It’s now official – poverty is UK Government policy

the-special-rapporteur-hears-from-children-in-scotland

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights has published his statement following his visit to the UK, and he hasn’t pulled his punches. He doesn’t say anything that has not been said before, but he can speak with an authority others can’t command. The trouble is that the UN has no powers to make the UK shift course. If they had, I have a feeling that that this sort of report wouldn’t be allowed to be written.

After setting out evidence of the appalling growth and extent of poverty in the UK, Professor Alston concludes that:

poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.

He writes about ‘the overall social safety net… being systematically dismantled’

And he observes that:

British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society.

I’m not sure what is especially ‘British’ about compassion, but the rest is spot on.

In a long critique of Universal Credit he notes that,

many aspects of the design and rollout of the programme have suggested that the Department for Work and Pensions is more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles than responding to the multiple needs of those living with a disability, job loss, housing insecurity, illness, and the demands of parenting.

And he speculates that DWP motivation for the built in delay in claimants receiving their first Universal Credit payment includes ‘wanting to make clear that being on benefits should involve hardship’.

Alston observes:

As I spoke with local authorities and the voluntary sector about their preparations for the future rollout of Universal Credit, I was struck by how much their mobilization resembled the sort of activity one might expect for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic.

But, as he has made clear, this disaster is being deliberately imposed.

Although there may be savings in the DWP budget, Alston is convinced that cuts  and changes to social security have not been about saving money overall. ‘In the area of poverty-related policy’ he writes,

the evidence points to the conclusion that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering… Key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned.

In fact – and this is a point that is not made nearly enough – he observes that,

the reforms have almost certainly cost the country far more than their proponents will admit.  The many billions advertised as having been extracted from the benefits system since 2010 have been offset by the additional resources required to fund emergency services by families and the community, by local government, by doctors and hospital accident and emergency centres, and even by the ever-shrinking and under-funded police force.

Alston describes the UK Government as remaining ‘determinedly in a state of denial’, with ministers insisting that ‘all is well and running according to plan’. Predictably, this state continues, and they deny the truth of the report. And from the Government perspective, the Brexit plan chaos would seem to have a small silver lining, as this had been a good week to bury other bad news. So don’t expect this report to bring any radical change. But we have seen another nail go into the benefit-cuts coffin – another small shift in public understanding and perception of what is happening – and it has become that little bit harder for any future government to backtrack on reversing the assault on the poor.

(There is an unfortunate error in the section of the report looking at Scotland where it claims that Glasgow City Council only turns round 3% of Welfare Fund Grants within 24 hours. A council spokesman told Saturday’s National that the correct figure is 91%.)

The picture shows Professor Alston talking to school children in Glasgow. It was taken by Bassam Khawaja and published in Third Force News

Advertisements

Are the DWP rewriting your history?

delete

Your online journal provides a record of all your exchanges with the DWP. It is vital evidence in case of any dispute – but that won’t help if the DWP has altered or deleted earlier comments. This is what had happened to the journal of a couple who we met outside the jobcentre recently. They are going through a long and complicated dispute, and found that their history had been rewritten. What the DWP had perhaps not calculated on was that they had been careful to keep their own records and copies of everything! (We don’t know how common this is, but we are aware of another example where, after months of correspondence to get the correct benefit, the journal record didn’t show this as the back-payment that was actually received, but instead uprated all the previous payment records to what they should have been.)

The couple reminded us that we had helped them uncover an error some time back, when the DWP had tried to move them wrongly onto Universal Credit. Although they had been making a new benefit claim following a change in circumstances, they have three children, and no new claims were being accepted in the Universal Credit system for families with three children or more. This restriction was supposed to come to an end at the beginning of this month, but like so much else in Universal Credit, the change has been pushed back and won’t now happen until the end of January.  Putting people onto Universal Credit when they should be on other benefits has been a relatively common error; and all errors seem to be absurdly complicated to remedy.

Social Security Committee asks for bigger Scottish Welfare Fund

19-11-01 Social Security Committee

On Thursday, the Scottish Social Security Committee wrote to Shirley-Anne Somerville, Cabinet Secretary for Social Security, to ask for more money for the Scottish Welfare fund in the forthcoming Scottish budget. The fund has not been increased since 2013/14, which, as they point out, represents a decrease in real value, after inflation, of more than 7%, at a time of growing need. (You can see the letter here: 18-11-01 Social Security Committee to Cabinet Secretary

Thursday was also the day when the committee looked briefly at our petition for using more progressive taxation to mitigate welfare cuts – including through more money for the Scottish Welfare Fund. We were disappointed that the committee gave the petition less than 5 minutes – even though they decided not to close it down as suggested by the chair – but we hope that it helped contribute to the weight of evidence that pushed them to write that letter. And the chair expressly wanted to put on record that the points were clearly made and not lost on the committee. (See from 10.20.36 to 10.25.10 here)

Of course this is only a small start, and we must wait and see what actually happens with the Scottish budget, and how bold the Scottish Government decides to be, both in focusing on those who have lost out under ‘austerity’, and in making taxation more progressive to support this. Boldness has hardly been a characteristic of this government, but anything short of copying the UK Government’s tax cuts for high earners will have most mainstream news sources squealing in outrage anyway.

