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Politics

Universal Credit’s Black Hole

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A Conservative success story: Foodbanks help both those in work and unemployed

THE UK Government’s drive to cut the benefits paid to those most in need through the introduction of Universal Credit has impoverished the most vulnerable in society and removed universal support from the disabled replacing them with a patchwork of make-do-and-mend solutions which rely on councils to bail out the Westminster Government for its own failings in delivering the new benefit system in a working form.

The series of failures has prompted the National Audit Office, which scrutinises public spending for Parliament, to call on the UK Government to pause Universal Credit’s roll out until it sorts out the mess the reform has caused and is causing.

That call was rejected by the UK Government and led to allegations that the minister responsible, Esther McVey, had misled Parliament both about the NAO report’s content and the success of the Universal Credit roll out.

WELSH GOVERNMENT WARNS ON UC

Plagued by IT issues, incompetence, and the sort of ministerial short-sightedness that regarded the Council Tax as an untrammelled success, Universal Credit’s roll out across Wales has caused Welsh Government Housing and Regeneration Minister Rebecca Evans to write to Esther McVey, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to warn about the impact Universal Credit is having on some of the most vulnerable people in Wales.

Rebecca Evans said: “Foodbank use in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out has increased by 30% according to National Audit Office statistics, compared to a 12% increase in non-Universal Credit areas. This is extremely worrying.

“A Universal Credit claimant survey from Esther McVey’s own department shows that four in ten claimants were experiencing financial difficulties, and that 46% of new Universal Credit claimants need help to make their claim online.

“I have asked the Secretary of State to make Universal Support for people who claim Universal Credit available as widely as possible to help those people who are experiencing difficulties in managing their finances, and for those who are struggling with digital access.

“The recent National Audit Office report was clear; local authorities, housing associations and landlords are all seeing an increase in rent arrears since the introduction of Universal Credit.

“This chimes with many concerns raised and reported to me by the housing sector in Wales.

“The National Audit Office highlighted that the system is lacking in ways to identify vulnerable people, which makes it difficult to see how they are getting the right support, from the outset when they apply for Universal Credit. I have asked the Secretary of State to explain how she plans to rectify this.

“People who are more vulnerable can be offered alternative payment arrangements through Universal Credit, but we are seeing real inconsistencies in the way this is offered to claimants; the Department of Work and Pensions’ own claimant survey indicated that as many as 48% of those surveyed had to request this themselves, rather than being offered it proactively.

“I am deeply concerned about the flaws of Universal Credit, and its impact on the most vulnerable people in Wales, and I will continue to press the UK Government on addressing these.”

In Carmarthenshire, the Council has already set aside resources to help those plunged into uncertainty and financial chaos by the Tory policy, while across Wales Universal Credit recipients have experienced delays in payments and cuts to the benefits they receive leaving many in dire financial straits. In some cases, local authorities are stepping in to bridge the gap, but others are left unable to pay their rent and face eviction as a result. Some landlords are now refusing to take Universal Credit claimants owing to the defects in the payments system, penalising those in need for the incompetence of the DWP.

UNIVERSAL CREDIT FAILING

By the end of this parliament Universal Credit (UC) is expected to be fully rolled out. This new integrated benefits system for people both in- and out-of-work will shape the living standards of the lowest income families in the UK.

Part of the rationale for UC was making sure people are better off working. It is right that families should be able to better their living standards through work, yet in the UK today, the majority of people experiencing poverty live in working households.

Working poverty is highest among lone parents and couples with children with only one earner or where no one works full time.

Among households in working poverty that do not have all adults in full time work, over four in 10 have children of primary school age or below; two in 10 have children under the age of three. Some three in 10 contain a family member with a disability.

Bevan Foundation Director, Victoria Winckler, said: “Universal Credit has been in the pipeline for more than five years, but it is only now reaching all parts of Wales. The number of claimants is starting to go up quite quickly and we are beginning to see the impact of it on individuals, families and communities.”

Despite the number of people set to be affected, there’s been no up-to-date assessment of how the change will affect people in Wales.

Victoria Winckler continued: “The evidence from other parts of the UK is mixed. Some claimants cope well with the transition to monthly payments and the requirement to try to find work or increase the number of hours they work. But others struggle, getting into arrears with bills, debt and even having to rely on food banks.”

