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Benefits Freeze Adds to Universal Credit Misery.

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Image result for universal credit cartoon

More than the usual ‘system error’.

The controversy about Universal Credit continues to develop.

Today the Currant Bun, not the Claimants’ chum,  headlines

Universal Credit revolt by THIRTY Tory MPs as they urge Chancellor to plug £2bn black hole which will leave millions worse off.

At least two dozen have signed a letter to the Treasury highlighting their fears to the Chancellor – urging him that an extra £2billion is needed for the reform.

Around a million people are expected to go onto Universal Credit next year as part of the rollout to everyone over the next five years.

The letter reads: “As it stands 3.2million working families are expected to be worse off, with an average loss of £48 a week.

“Enabling hard working parents to keep more of what they earn and thus encouraging them to take up more work is at the heart of Conservative policy.

“This measure would boost the incomes of 9.6million low income parents and children.”

In July 2015, having promised £12 billion of welfare cuts – reportedly on the assumption that the Liberal Democrats would argue this down – George Osborne announced exactly that. Chief among these cuts was a further working age benefits freeze. So no matter what the rate of inflation was, benefits would not be increased in April 2016, 2017, 2018 or 2019.

One thing that risks being forgotten is the impact of the Benefit Freeze.

Last week (October the 13th) the Resolution Foundation published this.

Despite ‘the end of austerity’, April promises another deep benefit cut

Adam Corlett.

How important this nominal freeze would prove to be couldn’t be known exactly in advance – only predicted – as its real impact depends on inflation. At the time, it was thought that inflation would be below 2 per cent in every year, as the table below shows. At first, the inflation forecast actually proved too high, with very small price rises in 2015 and 2016. This meant that the benefits freeze had only a limited impact in its first two years. But with the Brexit vote and resultant price increases, CPI inflation reached 3 per cent in September 2017. Normally, that September figure would have been used to uprate working-age benefits for the next tax year but, due to the freeze, that didn’t happen. And now inflation for September 2018 is expected to be around 2.7 per cent. Working-age families will again be denied that inflationary benefits increase next April.

Overall, the real cut to many benefits from the four-year freeze is over 6 per cent (and that’s before considering separate or earlier cuts).

….

If we exclude pensioners and working-age non-parents, the impacts become even clearer. The average couple with kids in the bottom half of the income distribution will be £620 poorer in 2019-20 than if inflationary uprating had occurred since 2016-17, and the average poorer single parent will be £760 worse off. The April 2019 freeze alone will mean a £210 hit for an average poorer couple with kids and £260 for poorer single parents.

This chart is depressing to look at.

This, the long-term decline in the value of benefits, is significant.

Corlett’s conclusion is important:

Whether or not the final freeze goes ahead, there is also a tough question for the opposition parties. Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats have all said they would end the freeze. But CPI uprating is already set to return from April 2020. The big question is whether those parties would actually undo the real term cuts that have already happened (i.e. though a real terms increase) if they got the chance, or if that £5 billion, 6 per cent cut will simply be accepted as a fait accompli.

The talk of the town may be of ‘the end of austerity’ and ‘Brexit dividends’, but for low to middle income working-age families – particularly parents – the outlook is quite different. On top of weak pay growth, their outlook includes a further benefits freeze, the transition to Universal Credit with its slashed work allowances, the phasing out of the valuable ‘family element’ and phasing in of a two-child limit. Ending the freeze one year early, with benefits rising just after Brexit day, would help to turn that outlook around.

This is exactly the issue, what exactly would the parties do to repair the damage caused by the benefit freeze?

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Written by Andrew Coates

October 15, 2018 at 10:30 am

Gordon Brown Joins Charge Against Universal Credit: Warns of coming “Summer of Discontent”.

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Sign the Petition from Our Friends from the Mirror!

It’s obvious that Universal Credit is going the way of the Poll Tax.

People you would not expect to talk about these things are angry about it at the drop of  a hat.

The local CAB is jammed with the number of cases they have to help.

MPs, including Ipswich’s, are besieged by those in dire straits because of the system.

I would hazard a guess, just a little guess, and say that the DWP is well aware of the train crash that is Universal Credit.

Now after John McDonnell called on Sunday for getting rid of the system Gordon Brown is set to make this speech.

Halt universal credit or face summer of discontent, Gordon Brown tells PM

Guardian – Larry Elliott

Britain is on course for a summer of discontent and poll tax-style chaos unless Theresa May scraps plans for a full national rollout of universal credit next year, the former prime minister Gordon Brown is to say.

In a ferocious attack on the government’s flagship welfare reform, Brown predicts that a complex application process alongside Treasury spending cuts will plunge a million more children into poverty and increase reliance on food banks.

