More than 70 leading Catholics have written to Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, who is Catholic, to tell him they fear the impact of his welfare reform policies.
In an open letter the group, led by the thinktanks Ekklesia and the Centre for Welfare Reform, calls on Duncan Smith to redraft his policies “in a way that is more compatible with Catholic and Christian values.”
They highlight benefit sanctions, work capability assessments, the benefits cap and the scheme to incorporate all benefits in a single system of universal credit as policies that are worsening the situation of poor families up and down the country.
“We understand that your Catholic faith is important to you, and your approach is driven by a desire to improve the quality of individual lives,” the letter says.
“However, we believe that [your policies] are in fact doing the reverse. We would urge you to rethink and to abandon further cuts which are likely to cause more damage.”
Duncan Smith was the first Catholic leader of the Conservative party between 2001 and 2003. In 2010 he was named one of Britain’s most influential Catholics. Since his appointment at the head of the Department for Work and Pensions that year, he has led a radical reorganisation of Britain’s benefits system to ensure “work always pays more”.
But he has faced criticism from campaigners who say that cuts to benefits have led to suicides, an increase in poverty and the social cleansing of wealthier areas, particularly in London and the south-east.
Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship Universal Credit could spark a ‘substantial increase’ in the number of Britain’s poorest people hammered by benefit sanctions, according to a leading think tank.
Punitive and spurious benefit sanctions have become common place over recent years, with the poorest in society being pushed ever-further into poverty rather than supported and helped into work.
More than 686,000 desperate people saw their benefits slashed or removed in 2014, including 37,000 sick and disabled people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
Around 50% of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants referred for potential sanctioning in 2014 saw their benefit payments docked – an increase on previous years.
The ‘sanction rate’ in 2014 – the number of sanctions per month compared to the total number of claimants – stood at 5.1%, according to research from the New Policy Institute (NPI). This is a slight fall on 2013 levels, but still represents the second highest on record.
According to NPI’s research, a fall in the number of sanctions between 2013 and 2014 was mainly due to a reduction in JSA claimants and not because of ‘the system becoming less harsh’.
More than a quarter of sanctioned JSA claimants were disabled or lone parents, highlighting a lack of understanding and compassion for the ‘hardest to help’.
The Government must use the “hard lessons” it learnt from welfare reforms which caused “significant financial and human costs”, says the National Audit Office (NAO).
In a new report published today, the NAO criticised the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) “important and high profile failings” in implementing an unprecedented number of welfare reforms and employment programmes.
The report says the Government “relied too heavily on uncertain and insufficiently challenged operating assumptions, and did not have a sufficient understanding of its portfolio of programmes or overall capacity.”
It adds that the DWP has a “high-level vision but needs to think more strategically when considering how reforms will work in practice.”
“The Department has thought too late about the management information and the leading indicators it needs to understand progress and performance”, says the NAO. “This meant the Department took several weeks to identify backlogs in Personal Independence Payment claims.”
Auditors credited the Government for responding well “to uncertainty”, but added that it “should be able to set out plans with specific timetables, costs and impacts and reflect where flexibility is needed.”
“They should also have clear processes for revising plans against changing circumstances or expectations”, says the NAO.
The NAO criticised the DWP’s initial handling of the Universal Credit. The NAO says the department “held too rigidly to fixed deadlines and now has adopted a more flexible approach. It will need to reconcile this approach with the requirement to monitor progress against milestones.”
In implementing a significant welfare reform programme, the DWP “relied too heavily on reacting to problems and has not been able to anticipate possible failings or establish the principal ways in which performance and progress can be measured”.
The NAO called on the Government to “plan more openly for the possibility of failure, and build an integrated view of portfolio risks and capacity”.
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said:
“Any large portfolio of reforms will run into problems. The Department has shown a resolute approach to dealing with them. However, we think it has relied too much on dealing with difficulties as they emerge rather than anticipating what might go wrong.
“As a result it has had to learn some hard lessons with significant financial and human costs. It is important that the Department use these hard lessons to improve how it manages change and anticipates risk.”
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said the Government must learn from the mistakes of previous changes to welfare.
Citizens Advice has found that delays and problems with the delivery of reforms such as Employment and Support Allowance increased hardship and anxiety for many people. Last year we helped people with almost two million benefit issues, more than any other type of problem.
“As Ministers look to make further savings from the welfare budget it is important they fully understand the impact proposed reforms have on people’s lives.
