Millions of Britain’s poorest and most vulnerable people are being “fleeced” by rip-off 0845 helplines, it has been reported today.
According to a report by the Daily Mirror, figures uncovered by Labour MP Frank Field show than pensioners, carers and benefit claimants are still being charged for higher rate calls, despite promises from the government two years ago that it would phase out 0845 helpline numbers.
Since 2012, the Pension Service has received around 12 million 0845 prefix calls, including 2.5 million over the last year.
2.9 million 0845 calls were made to the Carer’s Allowance helpline, while more than 530,000 people called for advice about Winter Fuel Payments and 360,439 higher rate calls were made about Bereavement Benefits.
0845 calls can cost anywhere from between 1p and 12p a minute from a landline and from 5p to 40p if calling from a mobile phone.
Callers spent a combined total of £56 million from using 0845 helplines in 2012 alone.
Frank Field said:
“At the very point in their lives when millions of people are most in need, they are being fleeced by the Government and the phone companies.
“Ministers promised over a year ago that these rip-off lines would be scrapped. Might they now sanction such a move as quickly as they sanction claimants?”
The Cabinet Office issued guidance in 2013, stating it was “inappropriate” for “vulnerable and low-income groups” to pay “substantial charges for accessing core public services”.
Two years later the Department for Work and Pensions is still “in the process of replacing all its 0845 number prefixes in use for its national helplines”.
A DWP spokesperson added:
“We introduced 0345 numbers for DWP national helpline service numbers – this is alongside an 0845 option, which can currently be cheaper for some dependent on their telephony provider.”
Soure – Welfare Weekly, 23 Mar 2015
A new report from a coalition of major UK Churches has revealed that around 100,000 children were affected by benefit sanctions in 2013/14.
It also shows that in the same period a total of nearly 7 million weeks of sanctions were handed out to benefit claimants.
The new data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, will feature in this evening’s episode of Channel 4’s Dispatches, entitled ‘Britain’s Benefits Crackdown’.
The report, entitled Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions, is published today by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Church Action on Poverty, the Church in Wales, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church. It contains new data on the severity and length of sanctions under Welfare Reform, and on how sanctions affect vulnerable groups such as children and those with mental health problems.
It features the stories of people like James (not his real name) who have had their benefits sanctioned:
“During the first three weeks of my sanction I continued to look for work as I was required to. By the fourth week however I was exhausted, unwell and no longer had it in me. I was not eating as I had no food and was losing a lot of weight. I told the Jobcentre I was unwell through not eating but was sanctioned for another three months for not looking for work properly.”
“Those who already have the most difficult lives are those most likely to be sanctioned,” said Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church and one of the authors of the report.
“Sanctions impact disproportionately on young people, care leavers, homeless people, single parents, the mentally ill and those with long term illness. This system causes problems for the very people that most need help.
“But sanctions don’t just have a financial impact. The people we’ve spoken to have told us of the shame, demoralisation and loss of self-worth caused by this system.
“As Christians we believe that everyone is loved, valued and made in the image of God, and we have a responsibility to challenge any structure or system that undermines that dignity.”
The Churches are calling for a full and independent review of the regime and for urgent reform of the hardship payments system to avoid the deliberate imposition of hunger.
In the meantime, they are urging the Government to suspend all sanctions against families with children and those suffering from mental health problems. Most importantly, they say, there needs to be a change of culture, from one of enforcement and punishment to one of assistance and support.
“If you commit a crime, no criminal court in the UK is allowed to make you go hungry as a punishment,” added Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty.
“But if you’re late for an appointment at the Jobcentre, they can remove all your income and leave you unable to feed you or your family for weeks at a time.
“Most people in this country would be shocked if they knew that far from providing a safety net, the benefit sanctions policy is currently making thousands of people destitute.
“This policy must be reviewed urgently.”
The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, said:
“The findings of this report are disturbing.
“It exposes a system that is harsh in the extreme, penalising the most vulnerable of claimants by the withdrawal of benefits for weeks at a time.
“Most worryingly, it appears from DWP guidance, quoted in the report, that deprivation and hunger are knowingly being used as a punishment for quite trivial breaches of benefit conditions.
