Tagged: Citizens Advice Bureaux

Hidden impact of welfare reform concerns Northumberland council

> Another example of local politicians finally catching up with what’s going on. It’s good they’re finally getting the picture, but would have been much better had they noticed over the last 5 years how things were going. Still, I suppose there wasn’t a general election coming up before now…

Councillors have expressed concern over the hidden impacts of welfare reform in Northumberland.

They have pledged to do whatever they can, within their powers, to help and support residents who are affected.

The Government’s ongoing reforms to the welfare system are the most fundamental change to the benefit system since World War Two and are intended to deliver multi-billion pound savings.

However evidence shows that in Northumberland, workers on low incomes and people with a disability are likely to be most affected.

While much of the national focus has been on high profile changes such as the introduction of bedroom tax, two of the most significant issues for Northumberland are the introduction of a 1% cap on working age benefit and changes to the Disability Living Allowance.

Recent research from the Local Government Association (LGA) reveals that the introduction of a 1% cap on tax credits will mean a drop in income for anyone claiming benefits with over half of those affected being in low paid employment.

In Northumberland 32,500 residents will lose on average £823 per household, per year, equating to a total of £26.7million in cuts to the county.

Reflecting the county’s ageing population and industrial past Northumberland also has a higher than average number of households that are likely to be affected by the replacement of the Disability Living Allowance.

The prediction from the LGA study is that 10,000 people in the county will be affected, with an estimated average loss of £724 per year. This will put the county into the top 20% of local authorities to be hit hardest by this particular reform.

Council leader Grant Davey said:

“One of central government’s aims in introducing these reforms was to incentivise work, yet 60% of the losses fall on working households, in particular those on low wages.

“In Northumberland we have a high number of people working in low paid, seasonal jobs who are trying to make an honest living, yet it is these people who are going to feel the brunt of the changes.

“While we cannot change these reforms, we have been working hard behind the scenes to put measures in place to support residents who are affected by them.”

The county council is working to ensure everyone has the entitlements they are eligible for and that monetary advice is available through the support it gives to Citizen’s Advice Bureaux.

The council has also set itself a long-term target to help generate 10,000 new jobs in the county by 2031 by working with local employers, improving education standards, skills training, and job market links. The council’s employability and skills service also delivers a range of support to help get people back into work.

Councillor Scott Dickinson, chair of the county’s Health & Wellbeing board said:

“There is growing evidence locally and nationally that increased financial hardship can lead to ill health, family break-down and social problems which can in turn place greater demands on families, communities and a whole range of public services.

> There is growing evidence ? ! You mean it wasn’t fairly obvious that those were the likely result right from the start ? Something top-level Tories, I’m beginning to believe, well understood and that’s why they’ve pushed them. Social engineering through poverty.

“Given that the reforms are being introduced incrementally means their full impact will not be felt for some time. There is however real concern about the effects these changes will have on residents and the additional pressures placed on local services. It is a situation we are very aware of and one we are working closely with other councils in the region to monitor.”

Source – Berwick Advertiser,  28 Jan 2015

Real terms cut in public health budgets announced

Spending on public health in the region will be cut next year, it was announced yesterday (Tuesday, September 9) – despite Government promises to protect the NHS.

The amounts given to local councils – for services such as smoking cessation classes, obesity clinics, school nurses and drug and alcohol treatments – will be frozen.

The Department of Health admitted that meant a cut in real terms, after inflation, but said it was necessary because “the health budget is under a lot of pressure”.

Furthermore, it comes after cash-starved town halls have already been accused of raiding their public health budgets as they wrestle with huge cuts to their overall funds.

The cut was revealed in a statement to MPs, which announced that public health funding in 2015-16 would “remain the same as last year, at £2.79bn”.

It means County Durham will continue to receive £45.8m from next April. Other frozen allocations include Darlington (£7.8m), Middlesbrough (£16.4m) Stockton (£13.1m) and North Yorkshire (£19.7m).

In response to The Northern Echo, a department of health spokeswoman acknowledged:

This is a flat cash settlement – so it’s a real terms decrease.

 “The health budget is under a lot of pressure, so we are not able to increase it, but at least budgets are remaining stable and we are not taking money away.”

Tom Blenkinsop, Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, linked the decision to the recent closures of medical centres at Skelton and Park End – with Hemlington also under threat.

