This article was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for The Guardian on Thursday 8th January 2015
Pleas to the government to suspend its benefit sanctions regime pending a fundamental review of its impact – especially on the mentally ill and disabled – were made at the first session of a broad inquiry by the Department of Work and Pensions Select Committee.
In a two-and-half hour session involving academics, food banks administrators, disabled groups and employment service professionals, the select committee repeatedly heard the sanctions regime had changed over the last two years, creating a punitive culture of fear – especially amongst the disabled.
Mathew Oakley, the independent reviewer for sanctions appointed by the DWP did not join in their fiercest criticism of the system but said it would be wise for the government to undertake a general stock-take of the system in view of the extent to which it has changed over the past two parliaments.
> Matthew Oakley is the guy who in 2011 was behind a Policy Exchange thinktank report titled: Something For Nothing : Reinstating Conditionality For Jobseekers, which called for a new points based system for Jobseekers Allowance that recognises different ‘job-search’ activities that claimants are required to carry out each week.
‘Attending a job interview’, which is currently not a recognised job seeking activity, would earn a greater number of points than ‘putting together a CV’ or ‘seeking information about a job’.
Claimants would have to reach a specific number of points each week to receive their benefits. If they failed to reach the minimum target benefits would be withheld.
Or sanctioned in other words. So no prizes for guessing which side of the fence he’s on…
He was one of many witnesses that said the government lacked systematic information on what happened to jobseeker’s allowance claimants if they are sanctioned including whether they went into work, the black economy or instead disengaged, leading to the growing gap between the number unemployed and the numbers claiming JSA.
Dr David Webster, visiting professor of Glasgow University, claimed the system had a gradually parallel secret penal system – a view dismissed by one Tory committee member as ‘completely absurd and bizarre’. Webster said the DWP may now be saving as much as £275m a year due to claimants being stopped.
Tony Wilson, the Centre for Social and Economic Inclusion, said sanctions “are running so far ahead of what works we should suspend the applications of sanctions unless we have a much clearer idea of what works and the impact of sanctions”.
Paul Farmer, the chief executive officer of mental health charity Mind said sanctions amongst those on employment support allowance has risen from 1,700 a month to 4,800 a month, adding there had been a disproportionate impact on people on mental health.
He claimed 60% of those on ESA have a mental health problem, yet in only 8% of cases were GPs being contacted as required in guidance to seek their views on the pressing ahead with sanctions.
Chris Mould, the chairman of the Trussell Trust, one of the chief organisers of food banks in the UK, said there had been a radical change in the way very disproportionate decisions were being taken since the latter part of 2012 , adding it was clear some job centres were being more punitive than others. He said in too many cases it takes too long for a claimant to secure redress if they have had their benefit withdrawn.
Kirsty McHugh, the chief executive of Employment Related Services Association, the representative body for the employment support sector, also called for an overhaul including the introduction of an “early warning” system which could be used at first offence rather than imposing a sanction. She added frontline employment providers of the work programme should be given more discretion about when they should report jobseekers to Jobcentre Plus for potential sanctioning.
She also called for greater clarity across the system about which jobseekers are classed as “vulnerable” and should be exempt from sanctions.
McHugh said “For a minority of people, receiving a sanction can be the wake up call they need to help them move into work. However, for the vast majority of jobseekers, sanctions are more likely to hinder their journey into employment.”
> Yeah… that’s what we’ve been telling you for the past few years. So nice you’re catching up, but for some people its all too late.
Source – Welfare Weekly, 08 Jan 2015
This article was written by Patrick Butler, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 2nd December 2014
The Coalition’s “indiscriminate” welfare cuts have created a climate of fear among benefit recipients, reducing rather than improving their chances of moving into work, a study has found.
The latest instalment of a two-year qualitative research programme finds that rather than providing an incentive for unemployed individuals to find a job, the squeeze on benefits is more likely force them to retreat into day-to-day “survival mode”, unable to seize opportunities to find employment.
Even those who were in work felt trapped in poverty as a result of low wages, zero hours contracts and cuts to housing benefit and tax credits. Many felt that they did not feel financially better off as a result of having a job.
The study concludes:
Our research found that the changes brought about by welfare reform did not have a considerable impact on respondent’s attitudes to work, or indeed the likelihood of them finding work.
Work did not seem to enable people to escape the negative impacts of welfare reform or poverty.
It warns that many families are “living on a cliff edge” financially and are affected by increased anxiety and stress. The study argues that current welfare reforms will lead to increased costs to the state as it picks up the bill for poverty-related ill-health and homelessness
The study, by the charity Community Links, is based on in-depth interviews with 20 people in the London borough of Newham. It aims to assess the impact of welfare reform on individuals, in particular whether it can change “behaviour” and get people into work.
The cohort is divided between those in part-time or low paid work and those on benefits. Monthly income ranged from £200 a month to £1,500. All were affected by at least one cut, and most were hit by a combination, including the bedroom tax and reductions in tax credits.
Although the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has claimed that his reforms provide an incentive to unemployed people to move into work, only one interviewee, a mother who was threatened with the benefit cap, said the prospect of losing income had motivated her to get a job.
The majority of unemployed interviewees reported that the cuts had overwhelmingly negative consequences for them, making them feel stressed and insecure and vulnerable to even tiny changes in income. Some had defaulted on rent and bills and had been threatened with eviction, while others “coped” by cutting back on food and heating, or going into debt.
The study reports a “culture of fear”, especially among those with serious disability or illness who were unable to work and so felt powerless to escape or offset the financial losses causes by welfare cuts.