“Employers would not be allowed to stop someone’s wages for a month the first time they were 10 minutes late for an appointment, but this is the kind of sanction that is being imposed on some of the most vulnerable people in our society, including those with mental and physical health problems.
“We are concerned that the problem may be even worse in Wales, recognising the higher levels of poverty in this country. No Welsh data, however, is included in the report because despite submitting a Freedom of Information request to the DWP three months ago, we are still waiting for a reply.
“There is supposed to be a 20-day turnaround period for Freedom of Information requests. We are pursuing this.”
Source – Welfare Weekly, 02 Mar 2015
Jobseekers could be forced to “sign on” every week to continue receiving benefit payments, under new plans being considered by the Government.
Currently, only benefit claimants who are deemed not to be doing enough to find a job are required to visit a Jobcentre every week.
Trials in East London and parts of the West of Scotland, where claimants signed on every week instead of every fortnight after the 13th week of their claim, found that unemployed people spent “at least an average of 2.6 fewer days on benefits than fortnightly signers”.
Other approaches to the analysis suggest that jobseeker’s spent an average of six fewer days on benefits, but the DWP said they have “less confidence in the higher figure”.
However, the DWP is said to be taking the findings “very seriously” and could eventually force all of the UK’s 1.91 million Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants to sign on every week.
Researchers also tested “speed signing” in other parts of the UK, where claimants had shorter fortnightly jobsearch reviews.
“Flexible signing” was also trialled, giving Jobcentre Plus Work Coaches the flexibility to change how often JSA claimants were asked to sign on.
Speed signing had “no effect”, while flexible signing resulted in one day more on benefits. A figure which the DWP says isn’t “statistically significant”.
Pilots lasted for 52 weeks following random assignment. Participation ended sooner where individuals were referred to the Work Programme or where they ended their claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance.
Unions have condemned the idea, with the PCS union – who include Jobcentre staff among its members – accusing the Government of “punishing the jobless”.
The plan would also require “massive investment in Jobcentres and staff”, said PCS.
A PCS spokesperson said weekly signing “doesn’t appear to be designed to help claimants, it’s just another way for the Government to turn the screw”.
Source – Welfare Weekly, 02 Feb 2015
The Green Party, Plaid Cymru and SNP have announced their intention to unite against the austerity agenda followed by Westminster’s main political parties.
Callous and vicious austerity measures have impacted heavily upon benefit claimants, low-income families and disabled people.
Policies such as the hated ‘bedroom tax’ and other welfare reforms have led to substantial and significant falls in income for some of Britain’s poorest citizens.
The Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats have all reiterated their pledges to continue spending cuts, of various levels and guises, if they win a majority in the 2015 general election.
Party leaders from the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party say they will “unite whenever possible to battle the Westminster parties’ obsession with austerity”.
Speaking during a meeting at Westminster, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett said:
“I am delighted to have the chance to catch up with two other female leaders of anti-austerity parties in the UK. Together, we represent, with the Scottish Green Party, a new way of doing politics, a move away from the business-as-usual model of the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems that no longer represents public opinion.
“We are the voice of real change – a voice that must be represented in the leader debates next year.
“The ‘Green surge’ that has seen membership in England and Wales more than double, and Scottish Green Party membership nearly quadruple in 2014 is a sign of the shifting political landscape.
“Collectively the Green parties will be standing in more than 75% of seats in the UK, reflecting the advance of our political philosophy that rejects austerity and believes that everyone should have access to the resources for a decent quality of life, with certainty, without fear, while we all live collectively within the limits of our one planet.
“And in thinking about future financial stability, we have to focus on the reason for our current difficulties, the near-collapse of our fraud-ridden, reckless, over-large financial sector.
“Green MP Caroline Lucas is an outstanding MP as shown by the numerous awards she has received including the prestigious MP of the year for her work with disadvantaged communities. Electing more Greens next year will help to bring about a peaceful revolution in British politics, towards a government that works for the common good, not just for the few.”
First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said:
“There is no end in sight to the Westminster cuts that are already hitting Scotland hard – the Autumn Statement earlier this month set out another £15bn of cuts that are coming our way. Not only will these cuts continue to hit hard-working families, women and the vulnerable hardest – they will also put growth and competitiveness at risk.
