Without a Safety Net

Tony Benson looks at the changes to benefits.

Over the rest of 2013 people who are forced to rely on the social security system face one serious attack after another. It does not matter if you need to claim a benefit because of unemployment, ill-health, disability or low pay – you are likely to be hit hard over the coming months. The following is an outline of the main changes from the beginning of April.

Welfare1The Bedroom Tax will come in, forcing many people claiming Housing Benefit for homes in the social housing sector to start paying, or paying more, towards the rent with money that they have not got. The Government has given way on foster carers with spare bedrooms and claimants who have an adult son or daughter who is in the armed forces. They have not exempted families with disabled children; they have simply not appealed a decision about Housing Benefit in the private sector that arguably would apply to people who have a disabled child and who rent off a council or housing association. For many low paid workers Housing Benefit will vanish as a result.

The introduction of the benefit cap, firstly in parts of London, and over the summer in the rest of the country, will penalise many larger households who are dependent on benefits. Like the Bedroom Tax it will operate to reduce the amount of Housing Benefit. Both these changes are expected to lead to the misery of rent arrears and homelessness and in London to “social cleansing”.

Many people with a serious disability will find they lose a lot of money with the replacement of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for adults with the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). The intention behind this change is to take several billion pounds from disability support. This is being done by introducing a set of rigid and narrowly defined criteria for the types of functional impairment that a person must be facing to qualify for PIP.

Council Tax Benefit (CTB) will be abolished from April 2013 and is being replaced by a postcode lottery system in which local councils are allowed to decide by how much they will reduce Council Tax liability where the taxpayer is on benefits or low pay. At present a person on means-tested benefit gets all Council Tax paid by CTB. For low paid workers it tapers off at a rate of 20p in the pound. CTB was one of the gains of the victory against the Poll Tax in the early 1990s.

From now on, each local council will run its own “Council Tax Reduction” scheme. The money they have been given to run this scheme is a lot less than the amount that has been paid up to now. Most councils are balancing the books by requiring the very poorest people on means-tested benefits to pay up to 25% of their Council Tax. This will lead to arrears, huge court costs for some of the poorest households and people being bullied into paying Council Tax by bailiffs knocking on their front door.

Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans are to be cut, with councils deciding their own replacement schemes. Again the amount of money given to each council is less than the amount spent by the DWP in the council’s area for these grants and loans. The council can spend this money however they want. Eric Pickles’ “localism” is in fact being funded by robbing the poorest of money until now used to buy otherwise unaffordable necessities of life.

Welfare2The sanctions for not looking for work, missing appointments or for not taking part in the Work Programme are now much more draconian. You can lose all or most of your benefit for not turning up on time, not applying for enough jobs each week or refusing to work unpaid on a work placement. People are getting thrown into destitution for quite minor “failures”, not just for doing nothing at all to get a job.Sanctions will be applied for weeks at a time. This situation will get worse as time goes on.

After the autumn people needing to appeal against a decision that they are fit for work will have to wait while the DWP considers whether to ‘revise’ the decision before they get paid benefit. In the meantime claimants will be expected to move onto Employment Support Allowance and face being sanctioned for not keeping up their job search. They may not be able to do this precisely because of their disability or ill-health. The effect will be crushing on a large number of vulnerable people.

The centrepiece of the changes to the welfare system is the introduction of Universal Credit (UC). The idea is that this will be the only means-tested benefit in existence, although this does not include the Council Tax Reduction System, which is means tested. The rules for UC make it much more miserly than the benefits it replaces. For many people it will be difficult to access, especially as claimants are expected to interact with it online. It will be prone to issuing overpayments which will be recoverable.

The time frame for its introduction is being pushed back due to IT problems. Senior managers of the project are leaving their jobs. The first claims in pilot areas due to take place over the summer will be administered not by state-ofthe- art IT but by staff using manual spreadsheets.

Concessions, little as they are, on the Bedroom Tax are the result of active campaigning. The Government is vulnerable on this issue. Cameron didn’t know that that there was no exemption for disabled children for instance. There has been some backtracking on the way that the Work Capability Assessment has been operated. Again this is largely down to brave campaigns led by disabled people themselves through such organisations as DPAC. The Government has been quietly giving some ground over the criteria for PIP. These have been minor skirmishes. With a full-on campaign by the community-based trade unions and the Labour Party all coming together, these attacks can be reversed and further attacks stopped completely.

… (See April’s Labour Briefing for the rest of the article)

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