Restoring faith in the safety net

Holes in our benefits safety net are leaving hundreds of thousands of people at risk of hunger and destitution.

It used to be said that one of the main reasons for the absence of ‘absolute’ poverty in the UK was our welfare safety net – one of the crown jewels of the 1945 Welfare State (alongside the NHS and universal free education – both now arguably also under serious threat).

Yet, in recent years, I have lost count of the number of stories I have heard of real hardship caused by failures in the very ‘safety net’ itself. Instead of providing security, people fall through an increasingly large number of holes in the safety net, due to undue delays, administrative errors, or the excessive use of ‘benefit sanctions.’ Large numbers of people, including children, are left at risk of hunger or destitution as a result.

Take Andrew, who was referred to West Cheshire Foodbank. “I’ve just signed on at the Jobcentre and I’m waiting for my appointment. But they have left me for over two weeks with no money or support. They have taken away the phones in the Jobcentre as well, which makes it very difficult to contact them when I have no family or anyone. They have cut people off with basic service. If it wasn’t for the Foodbank I would have no food and then I would have gone out to steal food if I had to. Thank God for the FoodBank.”

Or consider the plight of Sarah, who worked for a charity in Manchester until she was laid off in 2013 due to funding cuts. As a condition of receiving Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) she was asked to apply for eight jobs a week, but always applied for more as she was keen to get back to work. One week she was unable to complete her required number of online job searches, because there were workmen fixing her roof and she had to stay in the house. The following week she was surprised to find she had been ‘sanctioned’ and her benefits stopped without warning.  “I found the experience at the Jobcentre Plus so awful I’d rather starve than go back there again... That whole attitude that people are scroungers is terrible, there’s just no respect.”

A report we (Church Action on Poverty) commissioned in July 2015 identified at least eight substantial holes in our social safety net:

  • Inefficiency and bureaucratic delays, leaving people with no income for weeks at a time while forms are processed: in 2015–16, an estimated 1.2 million people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance or Employment Support Allowance had to wait seven ‘waiting days’ before they were entitled to benefit money. The DWP themselves estimated that this would leave 280,000 people ‘most at risk of suffering financial hardship’. Universal Credit makes this worse, as payments are monthly in arrears.
  • Uneven help to cope with delays: almost half the people who apply for a ‘short-term benefit advance’ have their claims turned down.
  • People not getting money they’re entitled to: Many are underpaid because of administrative errors; many don’t claim because information isn’t available.  Over a million people were underpaid a total of £930 million in benefits and £561 million in Tax Credits in 2013/14 alone.
  • Unacceptably long waiting times: people wait months for assessments of their capacity to work.  In June 2014, over 292,600 people were waiting for an ESA assessment. 224,600 of them had been waiting three months or more.
  • People vanishing from the system: by June 2014, 1.4 million people had been assessed as fit for work and had their Employment Support Allowance (ESA) stopped as a result.  The DWP cannot say how many have gone on to find work, claim JSA, or ended up destitute as a result.
  • Excessive and arbitrary punishments: benefit sanctions for minor ‘offences’ are harsher than many criminal sentences.  In the year to September 2014, 605,595 people receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance were sanctioned.  In the same year, 36,810 people receiving Employment Support Allowance – including people with substantial mental health problems – had their benefit stopped as the result of a sanction.
  • People punished with complete destitution: people’s benefits are being stopped entirely, often without access to hardship loans.  The harshest penalty it to stop someone’s benefits for up to three years.  Unbelievably the DWP does not collect data centrally on how many people have been issued with a three year benefit sanction.
  • No right of appeal or due process: people whose benefits are stopped when they are accused of fraud or wrongdoing find it very difficult to challenge or appeal the decision, but can be left without any money whilst the accusation is investigated – a process that can take weeks or months.

The Trussell Trust and others have systematic collected evidence to show that by far the biggest reason why nearly a million people were referred to a Trussell Foodbank last year, was as a result of delays, errors or the deliberate removal of benefit payments.

In a world of growing insecurity, a compassionate society would provide a bedrock of social security: the security of knowing that becoming sick, disabled or unemployed, or suffering a financial shock or crisis (be it a bereavement or a broken cooker), will not leave anyone penniless, hungry or at risk of destitution.

As the Bishop of Truro, Rt Rev Tim Thornton (and co-chair of Feeding Britain) has said: “It is surely not unreasonable to expect the benefits system to prevent people from quite literally going hungry.”

To be sure, the principle of a ‘welfare safety net’ to ensure that no one in the UK need go to bed hungry or destitute continues to command widespread public support.  Indeed, I have not heard a politician of any political hue arguing against it.  It is high time it was put back into practice.  It is time to restore faith in the safety net.

Niall Cooper
Church Action on Poverty