Tag: Public Accounts Committee

‘This is our country, this is what the government are doing: targeting the vulnerable’, says Charlotte’s mother

Caroline Austin says: “This is Charlotte, my daughter, who has severe multiple sclerosis. She cant walk. She has a catheter, she can’t hold anything. She can’t feed herself, she’s weak. She has days where she can hardly talk or breathe properly. She is heat sensitive, the list goes on.

“I want as many people to see this …. universal credit has not given Charlotte any money since 29th September, despite me telling them [DWP] how severely disabled she is … even if she gets her money, she still will lose the severe disability allowance of £120.00 per month. I have to produce another sick note and they have said she could still be assessed for work. Our government should be ashamed.

“Charlotte could not go to a food bank even if she wanted to. Although I’ve tried to help as much as I can, she’s now fallen into arrears with some of her bills. It is shameful that the government will not accept her sick note been indefinately signed off. Our country should not be driving people into poverty because the system is failing the wrong people.

“I’m sure if given the choice of spending most of her time in bed or going to work, I’m sure Charlotte would love to work. As a mother, dealing with her illness and watching her suffer is hard. I’m now trying to sort this out too. All I can say is I stay strong for Charlotte, but some people don’t have this strength and that’s when they give up.”

Only around 1 in 10 universal credit claimants are unemployed, and those that are out of work typically get a job after 12 weeks. This was also true of unemployed people claiming job seeker’s allowance.

Universal credit is mainly a support for low income workers and people unable to work due to illness or because of caring responsibilities. Its scale is enormous, encompassing around 7 million families. These are people who cannot change their circumstances, yet the benefit conditionality of universal credit is extremely punitive. As families need more support because of extra costs, around half of all children in the UK will live in families exposed to the system of universal credit.

When universal credit has been rolled out in an area, Trussell Trust says that foodbank use goes up 52%. Rent arrears also increase.  It is patently obvious that universal credit leads to huge increases in hardship for many families.

It is undeniable that universal credit causes hardship, anxiety and distress for many.  There is a 5-week initial wait for a payment and other delays designed into the system. It’s apparently acceptable to the government that people spend 5 weeks with no means to meet their basic survival needs for food, fuel and shelter.  

There are other delays and stoppages because the bureaucracy is failing citizens and is difficult to navigate. Budgeting problems arise because of the wildly varying payments and deductions.

And when people do get the benefit successfully, they are shocked to discover that actually, the amount is simply far too little to meet even their most basic living costs.

It’s almost as if the government have intentionally created a system that ensures people don’t have a moment’s peace. It’s as if Conservative ministers believe that keeping people in a state of profound anxiety, and in circumstances of uncertainty and precarity, with the constant threat of absolute poverty, it will all somehow combine ‘help’ people into work. Even though a large proportion of those claiming welfare support are actually already in work, yet these families are still very unacceptably poor.

Poverty and the threat of even deeper poverty has never ‘incentivised’ anyone into work. Abraham Maslow explained all to well that unless people meet their basic survival needs, they simply cannot fulfil psychosocial ones. Not only is universal credit making people’s lives unbearably awful, it is destroying their human potential, too.

Many problems are fundamentally designed in and are ongoing throughout the claim. As I’ve stated, most of those affected are disabled people who can’t work, those with caring responsibilities, in the longer term, and low paid workers with families. The problems are not going away and the government aren’t listening to legitimate concerns being raised over and over.

They are not putting safeguards in place for very vulnerable people like Charlotte. 

Those who are yet to move onto universal credit are the longer term claimants. That includes lots of low paid families with children and, really worryingly, people with the most debilitating long-term health conditions, like Charlotte. The problems are going to become catastrophic unless the government listens and makes changes to the existing system. But to date, the Conservatives have fundamentally refused to take any responsibility for their own punitive policy, and the DWP have developed a ‘fortress mentality’ when it comes to legitimate concerns and criticisms being raised.   

A recent devastating National Audit Office report into universal credit concluded that Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was institutionally defensive and prone to dismissing uncomfortable evidence of operational problems. Welfare secretary Esther McVey felt the need to make a speech in July in which she promised that where problems arose in future the department would “put our hands up, [and] admit things might not be be going right”.

It’s also clear – in the words of the public accounts committee – that there is a “culture of indifference” within the DWP and wider government.

It’s time that government ministers started to listen to citizens’ voices, to service users – as well as campaigners, researchers, charities and the opposition. And the United Nations. 