BENEFIT CHANGES HIT WORKERS HARD

Serious problems have now emerged in the treatment of the self-employed because of the way their earnings are recorded under universal credit. The issues have arisen because a “minimum income floor” (MIF), based on the national living wage, is used to calculate universal credit payments each month.

Because self-employed workers’ earnings fluctuate from month to month, they sometimes fail to meet the minimum figure and lose out compared with salaried counterparts. They are also only given a year to get their businesses off the ground before the MIF kicks in.

Ministers argue that the system has been designed to encourage people to increase their work and move into better jobs. However, the new report warns that some people have little choice other than self-employment. Ministers also ignore the fact that – for many – better jobs at higher wages are simply not available.

In addition, independent research has established that Universal Credit is – if anything – even worse value for money when it comes to administration costs than the system it replaced.

Having blown £817m on an IT infrastructure project which is unfit for purpose and now redundant, the current running costs per Universal Credit claim run at around £700. The claim made for Universal Credit was that it would reduce costs per claim to £173. There is no sign and little prospect of that target being hit.

DWP DEAF TO REASON

The National Audit Office report into Universal Credit is even more damning.

The NAO says: ‘We think that there is no practical alternative to continuing with Universal Credit. We recognise the determination and single-mindedness with which the Department has driven the programme forward to date, through many problems. However, throughout the introduction of Universal Credit local and national organisations that represent and support claimants have raised a number of issues about the way Universal Credit works in practice.

‘The Department has responded to simple ideas to improve the digital system but defended itself from those that it viewed as being opposed to the policy in principle.

‘It does not accept that Universal Credit has caused hardship among claimants, because it makes advances available, and believes that if claimants take up these opportunities hardship should not occur. This has led it to often dismiss evidence of claimants’ difficulties and hardship instead of working with these bodies to establish an evidence base for what is actually happening. The result has been a dialogue of claim and counter-claim and gives the unhelpful impression of a Department that is unsympathetic to claimants’.

The report continues: ‘The Department has now got a better grip of the programme in many areas. However, we cannot judge the value for money on the current state of programme management alone. Both we, and the Department, doubt it will ever be possible for the Department to measure whether the economic goal of increasing employment has been achieved. This, the extended timescales and the cost of running Universal Credit compared to the benefits it replaces cause us to conclude that the project is not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven’.

A BLEAK PICTURE FOR THE POOREST

Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group Alison Garnham said: “It was sobering enough to learn from the DWP’s own survey last week that four in ten people claiming universal credit have financial problems many months into their claim. Now we have an NAO report confirming just how miserable the experience of claiming universal credit is for hundreds of thousands of people who rely on it. Organisations working with claimants have been saying the same to the DWP for many, many months.

“The picture the NAO presents is justifiably bleak. On the ground, new claimants can’t even be sure they will be paid in full and on time. And how many people will be helped into work by the benefit is far from clear.

“There are clearly fundamental design and delivery problems in universal credit which must be fixed but it has also had its funding dramatically reduced so its capacity to deliver on the original aims has been compromised. The big work allowance cuts in particular have made it harder for claimants to increase the rewards from work.”

Joseph Rowntree Foundation Chief Executive Campbell Robb said: “We all want to live in a society where everyone receives support when they need it, and where there is an anchor to keep people from being swept into poverty. Universal Credit should, in principle, offer that support.

“The UK already has a problem with destitution, with more than one and a half million people in 2017 left unable to feed themselves, stay warm and dry, keep a roof over their heads and keep clean.

“There are major design flaws in the rollout of Universal Credit which have been left unfixed. Delays and sanctions leave people without enough to live on, and they struggle to pay off debt from advance payments. That’s not right. This system needs an urgent overhaul so that people’s essential needs are met without trapping them in long-term poverty.

“It is also concerning that the NAO can find no clear evidence that Universal Credit will help to boost the number of people finding work. The system needs to support people experiencing in-work poverty too, which is currently rising for families with children. By increasing work allowances, the Government can help 2.5 million working families and prevent a further 310,000 people from being pushed into poverty.”

As Labour MP, and veteran campaigner for the rationalisation of welfare benefits, Frank Field pointed out to Esther McVey in the House of Commons last week: ‘40% of claimants finding themselves in financial difficulty, 25% unable to make a claim online, and 20% overall, but two thirds of disabled claimants, not being paid on time and in full’.

Accusing Ms McVey of ‘dissembling’ to Parliament, further probing revealed that Ms McVey had not even bothered to read the NAO report which she had so assiduously rubbished and which had been signed off by her own Department.