And we can take some encouragement from the recent Scottish Parliament debate on ‘Ending Austerity, Poverty and Inequality’, held on 24 October. This demonstrated that issues around mitigating the cuts are being discussed – though this got rather drowned out in the media reports by horror at Michelle Ballantyne’s defence of the two child limit for Universal Credit payments. (She was the MSP who asked me, when we presented our petition, why we had missed out the Conservatives when we wrote to MSPs about mitigating the welfare cuts– I think she has just provided the answer.)

Slowly we are helping to change the focus of debate – we need to keep up the pressure!

 

Does Hammond really think that those two changes to UC are enough?

budget 2018

I’ve just sat through the whole budget waiting for the government’s answer to the widespread concern over UC. All Hammond would recognise were concerns over just two issues. He promises some extra help for people moving over from existing benefits – two weeks of support for those moving from JSA, ESA or IS, but only after July 2020. And what about people making new applications? New applicants will go on having to wait those 5-6 weeks for their first payment, building up unmanageable debt, and creating huge problems for social housing providers as rents are delayed. All that has been promised for them is the possibility to pay back that debt more slowly, and that only after October 2019.

And Hammond will give more help to people in work by increasing the work allowance – ie raising the cut-off rate for eligibility. This is a reversal of previous cuts both to Tax Credits and then in the change from Tax Credits to Universal Credit.

They have also made it a bit easier for self employed people to get started – but it will go on being a nightmare for them after that; and they admit that the full change over to UC will not be complete until December 2023, though they still plan to begin to force people on existing benefits to move to UC from July next year.

Nothing has been done about the benefit freeze that has reduced the real levels of benefits for years, or the benefit cap that reduces some families’ benefits even further, or the rape clause, or the chaos caused by lack of staff and training…

And after that miserable announcement on UC, Hammond went on to announce a tax cut for big earners by raising the threshold for higher rate income tax.

And the whole budget was dressed up as a reward for the ‘hard work of the British people’ – a phrase he repeated multiple times to suggest we were all in this together – given to ‘hardworking families, strivers, grafters and carers’.

So no change to the rhetoric, and no change to austerity politics, and definitely not enough to quiet concern over Universal Credit!

More frequent payments – or just an even longer wait

Calendar

The Scottish Government squeezed three small concessions from Westminster on Universal Credit. First, people in Scotland can chose whether their housing element is paid direct to their landlord. And second, we can choose to have payments made twice a month rather than monthly. The trouble is that this is done by delaying half the payment for even longer. You will already have waited five or six weeks for your first Universal Credit payment – and likely got into debt as a result. Then at the end of the next month you will only receive half the amount. As a special concession you will be allowed to wait a further 15 days for the rest. When we met Stevie outside the jobcentre he had just discovered what twice monthly payments really meant, and had asked to go back on monthly payments as he couldn’t last on what he had received. (To make matters worse, he had been told that the wait was 3 weeks rather than 15 days, which is simply wrong.) Twice monthly payments can make it easier to plan – but not if you have to get into debt first.

Oh – and the third concession. Well, people in Scotland are supposed to get the option to receive Universal Credit individually instead of as a single payment for the household, but it seems that the Scottish Government hasn’t actually been given a mechanism that allows them to make that happen without the consent of both partners, so that third concession has been left on an inaccessible shelf.

*        *        *

Despite growing public concern about Universal Credit, Dundee jobcentre hasn’t given up trying to persuade people to shift onto the new system before they have to. We had reassured David that he didn’t have to move from JSA, but when he emerged from the jobcentre he informed us that they had found another way to make his life more difficult. Now that he has been unemployed for 18 months they are making him come into the jobcentre weekly. This was a fairly common practice a few years back, but we hadn’t come across it recently.

*        *        *

We have just learnt that our petition on mitigating welfare cuts will finally be discussed by the Scottish Government Social Security Committee on Thursday. Here is the agenda.  You will be able to watch the discussion on line here.

Have you applied for PIP?