The former Labour leader, who sought to tackle poverty through the introduction of tax credits in the early 2000s, will say on Wednesday that the government’s amendments are cruel and that a U-turn is needed before more suffering is caused.

Even this Blog, which does not mince its words, is shaken by Brown’s next statement,

Speaking in Edinburgh, Brown will say: “Surely the greatest burning injustice of all is children having to go to school ill-clad and hungry. It is the poverty of the innocent – of children too young to know they are not to blame. But the Conservative government lit the torch of this burning injustice and they continue to fan the flames with their £3bn of cuts. A return to poll tax-style chaos in a summer of discontent lies ahead.”

Writing in the Mirror Gordon Brown explains:

Universal Credit is cruel far beyond austerity – and it’s becoming Theresa May’s Poll Tax, says Gordon Brown

It is now time to abandon the national roll out of the disastrous benefit-cutting Universal Credit .

Call a halt to this experiment – cruel and vindictive far beyond austerity – that is pushing child poverty among millions of hard-working British families to record levels.

From next July when three million more families begin to be herded on to Universal Credit, our country will face the kind of chaos we have not seen since the days of the hated Poll Tax.

With the convulsions of Brexit in March and the Universal Credit four months later we face a summer of division and despair.

From July each family on tax credits today will have to submit a wholly new form for Universal Credit – a policy Ministers have been warned will risk a breakdown in the system.

Instead the Government should order a review into what is going wrong – and give emergency help to those families now in despair because of benefit cuts.

With child poverty rising inexorably from three million in 2015 to four million now and to more than five million by 2022, October 29 should bring a Budget for children.

And to halt the rising epidemic, Child Benefit should be raised and child tax credits should be improved – as the one way, alongside a decent living wage, that we can get low-paid families out of poverty.

Today’s poverty explodes the myth that children are in poverty because their parents are work-shy and indolent.

Two thirds of the children in poverty have a parent in work – but earning too little to lift them out of poverty. In fact, nearly half – 42% – of households are in poverty where there is one breadwinner only in work and no other adult working.

The majority of the rest who are in poverty have disability in the family.

Savage Cuts are pushing them on to the breadline.

And after freezing Child Benefit and children’s tax credits for years Universal Credit is taking £3-billion out of the social security budget as it is introduced. Almost 3.2-million working families will, according to the Resolution Foundation, stand to lose an average of £48 a week.

Read the full article.

This stands out:

So I am calling today for the Government to abandon the 2019 national roll out of Universal Credit and end this harsh, harmful and hated experiment.

We need an urgent review on the lines suggested by the Child Poverty Action Group to be instigated and we must hear the voices of those who know what it’s like to have help cut short I join individuals and organisations who have called for a rethink including The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Church of Scotland, The Mayor of London, Disabled Against The Cuts, The Mayor of Liverpool, Mind, The Trussell Trust, Unison, Unite and Citizens Advice Bureau as well as the Child Poverty Action Group and most disabled charities.

The review should look closely at three options: redesign Universal Credit to make it fit for purpose; axing it in favour of reverting to the old system if UC is unfixable; or introduce a brand new system altogether.

The Mirror has launched a petition:

Universal Credit is harsher on people both in and out of work, and some families could end up £200 a month worse off.

The Mirror are demanding a halt to the expansion of UC and for a review to take place. We say there are three options:

  • Redesign UC to be fit for purpose
  • Axe it in favour of the old system if UC is unfixable
  • Introduce a brand new system

Sign our petition to stop the rollout of Universal Credit across Britain and to replace it with a fairer system.

You can sign through here.

Written by Andrew Coates

October 10, 2018 at 10:42 am

Hold the Front Page! McDonnell says, “Universal Credit Has to Go!”

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Image result for UNiversal credit mcdonnell

LIVE: Labour likely to scrap Universal Credit – McDonnell

The shadow chancellor tells Sky’s Sophy Ridge the government’s benefit systems is past being fixed, in a change of policy.

Huff Post:

Universal Credit ‘Has Got To Go’, Says Labour’s John McDonnell

 Rachel Wearmouth

“I think most people now are coming to the conclusion it has got to be scrapped.”

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has said Universal Credit “has got to go” in the strongest signal yet that Labour would scrap the government’s flagship benefit scheme.

Speaking on Sky News, McDonnell said: “I think most people now are coming to the conclusion it has got to be scrapped.”

Labour has previously called for Universal Credit to be paused and reformed.

But McDonnell said the government’s attempts to shake-up the benefit “haven’t worked” and Universal Credit “is not the safety net that people expect when they need support.

“I think we’re moving to a position now where it’s not sustainable, it will have to go,” he said.

It comes amid reports that Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey has privately warned that families could lose £200 a month.

According to The Times, McVey told fellow cabinet members that the rollouts could result in millions of families losing out on the equivalent of £2,400 a year.