Universal credit’s malign effects are obvious to anyone who actually looks, and is willing to listen to the voices of those affected by this punitive, mean-spirited and fixated, theory-laden, ideologically driven, miserly provision, that was, at the end of the day, paid for by the very public who are claiming it.

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Government quietly scraps plans to introduce softer approach to benefit sanctions

Image result for welfare sanctions

Last October, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) agreed to trial a less aggressive approach to sanctions, which included the issuing of warnings instead of immediate benefit sanctions when a claimant breaches the conditions imposed on them for the first time. Iain Duncan Smith had proposed the idea in response to sustained criticism that sanctions are often applied unfairly, that they ultimately cause severe hardship, they are a barrier to employment rather than providing an incentive for work, and are costing more to administer than they actually save. 

Last year, David Gauke admitted at the Conservative’s annual conference that the system of benefit sanctions often fails to work and can cause harm. He said he would to try to find a way to make the sanctions system less damaging to people, particularly those with mental health conditions. The announcement of the trial soon afterwards seemed to demonstrate the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) commitment to learning from feedback and using evidence to make positive changes. 

However, the Department’s commitment to the trial is now being called into question, following Esther McVey’s appointment as Gauke’s successor.

Some of the widely criticised sanction decisions include people being sanctioned for missing jobcentre appointments because they are ill, or had to attend a job interview, or people sanctioned for not looking for work because they had already secured a job due to start in a week’s time. In one case, a man with heart problems was sanctioned because he had a heart attack during a disability benefits assessment and so failed to complete the assessment.

Welfare was originally designed to safeguard people experiencing hardship from absolute poverty. Now the Government uses sanctions to create hardship as a punishment for non-compliance with rigid conditionality criteria that doesn’t permit mitigation for someone experiencing a heart attack, or for someone being late for a meeting with a job coach.

Last March, the Work and Pensions Committee called for an independent inquiry into the way that sanctions operated, for the second time in a year. The committee report at the time had warned that the sanctions regime appeared to be “purely punitive”.

In August 2015, the DWP was caught making up quotes from supposed “benefit claimants” saying that sanctions had actually helped them. The Department later admitted the quotes were fabricated and withdrew the leaflet, claiming they were for “illustrative purposes only”.

This deceit came to light because of a response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from Welfare Weekly which led the DWP to withdraw the leaflet featuring fictional case studies. It’s particularly damning that the Department can present no real cases studies that support the use of sanctions and their claims that they are effective and necessary. 

Sanctioning a claimant who is single and without dependants can often have implications for other family members, causing hardship for others – for example younger siblings of JSA claimants who are living in their parental home. It is under-acknowledged that when a claimant is sanctioned, the loss of benefits may affect low-income families rather than individuals alone. 

It was hoped that the change proposed by Duncan Smith and Gauke would soften some of the severe hardship caused by sanctions. Although Conservative ministers have claimed that sanctions ensure that people are compliant in their commitment to look for work, in practice a very high proportion of benefit sanctions challenged at independent appeal are overturned, because they have been unfairly or unreasonably applied. In 2014 the DWP released figures which showed that 58 per cent of people seeking to overturn sanctions were successful – up from 20 per cent before 2010.

The introduction of less aggressive sanctions – which involves a system of warnings and a period of dialogue between claimant and the DWP to ascertain reasons for possible breaches to the claimant commitment, exploring possible mitigating circumstances – was also one of five recommendations made in last February’s report by the public accounts committee (PAC) on benefits sanctions, all of which have been accepted by ministers, according to a document sent by the Treasury to the committee earlier this month.

Concerns expressed in the report are that benefit sanctions affect a large number of people, leading to hardship and undermining efforts to find work. Around a quarter of people on Jobseeker’s Allowance between 2010 and 2015 had at least one sanction imposed on them. Suspending people’s benefit payments can lead to rent arrears and homelessness. The consequences of sanctions on people can be serious so they should be used “very carefully”. However, sanctions are imposed for “honest mistakes”. Citizens Advice (CAB) highlighted the need for flexibility for people who are trying their best.

Other concerns stated in the report are that sanctions are imposed inconsistently on claimants by different jobcentres and providers, the Department does not understand the wider effects of sanctions and the Department’s data systems are not good enough to provide routine understanding of what effect sanctions have on claimants’ employment prospects.  In other words, it’s a policy applied without adequate justification or evidence of its efficacy. 

