Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The True Cost of Austerity

Some notes from the "True Cost of Austerity" launch event organised by Advice Nottingham recently (full report available here)...

The launch was presented by a panel including Chris Dearden (author of the report) and Baroness Lister. There were some interesting comments from the panel and audience, some of which are shown below :

* The Sneinton Food bank is providing food to around 50 families a week who have ZERO income.
* Some jobseekers lack key skills required to navigate the jobseeking and social security system (e.g. have no email, difficulty filling forms etc)
* The language of welfare has been "Americanised" to be one of "them and us", in contrast to a language of "social security" that we all pay in to and all might use. Similarly, "austerity" implies a a warm coming-together in difficult times, such as in WW2, whereas a more accurate word might simply be "cuts".
* When lobbying the House of Lords, one can see who is interested in the debate by checking who participates in the second reading of the Bill.
* When the actual, practical effects of policy are pointed out to Treasury officals, they become very uncomfortable.

The Launch of the "True Cost of Austerity" report

The report states that Nottingham faces a number of social issues, including :

1) In May 2013 the unemployment rate was rate was 6.5%, compared to 3.6% in England as a whole)

[BFTF wasn't sure that comparing an urban area like Nottingham with the whole of England was fair, so looked up unemployment claimant figures for some comparable cities, data is for Apr 2013 and from here.

Leicester (pop 330k) : 5.4%, 6.2%, 6.9% (East, South and West Constituencies respectively)
Coventry (pop 316k) : 5.7%, 4.0%, 4.1% (NE, NW, S)
NOTTINGHAM (pop 305k): 7.4%, 8.4%, 4.0% (E, N, S)
Wakefield (pop 325k) : 5.2%
Newcastle (pop 280k) : 6.0%, 4.4%, 3.7% (C, E, N)]

2) Almost 30 per cent of all households in Nottingham claim housing benefit double the rate of the East Midlands (15%)

3) Home ownership is lower in Nottingham (45%) than in the East Mids (67%)

[According to this 2011 census data, the above is borne out when comparing Nottingham to similarly sized cities:

Leicester : 50%
Coventry : 61%
Wakefield : 64%
Newcastle : 69%]

4) Nottingham is ranked 17th out of 326 local authorities for income deprivation (with 1 being the most deprived), and 13th for employment deprivation (again 1 being highest unemployment levels).

The above appears to come from this data, and when compared to similarly sized cities looks like this:

Leicester : 11th and 14th (out of 326)
Coventry : 24th and 22nd (out of 326)
NOTTINGHAM : 17th and 13th (out of 326)
Wakefield : 37th and 17th (out of 326)
Newcastle : 29th and 20th (out of 326)

It seems that Nottingham fares similarly to other similarly sized cities. Also worth noting that all five cities are in the most deprived 10% of areas on both criteria.

Mansfield Road, urban Nottingham

Debt and Social Security Changes

Advice Nottingham comment that "While the overall amount of debts we have assisted clients with has decreased since the credit crunch and recession, going down from more than £33million in 2012-13 to £22 million in 2014-15, the proportion of the debt that is priority debt – debts that have the worst outcomes – has increased from 24 to 35 per cent in the same period."

[Perhaps worth noting that the above statement means that actual value (as opposed to percentage) of priority debt has actually stayed pretty steady at just below £8million.]

The event and report also highlighted the changes that have been made in the social security system by the coalition and current conservative government:

* Introduction of Universal Credit;
* Personal Independence Payments to replace Disability Living Allowance;
* Changes to Employment and Support Allowance;
* Abolition of Council Tax Benefit / Introduction of Council Tax Reduction schemes;
* Abolition of Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants, funding passed to LA's;
* Introduction of the Benefit Cap;
* Introduction of the ‘bedroom tax’; and
* Introduction of Mandatory Reconsideration of benefit decisions before appeals

Advice Nottingham have helped their clients obtain approximately £2 million per year of lump sum payments they were entitled to, and £8.6 and £10 million per year of ongoing social security payments. A 2015 survey of service users found that 98% would recommend the service to others.

Mandatory Reconsideration
This disturbing policy states claimants who disagrees with a social security payment decision (e.g. refusal for an ESA claim) must go through a mandatory reconsideration process prior to lodging an appeal. Critically, the benefit is not payed during this reconsideration period. This results in a Kafa-esque situation that the report describes thus:

"One of the major issues to affect Advice Nottingham clients who are dissatisfied with an ESA decision is that where they are found fit for work but request a Mandatory Reconsideration (MR) the ESA stops. This leaves them with the choice of claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or having no income. Many are reluctant to claim JSA as they feel deeply that they are not fit for work, and fear not meeting the job seeking requirements and being sanctioned. There is an inherent contradiction here and some clients who do attend Jobcentre Plus to register for JSA have been refused on the grounds that they are clearly unfit for work."

Sanctions and Foodbanks
The report describes how many clients are unaware that they have been sanctioned until their benefits fail to arrive, despite the fact that such information should be communicated to them. Although many of them succeed in having such decisions overturned at reconsideration, this is of little help during the period they have no income and people often ask for advice at the point of having no money, no food and feeling desperate. All Advice can do on an immediate practical level at this point is to offer a voucher for a food bank.

Reports by the Church Action on Poverty and others suggest that the rise in is due to a combination of effects including insufficient income, high housing, food and fuel costs, changes to social security and income crises. The Advice Nottingham report comments that:

"Whatever the underlying reason for people using food banks, such usage is a short-term emergency measure; food banks are unable and unwilling to feed people for longer periods of time. Their unwillingness is due to the general belief that there should be a social security safety net that protects people against hunger. By stepping in to meet immediate need, some feel that they are replacing statutory services which ought to protect vulnerable people."

Made up packs at the Himmah Food Bank, ready to be passed onto agencies working on the frontline.

2 Week Snapshot
The report looks in detail at a two week period in Sept2015 in which Advice Nottingham analysed the interactions with those clients who were "financially vulnerable" (i.e. were at risk of losing their home or having utilities cut off). The number of clients who fell into this category over the 2 week period was 1,017.

By far the most common issue was benefit applications, with 22% of clients requiring help in this area;
5% of clients were seeking assistance following a JSA or ESA sanction;
7% of clients needed help following a Mandatory Reconsideration.

Money Matters
"Money Matters" courses, run by Advice Nottingham offer people the chance to learn about the Social Security System, Budgeting, Banking, Lowering Fuel Costs etc.

Case Studies
The report describes a number of case studies illustrating the kinds of issues that clients faced, and how Advice Nottingham was (or sometimes was not) able to help them. Names were changed in all cases. Very brief summaries of a couple of these case studies are shown below:

Case study - Colin
Colin is a 40 year old man with long standing mental health problems including depression and anxiety. He lives alone in a socially rented flat. A WCA assessment in Sep 2014 found that he was fit for work and Colin's ESA benefit was stopped. In Oct 2014, Colin approached Advice Nottingham for help in challenging the decision. At this point he had no income, his Housing Benefit had stopped and he was fearful of losing his home and was reliant on his family for money and food.

Advice Nottingham , over a number of sessions were able to win an appeal at Tribunal and get Colin's ESA reinstated, but this took until May 2015. At one session it was found that Colin has not eaten for two days so he was provided with a Foodbank voucher. At the end of the advice process, Colin commented that without the help of Advice Nottingham, he "wouldn't be here now" and that he had felt suicidal throughout the whole period he had no income.

Case study - Sally
Sally is 38 and has multiple sclerosis. She had been in full-time employment until a relapse of her multiple sclerosis left her in pain and unable to work. She made a claim for Personal Independence Payment and was awarded the standard rate of mobility and daily living components. Sally uses crutches and can only walk 50m very slowly, making it difficult to use public transport. Sally came to Advice Nottingham to see if any further assistance was available.

Advice Nottingham were able to help Sally complete a Mandatory Reconsideration request which resulted in Sally being awarded the enhanced mobility component of ESA. Sally now has an adapted car and a blue badge and has regained her independence.

Other case studies
Many other examples of the kind of cases that Advice Nottingham has to deal with can be read in a separate An Anthology of Modern Poverty booklet.

