Tag Archives: benefit cuts

Value in Politics?

JS60811969

I love this picture that has been floating round social media. This little girl’s reaction to David Cameron seems to sum up so succinctly many people’s reaction to his party’s idea that children in year 7 should retake the SATs they took in year 6 if they’re not up to scratch. #headdesk seems entirely appropriate.

Since when did SATs become a test you had to pass? We abolished the 11+ because it set children apart and labelled some as failures at too young an age, and now it seems to be back. The Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan might say that children are already set apart by this age if they are not achieving expected levels in Maths and English. This says something positive about the predictive power of SATs tests, but no amount of retesting will change this. If someone is struggling with Maths and English at 11, chances are they will be struggling at 16 too. Instead of labelling children as failures and focusing on re-sits, perhaps more creative, more constructive programmes could be implemented to support children. The whole measurement becomes meaningless anyway, when we remember the previous education secretary required every child’s scores to be above average.

We have become entirely embroiled in the numbers here, there is no sense of the individuals involved – not their needs (special or otherwise), or personalities, or desires, or gifts, or even really their futures. Just reaching that magic level 4 at the end of KS2. It’s like benefit sanctions – the human misery doesn’t matter, just reducing the claimant count. Or the bedroom tax – no matter that there are no smaller homes to move into, the housing benefit bill must come down.

It’s not that there isn’t merit is spending less on benefits, or measuring progress in schools. But these things should not be an outcome in themselves. What is the point unless life is made better for all of us? There are better ways of spending less on housing benefits, by better control of rents and private landlords, but this way isn’t quicker or easier and affects the rich not the poor. There are better ways of helping people into work other than cutting off their income, but these involve a bit of time, attention, understanding and money! Taking resits in year 7 seems unlikely to improve opportunities for children struggling at school.

These policies only make sense when considered in a vacuum, without the messiness of actual people’s lives. But, given that politics is about people, I’m looking for policies which, at their heart, value people’s humanity.

At the core of my understanding of where faith and politics combine is discovering the intrinsic value of every person. For the Christian, humans are made in the image of God, there is something of God in every person. Every one of us is valuable simply because we are human. It is an intrinsic part of who we are. It is not a function of our productivity, or our utility. It is not dependent on our capacity to think, or to love, or to pass KS2 SATs. It is our essence. And it should be reflected in all our interactions between each other and the state.

Advertisements

Beyond your Front Door: more on benefit sanctions

P1010667Sometimes I wonder if any of us really know what goes on beyond our front doors. This week, two reports have come out about the DWP benefit sanction regime that are so damning, it seems impossible that the system can continue, and yet it does. I feel that I must be completely out of sync with society. All my conversations about benefit sanctions, real and virtual, are full of stories about how sanctions cause misery and pain and are inflicted in an arbitrary and cruel way. But I clearly have no idea what goes on beyond my front door, as there seem to be many who see nothing wrong with the system. On the other hand, so many must have no idea what is actually happening in the lives and families of those who are affected by sanctions.

So, not a full blog today. I just wanted to bring these articles and other comments together in one place.

One report has found that benefit sanctions are disproportionately applied to people with mental health problems. The Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales and MIND found that more than 100 people a day are having their income taken away. Far too often, the reason for the sanction is often a symptom of the health issue. “Sanctioning someone with a mental health problem for being late for a meeting is like sanctioning someone with a broken leg for limping. The fact that this system punishes people for the symptoms of their illness is a clear and worrying sign that it is fundamentally flawed,” said Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church.

The findings of an MPs’ inquiry showed that cutting people’s benefit doesn’t actually help people find work. It certainly cuts the benefit bill and makes the unemployment figures look better. But many people who are sanctioned don’t find work, they simply give up claiming the benefit. This might sound great if you ignore the human misery and are only interested in outcomes that involve saving money. But the review also suggests that the costs simply appear elsewhere, but bigger, such as in additional costs to the prison and courts service, to the NHS and other food support services.

And finally this piece in the Guardian today, which shows up the sanctions regime for what it is: a means to bully and harass people who can’t fight back. And the reason why this continues, why people don’t see or aren’t bothered is summed up nicely thus: “But a public encouraged to think of “the unemployed” and “welfare claimants” as some separate, degenerate Other seems barely to notice what is happening.”

This s**t isn’t happening to other people, it’s happening to us. To our fellow citizens, to people in our cities, in our communities, to our neighbours, our friends, to our country. Come on guys, look beyond your front door. Arm yourselves with the facts. Click on the links above (and the ones I’ll post below), read the reports. And when those desperate parliamentary candidates knock on your door asking for your vote, ask them what they’re going to do about it.

