Parties need to make the welfare system work, not just act "tough". Photo: Getty
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While the number of benefit claimants is falling, flaws are emerging in the system

A new report shows the early signs of claimant numbers decreasing, but serious problems nevertheless emerging with how the system operates.

Welfare reform has been one of the most controversial parts of the coalition government’s reform programme since coming to power in 2010. A New Policy Institute report published this week finds that while claimant numbers are falling, serious problems are emerging with how the system operates.

Earlier this week, the New Policy Institute published its latest Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion report - an annual, independent assessment of poverty and other forms of disadvantage across the UK. One of the themes of the report is welfare – how many people receive benefits, how much it costs, and how well the system is working to provide support to those who need it. Early signs are that while the number of claimants is falling, cracks are nevertheless emerging in how the system operates.

Our research suggests that on several counts the government is reducing welfare spending. Overall claimant numbers are falling, mainly due to falling JSA claims. Indeed, the number of new JSA claims fell from 3.5 million in 2013 to 2.9 million in 2014, while the number who had been claiming for over a year fell from 430,000 to 310,000. The number of people claiming housing benefit fell last year as well. Moreover, there is some evidence that expenditure on some benefits – tax credits mainly, housing benefit possibly – has peaked.

But when we look more closely at specific policy changes, problems become evident. Take, for instance, the Work Programme. JSA claimants are now more likely to be sanctioned for not going on the Work Programme than they are to actually attend the Work Programme, never mind get a job through it.

Meanwhile, as the graph below shows over 60,000 people had to wait at least 9 months for a decision to be made on their Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claim in 2014, over 50,000 of whom were then found to be entitled to the benefit anyway.

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One of the most contentious aspects of the Government’s reform agenda has been the increasing use of sanctions. As the graph shows below, the number of JSA claimants having their benefits stopped was at a record high in 2013/14, at around 800,000. Another 400,000 claims were referred for sanction, but the decision was made not to stop the payment. This is now lower than the number of claims that were ended before a decision on a sanction could be made – 500,000 last year – and removed from the claimant count altogether.

(Click on chart to enlarge)


The disregard with which benefit recipients are treated would not be acceptable in any other public service. The costs of welfare and the need to reform it will be central to the manifestos of the main parties at next year’s election, as they always are. But the system must be effective and fair. Applicants need to know that their claims will be dealt with swiftly and fairly. The conditions under which people can claim benefits need to be clear and rational. All parties will doubtless insist next year that they are tough on welfare, but they need to be able to demonstrate that they can make the system work.

Theo Barry Born is a research analyst at the New Policy Institute

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The government's air quality plan at a glance

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans.

Do you plan on living in a small, rural hamlet for the next 23 years? Or postponing having children till 2040? For this is when the government intends to ban all new petrol and diesel cars (and vans) - the headline measure in its latest plan to tackle the UK's air pollution crisis.

If the above lifestyle does not appeal, then you had better hope that your local authority is serious about addressing air quality in your area, because central government will not be taking responsibility for other restrictions on vehicle use before this date. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband has tweeted that he fears the ban is a “smokescreen” for the weakness of the wider measures. 

Here’s an overview of what the new Air Quality plan means for you (Health Warning: not much yet).

Will the 2040 ban end cars?

No. Headlines announcing the “end of the diesel and petrol car” can sound a pretty terminal state of affairs. But this is only a deadline for the end of producing “new” fossil-fuel burning vehicles. There is no requirement to take older gas-guzzlers (or their petrol-head drivers) off the road. Plus, with car companies like Volvo promising to go fully electric or hybrid by 2019, the ban is far from motoring’s end of the road.

So what does the new plan entail?

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans. It requires local authorities to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue by the end of March 2018 and will provide a £255 million Implementation Fund to support this process. Interventions could include retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel, supporting cyclists, and re-thinking road infrastructure.  Authorities can then bid for further money from a competitive Clean Air Fund.

What more could be done to make things better, faster?

According to the government’s own evidence, charges for vehicles entering clean air zones are the most effective way of reducing air pollution in urban areas. Yet speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Michael Gove described the idea as a “blunt instrument” that will not be mandatory.

So it will be down to local authorities to decide how firm they wish to be. London, for instance, will be introducing a daily £10 “T-charge” on up to 10,000 of the most polluting vehicles.

Does the 2040 deadline make the UK a world leader?

In the government’s dreams. And dreamy is what Gove must have been on his Radio 4 appearance this morning. The minister claimed that was in Britain a “position of global leadership” in technology reform. Perhaps he was discounting the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron also got there first? Or that India, Norway and the Netherlands have set even earlier dates. As WWF said in a press statement this morning: “Whilst we welcome progress in linking the twin threats of climate change and air pollution, this plan doesn’t look to be going fast or far enough to tackle them.”

Will the ban help tackle climate change?

Possibly. Banning petrol and diesel cars will stop their fumes from being released in highly populated city centres. But unless the new electric vehicles are powered with energy from clean, renewable sources (like solar or wind), then fossil fuels will still be burned at power plants and pollute the atmosphere from there. To find out how exactly the government plans to meet its international commitments on emissions reduction, we must wait for the 2018 publication of its wider Clean Air Strategy.

Will the plans stand up to legal scrutiny?

They're likely to be tested. ClientEarth has been battling the government in court over this issue for years now. It’s CEO, James Thornton, has said: “We’re looking forward to examining the government’s detailed plans, but the early signs seem to suggest they’ve still not grasped the urgency of this public health emergency.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.