It is thought that half of single parents and two out of three working-age couples will be affected by the new system.

McDonnell said the system was “in shambles”.

“These are some of the poorest families in our communities and it’s just not acceptable,” he said. “We are moving toward the conclusion now that you can’t save the thing. It has got to go.”

Asked what Labour would replace Universal Credit with, McDonnell called for a cross-party debate and said it would consult widely.

Brought in by the former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Universal Credit was designed to simplify the benefits system, but the benefit has been associated with a huge rise in the use of foodbanks.

McVey, on Monday, unveiled plans for a £39 million partnership with charity Citizens Advice to support applicants in getting their first payments on time.

Research by the Child Poverty Action Group in August warned that Universal Credit claimants in employment were facing cuts of more than £250 a month as a result of pay day coinciding with assessment periods.

Written by Andrew Coates

October 7, 2018 at 10:45 am

Jobcentre Goes Mad: Demands People Have Smartphones.

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Related image

Soon to Include Jobcentre AP? 

eople are starving over Universal Credit – telling me to use a credit-hungry smartphone is beyond the pale

Arthur Chapple. The ‘I’. Today.

This story keeps developing

See, Man on Universal Credit says he was told by Jobcentre he had to get a smartphone to search for a job )

 

I am long-term unemployed. Few employers take me seriously: I’m 56, a credit risk due to high debt, can’t drive and therefore dependent on public transport which means I cannot pursue jobs with shift patterns outside the bus or train times. A history of agency temping jobs makes running a full five-year history check for potential employers too demanding. A degree in literature and philosophy makes me over-qualified by not being very vocational.

I was moved to a proto-version of Universal Credit (from Jobseeker’s Allowance) in Manchester a few years before moving to Preston in 2016.

I am transferring to the ‘full roll out’ of Universal Credit on 27 September 2018. I learned this at my last meeting with advisers at the Preston Jobcentre on 6 September.

Every fortnight I have a meeting with an adviser who looks at my job search activity, suggests a few job leads for me to consider and makes my next appointment. My job search log is on a flash drive which I can show advisers by clipping the drive to my tablet. T

he Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) can’t check my records on their computers for data protection reasons but can absurdly look at my own devices directly if I lug them in. On 6 September, I was sent to an adviser – not my usual – who had no interest in my job search record at all. He looked at my tablet in disdain. He insisted that I use an iPhone instead.

I told him I don’t have an iPhone, just a basic mobile – which he saw – and a landline at home. “I questioned [the smartphone’s] affordability. He told me of one going cheap at Argos and said the DWP would contribute up to £40 towards a new model.” It’s a very simple phone that will only take calls and texts, but it’s good enough for somebody phoning me up to say we’ve got a job you might be interested in. I’ve got a computer at home as well.

‘Must get a smartphone’

The adviser told me my full roll-out signing session is on 27 September and that by then I must get a smartphone, which he said would be easier to carry and access. I questioned its affordability. He told me of one going cheap at Argos and said the DWP would contribute up to £40 towards a new model.

I asked if this included its top-ups or a contract, but no. Credit for my current phone costs an average of £5 every three months. I doubt if a smartphone would be as cheap. I was given no indication that I had a choice or that this decision was not mandatory.

Such power-play strikes me as highly unethical and bogus. I feel intentionally misinformed.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “There is no requirement for UC claimants to own a mobile phone, nor is a mobile phone required for a UC claim. Computers and free WiFi are available in all Jobcentres to enable claimants to maintain their accounts.”

‘Red tape hell’

With people starving and dying of suicide over the Universal Credit changes, forcing us to use credit-hungry phones is really beyond the pale. Many see the unemployed as scroungers but I do extensive voluntary work, have a book due for publication soon and Christmas work lined up for November and December. This is great but sadly temporary.

By January I will almost certainly be claiming benefits again and once more plunged into red tape hell, just as it seems to settle down from the last time. The whole, horrible process could be repeated on me.

Personally I rarely use even an ordinary mobile….

2013. Background.

Dear Jason Davies,

Thank you for your Freedom of Information request received on 16th July and your subsequent email of 19th July.

You asked for:

Are there any circumstances when a jobseeker (a JSA/ESA claimant) may be mandated by Jobcentre plus, by way of a Jobseeker’s Direction for example, to provide a telephone number and/or an email address on which the Jobcentre may expect to be able to contact them, if the jobseeker does not wish to provide this information?

Specifically, are there any circumstances in which a jobseeker would (note: not could, or may) be sanctioned for refusing to provide a telephone number and/or an email address?

If the jobseeker does not have a telephone (landline or mobile) is there any circumstance in which the Jobcentre can force the jobseeker to obtain one, even if this is being supplied at no cost to the jobseeker by, for example, the Jobcentre or a Work Programme provider? Would the jobseeker have to accept this or otherwise face a sanction?