“But despite the deeply damaging impacts of failed austerity, the Tories and Labour have made crystal clear their determination to carry on regardless.
“And after four years propping up the Tories, the Lib Dems have no credibility. It is time for a new approach to UK politics – and for our parties to use our influence to bring about progressive change at Westminster.
“Following the referendum in Scotland, the political landscape has changed utterly. The SNP is now the third biggest political party in the UK in terms of membership.
“Last month we sent this message to the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 – to exclude the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru from general election TV debates would be to wilfully ignore this new political landscape. Put simply, it is just not on.
“Electing a strong group of SNP MPs will ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard at Westminster. Along with Plaid Cymru and the Green Party, we will work to do everything possible to tackle inequality and bring about sustainable economic growth.”
Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said:
“Plaid Cymru and the SNP provide an alternative to Westminster’s promise of austerity and cuts to public services. As the only parties, together with the Greens, to reject the cuts consensus, it is unjustifiable and undemocratic to exclude our three parties from proposed leaders’ debates during the forthcoming UK elections. I reiterate my calls for Plaid Cymru’s inclusion in those debates in order to ensure the people can exercise their right to question and scrutinise all major parties.
“The people of Wales face a real choice at the election. All three Westminster parties are committed to slash and burn economics. That means cuts for the sake of cuts rather than balancing the books by investment and spreading opportunities. It is likely that there will be another hung parliament after the election. In that scenario, Plaid Cymru could hold the balance of power alongside our colleagues in the SNP. Should that happen, Plaid Cymru will seek a rebalancing of power and wealth in the UK: transferring powers away from London to Wales so more of our fate is in our own hands; spreading investment away from the booming City of London to areas in most need of investment.
“If the people of Wales return a strong contingent of Plaid Cymru MPs in May, then Wales will be best placed to secure an outcome to improve the prospects of our people and communities.”
Source – Welfare Weekly, 15 Dec 2014
Government benefit changes mean people in Jarrow “live for weeks on nothing”, town MP Stephen Hepburn warned this week.
His comments came in a heated Parliamentary exchange this week with Employment Minister Esther McVey, during which Mr Hepburn attacked the Government’s welfare reforms and the way it treats people on Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA).
Mr Hepburn has obtained official Parliamentary statistics, indicating that more than half of those people in Jarrow whose benefits claims are reconsidered are unsuccessful.
Mr Hepburn said: “Can the minister explain why more than 50 per cent of benefit claimants in my constituency, whose benefits have been sanctioned, have had the decision overturned?
“In the meantime, they had to live week for weeks on nothing – unlike that lot over there, who stuff their nests.
“Is it not true that this scheme is nothing more than a con?
“The Government say that they are cutting benefits.
“They are cutting benefits, but they are taking them off the most vulnerable people in the country and leaving them out for ever.”
Mr Hepburn based his claims on new official Parliamentary figures from the Department for Work and Pensions, which indicate that more than 50 per cent of sanctions placed on JSA claimants in the Jarrow constituency have been overturned. The figures reveal that from October 22, 2012, to June 2013, there were 290 reconsiderations submitted to JSA claimants to sanctions imposed on them, with just over 51 per cent overturned.
However, in response, the Employment Minister rejected Mr Hepburn’s claims, stating: “There are a couple of points I need to answer, because what was said was inaccurate.
“The figure for the overturns is 10 per cent, not the high number the honorable gentleman alluded to.
“At the same time, people on sanctions are still on benefits and have an underlying qualification to them.
“The honorable gentleman is incorrect.
“Perhaps he does not like the fact that the number of people in work has gone up significantly under this Government, and the number of people needing to claim benefits has gone down significantly.”
> Perhaps he just doesn’t believe that to be true – especially in the north East…
Source – Shields Gazette, 26 June 2014
This article was written by Rowena Mason, political correspondent, for The Guardian on Monday 5th May 2014
Jobseekers face losing their benefits for three months or more if they refuse to take zero-hours contract roles, a letter from a Conservative minister has revealed.
