On Monday, the work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, announced some changes to the plans to manage the transfer of 3 million people on to universal credit following stark warnings from its own expert advisers that ithe government was not doing enough to stop thousands of vulnerable claimants being put at risk of hardship.
McVey’s announcement followed a report by the government’s social security advisory committee (SSAC) that warned of “significant concerns” that the universal credit plans were rushed, too complex and placed too much risk on claimants. MPs will debate the ‘migration’ regulations over the next few weeks.
The government’s original plans have been widely criticised by front-line charities and others, with predictions that vulnerable people could be plunged deeper into poverty and that some people entitled to benefits could be left with no income whatsoever. The rules have been subject to a review by the SSAC, who presented their report to Department for Work and Pensions earlier in the autumn.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has now said it will look again at 11 of the report’s 12 recommendations for change. McVey told the Commons on Monday: “We will take a measured approach to delivering managed migration, taking our time to get it right and working with claimants to co-design it.”
It’s rather late in the day for a democratic consultation with claimants, and it’s not as if the Conservatives have ever included ordinary citizens in the design of their policies, they tend to reserve that level of inclusion only for the very wealthy.
The DWP has announced a number of measures as part of £1bn package announced in the budget to help claimants’ ‘transition’ to universal credit, including providing two weeks’ additional benefit to unemployed claimants to help them manage the five-week wait for a first UC payment. That isn’t enough. Leaving people – including families with children, and disabled people – without any money to meet their basic needs for at least 3 weeks is completely unacceptable.
The SSAC report followed a consultation in which it received a record 455 responses, including more than 300 from individual claimants or their carers. It noted that it had been “particularly struck by the degree of anxiety” about managed migration expressed by this group.
Sir Ian Diamond, the SSAC chair, said he was pleased that the government had largely accepted the committee’s advice, but said much detail still had to be worked out. He said he was disappointed that the DWP had rejected a key recommendation to abandon plans to force all existing benefit claimants to make a claim for universal credit before they could be migrated to it.
The DWP said making a new claim was essential to ensure all data was up to date. If that were the only reason, then why make people wait 5 weeks before their first payment? A government reform should not result in people – disabled people, lone parents, families – having no income for any length of time, let alone 3 weeks.
Frank Field, who chairs the Commons work and pensions select committee, said: ”[McVey] could not ignore the swell of expert voices warning that the government’s approach to moving vulnerable people to universal credit could end in disaster and destitution. The department deserves credit for listening, but its response fails to provide in full the necessary safeguards for claimants.”
Shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood called on the government to pause the rollout of universal credit.
She said: “The Budget last week did little to address the very long wait for payments which is causing significant hardship.”
“Despite this the government is now planning to start the next phase of introduction of universal credit which it calls managed migration which will involve the transfer of £2.87m onto it.
“Universal credit is failing, the opposition has consistently called on the government to stop the rollout but this government is pressing ahead despite the terrible hardship it is causing.”
Mental health charity, Mind spokeswoman Vicky Nash said: “These regulations have confirmed what we have long feared and argued against – that in the move over to Universal Credit (UC) three million people, including hundreds of thousands of people with mental health problems, will be forced to make a new claim.
“This risks many being left without income and pushed into poverty.”
Yesterday, Mind called out the Conservative Party Work and Pensions Secretary , accusing her of lying about them in Parliament. McVey implied in Parliament that the charity supports the government’s new regulations for Universal Credit. In her statement to the Commons,McVey said:
“Other charities have been saying this Department now is listening to what claimants are saying, charities are saying and MPs are saying.
“Trussell Trust has said that. Gingerbread have said that. Mind have said that.”
Mind released a statement on Twitter as they felt “it was important to set the record straight.”
We need MPs to vote against these regulations which create a real risk for people with mental health problems. And we need as many people as possible to join us. Find out more about the campaign here > https://t.co/Xoaw2nIzfZ
We're consistent in our view that Universal Credit as it stands is not working for single parents. There are clear ways it can be improved which we will continue to campaign for, to make sure the voices of single parent families are heard by Government.https://t.co/KhEw1g8MZC
McVey has been caught out ‘misleading’ Parliament before. In June she was criticised by Sir Amyas Morse, of the National Audit Office (NAO), after she made false claims to parliament following a highly critical report by the government watchdog.
McVey was forced to present a humiliating apology following the rebuke by the NAO for falsely claiming the government spending watchdog had asked for an ‘accelerated’ rollout of universal credit.
Furthermore, McVey’s assurance, in response to the NAO report, that Universal Credit was working was also “not proven”, Morse said.
The NAO report concluded that the new system – being gradually introduced to replace a number of benefits – was “not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven”.
The report also accused the government of not showing sufficient sensitivity towards some claimants and failing to monitor how many are having problems with the programme, or have suffered hardship.
In its report, released in June, the NAO highlighted the hardship caused to claimants by delays in receiving payments under universal credit.
Paragraph 1.3c of the Ministerial code says: “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”
Telling lies about other people is particularly despicable, especially from a position of power. But that is how Conservatives have traditionally justified their exceptionally draconian policies.
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The @DWP Employment & Support Allowance error first occurred in 2011. It took them 6 years before they acknowledged the mistake. Now nearly 200,000 ill & disabled people are owed almost £1 BILLION in back-payments.
Tens of thousands of disabled people are set to receive backdated benefit payments averaging £5,000 following a government error. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has revealed it will pay out more than £1.5bn after “shoddy administration” meant about 180,000 people did not receive benefits they were legally entitled to after being ‘migrated’ from Incapacity Benefit to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
The average underpayment for each person is estimated to be about £5,000, but some people will be owed significantly more, with approximately 20,000 having been underpaid around £11,500 and a small number owed as much as £20,000.
The error was first thought to have resulted in underpayment for 70,000 disabled people over seven years, but a government document published on Wednesday shows it is expected to have affected far more people, with the estimated back payments bill having risen from £340m to £970m.
