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Five benefit changes the government doesn't want you to know about

Threats to take away children from families is a new low for the coalition government's war on benefit claimants.

It used to be that when politicians wanted to bury bad news they’d orchestrate its release to time with a distracting event. Seeing Iain Duncan Smith publicly criticized for wasting at least £140 million of public money over Universal Credit at the start of this month, it struck me how we’ve slowly reached another level. “Unmitigated disaster”? “Alarmingly weak”? These words were used to describe Universal Credit but could easily have been levelled at a number of largely unreported changes to the benefit system. Nowadays, bad news is buried by even worse news. The sheer volume of inefficient and unethical changes to social security this Government has enacted means some of it doesn’t even get noticed. Which, for a set of politicians hacking at vulnerable people’s support systems, is worryingly convenient.

So, here’s five benefit changes the government doesn’t want you to know about.

1. Disabled people denied a key benefit have had their right to appeal reduced 

On 28 October the Department of Work and Pensions introduced a major change to the appeal process to the main disability benefit for people who are too ill to work, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). If a claimant wishes to appeal against a decision that they are not entitled to ESA, they must now ask the DWP to reconsider the decision before lodging an official appeal – and receive no money in the meantime.

Dubbed the ‘mandatory reconsideration’ stage, not only will the claimant not receive ESA income during this period, there will be no time limit on how long it will take. People with disabilities and illness are being left with no income for an indefinite period of time. This would be bad enough for a system that works. It’s particularly alarming for a system where 40 per cent of appeals overturn the original decision. 

The DWP response is the claimant can claim Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) during this appeal stage. Campaigners tell me, however, many disabled people say they won’t apply for JSA due to the fear that doing so will be interpreted by the DWP as evidence they are indeed fit for work.

There’s also concern that the disabled and long-term sick having to enter a system not designed to cope with claimants with poor health will leave them vulnerable to sanctions. As Sharon Brennan points out on her blog ‘Diary of a NHS buff’, statistics of sanctions against JSA claimants show that every month 12% of job seekers are referred for sanction. These are sanctions given if Job Centre Plus feels claimants “are not making themselves available for work” – an accusation easily targeted at people who find it a physical struggle to make appointments, let alone look for work. Which brings us to number two.

2. Long-term sick people are having their benefits sanctioned ... for being sick

The increase in sanctions placed on claimants of jobseeker’s allowance has been widely publicised, with most headlines on the issue last month dedicated to statistics revealing that nearly 600,000 have had adverse benefit sanctions taken against them.

Less publicized is the fact 45,000 sanction decisions have been made against sick and disabled people. This means the number is set to have doubled from the year before

11, 000 sick and disabled people had their ESA penalized in just seven months – either for not participating in work related activity or missing a meeting with the Job Centre. 120 disabled people receiving JSA have had their benefits stopped for three years.

I reported in October the Work Programme’s failure to help disabled people gain employment; things as basic as making an effort to find them suitable work or understand that, when you’re dealing with claimants with health conditions, some days an appointment will be missed as they will be too ill to get up. Put this together with an increase in sanctions, and the system’s failings are now seeing sick and disabled people losing parts of their benefits.

Sarah Davidson*, 43, was threatened with a sanction for being physically unable to do her assigned work activity. Sarah has ME and was awarded ESA on the basis of limited mobility and her inability to sit for more than an hour.

Despite having a meeting with a personal advisor at Seetec, her Work Programme provider, where her inability to sit and concentrate for long periods were noted, Sarah’s now received a summons to an ‘employability programme’ that requires her to have four weeks of twice weekly work related activity lasting over three hours.

My support worker called and explained I could not do this programme because of my disability,” she tells me. “They were very rude apparently, refused to take my health condition into consideration, and said they would be reporting me to DWP for failing to participate.”

In fact, when the programme was due to start two weeks ago Sarah had a flare up of her condition and was physically unable to leave her home all week. Job Centre Plus is currently considering whether to sanction her for non-attendance.

Sarah tells me she’s tried to discuss this with both JCB and Seetec but neither has responded.

“My support worker called JCP and was passed to at least 3 different people ... it turns out my adviser has left. We were given the name of a new adviser, who wasn't available to speak to us. We asked if she could give us a call to explain the situation but I’m not hopeful” she says. “Seetec has rarely if ever returned my support worker’s call or emails.”

She adds she’s normally able to use the phone herself but due to the stress of sanctions and inappropriate work activity, she now needs her support worker to make contact for her.

“I developed an anxiety disorder because of the treatment I've received at JCP and Seetec,” she says. “I'm not able to call them or deal with them without experiencing symptoms of panic.”

That Sarah is now physically unable to even get to her work programme provider’s offices due to Seetac moving to an area that’s inaccessible to her by public transport is only adding to that stress. She knows she could well be penalized for this as well.

“They’re 0.7 miles from a station, and it involves a combination of trains and buses with between 17 and 25 minutes walking involved. I can't walk more than 200m. My Work Capability Assessment report states this,” she says. “I've asked if they would pay cab fares but I’ve had no reply.”

3. 50,000 disabled people are being cut out of work

The cocktail of cuts being made to benefits mean the DWP are managing to simultaneously penalize disabled people for not working and stopping them from having a job. 

50,000 disabled people could lose their jobs due to the Government removing Disability Living Allowance (DLA), the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC), an organisation of over fifty leading charities, has found

One in five disabled people who receive the now scrapped DLA are in work and use the benefit to cover the additional costs that come with that – be it help showering in the morning or a motability vehicle to get to the office. 