For the first time, benefit claimants are at risk of sanctions if they do not apply for and accept certain zero-hours jobs under the new universal credit system, despite fears that such contracts are increasingly tying workers into insecure and low paid employment.
More than one in 10 employers are using such contracts, which are most likely to be offered to women, young people and people over 65. The figure rises to almost half of all employers in the tourism, catering and food sector.
Currently, people claiming jobseekers’ allowance are not required to apply for zero-hours contract vacancies and they do not face penalties for turning them down.
However, the change in policy under universal credit was revealed in a letter from Esther McVey, an employment minister, to Labour MP Sheila Gilmore, who had raised the issue of sanctions with her.
The senior Tory confirmed that, under the new system, JobCentre “coaches” would be able to “mandate to zero-hours contracts”, although they would have discretion about considering whether a role was suitable.
> Oh well, that’s all right then. We can rest assured that the fact that they’re chasing targets and bonuses wont affect their judgement as to whether a role is suitable.
Quite obviously, if a job doesn’t guarantee a weekly income, its suitable to very few people indeed – mainly people who don’t eat or have bills to pay presumably…
Separately, a response to a freedom of information request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) published on its website reveals: “We expect claimants to do all they reasonably can to look for and move into paid work. If a claimant turns down a particular vacancy (including zero-hours contract jobs) a sanction may be applied, but we will look into the circumstances of the case and consider whether they had a good reason.”
Higher level sanctions – imposed if a jobseeker refuses to take a position without good reason or leaves a position voluntarily – will lead to a loss of benefits for 13 weeks on the first occasion, 26 weeks on the second occasion and 156 weeks on the third occasion.
Asked about the issue by the Guardian, the DWP said jobseekers would not be required to take a zero-hours contract that tied them in exclusively to work for a single employer. The government is already consulting on whether to ban this type of contract altogether.
The change has been made possible because universal credit will automatically adjust the level of benefits someone receives depending on the number of hours they work. This means claimants should not face periods without the correct benefits when their earnings fluctuate or they change job.
> Universal Credit still does not work. It may never work, judging by its progress so far. Why would anyone trust it to “simplify” the system ?
However, critics raised concerns that the new policy will force people into uncertain employment and restrict the ability of claimants to seek better work while still placing a burden on many to increase their hours.
Sheila Gilmore said she was concerned about the situation because JobCentre decision makers already do not appear to be exercising enough discretion before applying sanctions under the old regime.
“While I don’t object to the principle of either universal credit or zero-hours contracts, I am concerned about this policy change,” she said.
“I also fear that if people are required to take jobs with zero-hours contracts, they could be prevented from taking training courses or applying for other jobs that might lead to more stable and sustainable employment in the long term.”
> Oh, I see. She’s not against the principle of either universal credit or zero-hours contracts, just that it might prevent someone taking part (for which read : being made to take part under threat of sanctions) some other pointless “training” course. Labour – the people’s friend…
Andy Sawford, a shadow minister who has pushed for reforms of the contracts with his zero-hours bill in parliament, also expressed concern about the change, as universal credit will require many people on low hours to try to increase their work. Those below a “conditionality earnings threshold” – normally 35 hours at the minimum wage – may be asked to “carry out relevant actions” to raise their earnings, or again face sanctions.
“How can you commit to training, undertake a proper job search or agree to participate in interviews when you are on a zero-hours contract and may be required to work at any time?” Sawford said.
“Requiring people to take zero-hour jobs is a big change from the past. It will create further insecurity for many of the lowest paid people.”
Labour has promised to crack down on abuses of zero-hours contracts, with leader Ed Miliband saying their use has reached “epidemic” proportions in some industries. He wants to see workers with irregular shifts and pay getting a contract with fixed hours if they have worked regularly for the same employer for a year.
The TUC has also expressed worry that they are “no longer confined to the fringe of the job market”.
A spokesman for the DWP said: “As now, if there’s a good reason someone can’t just take a particular job they won’t be sanctioned. But it is right that people do everything they can to find work and that we support them to build up their working hours and earnings. The average zero-hours contract provides 25 hours of work a week – and can lead to long-term opportunities.