Scrabble

This is a question we often ask people who have applied for ESA (or the equivalent under Universal Credit) – especially if they have had their ESA refused and are wondering how they will survive. And often we discover that people haven’t applied for PIP because they don’t know what it is. DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts) have found people similarly confused when talking to them outside the assessment centre in Glasgow. So we thought it might help if we wrote a brief explanation.

One cause of the confusion is that the names chosen by the DWP follow some weird logic that is known only to them and has no base in reality. Their most incomprehensible name is Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the name for the benefit given to those unable to work. In areas that fall under Universal Credit full service, ESA has been swallowed up into Universal Credit, but the system for demonstrating that you are unable to work remains very similar.

PIP stands for Personal Independence Payment and replaces the rather more easily understood Disability Living Allowance. Basically, it is designed to compensate for some of the extra costs associated with being sick or disabled. You can get PIP whether or not you are working and whether or not you also receive ESA/Universal Credit, and it is NOT means tested. Although the application for ESA and PIP is somewhat similar – both make use of a detailed questionnaire and simplistic ‘tick-box’ style ‘medical’ assessment carried out by a private company – they are looking for slightly different things. PIP, like DLA, can be awarded for problems with daily living or problems with mobility or both. Daily living means things like getting up and bathed and dressed, and making and eating food. Problems need not be physical, they can include things like being too depressed to get up, or too feart to go out on your own. Like for ESA, it is a good idea to get someone who knows the system, and what scores points, to help fill out the form; and it is also good to get someone to come with you to the assessment to check the key points are covered and to ensure that the subsequent report is an accurate reflection of what actually happened – as well as to give moral support. There is lots of advice on all this on the internet, e.g. from Benefits and Work.

In case this isn’t confusing enough, children under 18 still get DLA rather than PIP, and if you are a pensioner the relevant benefit is Attendance Allowance, which doesn’t include the mobility bit. If you are already on PIP though, you stay on that rather than move to Assistance Allowance, so if you have mobility problems and are getting older, you might want to apply for PIP before it is too late (the exact rules are complicated).

And, of course, sometime in the now not so distant future, PIP, DLA and Assistance Allowance will be taken over by the Scottish Government and replaced by a system that we are promised will be much fairer…

What is the future for Universal Credit?

future for UC

Ian Davidson predicts minimal changes in this guest blog

With the political & media classes reigniting debate on UC (as here in the Guardian) – perhaps as “light relief” from Brexit – here is my own brief analysis of this latest round of discussion:

Whilst any public discussion about “stopping” UC is welcome, it would appear that most commentators are only asking for the “managed migration” process, i.e. the second phase of the “roll-out” due to commence in July 2019 to be halted. As explained in the Guardian article above, this is the phase where existing claimants of old style benefits would start to be “migrated” on to UC (i.e. you will be “invited” to claim UC, and will have no choice if you wish to continue on income-related benefits). They also appear to be asking for the original “goodies” in UC, e.g. the “work allowances” and uprating which were taken out in the 2015 budget, to be re-instated before this second stage roll-out begins. Unless I am misinterpreting, I don’t hear any mainstream call for the whole concept of UC to be scrapped or for the current first phase roll-out (all “new” claimants for income-related type benefits to claim UC by Dec 2018) to be stopped, scrapped, halted or whatever. However, if there are changes to UC such as the re-instatement of work allowances, then the claimants who are already on UC will presumably benefit.

The present government can, with relative ease, respond to some of these new demands whilst not giving way on the principle of UC. The July 2019 start for second-stage roll-out is flexible (as has the first roll-out been), and no-one is going to complain if the second stage roll out start is further delayed and implemented even more gradually. Likewise no-one is going to complain if the work allowances etc. are re-instated and some form of uprating in line with inflation introduced. No-one is going to complain if the migration of existing tax credits claimants (perhaps the most politically sensitive group) is left alone for a while, even until after the next UK General Election. No-one is going to complain if local authorities and the Scottish Government are given some more monies for mitigation, alongside further “tweaking” of claims administration, a “lighter” touch to sanctions etc.

Any positive changes to UC are good news. However, it is too early to celebrate, as the government will probably make just sufficient changes to survive politically whilst retaining the core principles of UC. The need for claimant advice, appeals, legal challenges, foodbanks and political campaigns will continue as UC is “rolled-out” with slightly slower speed and slightly improved presentation.

