Social Services Advisory Committee report
Making people wait longer for their benefits: The government admits it’s going to hurt vulnerable people, but are they bothered?
The government has just published their statutory advisory committee’s comments on their plans to increase the waiting days for Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance. I’m not surprised that the Social Security Advisory Committee is worried that vulnerable people are likely to face extra hardship – as I pointed out in July, the Department for Work and Pensions produced a briefing note on these plans for the Committee, which admits that more than a quarter of a million claimants will be “at risk of suffering financial hardship”. But what does surprise me is that the government admit that they aren’t going to make anyone exempt because it would reduce the savings they hope to make.
At the moment, when you get Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), you have to serve three waiting days before you qualify for benefit. Under the government’s plans, from October, this will be more than doubled, to seven waiting days. This is to prepare for the big expansion in Universal Credit (UC), planned for next April – when the government plans to extend the waiting days not just to the elements of UC that replace JSA and ESA, but to the other elements, including those for housing costs and for children. Together with the extended waiting delays, the administrative arrangements for UC will mean that most claimants will have to wait at least five weeks for their first cash.
Regular readers will know that we are worried that the delays people face in the current system – just because of administrative problems – cause real hardship, debt and heartache. Adding delays that are deliberately designed in can only make this worse. That’s why our Saving Our Safety Net campaign has begun by calling on people to Say No to the Five Week Wait.
The delays the government asked the SSAC to report on are the worst part of the five week wait. At least, for the other four weeks, you eventually get your money. But this is a week you’ll never have any income for.
The Committee – which was established by Mrs Thatcher (!) in the 1980s to make sure the government got independent expert advice on social security regulations – asked charities and civil society organisations to send in comments on these plans. I sat up straight when I read their stark summary of these submissions:
The overwhelming majority of respondents were of the view that this measure would cause financial hardship.
The government’s two main justifications for these plans are that most people will have savings or a final pay cheque from their old job, and that they want to encourage people to move on to a new job as quickly as possible. But, as the Committee notes, these justifications don’t apply to people on ESA – many didn’t have a job before they began their claim and it is likely to take them significantly longer to get a job. Unsurprisingly, the SSAC has recommended that ESA claimants should be exempted from the new regulations.
And they have highlighted other groups who are at risk of being thrown into really serious hardship:
- Young people – probably won’t have savings or a last job,
- People who have just left prison won’t have a final pay cheque to fall back on,
- Care leavers, especially young people brought up in care, who usually won’t have any resources,
- Cancer patients, facing extra costs because of their illness and treatment.
Now, as I say, I’m not surprised that a group of benefit experts who care about poverty and exclusion have raised these concerns (though I do want to pay tribute to the persuasive case they have made). But what does surprise me is the blasé government response. Take for instance, this response to the case for exempting disabled people:
While people with disabilities are more likely to have lower average incomes, this is because they are likely to be receiving benefits for long periods.
The government seems not to understand that this is a very good reason for exempting them, as is the fact that “ESA claimants tend to have earned less on average in the period before their claim”. In fact, the government response accepts in several places that increasing waiting days “may result in hardship in some cases” but still doesn’t agree with exemptions for vulnerable groups.
Why not? Well, the response gives the game away:
To introduce exemptions would reduce the financial savings from the change.
So far, the government has won popular support because they’ve managed to persuade the public that the benefit system is broken and is paying benefits to people who don’t deserve them and that their cuts are about addressing this problem, not about saving money.
With these regulations, the mask is starting to slip.