But as DLA is phased out and replaced by Personal Independence Payments (PIP) – and half a million people lose their support – it’s been projected 50,000 disabled people will no longer be able to hold onto their jobs. (If a tenth of this number of people were due to lose their jobs at a company, this would be headline news. Tens of thousands of disabled people scattered around the country trapped in their house and unable to get to work receives a strange silence.)

Reflective of the general incompetence of new social security policies, the switch from DLA to PIP doesn’t even make sense financially. At best, it’s hoped to save the Government £145 million. Disabled people no longer being able to get to work, however, will lose the Government £278 million in lost National Insurance and Income tax, as well as £178 million in unemployment benefits it will have to pay out. 

Still, they can probably make some savings by cutting other vulnerable people’s safety net elsewhere.   

4. There’s now a one-year limit on hundreds of thousands of people’s sickness benefit

In fact, the government is way ahead of us. They have now ‘time limited’ Employment and Support Allowance – meaning many people who have been found too ill to find work without support can only get the benefit for a year.

700,000 people with long-term sickness or disability have had their benefit taken as a result. The means test is only £7,500 for this change, leaving someone earning barely £8,000 per year having to support themselves and their ill partner.

Gayle Lewis, 47, has fibromyalgia, endometriosis, and depression but had her ESA stopped last month. In addition to severe pain, Gayle’s conditions leaves her with muscle weakness, fatigue, and a lack of co-ordination that leads her to fall over her feet. She has memory problems that mean she forgets the words she’s looking for when talking and is sometimes unable to speak. Like hundreds of thousands of others, she has had her benefit stopped despite her health meaning she has little hope of finding long-term work.

“My illnesses have not got any better,” Gayle says to me. “In fact, my conditions have [gotten worse]… I’m in terrific pain and I’m on the waiting list to go back for yet another laparoscopy.”

Gayle’s lost £400 per month after having her ESA stopped. Due to the fact her husband earns more than the allowed £7500 a year, the two of them are left to get by on his wage alone.

As Sue Marsh, disability campaigner with We Are Spartacus, points out, “Families already overwhelmingly living in poverty will lose £4661 per year [due to ESA ‘time limiting’]. This is three times as much as higher rate taxpayers ... lose in child benefit.”

Gayle tells me she’s found some part-time writing work she can do from home but would have to write six articles a day to make up the money she’s lost from ESA. “I worry that there will be days when I am completely unable to work, even from home,” she says. 

The effective large-scale withdrawal of ESA comes with an extra layer of distress for those relying on the payments due to the fact the removal is done retrospectively.

As Sue Marsh says to me, “The government ... backdated [the change] retrospectively ... to the previous April, so April 2011 sending letters out to warn people even before the bill passed. So effectively, once it did pass, some people lost their entitlement immediately, just like that.”  

The damage of backdating the withdrawal of support is worsened when poor testing sees claimants having to embark on lengthy benefit decision appeals. Gayle was incorrectly found ‘fit for work’ last year and it took her six months to even be placed in the group receiving a benefit with the ‘365 day limit’. She then had the time limit on her benefit backdated to the date of her request for an appeal.

In the system the DWP have created, sudden, arbitrary, unplanned removal of support for ill and disabled people seems almost common. 

Gayle tells me she’s in a “vicious circle” as the removal of her sickness benefit makes her more ill. “That fact that our income [has quickly dropped] substantially does nothing to help the depression or the anxiety and both of these have a direct effect on the levels of pain, which are made worse by stress,” she says.

“I fear that, like many others, I will simply slip down the cracks now and disappear,” she tells me. “Which is what the DWP seems to be aiming for with this time limit.”

5. Eviction letters are now including veiled threats to remove people’s children

Depressingly, even the cuts that do gain media attention seem to have certain aspects that remain hidden. It’s well highlighted that policies like the bedroom tax are leaving people unable to pay the rent. Less well publicized is the scale of rent arrears social tenants are finding themselves in – or the tacit threats being used to get monetary blood from the stones.

Nearly three quarters of housing association staff say their tenants are falling behind on rent this year, according to a recent Unison survey. Over a third report the main cause is the bedroom tax.

Half of the housing association staff surveyed had seen an increase in tenants being evicted or forced to move out due to financial pressures, Inside Housing reported.

Stuart Hughes was one of the first to receive an eviction notice after being unable to pay the extra rent the bedroom tax had left his family with. I spoke to him back in June and looked at the eviction letters that had been repeatedly sent to his home; bold, black words of ‘possession’ and ‘legal proceedings’. It’s now emerged some housing associations are sending out letters that include the threat eviction proceedings may lead to the tenant’s children being taken into care.

“If you have children in your household we may also inform Social Services,” reads one such letter.

Or the mildly more subtle: “...we must make you aware that if there are children at your property, a referral has now been made to Children’s Social Care (Social Services) as the children at your home are now at risk of becoming homeless.”

As housing solicitor Giles Peaker says on the blog ‘Nearly legal’, these are threats that are “unsustainable and unjustified in both law and practice.” “Most, if not all, people evicted solely on bedroom tax derived arrears would most certainly have an argument that they were not intentionally homeless. The Council would therefore owe a household with children the full homeless duty as being homeless, in priority need and not intentionally homeless,” he says. “Even if Children Services were to accept a s17/s.20 Children Act duty (or Children (Scotland) Act 1995 equivalent) to the children of the household, there is a very strong Article 8 human rights case for the family being kept together, so the proper response would be provision or securing of accommodation for the family…”

Empty threats concerning people’s children may be a new low. Then again, against the recent actions of this Government – be it imposing sanctions on the disabled or removing the benefits of the sick – ‘a new low’ seems to come weekly.

* Sarah Davidson's name has been changed

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear