Mhairi Black’s sanctions Bill rejected by Minister for Employment who does not know meaning of hardship

3 December 2016

To Damian Hinds MP
The Minister for Employment.

From the Reverend Paul Nicolson - Taxpayers Against Poverty

Benefit Claimants Sanctions (Required Assessment) Bill

By rejecting this Bill you are rejecting the unacceptable fact that millions of UK citizens are suffering hardship and “cannot meet their immediate and most essential needs”. 

I am a taxpayer. I founded Taxpayers Against Poverty because I resent being used by politicians to justify creating hardship, misery, unmanageable debt, low birthweight, mental and physical ill health for unemployed people by shredding their statutory minimum incomes and then punishing them with a totally disproportionate benefit sanction without mandatory, independent  and detailed consideration of the facts and circumstances of each case.

It is an abuse of power and a perversion of British justice.

You even brief Decision Makers that hunger is acceptable. It is not.

DWP GUIDANCE TO JOBCENTRE  DECISION MAKERS (DM) 

The DM must consider if the health of a person with a health medical condition would decline more than a normal healthy adult. 

It would be normal for a normal healthy adult to suffer some deterioration in their health it they were without ...essential items such as food... for a period of two weeks.

Your response to Mhairi Black's speech. 

I read with interest your answer to Mhairi Black’s speech and offer this comment on what you had to say about hardship payments.

There is no agreed definition of hardship  between the DWP, the DCLG and the MOJ. But you said;

“We have a well-established system of hardship provision for claimants—provision that can be accessed by those who are sanctioned. Where a claimant demonstrates they cannot meet their immediate and most essential needs, they can apply for a hardship payment. We tell claimants regularly about the availability of hardship payments, and we have worked hard to ensure that payments are paid within three days. Work coaches identify claimants they feel would be considered vulnerable for hardship purposes and, where a sanction is imposed, they contact them to instigate the hardship process straightaway.”

If you had a “well established system of hardship provision”  you would not have cut housing benefit three times, council tax benefit in 259 council’s out of 326 in England or frozen the increases in benefit incomes at 1% so piling 2011 & 13 hardship on severe hardship which existed before the financial crisis in 2008.  You have made home renters poorer while allowing home and land owners to become ever richer.

Your policy makes benefit claimants apply for hardship payments

 “Where a claimant demonstrates they cannot meet their immediate and most essential needs”.

That policy assume wrongly and irrationally that people are out of hardship when they have no income or are receiving an income of £73.10 a week JSA as a single, which since April 2013 is paying council tax and the bedroom tax, often plus court costs and bailiffs fees.  

There is no agreed definition of hardship between the DWP. DCLG and the MOJ. Because if there was all benefits would be higher, less people would be hungry and most people would be healthier. The humane evidence is that the vast majority would still be applying for work depending on the condition of the labour market sanctions or no sanctions.

 

A definition of hardship

During the passage of the Local Government Finance Bill 2012,  Bishop Lord Harries of Penregarth set out a definition of hardship which I had discussed with officers at the DWP, DCLG and MOJ as chair of the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth (former Bishop of Oxford)

My Lords, in adding my name to the amendment, I fully support everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, and I do not intend to repeat a single word of her speech.

I simply draw attention to subsection (d), which states that, “the defaulter (of council tax)  is experiencing financial hardship and is unable to pay the tax”.

Obviously, that raises the question: what is meant by financial hardship and how do you define it? Are there any indicators?

As has the noble Baroness, I draw attention to the work of the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, which has worked for more than 10 years with benefit claimants and the most vulnerable people in society, and some recent research by Brighton University on indicators which the three departments could use. Of course, people will say that they are not very precise, but we believe that they are the best that can be done, emerging from people with real experience of what financial hardship means. Those people have put forward eight indicators which, I should point out, make no distinction between disabled and non-disabled because both suffer financial hardship.

First, hardship happens whenever incomes in work or unemployment are too low to cover necessary expenditure; and when such circumstances are beyond the control of its victims, it impacts with great severity on both the disabled and the not disabled.

Secondly, necessary minimum expenditure includes food, fuel, water, clothing, transport, some personal necessities, rent, council tax, fines, insurance and pensions. Too often, as we know, choices have to be made between paying the rent, heating or eating.

Thirdly, necessary expenditure is increased by debts that include fines, courts, bailiff costs, liability order costs for council tax, payments of court orders, debt collectors, bank charges, the high interest to doorstep pay-day lenders and loan sharks, DWP overpayments, sanctions, civil penalties, caps and cuts. As your Lordships can see, there is quite a long list of possible debts that people at the bottom of the pile can incur before they know where they are.

Fourthly, debts occur due to the innocent mistakes of both welfare claimants and officials in the delivery of welfare. People then borrow to eat or to pay bills or pay off other debts. A visit to a food bank is obvious evidence of hardship.

Fifthly, circumstances beyond the control of welfare claimants that lead to hardship include unexpected illness, divorce or separation from a partner who leaves when debts have not been paid, a serious accident in the family, a bereavement and funeral costs, a pay cut, redundancy and unemployment, flooding, and any accidents or theft for which the claimants cannot afford insurance.

Sixthly, hardship leads to an inability to communicate with the authorities, courts and creditors, due to the lack of a landline phone and dependence on pay-as-you-go mobiles that run out of money when claimants run out of money—normally, on the basis of their experience, once a week.​

Seventhly, as the noble Baroness pointed out, there are some very heart-rending cases of people running into huge debts because of mental health problems, or of such problems occurring because of all sorts of misunderstanding about the debt. The Royal College of Psychiatrists reports that 50% of people in debt have mental health problems. The figure is 50%, so, to put it the other way round, 25% of people with a diagnosed mental health condition are in debt. Those are startling figures.

The last indicator is that hardship exacerbates the risks of low birth-weight babies being born to women who are unable to afford a healthy diet before they conceive and while they are pregnant. As we know, the £71 a week jobseeker’s allowance is much too low to live on and, based on all sorts of very sound research, low birth-weight associated with foetal growth restriction is the strongest predictor of poor learning ability, school performance, behavioural disorders and crime.

Fraud is another area that results in hardship but I have not covered it because it is deliberate and should be rooted out.

The circumstances of hardship that I have described happen because they are beyond the control of the victims. The purpose of describing these hardships, based upon the long experience of people working closely with those who are most vulnerable at the bottom of society—that is, welfare claimants and others on very low incomes—is to put them forward to assist the three departments involved in the hope that they might come together when drafting relevant laws, regulations and guidance and use some of these eight indicators to help them in that important task.”

 

 


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