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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.

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Government acts of porn access

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THE UK will become the first country in the world to bring in age-verification for online pornography when the measures come into force on July 15, 2019.

It means that commercial providers of online pornography will be required by law to carry out robust age-verification checks on users, to ensure that they are 18 or over. The move is backed by 88% of UK parents with children aged 7-17, who agree there should be robust age-verification controls in place to stop children seeing pornography online.

Websites that fail to implement age-verification technology face having payment services withdrawn or being blocked for UK users.

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will be responsible for ensuring compliance with the new laws. They have confirmed that they will begin enforcement on 15 July, following an implementation period to allow websites time to comply with the new standards.

UK Minister for Digital Margot James said: “Adult content is currently far too easy for children to access online. The introduction of mandatory age-verification is a world-first, and we’ve taken the time to balance privacy concerns with the need to protect children from inappropriate content. We want the UK to be the safest place in the world to be online, and these new laws will help us achieve this.”

Government has listened carefully to privacy concerns and is clear that age-verification arrangements should only be concerned with verifying age, not identity. In addition to the requirement for all age-verification providers to comply with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standards, the BBFC have created a voluntary certification scheme, the Age-verification Certificate (AVC), which will assess the data security standards of AV providers. The AVC has been developed in cooperation with industry, with input from the government.

Certified age-verification solutions which offer these robust data protection conditions will be certified following an independent assessment and will carry the BBFC’s new green ‘AV’ symbol. Details will also be published on the BBFC’s age-verification website, ageverificationregulator.comso consumers can make an informed choice between age-verification providers.

BBFC Chief Executive David Austin said: “The introduction of age-verification to restrict access to commercial pornographic websites to adults is a groundbreaking child protection measure. Age-verification will help prevent children from accessing pornographic content online and means the UK is leading the way in internet safety.

“On entry into force, consumers will be able to identify that an age-verification provider has met rigorous security and data checks if they carry the BBFC’s new green ‘AV’ symbol.”

The change in the law is part of the Government’s commitment to making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, especially for children. It follows last week’s publication of the Online Harms White Paper which set out clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep UK citizens safe online, how these responsibilities should be met and what would happen if they are not.

CEO of Internet Matters Carolyn Bunting said: “We are delighted to see the government tackling the issue of online pornography. Children seeing online content for which they’re not emotionally ready can be very damaging, especially if they don’t speak out about it.

“While our research shows that parents overwhelmingly support age-verification and are confident it will make a difference, we must recognise that digital solutions aren’t the only answer and parents can’t become complacent about their child’s digital world.

“There is no substitute to having regular and honest conversations with your child about what they’re getting up to online, establishing an open dialogue about their digital life from a young age.”

Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet said: “We hope that the introduction of this age-verification will help in protecting children, making it harder for young people to accidentally come across online pornography, as well as bringing in the same protections that we use offline to protect children from age-restricted goods or services.

“Talking to children is vital and education has a major part to play here, and we need to ensure all young people are given a platform to discuss the pressures they face online and have the skills to spot and understand the gap between perception and reality. We are releasing a new extended PSHE toolkit later this month to address the issue of online pornography along with related topics of body image and healthy relationships.

“We know that conversations with young people, parents and carers and teachers are paramount to giving children the information, support and skills that they need.”

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Commons outcry over Saudi executions

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FOREIGN OFFICE Minister Sir Alan Duncan joined the chorus of disapproval following the execution of 37 prisoners in Saudi Arabia.

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, April 24, Sir Vince Cable asked the Government to make a statement on the executions which took place the previous day. 

Amnesty International has condemned the executions, which included the killing of a man who was under 18 at the time of his arrest, in contravention of international law.

The Middle East research Director of Amnesty International, Lynn Maalouf called it “another gruesome indication of how the death penalty is being used as a political tool to crush dissent from within the country’s Shi’a minority”. 

The humanitarian organisation, which opposes capital punishment, say that the executions followed torture, unjust trials and forced confessions.

The Saudi authorities are thought to have executed 104 people so far in 2019. 

Those executed yesterday were charged with terrorism offences. One man was crucified. Another had his headless body displayed in public.

Responding to the urgent question, Minister of State for Europe and the Americas, Sir Alan Duncan said: “We are very concerned by the executions of 37 men in Saudi Arabia and the Foreign Office is working to establish the full facts.

“The UK Government opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country, including Saudi Arabia. We regularly raise human rights concerns, including the use of the death penalty, at the highest levels with the Saudi Arabian authorities.”

