Tough measures designed to force benefit claimants to find work are instead making them ill, a study by North East academics has warned.
Claimants who have their benefits cut are sometimes left to go without food or the ability to heat their homes, a study found.
And this has an impact on their health – particularly because some of these affected are already ill or disabled.
The study was carried out by researcher Kayleigh Garthwaite and Professor Clare Bambra of Durham University.
Their findings were presented to MPs on the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, which is holding an investigation into “sanctions” which can imposed on people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and some people claiming Employment and Support Allowance, a benefit paid to people who are ill or disabled.
Claimants can have their benefits cuts off, known as a sanction, if officials believe they have failed to prove that they are looking for work.
But critics including a number of North East MPs argue that some claimants have lost benefits for no good reason. In a Commons debate in January, Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman and other Labour MPs said they believed job centre staff were given unofficial targets for the number of sanctions issued.
The study by Dr Garthwaite and Professor Bambra was part of a five year project looking at why some groups of people are healthier than others, which has focused on foodbank users in Stockton on Tees.
In a paper presented to MPs, they said:
“Sanctions led to loss of their only source of income, resulting in sanctioned ESA recipients often going without sufficient food and/or energy required to maintain good health or recover from illness.”
In some cases, benefits were taken from people who did not understand the complex rules, including people mental health conditions, the academics said.
“Sanctions have led to cases of a total loss of income resulting in an inability to eat or heat at the levels required for maintaining good health or recovering from ill health.
“Indeed sanctions have exacerbated ill health. The sanctioning of people with mental health problems is a particular problem – with the stress and anxiety of income loss adding to their underlying condition.”
The academics said sanctions for ESA claimants “should be relaxed or removed – particularly for those with mental health problems”.
Dr Garthwaite also spoke to MPs at Westminster, where she warned that claimants often had no idea that there was an official hardship fund available to help people who had entirely run out of money.
She told them that some food bank users had resorted to eating food they knew would be bad for them because of medical conditions – such as an intolerance for wheat – because they had nothing else.
Defending the policy, Employment Minister Esther McVey told the committee that studies had shown sanctions encouraged people to find work.
“All the international evidence suggests that sanctions do have a positive impact on people getting into work, and there are two parts of that: as a deterrent, it has a positive impact on moving people into work, and there is further research that, should somebody have been sanctioned, it helps them into work afterwards.”
The Government publishes figures showing how many sanctions have been imposed.
In Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Durham and Tees Valley, sanctions were imposed 92,326 times since 2012.
The job centre which has cut benefits most often is James Cook House in Middlesbrough, which imposed 7,068 sanctions.
John Street job centre in Sunderland imposed 4,922 sanctions.
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 14 Feb 2015
An influential Commons committee is asking Newcastle residents for first-hand accounts of a controversial testing regime for people claiming disability benefits.
MPs are asking residents to meet them at Newcastle United Football Club on Tuesday, May 13, to discuss the Work Capability Assessments carried out by Atos.
The event has been organised by the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, a cross-party group of backbench MPs from across the country which scrutinises the work of the Government.
They are holding an inquiry in to Employment and Support Allowance, the new allowance which has replaced incapacity benefit, and the Work Capability Assessment, a test which claimants are forced to undergo to see if they are able to work.
The Committee would usually meet at Westminster and hear evidence from senior figures ranging from Government Ministers to charity managers.
But they have taken the unusual step of asking any member of the public with experience of applying for the benefits or going through the assessment to meet them in Newcastle.
The Work Capability Assessment has been the subject of bitter criticism. Speaking in the House of Commons earlier this year, Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery said: “The attack on the disabled and the vulnerable is relentless.”
Anger has focused on the role of Atos Healthcare, the firm contracted to carry out the tests. Critics claim Atos gets decisions wrong and declares people fit for work when they have a disability or serious illness which makes finding a job impossible.
Committee chair Dame Anne Begg, said: “Committee Members, not least in our role as constituency MPs, have heard many concerns about Employment and Support Allowance and about the Work Capability Assessment in particular.
“We are therefore keen to get out of Westminster and find out how the system is working on the ground.
“We want to hear from people who have experience of making a new claim for Employment and Support Allowance or who have been through the incapacity benefit reassessment process.
“Their observations on how the system is working and, crucially, suggestions for how it can be improved, will help inform our ongoing inquiry.”
The meeting will take place in the Moncur Suite, St. James’ Park, between 10.30am and 12.30pm on May 13.
Anybody with experience of applying for Employment and Support Allowance or going through a Work Capability Assessment is invited to speak to the MPs.
Source – Newcastle Journal 09 May 2014
A Commons inquiry has backed warnings from Newcastle City Council that cuts to housing benefit are causing hardship for families with children and disabled people – while failing to free up housing stock.
MPs are warning that cuts in benefits paid to social housing tenants who are considered to have a spare bedroom has caused “severe financial hardship and distress to vulnerable groups”.
The policy, known by critics as the “bedroom tax”, was designed to free up larger properties for families who need them most by encouraging council or housing association tenants with spare rooms to downsize.
But the Commons Work and Pensions Committee – which has Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem members – highlighted warnings from Newcastle City Council that there simply aren’t enough smaller properties for people to move into.
The Committee published its findings after hearing evidence from a range of witnesses including Coun Joyce McCarty, Newcastle Council’s deputy leader.
The Government has published figures showing that the cost of paying housing benefit in the North East had fallen by £25m as a result of the reforms.
Housing benefit rules introduced last year allow tenants to have one bedroom for a single adult or couple, for any two children under 15 of the same gender and for any two children under nine of either gender.
Housing benefit is cut by 14% of the property’s assessed rent if they have one room deemed to be a spare bedroom and 25% if they have two.
