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
During the heyday of coal-mining, Ashington in Northumberland was considered the “world’s largest coal-mining village.”
The town had a working pit and was part of a corner of the county where the industry thrived with sites also at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Blyth and Ellington.
However, by the end of the 1980s, things had changed.
By 1967 Newbiggin Colliery had closed and – with Margaret Thatcher in power – in 1986 Bates Colliery at Blyth was shut down with Ashington following suit two years later.
Men were left out of work with 64,000 jobs lost across Britain as Thatcher’s government went to war wth the miners.
Today, the former Ashington mine is the home of a business park with a large pond at its centre.
It looks pleasant enough.
But has the restoration of the site seen the revitalisation of the town, and Northumberland’s former coalfields as a whole?
The local MP – who is a former president of the National Union of Mineworkers, a charity set up to regenerate Britain’s former coalfields in which 5.5 million people live, and academics commissioned by that charity, certainly don’t think so.
30 years on from the 1984/85 miners’ strike which followed the announcement that pits were to close, The Coalfields Regeneration Trust commissioned Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research to takes stock of social and economic conditions in former coalfields.
The report for the charity, set up to “champion coalfield communities, generate resources to respond to their needs and deliver programmes that make a positive and lasting difference,” revealed deprivation, ill health and poor employment, with just 50 jobs for every 100 people of working age, 11.7% of people reporting long-term health problems and 14% of adults claiming out-of-work benefits.
Labour MP for Wansbeck, Ian Lavery, whose constituency covers Ashington and Newbiggin, says it is a familiar picture locally.
“The stark thing from the report is that it shows that despite the attention in these former coalfields towns and villages up and down the country, there is still huge problems in terms of the high unemployment, the high youth employment, the low wage economy.
“Sadly the North has got the highest level of unemployment. We have got associated problems.
“Lack of business opportunities, and there is wide scale child poverty in the towns and villages which is something we should not be looking at in this day and age.
“Some of my wards in my constituency child poverty is 40 per cent.”
Mr Lavery, who has lived and worked in a mining community all his life, has called on the powers-that-be to address what he has deemed a lack of investment in the former coalfields over the years.
“There is a whole number of problems arising from that report, that local authorities and the government need to take a look into that report and make sure more investment is made.
“I believe the North East has been left behind. We have not had the resources aimed at other industries.
“I would call on the government to scrutinise what has happened in the North East. Where it has went wrong and make a pledge to put it right.
“We are a cash rich nation, to have children in poverty is a political choice. Money is being spent on different projects.
“My simple project would be to eradicate child poverty.
“We can not have kids can not go to school because they have not got enough food in their bellies.
“It is absolutely unacceptable for that level of poverty in areas in any region.
“What needs to be done is there needs to be more investment in the coalfield communities, there needs to be more job opportunities, more business investments, better skills and knowledge and more job creation.
“If we get that with decent terms and conditions, the rest will follow in line.
“The government need to look at how best to assist the North East region, to eradicate the problems which are clearly identified in this report.”
He felt Northumberland County Council is doing its best to help, given its limited financial clout.
“I think the county council the last couple of years, they are doing their damnedest.
“They have tried to put a lot of things in place.
“They are absolutely cash strapped because of the cuts to local government. They have not got the finance they once had.
“A lot of the service Wansbeck (District Council) provided are not being provided any more.”
Since 2011, the trust has created and safeguarded 911 jobs and secured full or part-time employment for a further 2,921 people living within the coalfields communities throughout England.
Since it was established 15 years ago, programmes delivered by the trust have benefited hundreds of thousands of people in the British coalfields, including helping more than 21,000 people into work and over 187,000 to gain qualifications and new skills.
Chairman of the charity Peter McNestry said:
“We welcome Ian’s support and absolutely agree that additional finances are required if we are to make a difference in these areas.
“We have come a long way in the last 15 years but the recession had a disproportionate effect on the people living and working in the coalfields meaning they continue to need our support, guidance and funding.”
“The coalfields simply want the opportunity to get back on their feet. An entire industry ceased to exist, which employed directly and indirectly most of the people living within these areas. We cannot just turn our backs and walk away. “These towns and villages could thrive and make a positive contribution to the country if we give them the chance.”
The government said its investment in the trust is proof of its support for former coalfields, with over £200m given to the body over the last 15 years, and money ploughed into the areas from other sources.
A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “Long term economic planning has helped to secure a better future and deliver much needed growth.
“We have given over £220 million to support to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust since 1999.
“They have been moving to a self-financing model and the trust now has a strong portfolio of investment and an opportunity to concentrate on the areas where they really add value.
“Regeneration is essential to building a strong and balanced economy, which is why we have given extensive support to many of these areas with the £1.4billion Regional Growth Fund, Local Enterprise Partnerships and City Deals.”
The county council said it is working to improve the former coalfield areas, drawing in investment from elsewhere in addition to spending money of its own.
The authority said its top priority, along with the hoped for dualling of the A1 North of Morpeth, is to secure around £65m to re-open the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne rail line to passenger services.
Furthermore, the council is leading the project for a new £30m South East Northumberland Link Road.
In addition, Arch, the authority’s county development company, is leading creation of a ten year investment plan for Ashington.
This could see a potential £74m ploughed into the town and bring 1,000 high-quality jobs.
Arch is also leading the delivery of a new £20m leisure and community facility at Ashington while the council is proposing to move its headquarters from Morpeth to the town.
The authority furthermore cited its support for the opening of a new £120m Akzo Nobel factory at Ashington.
It also highlighted the new £8m Blyth Workspace building being led by Arch, the first part of the town’s Enterprise Zone.
The council has furthermore secured £600,000 for preparatory work on the former power station site at East Sleekburn which could host 500 new jobs.