Other reports and comments:

Emergency Use Only

Listen Up!

Feeding Britain

The Safety Net: in urgent need of repair

Other reports worth reading:

Why I can’t sanction sanctions

Emergency use onlyWhat happens to people who get their benefits stopped? Have you ever actually sat down and thought about what really happens? Or are the consequences unfortunate but unavoidable, so you don’t think about them? After all, sanctions are a justifiable way of making sure people aren’t defrauding the system, right?

Well, no. Benefit fraud is a different thing altogether and involves court cases, paying the money back and going to prison. Just over a year ago I was giving debt advice to a couple with young children who were sentenced to prison the week before Christmas.

Let’s look at what I’m really talking about. What bothers me is the growing gap in the numbers between people in work and people claiming unemployment benefit – known these days as job seekers allowance (JSA).

Not everyone who doesn’t work claims JSA. Some people are too unwell to work and they (should) receive a different allowance. Other people live in households which have other income and aren’t entitled to JSA. In theory, in an ideal world, this should cover everyone.

Recently, the number of people in work has been rising. We can have a debate about the quality of these jobs, and employment versus self-employment, but that’s for another day. However, government figures show the number of people receiving JSA has been falling faster than the number of people in work has been rising. It’s perfectly clear that they haven’t all started claiming the allowance for those too unwell for work as the furore over changes to this benefit shows. And neither you nor I believe they’ve all moved into households with other income.

No, people are no longer counted as claiming JSA because they have had their allowance stopped. And here is the key phrase I read on a discussion thread, and which continues to buzz round my head – “people are no longer counted”. These people don’t count any more – they’re off the JSA figures – who cares if they’re actually working or not.

So – what actually happens when your income disappears. It usually happens without notice. Most people will tell you they went to collect their money as usual to find it was not there, with no other warning. A sanction can last four weeks or eight weeks, but can be as long as 26 weeks or 104 weeks. Yes, that’s right – 104 weeks – that’s two years, a nice piece of government obfuscation there.

Now, let’s remember this is happening to people, not just numbers. What do you do when suddenly you have not money? You can’t put any more money on your gas or electricity meter – many people without a wage coming in have to use pre-pay meters. Let’s hope the weather is warm. You won’t be able to switch on the oven, but then again, chances are you don’t have any money to buy food. And if it goes on too long, you might not even have a cooker if you’d “bought” it from somewhere like Brighthouse and are paying back in instalments because you could never get that sort of money together up front. Keep the doors and windows locked so the bailiffs can’t get in.

You can’t top up your phone, so you can’t call anyone to see what’s gone wrong or how to put it right, and you don’t have the bus fare to go into town to sort it out. Your rent should still be paid by housing benefit, but this is often incorrectly stopped as well*. Then there’s water rates, TV licence, bedroom tax and council tax, all unpaid and stacking up arrears, penalties and further potential visits from bailiffs.

So what can you do? You could borrow from family and friends, if they’ve got anything they can lend you. But this can only be a temporary fix and will have to be paid back for the sake of family harmony. Likewise, you could go to a foodbank, but again, this is only a short-term solution if your sanction is a long one, and you’ll have to say no to the fresh veg they sometimes offer because you’ve nothing spare to put on the meter for the hob. You could try a payday lender (if you aren’t already struggling with previous loans). You’ll probably get one, but it’s hardly a good solution because even when/if your money is restored, there’s nothing spare to make the repayments anyway. Mind you, it’s an option more and more of us are turning too and personal credit in the UK continues to rocket. You could try a doorstep lender like Provident – at least they accept repayments in smaller amounts, but these seem to go on forever. But better than an illegal lender, a though which has crossed your mind. A Credit Union loan would be a better option, but (as yet) these aren’t available soon enough – you’ll need to be a saver for several weeks first in most cases.

If only there were hardship payments available to tied you over until the end of the sanction period – as least to put money on the meter and food on the table. What? You mean there are such payments? Why did no-one tell me about them?** Meanwhile, we’re all hungry and the last resort might be shoplifting, just so there’s something to feed the kids when they get home from school tonight.

 

After I wrote this blog but before I posted it, I read this article, which echoes some of my themes above and shows that sanctions don’t help people back into work anyway. Who’d’ve thought?

* see the Emergency Use Only report (pictured), p116

** see the Emergency Use Only report, p42 and p111

Food Banks and Society

Food banks are never far away from the news, not least because it’s hard to believe that so many people are reliant on their provisions in one of the richest countries in the world. Despite the Government failing to respond to this growing scandal, Frank Field and the Church of England launched their own inquiry, and this week the resulting report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group, Feeding Britain, was launched.

