The Safety Net: In urgent need of repair

A functioning safety net not food handouts is the true long-term solution to food poverty and hunger.

Today’s Feeding Britain report has again highlighted the role of benefit delays and sanctions in creating food poverty and hunger. But the scale of the problem is much greater than even Feeding Britain admits to. For far, far too many people, far from providing security against hunger, the ‘Welfare Safety net’ is itself a contributory factor in creating insecurity and destitution. The Welfare Safety net is in urgent need of repair.

Whilst the Feeding Britain initiative is welcome, it must itself only be a short term response. Food handouts surely cannot be a long-term response to the problem of food poverty and hunger in the sixth wealthiest nation on the planet. Even in the so-called ‘developing world’ mass feeding programmes and food aid is only ever seen as a short term emergency response.

The test of the next Government (if not of the current one), is not whether it is effective at enabling its citizens to be fed with surplus food handouts, but whether it has reduced the need for people to turn to food handouts in the first place. For this to be a reality, what people need more than anything else is a fully functioning welfare safety net.

As the recent Emergency Use Only report from Oxfam and others showed, the principle reason for people turning to foodbanks is a sudden loss or drop in income. Sadly, whilst the benefits system was originally designed to cushion people from such shocks, and prevent a drop in income leading to destitution, the current reality is somewhat different.

Most people continue to believe that the Welfare State provides a safety net when you fall on hard times. Yet for literally millions of people, the experience is quite different.

For a variety of reasons – bureaucratic, administrative and policy – increasing numbers of people are being left out of pocket – or literally destitute.

Whilst recognising that benefits are never on their own going to solve poverty (and almost certainly aren’t going to be increased in the current political or economic climate), it is surely not unreasonable to expect the benefits system to prevent people quite literally going hungry?

Below is a list of 15 holes in the Welfare Safety net which currently leave significant numbers of people at serious risk of destitution. These holes urgently need to be plugged.

Worryingly, although the numbers affected run into hundreds of thousands (or in the case over delays in assessment of eligibility for Personal Independence Payments, 1.7 million people), there are numerous holes for which no reliable research or data exists.

Type of hole Why does this come about Numbers affected
Delays in assessment of PIPs Sixth month delays in assessments for Personal Independence Payments. PIP is also a passport to other benefits, therefore delays mean that some claimants are also missing out on other benefits. 1.7 million people previously on DLA
Delays in assessment for ESA People waiting for assessments for employment and support allowance (ESA). Delays and wrong decisions in Atos’s work conducting controversial fitness-to-work assessments have caused distress to vulnerable people. 712,000, including 394,000 new claimants, 234,000 ESA recipients whose reassessments have been delayed, 84,000 still on incapacity benefit yet to be moved to ESA.
Transition between ESA and JSA Gap between being refused ESA and being able to claim JSA – made worse by the fact that you can’t start a JSA claim until you are judged to be eligible for work, and Advisors who turn down ESA claims are not required to advise a fresh JSA claim 249,000 previously on ESA had been assessed as fit for work by Sept 2013. No stats currently available on how many have subsequently claimed JSA or how long without money in meantime.
Loss of JSA or ESA benefit due to sanction Increasingly routine use of sanctions to deprive JSA (and ESA) claimants of any income for up to 3 months (or even 3 years) at a time. Undue pressure on Jobcentre staff to sanction, and some evidence of harassment to withdraw appeals. Over a third of all decisions were to close the JSA claim completely because the claimant judged to be not actively seeking work. 871,000 JSA sanctions during 2013 – up around fourfold since 2006. 4,500 people in Greater Manchester alone had JSA sanctions of at least 3 months from Oct 12 – Dec 13.
Underpayment of benefits Underpayment of benefits has increased by £600m since 2005/6 to £1.6billion, including payments of Income support, JSA, Pensioner Credit and Housing Benefit Not identified. Total loss £1.6 billion in 2012/13
Extended waiting time before applying for JSA Extension of ‘waiting days’ before it is possible to claim JSA from 3 to 7 days, and further time lag to receiving payment All new JSA claimants from April 2014 (check date)
Administrative delay in receipt of JSA DWP does not publish official targets for processing benefit claims, but DWP business plan suggests that 90% of JSA claims and 85% of ESA claims should be cleared within 16 days. Not clear if this takes account of delays due to either claimant error or requests for further information to substantiate a claim. Unidentified numbers of new JSA and ESA claimants.
Time lag in payment of Universal Credit Most claimants will have to wait up to six weeks to receive their first Universal Credit payment, as a result of the extended waiting period and UC being paid monthly in arrears. Potentially all new Universal Credit claimants
Knock on loss of benefits and risk of homelessness Housing Benefit payments stopped as a result of Benefit Sanctions – immediately causing rent arrears and risk of eviction No stats on numbers affected, nor on numbers made homeless as result
Suspension of benefits Routine suspension of benefits by BA staff while potential fraud etc is investigated – no presumption of innocence until proven guilty…
STBA (waiting for benefits) Short term benefit advance payments not applied for or received when they should have been Any stats on numbers potentially eligible v nos who actually claim?
Hardship payments (sanctioned) Hardship payments for people sanctioned not applied for or received when they should have been No statistics available
ESA ‘mandatory reconsideration’ If you think ESA assessment is wrong, there is no automatic payment of ESA during first internal reconsideration Possible stats on numbers and lengths of time for reconsideration?
Tax Credits Difficult to get mistakes rectified, back-payment not until end of financial year, no emergency payments to cover losses Possible stats on underpayments, back payments etc?
Local Welfare Assistance Schemes Since the abolition of the Social Fund, welfare assistance has been localised to local authorities – but it is unclear how effective many local schemes are in preventing a need for short term assistance turning into a crisis – or whether the Local Welfare Assistance Schemes will survive the next round of Government cuts. Where then will people turn when their cooker breaks? Potential to compare numbers assisted in last year of Social Fund with nos helped under LWAS (though are any central figures collected?)
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2 Responses to The Safety Net: In urgent need of repair

  1. Pingback: Food Banks and Society | act justly love mercy walk humbly

  2. Pingback: Beyond your Front Door: more on benefit sanctions | act justly love mercy walk humbly

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