By Lori Inglis Hall @LoriInglisHall
Welfare reform was always inevitable with a Tory government. The welfare bill was high (at £200 billion a year it comprises almost a third of all public spending), the deficit needed cutting, and we the people approve of anything which takes from those feckless, workshy scroungers we hear so much about.
In 2015, the then Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith described Conservative welfare policy as “rooted in human nature, not utopianism nor empty pity”, and with measures designed to incentivise work and reduce dependency on benefits, the Conservatives were “ending poverty, not entrenching it and restoring lives, not parking them”.
Two years into the current Parliament, and the deficit stands at record levels, Universal Credit is a shambles, and although welfare reform remains popular with working people, a closer look at the evidence suggests policies which were designed to save money and help people out of poverty and into work, have cost implications of a different kind, on our society.
A recent report by the NAO stated the government was not doing enough to understand the effects of benefit sanctions, but while taking a closer look at several welfare policies introduced since the advent of austerity, we can see the government could not have been unaware that several of their reforms would force people to be pushed out of the system, or to the brink of destitution, as the safety net is swept away.
Over a million claimants of out-of-work benefits like Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) face sanctions if they do not comply with a strict set of conditions attached to their benefits, such as providing proof that they are actively searching for work. Conservatives really like sanctions. They introduced the measure in 1996, and they massively expanded the system under the Coalition government. They like to see them handed out too, the more the merrier. In fact, a recent damning report by the National Audit Office (NAO) reported that 400,000 sanctions were issued in 2015, and last year the PCS Union produced evidence which suggested Jobcentre workers were under pressure from managers to meet ‘sanction targets’. In 2015, the Tory’s love of sanctions saw £132 million worth of benefits withheld from some of the UK’s poorest people.
But do sanctions work? The Department for Work and Pensions says so, arguing that sanctions act as a deterrent and encourage claimants to adhere to their conditions. Which is fine except the department hasn’t actually bothered to find out if its true. The NAO certainly found little evidence to support the claim.
As for whether sanctions actually save the taxpayer money, the NAO concluded that the current system of sanctions did not provide value for money for the taxpayer, due to a lack of consistency in the way in which they are handed out. And the costs are high. In fact, the Government spends £30-50 million a year applying sanctions and a further £200 million monitoring compliance of conditions attached to benefits, proving that punishing those with nothing doesn’t come cheap.
But there is another cost attached to sanctions, which again is not being properly monitored by the Department for Work and Pensions, and that is the impact these penalties have on those claimants forced to suffer them. The minimum sanction for a JSA claimant is the loss of four weeks of benefits – about £300 – a huge figure when you’re already on the breadline.
Sanctioned claimants have st times been forced to turn to survival crime to get by, they face depression, debt, rent arrears, often for nothing more than turning up ten minutes late to an appointment.
In the worst cases, the consequences have proved fatal. In 2013 David Clapson was found dead in his flat. The retired soldier, who had diabetes, couldn’t store his insulin properly in the fridge because the electricity had been disconnected. Clapson’s benefits had been stopped because the Jobcentre felt he wasn’t taking the search for work seriously enough. When he died his stomach was empty and he had just £3.44 to his name. A pile of CV’s was found in his flat.
The Department for Work and Pensions pointed out that Clapson could have appealed or applied for a hardship loan but had not, but this ignores the fact that many JSA and ESA claimants are vulnerable and often unwell, and are simply unable to tackle the lengthy appeals process. Clapson was sent a letter about the hardship fund but didn’t open it. As his sister pointed out at the time,
“He was very bad at opening letters. People in his situation are frightened of these letters. They are never good news.”
In November, the total amount of benefits a household can receive was cut from £26,000 to £20,000 (£23,000 in London). The government claims that since the previous cap, some 23,000 claimants have found work. The measure is part of the Government’s commitment to ‘make sure work pays more than welfare’.
Although designed to incentivise unemployed individuals, the benefit cap has far reaching implications. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said the new benefit cap would “almost exclusively affect families with large numbers of children or very high rents or both.” While the Children’s Society says the changes could increase homelessness and force families to move away from their children’s schools.
Further, more than one in ten families affected by the cap are unable to work because of long term illness, disability, or caring responsibilities.
The benefit cap ignores one crucial factor behind the high welfare bill – housing benefit is high because rents are high and wages are low, and rather than helping those trapped in high cost private rentals due to the Government’s own inability to build much-needed social housing, the Government chooses to penalise them further.
The spare room subsidy, or ‘bedroom tax’, was introduced in 2012 to encourage tenants to downsize and free up housing stock. If the tenants didn’t want to move, they’d need to fund the shortfall in housing benefit themselves.
A bold plan indeed, except it doesn’t work, because there is nowhere for affected tenants to go. In 2013 the Independent reported that 96% of tenants could not be rehomed – that’s 96% of affected tenants forced to pay the Government’s bedroom tax whether they want to downsize or not. And many could not. In fact, a 2014 survey by the National Housing Federation found that two-thirds of households liable for the bedroom tax had fallen into rent arrears, with one in seven families facing eviction.