Interestingly, the authors of the report say that this: “our first and most important point is that we want to call all people again to consider how we want to live together as members of this society and how we can encourage one another”. In the light of the report, and in my experience working as a debt advisor and with a food bank, I’d like to offer my considerations.

I think we need to live together in a society which values and respects people in work. I do not think this is the case in a country where people are working, sometimes several jobs, and are still not earning enough to pay the bills. I’d like to see a society where people are not exploited for their labour, where zero-hours contracts are a happy adjunct to busy lives for a few and not a systematic way of keeping costs down while people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. I’d like to see a minimum wage which rises as the cost of living goes up. I’d like to see national and local government encouraging the implementation of a Living Wage for their own staff, contracted staff and through their procurement and tendering procedures, as well as ways to encourage other businesses and organisations to pay a Living Wage. I’d like to see protection of the rights of workers and strengthening of Unions, rather than a steady erosion of terms and conditions in the name of “flexible working”. I’d like to see a society which values people above profit, where money and growth is the means to an end and not an end in itself.

I think we need to live together in a society which values and respects people who are not in work. I do not thinks this is the case in a country which has become so focused on the very few who play the system that it has forgotten to take care of everyone else. I’d like to see a social security system which is a genuine safety net for those who are struggling and going through a tough period in their lives. I don’t want to live in a society where a man with learning disabilities who is trying hard to live independently after he lost his Mum and his job in a Remploy factory has his income taken away for four weeks because he struggles to read the letters sent to him from the Job Centre, and where he finds himself in debt because no-one took the time to explain to him that benefit changes mean he has become liable for part of his council tax bill which has previously been fully covered. I don’t want to be part of a society which counts and celebrates the number of people in work, and counts the number of people on benefits, but where those people who are not in work but have been cut adrift from the benefit system become people who no longer count. I want to live together in a country where we understand that our contribution to the state through tax and national insurance funds the way we share our responsibility for the well-being of all. I don’t want to be part of a country which is driven by an ideology which believes state spending should be as small as possible, and in the pursuit of this goal fails to protect the vulnerable and leaves all of us in fear of crashing through the gaping hole in the social security safety net if anything should happen.

I think we need to live together in a society which recognises the responsibility of Government to invest in the welfare of its citizens. I don’t believe we need to pursue austerity at all costs. I don’t believe that continuing to cut, not just benefits, but the services we rely on to help us navigate through life and Government bureaucracy, is the way to build up our common life. I believe that people want to share in our collective responsibility towards one another and would be happy to contribute. I think that there are people at the wealthier end of the spectrum who could shoulder a bigger portion of this responsibility. If we really need to tackle the deficit (though if Government borrowing is so cheap at the moment, perhaps it is not the imperative we are told it is) then increasing income is just as valid an alternative to reducing costs. Serious effort should be applied to closing tax loopholes and increasing transparency so we can collect the billions in taxes currently being avoided by multinationals operating in this country. We could introduce a “Robin Hood Tax” like our fellow citizens in Europe are doing, so that we benefit more as a country from the enormous financial markets in the City of London and so that there is at least a small application of the brakes on damaging speculative short term trading.

The Feeding Britain report makes other suggestions about benefits, tax credits, access to credit, energy and water bills, access to the internet and mobile phones. All these things are key to easing the financial squeeze faced by poor households. It also suggests something which it calls Food Bank plus. The theory is once some of the measures above are put in place, households with a short term crisis will not need to use a food bank, freeing the service up to offer more support to those with longer-term needs. The report identifies that the issue of food, being such a basic physical and social need, means that people have come for help who are otherwise “hard to reach”. With a more joined-up, co-ordinated approach, Food Bank plus would offer a portal to provide better support for these people, including debt advice, benefits advice, help for mental health issues, access to credit such as via credit unions, back to work programmes, help and advice around cooking and nutrition.

I can see what they are saying. I recognise that people came to the food bank I worked for who were very suspicious of anyone from the council or social services or the job centre, but were reassured by the staff and volunteers who made them a cup of tea, listened to their problems and gave them a bag of food. But… food banks cannot become an institutionalised part of our welfare system. We must be a country where the state takes responsibility for its citizens. If people are going hungry, the system is broken and needs to be fixed. If the appropriate funding was invested in job centres and advice staff, then people would have access to the advice they need and the benefit system would be navigated successfully. If mental health services were accorded the value and funding of their physical health counterpart, then people would have confidence in the services that were offered. Likewise for social services.

