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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.

News

Meeting to take place to discuss impact of Brexit on Pembrokeshire and west Wales.

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PEMBROKESHIRE for Europe will be holding an open meeting at the Bloomfield Centre, Narberth on 19 September at 7pm on the impact of Brexit on Pembrokeshire and West Wales. Three distinguished speakers will give their perspectives on the impact of Brexit on Pembrokeshire and West Wales:-

Edward Perkins will speak about the impact on agriculture. Edward has enjoyed a long career as auctioneer and valuer for over 50 years. This has involved close contact with the agricultural industry on a wide variety of activities. Although based in West Wales his work has taken him to most parts of Wales an on various activities in Europe in the agricultural field. He has served many organisations and committees including 10 years on the Secretary of State advisory committee on agriculture. He has provided replies to many agricultural consultation papers. He is currently a consultant to the Edward H Perkins firm of rural surveyors and agricultural valuers.

Jeremy Percy will speak about the impact on fishing. Jeremy has been crew, skipper and owner of a variety of fishing vessels and was previously Deputy Director of the South Wales Sea Fisheries Committee and CEO to the Low Impact Fishers of Europe platform when he represented the interests of the small scale commercial fishermen across 16 european member states. He is currently director of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association in these challenging times for the UK’s fishing industry.

Gwyn Evans, Brexit Lead Officer for Pembrokeshire County Council will speak about the preparations the Council is making. In 2018 Gwyn developed the methodology behind the Brexit impact log that has since been adopted by numerous Councils across Wales and England. Since then he has been working with colleagues in Pembrokeshire and beyond on Brexit preparations and earlier this year was part of a Welsh Local Government Association delegation to Cornwall examining Brexit preparedness. Gwyn is a Chartered Secretary and Accounting Technician with considerable experience working on EU regional policy. He has worked in local government since 1982.

We have also invited a representative from the Welsh Government.

Alistair Cameron from Pembrokeshire for Europe said: “Since joining the Common Market in the 1970s, Pembrokeshire together with the rest of Wales and Britain has benefited through frictionless trade with over 300 million customers in the EU. Our ferries at Fishguard and Pembroke Dock enjoy easy access to Ireland. Also thanks to our membership of the European Union, we benefit from free trade agreements with over 50 countries around the world.”

We are organising this meeting to discuss the benefits of EU membership to Pembrokeshire and West Wales and also the risks of Brexit. Everyone is welcome to come to this open meeting to ask questions and take part in the discussion.

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Politics

Disabled people hit hardest by changes to benefits

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CHANGES to the welfare system over the past ten years have left disabled adults four times worse off financially than non-disabled adults, according to new research commissioned by the Disability Benefit Consortium, a coalition of over 80 UK disability organisations.

While many people who receive welfare support have experienced cuts of an average of £300 as a result of changes to the welfare system, disabled people have typically lost around £1,200 per year.

. The research, funded by the Three Guineas Trust, is the first comprehensive study looking specifically at the cumulative impact of welfare changes on disabled people, and conducted by the University of East Anglia, the University of Glasgow and Landman Economics.
The research also found:

. The more disabilities you have the more you lose out, for example someone who has six or more    disabilities loses over £2,100 each year on average, whereas someone with one disability loses around £700 each year.

Households with one disabled adult and one disabled child lose out the most, with average losses of over £4,300 per year.

Today’s report by the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC), ‘Has welfare become unfair – the impact of changes on disabled people’, which is based on this research, looks at the financial impact and lived experiences of welfare reform on disabled people over the past ten years.

As part of the research, 50 people living with a variety of conditions and disabilities were interviewed about their experiences. People said that they found the application and assessment processes highly stressful, and that they did not feel trusted, and constantly challenged.

The DBC also state that the current system has become so complex and dysfunctional, that many disabled people have found it has had a devastating impact on their wider health and wellbeing.

Pam McGee, 48, from Kent, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1994, which severely impacts her mobility. After a PIP assessment in 2017 she lost the higher rates for both the mobility and daily living components, which means her support was cut by £290 a month and she no longer qualifies for a Motability car. She’s now appealing the decision and says the stress caused by this process has impacted her health. She said: “If I lost my car, I don’t know how I’d carry on. I’m terrified I’ll be out of a job because without the car I won’t be able to get anywhere. If I can’t work at the age of 48, I would lose all of my pride. People always ask ‘What’s your name and what do you do?’ My job is what defines me.

“In the last 10 weeks I’ve had a massive relapse. I went dizzy and lost all feeling in my left leg. When I spoke to my neurologist he said the relapse was probably caused by stress. I’ve also been depressed and eating less.

“PIP has caused me and my family a lot of anxiety and stress. It’s caused my MS symptoms to worsen, which has reduced my mobility, confidence, and ability to take care of myself physically as well as mentally.”

The DBC say that the failure to include disability premiums as part of Universal Credit, and poorly designed assessment criteria are just two examples of the problems that are leaving disabled people worse off and is calling on the Government to make urgent improvements to the welfare system to ensure it works for everyone.

Michael Griffin, Research Lead for the DBC and Senior Policy Adviser at Parkinson’s UK, said: “For the first time, our research has shown just how much disabled people are bearing the brunt of the disastrous changes to welfare.

“Many disabled people have not yet even experienced the full extent of the cuts because they are still waiting to be moved over to Universal Credit. However, when this happens there will be a surge in poverty among those who are already at a crisis point.

“This is simply disgraceful and cannot be allowed to continue. The Government must make urgent improvements to the application processes and assessment criteria, and resolve the flaws in Universal Credit before more people are denied the support they desperately need to live independently.”

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Politics

Carers Week: Eluned Morgan AM says thanks to carers everywhere

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by Eluned Morgan AM

WE’VE just celebrated ‘Carers Week’; an opportunity to say a massive ‘Thank You’ to all carers everywhere. No matter what age you are, who you care for and support, where you live or how much time it takes, every act of caring matters and deserves to be recognised.

Every day, people start caring for the first time. Carers are often hidden from view – putting their own health and wellbeing to the back of the queue. Many can become socially isolated, and some face financial pressures as a result of juggling work life with caring responsibilities.

We know that there are at least 370,000 carers in Wales (that’s more than the population of Cardiff) and that three in five of us will undertaking a caring role at some point in our lives. The latest census revealed that there were at least 15,000 carers in Pembrokeshire, a figure that probably underestimates reality.

I had the opportunity to meet carers from across the region in an event organised by Carers UK at the National Assembly. It became apparent from my conversations that, for many, it is a challenge to know how or where to get help. Caring can creep up unnoticed: for many, it begins with parents suddenly being unable to manage alone, or a partner’s health gradually becoming worse.

But it is important to know that there is support available and people shouldn’t put off asking for help. Organisations like Carers UK are there to listen, to give expert information and advice, tailored to your situation, to champion your rights and support you in finding new ways to manage at home, at work, or wherever you are.

If you know someone who could benefit from some help, please spread the word. We can all play our part in recognising and celebrating the essential contributions carers make, sharing information about caring support services within our local communities.

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