Mark Harrison and Julie Kemmy, both of whom work for Equal Lives, a user-led disabled people’s organisation (DPO) supporting people who face disabling barriers in Norfolk and Suffolk, explain the crisis facing Universal Credit
Universal Credit (UC) is potentially May’s Poll Tax. It could be her Thatcher moment. This pernicious assault on the rights of UK citizens to welfare benefits has, during its pilot phases, caused huge poverty, rent arrears and hunger for claimants, their children and families. The people affected have to rely on food banks and go into debt just to survive while waiting for their rightful benefit. This affects poor and disabled people who are being deliberately made vulnerable by this ideologically driven assault.
The groundswell of opposition is growing rapidly in the country at large and within Parliament. The cross-party DWP select committee has called for a halt to the roll out. The introduction of UC in North Kensington has been postponed. The potential for conflict, not seen since the Poll Tax and inner city uprisings, in the Grenfell area has caused a political retreat. However at Tory Party conference the DWP Minister David Gauke confirmed that UC will continue to be rolled out without any pause or reform.
Where does it come from? In 2003, Iain Duncan Smith said: “I want to be the party for the poor.” He spoke at a 2005 Labour Party conference fringe meeting, saying Labour’s definition of poverty was too limited: it is “not just about a lack of basics but a lack of sufficient resources to participate in the life of the community”. After losing the party leadership he founded the Centre for Social Justice, which published reports on poverty and welfare reform. However when he became Work and Pensions Secretary in 2010 he reverted to Tory type. He announced the plan for UC at the Conservative conference in the same year.
The philosophy that drives UC is to make work pay (to allow people to keep a bit more money if they do some work), and to make the benefits system mirror the world of work for most people – so you get one monthly payment, from which everything, including rent, has to be paid. That way you can easily move into work; you have already learned how to manage your money. Every time someone has a change in income, UC can adjust the payments made within the next month – unlike the yearly assessments made with tax credits. It has been designed to be claimed and managed online, with all communication with a work coach taking place through an online journal and ‘to do’ list, which requires use of a PIN number. The insistence on using a digital process is difficult in rural areas, and if you can’t afford phone credit, have no broadband or access to a computer, and have no money to travel anywhere. For disabled people who can’t learn how to use a computer or remember a PIN number, the process is even more of a barrier.
The design looks good on paper for roughly 50-60% of claimants who can learn (with help) to budget their money, and will try to take on some work. IDS’s grand idea was that people would keep 65% of all extra money they earned (65p in every pound), and the government would take 35% of it. This would have been a serious incentive for anyone on benefits to work, and would have lifted many people out of what was known as the ‘benefits trap’, where it was hard to leave the benefits system as it could leave you worse off. Osborne insisted that these sums should be turned on their head, so the actual rule ended up that people only kept an extra 35p in every pound they earned, and the government took 65p. Last year they made a big fuss about increasing this, so that people now get to keep 37p, and the government only takes 63p. So yes, it does make work pay, but not by very much.
It’s not so good for the 30-40% of people who cannot manage the demands of the process, and can’t manage to budget their income over a monthly period. At the moment they don’t always cope with fortnightly payments, but at least their rent is taken care of because it is paid direct to the landlord. UC replaces five means-tested benefits/tax credits for working age claimants, which was supposed to lead to a simpler system of benefit rules. But people’s lives are very complex – and they don’t always fit easily within so-called simple rules.
By far the biggest general complaints about UC are:
Some of the loudest cries about delays have been from local authorities, housing associations and private landlords, who are finding that rent isn’t paid on time. Some housing associations have been issuing automatic notices to their tenants, telling them that if they become a UC claimant they must have two months’ credit on their rent account or they will face eviction proceedings. The delays have also caused a big increase in claimant debt – some of which involve payday loans at extortionate rates of interest. More recently, food banks in rollout areas have reported struggling to meet demand since UC was introduced.
The all-party Work & Pensions Select Committee (W&PC) has been hearing evidence about all of the problems caused by UC since April 2017. It is now considering whether the rollout of UC should be halted because of the problems caused by delays in people getting their benefit payments, and the likelihood that this will be made worse if the DWP continues with the planned accelerated national rollout from October 2017.
On 15th September the DWP released UC statistics showing that 77% of people are getting their payments on time (i.e. after a wait of 6 weeks). Frank Field, Chair of the W&PC, said “77% on time may look good on an exam paper or from an office on Whitehall but even those payments mean a wait of six weeks for money for food and housing, and nearly one in four households are waiting even longer. Everything I have seen so far …. points to fundamental flaws in the operation of UC which must be resolved before the full service rollout proceeds. As things stand, the government is on a Christmas collision course which will leave families destitute.”