We are back to discussing the kind of society we want to live in, how we want to live together. The report speaks of a lack of social glue holding society together. I don’t think it is possible to say this is all down to government cuts. However, I do believe that the way the Government is behaving is symptomatic of the reason for the lack of social glue. Business, politics, economics – it is all driven by the pursuit of growth. It is all about the bottom line. We are all here to be efficient economic units – efficient in production and insatiable in our consumption. The value of people and the relationships between friends and neighbours are sacrificed on the altar of growth. But I want to be part of a society which values people above profit. Where government policy is decided on in the light of its impact on people and communities. Our trust in one another is eroded when inequality rises, when our status is under threat, our jobs are insecure and the social contract between a government and its people is broken. We could hope that civil society will do the job of government, will pick up the pieces and look after those in need. But I thought we’d moved on from that. I thought we’d decided as a society that we would like our collective responsibility to one other to be fulfilled through the instrument of the state providing education, health and welfare equitably and justly for all of us throughout the country, regardless of status or background. Otherwise we’ll end up like the Post Office, complaining now that it has been privatised, that it is not profitable to run services in remote areas for the same price as everywhere else. We surely knew that before it was sold, that’s why it was nationally owned. As a metaphor for the current regime, the Post Office debacle tells us pretty much what we need to know.

If you’d like to read more, some great work exploring the real lives of food bank users can be found in the Listen Up report and in the Emergency Use Only report.

Other interesting comments on the Feeding Britain reports can be found below

Joint Public Issues: Feeding Britain

The Safety Net: in urgent need of repair

A Way Forward on Food Banks

As Children Starve, Where’s the State?

And if you want to read some books about growth, equality and the creeping reach of market capitalism I can recommend these:

The Spirit Level by Richard Wilson and Kate Pickett

How Much is Enough by Robert and Edward Skidelsky

What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel

Telling Stories

“Poverty is at its most deadly when we no longer notice, we no longer care, we no longer even question it.” (Fogg, A. The Guardian, Dec 1)

http://www.theguardian.com/…/poverty-deadly-evidence-auster…

Worth a read.. Shocking statistics about the increases in poverty that haven’t even been broadcasted to us! The UK is by no means over the recession we must not turn a blind eye to it and those in need! ‪#‎challenging

This is the most shocking thing I have read this week. Not the article, I’ve already read or read about most of the reports cited in it. No, I was shocked by this Facebook comment, which came from a friend of mine. Where’s he been? He’s clearly not been reading my Facebook page!

But it is unfair to be too critical, because as the article says, these stories are not making media headlines. The reports, stories and figures are there if you know where to look, but they are not the hot topics of conversation.

On Saturday I joined over 100 of others to talk about poverty in Sheffield, and in particular the impact of benefit cuts on people in Sheffield. We heard from Nick Waterfield talking about foodbanks, including telling us about the foodbank in Nottingham which has closed its doors because it has become part of the problem, not part of the solution. We heard from the “Sheffield academics” who have described the devastating impact of welfare cuts on people in Sheffield. And we heard from Jane Perry, the author of “Emergency Use Only”, the report published by the Church of England, Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group and Trussell Trust.

On Saturday, Jane was talking about a different piece of research, which I’ll come to in a moment. But before she presented her report, she had this to say. Policy makers can’t know the impact of policies unless we tell them. Even people in churches won’t know unless we tell the stories of those who have been affected. This is what needs to happen, so that my friends know the stories before they read articles in the Guardian. So let me take some time to tell some of these stories.listenup

I’m going to share some of the stories from “Emergency Use Only” and from the other research Jane was involved in. This project was called “Listen Up!” and enabled church members to take time to interview and listen to members of their own communities struggling with welfare cuts. I’m not going to comment further, just tell some stories, and hope that they speak to you and that you will speak them to others.

Kath lives with her three teenage sons. Her youngest son has several serious medical conditions and requires intensive support. After her partner left 4 years ago, Kath gave up work to become his full-time carer. This left the family finances in precarious financial position:

‘We live very close to the edge… we don’t have many things. My 17-year-old needed a passport to get a part-time job and I had to say no. My youngest, who’s 14, has never been on a school trip, and I can’t afford the art supplies my other son needs for his course.’

The family were just about managing when their Child Tax Credits were halved without notice. Kath had arranged her finances so that she relied on her tax credits to pay for food and other daily necessities, so the effect was catastrophic.

When Kath contacted HMRC, she was told her credits had been cut because she had failed to tell them that her two older sons were staying in education. Kath says she did update them. She was assigned a case worker and given a number to call, ‘and that’s where the problem started’.

