Tag: Civitas

Frank Field’s New Report: Fixing Broken Britain?

 

In a study report that was published today – Fixing Broken Britain? An audit of working-age welfare reform since 2010, Labour MP Frank Field and co-author Andrew Forsey argue that: 

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should take a lead role in tackling the dependence of employers and landlords, whose subsidies in the form of tax credits and Housing Benefit have grown exponentially, by raising wages and productivity.

… the next front in welfare reform will see a fundamental switch from the Department for Work and Pensions – historically always responsible for welfare reform – to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, reflecting the new reform agenda.

Field and Forsey, writing for the cross-party think tank Civitas, propose that the next step of welfare reform:

 … involves a renewed drive to help those who have not yet been found a job under the Work Programme – principally the over-50s and the disabled. This should involve weighting the payment-by-results systems further in favour of those claimants facing the steepest barriers to work. This major task, and the prompt and efficient payment of benefits, should be the primary objective of the Department for Work and Pensions.

We believe the payment-by-results system the government introduced now requires a significant recalibration to give the most disadvantaged participants a fighting chance of getting and keeping a job.

The language used in the publication is controversial and I was both concerned and disappointed to see the phrase “welfare dependency” used more than once. It alludes to the Conservative claims of a so-called “culture of dependency”, for which there has never been any supportive empirical evidence presented, (and that’s despite Sir Keith Joseph’s notorious best efforts and meticulous but ultimately forlorn research into a neoliberal New Right myth.)

However, there is much empirical evidence to support structural explanations of unemployment and poverty, but the current government has tended to psychopoliticise these issues, blaming the character and attitudes of unemployed people, reflected in language shifts – for example, the frequent use of words such as “worklessness” which implies responsibility and choice – making unfortunate circumstances a very personal  burden – as opposed to “unemployment”, which at least accommodates factors such as labour market constraints, economic conditions, structural inequalities, state responsibilities and the consequences of political decision-making.

Field and Forsey also recommend “identifying claimants’ strengths and difficulties” as early as possible once they begin claiming benefit; early referrals to the new Work and Health Programme for those on any benefit in most need of support; and lifting the cap on numbers who can enrol on the voluntary welfare-to-work programme for claimants with disabilities, and extending the time for which they can participate.

The problem is that referrals are unlikely to be on a voluntary basis. One of the aims of the Work and Health Programme is to enlist the support of GPs in “prescribing” work coaches to sick and disabled people. Given the confidential nature of the patient/doctor relationship, such an intrusive measure is likely to ultimately undermine people’s trust in their GP, and leave sick people who genuinely cannot work feeling harrassed and coerced by the state. There is good evidence that the work programme has not increased sustainable employment outcomes, and furthermore, it has harmed people with mental health problems.

In fairness to Field and Dorsey, they do accommodate some structural factors in their analysis. They say:

A second major new front against benefit dependency involves raising the earnings of low-paid workers, which requires a national productivity strategy that can be built around the new National Living Wage. The major objective here is to prevent yesterday’s workless poor becoming today’s working poor.

The conditionality attached to the receipt of benefit may have made work an easier option, but real wage growth at the bottom end of the labour market has been the missing piece of the government’s welfare reform puzzle.

In order to enshrine work as the best route out of poverty, the next front in welfare reform must build upon the National Living Wage to deliver the higher productivity that can sustain rising real incomes across the board. This policy needs to be driven by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Field and Forsey criticise Universal Credit, stating that if it is ever rolled out nationally, it will not “incentivise” work.  They go on to say:

The government’s flagship welfare scheme will only deliver a lower marginal tax rate for certain groups of claimants and even for them it will be undermined by Universal Credit’s failure to encompass council tax support and free school meals.

Because of Universal Credit’s higher taper rate for many claimants the strategy of fixing “broken Britain” by offering lower withdrawal rates than the current system lies in ruins.

If creating an incentive to work is the goal the present system for the vast majority of claimants meets that goal more effectively. Any reduction in the marginal tax rate will only come for particular groups of Universal Credit claimants should the benefit be introduced.

But then, the failure of Universal Credit to encompass also Council Tax support and free school meals will throw all of these calculations into a mild chaos, to put it at its gentlest.

However, it’s clear that the whole point of Universal Credit is to facilitate a further withdrawal of funding for welfare support.

Field and Forsey argue in the report that because there is little prospect of Universal Credit being rolled out fully by 2020,  George Osborne should act now to “protect lower-paid families with children within the framework of the welfare cuts he is planning.”

They formulate a five-point plan for in-work benefit reform in the current parliament:

  • The tax credit system should be centred on lower-paid workers with children, with entitlements to families earning up to twice the level of the National Living Wage, a ceiling of £32,000.
  • By 2020, childless couples and single workers without children should no longer be eligible for support from the tax credit system.
  • Jobcentre Plus should be revamped so that staff have the skills to help claimants in work increase their hours and/or pay, either in their current job or by finding a new one.
  • Tax credit claimants should be allowed to increase their earnings by up to £5,000 in any 18-month period without any clawback of entitlement, so that they do not lose large chunks of income for working more or for better pay.
  • Vulnerable workers who cannot currently work a full week should be allowed to work up to 24 hours a week and claim Jobseeker’s Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance, rather than the current 16-hour maximum.