He said:

“It is quite clear that our local areas NHS is being cut for purely financial reasons, with no attention to clinical need.”

Budgets for public health were transferred from the NHS to local authorities last year, as part of the Coalition’s radical overhaul of the health service.

Ministers argued councils were better equipped to tackle problems such as obesity, smoking and pollution and – ironically – that the funds had often been “raided” by the NHS.

The cut comes amid growing pressure to increase spending on the stubborn causes of ill-health, to cut the long-term cost to the health service.

 Yet both the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Journal have warned that services are being rundown – despite the money being, in theory, ring-fenced.

Cash has been diverted to areas including trading standards, citizens’ advice bureaux, domestic abuse services, housing, parks and leisure centres, they found.

But Jane Ellison, the public health minister, said:

“We want to see local areas continue their excellent work to help people lead healthier lives.

“The money has again been ring-fenced, so the focus will remain firmly on improving the health of local communities. This will be further boosted by an extra £5m to target priority areas.”

Source – Northern Echo, 10 Sept 2014

Communication failures lead to surprise JSA sanctions

Citizens Advice has called for further improvements to the sanctions system, as today the Independent review of the operation of Jobseeker’s Allowance JSA sanctions validated by the Jobseekers Act 2013 is published. The review found that the DWP and Jobcentre Plus need to improve communication with claimants who have been sanctioned, particularly those who are vulnerable.

Citizens Advice Chief Executive Gillian Guy said:

The JSA sanctions regime can create more barriers for people already struggling to find work. Communications failures mean sanctioned claimants often don’t know they’ve been sanctioned, why, and what next steps are available to them.  We see huge numbers of people whose ability to make ends meet has been shattered when they’ve been sanctioned, in some cases forcing them into debt or to a foodbank.  

There’s been a 60 per cent increase in people with JSA sanction problems coming to Citizens Advice Bureaux since the extension of the minimum sanction period from one week to four in October 2012. One of the knock-on effects often experienced by clients is that the sanction led to their housing benefit being stopped, when the rules say it shouldn’t be.

Jobcentre Plus and DWP have a lot of work to do to make sure people know where they stand and where to turn for help. The effectiveness and proportionality of the JSA sanctions regime needs to be addressed, including a reduction in the current minimum four week sanction period. People who can work should be able to and receive the support they need to gain employment.  That’s why we need a system that sets people up to succeed, and doesn’t put them in an impossible position where dealing with a sanction means it’s harder for them to look for a job.

Citizens Advice has found that many JSA claimants are already struggling to make ends meet. From October to December last year:

  • 1 in 4 Citizens Advice clients with a JSA sanction problem had dependent children
  • 1 in 4 identified as being disabled of suffering from a long term health condition
  • 1 in 6 also had a debt problem
  • 1 in 10 had issues with rent arrears or threat or reality of homelessness

 

Source – Citizens Advice, 22 July 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legal aid cuts cause benefits appeals to fail

Nine out of ten Citizens Advice Bureaux (92 per cent) are finding it difficult to refer people to the specialist legal advice they need since cuts to legal aid came into effect last year, the charity has found, leading to benefits appeals failing because of lack of written submissions and supporting evidence.

Citizens Advice is reporting it is now extremely hard to get legal aid around issues such as housing, relationship breakdown or employment disputes. Where limited provision of legal aid remains people have to meet very stringent criteria. The length of time it takes to get legal aid means people’s situations often become far worse than they would have had there been earlier intervention.

In some cases legal aid is now simply not available, such as to help with getting employers to pay outstanding wages or challenging unfair benefit decisions.

Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Gillian Guy will today share this evidence with the Justice Select Committee inquiry into the impact of changes to civil legal aid. Guy will call for a Government strategy on funding of advice, to ensure that people can access the right level of advice, at the right time, in the right way for them.

Citizens Advice also reveals a 62 per cent increase in people seeking online advice about help with legal costs.

Gillian Guy:

 “Cuts to legal aid have created an advice gap, stranding people with nowhere to turn. At precisely the time when people’s need for specialist advice on issues such as housing and welfare increased, provision for this support has been slashed.

“Modern life presents increasingly complex problems and people need help to understand, adjust to, and in many cases challenge decisions affecting their income, housing and work status.

