rhetoric – has been used to justify the ideologically-driven dismantling of the welfare state and the other gains of our post-war settlement. The punitive sanction regime is part of this process of political demolition. This is clearly a political misuse of “psychology”. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a technocratic application of techniques of persuasion: the marketing strategy and packaging for controversial “small state” and authoritarian neoliberal policies.

Debbie acknowledges much of this. She has promised to repeal the Conservative’s punitive sanction regime and the WCA. Her speech indicates clearly the direction of travel for the Labour party.

I welcome that. I’m certain that many others will. It’s long overdue.

Kitty

Related

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification

 

 


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Report on the UK Government’s failing human rights record submitted to UN

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coalition of 175 civil society organisations has raised grave concern about the impact of the government’s welfare “reforms” and living standards in the UK, hate crimes, mental health, deteriorating prison conditions, stop and search powers and the Conservative’s plans to repeal the Human Rights Act, among other issues. The organisations include Age UK, Just Fair, Inclusion (London and Scotland), the TUC, Unicef UK, Rights Watch, The Law Centres Network, Mind, the Mental Health Foundation and Stonewall. 

The coalition contributed to a report which calls on the United Nations (UN) to recognise the evidence from the wide range of civil society groups and to ensure the UK Government, and the devolved administrations, are accountable for taking appropriate action and measures to redress many raised human rights concerns. The report authors caution that a high proportion of the 132 recommendations from the last United Nations hearings in 2012 have not been implemented.

The British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) announced the launch of the Joint Civil Society Report, on the 22 September. It was submitted to the United Nations in Geneva last Thursday as part of the Universal Periodic Review of the UK. 

The report was produced as part of Human Rights Check UK project, which has been assessing human rights changes since the UK was last reviewed by the UN in 2012. BIHR have engaged with over 175 organisations across England, Scotland and Wales through both a call for evidence and by hosting a series of events across Great Britain. These groups range from local community advocacy groups to large national organisations, working on issues such as health, age related issues, children’s issues, justice, education, welfare and many others.

Many of the issues and concerns raised in this report of 84 pages have been under-reported in the mainstream media.

The human rights framework in the UK is being eroded

A key theme throughout the evidence received are serious concerns regarding the proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act. Civil society organisations were worried that a new Bill of Rights would offer weaker human rights protections, particularly impacting the most vulnerable members of society.

The report says repeal of the act would be a “denigration of international human rights law.” It also says in the submission: “The UK’s retrogressive debates are already negatively influencing other countries. There is increasing concern that the UK’s political rhetoric will, if not checked, threaten the coherence and credibility of the post-second world war human rights settlement.”

The report also says: The rhetoric in national media and among senior officials often repeatedly misrepresents and misreports judicial cases, “blaming” human rights laws for situations/decisions which are about other laws or are only partially about human rights (often centring on groups considered “unpopular” or “undeserving”). When the Human Rights Act has positively supported people, this is rarely discussed.

It is vital that the UK Government guarantees it will build upon the Human Rights Act, rather than amending or repealing it via a new bill of rights. Refusal to give such a guarantee should be recognised as an indication that there is a significant risk of the human rights framework in the UK being eroded.”

These are all concerns that I have raised myself over the last two years, along with many other campaigners.

Other key issues raised were related to growing poverty and inequality across the UK as a result of welfare “reforms” and austerity measures. The report reflects the damaging impact that Conservative policies are having on a number of human rights issues, including access to justice, children and women’s rights and the right to an adequate standard of living. These are problems and themes which many of us have been campaigning and writing about for the last four or five years.

Social security no longer alleviates poverty and homelessness

Many concerns were raised about the impact of the welfare cuts, growing poverty and an inadequate standard of living in the UK. The report said that recent policy and legislative changes have seen a regression in standards of living and the welfare system’s ability to tackle poverty, homelessness and unemployment. Many organisations reported that this is having a negative impact on marginalised social groups, among which are some of our most vulnerable citizens. 

For example, the abolition of disability premiums may result in 100,000 disabled children losing up to £28 a week. Changes to personal allowances will leave single parents with severe disability needs with £73 less a week. There was recognition of the discriminatory impact of the bedroom tax on disabled adults and children, carers, domestic violence victims, separated parents and others.

The benefit cap disproportionately impacts on single parents, children and BME groups. The Supreme Court ruled that the cap violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child  (UNCRC) but did not overturn the policy. The UK Government has further reduced the cap to £20,000 per annum for households outside of London and £23,000 for those within Greater London through the Welfare Reform Work Act 2016, affecting 92,000 more households.

The report also said that benefit sanctions have significantly increased and that evidence strongly suggests links to rising destitution and food bank use. Many people have received sanctions in “error”. The authors pointed out that there is no empirical evidence that sanctioning is in any way effective in “getting people back to work”. 

It was also noted that the government claim to have introduced a National Living Wage in 2016, to increase minimum wage to over £9 per hour by 2020. This does not apply to those under 25. Rates are not set in accordance with recommendations from the Living Wage Foundation.

Further concerns raised are freezes to working-age benefits for four years from April 2017, the removal of the Child Tax Credit entitlement for third or subsequent children born after 6 April,  repeal of the Child Poverty Act 2010. Although the Government will publish child poverty data, there are no longer statutory targets or a duty to report.

The report authors also acknowledged that there been an unprecedented rise in the use of food banks, and several submissions directly related this to welfare cuts and austerity measures. One million people were provided with 3 days of emergency food in 2015/16. 

It was noted that the Parliamentary committee recently (2015) assessed the impact of the Equality Act 2010 on disability discrimination, concluding it was unsatisfactory. Particular issues raised in evidence submissions include: the significant and disproportionate impact of welfare cuts on disabled people, e.g. Work Capability Assessments have seen many disabled people incorrectly assessed as fit for work; concerns about the portrayal of disabled people as “benefit scroungers”, perpetuated by some sections of the media and political leaders, and new tribunal fees being a disincentive to bringing discrimination cases forward. 

There was also widespread concern expressed that cuts to legal aid have impacted on the most disadvantaged groups in society, deterring potentially successful legal cases and challenges, and removing sources of advice and support. There is a disproportionate impact on women, children, BME communities, disabled people and people living in poverty.

Among the recommendations made:-

The UK government should:

  •  Monitor and review the impact of welfare reforms on living standards, increased poverty and food insecurity, and work to break the link between welfare support and poverty
  •  Pause and review its sanctioning policy, ensuring no person is pushed in to destitution
  •  Abolish the spare room subsidy since it causes destitution and has not served its purpose
  •  Reconsider changes to child poverty policy and ensure no child is living  in poverty
  •  Create a living wage that accurately reflects the cost of living within the UK

Among other human rights failings, the report highlights the fact that race is the most commonly recorded motivation (82%) for hate crimes in England and Wales and that the Brexit vote coincided with a surge in such offences. It links reports on the government’s policy of creating a “hostile environment” for migrants with discrimination against those from minority communities. It’s true that political and media rhetoric about migration is loaded with dehumanising metaphors.

Mental health service funding cuts and government policies are having negative impacts on vulnerable people

Evidence submitted highlighted a number of serious issues, including:

  • The underfunding of mental health services, resulting in just 25% of people receiving help.
  • In England, funding for mental health trusts has dropped in real terms by 8.25% since 2010.
  • Shortfalls in services have resulted in the police responding to people in crisis. In 2014-15, in England and Wales, the police picked up 23,128 people in mental health crisis and 4,537 were taken to a police cell because there was no other safe place available (although this is down from the previous year).
  •  Patients being placed in units far away from their home and support networks as a result of closing in-patient units. In 2015-16, 5,411 patients were sent ‘out of area’.
  •  The disparity across the UK in accessing talking therapies. In 2014-15, 33% of people in England waited longer than 28 days to start treatment following referral and 7% longer than 90 days. In Wales, data shows 57% of people waited over three months for an assessment and their first session.
  •  Concern that legal protections for people with mental capacity issues are not sufficient, including that the Mental Capacity Act and the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards in England and Wales are no longer fit for purpose (the Law Commission is reviewing both) and that the Adults with Incapacity Act in Scotland is not compatible with human rights standards.

Trade Unions and charities have been systematically disempowered

Serious concern was expressed that recent legislation has introduced unjustified, disproportionate and discriminatory restrictions on trade unions activities. The Trade Union Act 2016 sets statutory thresholds and substantial new legal hurdles which unions must overcome to take lawful industrial action in defence of their jobs, livelihoods, wages and working conditions.

The “Lobbying Act” has created additional layers of regulation for charities and Trade Unions, already subject to rules on political activities. The Lobbying Act’s chilling effect has been reported across jurisdictions. Research found 63% of charity respondents said the Act will make it harder to achieve their charitable objectives.

The recent Hodgson Review concluded that the Act did not strike the right balance. The UK Government has yet to respond to the report’s recommendations.  CSOs are also critical of UK Government proposals to introduce an “anti-advocacy clause”, restricting organisations that receive public money from lobbying Government.

There are concerns about flawed research underpinning the proposal and its impact on civil society organisations (CSOs) being able to amplify community voices with the State. This has implications for democracy.

The Trade Union Act 2016 sets statutory thresholds and substantial new legal hurdles which unions must overcome to take lawful industrial action in defence of their jobs, livelihoods and working conditions.

There is widespread concern about the impact of the UK referendum to leave the European Union on human rights. Whilst the Human Rights Act is separate from the EU, a number of other rights-based standards emanate from the EU, including equality and employment law standards. 

Stephen Bowen, the chief executive of BIHR, said: “The UK government needs to listen, not just to the United Nations but to the voices of the huge range of organisations closer to home that have shared their serious concern. They are troubled the government is taking the UK towards further isolationism and disregarding the United Nations, worsening the situation with welfare and legal aid cuts, and wanting to scrap the Human Rights Act, weakening its accountability for our rights at home as well as internationally.”

The report was launched on 22 September at Westminster, with contributions from Sir Nicolas Bratza (Chair of BIHR, and former president of the European Court of Human Rights), David Isaac CBE (Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), the Rt Hon. Harriet Harman QC MP (Chair of the Joint Committee of Human Rights) and BIHR deputy director, Sanchita Hosali.

Harriet Harman, welcomed the report for its breadth and depth, and said she would be raising the issues explained with the Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, when she appears at the JCHR next month. Harriet spoke about how the UK level government debates on human rights were leading to a corrosion of rights domestically, and undermining the core principle of universalism. 

She spoke of how the UK needs to recognise and celebrate, not disparage, international accountability, whether that be at the UN or the European Court of Human Rights. Yet the contrast between what the UK Government says domestically versus what is said at the UN can be like “hearing two different administrations.”

Director, Stephen Bowen, conveyed whole-hearted thanks to the 175+ organisations that have helped shape BIHR’s report, to root it in the very real and pressing issues many people in the UK face in ensuring their universal human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. The breadth and depth of organisations involved is a testament to how significant human rights are in the UK.

 

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Conservative welfare “reforms” – the sound of one hand clapping

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“Labour MPs sat perplexed … By cutting housing benefit for the poor, the Government was helping the poor. By causing people to leave their homes, the Government was helping people put a roof over their heads. By appealing the ruling that it discriminated against the vulnerable, the Government was supporting the vulnerable.

Yes, this was a tricky one.” – From an unusually insightful article in the Telegraph about the incoherence of Conservative welfare rhetoric:  How bedroom tax protects the vulnerable.

“Ministers keep using the mantra that their proposals are to protect the most vulnerable when, quite obviously, they are the exact opposite. If implemented their measures would, far from protecting the most vulnerable, directly harm them. Whatever they do in the end, Her Majesty’s Government should stop this 1984 Orwellian-type misuse of language.”  – Lord Bach, discussing the Legal Aid Bill. Source: Hansard, Column 1557, 19 May, 2011.

Conservative policies are incoherent: they don’t fulfil their stated aims and certainly don’t address public needs. Furthermore, Conservative rhetoric has become completely detached from the experiences of most citizens and their everyday realities.

Under the Equality Act, provision was made by the Labour government to ensure that legislations didn’t discriminate against protected social groups, which included disabled people. However, the need for public bodies in England to undertake or publish an equality impact assessment of government policies, practices and decisions was quietly removed by David Cameron in April 2011. The legal requirement in the Equality Act that ensured public bodies attempt to reduce inequalities caused by socio-economic factors was also scrapped by Theresa May in November 2010, who said she favoured a greater focus on “fairness” rather than “equality.”

The Conservatives have since claimed to make welfare provision “fair” by introducing substantial cuts to benefits and introducing severe conditionality requirements regarding eligibility to social security, including the frequent use of extremely punitive benefit sanctions as a means of “changing behaviours,” highlighting plainly that the Conservatives regard unemployment and disability as some kind of personal deficit on the part of those who are, in reality, simply casualties of unfortunate circumstances, bad political decision-making and subsequent politically-constructed socio-economic circumstances.

The word “fair” originally meant “treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination, without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.” Under the Conservatives, we have witnessed a manipulated semantic shift, “fair” has become a Glittering Generality – part of a lexicon of propaganda that simply props up Tory ideology in an endlessly erroneous and self-referential way. Conservative ideology is permeating language, prompting semantic shifts towards bland descriptors which mask power and class relations, coercive state actions and political intentions. One only need to look at the context in which the government use words like “fair”, “support”, “help”, “justice” , “equality” and “reform” to recognise linguistic behaviourism in action. Or if you prefer, Orwellian doublespeak.

The altered semantics clearly signpost an intentionally misleading Conservative narrative, constructed on the basic, offensive idea that people claiming welfare do so because of “faulty” personal characteristics, and that welfare creates problems, rather than it being an essential mechanism aimed at alleviating poverty, extending social and economic support and opportunities – social insurance and security when people need it.

The government claims to be “committed to supporting the most vulnerable” and ensuring “everyone contributes to reducing the deficit, and where those with the most contribute the most.” That is blatantly untrue, as we can see from just a glance at Conservative policies.

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Conservative rhetoric is a masterpiece of stapled together soundbites and meaningless glittering generalities. And intentional mystification. Glittering Generalities are being used to mask political acts of discrimination.

Cameron claims that he is going to address “inequality” and “social problems”, for example, but wouldn’t you think that he would have done so over the past five years, rather than busying himself creating those problems via policies? Under Cameron’s government, we have become the most unequal country in the European Union, even the USA, home of the founding fathers of neoliberalism, is less divided by wealth and income, than the UK.

I’m also wondering how tripling university tuition fees, removing bursaries and maintainance grants for students from poorer backgrounds and reintroducing banding in classrooms can possibly indicate a party genuinely interested in extending “equal opportunities.”

It’s perplexing that a government claiming itself to be “economically competent” can possibly attempt to justify spending more tax payers money on appealing a Supreme Court decision that the bedroom tax policy is discriminatory, when it would actually cost less implementing the legal recommendations of the court. As Owen Smith, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “Just the Supreme Court session itself will cost the Government more in legal fees than the £200,000 needed to exempt domestic abuse victims affected.

“If the Tories had an ounce of decency they could have stood by the decision and exempted the two groups.

“Instead they are instructing expensive lawyers to fight in the Supreme Court for the right to drive people further into poverty.”

As a consequence of the highly discriminatory and blatantly class-contingent Tory policies, rampant socio-economic inequality apparently is the new Tory “fair”. There is a clear incongruence between Conservative rhetoric and the impact of their policies. This is further highlighted by the fact that the UK is currently being investigated by the United Nations regarding serious contraventions of the human rights of sick and disabled people, and other marginalised groups, because of the dire impact of Conservative welfare “reforms.”

It’s clear that the austerity cuts which target the poorest are intentional, ideologically-driven decisions, taken within a context of other available choices and humane options.

The rise in the need for food banks in the UK, amongst both the working and non-working poor, over the past five years and the return of absolute poverty, not seen since before the advent of the welfare state in this country, makes a mockery of government claims that it supports the most vulnerable.

Income tax receipts to the Treasury have fallen because those able to pay the most are being steadily exempted from social responsibility, and wages for many of the poorer citizens have fallen, whilst the cost of living has risen significantly over this past five years.

The ideologically motivated transfer of funds from the poorest half of the country to the more affluent has not contributed to deficit reduction. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the cumulative impact of Tory tax and welfare changes, from out-of-work and in-work benefits to council tax support, to the cut in the top rate of income tax and an increase in tax-free personal allowances, has been extremely regressive and detrimental to the poorest.