Politics

Dowson dissents on new CEO

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A PEMBROKESHIRE county councillor has come forward to oppose the appointment of the authority’s new Chief Executive despite not voting against it when an Extraordinary Meeting of the Council considered.

Controversial Pembroke Dock Central county councillor Paul Dowson issued a press release in which he said that the new CEO had ‘no track record’ in the role.
Last Wednesday (March 31) Pembrokeshire County Council overwhelmingly voted in favour of Major-General Will Bramble’s appointment.

Councillors voted 48 votes for with two abstentions and one against.

Milford Central councillor Stephen Joseph’s was the sole vote against the appointment.

Cllr Joseph is a noted booster of former CEO Ian Westley, whose departure with a £95,000 pay-off caused controversy.

An Audit Wales investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr Westley’s pay-off is due to report within a few weeks.

Major-General Bramble is currently the Senior British Officer in Italy and Deputy Commander of the NATO Corps in Italy.

His track record was not enough to impress Cllr Dowson, however.

Cllr Dowson said:  “He has no experience in a local authority having spent his career entirely in the military.

“I felt that the massive responsibility that comes with this role and the salary level requires more than just one candidate at final stages.

“Cllrs Josh Beynon and Di Clements both stated, ‘give him a chance”.

“I’m afraid at this level you don’t give someone a chance,especially one with no track record in the job.

“He was a very good candidate but I’m not prepared to make a decision on an option already chosen by the senior staff committee and presented to the full council for approval.

“The candidate was strong but the post should have been readvertised and he should have been put forward for the final round when others were competing for the job too.”

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Politics

Criticism of Labour’s water pollution policy grow

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JANET FINCH-SAUNDERS MS – the Shadow Environment and Rural Affairs Minister – has backed a call from rural economy agency Country Land and Business Association (CLA) Cymru for a targeted response to water pollution in Wales.
Last week, a motion to annul the regulations narrowly failed to pass after Labour used its bloc vote.
Labour has twice voted against rescinding the Welsh Government’s NVZ policy and used a procedural ruse to ram the legislation through without scrutiny.
Among those aiding and abetting Labour was the outgoing MS for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Dafydd Elis Thomas. He was joined by Caroline Jones, formerly of UKIP, who is odds-on to lose her regional seat at May’s election. Education Minister Kirsty Williams, the Senedd’s sole Liberal Democrat MS, did not vote at all, not even to abstain.
Despite notionally representing a rural area of Wales, Eluned Morgan and Joyce Watson backed the controversial rules, which could drive Pembrokeshire’s small local dairy farmers out of business.

RIGHT OBJECTIVE WRONG METHOD

Fraser McAuley, CLA Policy Advisor, said: “The Government’s laudable objectives can be better met by an approach which focuses attention where it’s most needed. Where a problem doesn’t exist, we should not be imposing unnecessary costs on a hard-pressed sector in a future of uncertainty.

“The crude closed-periods for nutrient-spreading will do everything to encourage more intense spreading in the open-periods. This limits farmers’ capacity to choose the right ground-conditions to add nutrient. In some instances, this could make matters worse!”
Mr McAuley continued: “We really don’t believe the Welsh Government has allocated sufficient resource to do the job. We will be pressing-hard for more capital support through the Farm Business and Sustainable Production Grants. Penalising hard-stretched farmers will lead to more departures from the business by small operators. The livelihood of many small family farms is at-stake.
“We’ve got a great opportunity to get this right in the White Paper on Agriculture. Here, we can create a solution that fits into the big picture: creating a prosperous farming sector based on sustainable land management principles. This is the real goal.”

WG HASN’T LISTENED TO THE SCIENCE

Janet Finch-Saunder said: “CLA Cymru is bang on the money here over Labour’s unfair stance on nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZ).

