White Paper: what about the children?
It looks as though today’s white paper on welfare reform will propose changes that will leave victims of poor decisions with no hope of justice and force thousands of children into destitution.
The White Paper itself probably won’t be published till after the Secretary of State has finished presenting it to MPs at 12.30, but there is plenty of meat in the many stories in today’s papers. (And his speech from earlier this morning is available.) Among the broadsheets, only Nicholas Timmins in the F.T. chooses to lead with the planned introduction of the Universal Credit, which is actually the most substantial element of the proposals.
Most of the others highlight the plans to introduce tougher penalties for turning down a workfare place, refusing a job offer or failing to apply for a job when directed to do so. The penalties will be a suspension of benefits for 3 months the first time this happens, 6 months the second time and 3 years the third time.
It looks as though there are two terrible problems with these proposals:
- There will be no right of appeal against these decisions.
- There will be no hardship payments for people who have their benefits taken away.
At present, if you are sanctioned for breaking the Jobseeker’s Allowance rules you can appeal against the decision and get it overturned. You can also claim a “hardship payment” while you are sanctioned – paid if you are disabled, a carer, have children or are pregnant. (The Press Association and the Independent both report the abolition of appeal rights, PA says the availability of hardship payments will be sharply reduced, the Independent says they will be abolished.)
No right of appeal will lead to thousands of unemployed people losing their benefits for at least three months because of completely unfair decisions. Jobcentre Plus staff get their decisions right nearly all the time and the overwhelming majority are reasonable and fair, but advice agencies regularly report unfair decisions – even decisions that are impossible to comply with. Just going by cases dealt with by TUC-linked Unemployed Workers’ Centres, I can recall someone being told to apply for a job that started before the first bus left their village, a pregnant woman being told to apply for a job that involved heavy lifting and a vegetarian being told to apply for a job in a butcher’s shop.
Cases like these are nearly always won on appeal, but that route to reversing injustices will no longer be open. What is even worse, the people in this position will include disabled people who now have to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance because of the crackdown on Incapacity Benefit and lone parents whose youngest child is over 7, who can no longer claim Income Support. It is easy to predict that there will be injustices caused by JCP staff not understanding mental illness or lone parents’ childcare needs.
Getting rid of hardship payments will leave children destitute. Families survive benefit sanctions somehow, but how will that be possible if there are no hardship payments and the sanctions last for years? No one argues that the children deserve this, but our society seems prepared to put up with the devastation of their futures as ‘collateral damage’. The government claims to be concerned about children’s life chances, but the withdrawal of all incomes will have a terrible impact on their health, education, future employment prospects, likelihood of getting a criminal record and risk of addiction. Inevitably, there will be parents who separate so that the non-sanctioned parent can make their own benefit claim and protect the children. IDS, who is very socially conservative, should surely by worried about this result.
The existence of penalties for breaking JSA isn’t new – they’ve been there since before the first world war – but the combination of much longer duration, scrapping hardship payments and this dramatic attack on procedural justice add up to a major reduction in welfare rights.
The introduction of workfare is something I’ve already blogged about, so I won’t revisit my criticisms – except to say that unemployed people aren’t responsible for our economic crisis. The reason we have such high unemployment is because there aren’t enough jobs to go round. Similarly, we’ve gone into the problems facing the Universal Credit, but there is one thing to look out for when the White Paper is published: we’ve heard rumours that Carer’s Allowance will be merged into the UC, effectively making a universal benefit means-tested. As we’ve pointed out before, the benefits cap (which hasn’t featured in today’s media coverage) will have a similar effect. The many carers who wouldn’t qualify for a means-tested benefit have reason to read this White Paper very carefully.
Update (18.46): the abolition of appeal rights and the crackdown on hardship payments now looks as if it was a media sting. I have just written a new post about this.