“Universal credit payments will adjust automatically depending on the hours a person works to ensure that people whose hours may change are financially supported and do not face the hassle and bureaucracy of switching their benefit claims.”
> We don’t believe you…
Source – Welfare News Service 06 May 2014
Department For Work And Pensions Director, Neil Couling, has claimed that there is no relationship between the increased used of benefit sanctions against unemployed jobseeker’s and the rising number of people turning to food banks.
According to the Scottish National Party (SNP), the claim was made during a Scottish Welfare Reform Committee session, where Mr Couling was standing in for the conservative Employment Minister, Esther McVey MP.
The SNP also claim that Mr Couling ‘took issue’ with existing evidence showing there has been a 209 per cent increase in the number of sanctions handed out against benefit claimants in Scotland since 2006, and Mr Couling joked that sanctioned benefit claimants were bringing ‘Thank You’ cards to his office.
Figures suggest that the number of instances where a benefit claimants has had their benefits cut or stopped completely, as a result of having their benefits sanctioned, more than tripled between 2006 – 2013, from 25,953 to 80,305.
Under the new system benefit claimants who fail to adhere to tough new requirements could find their payments being docked for four weeks, increasing to up to three years for repeat offenders.
A growing number of politicians, charities and benefit claimants themselves are drawing attention to instances where unemployed people have had their benefits slashed for long periods inappropriately.
These include not applying for enough jobs in a single week, even though the unemployed person has evidence that they had applied for dozens of job vacancies, as well as instances where jobseeker’s have had their benefits sanctioned for failing to turn up to a jobcentre appointment, despite having informed their adviser that they were attending a hospital appointment or the funeral of a family member.
Speaking after the committee session at the Scottish Parliament, Kevin Stewart MSP said:
“Mr Couling should visit the food banks in Scotland to speak to the people who have had their welfare benefits sanctioned and now face huge difficulties feeding themselves and their families.
“Perhaps if Mr Couling listened to the expert evidence the committee heard today from the Head of Policy at Barnardo’s Scotland; Citizens Advice Scotland; the Head of Oxfam Scotland and others including Dr John Ip, GP of the British Medical Association, then he might have had a better understanding of the reality of the situation.
“Mr Couling may have been joking when he claimed that Welfare sanctions were bringing ‘Thank-you’ cards from benefits claimants to his office but there is nothing funny about people who have to line up in order to receive vital food parcels for their hungry children.
“Amidst Mr Couling’s contradictory claims he did concede that ‘the chances of having a sanction is going up’ and that is the grim reality of people unable to find work – which means they have no income and are forced to use food banks.
“As Labour MSP Ken Macintosh pointed out, the Scottish Government has indeed given a further £1million towards food banks – but as Mark Ballard from Barnardo’s highlighted, the Scottish Government hasn’t the powers to totally mitigate the harmful Westminster benefit cuts.
“Instead of people in Scotland being forced to rely upon a Westminster welfare system that is being aggressively cut and sanctioning thousands people who need support, we need a system that truly reflects Scotland’s values.
“With the powers of an independent Scotland we can build that kind of system and ensure that the priorities of people in Scotland are truly reflected in our welfare system.
“It is only a Yes vote in next year’s referendum that will secure that opportunity for Scotland and restore people’s faith that they will receive the support they need from the rest of society when they are facing difficult times.”
Source – Welfare News Service 30 April 2014
Benefit claimants in the North-East and North Yorkshire have been hit harder by Government’s ‘bedroom tax’ than any other region, a new study has revealed.
The report, by Oxfam and the New Policy Institute (NPI), warns that wide-ranging cuts are changing the shape of welfare support at a time when rising prices are making it harder for families to make ends meet.
The study, Multiple Cuts For The Poorest Families, found 28,000 of the poorest households in the region are being hit by the bedroom tax and are £12.80 per week worse off, with around 3,000 at least £20 a week out of pocket.
As a result, job seekers, carers, single parents or those with a disability or illness who are unable to work are being pushed deeper into poverty, it said.
North Durham MP Kevan Jones (Labour) said the record use of food banks was a clear indication that not only the unemployed, but also those in low pay, are being forced to rely on charity to survive.