At the Conservative Party Conference David Gauke said the UC rollout will continue as planned. He said “people needed to be more aware that they could claim emergency advance payments instead of waiting for six weeks….almost half of all new claimants were now asking for payments in advance because they were unable to wait six weeks, up from just under 40% in April.”
There may have been an increase in uptake of advance payments (which are a loan against future benefit income), but they are the equivalent of 50% of what you expect to get in the future and have to be paid back over a six month period. If you have no money, and you are given only 50% of what the government says you need to survive for the month (which includes your rent), many people are forced into a situation of not paying their rent so that they can feed their family. It can cause serious problems with rent arrears and threats of homelessness. Repayment rates are considerable, causing extended periods of hardship.
Disabled people face additional problems:
In response to a torrent of complaints from advice services over the last few years, the DWP have tweaked around the edges, appointing people in Jobcentres to help vulnerable customers, but they expect the Third Sector to fulfil all the other support needs of claimants at a time of cuts in funding which have decimated services. Landlords have been told to make adjustments to allow for the delay in first rent payments. Some local authorities are being creative: Norwich City Council is looking to see whether it can set up rent agreements that specify the date that a Direct Debt has to be made for UC, and will only classify someone as being in arrears if the DD bounces – the only way to start someone off on UC without automatic arrears on their rent account when they transfer from Housing Benefit to UC.
The local test areas of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft have experienced substantial difficulties – one local organisation has reported a 70% increase of referrals being made to help avoid evictions. Frontline staff in the Jobcentre are expected to learn on the job and don’t know answers to simple questions. They are treating extremely vulnerable people as guinea-pigs. A final nail in the coffin for anyone who misses an appointment or doesn’t do every task that their work coach has set them, is that they will be sanctioned – and potentially lose a large chunk of their money anyway.
So how can this be defeated? The government is weak. The labour and trade union movement needs to mobilise and make this May’s Poll Tax. UC can be defeated if a grassroots social movement can be created in opposition to this attack on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. The fact that the government has had to cancel implementation in the Grenfell area shows its weakness. The opportunity to defeat this is now, in the run up to Christmas, when thousands of families are going to be left without food and money.
It has to become a key part of Labour’s campaign to elect a Corbyn-led government for the many not the few. However, the people affected cannot wait another four years. A national campaign rolled out locally, mobilising the 600,000 party members, both old and new, can sweep away UC and this weak and wounded government in the process.
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Anger as a disabled assessment centre has no wheelchair access
He did this 4 months after his Department had committed to closing the inaccessible disability assessment centre in Norwich and re-locating to suitable premises. That centre is still open, still inaccessible and is still turning away disabled people 8 months after the decision to close it was made.
The Department for Work and Pensions publicity states:
The Accessible Britain Challenge encourages communities to be inclusive and accessible. That means working with disabled people to remove the barriers that stop them participating fully in their community.
Far from working with disabled people Mr Harper has ignored us and refused to enter into a dialogue or even answer our letters.
What makes it more perverse is that a new provider Maximus, an American outsourcing firm takes over the multi million pound Work Capability Assessment (WCA) contract from Atos next Monday and will continue to operate from St Mary’s House, 3 years after the DWP was made aware of the access issues.
Disabled campaigners and our supporters will be demonstrating between 12.30 – 1.30pm on Monday 2nd March outside St Mary’s House against this injustice.
Mark Harrison, CEO of Equal Lives said “This shows that the Accessible Britain Challenge is just a publicity stunt. We have been campaigning for 3 years outside St Mary’s House. They are even presenting awards in conjunction with the British Institute for Facilities Management and one of the categories is ‘innovative use of buildings, spaces and places’. The winners are to be announced on 15 March. I am sure the irony of this is not lost on the thousands of disabled people who have been forced to travel hundreds of miles for their assessments because the DWP won’t lease a suitable premises.”
“It also demonstrates the contempt this Government has for disabled people. How can you appoint a new provider for the hated assessments and force them to use an inaccessible building which the DWP leases through another private sector provider Telereal Trillium? This clearly demonstrated that we are not all in this together. There is one rule for disabled people and another for the private sector, bankers and Ministers who see themselves as being unaccountable and above the law”.