In response, Sir Vince Cable said: “We are in urgent need of a reappraisal of our relationship with Saudi Arabia given the fact that the continued mediaeval barbarism of the regime does not constitute the basis for a friendly alliance and indeed makes it an enemy of our values and our human rights.”

The UK Government encourages arms sales to the Saudi kingdom and trains members of the country’s security services in this country. Saudi Arabia is engaged in a war of attrition with neighbouring Yemen, for which it has attracted widespread condemnation for targeting Yemeni civilians.

The MP for Leeds North East, Fabian Hamilton said: “Publicly pinning one of the headless bodies to a pole as a warning is not only disturbingly barbaric and medieval in nature, but an abhorrent violation of human rights. 

“According to the families of those executed, there was no prior notice that the executions would be carried out. That is a blatant flouting of international standards set out by even the most brutal of regimes that still use the death penalty. 

“We know that some, if not all, of those executed, were convicted in Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court, which has been widely condemned by human rights groups as secretive, and which has in the past been used to try human rights activists, whom the state often wrongly regards as terrorists.

“We also know that at least three of those executed were juveniles—a clear violation of international law, which the Saudi regime appears to care very little about. 

“Abdulkarim al-Hawaj was charged with participating in demonstrations, incitement via social media and preparing banners with anti-state slogans. Reports from human rights watchdogs in the country claim that he was beaten and the so-called confessions extracted from him through various means of torture. 

“Mujtaba al-Sweikat was a student about to begin his studies at Western Michigan University when he was arrested at King Fahd airport, beaten and so-called confessions extracted through torture.

“Salman Qureish was just 18 when he was executed, but he was convicted of crimes that allegedly took place when he was still a child. The UN has condemned his sentencing and the use of the death penalty against him after he was denied basic legal rights, such as access to a lawyer.”

Carmarthen East & Dinefwr MP Jonathan Edwards said: “The vast majority of those executed yesterday were Shi’a Muslims. To what degree do the British Government consider that the Saudi regime is using the death penalty as a means of quashing dissent among a persecuted religious minority within its borders?”

Sir Alan Duncan replied: “I do not think that this is the moment for me to give an extended thesis on such matters, but I understand the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. In many parts of the Middle East, the Sunni-Shi’a conflict is very intensive and creates enormous tension, difficulty and strife.”

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Ultrafast broadband voucher for communities

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COMMUNITIES in Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and across Wales can come together to make a bid for the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme which can provide ultrafast broadband for homes and businesses.

The scheme, which is managed by the UK Government, has been given the boost of a top-up in Wales with the Welsh Government providing more funding to take into account the particular challenges caused by the country’s topography.

Ministers from both governments are now urging Welsh businesses and communities to apply as a group for the funding to get gigabit capable broadband.

The group must include at least one business along with surrounding premises. Two or more businesses can get together, or businesses with residents, to combine their vouchers towards the cost of building the infrastructure. Up to ten residents can get together with one business to create a group or community project.

Under the arrangements for Wales, the Welsh Government will provide an additional £3,000 for businesses up to a certain size and an additional £300 per residential property. This means that for group projects in Wales up to £5,500 is available per business, compared with £2,500 elsewhere in the UK. Up to £800 will now be available per residential property in Wales, compared with £500 elsewhere.

Deputy Minister for Economy Lee Waters said: “While the vast majority of premises in Wales can access superfast broadband, we know we must reach the final five per cent. There is no one size fits all solution to do this, and the Gigabit Voucher Scheme is an important part of our efforts to do this.

“I would urge communities without access to look at this option and see if it’s suitable for them. The vouchers would potentially give them access to some of the fastest broadband speeds in the UK.”

UK Government Minister for Wales Kevin Foster said: “Improved digital connections for homes and businesses is a central part of our modern Industrial Strategy which invests in skills, industries and infrastructure to build a Britain that’s fit for the future.

“Together with the Welsh Government, we are working to ensure more people in Wales have access to reliable broadband speeds, supporting communities, enhancing access to online services and strengthening our rapidly expanding digital sector.”

The Welsh and UK Government funded £200m Superfast Cymru programme has already taken superfast broadband speeds to more than 733,000 Welsh homes and businesses commercial companies had no plans to cover. 

Residents and businesses can check whether they’re eligible for the voucher and look up their postcode to find a registered supplier in their area.

Further information on how to apply for the Gigabit Voucher scheme is available on: www.gov.wales/broadband

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