The True Cost of Austerity Report

Update 28 Mar 2016 [1]
Recently read Mhairi Blacks maiden speech in the House of Commons. It belongs in this post and is shown below in its entirety:

On her constituency
Now, when I discovered it is tradition to speak about the history of your constituency in a maiden speech, I decided to do some research despite the fact I’ve lived there all my life. And as one of the tale end doing the maiden speech of my colleagues in the SNP I’ve noticed that my colleagues quite often mention Rabbie Burns a lot and they all try to form this intrinsic connection between him and their own constituency and own him for themselves. I however feel no need to do this for during my research I discovered a fact which trumps them all. William Wallace was born in my constituency.

On benefit sanctions
Now, my constituency has a fascinating history far beyond the Hollywood film and historical name. from the mills of Paisley, to the industries of Johnson, right to the weavers in Kilbarchan, it’s got a wonderful population with a cracking sense of humour and much to offer both the tourists and to those who reside there. But the truth is that within my constituency it’s not all fantastic. We’ve watched our town centres deteriorate. We’re watched our communities decline. Our unemployment level is higher than that of the UK average. One in five children in my constituency go to bed hungry every night. Paisley Job Centre has the third highest number of sanctions in the whole of Scotland.

Before I was elected I volunteered for a charitable organisation and there was a gentleman who I grew very fond of. He was one of these guys who has been battered by life in every way imaginable. You name it, he’s been through it. And he used to come in to get food from this charity, and it was the only food that he had access to and it was the only meal he would get. And I sat with him and he told me about his fear of going to the Job Centre. He said “I’ve heard the stories Mhairi, they try and trick you out, they’ll tell you you’re a liar. I’m not a liar Mhairi, I’m not.” And I told him “It’s OK, calm down. Go, be honest, it’ll be fine.”

I then didn’t see him for about two or three weeks. I did get very worried, and when he finally did come back in I said to him “how did you get on?”

And without saying a word he burst into tears. That grown man standing in front of a 20-year-old crying his eyes out, because what had happened to him was the money that he would normally use to pay for his travel to come to the charity to get his food he decided that in order to afford to get to the Job Centre he would save that money. Because of this, he didn’t eat for five days, he didn’t drink. When he was on the bus on the way to the Job Centre he fainted due to exhaustion and dehydration. He was 15 minutes later for the Job Centre and he was sanctioned for 13 weeks.

Now, when the Chancellor spoke in his budget about fixing the roof while the sun is shining, I would have to ask on who is the sun shining? When he spoke about benefits not supporting certain kinds of lifestyles, is that the kind of lifestyle that he was talking about?

On Food Banks
If we go back even further when the Minister for Employment was asked to consider if there was a correlation between the number of sanctions and the rise in food bank use she stated, and I quote, “food banks play an important role in local welfare provision.” Renfrewshire has the third highest use of food banks use and food bank use is going up and up.

Food banks are not part of the welfare state, they are symbol that the welfare state is failing.

On housing
Now, the Government quite rightly pays for me through tax payers money to be able to live in London whilst I serve my constituents. My housing is subsidised by the tax payer. Now, the Chancellor in his budget said it is not fair that families earning over £40,000 in London should have their rents paid for my other working people. But it is OK so long as you’re an MP? In this budget the Chancellor also abolished any housing benefit for anyone below the age of 21.

So we are now in the ridiculous situation whereby because I am an MP not only am I the youngest, but I am also the only 20-year-old in the whole of the UK that the Chancellor is prepared to help with housing.

We now have one of the most uncaring, uncompromising and out of touch governments that the UK has seen since Thatcher.

On Labour and opposition
It is here now that I must turn to those who I share a bench with. Now I have in this chamber for ten weeks, and I have very deliberately stayed quiet and have listened intently to everything that has been said. I have heard multiple speeches from Labour benches standing to talk about the worrying rise of nationalism in Scotland, when in actual fact all these speeches have served to do is to demonstrate how deep the lack of understanding about Scotland is within the Labour party.

