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
Latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claim that nearly a million people who applied for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) have been found fit for work.
The figures released this week by the DWP claim that a third (32%) of new claimants for ESA were assessed as being fit to work and capable of employment between October 2008 and March 2013 – totaling 980,400 people. In addition, the figures also show that more than a million others withdrew their claims for ESA before being assessed for eligibility through a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). This can be because of individuals recovering and either returning to work, or claiming a benefit more appropriate to their situation.
The claim has come under criticism from Disability Campaigners. A Disability Rights UK (DRUK) spokesman, speaking to BBC News, said “They are finding people fit for work when they aren’t and they are not even giving them the support they need to get a job. It is a disgrace”.
Indeed many of those passed as ‘fit for work’ will not, in fact, be capable of entering the workplace in any meaningful sense due to physical or mental health problems.
However, Mike Penning, Minister of State for Disabled People disagrees, saying “As part of the Government’s long-term economic plan, it is only fair that we look at whether people can do some kind of work with the right support – rather than just writing them off on long-term sickness benefits, as has happened in the past. With the right support, many people with an illness, health condition or disability can still fulfil their aspiration to get or stay in work, allowing them to provide for themselves and their family.”
A second report from the DWP, also released this week, appears to support what Mike Penning says, as it shows that the number of successful appeals against being found “fit for work” has also fallen sharply. This would suggest that the WCA and the way it is conducted by ATOS Healthcare – both of which have come under heavy criticism – are gradually becoming fairer to disabled people. A DWP spokesman said there has been “significant improvements” to the WCA, which has become “fairer and more accurate”, supports this. Adding, “If it is more fair and accurate and people are moving onto the right groups then of course we would welcome that.”
His comments, will not ‘sit well’ with the many families who have lost loved ones following being found ‘fit to work’. Earlier this week, Welfare News Service, reported on how DWP statistics published 9th July 2012 show that in total, between January 2011 and November 2011 10,600 claimants died within 6 weeks of being declared fit for work by Atos.
Indeed, it would appear that this is something they wish to hide as they have refused Freedom of Information Requests for subsequent years – 2012 and 2013 – claiming it would be “vexatious”. Furthermore, his comments will bring little comfort to the Holt family. This week, The Mirror reported on how bipolar patient Sheila Holt, 47, was sectioned in December after being taken off Income Support.
Days later she had a heart attack and fell into a coma. Despite this, benefit assessors are still sending letters, with ATOS asking why she is not working.
Her dad Kenneth said: “It’s just not right what they have done. It sent my daughter hypermanic” adding “She hadn’t had a job for 26 years. Anyone who knew her would tell you she couldn’t do a job.”
Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, Littleborough and Milnrow said:
“I am in favour of welfare reform but trying to bulldoze through changes in a reckless and insensitive way is not the right way to go about it. This Government is causing a huge amount of damage and I have no doubt that Sheila’s story is being repeated in towns and cities up and down the country. She has a complex disability caused by severe trauma in her childhood and you cannot aggressively push vulnerable people, like Sheila, back into work because it can have, as we’ve seen, very serious health consequences.”
Consequences, which Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, appears to ignore. In a speech, described by DRUK as “more of the same old, same old”, he speaks of “a twilight world where life is dependent on what is given to you, rather than what you are able to create”, and pointed to the “falling numbers claiming the main out-of-work benefits”.
However, in the figures released by DWP, the opposite is true – at least for disabled people. In the first DWP report “early estimates” suggest that upto August 2013 there were 2,430,000 people claiming ESA and old-style incapacity benefit. Moreover, in November 2013 the figure had increased by 35000 to 2,465,000. However it is unclear if this trend will continue.
The second DWP report shows a continuing fall in numbers of claimants found ‘fit to work’ following a WCA. The figures range from a high of 65 per cent for those whose claims began in 2009 to 39 per cent for those whose claims started in the first quarter of 2013. In addition to this 39 per cent were placed in the support group and 23 per cent in the work-related activity group. The figures also show that there has been a significant drop in successful appeals against being found fit for work. Dropping from 41 per cent, for claims starting in early 2009, to 23 per cent for claims begun in the third quarter of 2012. The changes are suggested in the report, as being possibly caused by improvements made to the WCA by the coalition government in the wake of the independent reviews carried out by Professor Malcolm Harrington.
It would appear that the figures released by the DWP do not show people “languishing on welfare” as claimed by Iain Duncan Smith, nor do they appear to paint a picture of a social security system that he claims has become “distorted” under the previous Labour government and was too often an “entrapment – as it has been for a million people left on incapacity benefits for a decade or more”.
However, whilst the DWP still refuses to release figures showing how many have died within 6 weeks of being found ‘fit to work’ and stories, such as Shiela Holt, now in a coma after being found ‘fit to work’ are still being reported, maybe it is not “unnecessary fear” Labour is creating as Iain Duncan Smith says, as he mounts a renewed attack on Labour adding that the Conservatives will put further welfare changes at the heart of their 2015 election manifesto.
Source – Welfare News Service, 25 Jan 2014