“As Welsh Conservatives have repeatedly said, a blanket NVZ policy discriminates against farmers who are abiding by the regulations. A targeted approach focused on where it’s most needed means resources can be better and more efficiently applied.
“Unlike Labour, which is peddling a myth that the voluntary approach has failed, I would look to back the Blue Flag Farming approach. We should pursue the Water Standard and work to deliver on the 45 recommendations by the Wales Land Management Forum Sub-Group on agricultural pollution., They have been entirely ignored by the Welsh Government.
“The pandemic hasn’t helped, but farmers in Wales have had a tough time under Labour. Imposing unnecessary costs on this vital sector of the Welsh economy helps no-one and won’t solve the problem.”
Preseli Pembrokeshire MS Paul Davies said: “These excessive and disproportionate proposals will have a massive impact on the viability of many farms across Wales. Even then, Natural Resources Wales has warned that the proposed new rules will have the perverse outcome of making water quality worse.
“The regulations will threaten the sustainability of many farms in Pembrokeshire and have a serious impact on farmers’ mental health. And they will do this while there is still no clear evidence that this action will actually deliver the improvements in water quality that they have set out to achieve.”

‘CULTURE WAR’

Carmarthen East & Dinefwr’s MP, Jonathan Edwards, went further and accused the Welsh Government of stoking a ‘culture war’ between farmers and the environmental lobby for electoral advantage.

Mr Edwards said: “There is nothing new surrounding issues of slurry management. I am, therefore, baffled as to why the Labour Government are so intent on bringing forward this poorly thought out measure a month before an election.
“Creating an all-Wales NVZ seems completely ham-fisted.  A more subtle policy would have concentrated on problematic geographical areas instead of a blanket all-Wales policy.
“The Labour Government have also failed to consider the emergence of innovative slurry management technology.
“Coleg Sir Gar Gelli Aur campus has been working on a dewatering and purification system for slurry resulting in zero waste.   The Labour Government should be using its environmental budget to help the industry make the transition to the use of new technology.”
Jonathan Edwards concluded: “Unfortunately, the Labour Government have decided to engage in the politics of culture war. Its creating division between farmers and the environmental lobby instead of working collaboratively on areas of mutual interest.
“Instead of using farmers as a political football, the Labour Government should be working with our agricultural sector. Its members are already having to contend with the huge challenges created by the Tory British Government’s Brexit policy.”

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Plaid Cymru’s candidate for Preseli Pembrokeshire, Cris Tomos, said: “It is concerning that the Labour Welsh Government continues to ignore farmers and the farming unions.
“These regulations could be detrimental to the farming community, especially to the Welsh family farm.

“The Labour Welsh Government should be making every effort to work with farmers.”
Cris Tomos added: “It is also concerning that, on the one hand, Labour has pledged to fulfil its ‘One Million Welsh Speakers’ promise, and on the other, it continues to betray the industry with one of the highest rates of Welsh speakers.”

A TIGHT TIMETABLE

If Labour intends to plough on with its legislation, it really has to get its skates on.

The Senedd term ends soon. After that point, Labour will not be able to lay its new regulations.
It has not even published them yet. And that leaves farmers in limbo.
Farmers will not know the detail of the divisive and costly new rules until days before they are due to come into force.
How the Welsh Government can ask a regulator to enforce those rules without a lengthy lead-in is something the Welsh Government has not set out. It has also provided no extra funding to its environment watchdog, NRW, to deal with the rules’ impact and enforcement.

‘GREEN’ CREDENTIALS

Having promised a Clean Air Act for Wales in its 2016 manifesto, it is nowhere near bringing any such legislation forward. It appears it’s more in the presentation and consultation than in the statute book.

Labour Senedd members and ministers who have been remarkably silent on agriculture for the last five years now express a deep and abiding interest in the topic.
As Jonathan Edwards notes above: you’d think there was an election coming.
In contrast to its green branding, Labour withdrew business rates support from small hydropower businesses. It claimed the cost of rates relief to them could not be afforded due to the Covid pandemic. It saved under £1m.
Regardless of when the Welsh Government publishes its regulations, it faces a potential legal challenge from NFU-Cymru. NFU-Cymru says the Welsh Government failed to follow its own rules on the rules’ impact before forcing them through the Senedd.
Labour ministers pressed on without knowing what would happen in practice or, worse, simply turned a blind eye to the consequences. They also ignored the Impact Assessment of the Welsh Government’s own regulator.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths, broke repeated promises made to the Senedd and farming unions about the regulations’ introduction during the pandemic.
Unfunded, unenforceable rules of unknown impact are unlikely to achieve their aim: that’s not a compelling legislative legacy.
Suppose Labour cannot form a majority government propped up by votes from individuals like Dafydd Elis Thomas. In that case, it will need to haggle over its future plans or face legislative deadlock.
Anyone would think there was an election coming.
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Education

