This article was written by Patrick Butler, social policy editor, for The Guardian on Wednesday 19th November 2014
The government has been accused of ignoring evidence of the distress caused by its welfare reforms following publication of a report which directly links cuts to benefits with a massive rise in food bank use.
The study found that cuts and changes to Britain’s increasingly threadbare social security system are the most common triggers of the acute personal financial crises that drive people to use food banks..
At least half of all food bank users are referred because they are waiting for benefits to be paid, because they have had benefits stopped for alleged breaches of jobcentre rules or because they have been hit by the bedroom tax or the removal of working tax credits, it finds.
The study, the most extensive research of its kind yet carried out in the UK, directly challenges the government’s repeated insistence that there is no link between its welfare reforms and the huge increases in charity food aid.
The study was commissioned by the Church Of England, the Trussell Trust food bank network, Oxfam and Child Poverty Action Group.
It calls for urgent changes to the “complicated, remote and at times intimidating” social security system to stop people falling into poverty, including a less punitive sanctions system and speedier processing of benefits.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) dismissed the report, claiming the research was inconclusive.
“The report itself concludes it can’t prove anything – it uses self-selecting data and recognises there are complex underlying issues. We have a strong safety net in place, spending £94bn a year on working-age benefits, and we provide a wide range of advice and assistance for anyone in need of additional support.”
But the report was welcomed by Jeremy Lefroy, the Conservative MP for Stafford, who hosted its launch at the House of Commons on Wednesday. He said it was an important study that chimed with his experience as an MP in his surgery. He said its recommendations for change, including a review of sanctions policy, would make a practical difference to the lives of many of his distressed constituents.
“There is no doubt from this report that there are certain elements of welfare that make things more difficult, without doubt. These are not the headline things like the benefit cap, but things like sanctions, the smaller things that go below the radar where people cannot get any kind of help.”
> Blimey ! Even tory MPs are starting to notice !
The report’s lead researcher, Jane Perry, an independent social research consultant and former DWP official, defended the scope and methodology of the research, which she said accorded with official government social research quality standards.
The bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun, said he was disappointed by the DWP’s dismissal of the report, which he described as “an appeal to people of goodwill” to address an important social issue. He urged dialogue with ministers over the problems the report highlights and added: “I think they [the DWP] possibly need to read the report.”
It is understood the DWP was offered a seat on the study’s advisory committee prior to the research but declined. The department was shown a draft copy of the report a month ago but did not raise any objections to its methodology.
In another twist, a DWP minister, Steve Webb, whose officials had apparently agreed for him to respond in person to the report at the launch, pulled out at the last minute, without giving a reason. David McAuley, the chief executive of the Trussell Trust, said he was frustrated that the DWP had not attended, and accused them of not wanting “to hear the story.”
The study says it wanted to examine practical ways of preventing the further expansion of food banks, and warned the government against reliance on charity food to fix holes in the welfare state.
“The promise of a social security safety net that is there to protect people at times of crisis is something that can and must be preserved and protected. Food banks, whilst providing a vital and welcoming lifeline to many, should not become a readily accepted part of that formal provision,” the report says.
> But surely that’s exactly what they do want – Cameron’s Big Society (remember that ?) seemed to be all about charities and individuals doing the work for nothing, allowing public money to be diverted to more important things…such as into the pockets of the already-rich.
There are no official statistics on the use of food banks, but the Trussell Trust, which runs more than 400 food banks in the UK, says 913,138 people were given food parcels by its volunteers in 2013-14 – almost a threefold increase on the previous year, and likely to be a fraction of the total numbers of people experiencing food insecurity.
The research, which examined why people were referred to food banks, combined 40 in-depth interviews with clients at seven UK food banks, analysis of data collected on 900 clients at three of those food banks and a caseload of 178 clients at another.
The authors accept that the research, while wide-ranging, cannot prove definitively why people use food banks or how many use them, but argue that it provides an initial indicator of the scale and prevalence of issues leading people to accept charity food, and call on ministers to commission more authoritative data on food insecurity, as happens in the US and Canada.
The government has struggled to explain why food bank use has risen, though its has denied that welfare cuts are a factor. Lord Freud, the welfare minister, notoriously insisted that demand for food had risen because it was free, while the former education secretary Michael Gove suggested people turned to food aid because they had poor financial management skills.
However, the study found that in most cases people used food banks because they were tipped into financial crisis by events that were outside their control and difficult or impossible to reverse, such as benefit cuts and delays, bereavement or job loss. Most people said they used food banks as a desperate and shaming last resort.
Almost a third of food bank users interviewed for the study who had experienced problems with the benefits system said they had been sanctioned by social security officials and left penniless for weeks on end, while a further third were left unable to put food on the table because of lengthy delays in benefit payments. The report says the current sanctions policy is causing hardship and hunger.