 

Out of the frying pan, into Universal Credit – a stall report

18-10-01

Frankie was a worried man. A week ago on Sunday he had started work at a restaurant as a kitchen porter. At least, that was the job that had been advertised, but when he got there he found he was expected to do everything, including cooking the breakfast and ordering the stock. He doesn’t know how to cook, let alone sort out the orders. He was given no training, but by Wednesday he was left to manage on his own. He was checking deliveries at the entrance at the same time as keeping an eye on the cooker and panicking about serving undercooked sausages. He told his friends that he was feeling suicidal with it all. Sensibly, he had left the job before any disaster struck, but now he was terrified about being blamed for not working, and so not being given benefit. He was so nervous, that I went into the jobcentre with him. He needn’t have worried about his treatment there. The woman couldn’t have been nicer, but (there’s always a ‘but’) she can only work within the system, and that has left him with two possible sources of further worry. Before he got the job at the restaurant he was on JSA. When he got the job he signed off, and now, signing on again, he has to be on Universal Credit, with all the problems that implies. And although the woman at the jobcentre helped him to make his new application, and stressed the importance of writing down all the details of what happened, it is not her who makes the decision about sanctions. Frankie must now wait for the verdict of the anonymous Decision Maker.

Pam was hoping to get Universal Credit to help with housing costs now that her husband’s hours have been dropped down to 21 a week. She was shocked when we warned her that, as he would be earning less than the equivalent of 35 hours a week on the minimum wage, he would be made to spend the rest of his time looking for more or better paid work. We suggested they get a benefit check done at Shelter, who would also be able to advise on possible options.

Jill had just signed onto Universal Credit having become unemployed for the first time in years. We told her that since her National Insurance payments will be up to date she should be on New Style (i.e. contribution based) JSA instead, and recommended she sort this out as soon as possible. The DWP seems to be very bad at spotting this one.

Andrew had just lost the chance of a job in the Midlands because the DWP had refused to help with the interview travel costs, even though these would be refunded afterwards. He had only recently signed up to Universal Credit and was shocked to have received no benefits on what should have been his first payment day. His final salary from work had been paid to him after he had applied for UC, and had been counted as income for the first month’s calculation. He was thus deemed not to need any benefit that month, and won’t get anything at all for a further month. (See how it ‘works’ here.).

Mark and Ruth were both applying to be recognised as unfit to work – so we impressed on them the importance of getting help with the medical form from someone (such as a welfare rights officer) who knows how the points system works. And we asked them to contact us later if they need someone to accompany them to their work capability assessment.

John had worked in security. He informed us – as he had previously had to inform the jobcentre – that security staff must wear visible name badges and shouldn’t lean over you when you are having a private conversation. Could be useful to know!

£15 a week to get to a computer

leftfest

The people who came up with the requirement that all Universal Credit claims must be managed on line can’t live in the real world – and certainly not in rural Scotland. Yesterday, one of the people who visited our stall at Leftfest told us of a friend who was expected to make 30 minute bus journeys to get to a computer, at the cost of £15 a week. That’s more than 20% of the miserly weekly benefit payment!

And although you should be able to get help in this situation, he clearly had not been made aware of that.  The minds that conjure up detailed rules about sanctions from the comfort of well-paid jobs, don’t seem to have expressly addressed what must be a common and predictable problem; however this is something that the jobcentre’s Flexible Support Fund could help with. It is clearly unreasonable to expect you to spend this amount of money out of your benefits, so if the jobcentre won’t provide help with travel costs, or allow you to use an alternative method of communication and jobsearch, then you need to put in a formal complaint. An MP’s letter could make all the difference at this point…

(Thanks to CPAG for discussions on this issue.)

The picture was taken at Leftfest

Nothing for the weekend

foodbank_warehouse_20131127_0108-382x218

Outside the jobcentre on a Friday afternoon we are very aware that any problems will not be resolved till at least next week. It is only the foodbanks that can save people from a hungry weekend. The two people we referred to the foodbank this week had both found themselves penniless after being caught out by the new payment schedule under Universal Credit. Instead of the fortnightly payments of the old system, UC is paid monthly. Without a hint of irony, the DWP claims that this is meant to help people prepare for monthly wages, though the amount paid is only a fraction of what you would get in work. They were warned from when this was first proposed that it would cause problems, and of course it has.

In Scotland you can ask for the payment to be staggered so that you get your money twice monthly instead. This is almost like the previous fortnightly payments, but not quite; and that was Richard’s undoing. He had been under the impression that he would get his benefit payment two weeks after the last one and had budgeted accordingly. When he asked why he hadn’t been paid he was told the money wasn’t due until Tuesday.

Lisa was getting monthly payments and was unable to budget that way – especially with money being taken off for debt repayment. She knew she couldn’t cope and was trying to arrange twice monthly payments instead, but meanwhile she had spent her meagre allowance and there was still two weeks before her next payment was due.

This is a system that sets people up to fail. With benefits pared to the bone, it demands a level of financial planning that few if any of its authors could even conceive of. Foodbanks are under huge pressure, but what is remarkable is that this is not even greater.