The average underpayment for each person affected is estimated to be about £5,000, but some people will be owed significantly more, with approximately 20,000 people having been underpaid around £11,500 and a small number owed as much as £20,000.
Initially, the government said there would be up to £150m that may never be paid back because arrears would only be accounted for as far back as 21 October 2014, the date of a legal tribunal ruling – meaning some would never have been reimbursed. However, following legal action, ministers made a U-turn in July and subsequently announced it would pay back the thousands of disabled people in full.
In July, Esther McVey, the minster for work and pensions, made a ministerial statement: “The Department has analysed the relationship between ‘official error’ and section 27 of the Social Security Act 1998 in regulating how and to what extent arrears can be paid. As a result of the conclusions of this analysis, we will now be paying arrears to those affected back to their date of conversion to ESA.
“My department will be contacting all those identified as potentially affected as planned. Once an individual is contacted, and the relevant information gathered, they can expect to receive appropriate payment within 12 weeks.”
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, accused the Conservatives of creating a “hostile environment for sick and disabled people”.
She added: “Disabled people have been short-changed and denied the social security they were entitled to. The government must ensure that disabled people who have been so unfairly treated are properly compensated.”
McVey also confirmed that once contacted, claimants would be provided with a dedicated free phone number on which they can make contact with the department.
The government said it was in the process of reviewing about 570,000 ESA cases that could be affected, and that it expects to complete the process by the end of 2019.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Anyone affected by this historic error will receive all of the money they are entitled to. That is why we have created a dedicated team of over 400 staff to examine cases, and have paid back around £120m so far.
“We have worked with charities and other disability organisations to make sure that we are providing the right support to all affected claimants and are hiring and allocating more staff to do that.”
Responding at the time of the ruling, Carla Clarke, solicitor for Child Poverty Action Group, which launched the legal action, said: “Poor and inadequate DWP processes left up to 70,000 [now estimated at 180,000] disabled individuals without the support they should have received to help them with their additional costs.
“Justice required that the DWP error was corrected in its entirety for the people affected, many of whom are owed arrears from 2011. We are pleased that the DWP agreed that this was correct following our legal action.
“However, it shouldn’t be necessary to take a government department to court to achieve justice for people who have been failed by officials making avoidable errors.”
The government’s hostile environment and Personal Independence Payments
The government announced in January this year that every person receiving Personal Independence Payments (PIP) will have their claim reviewed. A total of 1.6 million of the main disability benefit claims will be reviewed, with around 220,000 people expected to receive more money.
The decision came after the DWP decided not to challenge a court ruling that said changes to PIP were unfair to people with mental health conditions. The review could cost £3.7bn by 2023.
The minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, said the DWP was embarking on a “complex exercise and of considerable scale”.
She added: “Whilst we will be working at pace to complete this exercise, it is important that we get it right.”
The government should have got it right inthe first place. It shouldn’t be necessary to take a government department to court to achieve justice for people who have been failed by officials.
Ministers made changes to PIP in 2017 which limited the amount of support people with mental health conditions could receive. As a result, people who were unable to travel independently on the grounds of psychological distress – as opposed to other conditions – were not entitled to the enhanced mobility rate of the benefit.
The government pressed ahead with these changes, despite criticism from an independent tribunal in 2016.
Prior to moving, both men were in receipt of the Severe Disability Premium (SDP) and Enhanced Disability Premium (EDP), which were specifically aimed at meeting the additional care needs of severely disabled people living alone with no carer, as part of their Employment and Support Allowance entitlement.
Despite repeated assurances from the government that “no one will experience a reduction in the benefit they are receiving at the point of migration to Universal Credit where circumstances remain the same” both claimants saw an immediate drop in their income of around £178 a month when they were moved onto Universal Credit.
When they asked for top up payments they were told that government policy was that no such payments would be paid until July 2019, when managed migration would begin.
The court ruled that the implementation of Universal Credit and the absence of any ‘top up’ payments for disabled people as compared to others constitutes discrimination contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. Following months of litigation, McVey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, carried out a policy U-turn and committed the government to ensuring that no severely disabled person in receipt of the SDP will be made to move onto Universal Credit until transitional protection is in place and also committed to compensating those like the two disabled men who have lost out.
Despite this, following hand down of the judgment the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has sought permission to appeal, maintaining that there was “nothing unlawful” with the way the disabled claimants were treated.
However, a subsequent court case resulted in agreement on compensation for the two men. TP will now receive £3,277 for past financial losses and £3,240 for the pain and distress he has been caused, as well as £173.50 a month to cover the shortfall in his benefits pending transitional protection coming into force.
AR will receive £2,108 for past financial losses and £2,680 for the anxiety and distress he was caused, as well as a monthly payment of £176 to make up the shortfall in his benefits.
The DWP had initially attempted to keep the terms of the agreement secret. However, the High Court ordered the department to disclose the details of the compensation settlement.
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said: “This again demonstrates the government’s mistreatment of disabled people.
“These men were assured by the government that they wouldn’t lose out on universal credit but they were left thousands of pounds out of pocket, which severely impacted on their wellbeing.
“Esther McVey should now compensate all those who lost out, reverse cuts to transitional protection, and withdraw her appeal against the original finding of discrimination.
“The government must also stop the roll out of universal credit and fix its fundamental flaws.
“The next Labour government will transform our social security system, ensuring it is there to support disabled people to live independently and with dignity.”
Tessa Gregory, from the law firm Leigh Day, who represented the two men, known only as AR and TP, welcomed the financial settlements.
But she called on McVey to compensate all other claimants in similar positions, and to reconsider her decision to appeal the finding of discrimination.
She said AR and TP had called on McVey to “urgently” reconsider draft regulations which currently only compensate disabled people in their position with a flat rate payment of £80 a month.
Gregory said: “This plainly does not reflect the actual loss suffered by our clients and thousands like them and compounds the unlawful treatment to which they have been subjected.”
