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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If Seumas Milne leaves Jeremy Corbyn, he'll do it on his own terms

The Corbynista comms chief has been keeping a diary. 

It’s been a departure long rumoured: Seumas Milne to leave post as Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications and strategy to return to the Guardian.

With his loan deal set to expire on 20 October, speculation is mounting that he will quit the leader’s office. 

Although Milne is a key part of the set-up – at times of crisis, Corbyn likes to surround himself with long-time associates, of whom Milne is one – he has enemies within the inner circle as well. As I wrote at the start of the coup, there is a feeling among Corbyn’s allies in the trade unions and Momentum that the leader’s offfice “fucked the first year and had to be rescued”, with Milne taking much of the blame. 

Senior figures in Momentum are keen for him to be replaced, while the TSSA, whose general secretary, Manuel Cortes, is one of Corbyn’s most reliable allies, is said to be keen for their man Sam Tarry to take post in the leader’s office on a semi-permanent basis. (Tarry won the respect of many generally hostile journalists when he served as campaign chief on the Corbyn re-election bid.) There have already been personnel changes at the behest of Corbyn-allied trade unions, with a designated speechwriter being brought in.

But Milne has seen off the attempt to remove him, with one source saying his critics had been “outplayed, again” and that any new hires will be designed to bolster, rather than replace Milne as comms chief. 

Milne, however, has found the last year a trial. I am reliably informed that he has been keeping a diary and is keen for the full story of the year to come out. With his place secure, he could leave “with his head held high”, rather than being forced out by his enemies and made a scapegoat for failures elsewhere, as friends fear he has been. The contents of the diary would also allow him to return in triumph to The Guardian rather than slinking back. 

So whether he decides to remain in the Corbyn camp or walk away, the Milne effect on Team Corbyn is set to endure.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.