The Government must be certain that further cuts won’t just shift costs away from the welfare budget and into other areas such as health and social care.
Changes to benefits can have a far-ranging impact on people’s lives, so any reforms need to delivered at a safe and steady pace.”
Source – Welfare Weekly, 29 May 2015
The collective groan that went up when Iain Duncan Smith was reappointed to the Department for Work and Pensions over the weekend could probably be heard from space.
For housing workers, it’s five more years of the same: no change in direction, just straight ahead with the pressing business of welfare reform. However, the return of IDS also provides an opportunity for pragmatism in the delicate relationship between the new Conservative government and social landlords.
From the bedroom tax to the social cleansing of London as families hit by the benefits cap are shunted outside the capital, there was a lot for housing experts to criticise during the term of the coalition government – and criticise they did.
Much of that was tied up in an understandable moral objection to the changes being implemented. After all, if you’ve dedicated your career to alleviating housing need, it can be hard to work within the constraints of policies which you observe to be undermining a life’s work.
The practical objections, however, have been far more quietly stated, in part because some of them are so complex that they do not resonate with the wider public. In short, their comments don’t make great headlines.
Universal credit is one such example. The policy sounds laudable when described as a simple way of helping benefit recipients transition into employment by handing over full financial responsibility for all their outgoings including rent (previously paid directly to the landlord).
But as all housing providers knew, it will be much more complicated than this. Government has never been good at managing large IT projects or handling lots of data. The reality of working life for many low-paid staff can be weeks of employment and unemployment hard up against one another, with no time for state bureaucracy in between. And most frontline jobs are paid weekly or fortnightly, not monthly like universal credit.
For housing associations, the policy introduces a huge financial variable. How can large organisations with loans negotiated on the basis of a reliable income cope with hard-pressed tenants who do not pay up? The housing regulator is now stress-testing accommodation providers to see how they would cope with situations like this. The result is, inevitably, a downgrading in their ratings.
It’s important to remember that universal credit is derided by private and social landlords alike. Both fear for their revenue. The difference between the two is that, while private landlords can refuse to house people on benefits, social landlords will need to make compromises to stay afloat. That’s why, though he is so widely disliked, Duncan Smith’s reappointment should actually be welcomed.
Cameron told MPs at a meeting of the 1922 Conservative parliamentary committee on Monday that their “re-election starts now”. Absolutely. This government can no longer blame the mistakes of the previous incarnation, and nowhere is this more significant than for housing.
After five years of thwarted pilots, up to £663m of IT costs being written off by the Treasury and more stumbling blocks than an army fitness assault course, it’s time for a pragmatic approach to the introduction of universal credit. The Conservative government is unlikely to walk away from the policy, and Duncan Smith cannot claim ignorance of its failings so far. He cannot hide behind excuses or inexperience in the way a new minister to the brief could be tempted.
To survive their new future, social landlords will need to adapt. They will need to have diverse income streams: development will now always be for the private sector alongside the social to make ends meet. So for every social home that is built, a home for sale, shared ownership or private rent must also be built to help social landlords stay afloat.
Yet, also, there’s never been a better time to challenge a minister head on and demand some certainty. The minister will have little choice but to capitulate.
Source – The Guardian, 15 May 2015
The botched roll out of Universal Credit is set to continue under the Conservatives, it has been announced today.
Universal Credit is replacing six existing benefits including Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credits and Housing Benefit, with one single monthly payment.
Described as a “welfare revolution” by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Universal Credit will be made available to new single claimants in Richmond, Kirkwall, Lerwick and Stornoway, from today (11 May 2015).
According to the Department for Work and Pensions, all Jobcentres in the country will be offering Universal Credit to some groups of claimants by spring 2016.
Iain Duncan Smith MP, said:
“Universal Credit is bringing welfare into the 21st Century by restoring fairness to the system and making work pay in a modern labour market.
“We’ve already seen remarkable successes with Universal Credit claimants moving into work faster and staying in work longer.
“As part of our long-term economic plan, today sees the next stage of this welfare revolution with the continual roll out of Universal Credit.”
The new benefit is currently available in one-in-three Jobcentres (260). The government initially targeted the roll out of Universal Credit at the ‘easiest to help’ claimants, such as single people without children. For example, only 96 Jobcentres are currently offering Universal Credit to couples, families and lone parents.
DWP figures show that more than 64,000 people have made a claim. However, this is far short of the one million originally promised by Mr Duncan Smith to be in receipt of Universal Credit by April 2014.