Furthermore, are there any circumstances where a jobseeker would be sanctioned for refusing to allow the Jobcentre/DWP to keep a copy of their CV such that it would be permanently accessible to advisers etc?

If the jobseeker is not legally obliged to give a permanent copy to the Jobcentre/DWP is there a legal requirement to show a copy of a CV to the Jobcentre and, if so, would it be considered reasonable for a jobseeker to redact any personal information, such as telephone numbers, email addresses, employer details etc., from a CV being shown to an adviser?

Additionally, in the specific circumstance where a jobseeker is refusing to register with Universal Jobmatch, would the jobseeker be sanctioned if his reason for refusal is not wanting to supply an email address during the registration process (bearing in mind that supplying an email address is mandatory to set up a Government Gateway account and without which registration with Universal Jobmatch is impossible)? 

Reply: 

Providing a CV, email address or telephone number is not mandatory, therefore is not sanctionable.

However, a Jobseeker’s Allowance claimant may be issued with a Jobseeker’s Direction, requiring them to take a reasonable, specific activity that will help them find work, e.g. getting a

CV, telephone number or email address will help a claimant get a job. The decision to issue a Jobseeker’s Direction must always take into account the claimant’s individual circumstances.

Furthermore, claimants must demonstrate they have undertaken what is required in a Jobseeker’s Direction. Where the evidence provided is considered to be insufficient, the case will be referred to a Decision Maker for them to determine if the claimant has complied with the Jobseeker’s Direction. Failure to comply with a Jobseeker’s Direction, without good reason, will
affect benefit.

This is supported by Section 19A of the Jobseekers Act 1995, which can be found at the following internet address, via the DWP Website:
http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/a11-0101.pdf

It is for a Decision Maker to determine whether a Jobseeker’s Allowance claimant has good reason for refusing to create a profile and public CV in Universal Jobmatch, taking into account
the circumstances of each particular case.

If you have any queries about this letter please contact me quoting the reference number
above.
Yours sincerely,
DWP Central FoI Team

Written by Andrew Coates

September 20, 2018 at 11:37 am

Poverty Crisis Worsened by Universal Credit.

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Image result for poverty Social Metrics Commission

” total number of people living in poverty is 14.2 million.”

Poverty, anybody could see with their own eyes, is growing.

I was struck, visiting my old homeland, Haringey, by this recently.

It was not so much that seeing the homeless people on the streets was a surprise – we have plenty in Ipswich. Though I must admit that, coming out of Wood Green Tube station, the sight of a geezer with a sleeping bag sprawled out in front of the ‘Spoons on Spouters’ Corner was unexpected.

It was that walking from there to Turnpike Lane most people looked, well, not well off.

Same pound shops, charity shops, though a Mall looked a bit more prosperous than ours.

This is the real London, not Made In Chelsea.

Bounds Green, where I grew up, is (wrote the Guardian in 2013 and it’s still true), is “ordinary north London, like wot even Muswell Hill used to be: an endangered species these days.”, was another destination on this tour.

On a  round circuit from the Tube to my old gaff (a short 15 minutes)  I came across at least 10 off-licences and newsagents/food stores selling cheap booze.

Encouraging to see that people still appreciate white cider and 9% lager, no “shops selling single-estate, organic, truffle-dusted flat whites”.

But then………..

This report, then, does not come out of the blue.

More than two million Brits at risk of falling into poverty, report warns

The UK Government has been urged to take action at the Budget in order to tackle Britain’s growing poverty crisis, in response to the publication of a new report which shows that 2.5million people are at risk of falling into poverty.

The Social Metrics Commission has published a new framework for measuring poverty in the UK, which takes into account a wider range of interplaying factors which cause people to fall into poverty – including material resources, the cost of disability, and the cost of childcare.

Sam Royston, director of policy and research at The Children’s Society, said: “While we would welcome these changes to how poverty is measured being included in official statistics, concrete action is needed to tackle the shameful scale of poverty among our children, with all the damage it can do to their wellbeing, education and life chances.”

The Commission found that more than one in ten (12.1%) of the total UK population (7.7million people) live in persistent poverty. While a further 2.5million people in the UK are less than 10% above the poverty line – meaning relatively small changes in their circumstances could see them fall below it.

Philippa Stroud, the commission’s chair, said: “We want to put poverty at the heart of government policymaking and ensure that the decisions that are made are genuinely made with the long term interests of those in poverty in mind.”

The UK Government abolished child poverty targets under the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 – a moved condemned by the SNP who have reintroduced them in Scotland and have called for their reintroduction across the UK.

