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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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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

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