The DWP have refused to answer questions about the case, including how many disabled people it believed had so far lost out on EDP and SDP in the move to universal credit, and whether McVey would reconsider her decision to compensate others in the same position as AR and TP by only £80 a month.
A DWP spokesman confirmed: “The government is appealing the decision of the judicial review, but in the interim we have agreed to make payments to the lead claimants.”
Figures published by the DWPsuggest that, in February this year, there were 4,000 SDP claimants and 14,000 EDP claimants (including 3,000 who received both EDP and SDP) who have been moved onto universal credit.
The DWP has previously said it will stop moving claimants of SDP onto universal credit until the introduction of transitional protection next year, while all those who have already lost out through such a move will receive some backdated payments.
But it has not offered them the full compensation agreed with AR and TP and there has been no mention so far of claimants who previously received EDP but not SDP before their move onto universal credit.
And the DWP has still not been able to explain how it justifies not providing equivalent levels of support to new disabled claimants of universal credit, who will receive lower payments than those transferred onto universal credit from legacy benefits such as income-related ESA.
DNS has been forced to complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office about DWP’s refusal to offer a detailed description of how the introduction of universal credit – and the loss of the premiums – will impact disabled people financially.
I did some joint work with Alex, who writes at Universal Credit Sufferer, after a third sector welfare advisor informed us that people claiming PIP were being told to claim legacy benefits – ESA or JSA if they are fit for work – by the DWP and that they were not allowed to sign onto Universal Credit.
Following several calls between us to the DWP press office, it was clear that staff were not at all clear about this situation. The response we eventually got was “We need to check with officials and come back to you tomorrow.” However, I didn’t get a follow-up call.
It seems that all new claims for Universal Credit will not be accepted if the person claiming is in receipt of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) Daily Living Component. However, this move has not been widely publicised. Both Alex and I found that when we used Universal Credit’s online application portal, it will not accept a claim if you declare you are in receipt of Personal Independence Payment (PIP).
While it may be a reluctantly positive move to ensure that disabled people won’t be forced into claiming universal credit and therefore losing their disability premiums, this isn’t a long term solution. It nothing to address the loss of the premiums for new disabled claimants. Nor does it address the controversial and fatally flawed assessment and appeal processes that are unfit for purpose under any welfare circumstance.
But the road to tyranny is mostly paved by government that create hostile environments for some groups and ignore citizens’ accounts of the impacts of their actions on citizens.
I don’t make any money from my work. But if you like, you can help by making a donation and enable me to continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others going through disability benefit assessment processes and appeals. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.
A recent research report launched last month by anti-poverty charity Zacchaeus 2000 Trust(Z2K) reveals the devastating impacts that the government’s welfare reforms are having on the lives of people who are disabled or severely unwell.
Those benefits that were supposed to provide support for disabled people – Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – are leaving hundreds of thousands of disabled and unwell people wrongly assessed and denied the vital Social Security benefit they are entitled to. Without this essential income, many people are pushed into debt, face rent arrears and eviction and have to rely on food banks to survive.
Poor design and implementation of the assessments means PIP and ESA are failing, forcing ill and disabled people to go through arduous and distressing reviews and appeals processes just to access the payments they are entitled to. The numbers of people who are wrongly assessed and let down by the system are likely to be much higher than official appeal figures suggest.
“For the past two years I’ve been surviving on foodbanks, borrowing money and well-wishers helping me. Even now I’ve got over £8,000 debts to pay people.” Kalifa, ESA claimant
“I went to see my doctor and I said ‘I can’t stand this anymore.’ I would wake up in the middle of the night worrying about this.” Darren, PIP claimant
After being wrongly turned down at assessment, claimants must first go through Mandatory Reconsideration (MR), which can take anything from a few days to several months. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) argues that claims are fully reviewed at this stage, but the fact that 69 per cent of claimants win their appeal after having gone through MR proves that the MR itself is failing to correct the assessment’s flaws.
While those who reach the appeal do eventually receive a fair hearing, the arduous process means many never make it to this stage. Drastic cuts to legal aid mean countless ill and disabled people cannot get the legal support and representation required – and which significantly improves chances of success: 88 per cent of the clients Z2K itself supports win their appeal. The Government’s cuts to legal aid and reduced local funding for advice charities means many disabled people are losing out purely because they cannot afford private legal advice.
Raji Hunjan, CEO of Z2K, said “The whole appeal process – and the months of financial and emotional hardship people have to go through to get there – could be avoided if DWP got assessments right in the first place.
“Instead of creating such a hostile environment for those who are disabled, and assuming everyone is trying to cheat the system, ministers urgently need to recognise the reality of people’s disabilities and illnesses and give them the support they deserve.
“That means fixing the assessments, fundamentally improving MR and reinstating legal aid for disability appeals.”
The report recommends clear changes to the assessment, MR and appeal stages, in order to ensure that disabled and unwell people no longer have to suffer to get the payments they are entitled to.
DWP and its contracted assessors must start recording all ESA and PIP assessments to ensure an improvement in their accuracy;
DWP should introduce a new quality management framework for its contracted assessors and meaningful penalties to hold those companies to account for the quality of their work;
If DWP will not commit to reforms to the Mandatory Reconsideration (MR) stage to ensure it corrects inaccurate assessments, MR should be scrapped and claimants should be allowed to go straight to an appeal hearing at the Tribunal;
The Government should reinstate legal aid for disability benefits appeals.
Access Denied: Barriers to Justice in the Disability Benefits System illustrates the many barriers to justice that disabled people face, and highlights the potential solutions. It is based on in-depth research with Z2K’s clients, whose claims for ESA and PIP have been rejected – despite them having severe illnesses and disabilities. Their stories reveal not only the serious flaws in the assessments, but also the personal impacts and enormous obstacles people face in challenging the assessment decision.