I like many SNP members come from a traditional socialist Labour family and I have never been quiet in my assertion that I feel that it is the Labour party that left me, not the other way about. The SNP did not triumph on a wave of nationalism; in fact nationalism has nothing to do with what’s happened in Scotland.

We triumphed on a wave of hope, hope that there was something different, something better to the Thatcherite neo-liberal policies that are produced from this chamber. Hope that representatives genuinely could give a voice to those who don’t have one.

I don’t mention this in order to pour salt into wounds which I am sure are very open and very sore for many members on these benches, both politically and personally. Colleagues, possibly friends, have lost their seats. I mention it in order to hold a mirror to the face of a party that seems to have forgotten the very people they’re supposed to represent, the very things they’re supposed to fight for.

After hearing the Labour leader’s intentions to support the changes of tax credits that the Chancellor has put forward, I must make this plea to the words of one of your own and a personal hero of mine.

Tony Benn once said that in politics there are weathercocks and sign posts. Weathercocks will spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them, no matter what principal they may have to compromise.

And then there are signposts, signposts which stand true, and tall, and principled. And they point in the direction and they say this is the way to a better society and it is my job to convince you why.

Tony Benn was right when he said the only people worth remembering in politics were signposts.

Now, yes we will have political differences, yes in other parliaments we may be opposing parties, but within this chamber we are not. No matter how much I may wish it, the SNP is not the sole opposition to this Government, but nor is the Labour party. It is together with all the parties on these benches that we must form an opposition, and in order to be affective we must oppose not abstain. So I reach out a genuine hand of friendship which I can only hope will be taken. Let us come together, let us be that opposition, let us be that signpost of a better society. Ultimately people are needing a voice, people are needing help, let’s give them it.

Update 10 Apr 2016
One can get an idea of how bad the DWP "fitness for work" decisions are by reading about how a group of student lawyers in Bristol looked at 200 cases of DWP demming a person to be "fit for work" and were able to get the decision overturned in 95% of cases. This is significantly higher than the national average of 59% and shows how important legal support is to a successful challenge.

Back in 2014, Advice Nottingham published a report titled "Children in an Age of Austerity" which looked at the effect that changes in welfare rules have had on families.

The findings of the report include that :

* Families deemed to be ‘under occupying’ their accommodation are experiencing financial hardship and face either increased costs or potentially moving home and losing social support networks.
* Children may have to change schools or travel further to get to school if their families are forced to move as a result of under-occupancy.
* Non-resident parents/carers face financial penalties for under-occupancy or losing the room their children use, potentially reducing parent-child contact.
* Parents subject to benefit sanctions are relying almost entirely on food banks to feed their children.

And recommendations include that :

* Non-resident parents who have a room designated for their children should not be subject to under-occupancy rules.
* Families rehoused as a result of domestic violence should not be penalised if they have ‘surplus’ rooms.
* Benefit sanctions should be applied more fairly.
* Help should be offered to all parents whose benefits have been sanctioned.
* DWP staff should aim to accommodate requests to expedite decisions for clients with dependent children.
* All families with children should be able to access hardship funds.

Foodpacks at Tasty Tuesdays

The report reports on feedback received from some of Nottinghams Foodbanks. The Bestwood and Bulwell food bank feeds on average, 300 people a month, with approximately a third of these being due to benefits sanctions. Grace Church reports providing some 450 food parcels between September 2012 and October 2013, including 77 referrals due to benefit sanctions, also commenting that almost as many referrals are due to benefit delays as benefit sanctions.

The report comments that "Increasingly food banks are at risk of becoming an arm of the welfare state, meeting the most basic needs that many families are now unable to meet themselves."

Case Studies
Some of the Nottingham case studies reported are harrowing and one can only imaging the stress they will have caused to families already struggling to keep their heads above water. For example :

Frank is a 54 year old man living in a three bedroom property. He lives alone but his granddaughter spends 1-2 weeks a month with him as her mother is often unwell due to mental health problems.Frank’s role as a carer is not taken into account when assessing his housing needs, despite his support helping to keep the family together. Frank has to pay the ‘bedroom tax’ every month and his rent arrears are increasing every month.
(Advice Nottingham helped Frank to negotiate repayments of his arrears. Frank says he is ‘managing to keep his head above water’.)