He said: “In the year 2014 it is a national scandal. It is a situation where they are forcing people to move who have lived in the same homes for many years. The Government is treating people’s home as commodities rather than homes.”
But cuts to council tax benefit are more widespread in the region, where 103,000 of the poorest households have seen a cut in their cash payments.
These households now have to pay around £2.40 per week in council tax, a charge they were previously deemed too poor to pay.
The worst off are those 40,000 households who have seen both cuts in their housing benefit and their council tax benefit.
North-West Durham MP Pat Glass (Labour) said: “People who have never been in debt before are now in debt.
Renters in the private sector have also seen their housing benefit slashed too, through cuts to the Local Housing Allowance.
The research estimates that this has affected 29,000 of the poorest households in the area, costing them around £7.80 per week.
Mark Goldring, Oxfam chief executive, said: “This is the latest evidence of a perfect storm blowing massive holes in the safety net which is supposed to stop people falling further into poverty.”
In London, where the population is two-and-a-half to three times greater than the North-East, around 34,000 of the poorest households are being hit by the bedroom tax.
On average they are £20 per week worse off, the highest cut of any region, and around 7,000 are being hit by at least £25 per week.
But cuts to council tax benefit are much more widespread in the capital where 240,000 of the poorest households have seen a cut.
Geraldine Kay, chief executive of Derwentside Homes, the social landlord which manages former council housing stock in the north-west of County Durham, said: “The North-East has been disproportionately adversely affected by welfare reforms compared to all other regions with the exception of London for a different reason.
“In London the issue is the extortionate cost of housing, to buy or to rent, exceeding the benefit cap.
“In the North-East it is the ‘bedroom tax’ that is causing particular hardship as our housing stock is dominated by two and three bedroom family homes with very few flats and apartments.
“There are simply not the smaller properties for people to downsize into and tenants are caught in the ‘bedroom tax’ poverty trap.”
Conservative Stockton South MP James Wharton said hundreds of thousands of people are on waiting list for homes while hundreds of thousands more have properties bigger than they needs, which are paid for by the taxpayer.
He said: “The housing system this government inherited was in need of major reform and by paying for what people need, rather than over the odds, the taxpayer can get people into the right sized homes and free up properties for those in desperate need.”
> Except… that doesn’t work. Surely he’s grasped the fact by now ?
Source – Northern Echo 22 April 2014
This article was written by Patrick Butler, George Arnett, Sarah Marsh and Samir Jeraj, for The Guardian on Sunday 20th April 2014
A fledgling scheme to provide emergency help to the poorest in the country is in chaos, with £67m left unspent and record numbers of families being turned away.
Figures released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests indicate that by the end of January councils in England were sitting on £67m of the £136m that had been allocated to local welfare schemes. Half of local authorities had spent less than 40% of their funds.
An analysis by the Guardian shows that under the new local welfare assistance schemes, four in 10 applications for emergency funds are turned down, despite evidence that many applicants have been made penniless by benefits sanctions and delays in processing benefit claims. Under the previous system – the social fund – just two in 10 were. In some parts of the country, as few as one in 10 applicants obtain crisis help.
The schemes were designed to help low-income families in crisis, such as those in danger of becoming homeless or subjected to domestic violence. Charities and MPs have warned that those denied help are turning to food banks and loan sharks.
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, which offers debt and legal advice, said the emergency financial support system was in chaos. “When the safety net fails, people are left with no way of putting food on the table, paying the rent or keeping the lights on. Confusion over what help is available and who to approach means that people who need support are left high and dry.
“People are in danger of being pushed into the arms of payday lenders and loan sharks by the chaotic emergency support system. Citizens Advice bureaux see people in desperate need of support who have nowhere else to turn when jobcentres and the local council don’t give out support.”
Under the new system, emergency funds are no longer ringfenced, meaning that councils can divert unspent cash to other budgets. Local welfare assistance schemes were created a year ago in 150 English authorities, alongside national schemes in Wales and Scotland, following the abolition of the social fund.
Most schemes do not offer cash or loans, but support in kind, such as food parcels and supermarket vouchers. The social fund provided loans repayable against future benefit payments – typically about £50 – and larger capital grants to destitute families who needed help to furnish flats or replace broken domestic appliances.