The research findings come in the wake of the recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO), which says the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has underpaid benefits to the tune of £1.7bn over the last year, while official errors have also seen a significant rise in over-payments.
Underpayments now account for £1.7 billion of government welfare expenditure, while over-payments have soared to a record £3.7 billion.
The report exposes the shocking extent of departmental errors and layers of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with the chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee describing the current welfare system as “a pinball machine”.
Frank Field, told the Press Association: “It’s like a pinball machine, the payments system – you might get an overpayment, you might get an underpayment.
“Lots of people are not being paid Universal Credit when they should be, causing hardship, and the same department is overpaying others – what is going on?”
But the data shows that while Universal Credit has the highest level of over-payments, at 7.2%, has the greatest amount of underpayments at 3.7%. That figure does not include those denied PIP and who are forced to ask for Mandatory Review and then appeal.
The research also comes as Sarah Newton belligerently denied in parliament that disabled people claiming support face a politically designed hostile environment, and the Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey, faces mounting calls to resign, after falsely claiming that an NAO report suggested that the roll-out of Universal Credit should be “accelerated.”
The UK government’s treatment of disabled people has been extremely controversial for many years, with the United Nations accusing ministers of “grave and systematic” violations of disabled people’s human rights following their extensive inquiry.
But despite the many concerns, challenges, presented empirical evidence and official rebukes of the government’s prejudiced and discriminatory welfare policies, the cruel treatment of sick and disabled people in the UK continues, with ministers dogmatically denying their punitive policies cause any harm and distress, indicating that the government has no intention of making positive changes any time soon.
I don’t make any money from my work. I’m disabled through illness and on a very low income. But you can make a donation to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. I co-run a group that supports disabled and ill people going through ESA and PIP claims, assessments and appeals.
Any donation is very much appreciated – thank you.
The Labour MP also said yesterday in parliament: “This government’s policies have created a hostile environment causing grave violations on disabled people.”
Newton responded to these serious and valid concerns by an act of scandalised denial, outrage, vindictiveness, blaming the messengers, telling lies and by using gaslighting tactics.
Gaslighting is an intentional, malicious and hidden form of mental and emotional abuse, designed to manipulate others, creating self-doubt and insecurity. Its aim is to redesign and edit people’s experiences and accounts of reality, replacing them with someone’s own preferred and more convenient version, by persistently altering the perceptions of others, to confuse and disorientate them. Like all abuse, it’s based on the need for power, control, and very often, concealment. It’s far more damaging than simply lying, because it is intended to control, hurt and silence others. It’s a strategy very commonly used by psychopaths, bullies, despots and the Conservatives to ensure they get their own way.
The government often use doublespeak – language shifts entailing words such as “reform”, “fair”, “support” and “help”- to disguise the horrible impacts of their extraordinarily draconian welfare policies and austerity programme, and to divert public attention. People who object to the harms that Conservative policies cause are told they are “scaremongering”. This is a form of gaslighting. It indicates that the government have no intention of changing their punitive policy approach or remedying the harms and distress they have caused.
The Conservatives have shown very strong tendencies towards socially illiberal and authoritarian attitudes over the past seven years. Furthermore, they aren’t exactly a party that designs policies to bring delight to the majority of ordinary citizens. Ministers regularly use a form of Orwellian Torysplaining and scapegoating to attempt to discredit and invalidate citizens’ experiences of increasing economic hardships and vulnerability – particularly those of marginalised groups – caused directly by punitive Conservative policies. This is certainly an abuse of political power.
Today, cabinet ministerand creature of habit,Esther McVey was rebuked for telling lies ‘misrepresenting’ the National Audit Office’s (NAO) very critical report on the roll-out of Universal Credit with a series of ‘inaccurate’ claims to MPs. The NAO is the government’s spending watchdog.
The NAO took the highly unusual step after the work and pensions secretary dismissed the catalogue of failings outlined by auditors last month in their report into the government’s flagship welfare programme.
In his open letter to McVey, which is likely to raise questions about her future as a cabinet minister, the Auditor General, Sir Amyas Morse, said that elements of her statement to Parliament on the report were lies “incorrect and unproven.”
He said it was “odd” that McVey told MPs that the NAO did not take into account recent changes in the administration of universal credit, when the report had in fact been “fully agreed” with senior officials at the Department for Work and Pensions only days earlier.
Sir Amyas added that McVey’s claim that the NAO was concerned that Universal Credit was rolling out too slowly was “not correct”.
The NAO report concluded that the new system – being gradually introduced to replace a number of benefits – was “not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven”.
The authors of the report also accused the government of not showing sufficient sensitivity towards some claimants and failing to monitor how many are having problems with the programme, or have suffered hardship.
In his letter, Sir Amyas told McVey: “Our report was fully agreed with senior officials in your Department. It is based on the most accurate and up-to-date information from your Department. Your Department confirmed this to me in writing on Wednesday June 6 and we then reached final agreement on the report on Friday June 8.
“Her assurance, in response to the report, that Universal Credit was working was also “not proven.”
He continued: “It is odd that by Friday June 15 you felt able to say that the NAO ‘did not take into account the impact of our recent changes’.
“You reiterated these statements on July 2 but we have seen no evidence of such impacts nor fresh information.”
Sir Amyas added: “Your statement on July 2 that the NAO was concerned Universal Credit is currently ‘rolling out too slowly’ and needs to ‘continue at a faster rate’ is also not correct.”
And he told McVey: “Your statement in response to my report, claiming that Universal Credit is working, has not been proven.
“The Department has not measured how many Universal Credit claimants are having difficulties and hardship. What we do know from the Department’s surveys is that although 83% of claimants responding said they were satisfied with the Department’s customer service, 40% of them said they were experiencing financial difficulties and 25% said they couldn’t make an online claim.
“We also know that 20% of claimants are not paid in full on time and that the Department cannot measure the exact number of additional people in employment as a result of Universal Credit.”
The Auditor General said that he had written to McVey on June 27 asking for a meeting to discuss her comments, and was publishing his open letter “reluctantly” because he had not yet been able to see her. McVey has a history of showing disdain for democractic norms and the protocols and mechanisms of transparency and accountability.
Now the Work and Pensions Secretary is facing calls to resign, after admitting that she had told lies “inadvertently misled” parliament.
You can hear her full statement here. She doesn’t look appropriately humble, sincere or ashamed, however:
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.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article about the Universal Credit (UC) rules which will leave many disabled people who are new claimants, who experience a change in circumstances or a break in their claim, without their Disability Income Guarantee.
Two disabled people decided to take the government to court over the brutal cuts to their income, which has caused them severe hardship.
Earlier this month, in a landmark judgment, the High Court ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) unlawfully discriminated against two severely disabled men who both saw their benefits dramatically reduced when they claimed Universal Credit.
Lawyers representing the men said the ruling showed that the new benefit system was “not working” for the disabled or other claimants, and urged the government to halt the roll-out and overhaul the system to meet peoples’ needs and not “condemn them to destitution”. The two claimants, known only as TP and AR, had both previously been in receipt of the Severe Disability Premium (SDP) and Enhanced Disability Premium (EDP), which were specifically aimed at ensuring the additional care and needs of severely disabled people living alone with no carer are met.
Both people were required to make a claim for universal credit when they moved into new local authorities where the controversial new benefit was being rolled out. According to both the men, they were advised by DWP staff that their benefit entitlement would not change. Yet despite repeated assurances from the government that “no one will experience a reduction in the benefit they are receiving at the point of migration to universal credit where circumstances remain the same”, both men saw an immediate drop in their income of around £178 a month when they were moved over to UC.
When they asked for the top up payments promised by the DWP, they were told that Government policy was that no such payments would be paid until July 2019 when managed migration is due to begin.
As both claimants testified to the court, the sudden drop of income had a devastating impact on them, both physically and psychologically. TP, a former City banker who suffers from a terminal illness, has been struggling to address his care needs, and AR, who suffers from severe mental health issues, has been unable to afford basic necessities.
Earlier this month, the DWP committed the government to ensuring that no severely disabled person in receipt of the SDP will be made to move onto universal credit until transitional protection is in place and also, made a commitment to compensate those like the claimants who have lost out.
Despite this, following the judgment, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has sought permission to appeal, maintaining that there was “nothing unlawful” with the way the claimants were treated.
Their lawyer, Tessa Gregory from the human rights team at Leigh Day, told the Court: “Nothing about either of the claimants’ disability or care needs changed, they were simply unfortunate enough to need to move local authorities into a Universal Credit full service area.”
The judge said the impact on the individuals was “clear”, and said the way they were transferred onto universal credit was “manifestly without reasonable foundation” and “failed to strike a fair balance”.
Following the ruling, Ms Gregory said: “This is the first legal test of the roll out of Universal Credit and the system has been found to be unlawfully discriminating against some of society’s most vulnerable.
“Whilst we welcome the Government’s commitment to ensuring that no one in our client’s position will now be moved onto Universal Credit until top up payments are in place, it comes too late as it cannot make up for the months of suffering and grinding poverty our clients and many others like them have already had to endure.
“We call upon Esther McVey to compensate our clients and all those affected without any further delay, and urge her to focus on fixing Universal Credit rather than wasting more public funds appealing this court decision.
“Today’s decision shows again that Universal Credit is not delivering what was promised at the outset. It is not working. It’s not working for the disabled, it’s not working for parents, it’s not working for low-income and part-time employees and it’s not working for the self-employed.
“The government needs to halt the rollout and completely overhaul the system to meet peoples’ needs, not condemn them to destitution. If this doesn’t happen further legal challenges will inevitably follow.
“Disability premiums are not a luxury. They play a crucial role in helping disabled people pay for essentials like food, clothing and bills. The needs of the people involved in this case haven’t changed, and yet they have lost more than £170 per month in support. This isn’t fair.
“Until the Government fully addresses these issues, it will unfairly penalise disabled people for moving over to universal credit.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “The court found in our favour on three of the four points raised by the claimant. We will be applying to appeal on the one point the court found against the Department. This government is committed to ensuring a strong system of support is in place for vulnerable people who are unable to work.”
Clearly the government is committed to trying it on by paying people as little as they can possibly get away with from the public fund. Deliberately cutting money from disabled peoples’ crucial lifeline support can hardly be described as “ensuring a strong system of support is in place”. This response indicates quite clearly that the cut was fully intentional on the part of the government.
The spokesperson added: “Last week, the Secretary of State announced that we will be providing greater support for severely disabled people as they move onto universal credit. And we have gone even further, by providing an additional payment to those who have already moved onto the benefit.”
Yes, because the cut has been ruled as discriminatory and unlawful, not because a choice was actually made to do so. Only the Conservatives could turn prejudice, discrimination and breaking the law into some kind of virtue.
Again this response indicates clearly that these were intended changes, and not merely a consequence of administrative incompetence. There was not a shred of regret expressed by the government regarding the severe hardship these cuts have caused for disabled people.
And this still leaves disabled people claiming the disability support component of Universal Credit for the first time without the Disability Income Guarantee. That is also discriminatory.
The Department for Work and Pensions have claimed UC means that support is “focused on those who need it most”, but a government removing Severe Disability Premium and Enhanced Disability Premium, which is support designed to help severely disabled people who live without a carer – is pulling a basic safety net from citizens with the greatest needs. The premiums were also designed in part to address the problem of cumulative poverty for severely disabled people who cannot work, or who face disadvantage in the labour market because of additional needs and barriers.
This cut will also potentially affect disabled lone parents who may rely on their benefit support to pay for support to shop, cook and wash, for example. The cut may mean that they will be forced to rely on their own children as carers.