Arthur was living alone in a two bedroom Nottingham City Homes property. His rent was £70 per week. He moved to private rented accommodation to avoid the bedroom tax and is now receiving £88.85 per week housing benefit and still has a spare bedroom.
(Advice Nottingham comment that "...many tenants in social housing who move to the private rental sector to avoid paying ‘bedroom tax’ are likely to receive more housing benefit rather than less.... It is difficult to see what the policy will achieve other than to cause hardship, increased indebtedness and stress for many tenants.")

Caroline is a 28 year old woman and a lone parent. HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) compliance department was investigating her as having an ‘undisclosed partner’ living at the same address. She had sent documentary evidence by recorded delivery to prove that this was not the case, but HMRC had lost the documents. This was the second time she had sent the documents and the second time that HMRC had lost them. Caroline had no income. She had to ask family to help her as much as they could and had to rely on a local food bank to feed her children. She didn't even have the bus fare to travel to CAB for advice. She was worried about her inability to properly care for her children and the fact that HMRC showed no concern about how she was managing financially.
(Advice Nottingham contacted HMRC regarding the loss of tax credits and arranged for food parcels from a local food bank. Caroline was also offered help to manage her debts, accumulated due to her reduced income. Once her tax credits recommenced she felt able to manage without any further support)

Suzanne is a single parent of two year old twins. She fled an abusive partner who would often beat her in front of her children. Her partner had previously controlled all claims – including child benefit and working tax credit. Suzanne submitted a claim for income support, which the DWP would not pay until the child benefit was transferred to her name. DWP informed Suzanne that new claims were currently taking 12 weeks to process. Despite her explaining her situation with regards to domestic violence, the DWP were not willing to speed up the process. In the meantime, Suzanne was struggling to support her two children and often had to leave them home alone for short periods when she worked.
(Advice Nottingham comment that they contacted DWP on Suzanne’s behalf and are awaiting a decision as to whether income support can be paid early before child benefit is transferred to her name)

Winston is a 24 year old single father who had a retrospective sanction imposed for four weeks after failing to attend a Work Programme meeting. Advice Nottingham understand that this was because Winston's two year old daughter was taken ill. He telephoned before the due appointment, but was told this would still have to be noted as 'did not attend'. Winston has diabetes and the four week sanction caused severe hardship for him. He was not told about hardship payments, how to appeal the sanction decision, or food banks, and during the time of the sanction suffered hunger, hardship and stress. He felt this may also have caused a worsening of his diabetes over this period.
(Advice Nottingham comments that Winston was referred to a local food bank for food parcels and helped to apply for charitable help with his housing arrears to avoid homelessness. He was referred for specialist housing advice. They add that "It is difficult to see how Winston could have avoided this situation. Schools, nurseries and child minders are reluctant to take sick children due to health and safety concerns for others. This leaves parents unable to go to work or, as in Winston’s case, unable to meet job seeking requirements. However, the inflexibility of the rules for job seekers does not allow for such situations.")

To recap, some examples of people placed in great hardship by delays in providing welfare and other safety net payments:

Suzanne - a mother who was fleeing an abusive relationship and needed child benefit and welfare payments transferring to her name. The DWP said this would take 12 weeks.

Winston - a single father who told the DWP he could not attend an appointment because his daughter had been taken ill. He was given a 4 week sanction.

It seems to BFTF that the efforts of some Foodbanks and other charitable groups are focussed largely on providing immediate aid to people like Suzanne and Winston - while the responsible local authorities are not held accountable for their failure to provide timely services to those who rely on this help as their only safety net.

Which Foodbank is doing it right?

This, to BFTF, is not acceptable. One can imagine the architects of austerity thinking something like this :

"This is perfect, we cut services to the extent that people cannot afford food - and these soppy do-gooders pick up the pieces with their foodbanks! And best of all, they are so busy running around making sure they have enough tins of beans that they don't challenge any of the blatantly vindicitve and unfair decisions that are being made. G&T's all round!"