“In a rapidly changing world, where people’s expectations of services are rising, accessing the right advice at the right time will be critical to help people solve problems and understand what government changes mean for them.”

In the year before changes introduced under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into effect Citizens Advice Bureaux provided specialist advice in approximately 136,000 cases to help people struggling with legal problems. Changes introduced under LASPO have withdrawn support for approximately 120,000 of these cases.

A CAB in the North West reported:

“Benefits appeals are failing as clients are unable to pay for supportive medical evidence and/or are attending on their own without submissions. There have been problems with referring clients to specialist advice to challenge decisions on benefit entitlement and overpayment issues, including assembling specialist medical evidence to support ESA and DLA/PIP claims and preparing cases for appeal.”

Source – Benefits & Work,  08 July 2014

http://www.benefitsandwork.co.uk/news/2839-legal-aid-cuts-cause-benefits-appeals-to-fail

Councils Sit On £67m In Emergency Help For Poor

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

http://welfarenewsservice.com/councils-sit-on-67m-in-emergency-help-for-poor/

Successful benefits appeals soaring

A Scottish academic has published analysis showing a dramatic rise in the number of people successfully appealing against decisions to stop their benefit payments.

Rising rates of successful appeals have been seen as a sign that the system for penalising those deemed to have broken job-seeker agreements is flawed.

Dr David Webster described the latest figures as “sensational” as they show nearly nine in 10 of those who challenge decisions to stop benefits at a tribunal now have their appeal upheld. However only a few of those who are “sanctioned” by having their payments stopped ever appeal.

Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures reveal that over the period from October 22, 2012 until September 30 last year, 58% of those sanctioned successfully appealed against the decision.

However Dr Webster, of the Urban Studies School of Social and Political Sciences at Glasgow University, said the most recent quarter has seen a more dramatic rise. In the three months to September 30, the figure has risen to 87%, he says.

“There has been a sensational increase in the success rate of claimants at tribunal. It has been going skywards since May 2012. Tribunals are now upholding almost nine out of 10 appeals against the DWP. But only one in 50 claimants appeals.”

The backdrop to this is an ongoing acceleration in the number of people claiming benefits who are falling foul of rules under the job-seeker’s agreements which tie benefit payments to a responsibility to actively seek work.

Citizens Advice Bureaux and other welfare advice agencies report increasing concerns over decision making which they say is often unfair or arbitrary. While most agree people who claim benefits should be genuinely looking for work if they are able to, anecdotal evidence suggests Job Centres are imposing penalties based on requirements that are unrealistic or unfair.

> Anecdotal evidence ? Like its only a rumour or something ?

There have also been repeated claims that staff are given targets to sanction more claimants, and equally repeated denials from the DWP that this is the case.

Nevertheless, across the UK the number of people sanctioned in the year to September 30, 2013 was 874,850, the highest since Jobseeker’s Allowance was introduced in 1996. More than 75,000 of the these sanctions were in Scotland.

Much of the increase has come under the Coalition government – the figure in the last year of the Labour government was 500,000.

The rate at which sanctions are being applied is also accelerating, Dr Webster’s analysis shows. Under Labour 2.46% of claimants were sanctioned each month, but the average under the Coalition is 4.46% a month so far, and rising.

Figures for the whole of last year show 5.11% of claimants were sanctioned each month last year, Dr Webster says, and over the last three months the figure is 6%.

“These are the highest rates recorded since the start of JSA in 1996,” he explains.

Although sanction figures for those receiving the benefit for sick or disabled job seekers, Employment Support Allowance, are lower, they too are rising.

The new figures show 22,840 sanctions for ESA claimants in the last year, the highest for any 12-month period since sanctions were introduced in 2008. More than 1500 of these were in Scotland.

According to Dr Webster the low level of appeals against sanctions reflects the difficulty of the process. Only 2.44% of those who were penalised appealed in the last three months. “The vast majority of claimants find the process too difficult,” he said.

The reasons why people are given sanctions has also changed markedly in recent years. Dr Webster says the most likely reason for sanctions is failing to participate in an employment or training scheme, or failing to actively seek work.

Historically, leaving a job or being dismissed from it for misconduct were the most common reasons someone might be disqualified from benefit, he says.

“Since the start of the recession, they’ve hardly featured at all. Abundant historical evidence shows that is because people are more careful to hold on to a job when they know it is more difficult to get another,” he says.

