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

Photo: Getty
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In the race to be France's next president, keep an eye on Arnaud Montebourg

Today's Morning Call. 

Good morning. As far as the Brexit talks are concerned, the least important voters are here in Britain. Whether UK plc gets a decent Brexit deal depends a lot more on who occupies the big jobs across Europe, and how stable they feel in doing so.

The far-right Freedom Party in Austria may have been repudiated at the presidential level but they still retain an interest in the legislative elections (due to be held by 2018). Both Lega Nord and Five Star in Italy will hope to emerge as the governing party at the next Italian election.

Some Conservative MPs are hoping for a clean sweep for the Eurosceptic right, the better to bring the whole EU down, while others believe that the more vulnerable the EU is, the better a deal Britain will get. The reality is that a European Union fearing it is in an advanced state of decay will be less inclined, not more, to give Britain a good deal. The stronger the EU is, the better for Brexit Britain, because the less attractive the exit door looks, the less of an incentive to make an example of the UK among the EU27.

That’s one of the many forces at work in next year’s French presidential election, which yesterday saw the entry of Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, into the race to be the Socialist Party’s candidate.

Though his star has fallen somewhat among the general public from the days when his opposition to halal supermarkets as mayor of Evry, and his anti-Roma statements as interior minister made him one of the most popular politicians in France, a Valls candidacy, while unlikely to translate to a finish in the top two for the Socialists could peel votes away from Marine Le Pen, potentially allowing Emanuel Macron to sneak into second place.

But it’s an open question whether he will get that far. The name to remember is Arnaud Montebourg, the former minister who quit Francois Hollande’s government over its right turn in 2014. Although as  Anne-Sylvaine Chassany reports, analysts believe the Socialist party rank-and-file has moved right since Valls finished fifth out of sixth in the last primary, Montebourg’s appeal to the party’s left flank gives him a strong chance.

Does that mean it’s time to pop the champagne on the French right? Monteburg may be able to take some votes from the leftist independent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and might do some indirect damage to the French Thatcherite Francois Fillon. His supporters will hope that his leftist economics will peel away supporters of Le Pen, too.

One thing is certain, however: while the chances of a final run-off between Le Pen and Fillon are still high,  Hollande’s resignation means that it is no longer certain that the centre and the left will not make it to that final round.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

The government began its case at the Supreme Court yesterday, telling justices that the creation of the European Communities Act, which incorporates the European treaties into British law automatically, was designed not to create rights but to expedite the implementation of treaties, created through prerogative power. The government is arguing that Parliament, through silence, has accepted that all areas not defined as within its scope as prerogative powers. David Allen Green gives his verdict over at the FT.

MO’MENTUM, MO’PROBLEMS

The continuing acrimony in Momentum has once again burst out into the open after a fractious meeting to set the organisation’s rules and procedures, Jim Waterson reports over at BuzzFeed.  Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder, still owns the data and has the ability to shut down the entire group, should he chose to do so, something he is being urged to do by allies. I explain the origins of the crisis here.

STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE  BEFORE

Italy’s oldest bank, Monte Paschi, may need a state bailout after its recapitalisation plan was thrown into doubt following Matteo Renzi’s resignation. Italy’s nervous bankers will wait to see if  €1bn of funds from a Qatari investment grouping will be forthcoming now that Renzi has left the scene.

BOOM BOOM

Strong growth in the services sector puts Britain on course to be the highest growing economy in the G7. But Mark Carney has warned that the “lost decade” of wage growth and the unease from the losers from globalisation must be tackled to head off the growing tide of “isolation and detachment”.

THE REPLACEMENTS

David Lidington will stand in for Theresa May, who is abroad, this week at Prime Ministers’ Questions. Emily Thornberry will stand in for Jeremy Corbyn.

QUIT PICKING ON ME!

Boris Johnson has asked Theresa May to get her speechwriters and other ministers to stop making jokes at his expense, Sam Coates reports in the Times. The gags are hurting Britain’s diplomatic standing, the Foreign Secretary argues.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

It’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas! And to help you on your way, here’s Anna’s top 10 recommendations for Christmassy soundtracks.

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Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.