The revenue gains from the tax changes and benefit cuts were offset by the cost of tax reductions, particularly the increase in the income tax personal allowance, benefitting the wealthiest.

The Treasury response to this is to single out the poorest yet again for more cuts to “balance the books” – which basically translates as the Conservative “small state” fetish, and deep dislike of the gains we made from the post-war settlement. Yet for a government that claims a non-interventionist stance, it sure does make a lot of interventions. Always on behalf of the privileged class, with policies benefitting only the wealthy minority.

How can Conservatives believe that poor people are motivated to work harder by taking money from them, yet also apparently believe that wealthy people are motivated by giving them more money? This is not “behavioural science,” it’s policy-making founded entirely on traditional Tory prejudices.

The government claim that “Every individual policy change is carefully considered, including looking at the effect on disabled people in line with legal obligations,” but without carrying out a cumulative impact assessment, the effects and impacts of policies can’t possibly be accurately measured. And that is intentional, too.

Despite being a party that claims to support “hard-working families,” the Conservatives have nonetheless made several attempts to undermine the income security of a signifant proportion of that group of citizens recently. Their proposed tax credit cuts, designed to creep through parliament in the form of secondary legislation, which tends to exempt it from meaningful debate and amendment in the Commons, was halted only because the House of Lords have been paying attention to the game.

The use of secondary legislation has risen at an unprecedented rate, reaching an extraordinary level since 2010, and it’s increased use is to ensure that the Government meet with little scrutiny and challenge in the House of Commons when they attempt to push through controversial and unpopular, ideologically-driven legislation.

Conservative cuts are most often applied by stealth, using statutory instruments. This indicates a government that is well aware that its policies are not fit for purpose.

We can’t afford Conservative ideological indulgence.

The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. An audit report earlier this month concluded that the Department for Work and Pension’s spending on contracts for disability benefit assessments is expected to double in 2016/17 compared with 2014/15. The government’s flagship welfare-cut scheme will be actually spending more money on the assessments themselves than it is saving in reductions to the benefits bill – as Frances Ryan pointed out in the Guardian, it’s the political equivalent of burning bundles of £50 notes.

The report also states that only half of all the doctors and nurses hired by Maximus – the US outsourcing company brought in by the Department for Work and Pensions to carry out the assessments – had even completed their training.

The NAO report summarises:

5.5
Million assessments completed in five years up to March 2015

65%
Estimated increase in cost per ESA assessment based on published information after transfer of the service in 2015 (from £115 to £190)


84%
Estimated increase in healthcare professionals across contracts from 2,200 in May 2015 to 4,050 November 2016

£1.6bn
Estimated cost of contracted-out health and disability assessments over three years, 2015 to 2018

£0.4 billion
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending

13%
Proportion of ESA and PIP targets met for assessment report quality meeting contractual standard (September 2014 to August 2015).

This summary reflects staggering and deliberate economic incompetence, a flagrant, politically-motivated waste of tax payers money and even worse, the higher spending has not created a competent or ethical assessment framework, nor is it improving the lives of sick and disabled people.

The government claim they want to “help” sick and disabled people into work, but nearly 14,000 disabled people have lost their mobility vehicle after the changes to Personal Independence Payments (PIP) assessment, which are carried out by private companies. Many more, yet to be reassessed, are also likely to lose their specialised vehicles.

In 2012, Esther McVey revealed that the new PIP  was about cutting costs and that there were targets to reduce the number of successful claims when she told the House of Commons:330,000 of claimants are expected to either lose their benefit altogether or see their payments reduced.How else could she have known that before those people were actually assessed? A recent review led the government to conclude that PIP doesn’t currently fulfil the original policy intent, which was to cut costs and “target” the benefit to “those with the greatest need.”

That basically meant a narrowing of eligibility criteria for people formerly claiming Disability Living Allowance, increasing the number of reassessments required, and limiting the number of successful claims. The government have used the review to attempt to justify further restrictions to PIP eligibility, aimed at cutting support for people who require aids to meet fundamental needs such as preparing food, dressing, basic and essential personal care and managing incontinence. “Greatest need” has become an ever-shrinking category under Conservative austerity measures. 