Austerity has been carried disproportionately by disabled people
The UC system has made an estimated £11bn in savings, mainly through Treasury cuts to the original set level of universal credit rates – most notably through reductions to work allowances, which will save around £3bn, and the removal of £2bn in disability premium payments – but UC planning and delivery has also incurred £8.5bn in expenses.
Government statistics published last year show 47 per cent of people who were formerly receiving Disability Living Allowance (DLA) saw their support fall or stop altogether when they were reassessed for Personal Independent Payment (PIP).
Of a total of 947,000 claimants who were reassessed in the year up to October 2017, 22 per cent saw their support reduced, while a quarter were disallowed or withdrawn altogether — meaning 443,000 people will have had their claims reduced or removed.
However, the success rate for claimants when appealing Personal Independence Payments (PIP), for example, was 65% in 2016/17. The Mirror has recently reported that the rate of PIP appeal success has hit an all-time high of 71% for the first quarter of 2018.
Labour MP Rosie Duffield secured a debate (her first) which took place a couple of days ago (20 June) about the report by the UN committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). The report said successive UK governments had committed “grave” and “systematic” violations of disabled people’s human rights. The chair of the committee said the government had created a “human catastrophe” for disabled people. (You can read the full debate here).
The debate addressed last autumn’s report on the UK’s implementation of UNCRPD, and the conclusion of the UN’s disability committee that the UK government should make more than 80 improvements to the ways its laws and policies affect disabled people’s human rights.
In a briefing prepared ahead of the debate, the Equality and Human Rights Commission the other official and independent bodies responsible for monitoring the UK’s progress in implementing the convention – had called on the UK government to describe how it would “comprehensively address” the UN committee’s findings. However, the government has not made any commitment to implementing the committee’s recommendations.
During the debate, Labour MPs accused Sarah Newton, Minister of State for the Department for Work and Pensions, and the government, of making disabled people a “forgotten class”; of allowing the DWP to “endlessly mistreat” them, and of creating a “national scandal”.
Newton dismissed Labour’s comments,using techniques of neutralisation that I’vewritten about before.In short, Newton used a tactic that the Conservatives have used many times before – an indignant and outraged denial. She actually accused the opposition of ‘scaremongering’ again, (and by default, she attempted to discredit disabled citizens’ accounts of their own experiences, which of course flies in the face of democratic accountability).
The Conservatives are denying responsibility for the consequences of their policies, denying harm, denying the victims and condemning the condemners.
Newton said: “I utterly refute the allegations that have been made today: that we are discriminating against disabled people; that we are systematically undermining and violating their human rights, or worst of all that we are targeting their welfare support.”
In her attempt to defend her government’s appalling record on cuts to social security, she also told MPs that there had been “no freeze in the benefits that disabled people receive”.
Although disability living allowance (DLA), personal independence payment (PIP) and the employment and support allowance (ESA) support group top-up are exempt from the benefits freeze – which is set to last to 2020 – there is no exemption for the main component of ESA and the top-up paid to those in the ESA work-related activity group, which continues to be frozen.
Newton claimed that the UN, opposition and again, by default, disabled citizens, were making “irresponsible” allegations. And the courts. Again, this is a technique of neutralisation called “condemning the condemners”, used to ‘switch off ‘someone’s conscience when they plan, or have done, something to cause harm to others. The technique may also be used to push at the normative and moral boundaries of groups and the wider public. (*See below for a full outline of the techniques).
Newton also said that the government was “very disappointed” that the UNCRPD did not “take on board […] the evidence that the government gave them. They did not acknowledge the full range of support.” That’s because it isn’t there.
The UNCRPD report presented extensive, meticulous evidence with their thorough report, gathered from disabled people that have been affected by the welfare cuts, campaign groups, charities and research academics. It also condemned the UK government’s attempts to misrepresent the impact of policies through “unanswered questions”, “misused statistics”, and a “smoke screen of statements.”
It isn’t ‘scaremongering’ to express concern about punitive policies that are targeted to reduce the income of social groups that are already struggling because of limited resources, nor is it much of an inferential leap to recognise that such punitive policies will have some adverse consequences.
Political denial is oppressive – it serves to sustain and amplify a narrow, hegemonic political narrative, stifling pluralism and excluding marginalised social groups, excluding qualitative and first hand accounts of citizen’s experiences, discrediting and negating counternarratives; it sidesteps democratic accountability; stultifies essential public debate; obscures evidence and hides politically inconvenient, exigent truths. Denial of causality does not reduce the probability of it, especially in cases where a correlation has been well-established and evidenced. The government have no empirical evidence to verify their own claims that their punitive policies do not cause harm and distress.
Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizen’s accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter.
However, in the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the Government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies and techniques of persuasion and neutralisation to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs.
Damian Green, who was the work and pensions secretary at the time the UN report was published. dismissed the highly critical findings . He said, shamefully, that the report was “patronising and offensive” and presented an outdated view of disability in the UK. He said Britain was “a world leader in disability rights and equality”.
But many of us – disabled citizens, disability activists, campaigners, charities and researchers – welcomed the report, saying it accurately highlighted the real economic and social hardships faced by disabled people after years of harsh spending cuts to social security and social care.
The shadow work and pensions secretary at the time, Debbie Abrahams, said the UN report was “crystal clear” in its identification of UK government failures. “It confirms that, despite Theresa May’s warm words, this government is failing sick and disabled people,” she said.
The UN committee said a range of measures introduced since 2010, including the bedroom tax and cuts to disability benefits and social care budgets, had disproportionately and adversely affected disabled people.
Spending cuts had negatively affected the rights of disabled people to live independently, to work and to achieve an adequate standard of living, the report said. The UN urged UK ministers to ensure the rights of disabled people were upheld.
Green said: “At the heart of this report lies an outdated view of disability which is patronising and offensive. We strongly refute its findings. The UN measures success as the amount of money poured into the system, rather than the work and health outcomes for disabled people. Our focus is on helping disabled people find and stay in work, whilst taking care of those who can’t.”