The government has self-imposed targets for processing benefit claims within 16 working days. However, the report says this period is too long a wait without income for vulnerable people, and in practice many claimants wait longer than this. There are concerns that the five-week delay before jobless people can sign on under a future universal credit system will cause hardship.
Formal state crisis support available to people who are left without income because of bureaucratic delays in the processing of benefits was often inadequate or non-existent, the study found. As a result, many people entitled to state help were forced to sell possessions, go without food, or take out expensive credit to buy essentials such as food and rent.
Many people who used food banks lived in or were close to poverty and were attempting to cope with the “ongoing daily grind of living without sufficient income to make ends meet each month”. Many worked, but in jobs that were low-paid and insecure. Often they were also coping with mental and physical ill health and bereavement.
Alison Garnham, the chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said:
“Food banks have boomed not because they‘re an easy option but because people haven’t got money to eat – often because of problems with claiming and the payment of benefits.
“A delay in a benefits decision or a period pending a review can force hunger and humiliation on families, leaving them no option but the food bank. Rather than protecting these families from poverty at the time when they most need help, the system leaves them with almost nothing to live on.”
“This new evidence brings into sharp focus the uncomfortable reality of what happens when a life shock or benefit problem hits those on low incomes: parents go hungry, stress and anxiety increase and the issue can all too quickly escalate into crippling debt, housing problems and illness.”
The study will feed into an all-party parliamentary group inquiry into hunger and food poverty, chaired by the Labour MP Frank Field, which is expected to report before Christmas.
Source – Welfare Weekly, 20 Nov 2014
This article was written by Patrick Butler, social policy editor, for The Guardian on Thursday 13th November 2014
The YMCA, the UK’s oldest youth charity, has warned the government that its changes to welfare policy are driving vulnerable young people to become reliant on food bank handouts rather than preparing them for jobs.
About 5,000 young people were referred by YMCAs to food banks last year, it said in a report, with benefit sanctions cited as the main reason for what it called a “significant increase” in the number of clients falling into food poverty.
The YMCA accused ministers of having their “heads in the sand” over welfare changes and they must urgently fix flaws in the benefits system that leave an increasing number of young people penniless.
The charity, which has 114 branches in England, works with care leavers and youngsters who have left home to escape abuse or family breakdown. The majority of those referred to food banks were people living in special supported accommodation.
Denise Hatton, YMCA England chief executive, told the Guardian:
“For me, the benefit system is there to support the most vulnerable people. We are in touch with young people and we know the system which is there to protect them is failing them, and the government must want to do something about that.”
She said the government could no longer ignore the way jobcentres were treating vulnerable young people.
“The welfare system was set up to protect and provide a safety net for those individuals in their time of need and so that no one would be left without money to be able to afford food. However, our evidence shows it is failing in this role.
“It is unacceptable in this day and age that anyone should have to rely on the kindness of strangers in order to eat.”
The YMCA’s criticisms of a rigid “tick box” approach to benefits that imposes strict punishments for infringements but fails to meet the needs of individuals with complex needs echoes the findings of the government-commissioned Oakley review of sanctions, published in July, which said the system placed disproportionate burdens on the most vulnerable.
Ministers have persistently rejected claims that the rise in referrals to food banks has been driven by sanctions and delays in benefit payments, but Hatton said the link was incontrovertible.
“I have been in this kind of work for 30 years, working with young people on the ground, and I have never known it like this.”
The charity said a lack of flexibility in jobcentre culture and practice meant the benefits system was unable to respond to the challenges faced by youngsters who had chaotic lifestyles or learning difficulties.
Jobcentre staff focused on pushing claimants into intensive work-search activity such applying for jobs and completing CVs, even when young people were emotionally unprepared for work. When they failed to meet these tough conditions they were punished by having their benefits stopped, with the effect that they were left further from the job market.
The YMCA cites the case of Joshua, 21, from Nelson, Lancashire, who was sanctioned after attending one of its residential courses designed to prepare him for volunteering. Although he told the jobcentre about the course and provided evidence it would help him find a job, he was sanctioned for having missed an appointment and had his jobseeker’s allowance stopped for three months.
“I went three months living on food parcels from the local mosques and the church, which was really degrading because you lose all your dignity. The assistance I got was purely from the YMCA and Stepping Stones [a housing charity], other than that I think I would have starved.”
The YMCA said:
“We are fortunate to live in a country where people and communities give so charitably. However, relying upon this goodwill and other organisations to pick up the pieces should not be seen by the government as a substitute to fixing a welfare system that is driving many young people into hardship rather than employment.”
Although jobcentres are able in theory to offer hardship payments to vulnerable and penniless claimants who have been sanctioned, the YMCA says one in four of its clients said they were not told of this potential source of support, while even fewer knew they could apply to their local councils’ welfare assistance scheme for crisis help.