They say:

These five reforms would be much more effective in protecting those in work on modest earnings than anything the government is proposing. They build around the revolutionary idea the chancellor has introduced into British politics, particularly welfare reform, namely of introducing a National Living Wage.

This move begins the process of transferring the responsibility for lower earners’ welfare to employers and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and away from the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

However, this is a heavily corporate-sponsored “business friendly” neoliberal government with a clear anti-welfare agenda. What could possibly go right?

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 This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.

Audit finds whereabouts and circumstances of 1.5 million people leaving welfare records each year “a mystery”

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Labour MP Frank Field has called on the government to conduct a survey into the circumstances of those hundreds of thousands of citizens whose benefit income is withdrawn each year under the current harsh sanctioning regime.

Mr Field, who also chairs the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, carried out a forensic audit of the government’s welfare reform programme – Fixing Broken Britain? An audit of working-age welfare reform since 2010, which is to be published today (18 January 2016) by Civitas and co-authored by Andrew Forsey.

Worryingly, the research found that the whereabouts of 1.5 million people leaving the welfare records each year is “a mystery.” The authors also raise concern that the wellbeing of at least a third of those who have been sanctioned “is anybody’s guess.” It’s not the first time these concerns have been raised.

It emerged in 2014, during an inquiry which was instigated by the parliamentary Work and Pensions Select Committee, that research conducted by Professor David Stuckler shows more than 500,000 Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimants have disappeared from unemployment statistics, without finding work, since the sanctions regime was toughened in October, 2012.

This means that in August 2014, the claimant count – which is used to gauge unemployment – is likely to be very much higher than the 970,000 figure that the government is claiming, if those who have been sanctioned are included.

The research finding confirms what many of us already knew.

Professor Stuckler, who has analysed data from 375 local authorities, said:

“The data clearly show that many people are not leaving Job Seekers Allowance for work but appear to be being pushed off in unprecedented numbers in association with sanctions.”

The Work and Pensions Committee decided to conduct a further in depth inquiry into benefit sanctions policy at the time, following the findings of the research. This inquiry considered aspects of sanctions policy which were outside the remit of the Oakley Review. (You can see the terms of reference for the inquiry, and submissions were invited, all details of which are here – Committee launch inquiry into benefit sanctions.)

Labour MP Debbie Abrahams said:

“Sanctions are being applied unfairly to job-seekers, as well as the sick and disabled.

The reason the Government is doing this is that it gets them off the JSA claimant figures, so it looks like there are fewer people unemployed.”

Mrs Abraham added:

“Hundreds of thousands of people have had their benefits stopped for a minimum of four weeks and then approximately a quarter of these people, from the research that I’ve seen, are disappearing.

They are leaving and we don’t know where they are going. That’s an absolute indictment of this policy and it’s a little bit worrying if we’re trying to tout this internationally as a real success story.”

The MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, and shadow disability minister memorably added:

“People have died after being sanctioned, Minister.”

The Government claims that sanctioned claimants who leave the benefit system are going into work – they also claim that their punitive sanctions regime “works”. But the Oxford study found this is untrue in a “majority” of cases. At the time, the government were accused of massaging unemployment figures via benefit sanctions.

Frank Field and Andrew Forsey write:

“The number of sanctions was halved in the year leading up to the 2015 election, but it still remained at half a million. Sanctions are therefore being applied at a scale unknown since the Second World War, and the operation of sanctions on this scale makes for a most significant change in the social security system as it has existed in the post-war period.

A number of people – we know not how large a number – are being totally disconnected from both work and welfare, and risk being exposed to destitution.

Justice calls for a major survey of what happens to the hundreds of thousands of people thrown off the welfare rolls each year through the sanctioning process. It is unacceptable, not only for this government but for its predecessor and those who will follow, to take away benefit from a mass of people each year and not trouble themselves with how this army of people survive. For that is what is happening under the government’s sanctions policy. The ability to track the wellbeing of the whole population is now a part of being a grown up government, let alone a ‘One Nation’ government.”

In the report, Field and Forsey call for four safeguarding reforms, “to restore greater fairness and transparency to the sanctions regime.” They:

  • Propose that the government must forthwith begin a survey so that they can answer the simple but crucial question of what happens to those citizens expelled from the welfare rolls who appear not to find work.
  • Welcome the government’s decision to trial a Yellow Card early warning system, but suggest that should it fail to prevent injustices from occurring, the government should supplement this policy with the option for Jobcentre Plus staff of issuing a non-financial sanction for a claimant’s first failure to meet the terms of their Claimant Commitment. 
  • Recommend that the Department for Work and Pensions trials a ‘grace period’ for vulnerable claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance, during which the requirements placed upon them are eased at times of transition or acute difficulty.
  • Request information from the government showing how much expenditure is withdrawn through its policy of sanctioning claimants.

Last year year, the Work and Pensions Select Committee heard independent estimates that since late 2012 sanctions had resulted in at least £275m being withheld from benefit claimants (the comparable figure for 2010 was £50m). Committee member Debbie Abrahams MP said that the Department for Work and Pensions will not give or does not have actual figures.

However, it’s truly remarkable that the government somehow manage to pull numbers out of their secret Thunderball when they believe it’s in their own interests to do so. The latest “employment” figures, for example. How likely is it that those numbers are remotely accurate when we have a government that happily presides over the disappearance of many thousands of sanctioned people every year from their accounts?

This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.