The government said at the time that it spent about £50bn a year to support sick and disabled people – a bigger proportion of GDP than countries including Canada, France and the US.
However, this is plainly untrue. In 2015, the government’s own figures show that even before some of the cuts were implemented, the UK was ninth out of 28 countries, when ranked in terms of the size of its social protection expenditure as a proportion of its gross domestic product (GDP).
In fact Newton’s highly selective statistical ‘data’ was contradicted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) who also reported that the UK actually spends less than France, as well as Norway, Germany and Spain on disability benefits.
Furthermore, Newton’s figure includes amounts that are not directly related to disability benefit, such as carers’ allowance, housing benefit, council tax allowance, and it also includessome NHS spending.
The government actually spent £39 billion on disability, incapacity and industrial injury benefits in 2017/18. That’s 76% of the total £51 billion that Newton claimed was spent.
Abrahams said the report echoed warnings Labour had been making since 2011 about the effects of the government’s policies on disabled people. It certainly echoed warnings many of us have been making – in my own case, since the welfare “reforms” in 2012.
“The UN committee is clear that its report examines the cumulative impact of legislation, policies and measures adopted from 2010 to October 2016, so the government’s claim that it is outdated does not stand up to scrutiny.
“I am also concerned that the government is labelling the report as patronising, when they are the ones dismissing the concerns raised by disabled people who helped instigate the inquiry in the first place.”
This dismissal is despite being presented with evidence from a wide range of organisations as well as disabled citizens, to whom Conservative policies are causing harm and distress. Yet the government continue to distance themselves from the consequences of their own decision-making, opting to deny them instead. Those are not the reasonable actions of an accountable, democratic government.
Decades of findings in sociology and psychology tell us that as soon as a social group are defined as an outgroup, the public start to see them differently. Because politicians have stereotyped people who claim welfare support, portraying only negative characteristics, the public also perceive only those characteristics. The government, with the help of the media, has purposefully portrayed people claiming welfare support as folk devils: lazy, dishonest, stupid and as scroungers, and so on. This is profoundly dehumanising.
The people being harmed by policies have become outsiders, they’ve been pushed out of the circle of our moral community. The government clearly don’t think of the people enduring terrible distress and hardship as experiencing the same range of autonomy, needs, thought, emotion and motivations that they do; they don’t imagine them feeling things in the same way that they do. This disconnection – a failure to recognise common human characteristics in the other – means that they are denied some measure of empathy, and consequently a sense of ethical and democratic obligation and inclusion.
The Conservatives talk a lot about “evidence-based policy”, but they don’t walk the talk. A weight of evidence has highlighted the cruel, draconian effects of the Tories’ social polices. The government have chosen to deny and ignore it.
This lack of appropriate response indicates a deliberately prejudiced, vicious attack on a significant minority of the population, which the government has absolutely no intention of stopping or putting right any time soon.
You can watch the whole debate that was secured by Rosie Duffield here:
* Techniques of neutralisation:
Used to switch off the conscience when someone plans or has done something to cause harm to others.
They identified the following psychological techniques by which, they believed, delinquents justified their illegitimate actions, and Alexander Alverez further identified these methods used at a socio-political level in Nazi Germany to “justify” the Holocaust:
1. Denial of responsibility. The offender(s) will propose that they were victims of circumstance or were forced into situations beyond their control.
2. Denial of harm and injury. The offender insists that their actions did not cause any harm or damage.
3. Denial of the victim. The offender believes that the victim deserved whatever action the offender committed. Or they may claim that there isn’t a victim.
4. Condemnation of the condemners. The offenders maintain that those who condemn their offence are doing so purely out of spite, ‘scaremongering’ or they are shifting the blame from themselves unfairly.
5. Appeal to higher loyalties. The offender suggests that his or her offence was for the ‘greater good’, with long term consequences that would justify their actions, such as protection of a social group/nation, or benefits to the economy/ social group/nation.
6. Disengagement and Denial of Humanity is a category that Alverez added to the techniques formulated by Sykes and Matza because of its special relevance to the Holocaust. Nazi propaganda portrayed Jews and other non-Aryans as subhuman. A process of social division, stigma, scapegoating and dehumanisation was explicitly orchestrated by the government. This also very clearly parallels Gordon Allport’s work on explaining how prejudice arises, how it escalates, often advancing by almost inscrutable degrees, pushing at normative and moral boundaries until the unthinkable becomes tenable. This stage on the scale of social prejudicemay ultimately result in genocide.
Any one of these six techniques may serve to encourage violence by neutralising the norms against prejudice and aggression to the extent that when they are all implemented together, as they apparently were under the Nazi regime, a society can seemingly forget its normative rules, moral values and laws in order to engage in wholesale prejudice, discrimination, exclusion of citizens, hatred and ultimately, in genocide.
In accusing citizens and the opposition of ‘scaremongering’, the Conservatives are denying responsibility for the consequences of their policies, denying harm, denying distress; denying the victims and condemning the condemners.
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.
Charities and groups contracted to deliver the government’s new Work and Health Programme have been told they must not be critical of the work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey.
A clause in the contract for those delivering the programme stipulates that signed-up charities must “pay the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of McVey and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). However, such contracts that prevent charities from speaking out do not align with government claims of “transparency”.
Turning Point, the RNIB, the Royal Association for Deaf People, and the Shaw Trust are among charities that have agreed to act as providers of services under the programme – which focuses on supporting disabled people and other disadvantaged groups into work in England and Wales. It does not operate in Scotland.
There are currently at least 22 organisations – covering contracts worth £1.8 billion – that have been required to sign the clauses as part of their involvement with Department for Work and Pensions programmes.
DNS says the clause states that the contractor “shall pay the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of DWP and ensure it does nothing to bring it “into disrepute, damages the reputation of the Contracting Body or harms the confidence of the public in the Contracting Body”.