These are the conclusions of the above report:

The SMC report, available here,  reveals numerous key findings and challenges. The total number of people living in poverty is 14.2 million with the composition of poverty moving towards a better identification of children (4.5 million) and working-age adults (8.4 million). The good news is the shift away from pensioner poverty with far fewer pensioners living in poverty following a significant reduction of poverty amongst pension age couples, over the last 15 years.

The report reveals that people with a disability are much more likely to be living in poverty than previously thought, with around half of the 14.2 million people in poverty living in families with a disabled person.

The report also reveals the persistence and depth of UK poverty. More than one in ten (12.1%) of the total UK population are in poverty now and have been in poverty for at least two of the previous three years. A further 2.5 million people live less than 10% above the poverty line and are close to falling below it with relatively small changes to their circumstances; and around 2.7 million people live less than 10% below it.

 SMC KEY FINDINGS

  1. 2 million people in the UK population live in poverty: 8.4 million working-age adults; 4.5 million children; and 1.4 million pension age adults.
  2. Over half of those in poverty (58.2%) also live in persistent poverty. This means that more than one in ten (7.7 million) of the total UK population are in poverty now and have been in poverty for at least two of the previous three years. Persistent poverty is highest in families more than 10% below the poverty line, in workless families and families where someone is disabled.
  3. People with a disability are much more likely to be living in poverty. Nearly half of the 14.2 million people in poverty live in families with a disabled person (6.9 million people equal to 48.3% of those in poverty). The SMC metric recognises the inescapable costs of disability, accounting for them alongside the value of disability benefits, to reflect the lived experience of living with a disability.
  4. Far fewer pensioners are living in poverty than previously thought, with a significant fall in pensioner poverty over the last 15 years. Poverty rates amongst pension-age adults have nearly halved since 2001, and have fallen to one in ten, a drop from 17% of the total population in poverty in 2001 to 11% in 2017. There are, however some pensioner groups still experiencing high levels of poverty. For example, the poverty rate for pensioners who do not own their own home is 34.2%.

You can only note that all this is about to get a lot lot worse:

The Universal Credit Rollout Will Cause Liverpool Untold Harm – The Government Must Pause And Rethink. 

Joe Anderson Mayor of Liverpool

Huffington Post.

In a city described by the Joseph Rowntree Trust as having the second worst affected in the country when it comes to ‘destitution,’ Liverpool needs Universal Credit like a hole in the head.

Nevertheless, from this week, the remaining parts of my city not already covered by UC will start being migrated across to the new benefit.

The dread I feel is because we know what happens next.

Already, we can see a spike in hardship and a rise in council tax arrears from those who have already transitioned to UC. Not to mention the snaking queues at foodbanks and the families struggling with things like school uniform costs.

Around 55,000 Liverpool households will eventually see their claim move to Universal Credit. So far, we estimate that up to 2,800 people in Liverpool are affected by changes in work allowances in Universal Credit, resulting in a loss of income to families of between £40 and £200 each month.

The Council’s various discretionary schemes, set up to protect people in hardship, made 13,700 awards last year at a cost of just under £2.7million. 71% of all Discretionary Housing Payments made in Liverpool are to help people who have been hit by the ‘under occupation penalty’ – or as we know it, the bedroom tax.

It’s so frustrating because as a council, we have one of the best records in the country when it comes to maintaining discretionary benefits for the poorest and most vulnerable in our city. We are left picking up the pieces from failed central government changes.

Despite losing two-thirds of our government funding since 2010 (£444million), we have stretched our finances as far as we can in order to preserve basic human dignity, but also because it makes sense to address problems upstream before they swim downstream and cost even more to fix.

This is often down to the scandalous time lag between applying for Universal Credit and receiving a first payment. This is often as long as twelve weeks, with the National Audit Office recently reporting that four in ten applicants had experienced financial difficulties while transitioning across to UC, while one in five were not paid on time.

So my message to ministers is simple: pause this roll-out and listen to those of us on the frontline. It’s possible to reform Universal Credit to keep the original intention of simplifying the benefits system without deliberately causing misery for tens of thousands of people in my city and millions more across the country.

Drop the ideology for a start. There is no good reason to make desperate people wait for their benefits, simply because eight years ago Iain Duncan-Smith wanted to teach them budgeting skills. Pay up straightaway and take that terrible burden off the backs of some of the poorest people in our society.

Unnecessary delay simply throws vulnerably families into the clutches of payday lenders and loan sharks. This is a simple concession that Esther McVey could make that would transform the lives of millions of people for the better and show that the Department for Work and Pensions is listening to evidence about the ill-effects of UC.

I would also urge her to work with councils rather than ignoring us. Along with the voluntary sector, we are working to pick up the pieces of botched welfare changes. But give us the tools to do it. Provide ring-fenced funding so councils can create a local welfare scheme to address acute hardship.