This echoes much of what the National Audit Office (NAO) said in their report on benefit sanctions in 2016. Their report, which has also been cited as a source by the PAC, said the DWP is not doing enough to find out how sanctions affect people on benefits, and concluded that it is likely that management focus and local work coach discretion have had a substantial influence on whether or not people are sanctioned.

The NAO report recommended that the DWP carries out a wide-ranging review of benefit sanctions, particularly as it introduces further changes to labour market support such as Universal Credit. The NAO found that the previous government increased the scope and severity of sanctions in 2012 and recognised that these changes would affect claimants’ behaviour in ways that were “difficult to predict.”

Benefits ensure that people are able to meet their basic needs. Welfare covers the costs of food, fuel and shelter. It’s a safeguard to prevent absolute poverty. That was its original purpose when it was introduced. It is difficult to imagine how removing the means that people have of meeting their basic survival needs can possibly motivate them to find work. Comprehensive historical research shows that when people cannot meet their basic biological needs, their pressing cognitive priority is simply survival. In other words, when people are hungry and facing destitution, addressing those fundamental needs becomes a significant barrier to addressing their psychosocial needs such as seeking employment.

Welfare rights advisers on the rightsnet online forum, and from Buckinghamshire Disability Service have voiced their concerns that the DWP has decided not to carry out the less aggressive sanctions warning trial after all, because of “competing priorities in the Parliamentary timetable”. This government decision was included on page 139 of the latest Treasury Minutes Progress Report, published last month, which describes progress on implementing those PAC recommendations that have been accepted by the government. There was no public announcement of the governments’ intentions.

The progress report is dated 25 January, nonetheless, a DWP spokeswoman has insisted that the decision to abandon the sanctions trial had been taken before the appointment of Esther McVey as the new work and pensions secretary on 8 January.

She said: “The decision not to undertake a trial was taken at the end of 2017 – before Esther McVey took up her position as secretary of state.

“As you have read, introducing the trial through legislative change cannot be secured within a reasonable timescale.

But we are keeping the spirit of the recommendation in mind in our thinking around future sanctions policy.

“To keep the sanctions system clear, fair and effective we keep the policies and processes under continuous review.”

The decision last October to trial handing out warnings prior to implementing sanctions was welcomed by many campaigners, disabled activists, academics and anti-austerity protesters. 

It had come only weeks after the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (UNCRPD) published their inquiry report, which found that the UK government’s welfare reforms “systematically” violate the rights of disabled persons..

The UN committee recommeded that the government reviewed “the conditionality and sanction regimes” linked to employment and support allowance (ESA), the out-of-work disability benefit, and “tackle the negative consequences on the mental health and situation” of disabled people.

Gauke had previously acknowledged that sanctions cause harm, and had voiced a commitment to amend the severity of welfare sanctions. The change in direction by the Government is thought by some campaigners to be directly linked to the return of Esther McVey as a Department for Work and Pensions minister.

A PAC spokesperson said: “The committee has not yet considered its course of action.”

However, sanctions are not compatible with our human rights framework or democracy: “A legal right to a basic income necessary to live with dignity is rooted in inalienable human rights. These rights should be properly enshrined in UK constitutional laws and systems of governance. Currently the poorest 10% of families (about 6 million people) live on £40 per week after tax. It is utterly unacceptable to further reduce this tiny income to zero for any reason. As it stands [welfare] conditionality has opened the door to injustice and cruelty (Dr Simon Duffy, Centre for Welfare Reform, 2010).



Benefit Sanctions Can’t Possibly ‘Incentivise’ People To Work – And Here’s Why

Benefit Sanctions Lead To Hunger, Debt And Destitution, Report Says

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


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The government is cutting funding for employment support by 80%


Meeting the Government’s goal of halving the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled workers – moving around one million more disabled people into work – will be no easy task. Not least because despite Iain Duncan Smith’s ideological commitments, most disabled people who don’t work can’t do so because of genuine barriers such as incapacitating and devastating illnesses. No amount of targeting those people with the Conservative doublespeak variant of “help” and nasty “incentivising” via welfare sanctions and benefit cuts will remedy that.

In a speech in August about work, health and disability, Duncan Smith says: “Let’s take the Work Programme. The Work Programme is, I believe, the most successful back to work programme we’ve ever seen.

“By March this year:

  • over 1 million people – or 70% of all referrals – had spent some time off benefit;
  • and over 430,000 people had moved into lasting employment.”