All of the disability charities contacted by DNS have insisted that the clause – which DWP has been using since 2015 – will have no impact on their willingness to criticise McVey or the Department.
Shaw Trust said the “publicity, media and official enquiries” clause had been present “in previous DWP contracts” and “does not and has not impinged on our independence as a charity”.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “The department did not introduce this clause specifically for the Work and Health Programme contract.
“It has been used in DWP employment category contracts since 2015.
“The contract is the framework which governs the relationship with DWP and its contractors so that both parties understand how to interact with each other.
“The clause is intended to protect the best interests of both the department and the stakeholders we work with, and it does not stop individuals working for any of our contractors from acting as whistle-blowers under the provisions of the Public Interest “Disclosure Act 1998, nor does it prevent contractors from raising any concerns directly with the department.”
So how do charities raise concerns about the impact of draconian Conservative policies, without being “critical of the work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey,” or get around the problem of “paying the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of the DWP, exactly?
The UK government has “systematically and gravely” violated the human rights of disabled persons, a fact that was verified by the United Nations (UN) investigation, the findings of which were published in 2016. The UN report documentedmultiple violations of disabled people’s rights, including the way that they are politically portrayed as being lazy and a “burden on taxpayers”, the harm to health caused by unfair assessments, the cuts to legal aid and curtailed access to justice, the imposition of the bedroom tax and the ending of the Independent Living Fund, in addition to the cuts made to the welfare safety net.
This authoritarian gagging clause emphasises a toxic oppressive culture, and an intention of the government to silence its critics. However, it is unenforceable insofar as it purports to preclude a worker or group from making a protected disclosure, under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. Whistleblowing legislation has been amended since the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, by the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 and the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015.
The 2013 Act, among other things, introduced a public interest test. In order to benefit from whistleblower protection a disclosure must “in the reasonable belief of the worker making the disclosure” be “made in the public interest”.
The 2015 Act created a power for the Secretary of State to impose reporting requirements on prescribed persons (bodies to which whistleblowers may disclose information). It is claimed that these requirements would cover matters such as the number of whistleblowing disclosures received and investigated.
In an era of outsourcing and public sector commissioning, most contracts issued by NHS trusts, local authorities and central government departments, or by their prime providers, now include such restrictions on providers speaking freely or releasing any information without permission.
The Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sectorincluded in its 2014 reporta specific request to the government that such clauses be outlawed. Nick Hurd, then the Minister for Civil Society, said in a priceless Orwellian response that it was the government’s ambition for the UK to be “the most transparent and accountable government in the world”; but he said it had a duty “to ensure all publicly released information is accurate and validated, and contracts with providers are designed to reflect this”.
That’s a government denial clause, by the way.
Asheem Singh, director of public policy at the charity chief executives body Acevo, said in 2014 that gagging clauses are unacceptable and charities and social enterprises should challenge them.
“There is no doubt that many confidentiality clauses in government contracts are designed to protect not the public but the department or the ministers concerned,” he says. “We need an open, transparent system where data is freely shared. We have reams of data protection legislation that is designed to protect the vulnerable. Contractual confidentiality clauses that aim to prevent ‘bringing a department into disrepute’, as one example puts it, merely protect officialdom.”
However, the right to whistleblow if individuals believe there has been serious wrongdoing remains. If it’s in the public interest, there is a right to disclose and be protected from any consequences, and that is the law.
You can read about the laws and protections regarding whistleblowing and gagging clauses here.
Update 9 October 2018
The media has finally decided this issue is newsworthy. At least 22 organisations – covering contracts worth £1.8 billion – have been required to sign the clauses as part of their involvement with programmes getting the unemployed into work, The Times has reported.
Officials at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) denied they were “gagging clauses” intended to prevent criticism of ministers or their policies, insisting they were just “standard procedure”. However a spokesman confirmed that the contracts did include references to ensure both parties “understand how to interact with each other and protect their best interests”. The signatories to contracts must undertake to “pay the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of the Work and Pensions Secretary, the newspaper reported, adding that they must “not do anything which may attract adverse publicity” to her, damage her reputation, or harm the public’s confidence in her.
Former prime minister John Major called for a rethink of the planned roll-out of UC to more than two million claimants of existing benefits, warning the Government risked a poll tax-style backlash if the policy was seen as unfair.
The Department for Work and Pensions has announced that from April 2019 Citizens Advice (CA) and Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) will receive a total of £51 million to help people with universal credit claims. This move in itself shows how unfit for purpose the Universal Credit (UC) process is, as people need support in simply claiming it.
CA and CAS have been given a role in supporting claimants through every step of making a UC claim and ‘managing their money when it arrives.’ The main focus will be on budgeting advice and digital support.
£12 million is being provided to CA and CAS to set up the service by April 2019, with a further £39 million being paid from April onwards.
The government funding has understandably raised concerns about the freddom that CA and CAS will have to campaign in relation to the failings of UC.
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Esther McVey said:
“This brand new partnership with Citizens Advice will ensure everyone, and in particular the most vulnerable claimants, get the best possible support with their claim that is consistently administered throughout the country.
“Citizens Advice are an independent and trusted organisation, who will support people as we continue the successful rollout of Universal Credit.”
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:
“We offer independent and confidential advice to millions of people every year, and have already helped nearly 150,000 people with Universal Credit. We’ve seen first-hand what can happen when people struggle to make a claim and their payments are delayed.
“We welcome the opportunity to provide even more people with the help they need with Universal Credit, and deliver a consistent service through the Citizens Advice network across England and Wales.
“Delivering this service will give us even greater insight into the Universal Credit system. We’ll continue to share our evidence with the government to help make sure Universal Credit works for everyone.”
I don’t make any money from my work. But you can make a donation if you like, to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.
The ‘national livingwage‘ (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 explorethe 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
TheUK government has announced todaythat 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 wereset 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”.
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 datewe have seenevery 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 premiumsunder 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.
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.
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