Another striking finding from the recent statistics relates to the government scheme to help long-term unemployed people find work.

The Work Programme may be finding work for some, but it is also fuelling the sanctions regime, Dr Webster says. “To date, Work Programme contractors have been responsible for twice as many sanctions on the people referred to them as they have produced ‘job outcomes’ – a job placement which lasts for a certain minimum period.”

The comparison shows that across the UK, the firms contracted to run the Work Programme have delivered 198,750 such job outcomes, but made referrals resulting in 394,759 sanctions, the academic’s figures show. This might be even higher, but the figures also show that about 30,000 sanctions decisions for people on the programme are cancelled every month – most usually because the paperwork for the referral has not been properly completed.

Dr Webster says: “It appears that Work Programme contractors are making mistakes in their paperwork on a big scale – even though one of the things they are supposed to help claimants with is filling in forms.”

There is an irony in this, he says. “Claimants are being given severe sanctions for making similar mistakes.”

A DWP spokesman said: “It’s only right that people claiming benefits should do everything they can to find work if they are able. The rules regarding someone’s entitlement to Jobseekers Allowance are made clear at the start of their claim.

“We will provide jobseekers with the help and support they need to find a job, but it is only fair that in return they live up to their part of the contract.

“Sanctions are used as a last resort and anyone who disagrees with a decision can appeal.”

The fact only a small proportion of sanctions decisions are appealed means decisions makers get the “vast majority” of decisions right, he said.

The Work Programme has delivered 208,000 job outcomes so far, he added, and while nearly 395,000 sanctions have been issued through the work programme, only 208,000 individuals have been sanctioned.

Source – Herald Scotland,  28 Feb 2014

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/successful-benefits-appeals-soaring-says-scots-academic.23532954

Conservative warns that benefit changes are making more use North foodbanks

> Yes, you did read that headline correctly…

A broken benefits system is causing people to turn to food banks, an aspiring Conservative politician has said.

In comments more normally seen from Labour politicans, Berwick Tory Anne-Marie Trevelyan has said the number of people needing handouts to eat may be as a result of changes to the benefits system.

Mrs Trevelyan is bidding to take the seat from Sir Alan Beith when the Liberal Democrat steps down in 2015.

Much of her campaign has focused on the jobs potential of dualling the A1 north of Newcastle.

But last night she said that after visiting a Northumberland food bank, the evidence put to her was that those dependant upon benefits were suffering the result of changes to the system.

The Conservative-led coalition Government has come in for criticism from a variety of sources over its cuts to benefits.

Reductions in benefits have been criticised as indiscriminate while changes to the way benefits are handed out has seen delays as a result.

Mrs Trevelyan said: “All users of food banks in Northumberland have been referred by social services, Citizens Advice Bureaux or other groups like Sure Start. The reasons given are often delays in benefits being paid or other financial pressures leaving families with no money to buy food.

“I am concerned by the recurring message from the volunteers who run our local food banks, that the majority of those who come to them do so because the benefits payment system is not working.

“It should be there to support those who need a safety net while they find work or arrange long term support.

“There seems to be a serious breakdown in the effective management of the payments system. I am going to be talking in more detail with our job centre teams to try to find out what they need to solve this issue effectively.”

> Oh bugger – don’t ask them ! They’re  a major part of the problem.

The Conservative candidate said that a rapid rise in the number of food banks began under Labour in 2006 when there were 3,000 nationally. This rose to more than 40,000 by 2010.

In addition to this leading food bank provider the Trussell Trust has been expanding, inevitably leading to more hard-pressed families making use of their services.

Mrs Trevelyan’s comments are similar to many of those expressed by Northern Labour MPs, though of a far less critical nature.

Also adding their concerns to the growing number of food banks was former Bishop of Durham Justin Welby. Now Archbishop of Canterbury, he has called for a greater level of awareness from the Government on the causes behind the growing number of food banks in the UK.

Senior Tories have tried to play down the rise of food banks.

Education Secretary Michael Gove came under fire for saying that financial mismanagement was the reason many people were going to food banks.

And Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, the man ultimately responsible for changes to the benefit system, refused to meet the Trussell Trust and accused it of being politically motivated.

Source – Newcastle Journal  15 Feb 2014