And, contrary to the Government’s own guidelines, a third of affected disabled households were refused emergency financial assistance, and instead were forced to cut back on essentials such as food and heat.
Food Bank Use
The introduction of Universal Credit is supposed to simplify the UK’s incredibly complex benefit system, but the roll out has been shambolic to say the least. Claimants now face six weeks without funds as their claim is moved over to the new system. This delay has forced many into hardship – rent arrears, debt, and unable to pay their bills, as they are effectively sanctioned due to the Government’s own inability to work to deadline. Frank Field MP, Chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, called Universal Credit a ‘recruiting sergeant for food banks’.
Food banks have seen a rapid rise in their number of users since the 2012 Welfare Reform Act. A 2014 report by anti-poverty campaigners The Trussell Trust, Oxfam, and the Child Poverty Action Group directly linked this increase to cuts in benefits. The study found that at least half of all food bank users had been referred to the service because of delays in benefit payments. And with delays continuing, this spiral into poverty is only going to get worse.
But despite critical reports from anti-poverty campaigners and, more recently, the Work and Pensions Committee, the Government has consistently refused to acknowledge any connection between welfare reform and foodbank usage. It also believes the six week waiting period is fair, as claimants who have lost their job should have a final month’s salary to rely on, despite evidence showing this is not the case for 40% of claimants moving over to Universal Credit.
In 2013 Ian Duncan Smith accused The Trussell Trust of raising the issue of food poverty as means of improving their ‘business model’. And in a move of astonishing cynicism, the DWP removed the ‘reason for referral’ section of the food bank referral form, thus removing any doubt that while a clear link continues to be drawn between welfare reform and food bank usage, the Government doesn’t want to know and they don’t want others to find out.
Removal of Citizens Advice Bureaus and Libraries
In 2014 more than two million people walked through the doors of a Citizens Advice Bureau to ask for help. The service exists as a lifeline to people needing assistance with everything from benefit sanctions, to domestic violence, to rent arrears. Yet since 2011 the service has seen its funding slashed by under-pressure Local Authorities. Shona Alexander, the Chief Executive of the Newcastle branch, recently spoke out after discovering that her branch would lose all of its core Council funding for 2017/8, bringing the future of the bureau into serious doubt. She said;
“We know the council is under enormous budget pressure but this is really short-sighted. This would be devastating for the people who rely on our services. In the past few years we have had higher demand because of referrals from other agencies, such as jobcentres. They send clients to us when they no longer have the resources.”
The Department for Work and Pensions often refer claimants to the CAB for advice, because the department only allows it’s advisers to speak to claimants for twenty-three minutes, no matter what the complexity of the advice required.
Cuts to Library services are also having an effect. Universal Credit is an online only benefit, which probably sounds like no big deal to those of us for whom the internet is a mere swipe of a smart phone away. According to Ofcom however, one in ten adults do not have access to the internet at home, and one in three disabled adults have never used the internet at all.
Local Authority cuts have seen hundreds of libraries close across the country. Just as many vulnerable and unemployed people find the only way to access or apply for their benefits is online, their only way of getting online has been taken away. Tim Leech, of charity WaveLength, said:
“The UK’s most vulnerable people will have to complete complex forms online with no support or training, and terrible consequences for making errors. Essential services should be accessible to everyone, not just those who can afford and know how to use computers.”
In a recent article on Real Media, benefit claimants caught up in the Concentrix tax credits scandal explained how they had formed a Facebook group to provide the advice and support the Government was unable, or unwilling, to provide. A sign of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ at work, perhaps, or rather the inevitable consequence of a welfare system in which support is held at arm’s length, or worse, no longer exists. People are trying to help each other, because there is nothing else.
Austerity and the inevitable cuts to services which follow do not justify the neglect of some of the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable people. When the consequences include poverty, deprivation, homelessness, or worse, there can be no justification. This is ideology at play, sink or swim on a massive scale, and the Government will continue to behave with such impunity because it believes it has a mandate to do so.
Welfare reform is popular because we have been told, over and over again, that these people are taking from us. We are working harder than ever but for less and we’re angry. But don’t blame us, say the Government and the right-wing rags, blame the have-nots, the immigrants, anyone who is ‘other’, anyone who is not like you. And the worst thing is, we believe it, we do as we’re told and lay the blame in the wrong place. We don’t listen to anyone who dares say otherwise. Not the charities and anti-poverty campaigners, because they’re experts and we don’t like experts anymore. And certainly not the benefit claimants themselves, because by removing their support, by leading them into these dead ends, the Government has removed their ability to speak up. Who do you turn to when you have nothing at all? They have been silenced, but perhaps no one was listening anyway.