11 November 2010

The welfare reform white paper published today is not just about the new universal credit.  It is also about imposing indefinite 100% benefits cuts on existing sick and disabled claimants for as little as missing a single appointment.

The white paper ‘Universal Credit: welfare that works’ by Iain Duncan Smith sets out the basic workings of the universal credit which will replace many in-work benefits over the next ten years.

However, the document also reveals that a new sanctions regime is to be introduced for existing claimants prior to the introduction of universal credit.

Under the new regime, claimants in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance (ESA) and the hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled claimants being forced onto JSA by increasingly harsh medical tests, face 100% cuts in their benefit for minor ‘offences’.

According to the proposals, ESA and JSA claimants will be required to have a ‘claimant commitment’.  This will set out what they are expected to do in return for their benefit and what will happen to them if they fail to do so.  As now, personal advisers will work with ESA claimants to help them move into paid employment.

Amongst the powers given to personal advisers, many of whom will be working for profit-driven private sector companies, will be the right to instruct ESA claimants to take part in work-related activity, such as training  ‘to address a skills need’ which ‘will aid their movement into work.’

Sanctions can be imposed on ESA and JSA claimants where they fail to follow instructions issued by these personal advisers to do such things as:

  • attend an appointment
  • attend an employment related programme
  • attend a work-focused interview
  • carry out work-related activity (such as training)

The sanctions for an ESA or JSA claimant are a 100% cut in their  ESA or JSA for an indefinite period until they do what they were instructed to do.  Once they have complied, there will then be a further 100% cut for one week for a first offence, two weeks for a second offence and three weeks for a third offence.

JSA claimants who fail to apply for a job, fail to accept a reasonable job offer or fail to attend Mandatory Work Activity could have their benefits stopped for three months for a first offence right up to three years for a third offence.

Mandatory Work Activity is up to four weeks of full-time activity which personal advisers can impose on JSA claimants where they believe they ‘will benefit from experiencing the habits and routines of working life’.

It is likely that the decision about imposing a sanction will continue to rest with a DWP decision maker rather than a private sector adviser.  However, the decision maker will be relying primarily on evidence provided by the adviser.

Claimants will also still have the opportunity to show that they had good cause in failing to meet their responsibilities and so avoid a sanction.  Issues such as mental health conditions should be taken into account.

Where sanctions are applied, claimants will have the right to appeal to an independent tribunal.  However, whilst the appeal is going through the status quo will apply and the sanctions will continue.  Given that the appeal could take anything from six months or more, few claimants will be in a position to maintain their refusal to follow orders given by a personal adviser.

Claimants can also apply for hardship payments whilst they are under a sanction.  However, hardship payments can be difficult to obtain, they are paid at a much lower rate than normal benefits and the white paper says that they are considering replacing hardship payments with loans.  The white paper also says that they are looking at  ways of preventing people who ‘persistently  fail to meet the requirements imposed upon them’ from receiving hardship payments.

We don’t yet have a date for the introduction of this new regime, but it is clear that it is intended to be introduced before universal credit is up and running.

The great fear is that the sanctions are a stick that can be wielded by unscrupulous and target driven private sector advisers to force sick and disabled claimants into unsuitable work and training programmes which they are unable to sustain.

They may also mean that people with complex health conditions not well understood by DWP staff will fail to meet their ‘claimant commitments’ through no fault of their own but will nonetheless be put on indefinite sanctions.

What these sanctions are definitely not, is part of a ‘fairer’ system that creates ‘a ladder of opportunity to those who have previously been excluded or marginalised from the world of work’ as Smith claims in the introduction to this white paper.  They are more likely to be a trapdoor to poverty, deteriorating health and despair.


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