Universal Credit has been dogged with delays and IT problems. DWP officials have already been forced to write off millions of pounds in failed IT software.
HM Treasury officials admitted last year that a potential £633 million could be written off by the time Universal Credit is completely rolled-out across the country and to all groups of claimants.
Children’s charity Gingerbread warned in October 2013 that working single parents will be worse off under Universal Credit. Researchers found that there will be little financial incentive for single parents to increase their hours beyond ‘mini-jobs’.
The charity also found that non-working single parents’ income will be on average lower under universal credit than it is now.
Commenting on the findings, Gingerbread chief executive Fiona Weir said at the time:
“Government claims that universal credit will make work pay, but in fact working single parents will be the biggest losers under the new system.
“The simple fact is that universal credit won’t deliver on its promise to make work pay. Single parents on low wages will be under considerable pressure to extend their hours under universal credit, but our research shows that financially, extra hours often won’t stack up.”
However, the DWP claims that Universal Credit will leave three million families better off and provide a £7 billion boost to the economy.
The department also claims that Fraud and Error will be reduced under Universal Credit, with officials having access to real-time HMRC earnings data.
Universal Credit will enable benefit payments to be calculated more accurately, says the DWP, ‘including topping up claimants earnings when they are on a low income’.
Source – Welfare Weekly, 11 May 2015
Do you ever miss the era when you didn’t know what a benefit sanction was?
That innocent time, before the Department for Work and Pensions renamed a family a “benefit unit”?
One of the great luxuries of no longer having a Conservative-led government would be not having to learn any more about their intricately boring, functionally brutal social security innovations.
Look, I’m no Pollyanna. There are clearly question marks over a possible Labour/SNP coalition: how is it going to work, for a start, now that Labour has explicitly promised not to talk to the SNP? Prime minister’s questions would look like a cocktail party with two exes blanking each other. We’ll know they’re in love, but they’ll be too angry to see it.
And what, exactly, is Ed Miliband’s rent capping idea?
The beginning of a new courage, as he sets his face to the blizzard of the rentier economy?
Or a canny bid for the votes of people who don’t think any politicians are capable of anything?
These are battles for the future, and I would have them 1,000 times rather than watch unfold the nightmare of “in-work conditionality”.
As part of the universal credit pilot, last week saw the beginning of new requirements on the number of hours worked: under these regulations, anyone earning less than the equivalent of 35 hours on the minimum wage would be subject to pressure which could end in a sanction.
The second parent in the “benefit unit” would be required to work a minimum of 16 hours, taking the working week for the family up to 51 hours, before the threat of sanctions would be lifted.
Over the coming year, 15,000 families will be placed on this regime, to varying degrees of stringency: some will just be nudged with a fortnightly phone call, others will have to attend regular interviews which, as we’ve seen with the regular social security picture, comes with the ever-present risk of having your benefits removed and being left with nothing.
Labour’s Baroness Sherlock asked some searching questions in the Lords in January about the ethics of doing a randomised control trial in which one of the groups suffered a real risk to their wellbeing.
Lord Freud waved the problem off, but this is the man, remember, who thinks people use food banks because there is an “infinite demand for a free good”. He probably thinks these families only had children in the first place because they presented no immediate unit cost.
It may sound as though there is no moral dishevelment more profound than deliberately leaving parents without the money to feed their children (the cost of the trial, incidentally, is £15m, which I am prepared to bet real money is more than the scheme will ever save). But there are two other aspects, one cultural and one democratic, to consider.
First, as Lindsay Judge, who conducted research on the pilot for the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) to be released on Monday, points out:
“If you focus on hours, you individualise the problem of low pay. It allows employers to take their eye off pay, and it allows the state to take their eye off benefits.”
To be on low wages under this regime is to be at the mercy of many different pressures: employers who think you’re expendable and are less likely to make accommodations for you, whether that means flexibility or extra hours; government agencies who will focus on increasing your hours, regardless of what that does to your family; and an inbuilt discrimination in the fact that people on the minimum wage are expected to work more in the first place (since the “conditionality” element of universal credit is based on family income, not hours worked).
But if you were to take this policy, and the demands it makes of parents, and lay it over other debates – education, where the worthy parent is at the school gates and all over the homework; or health, where good parenting involves a lot of home baking – you can see that to be on the minimum wage is, by steady increments, becoming incompatible with “respectable” parenting. This is even starker for single parents, who are of course often judged as deficient in the first place.