In the North East, 50,000 households had their benefit cut, or 440 households for every 10,000 in the region – a higher proportion than any other part of the country.
MPs highlighted evidence from Newcastle, which told the inquiry that 3,233 of its tenants were on the waiting list for a one-bedroom property but only around 800 one-bedroom properties were becoming available each year, including bedsits.
Referring to the policy as the social sector size criteria (SSSC), the MPs said: “Newcastle City Council questioned whether the SSSC policy was likely to succeed in encouraging better use of social housing stock. It pointed out that in Newcastle overcrowding was not a significant issue”
“Coun McCarty made the point that the SSSC had actually led to very few overcrowded families being rehoused.”
They warned: “We understand the Government’s wish to use social housing stock more efficiently and to reduce overcrowding. However, the SSSC so far seems to be a blunt instrument for achieving this. In many areas there is insufficient smaller social housing stock to which affected tenants can move, meaning that they remain in housing deemed to be too large and pay the SSSC.”
But ministers said housing benefit reforms and the welfare cap – which means no household can receive more than £26,000 in benefits – were needed to manage soaring welfare spending, which grew by 50% in Britain in just 10 years and saw the housing benefit bill exceed £1bn in the North East alone.
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith said: “It was absolutely necessary that we fixed the broken system which just a year ago allowed the taxpayer to cover the £1m daily cost of spare rooms in social housing.
“We have taken action to help the hundreds of thousands of people living in cramped, overcrowded accommodation and to control the spiralling housing benefit bill, as part of the Government’s long-term economic plan.”
> “And all the stress, debt, homelessness and suicide resulting from this policy is actually good for them, they thrive on it. I’ve got figures to prove it”, he might have added…
Source – Newcastle Journal, 02 April 2014
This article was written by Patrick Butler, for The Guardian on Tuesday 18th March 2014
MPs have criticised the Department for Work and Pensions for a series of rule breaches in which official statistics were used inaccurately, inappropriately, or to “spin” stories about benefit claimants.
The Commons work and pensions committee also criticised the DWP for shortcomings in the management of claims for Personal Independence Payments (PIP), a disability benefit that replaces the Disability Living Allowance, saying it was unacceptable claimants were having to wait six months or more to find out if they were eligible.
A report by the MPs warned the DWP to exercise care in the language used in its press releases and ministerial comments to ensure they do not feed into “negative preconceptions and prejudices about people on benefits”.
> exercise care in the language used in its press releases and ministerial comments to ensure they do not feed into “negative preconceptions and prejudices about people on benefits – as if they strayed into negative preconceptions by accident ! Its what they were designed to do. Where have these MPs been for the past few years ?
It cites examples in the past few months where the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) criticised the use of DWP statistics, including by the secretary of state, Iain Duncan Smith, and Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps.
Dame Anne Begg MP, the committee chair, said: “Statistics should be used to shed light on policy implementation, not to prop up established views or feed preconceptions.
“Government efforts to promote a positive image of disabled people will be undermined if the language used by DWP when communicating benefit statistics to the media feeds into negative perceptions and prejudices about benefit recipients, including disabled people.”
The committee said it had warned the government as early as 2011 to take more care over the way it presented information on benefits statistics to the media. Ministers had replied then by saying they had a “robust” system in place to ensure no abuses took place.
However, the committee notes in a report into DWP performance, published on Tuesday , that problems still remained and that the UKSA had reprimanded the department a number of times in 2013 for the way it handled welfare statistics.
In one case, the Conservative party had put out a press release which quoted party chair Grant Shapps citing DWP figures that purported to show nearly a million people had dropped their incapacity benefit claim rather than face a work capability test. The UKSA found that two sets of figures had been erroneously and misleadingly conflated.
Duncan Smith said he and his officials had not prepared one criticised Conservative party release, and he had had “conversations” with Shapps to ensure in future he checked with the department if he was going to say something about DWP statistics.
In a separate case, Duncan Smith was officially reprimanded for claiming that the threat of the benefit cap had directly persuaded 8,000 of claimants to get a job. This clearly demonstrated that the cap was working, he said. But the UKSA ruled that there was no statistical evidence to support this.
The DWP director of communications John Shield told MPs that Duncan Smith had the right to make clear his “opinion” on “what he thinks the data are saying”. But he admitted that on this occasion the DWP press office had been involved in the preparation of the secretary of state’s claims.
The committee report says government statistics should be presented fairly, accurately and unspun, “and this is especially the case when they are being used to justify a particular policy or a particular allocation of resources.”
Regarding delays in PIP, the report urges ministers to involve financial penalty clauses to force private contractors Atos and Capita to speed up the claims process.
Begg said: “Many disabled or sick people face waits of six months or more for a decision on their PIP eligibility. Even those with terminal illnesses are having to wait far longer than was anticipated. This not only leaves people facing financial difficulties whilst they await a decision, but causes severe stress and uncertainty. It is completely unacceptable.”
The committee’s findings echo a recent National Audit Office report, which concluded that the PIP programme suffered from “poor early operational performance” leading to long and uncertain delays for claimants.
A DWP spokesman said: “PIP is a completely new benefit with a new face-to-face assessment and regular reviews. In some cases this end-to-end claims process is taking longer than the old system of Disability Living Allowance, which relied on a self-assessment form.
“We are working with providers to ensure that all the steps in the process are as smooth as they can be and the benefit is backdated so no-one is left out of pocket.
“Claims for terminally ill people are fast-tracked and Macmillan has acknowledged that improvements in the system have already been made. Latest statistics show over 99% of people with terminal illnesses who have applied have been awarded the benefit, which means over 9,500 terminally ill claimants are now receiving PIP.”
Source – Welfare News Service, 18 March 2014