The continued squeeze on incomes is forcing people into survival mode: having to deal with incredibly stressful situations day-to-day and unable to focus on the longer-term. People feed their children and go without themselves; wash clothes by hand if their washing machine breaks; walk miles to work in the early hours of the morning; they just about get by. But only just.
The sheer scale and speed of the cuts to state support left interviewees with “almost no flexibility to live with any comfort”. It meant some of those interviewed were barely surviving
Most people told researchers they both wanted to work and saw benefit in working. It calls on ministers to provide more help in getting people into work, and criticises the “lack of compassion” in the implementation of the reforms.
Some of those who were keeping their head above water could only do so because they received transitional support from the local authority in the form of Discretionary Housing Payments. But these were temporary, the study points out, and:
It is highly likely that as Local Authority budgets reduce and thus become naturally more restrictive, that many people who have been temporarily protected from hardship will find themselves suffering again
Community Links is a pioneering and respected charity based in Newham, east London, once praised by the prime minister David Cameron as “one of Britain’s most inspiring community organisations.”
The charity was co-founded by David Robinson, a social activist who abandoned his initial support for the Coalition’s Big Society project in protest at the damage inflicted on the UK’s poorest neighbourhoods by what he called the government’s “barrage of unsustainable cuts”.
It is likely that the Department for Work and Pensions will draw attention to the small size and geographical reach of the research and suggest that it is not a representative analysis. But the study points out:
In the absence of an official cumulative impact assessment, this report makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of the impacts of the Coalition’s welfare reforms.
> Well ? Does anyone feel these conclusions are not representive of the UK as a whole ?
Source – Weekly Welfare, 02 Dec 2014
This article was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for The Guardian on Tuesday 18th February 2014
Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions is presiding over “a culture of fear” in which jobseekers are set unrealistic targets to find work – or risk their benefits being taken away, leading charities have told an official inquiry.
Hostel residents with limited IT facilities are being directed to apply for 50 jobs per week, while single parents are being told they must apply for full-time jobs to continue receiving jobseeker’s allowance, the charities say in evidence to an official inquiry. On Wednesday, new figures are expected to show a record number of claimants have had cash withheld.
The weight of evidence also supports controversial claims by Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales, in the week he is due to be made a cardinal by the pope. “Something is going seriously wrong when, in a country as affluent as ours, people are left in that destitute situation and depend solely on the handouts of the charity of food banks,” Nichols said on Tuesday.
The Department for Work and Pensions acknowledged mounting concerns about the increasing use of benefits removal – a process known as sanctioning – by appointing a former Treasury official, Matthew Oakley, to look at how the DWP is operating its tougher regime. His review, due to be published next month, has been criticised for its limited terms of reference, but nevertheless it has been swamped by criticism of how the unemployed and the disabled are being driven off benefits, often due to poor communication, bad administration or unexpected expectations being placed on the vulnerable.
In evidence to the Oakley inquiry, the charities Drugscope and Homeless Link warn that “the current sanctions regime creates a culture of fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. That may in fact lead to further benefit dependency and harming engagement with employment services, as vulnerable clients fear having benefits removed and never being reinstated.”
Crisis, the homeless charity asserts: “People who have been sanctioned are already on very limited incomes and face a significant further reduction, meaning they are left facing decisions between buying food, paying for heating and electricity and paying their rent. Debt is common and many face arrears, eviction and in the worst instances homelessness”.
In its evidence, Gingerbread, which lobbies for the rights of single parents, also warns: “While sanctions may be necessary for a small minority of claimants who deliberately evade their jobseeking responsibilities, the current high levels of sanctions across all [jobseeker’s allowance] claimants reveal a system in crisis and one that is systematically failing single parent jobseekers.” It says single parents are being told they must work full-time.
The National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers says “claimants are being sent on schemes with no discussion about whether they are appropriate to their needs and no opportunity for them to make representations about it . Adequate notification is also not routinely being given”.
It says some claimants have been told: “You need to spend 35 hours per week doing job searches and show evidence of 50 to 100 job searches or job applications per week.”
The evidence acts as a counterpoint to those who suggest welfare claimants are seeking a life on benefits. The government has been sufficiently embarrassed by the allegations that it has conceded it will look at a further inquiry into sanctions once the Oakley review has completed.
The number of sanctions in the year to 30 June 2013 was 860,000, the highest for any 12-month period since statistics began to be published in their present form. The figures due to be published on Wednesday cover the year to September 2013, and are likely to show a further increase in the number of claimants debarred from receiving benefits for as long as three years.
Disabled people are losing access to jobseeker’s allowance at the rate of 14,000 a month, the charities say. In total, the number of them having their benefits sanctioned each month has doubled since the regime was toughened in October 2012.
A spokesman for the DWP said: “The point of the review is to ensure the way we communicate with claimants is as clear and straightforward as possible. It is looking at where a sanction has been issued, the clarity of the information provided to the claimant about their sanction, and the options they then have including applying for hardship payments, and an explanation of the review and appeals process.”
Since 2012, benefit payments can be suspended for a minimum of four weeks and for up to three years where a claimant fails to take sufficient steps to search for work, to prepare themselves for the labour market or where they turn down an offer of employment or leave a job voluntarily.
A survey by Manchester CAB found 40% said had not received a letter from the jobcentre informing them of the benefit sanction, and almost a quarter did not know why they had been sanctioned.
Source – Welfare News Service 18 Feb 2014