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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

Council takes steps to focus social housing allocations for those in greatest need

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CARMARTHENSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL says that it is taking the first steps towards delivering on Welsh Government’s Rapid Rehousing approach by introducing an Emergency Social Housing Allocations Policy to focus the way the housing needs of residents are met in Carmarthenshire.

The Emergency Policy, developed by Communities Scrutiny Task and Finish, will be considered by the Committee on Thursday 26th January and has been created to help address housing pressures and reduce the time that those in greatest need wait for social housing.

The Policy will enable direct matching of homes to applicants most in need, such as those who are homeless, are at risk of homelessness or in urgent housing need. It will also enable homes to be allocated more quickly and to those residents they are most suitable for.

The proposed Emergency Social Housing Allocations Policy has three defined bands:

Band A: Additional preference – Those who are homeless, are at risk of homelessness or have an urgent housing need.

Band B: Housing need: Reasonable preference – Including residents who need to move due to medical/welfare needs, are looking to transfer to a smaller property (under-occupying), want to move from an adapted home they no longer need or are currently living in an overcrowded/insanitary property.

Band C: Applicants who have no housing need

Applicants who can financially meet their own housing need, do not have a local connection to Carmarthenshire or they/a member of their household have been found guilty of unacceptable behaviour will be given no preference under this Policy.

As a part of the Policy, applicants will be sent reminders to re-register their interest on the 6 and 12 month anniversary of their registration date. Failure to re-register, to use their account or to bid for properties that meet their needs may mean that applicants will be removed from the Housing Register to ensure that only those in need of the service are registered. Help to do this will be provided for people who need it.

Cllr Deryk Cundy, Chair of the Scrutiny Task and Finish Group responsible for developing the Policy said: “As Chair of the cross-party working group that developed this Emergency Policy, I am delighted to be able to present this Emergency Social Housing Allocations Policy to Scrutiny. I am confident that if approved this will have a major impact on the lives of residents in housing need in Carmarthenshire.”

Cllr Linda Evans, Cabinet Member for Homes said: “If approved, the Emergency revised Social Housing Allocations Policy will transform the way social housing is allocated in Carmarthenshire.

“By more clearly defining the needs of those on the housing register, the Council can provide suitable housing more quickly to those who need it by directly matching properties to applicants. Only if a property cannot be matched to someone in exceptional circumstances or Band A of the register will it be advertised on home finder website, Canfod Cartref.”

If approved at the Council’s Scrutiny Committee, the Policy will be considered by the Council’s Cabinet and then submitted for Full Council approval.

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News

Anger as Pembrokeshire misses out on latest round of ‘Levelling Up’ funding

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CEFIN CAMPBELL, Plaid Cymru Member of the Senedd for Mid & West Wales, has criticised the UK Government’s methodology for allocating funding under its ‘Levelling Up Fund’ after a UK Government announcement today revealed that Pembrokeshire will not receive any funding.

A total of eleven projects in Wales have been allocated around £208 million from round two of the Levelling Up Fund. The UK Government has claimed that these projects will create jobs, drive economic growth, help restore people’s pride in the places where they live and spread opportunity more equally.

However, Pembrokeshire is among eleven Welsh local authorities that have not received any money under today’s announcement. This comes despite announcements that wealthier areas, including Rishi Sunak’s constituency of Richmond in Yorkshire, will receive funding.

Responding to the UK Government’s announcement, Cefin Campbell MS said:

“Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire, Powys and Carmarthenshire are amongst the eleven Welsh local authorities that will not receive a single penny from today’s ‘Levelling Up’ round.

“This is despite the real need for ‘levelling up’ in these communities across mid and west Wales – with rural poverty, a housing crisis and poor infrastructure continuing to hamper economic growth and opportunities.

“The Tories promised that Brexit would leave Wales no worse off, and that European funding would be replaced, pound-for-pound. This promise has rung disgracefully hollow, with Wales now looking at a funding shortfall of £1.1bn compared with previous EU schemes.

“The way in which the ‘Levelling Up’ Fund has been allocated appears to reflect cynical political decision-making rather than any real assessment of Wales’ material need – and appears to be little more than a Tory stich up.”

Ben Lake MP, Plaid Cymru Treasury spokesperson added:

“Between 2009-2020 local authority spending per head in Wales fell by 9.4%. The idea that we should now be grateful for the privilege of competing over a small pot of money is frankly insulting. The arbitrary and ad-hoc way in which Westminster is allocating this funding is not conducive to the kind of cohesive long-term economic planning needed to break the poverty cycle.

“From the outset, Plaid Cymru have called for funding to be allocated according to need. If the UK Government want to redeem any credibility on ‘levelling up’, they should revise their criteria so that Wales receives funding according to our relative need.”

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Council launches social care campaign to support the NHS and those most in need

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PEMBROKESHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL has launched Operation Nightingale 23, a campaign to support and reduce pressure in our hospitals.

The Council is acutely aware of the considerable challenges currently being experienced within the NHS in Wales including within our local hospital at Withybush.

Withybush has a significant numbers of patients who need to leave hospital but are waiting for an assessment of continuing care need or the right care package in the community.

Under Op NG 23, Pembrokeshire County Council will deliver a variety of measures to help increase the flow of patients out of hospital including:

  • the short-term redeployment of staff into community support roles
  • additional social work capacity
  • the redeployment of existing social care capacity into the hospital teams to prioritise patient care assessment and care package allocation

This will also include the engagement of community groups and volunteers to allow people to safely leave hospital and return home.

The Authority will be looking to its partners and communities for support across a variety of contributing activities that have the potential to have an immediate impact.

Last week the Welsh Government Minister for Health and Social Services

Eluned Morgan MS visited Pembrokeshire County Council and received a briefing on Operation Nightingale 23.

Cllr Tessa Hodgson, Cabinet Member for Social Care and Safeguarding, said:

“We understand that pressures around bed capacity, discharges from hospital and challenges around the provision of care packages in the community, all impact negatively on our most vulnerable citizens.

“Some of the challenges that the council is experiencing in social care are shared across the health sector, not least of all with regard to workforce, winter flu and the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 virus.

“We acknowledge the significant impact this has on those in hospitals and care, and for their families. As part of our work we want to get the best results for everyone.”

It is as a result of these acute pressures, particularly at this time of year, and the risk they create, that Pembrokeshire County Council has decided to launch Operation Nightingale 23.

Cllr Hodgson adds: “This will see the authority and in particular the social care directorate step up to a critical response mode, in order to develop immediate and short term innovative responses to the current pressures, to improve flow of patients out of hospital, and to reduce pressure on our colleagues in the NHS.”

The Authority will review how it can effectively embed this work in the medium to long term, to face the challenges of an aging population for the good of this generation and those to come.

Steve Moore, Chief Executive for Hywel Dda University Health Board, said: “Our hospitals continue to be extremely busy with many sick patients and continuing high demand for emergency and urgent care. This means patients are waiting longer than we would want them to.

“This is always the most difficult period of the year, and we are managing the complexity of flu, Covid and increased urgent and emergency care demand.

“Currently, we have around 300 patients who are medically fit for discharge across the Hywel Dda region. This equates to over a third of the number of beds in our hospitals.

“Operation Nightingale 23 will help to free up some of those beds allowing us to treat patients more quickly and we are grateful to our colleagues in social care in Pembrokeshire for prioritising this work to free up capacity in the system.”

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