So, on 30th May, sent this email to one of Nottingham Councils Portfolio Holders:

"I've been very disturbed to read a report by Advice Nottingham which includes case studies of people how have been treated very badly by the DWP and had sanctions imposed unfairly or had benefit changes delayed excessively.I have two questions:

1) Who, in Nottingham, is responsible for ensuring that benefit sanctions are always fair and reasonable; and that delays in processing benefit claims are not excessive or handled incompetently.

2) How does the council collect data to ensure that benefit sanctions are always fair and reasonable; and that delays in processing benefit claims are not excessive or handled incompetently."

They said they would find out.

Dear Reader, if you think local officials should be held accountable for the welfare decisions made on their patch, you may wish to email your local councillors with questions like those above. You can get their contact details here:

Update 14 May:No response so chased up by email again
Update 20 May:No response so chased up by email again
Update 30 May:Chased up again, cllr said they'd get back to me.
Update 14 June:Chased up again
Update 21 June:Chased up again, cllr said they'd get back to me.
Update 25 June:Chased up again, cllr said was working on it.
Update 7th July :Chased up again

And then, finally...

Update 15th July : Received the following response (edited slightly for clarity) from :

Question 1
Who, in Nottingham, is responsible for ensuring that benefit sanctions are always fair and reasonable; and that delays in processing benefit claims are not excessive or handled incompetently.

Answer 1
Sanctions Protocol
In 2014, in response to concerns regarding inappropriate sanction decisions by the DWP, affecting claimants in Nottingham, the City Council set up a Sanctions Protocol with the DWP locally. Employment and skills are responsible for the protocol and have worked hard to ensure that it is understood by colleagues and partners – Activity listed below:

Organisations have been encouraged to engage with this process through a variety of networks: Employment and Skills Officer (ESO) involvement in communities and with lead organisations, including foodbanks and faith groups.

Advice Nottingham promoting to their members and ESO attended Advice Nottingham Manager meetings to encourage referrals and answer questions.

ESO presented at a training event for the voluntary sector hosted by NCC Welfare Reform project leads.

ESO promoted protocol to organisations engaged with the Quality and Commissioning led Financial Vulnerability Assistance and Advice event.

ESO met with Welfare Rights colleagues to promote the protocol and will be attending a team meeting later this summer to talk to the wider team and answer questions.

Working with Policy Welfare Reform leads to identify full picture of impact of sanctions and qualify some of the information we are receiving from community sources.

Question 1b
What is the Council doing to support ALL vulnerable citizens (including those subject to a sanction).

Answer 1b
Lobbying Government
Nottingham City Council passed a motion calling on Government to reverse welfare cuts which affect the most vulnerable citizens in the city.

Responding to consultations in partnership with the advice sector.

Highlighting concerns on Universal Credit and asking for clarity on Universal Credit implementation, process and timescales.

Helping to prepare our citizens
Investing in advice services.

Plus our own Welfare Rights service to provide benefits advice and support with budgeting/money management and debt.

Organising job fairs and advertising local job opportunities through

Helping with energy bills
The Council has launched Robin Hood Energy, a not for profit energy company aiming to provide low cost energy.

Working with partners
Including Nottingham City Homes (NCH), registered social landlords, advice agencies.

Including Credit Union - To improve access to bank accounts & affordable loans.

Including Advice Nottingham - who also offer a support scheme to help local people in fuel debt. The scheme offers money to eligible city residents to help relieve fuel debt.

Question 2
How does the council collect data to ensure that benefit sanctions are always fair and reasonable; and that delays in processing benefit claims are not excessive or handled incompetently?

Answer 2
The Council only has access to the limited data made available by the DWP and has no opportunity to assess the decision making process. The data released by DWP is largely management data relating to the number of decisions and appeals made. There is no data whatsoever on the number of people in the City who currently have financial sanctions applied against them. We have raised this on numerous occasions with the DWP and been told that they do not have the time or capacity to produce this data.

Update 19th July : Council further advised that they could not give a named contact at the local DWP and the the portfolio holder ultimately accountable (so far as the council had accountability) was Cllr Graham Chapman

Image Sources
BFTF own and via Himmah