‘I called them every day all day and couldn’t get through. And every time I got put through to the answer machine we got charged. It was awful. I’d go back to the helpline and say “I can’t get through”, and they said “Well, that’s the number”. They didn’t help at all. It went on for eight weeks.’

Kath was horrified by how she was treated. ‘When our money was stopped, there was no compassion, there was no way to get support.’

Meanwhile, she was getting into more and more debt: ‘We got behind on all our bills; everything just got swallowed up, and my direct debits were bouncing.’

She became unable to meet the family’s basic needs. ‘It was freezing cold, there was no wood for the fire, I was on the emergency on the meter and I knew the lights were about to go out, and I had no food.’ To attempt to make ends meet, Kath had to rehouse a much-loved family pet, a decision which she described as ‘heart-breaking’. But this was still not enough: ‘I had no money to get my children to school… I was desperate.’

To compound their problems, her youngest son’s conditions mean he needs to eat healthily, which Kath found challenging on a small budget. ‘He can’t eat fast food; he would have ended up in hospital.’

Kath and her family survived with the help of donations from her local Citizens Advice Bureau and food bank. It took eight weeks for the decision to cut her Child Tax Credits to be overturned.

She said of her experience: ‘I thought the system would protect me. I never thought I would be completely ignored. I feel I was let down hugely. My benefits are my safety net – if they’re removed, how are families like ours meant to survive?’ Emergency Use Only

Before her car accident, Abby described herself as being on a “living wage” of around £150 to £200 per week. The sick pay she currently receives through being unable to work because of her injuries has halved that element of income to £85 per week, leaving her much more dependent on tax credits and benefits paid for her children. After bills are paid, she is left with £20 for other things. Abby’s accident compounded difficulties caused by estrangement from her family and the loss of her baby to cot death, leaving her with ‘re-occurring depression’. And yet she retains an impressive sense of personal resilience, saying “I might be little but I’m mighty”. She expressed a certain sense of inevitability about having to be, as she described herself, “like iron”, based on perception of having little choice but to cope alone. When asked who she turned to in a crisis, she responded “to the mirror”.  Listen Up!

A woman seeking money advice had been receiving Income Support on the grounds of ill health and failed to qualify for ESA. Payment of her benefits had stopped towards the end of December 2013, leaving her with no income whatsoever. She suffers with diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and arthritis. When seen at the food bank in early February 2014, having lived without income for over a month, she was visibly struggling to stand, even supported by a walking stick. The client had phoned the DWP in January and said she wanted a mandatory reconsideration of the decision. In late February, the client received a notice that her request had been refused. The next day CPAG assisted her to complete an appeal form which was submitted to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS). HMCTS confirmed to CPAG that it had sent acknowledgement of receipt of the appeal to the DWP eight days after it had been posted. The welfare rights adviser called the DWP the same day (12 days after the appeal had been posted) and explained that HMCTS had received the appeal, and asked for ESA to be reinstated pending its resolution. As the section of the DWP dealing with the issue had not received the acknowledgement at that time it refused to reinstate ESA. Three days later HMCTS finally agreed to send an email to the DWP confirming that the appeal had been received. CPAG also faxed the DWP the copy of the client’s letter from HMCTS confirming an appeal had been lodged. The DWP refused to act on this evidence. In late March, some 26 days after the appeal had been posted, CPAG received the papers for the appeal from the DWP (meaning that they must have received confirmation of the appeal from HMCTS). The client was finally paid ESA in early April (35 days after the appeal was posted to HMCTS).  Emergency Use Only

Upon investigation by the welfare rights adviser, it emerged that a woman had been sanctioned for ‘failure to attend work programme’ three separate times by different decision makers in three different offices:

  • Feb 2014 – decision made by Wellingborough Labour Market decision makers but reversed as client had been attending a job interview when not at the work programme.
  • March 2014 – decision made by the Watford Labour Market decision makers, reversed as the claimant had been ill on that date and had phoned to explain this to the work programme provider.
  • April 2014 – decision made by Cosham Labour Market decision makers, reversed because the claimant had had a meeting about rent arrears with her landlord at the time she was supposed to be attending, and had told the Jobcentre in advance.