Even where they did know this help was available, however, many youngsters were deemed ineligible, with nearly a third of YMCAs referring clients to food banks because they had been turned down for hardship payments or crisis loans.
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures show that the proportion of young people having their payments stopped for alleged infringements has doubled since tighter conditions were applied to unemployment benefit claims in October 2012.
The YMCA says in its report:
“While there is recognition among YMCAs and young people that conditionality is an important element of any benefit system, the way it is being administered and the focus on punishing perceived ‘bad behaviour’ over rewarding those doing the right thing is having a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of young people.”
A DWP spokesman said:
“There is no robust evidence that our reforms are linked to increased use of food banks and these claims are based on anecdotal evidence. “The reality is benefit processing times are improving and we continue to spend £94bn a year on working age benefits to ensure there is a strong safety net in place.”
Source – Welfare Weekly, 13 Nov 2014
Hundreds of thousands of jobseekers could have ‘disappeared’ from official unemployment figures after having their benefit payments docked, figures suggest.
According to research from the University of Oxford, up to 500,000 unemployed people closed their Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claim soon after being sanctioned by the DWP.
Rather than moving into employment, these people are simply disappearing from the benefits system entirely and no one has a clue where they’re ending up.
This means that unemployment could be 20,000 to 30,000 higher each month than figures suggest. If true, it would mean that as many as 1,000,000 people would have been claiming JSA in August 2014, rather than the 970,000 widely reported in the press.
It’s also important to note that some groups aren’t included in the claimant count – one measure used to calculate unemployment – including sickness benefit claimants, some working age students and early retirees – among others.
Professor Stuckler, who analysed data from 375 local authorities, said:
“The data clearly show that many people are not leaving JSA for work but appear to be being pushed off in unprecedented numbers in association with sanctions.”
The death of a diabetic former soldier after his benefits were slashed sparked a Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry. More than 210,000 people signed a petition calling for the inquiry.
David, 59, was found dead at his home in Hertfordshire in July 2013. Penniless, David could not afford money for electric to keep his insulin refrigerated and died of fatal diabetic ketoacidosis, a complication caused by lack of insulin.
At the inquiry held last week, Labour’s Debbie Abrahams MP told the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith MP:
“Hundreds of thousands of people have had their benefits stopped for a minimum of four weeks and then approximately a quarter of these people, from the research that I’ve seen, are disappearing.
“They are leaving and we don’t know where they are going. That’s an absolute indictment of this policy and it’s a little bit worrying if we’re trying to tout this internationally as a real success story.”
Iain Duncan Smith responded:
“Well I don’t agree with any of that. I actually believe the sanctions regime as applied is fair, we always get the odd case of …”
Not giving Mr Duncan Smith a chance to complete his sentence, a furious Debbie Abrahams retorted:
“People are dying because of these sanctions!”
Jobseekers who fail to comply with strict requirements imposed upon them risk having their benefits docked, or ‘sanctioned’. Some unemployed people claim their benefit payments have been stopped or reduced for trivial or harsh reasons. Such as failing to turn-up to a Job Centre appointment, even though they have informed staff they were in hospital.
After the Select Committee hearing Debbie Abrahams said:
“It’s incredible that the minister can simply brush aside the mounting evidence that inappropriate use of social security sanctions is having on vulnerable people.
> Well, glad you’ve noticed it’s happening. The rest of us have known this since Day 1.
“We’ve already heard from a whistleblower who left his job as a JCP advisor because he refused to apply sanctions when people had done nothing wrong.
“And recently, over 200,000 people have signed a petition to look into the death of an ex-soldier and diabetic, from Stevenage, who died after having been sanctioned.
“He was found dead surrounded by job applications, penniless and with an empty stomach according to his post-mortem. He couldn’t even afford to run his fridge so couldn’t keep his medicines cold.
“Sanctions are being applied unfairly to job-seekers as well as the sick and disabled. And we shouldn’t forget that most people on social security are actually in work but are struggling to make ends meet.”
Source – Welfare Weekly, 12 Nov 2014
UK 2014 – everything’s for sale…
Reposted from The Guardian
You couldn’t make it up could you …..
People who have been stripped of benefits could be charged by the government for trying to appeal against the decision to an independent judge.
Critics said the proposal, contained in an internal Department for Work and Pensions document leaked to the Guardian, would hit some of the poorest people in Britain, who have been left with little or no income.
In the document about the department’s internal finances, officials say the “introduction of a charge for people making appeals against [DWP] decisions to social security tribunals” would raise money.
Other ideas include selling off child support debt to “the private sector to collect”, though civil servants remark that the government would be unlikely to raise more than…
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