The authority also highlighted the £1m being invested at Lynemouth by the Big Lottery Fund and its setting up of a poverty issues task and finish group.
Coun Dave Ledger, deputy leader of the county council, said: “The council is putting former coalfield communities at the heart of our future plans for growth as part of creating a balanced economy across the county.
“I believe there is real cause for optimism in the former coalfields and increasingly we can look to a future that is not defined by but always remembers and celebrates the legacy of our industrial heritage.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 17 Nov 2014
North-East coalfield communities continue to be blighted by deprivation, ill health and unemployment, an independent report has found.
The State of the Coalfields study paints a grim picture for the 599,000 people who live in County Durham’s former pit towns and villages.
The report noted that 8.6 per cent of residents in the communities had bad or very bad health, compared to a national average of 5.6 per cent.
The percentage of people who claimed disability living allowance was also higher in these areas – 8.2 per cent compared to 5.4 per cent across Britain.
The report, carried out by Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University and commissioned by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, found there were fewer jobs in all 12 mining areas examined, including those in County Durham.
Figures showed there were just 48 jobs for every 100 working age residents in the county’s mining areas in 2012. The national average is 67.
The communities’ employment rate of 71 per cent was below the England and Wales average of 76 per cent, while the number of people claiming unemployment benefits was 15.8 per cent, compared to a national average of 10.9 per cent.
“The consequences are still all too visible in statistics on jobs, unemployment, benefits and ill health. The coalfields communities are seriously adrift of the national average.
“The job losses of the 1980s and 90s still cast a very long shadow.”
Peter McNestry, chair of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, said the tough reality for coalfields residents was that these problems would not go away overnight.
He added: “We have worked for 15 years to support these communities and to provide them with access to the resources, practical advice and funding that they need to help themselves.
“We have come some way to improving the situation in the coalfields but this report proves there is still a great deal of work to be done.“
The report concluded that there was a compelling case for continued support and access to funding for coalfield communities.
It added that regeneration did work, noting that there was substantial growth in employment in other sectors of the coalfield economy, at least up to the start of the recession in 2008.
Source – Northern Echo, 19 June 2014
A powerful new film captures the desperate real experiences of being judged “fit for work” for people with mental health problems.
Tyneside Mind launched a short film highlighting the real experiences of three local people with mental health problems undergoing Work Capability Assessment.
The film ‘But I’m here for mental health – three stories of the Work Capability Assessment’ used actors to tell the genuine stories of individuals who were deemed ‘fit for work’ by Atos Healthcare despite the severity of their mental health problems and the significant barriers they face to get into work.
Local MP’s were invited to the showing which was be aired for the first time at Northumbria University Cinema last week.
The film tells the story of two men unfairly dismissed from work due to ill health and one woman whose sleep apnoea and depression prevent her from being able to work. In a particularly poignant moment in the film one man, who can’t write because he has carpal tunnel syndrome, has to admit to his elderly mother that he has contemplated suicide since losing his job as she fills in the application form on his behalf.
Another scene depicts a lady standing on a bridge thinking about ending her life because she has been told she is fit for work.
“It’s been really traumatic and very confusing for people,” said Oliver Wood, vice chairman of Tyneside Mind, who has himself now been back in work for two years after claiming benefits due to a mental health problem.
“They don’t really understand the process or how, when they are really very unwell, seeing senior hospital consultants and receiving support from mental health services, they are being declared fully fit to work because they are physically capable.”
Currently 37% of all North East appeals against decisions to change or remove Employment Support Allowance are successful, which rises to more than two in five for cases involving mental and behavioural disorders.
But Oliver points to Department of Work and Pensions figures for Northumberland, Tyne and Wear which suggest that over the past eight months an average of 2,200 claimants a month – including many with mental health problems – have had their benefits sanctioned and 1,700 a month have given up their claims.
One fear is that many people with mental health problems may be suffering in silence, due to the increasing “stigma” of being on benefits.
The film uses reconstruction to depict service users’ real stories, interspersed with verbatim quotes from Tyneside Mind service users.
With funding from The Millfield House Foundation and support from Helix Arts and Tyneside Mind, the film has been produced by Meerkat Films to help raise awareness of the devastating impact this assessment process can have on vulnerable individuals with complex and fluctuating conditions.
The release of the film also coincides with the Litchfield Review – the fourth annual Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment, which is currently used to determine eligibility for the out-of-work benefit Employment and Support Allowance.
Over a third of assessments involve people who have applied primarily due to a mental health problem and many more applicants experience a mental health problem alongside other illnesses or disabilities. Yet, the film aims to show that the assessment is not suitable for people with mental health problems, and often actually pushes many people further away from the workplace by exacerbating their mental health problems and directing them to inappropriate support and expectations.
Stuart Dexter, Chief Executive of Tyneside Mind, said: “At Tyneside Mind we help people every week with benefits-related enquiries, and our resources are increasingly stretched.
“The people we represent are still not getting a fair outcome from the Work Capability Assessment. The assessment process is not sensitive enough to recognise the impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s ability to work, and can cause a great deal of stress, especially for those who get an unfair decision and then have to go through a lengthy and costly appeals process. This film aims to highlight what it’s really like for the many individuals subjected to this process and urge the Department for Work and Pensions to urgently improve the system.”
Steve, whose name has been changed, but who speaks of his experience of the Work Capability Assessment in the film, said: “The whole assessment process was so traumatic that I really didn’t think I’d be able to recover from it, let alone talk about it.
“Unfortunately I know that there are so many others like me who have felt humiliated and had their views neglected.
“Tyneside Mind suggested I get involved with this project and I wanted to help because I feel it’s so important to raise awareness of the way vulnerable people are being treated. I hope this film will help change things so nobody else will have to endure what I did.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 27 Dec 2013