There appeared to be confusion within the DWP regarding this case. In particular, sanction periods should not have overlapped as they did. However, from the claimant’s perspective, the multiple decision makers meant any phone calls and correspondence had to be with three different offices. It was also incredibly hard, even for a welfare rights adviser, to obtain accurate information regarding the case. It took in excess of ten hours of welfare rights adviser time to resolve these sanctions and ensure the client was paid, given the difficulties of obtaining information and the need to correspond with so many different parties. The client meanwhile, despite the fact she had obtained hardship payments and still retained her Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit during this period, had had to take her child’s Christmas presents to Cash Converters in order to pay for fuel. On redeeming these when she was finally paid she had to pay more than she had received.  Emergency Use Only

‘There should be more discretion for individuals with the bedroom tax. I’m on the list for a bungalow, but I realise that means someone else has to die for one to become available. But I’ll still have to pay bedroom tax, because sometimes my daughter has to stay the night when my mobility deteriorates.’  Woman in her 50s with disability, Listen Up

Raja lives in a small flat which he rents from a housing association. He worked as a nurse until 2008 when he was hospitalised with mental health problems; at this time, Raja also lost his home. He made a gradual recovery over the next few years and lived in a series of hostels. He was eventually re-housed to his current home and was able to start work again in 2011.

After losing his job again in 2013, Raja applied for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). His claim took eight weeks to be processed. During this time Raja had to use the food bank for the first time, as he did not have enough money to buy food. His benefits were stopped at the beginning of 2014 because he could not access the system to complete the required job-search activities.

“Over Christmas for three days I didn’t have access to universal job match, as I didn’t have access to a computer as everything was still shut, my local library was shut. The day I went to sign on I found I had been sanctioned. It went on for four weeks. It’s not at all reasonable. I’m not just talking about myself, but so many people are sanctioned. I didn’t even have electricity whilst I was sanctioned as I couldn’t afford it, and I ended up at the food bank.”

Raja survived with the help of a crisis payment from Citizens Advice Bureau and food parcels from the food bank. His housing association also supported him in his efforts to find work.

Raja found the Jobcentre to be very unhelpful: he experienced a lack of empathy and support and a lack of information, particularly about whether the JSA sanction would have a knock-on effect on his Housing Benefit. When he tried to question the sanction he was referred to a helpline based in Newcastle, but the advisers were not able to help with his case.

“I don’t think we get enough help from the Jobcentre itself with applying for jobs. My local housing association do help me; they give me a one-to-one and they let me access computers.”

Raja remained positive about the future, and was learning new IT skills at college and applying for low-paid jobs.

“I think I’ve now got a part-time job working as a night receptionist so I’m very happy. Working is good for your health; it’s good to be doing something. I want to get off benefits. Even though it’s minimum wage, I can’t wait to get off them. I was on more money when I was a senior nurse but I think anything is better than dole money.”  Emergency Use Only

Who benefits from benefits?

Image

 

It’s time to tell a different story about where public money goes and who benefits from benefits. We need an alternative to the current narrative from the government about “hardworking people” who “do the right thing”, who end up paying for those who aren’t working. However, the chart above shows that the spending on people on the edge of society who are working hard looking for a job is a very small part of social security spending. And the changes to Job Seekers Allowance means that it can be very hard to do all the right things required of you to avoid a sanction. (I took the chart from this blog and the information in it comes from this government paper on page 57).

Huge amounts are spent on pensions, but I’m not going to go there…

Four times as much money is spent on housing compared to unemployment benefits, and the housing benefit bill has been steadily rising. Housing benefits pay rents which people would otherwise not be able to afford. But this safety net means that rents can rise as they are not held back people’s ability to pay. This is the logic of capping housing benefit, so that it doesn’t continue to fuel rent rises. But who suffers the most with this policy? Those who can’t afford to pay rents. This takes power away from the already pretty powerless, and cedes more power to the powerful. Those with little power or money have little choice and are at the mercy of uncaring landlords providing poor accommodation. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money is being paid to wealthy private landowners, making the rich richer, as this article explains.

Capping rent not benefits would cut the benefit bill but this time the change to the balance of power would be in favour of the weakest. I don’t believe that we should kneel before the altar of the market, but if we want to use market forces, a better way of reducing prices would be to increase supply, especially as rising prices can’t diminish demand of what is an essential rather than a luxury good. This means building more houses, which would also increase employment. And as it would be a good idea to make sure these houses were affordable and not susceptible to soaring rents, why not let them be council houses?

We need to join the dots. Giles Fraser writing about why the church should be angry about welfare policy, says that homelessness in London has risen by 60% in two years. We do have choices, and I believe we need to make choices which don’t just make economic sense, but choices which protect the most vulnerable in our society. So in this case, that is the tenant and not the landowner.

And while we’re on the subject of public money going to already wealthy private individuals, lets join some more dots up and widen it out to private companies. Take another look at the chart above and the figure paid out to families and children. Some of this will be child benefit, a universal benefit. There are good reasons to keep benefits universal, not least so we all have a stake in our society, but that’s another subject. The rest includes child tax credit and working families tax credit. This is paid as a “top-up” to ensure low-paid families can still afford a reasonable standard of living, and tries to ensure being in work pays more than not being in work.