DPAC

The use of political pseudo-psychological “diagnoses” to both stigmatise and “treat” what are generally regarded by the Conservatives as deviant behaviours from cognitively incompetent citizens, infering that the problem lies within the individual rather than in their circumstances, or arise as a consequence of political decision-making and socio-economic models, has become the new normal. We are discussing people here who have been deemed too ill to work by their own doctor AND the state. Not for the first time, the words Arbeit macht frei spring to mind.

Welfare has been redefined: it is preoccupied with assumptions about and modification of the behaviour and character of recipients rather than with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring economic and social wellbeing.

The stigmatisation of people needing benefits is designed purposefully to displace public sympathy for the poor, and to generate moral outrage, which is then used to further justify the steady dismantling of the welfare state.

It is the human costs that are particularly distressing, and in a wealthy, first world liberal democracy, such draconian policies ought to be untenable. Some people are dying after being wrongly assessed as “fit for work” and having their lifeline benefits brutally withdrawn. Maximus is certainly not helping the government to serve even the most basic needs of sick and disabled people.

However, Maximus is serving the needs of a “small state” doctrinaire neoliberal government. The Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist prescriptions. Those prescriptions are costing the UK in terms of the economy, but MUCH worse, it is costing us in terms of our decent, collective, civilised response to people experiencing difficult circumstances through no fault of their own; it’s costing the most vulnerable citizens their wellbeing and unforgivably, it is also costing precious human lives.

It’s not just that Conservative rhetoric is incoherent and incongruent with the realities created by their policies. Policy-making has become increasingly detached from public needs and instead, it is being directed at “incentivising” and “changing behaviours” of citizens to meet a rigidly ideological state agenda. That turns democracy completely on its head. There is no longer a genuine dialogue between government and citizens, only a diversionary and oppressive state monologue.

And it’s the sound of one hand clapping.

one hand clapping

There are many ways of destroying people’s lives, not all of them are obvious. Taking away people’s means of meeting basic survival needs, such as money for food, fuel and shelter – which are the bare essentials that benefits were originally calculated to cover – invariably increases the likelihood that they will die. The people most adversely and immediately affected are those who have additional needs for support.

The moment that sick and disabled people were defined as a “burden on the state” by the government, we began climbing Allport’s Ladder of Prejudice.

Whilst I am very aware that we need take care not to trivialise the terrible events of  world war 2 and Nazi Germany by making casual comparisons, there are some clear and important parallels on a socio-political level and a psycho-social one, that I feel are crucially important to recognise.

Gordon Allport studied the psychological and social processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to genocide. In his research of how the Holocaust happened, he describes socio-political processes that foster increasing social prejudice and discrimination and he demonstrates how the unthinkable becomes acceptable: it happens incrementally, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries, and propaganda-driven changes in our attitudes towards “others” that advances culturally, by almost inscrutable degrees.

The process always begins with the political scapegoating and systematic dehumanisation of a social group and with ideologies that identify that group as an “enemy” or a social “burden” in some way. A history of devaluation of the group that becomes the target, authoritarian culture, and the passivity of internal and external witnesses (bystanders) all contribute to the probability that violence against that group will develop, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to continue evolving, genocide.

If you think this observation is “extreme” then you really haven’t been paying attention. By 2012, hate crime incidents against disabled people had risen to be the highest ever recorded. By 2015, there was a further 41 per cent rise in disability hate crime. This is the so-called “civilised” first world, very wealthy liberal democracy that is the UK.

Most disabled people have worked, contributed to society, paid taxes and national insurance. Those that haven’t genuinely cannot work, and as a decent, civilised society, we should support them. Being ill and disabled is not a “lifestyle choice.” Unfortunately it can happen to anyone. A life-changing accident or illness doesn’t only happen to others: no-one is exempted from such a possibility. That this government thinks it can get away with peddling utter nonsense about the characters, lives and motivations of a marginalised social group, dehumanising them, directing hatred, resentment, prejudice and public derision towards them, demonstrates only too well just how far we have moved away from being a decent, civilised society. 

It seems to be almost weekly that there’s a report in the media about a sick and disabled person dying after being told by the state that they are “fit for work” and their lifeline benefits have been halted, or because the state has sanctioned someone and withdrawn their only support. There are many thousands more suffering in silence, fearful and just about living.