The democratic deficit emerges from the CPAG’s research, in which it asked two groups, one high income and one low income, how much other parents should be expected to work. Judge describes “parents being shocked at the sharpness of the state in other parents’ lives. You come up against these sharp edges all the time when you’re a low-income family and they’re really unpleasant. People who don’t have that interaction with the state are really surprised.”
CPAG found that people tended to approach the issue as parents first and taxpayers second, concluding overwhelmingly that it has to be a question of individual choice; parents must decide for themselves how many hours they work.
“Everyone said, people should be able to make the same choices about work-life balance across the income spectrum. Policies that bear down in a coercive manner are not acceptable – and that response was found in the higher- as well as the lower-income group.”
So many benefit reforms are justified on the basis that the country is sick of a something-for-nothing culture. But when you ask in-depth questions about what other people’s lives should be like, and what kind of dignity a state should respect and uphold, a much more generous, human picture emerges.
The genius of so many of these reforms has been in the naming – “spare-room subsidies” and “work-related activity groups” – they sound like technicalities rather than financial traumas. I don’t know what the in-work conditionality would have to be called for parents to stand together against it: I’d sooner not find out.
Source – The Guardian, 26 Apr 2015
Today I learnt of some new developments in the universal credit roll out. These changes are devastating and they left me lost for words. I’ll explain now but please share.
When universal credit first came out you could not apply for it if you were already claiming housing benefit. There was a glitch in the system and the computer said no. They’ve sorted this so here goes.
They are now transferring people onto universal credit from JSA. There’s no option to say no, they are simply changing their claim. Their existing claim will be shut down, as will their claim for housing benefit. The claimant will also have to go to the local council offices to sort out the council tax payments, if not they will be left with a massive bill.
Why am I so worried? If you are already in debt with your rent due to the bedroom…
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The SNP manifesto, published yesterday, proposes a number of pro-claimant policies that set it apart from any of the main parties at Westminster.
The SNP’s benefits pledges include:
- increases of at least the cost of living in welfare benefits
- halting the roll out of both Personal Independence Payments (PIP) and Universal Credit
- reversing the replacement of Disability Living Allowance with PIP
- people already supported by the Independent Living Fund will continue to be supported.
- an urgent review of the system of assessments for disability benefits.
- increasing the universal credit work allowance, to boost to the incomes of people moving into work
- overhauling the Work Capability Assessment.
- urgently reviewing the conditionality and sanctions regime, taking particular account of the needs of people with mental health issues. and recognising that the removal of cash benefits should be a last, rather than a first, resort.
- Increasing Carers’ Allowance so that it matches Jobseekers’ Allowance.
- not supporting attempts to restrict housing benefit for 18 to 21 year olds
- stop war disablement pension being treated as income in the assessment of entitlement to other benefits.
It seems likely that there will be many sick and disabled claimants south of the border who will read these policies and regret that they don’t have the opportunity to vote SNP.
Source – Benefits & Work, 21 Apr 2015
As expected, the Labour party manifesto holds little comfort for sick and disabled claimants. There are commitments to abolish the bedroom tax, ‘reform’ the work capability assessment and pause and review universal credit. However, the household benefit cap will stay and there was no mention of ending the current sanctions regime, pausing the roll out of personal independence payment or saving the Independent Living Fund (ILF).
Labour say they will:
- Reform the WCA, focusing it on the support disabled people need to get into work
- Abolish the bedroom tax
- Set up an independent scrutiny group of disabled people to monitor the WCA
- Set up a specialist support programme to provide tailored help to disabled people who can work.
- Pause and review the universal credit programme
- Keep the household benefit cap and investigate whether it should actually be lower in some regions
- Not cut tax credits
- Introduce Maths, English and IT skills tests within six weeks of claiming JSA and make training compulsory where it would improve employability
- Introduce a guaranteed paid job for young people out of work for a year and over 25s out of work for two years
- Introduce a higher rate of JSA for those who have paid NI contributions for longer, paid for by extending the period you need to have paid contributions before you qualify
Whilst abolishing the bedroom tax remains very welcome, ‘reform’ of the WCA is a virtually meaningless commitment as is the setting up of a ‘scrutiny group’. The lack of any mention of the sanctions regime or the ILF will also disappoint many disabled activists.
A Labour led government still appears to be a considerably better bet for claimants than a Conservative one. But it’s clear that Labour remain only a less awful option, rather than a positively good one.
Source – Benefits & Work, 13 Apr 2015