This is somewhat at odds with the government’s narrative. Hardworking families who are doing the right thing still need to claim benefits, because they are not earning enough. Maybe this is to do with working part-time because of issues around childcare. Or maybe because there are only part-time jobs available (I talked about underemployment in my last blog). But plenty of these benefits are paid out to people working full-time but still considered to be earning too little for a decent standard of living. How can this be? How can it be that it is possible to work full-time and still not be able to afford to pay the bills and feed your family? Surely that’s why we have a minimum wage? But sadly, since its introduction in 1999 its value in real terms (taking into account rising prices) has been declining since 2010. An independent body calculates the hourly rate required for someone working full-time to earn enough for a decent standard of living, and this is know as the Living Wage.

Meanwhile, non-Living Wage employers are paying minimum but inadequate wages, which need to be topped up out of public funds. Some of these employers may be small businesses struggling themselves, which is why the Living Wage is a voluntary scheme. But plenty of these businesses are large firms making large profits. Supermarkets are a classic example. A quick scan of the list of living wage employers did not reveal any supermarkets to me, and yet they are posting huge profits. Profits built on low-paid workers subsidised by public money.

I don’t know what difference my little blog will do. But we need to talk about these things. We need to challenge anyone who says we cannot afford our welfare bill. Protecting the vulnerable is a key function of a civilised country. Our spending needs reform, but reform should protect the interests of the weak not the powerful. We are all stake-holders in a system which protects us when times are tough. The powerful have the capacity to protect their own interests, and they are doing very nicely at this thank you very much (Church Action on Poverty estimates tax dodging costs the UK at least £45 billion a year). A lot has been said this week about the morality of welfare reform. The Bible is full of exhortations to support the poor and the weak, to be a voice for the voiceless, especially the Old Testament. But I came across this the other day. Right at the heart of his plans to spread the message about Jesus, Paul says this: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:10, NIV)

Deconstructing unemployment figures

For every one of those people who has found a job, it is good news that the number of people in employment has risen. I only spent a few months looking for work, and every rejection saps your confidence while the bills keep coming in. But figures which record more people in work and fewer people claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) are pretty meaningless on their own.

For a start, the two measures are not entirely correlated – someone finding a job is not necessarily someone coming off benefits. I was never claiming JSA while I was job-hunting. Likewise, someone coming off JSA is not the same as someone finding a job. The current stream of people relying in desperation on food banks thanks to the brutal system of punitive sanctions is testament to that. This, I think, is at the heart of the Bishops’ recent criticism of government policy. Finding yourself with no money for four or six weeks without warning is hardly going to inspire hope.

But even if we accept that more people are finding work, the figures still do not tell the whole story. I’d like to know what kind of work people are finding. During the recession, thousands and thousands of people in the public and private sectors were made redundant. Many of these jobs were full-time, well-paid, permanent contracts with secure terms and conditions. The labour market has been badly damaged since then, with less security for workers, and an increase in short-term, part-time, low-paid jobs. The fuss over zero-hours contracts has died down, but the situation remains that people can get such a job, their JSA stops, but they don’t get any income because they don’t get any work.

We need to see more than the headline figures before we decide if the economy is really getting better. It is important that we know that the number of people who are self-employed is continuing to rise – great if you want to measure entrepreneurship but not so great for job security. And the number of people working part-time is also still 46,000 more than this time last year. This should be considered alongside the measure of people working part-time only because they can’t find full-time work – currently almost 5% of everyone who is working, or 1.4 million people, nearly as high as it has ever been.

The other price we have paid for a rising number of jobs in an environment of weakening workers’ rights is a drop in the real value of wages. Inflation may be falling, but at 1.9% it is still higher than the latest figures on weekly earnings increase of 1.1%, and we have got several years of rising prices and falling wages to catch up on. And for those on the lowest wages, rising prices have a bigger impact, as food and fuel take up a bigger proportion of household spending.

Finding a job is a good news story for every individual involved. But before we hail it as good news for the economy as a whole, and a sign of our economic recovery, I’d like us to evaluate the quality of the jobs which are being created. We need more full-time jobs, permanent contracts and better wages. This needs to include actually enforcing the minimum wage to root out unscrupulous employers, and moving as a society towards the living wage to ensure that being in work means you can actually support your family.

Will the benefit system eventually be of no benefit at all?

Here’s the latest scary idea from the Government – if you’re not earning enough, you should get your benefits cut. And you thought that the benefit system was there to help people who didn’t earn enough! How silly! If you’re not earning enough, you should work harder and do more hours so that you don’t need to be on benefits, and if you don’t, then the Government will sanction you so that you don’t receive your benefits anyway!

 

How does anyone think this is an appropriate idea? Consider that we are in an economic climate where a quarter of those working part-time already want to work more hours but can’t, and where there are already 45 applicants for each low-skilled job and on average 85 applicants for graduate jobs. Job security is disappearing, being replaced by zero-hours contracts, making life unpredictable and precarious as shown by this article, which appeared in the same edition of the Guardian as the item about benefit sanctions.

 

The whole philosophy seems to be back-to-front, and ideas driven only by the desire to cut costs. Clearly there is no scope for a limitless welfare bill. But the premise here seems to be to invent new rules so that fewer people qualify for payments, instead of changing the circumstances of the people so that fewer people need payments. It’s obvious which is easier, but is it right or just? Do questions of rightness or justice even matter, as long as money is saved? Only if those who lose their benefits can be adjudged as being to blame. As soon as we look through the lens of the needs of those in receipt of benefits, where work is scarce, childcare expensive, elderly parents needy, and systems designed to catch you out, then casting people adrift seems harder to justify.

 

And yet people are already having payments cut but seem to cope. Does this suggest that the Government is right, that stopping people’s money is a spur to getting a job or finding more work. If there really are not enough jobs, hours or job-security out there, how are people managing? There are other things which fill the gap, some good and some not. I would suggest that Wonga’s increasing profits are not co-incidental. But neither is the rise in people being fed by food banks. I am inspired by the way churches and other groups have stepped into the breach to meet the needs of the hungry and totally supportive of the work they do, but does the very presence of food banks enable to the Government to carry out cuts and abdicate responsibility for its citizens? Are food banks, in fact, guilty of collusion? (see the blog I linked to in my previous post)

 

While people are hungry, I believe food banks should remain open. But those of us who are not prepared to let people go hungry should not stop there. There are some specific issues which we could campaign on, like the introduction of a living wage and the scaling back of zero-hours contracts. If large, profitable companies paid a living wage, then salaries would not need to be topped up by tax credits, or the new universal credit, which would also mean that profits would not longer be built on hidden Government subsidy. We could also campaign for better regulation of the pay-day loan industry, to protect those need this kind of credit.

 

I also think we need to think about the bigger picture. What are the values which we want to form the foundation of our society? I’d like to see a society where the needs of people are not subordinate to the appetites of big business or government economic policy. Where we value justice, freedom and equality above money, status and power. A society which works together for the common good rather than the needs of the individual. There’s more about what this might involve here, and I’m still thinking about where the church fits into this conversation. Watch this space!!

 

Changing the frame of the Benefits Discourse

I wrote this reflection in December 2012, and posted it on Facebook, so apologies if you’ve seen it before. But following a comment on my “Hard-working Taxpayers” post, I thought it was worth repeating. Sadly it still feels just as relevant, more than 6 months on.

I’m shocked by the ruthless way people on low-incomes have been treated by this Government, including in yesterday’s Autumn Statement.  I’m even more shocked that so many ordinary working people think that Government action to cut away welfare support is a good idea.  This view is summed up by the comments of Conservative MP Kris Hopkins: “There are a lot of people out there working very hard who are annoyed that there are other people who are not working and could be.”

At this point, I would like make a few observations.  Firstly, the New Statesman points out that “sixty per cent of the real-terms cut to benefits (they will rise by just 1 per cent for three years) falls on working households.  A working family on £20,000 with children will lose £279 a year from next April.”  Secondly, as pointed out in a letter from church leaders in the north to the government “structural unemployment makes it impossible for many to get the jobs they need for themselves and their families.”  And thirdly, according to the Office for National Statistics, 10.5% of those who are working would like more hours but can’t get them.  That is, 3.05 million people, a rise of nearly 1 million people since 2008.

People on benefits are not a drain on our society.  They are workers, often public sector workers looking after our health or our children, or people who would like to be, but there are not enough jobs.  The welfare system is meant to be social security, security for our society so that those in need will be taken care of.  We all provide for this safety net, and we may all one day be in need of it.  Our stretched economic resources means that, “most of us are only one or two pay packets away from having no money”, a comment repeated here by Carol Midgley from The Times following her interview with food bank organiser Julie-Anne Wanless.

Let’s treat the fellow members of our society with respect, and trust that when the time comes, and you need it, the safety net of the welfare system is still big enough to support you.