The scandal continues same old flawed assessment process in the same inaccessible building
The disgraceful and embarrassing situation regarding St Mary’s House, Norwich continues with a new company taking over disability assessments. On 1st March Maximus, a foreign owned outsourcing company take over the contract for carrying out the notorious Work Capability Assessment (WCA). They take over this failed service from Atos in the same inaccessible building in Duke St, Norwich.
Disabled campaigners and our supporters will be demonstrating between 12.30 – 1.30pm on Monday 2nd March outside St Mary’s House against this double gross injustice.
Maximus, a company with a history of disability discrimination and improper practices, will be paid more than double what Atos was for the contract. Meanwhile very little will have changed: Maximus will be using the same building which is not accessible to disabled people. Many staff will remain the same as they move across from Atos and, most significantly, the fundamental flaws of the assessment which tests functionality as opposed to employability will continue.
Mark Harrison, CEO of Equal Lives said “What a great way to start a new contract with a significant proportion of your customers unable to access your service because they can’t get in your building for their disability assessment! The only way to ensure a fair and just social security system is to scrap the Work Capability Assessment and bring benefit tests back within the public sector in a building which disabled people can access. Changing one private sector provider for another does nothing to address the core problems. The jobs market is completely inaccessible to most disabled people for a variety of reasons – lack of support, inaccessible work environments and discrimination; these are the things that need to be addressed.”
Press/TV/Radio: Interviews are available
Mark Harrison, CEO Equal Lives: 07825 600195 or 07979 400564
About Equal Lives
Equal Lives is a user-led human rights organisation supporting all disabled people in Norfolk. It was formed in 1996 by groups of disabled people in Norfolk. The organisation is led by a Board of Trustees all of whom are disabled people and elected by and from its membership. The organisation undertakes a wide range of services including:
Comprehensive advice that covers all Department of Work and Pensions benefits relating to illness and disability. We offer support, advice and information to families and carers of disabled people
Providing advice and support to people considering or using Personal Budgets or Direct payments in Norfolk
Support for vulnerable adults and juveniles detained in police custody
Advocacy support for users of mental health services to make sure that their views and concerns are heard by others
Advice and support to people considering or using Direct Payments in Suffolk with our Suffolk Independent Living service
Projects and activities with our membership and others to work towards achieving Equal Lives
More details Maximus
What a Waste!
In the words of Ian Drury – What a waste! I am referring to the exclusion of disabled people in society and the attitudes and behaviours of Government, both local and national, towards us. As a society we need to turn our approach to disability in its head.
This Government has initiated a poisonous discourse in order to justify targeting disabled people through austerity. By the 2015 election, more than £28bn in benefits and entitlements will have been taken away from disabled people. At the same time, disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. In Austerity Britain, where the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer continue to claim “We are all in this together”, disabled people will pay 9 times more towards reducing the budget deficit than the average citizen. Those who are severely disabled will pay nineteen times more.
We are not benefit scroungers or burdens, we are not too expensive or units of costs that we as a society cannot afford, we are not brave, courageous or ‘special needs’. We are human beings like everybody else. If you cut us we bleed. You call us names and bully us, we hurt. You pity us and stick us in the charity box, we behave like charity cases. You segregate us in separate institutions and we become institutionalised. You do everything for us and wrap us in cotton wool then we become dependent. You have low expectations of our abilities and you damage our growth and development.
Disabled people don’t want this; we just want to be treated equally. We don’t want to be labelled as ‘special needs’ and charity cases. We want to live in the mainstream like everyone else. We want the barriers to us leading equal lives removed. If you label us as charity cases then what happens when you lose interest and move on to the next ‘good cause’? Labels are for tins not disabled people
So what is to be done to address this waste? It is our responsibility – all of us – to remove these barriers. The barriers are ‘man made’ so it is our responsibility to break them down and consign them to history together. Disabled people can’t do this by ourselves we need allies. We need non-disabled people to get along side us and not accept the apartheid lives many disabled people are forced to live. We need disabled and non-disabled to be passionate about disability equality just like we are about women’s, racial and sexuality equality.
Disabled people have enormous amounts to give if afforded the opportunity and responsibility. Let’s end this waste and call time on out of date 20th Century attitudes and behaviours. Together we can consign them to the dustbin of history where they belong. Let’s get passionate together about disability equality and removing those barriers, wherever they are. Our Government has signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities http://www.un.org/disabilities/
This provides a comprehensive road map for achieving disability equality – let’s implement it.
CEO Equal Lives