However, this is not a view shared widely amongst MPs. Last year, the Public Accounts Committee denounced the failure of Work Programme providers to target more help on the most “difficult cases” as a “scandal”. Almost 90 per cent of claimants of Employment and Support Allowance, which is paid to sick and disabled people, who are on the Work Programme have not been found jobs.

The government is cutting funding for contracted-out employment support by 80% following the Spending Review. The Department for Work and Pensions has indicated that total spending on employment will be reduced, including not renewing Mandatory Work Activity and Community Work Placements, the new Work and Health Programme will have funding of around £130 million a year – around 20% of the level of funding for the unsuccessful Work Programme and Work Choice, which it will replace.

The government is introducing a number of policy initiatives aimed at reducing the number of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). This is the social security benefit for people with long term health conditions or disabilities. These initiatives are currently at a research and trialing stage.

Iain Duncan Smith says: “This Spending Review will see the start of genuine integration between the health and work sectors, with a renewed focus on supporting people with health conditions and disabilities return to and remain in work. We will increase spending in this area, expanding Access to Work and Fit for Work, and investing in the Health and Work Innovation Fund and the new Work and Health Programme.” (See  –The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work.)

At the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA) annual conference on Tuesday, Employment Minister Priti Patel said: “Funding for employment support will remain broadly stable” following the Spending Review.  

However, this will include funding for extending conditionality to more claimants under Universal Credit, and increased investment in Jobcentre Plus “support.” There is also an announcement of an increase in Access to Work spending. However, Patel’s speech, despite the title, is mostly pitched at meeting labour market conditions and employer’s needs, and not the needs of employees.

Ministers confirmed that the contracted-out element – the new Work and Health Programme – would receive around £130 million per year.

The Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion estimates that Work Programme expenditure is between £500 and £600 million per year – with our analysis for the last twelve months estimating expenditure of £530 million (pages 20-22 of this briefing (pdf)); while the Department has previously stated that Work Choice expenditure is around £80 million per year.

Commenting on the news, the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (CESI) Director of Policy and Research, Tony Wilson, stated:

“These huge reductions in funding for contracted employment support will have impacts both on the scale and the breadth of the new Work and Health Programme.  With just half of disabled people and those with health conditions in work, we have long argued that we need to do more and do it better.  However this new programme now appears to be doing the same or even less.  

This must cast doubt on the extent to which specialist employment support can make a meaningful contribution to the government’s manifesto commitment to halve the gap in employment rates between disabled people and the wider population.  And it will also have significant implications for those providers that have delivered the Work Programme and Work Choice.  We would urge the government to look again at this, and at the case for funding more support through the additional savings of supporting disabled people and those with health conditions back into work.”

The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work, Skills and Training, Roseanna Cunningham has today written to UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith to outline serious concerns over how the UK Government Spending Review will impact on unemployed Scottish people.

The changes announced will deliver a significant cut to funding for newly devolved services and therefore limit what Scotland is able to deliver.

In line with the Smith Commission recommendations, the Work Programme and Work Choice were to be devolved in less than 18 months. The Scottish Government embarked on a public consultation over the summer about the employability support services that people in Scotland want, and how they could help those “furthest from the labour market.”

Ms Cunningham said:

“The Work Programme as it stands is not fit for a modern Scotland. After hearing from those who use these service, communities, businesses, training providers and the trade unions, we now know what we want to provide. However, our ability to deliver this has been significantly impacted by poorly thought through Westminster policy proposals that have not been brought to our attention in an acceptable fashion.

“We estimate DWP intends to cut its spend on Scottish programmes to be devolved by around £40 million annually – around 75 per cent. This undermines the agreed intentions in Smith and comes on top of existing limitations in powers being devolved. It is our view that the Smith Commission envisaged the Scottish Government having greater influence over these issues from April 2017 and this cut diminishes their recommendations to an unacceptable level.

“The UK proposals will magnify the challenge of helping those further from the labour market into work. The prospect of an even more intensive use of sanctions will magnify the already disproportionate impact on young people and those with disabilities in Scotland who are subject to sanctions by JobCentre Plus.

“I have today written to the UK Work and Pensions Secretary seeking an explanation on the implications of the UK Spending Review announcements for Scotland and have demanded an urgent meeting of the Joint Ministerial Working Group on Welfare to discuss the issue.

“The clarity needed to procure services has also not been forthcoming from DWP with a number of information requests by the Scottish Government remaining unanswered after several months.

“The lack of information on this vital issue is unacceptable and this latest move will have serious implications on both unemployed people in Scotland and the support they require.”


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