Despite charities reporting that demand for help has rocketed as a result of economic hardship and welfare cuts, some councils spent more money setting up and administering their welfare schemes than they gave to needy applicants.
Councils told the Guardian they had provided less in emergency funding than in the past because there was a lack of public awareness of the new system. Some had failed to advertise their schemes, while others set such tight eligibility criteria that many applicants – typically including low-paid working families, benefit claimants and those deemed to have not lived in their local area for long enough – were turned away.
Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, who has repeatedly raised the issue of local welfare in parliament, said his constituents frequently reported struggles to get crisis help. Constituents he has helped include:
• A low-wage family with three children, including an 11-month-old baby, who applied for £35 to pay for gas, electricity and baby food to help them until payday. The council scheme initially referred the family to a food bank. After lobbying by Danczuk, they were given £20 for energy costs, but were refused money for baby food.
• A pregnant mother and her partner, who after benefit changes were left with £7 a week for food after rent and council tax. They were told that they could not apply as the scheme was for “genuine emergencies” such as fires and flood.
In each case Danczuk believes the families would have qualified for emergency support under the social fund. “Central and local government are pushing people into the hands of payday loan companies and food banks. They have in effect privatised the lender of last resort,” he said.
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions, which funds local welfare schemes run by 150 local authorities across England, said: “In contrast to a centralised grant system that was poorly targeted, councils can now choose how best to support those most in need. It is for local councils to decide how they spend their budgets.”
But a Conservative council leader has called on the government to reinstate local welfare assistance funding, calling it a “cut too far”. Louise Goldsmith, leader of West Sussex county council, said the proposed cut would leave many low income families without vital support when they were going through a “tough patch in their lives”.
A briefing note prepared by the council found that 43% of 5,582 individuals and families helped by the local welfare fund to the end of February had applied because they had been left penniless by benefit sanctions and delays.
The Local Government Association has called upon the ministers to reverse the cut, and it is understood a number of councils and welfare charities are preparing to seek a judicial review of the government’s decision to cut local welfare assistance funding in April 2015.
Many councils are using part of their welfare assistance allocation to provide financial support for local food banks, which provide penniless applicants with charity food parcels.
Lady Stowell, a local government minister, told the House of Lords in January that local authorities were “doing a good job of supporting people in times of crisis and are doing it without using all the funding that has been provided so far from DWP”.
But Centrepoint, the homelessness charity said that local welfare assistance underspending meant many homeless youngsters could not get vital support when they moved from hostels into independent living. “Councils need to start using these funds to address urgent need now and ensure that young people have access to it,” said Seyi Obakin, Centrepoint’s chief executive.
Two local authorities – Labour-run Nottinghamshire county council and Tory-run Oxfordshire – have scrapped local welfare assistance altogether and plan to divert the money into social care services..
Conservative-run Herefordshire county council had spent less than £5,000 of its annual £377,000 allocation by the end of December last year, equivalent to 1% of its local welfare budget.It said its spending reflected low demand for crisis help, a claim disputed by Hereford Citizens Advice and Hereford food bank, which said they had been inundated with requests.
Labour-run Islington council had spent 80% of its emergency funds budget by the end of December last year and had spent all its emergency funds by April. It said it had encouraged its frontline staff to refer individuals to its local welfare scheme to ensure they got crisis help and assistance with any underlying problems, such as debt.
Local authorities are anticipating further problems over local welfare in 2015 when the DWP scraps funding for the schemes. Councils, charities and MPs have called on the government to restore and ringfence the crisis support allocation.
Councils say that in some cases they have refused emergency help because benefit claimants have been wrongly referred to local authority welfare schemes by jobcentres. Some councils have refused to accept applications from those who ought to have been offered a short-term benefit advance from their local jobcentre.
Scotland and Wales have their own welfare assistance schemes and these have higher applicant success rates than in England. In Northern Ireland, which still has the social fund, 70% of applicants received help.
Source – Welfare News Service 20 April 2014
This article was written by Rowena Mason and Patrick Butler, for The Guardian on Tuesday 11th March 2014
The Department for Work and Pensions is advising jobcentres on how to send people to food banks, official documents show – despite ministers’ claiming the charitable support forms no part of the welfare system.
Ministers insist jobcentres “do not refer people to food banks or issue vouchers” and that food banks are “absolutely not a part of the welfare system because we have other means of supporting people”. They say jobcentres only “signpost” the existence of food banks and dispute the link between welfare changes and a surge in their use.
However, documents obtained under freedom of information laws show there is a “high level process” written by the DWP to be followed when benefit claimants say they are in hardship because of government policy and need food.
A six-step flowchart for jobcentre staff shows that the four reasons to recommend a food bank when claimants ask for help are hardship caused by benefit changes, benefit payment delays, a benefit advance has been refused, or the advance is not enough to meet their needs.
Jobcentres that choose to offer a food bank referral “service” are told to do a health and safety assessment before sending people to a particular charity.
As part of the process, Jobcentre Plus staff fill in a slip with the claimant’s details but another document orders them, in bold letters, not to describe this as a “food voucher” – apparently so as not to erode the argument that they are not part of the welfare system.
The documents show each jobcentre is told to write down how many people have been sent to food banks on a “slip record sheet”, even though the DWP has said: “Food banks are not part of government policy and, as such, the Department for Work and Pensions does not hold or collect information on their usage.”
The latest statistics from the Trussell Trust, which oversees a network of more than 400 food banks in the UK, show 614,000 adults and children received food parcels from its food banks in the first nine months of 2013-14, compared with 350,000 for the whole of 2012-13.
Benefit changes and delays – including instances where claimants had their benefits sanctioned, or stopped for breaches of conditionality – accounted for 49% of referrals to trust food banks to the end of December. In 2012-13 these categories accounted for 43% of referrals.
Although the DWP says it does not refer people to food banks, one of the documents obtained by the Guardian is entitled Foodbank Referral Service – High Level Process. The DWP said the guidance had mistakenly been issued by staff dealing with the freedom of information request. It said all guidance to Jobcentre Plus had now been modified to change the word “referral” to “signposting” – even though the process for directing those in need of aid to food banks appears to be exactly the same.
DWP officials say people are “signposted” to food banks only if other options are exhausted, as local authorities now have responsibility for emergency food aid. However, the official DWP food bank guidance for jobcentres makes no reference to alternative help from local authorities.
The DWP added: “The benefits system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed and there is no robust evidence that welfare reforms are linked to increased use of food banks. Our reforms are fair and mean the welfare system will remain what it was always intended to be – a safety net for people at times of need.”
Labour said the DWP’s arguments that the government is not relying on food banks to fill a gap in the welfare system were unravelling. “Last year ministers said, ‘food banks are absolutely not part of our welfare system’, yet these official DWP documents show a system for referrals has been established,” said Luciana Berger, shadow public health minister. “If ministers cannot answer the simplest of questions about their department, how can we have any confidence they will tackle the rising number of people who are having to access emergency food aid?
“As the queues at food banks grow with hundreds of thousands of people forced to use food banks to survive so too do the costs to our public health and wellbeing. Food banks have become a truly shameful symbol of Britain under this Tory-led government.”
Esther McVey, the employment minister, had refused to release the guidance to Berger, saying: “It is not common practice in DWP to publish internal guidance.”
Chris Mould, the executive chairman of the Trussell Trust, said despite the guidance, jobcentre practice on charity food support varied across the country.
A small number of jobcentres had good relationships with local food banks, some ignored food banks altogether and others referred claimants to food banks “indiscriminately and without thinking”.
The Trussell Trust and the DWP agreed in 2011 after months of discussions that jobcentre staff should be able to send claimants to food banks. However, ministers continued to insist this only amounted to “signposting” in the right direction.
Last year, officials unilaterally changed the referral forms to remove the reasons why someone may have been sent to a food bank. Critics said this move made it harder for food bank staff to identify whether clients had been referred as a consequence of welfare reform.
Mould said: “The debate about whether food banks are part of the welfare state is a bit of a red herring. The real issue is about why people go hungry”.
Source – Welfare News Service, 12 March 2014