But it’s also about practical steps, like understanding the system simply isn’t flexible enough for people on zero hours contracts and have no guarantees about their work situation from week to week. Also, the DWP could dramatically reduce the waiting time for connection to the DWP advice and information lines.

Before people in Liverpool are exposed to these poorly-conceived and badly implemented changes, I am asking Esther McVey to pause and #RethinkUC.

 

Written by Andrew Coates

September 18, 2018 at 9:23 am

Universal Credit Failing People With Mental Health Problems.

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Related image

 

This appeared recently on the Disabled People Against Cuts Site.

Given the importance of issues about mental health recently should be looked at by the widest possible audience.

Some background before the article:

Universal credit leaves claimants with mental health problems ‘tangled in bureaucracy’

July 2018: 

People with mental health problems are becoming “tangled up” in the bureaucracy and flaws of the government’s new universal credit benefit system, a committee of MPs have heard.

Members of the public accounts committee heard this week that claimants were facing “considerable hardship and considerable deterioration in their mental health” because of universal credit.

Sophie Corlett, director of external relations for the mental health charity Mind, told them: “They struggle with the process, but they end up tangled in the process and unable to dig their way out of it.

“They struggle with the online application, they struggle with the conditionality that comes while you wait for your work capability assessment (WCA), they struggle with waiting for their first payment and if they are able to get an advance payment they struggle to pay that back.”

She also highlighted concerns about the role of the government’s work coaches, who are based at jobcentres and have “discretion” about whether they make adjustments to the process, including whether to relax the conditions placed on disabled claimants.

A key concern, said Corlett, was the period between the start of a universal credit claim and the WCA, during which claimants can be forced to carry out the usual 30-plus hours of jobsearch activity while waiting to be assessed for their “fitness for work”.

Carrying out this jobsearch activity was “a huge barrier” for many people with mental health problems, who were often not even well enough to visit their jobcentre.

Mental Health in the Social Security System

As the number of unemployed social security claimants has declined, the government’s drive for reductions in the benefits bill has focussed increasingly on the chronic sick and the disabled. The government’s aim is not to improve the well-being of these claimants but rather to classify as many of them as possible as fit for work and to push them into whatever jobs are available by cutting their benefits and, very frequently, imposing sanctions upon them. This strategy is backed up by a simplistic account of the mental health problems which, today, account for most sickness claims.

The key problem today is that mentally distressed claimants are being offered simplistic and ineffective remedies and are being pressurised by the social security system to seek employment of any kind, including in poor quality jobs which can aggravate their mental health conditions


Analysis

Over the last two decades, mental health problems have become a key issue in social security policy. This is because, first, straightforward unemployment is much lower and state-provided unemployment indemnities are now a very small fraction of social security expenditures, so that long-term illness and incapacity, which affect many more people, dominate in terms both of case-loads and spending.

Second, long-term illness itself now predominantly takes the form of mental distress, with anxiety and depression more frequent than the physiological problems, such as back pain, which used to account for most sickness-related social security claims.

In Britain  and in many other advanced economies social security claims related to illness increased rapidly in the wake of the deindustrialisation of the 1980s. One can trace these increases to labour market conditions and interpret them as a form of disguised unemployment in that they would not have been as severe if labour markets for industrial workers had remained buoyant. The geography of sickness benefits confirms the interpretation: For example, Merthyr Tydfil, devastated by the decline in Welsh heavy industry, was a notorious sickness benefit black spot.

In the 1980s policy-makers tended to accept the increased sickness benefit bill as the lesser of two evils, as preferable to much higher levels of open unemployment and as providing a certain compensation to some of the most vulnerable victims of structural change. However, as high numbers of sickness claims persisted and began to affect more recent generations governments became less passive and started to search for ways to limit the problem. One sign of this switch was a reformulation of labour market objectives: an increase in employment rates was seen as a better target than a reduction in unemployment as such in that high rates of inactivity (either through sickness or for other reasons) were now seen as in general undesirable.

Women were adversely affected by this shift because, in the drive to maximise employment, social security systems became much less supportive of women claimants who were full-time mothers and housewives. From the 1990s on, governments also started to make less use of early retirement as a palliative for long-term unemployment.

These changes should not disguise the continuity both in labour market conditions and in the nature of incapacity. There is certainly an alarming rise in mental health problems across western countries but the musculoskeletal disorders which prevailed in the past were not necessarily a completely distinct phenomenon: in an economy where most jobs were manual they could act as a sickness-induced disqualification from employment in general; in today’s service-dominated economy psychological malfunctions can, in a similar way, indicate an inability to meet the typical constraints of existing labour market conditions.

Thus the changing forms of sickness in no way undermine the notion of “disguised unemployment” or, in less tendentious terms, adverse labour market conditions, as a principal source of incapacity. Recent British policy, however, completely inverts this widely accepted causal relationship: current policy is based on the view that the labour market is not the cause of, but rather the remedy for, sickness-related inactivity. This view has led to the imposition of policies towards claimants which needlessly aggravate their distress while leaving untouched the labour market structures and practices which actually disqualify so many people from employment.

Two main developments have led to the policy impasse: the degeneration of the universal credit (UC) social security reforms and the drive within the NHS to address mental health problems through “Improved Access to Psychiatric Therapies” (IAPT).

The original objectives of the UC reforms were to simplify the benefit system, by bringing together six of the most important benefits under a single means-test, and consequently to strengthen employment incentives by reducing the rate at which benefits were withdrawn as claimants re-entered employment or took on more hours of paid work. Because these goals were seen as moving social security in the right direction, UC was widely welcomed by both researchers and organisations concerned with poverty, such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Child Poverty Action Group.

Gradually the welcome gave way to critical concern. After the election of 2015 the Conservative government stated its intention to reduce expenditures on working-age social security benefits by £12 billion, more than 10%, that is, to claw back some £12 billion per annum from the three largest claimant groups: the unemployed, the chronic sick and the low-paid.

It is an indication of social attitudes towards social security claimants, even though many are in employment, that the Labour Opposition did not at that time condemn these cuts but decided to abstain when they were debated in Parliament, though some, including many now in leadership positions in Labour, did vote against them.

While positive incentives to seek and retain employment were reduced, an increasingly harsh and oppressive treatment of claimants was substituted. The conditions for benefit payments were tightened continually, while breaches of these conditions were increasingly met with frequent and severe sanctions. Claimants with health problems were subjected to repeated assessments of their capacity to work – often crudely administered by unqualified staff in the service of revenue-hungry corporations. It was clearly intended to re-designate as many sickness-related claimants as possible as actually or potentially fit for work.

Unemployed claimants had to sign contracts committing them to often futile hours of job search and to participation in often badly-designed “work experience” and training schemes – both of these outsourced to corporations more concerned with profit than either high quality services or accurate reporting of their own performance.

The explosion in the numbers resorting to food banks and the arbitrary benefit reductions following from the “bedroom tax” (the so-called “spare room subsidy” removal) can both stand as emblems of the increased pressures on claimants.

Meanwhile, actual conditions on the labour markets towards which claimants were being impelled continued to deteriorate in terms of both wage rates and job security. Indeed the increasingly harsh regime imposed on those without employment may be leading people to accept worse pay and conditions rather than become claimants. The roll-out of UC in place of previous benefits became in itself a source of concern as new and renewed claims now attracted substantially lower levels of benefit.

Now the epidemic of mental distress became ever more central to the drive for social security spending cuts since, with falling rates of open unemployment, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and the corresponding sickness-related benefits under UC became a key item in social security spending and, at the same time, mental health problems increasingly predominated in these claims. The resulting policy difficulties could seem complex and intractable; they also called into question the punitive treatment of claimants which had in practice emerged from the UC reforms.

If claimants are suffering from anxiety and/or depression it is hard to see how suspending their benefits can improve their situation, and growing awareness of the severe consequences of sanctions – including suicides – may well have been a factor behind the unannounced but rapid and clearly policy-driven reduction in the use of sanctions after the peak they reached in 2014.

In this conjuncture the programme “Improving Access to Psychiatric Therapies” (IAPT) seemed to offer a silver bullet. Mental health problems could be easily overcome because:

  1. They were individual and not socio-economic in origin (after all, there are lots of people who cope);
  2. Thus the undeniable correlation between mental distress and socio-economic disadvantage should be interpreted as showing that mental health problems lead to disadvantage and not the other way round (the social security agenda does not require structural change in the sphere of employment);
  3. Most psychological problems can be easily dealt with by brief “talking therapies”;
  4. The essence of such “behavioural therapy” is not to improve the socio-economic situation of the sufferer but simply to alter their patterns of thought so that they cease to dwell on alarming or depressing features of their experience and so that they become – such is the hope – more likely to seek or retain employment;
  5. No great level of skill or knowledge is required to administer such therapy;
  6. Thus it can be provided cheaply;
  7. There will be a big pay-off in terms of employment and fewer claims for benefit since employment as such promotes psychological well-being and mental health.

One sign that this approach was completely unrealistic has been the failure to deal with many cases of depression and anxiety among claimants at the level of the least qualified mental health workers – the only group of workers in the field who have seen recruitment increase. Nor has the rolling out of IAPT led to any fall in the incidence of mental illness, nor any slowdown in the increasing prescription of psychotropic drugs in response to it.

Policy Framework

There is mounting evidence that current policies are aggravating the material and mental problems of many of the most vulnerable social security claimants. Social security reforms in the future must take fully into account their impact on mental health.

A complete refocus of policy on the well-being of the long-term sick and disabled is needed in the context of strategies which address the socio-economic determinants of poor mental health. Meanwhile, resources could be released by curtailing the frequently dysfunctional “assessments” and “work preparation” programmes to which mentally disturbed claimants are subjected, and by ceasing to contest large numbers of perfectly valid claims for sickness benefits.



John Grahl is Emeritus Professor of European Economics at Middlesex University. 

More: Rethink Mental Illness.

We know that money and mental health problems often go hand in hand. That’s why Rethink Mental Illness, as part of Mental Health UK, have set up a new website. It will help you understand, manage and improve your mental and financial health. You can find a wide range of information to help you with your benefits. Just visit www.mentalhealthandmoneyadvice.org to find out more.  

Clear, practical advice and support for people experiencing issues with mental health and money.

Written by Andrew Coates

September 4, 2018 at 10:26 am

Government in the Courts Again over Universal Credit.

with 40 comments

Protests at a Crime Scene of Universal Credit.

There’s been – since we posted on the Ipswich Star’s report –   a string of more news stories  in local papers about Universal Credit claimants in work (Low wage fears as 10000 North-East workers claim Universal Credit, The Northern Echo MORE than 10,000 workers in the North-East and North Yorkshire are claiming Universal Credit because their wages are not enough to live on, …More than a third on Universal Credit in work  Shropshire star. ‘Shocking’ working benefits stats show two in five Universal Credit …Powys County Times21 hours ago.

Now we have this from the Disability News Service.

DWP facing court over claimant’s universal credit ‘fit for work injustice’

A disabled man who was unfairly found “fit for work”, and then saw his benefits slashed by almost £180 per month after he was forced onto the government’s new universal credit benefit system, is seeking justice in the high court.

It is the latest in a series of legal cases that have been taken on behalf of disabled benefit claimants against DWP, as a result of a series of welfare reforms introduced under successive Conservative and Conservative-led governments.

The man, known as IM for legal reasons, had been claiming employment and support allowance (ESA), but after undergoing a work capability assessment he was told in March last year that he was no longer eligible for ESA.

His jobcentre advised him to claim universal credit instead, which he did, but he also successfully appealed against the decision to find him fit for work.

Although the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) now accepts that he was unfairly found fit for work and that he has limited capability for work-related activity – the equivalent of being in the ESA support group – he has been treated as a new universal credit claimant.

As a new claimant, he is not entitled to the severe disability premium (SDP) he previously received as a top-up to ESA.

He is also not entitled to the partial compensation of £80 a month agreed by work and pensions secretary Esther McVey for those who lost entitlement to SDP when they were forced to move onto universal credit after their circumstances changed.

IM’s judicial review case has been taken by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), which has described DWP’s policy as “irrational” and discriminatory.

It has secured permission for a judicial review of the failure to provide IM with transitional protection after his move to universal credit, or, alternatively, the refusal to allow him to return to ESA.

Another case is in the pipeline:

CPAG is taking a similar legal action on behalf of AD, a single mother with a disabled child, which will be heard by the high court alongside IM’s case.

TD gave up her job to become a full-time carer but had her income support terminated when her child’s disability living allowance (DLA) was about to end and before it could be renewed.

She was also told by the jobcentre to claim universal credit, which she did.

Despite DWP eventually admitting that there had been a mistake, TD is now receiving almost £140 a month less under universal credit than she did when receiving income support.

The two cases are expected to be heard together in the high court early next year.

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) welcomed the judicial review and warned that if it was not successful, many other disabled people would be affected in a similar way.

DPAC said DWP was clearly engaged in “another cost-saving exercise”.

A DPAC spokesperson said: “Financially, the incentive for DWP is to find as many claimants as possible fit for work.

“Even if the decision is overturned, DWP is saving money by transferring claimants to universal credit.

“This is clearly just more evidence that universal credit is beyond being fixed.

“People already living on poverty-level social security payments are simply and randomly being thrown even further into destitution.”

Claire Glasman, from the campaigning organisation WinVisible – which supports disabled women – said: “Families are being devastated by abolition of income support, which is some recognition of caring work.

“We are contacted by stressed out mothers at their wits’ end when their children’s DLA and their carer benefits are threatened by the brutal personal independence payment [which is replacing working-age DLA]and universal credit system.”

A DWP spokeswoman said: “We are not able to comment on an ongoing legal case.”

This site recommends DPAC .

Their activists, all over the country, including Suffolk and Ipswich, have campaigned against injustice not just in words but by active protests.

 

Written by Andrew Coates

August 25, 2018 at 10:30 am