Senedd approves Wales’ National Curriculum

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MEMBERS of the Senedd voted to pass the National Curriculum Bill’s final text, meaning the Curriculum for Wales will now be introduced in 2022. Throughout the debate on its final stage, which took place on Tuesday (March 9), opposition members praised Wales’ Education Minister, Kirsty Williams. Members from all sides saluted her patience and diligence in guiding a significant piece of legislation onto the statute book. Even members who disagreed with the Bill’s content and opposed its passage highlighted the Minister’s personal contribution and commitment to creating Wales’ first national Curriculum. A NATIONAL MISSION The Bill was the subject of intensive scrutiny and broad consultation. Speaking in the Senedd, Mrs Williams said the Bill’s passage was ’a national mission’. “It would have been simpler to cook up plans in Cathays Park in a back office and issue a ‘take it or leave it’ offer,” the Education Minister said. She continued: “But our combined efforts with teachers, academics, parents, and many organisations here and abroad is worth so much more because of that ‘national mission’ spirit.” Kirsty Williams paid a personal tribute to Labour MS Lynn Neagle, Chair of the Children’s and Young Persons’ Committee. Under Lynn Neagle’s leadership, the Committee rigorously scrutinised the Bill and made a series of recommendations in its text. Of the Labour backbencher, Kirsty Williams said: “I conclude by thanking Lynne Neagle for her tough, astute, tenacious, sometimes bloody-mindedness in her approach to this legislation. I mean that as a compliment, Lynne. “As I said earlier, the results of the committee’s work have made this a better Bill.” She had similarly warm words for her Conservative opposite number, Suzy Davies. Mrs Williams acknowledged: “She has worked incredibly hard on this Bill, and I know that she’s been fully committed to the scrutiny process. As I said in opening my comments today, I think we have a better Bill due to the CYPE committee’s efforts. I have gone to great lengths to try and respond positively to the cross-party report that the Committee published to try and meet those aspirations.” Like Mrs Williams, Suzy Davies steps down as an MS in May. She was unable to attend the debate. CURRICULUM CONTROVERSY Despite the Minister’s warm words, the new Curriculum’s journey to the statute book has not been without controversy. Activists railed against the Curriculum’s Religion Values and Ethics element and its focus on Welsh language teaching’s importance to all of Wales’ pupils. The inclusion of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in the Curriculum provoked vituperative responses from a small group of parents. They opposed children receiving what they’ve claimed will be inappropriately explicit sexual education. Senior Policy Researcher for NSPCC Cymru/Wales, Dr Sarah Witcombe-Hayes says: “The strength of support for mandatory relationships and sexuality education to be included in the new Curriculum for Wales by leading child protection experts and charities highlights what a game-changer this is. “The changes are long overdue, but in passing this Bill Senedd members are helping to protect children and young people from abuse – making sure every child and young person in Wales can access high quality RSE that is relevant, sensitive and appropriate to their own capacities and needs. “It will help all learners understand their rights to safe, healthy and fulfilling relationships throughout their lives, and schools must now be supported and fully resourced to deliver inclusive and high quality RSE from September 2022.” Regarding Welsh Language teaching and RSE, those with genuine concerns had those worries preyed upon to grandstanding political effect by fringe political movements, such as Ukip and Abolish the Assembly (sic.) Speaking for the latter group, Gareth Bennett said: “The downgrading of English teaching in the interest of immersion in Welsh is a sinister development. It will surely disadvantage Welsh schoolchildren who are not from a background of speaking Welsh at home.” Dr Felix Aubel, a noted controversialist, said: “UKIP would divert millions of pounds by abolishing the legal requirement to forcibly impose the Welsh language on people.” Like Abolish, UKIP will campaign on a platform of abolishing Welsh parliamentary democracy. Those organisations’ concerns on Welsh language education ignore the fact Welsh is the national language of Wales. Every credible educational study underlines how children benefit from bilingual education. HISTORY TEACHING CONCERNS PLAID On Tuesday, further and concerted criticism of the new Curriculum came from Plaid Cymru. Perturbed by the absence of Welsh history’s teaching, Plaid’s Sian Gwenllian announced the party would vote against the Bill in its final stage. Plaid’s Shadow Education Minister said that, although her party supported the Bill’s direction of travel: “Plaid Cymru argued for the inclusion of two other mandatory elements that could also contribute towards creating that social, far-reaching transformation that we want to see, namely the history of Wales in all of its diversity, including black and people of colour history, and environmental education, including climate change.
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