New Prime Minister asked to commission report on cumulative impact of all benefit cuts on mental and physical health

12 July 2016

I am today posting the following letter to the new Prime Minister. 

Taxpayers Against Poverty

From: the Reverend Paul Nicolson, 

To:The Rt. Hon. Theresa May MP,

Prime Minister, No 10 Downing Street London SW1A 2AA

 

Dear Prime Minister, 

POVERTY IN THE UNITED KINGDOM

May I congratulate you on becoming Prime Minister and wish you a successful term in the service of the people of the UK.

I am making one request. Please will you commission a report into;

  1. The cumulative impact of housing benefit cuts, benefit caps and council tax on the health of benefit claimants, in work and unemployment, since 2008 taking into account the impact of debt on mental health and the need for women to receive a healthy diet before they conceive and while they are pregnant if they are to give birth to healthy babies.
  2. The cost to the health service of poverty related ill health.

Before you became Prime Minister I was very glad to read a report that you said;

“An ordinary working-class life is much harder than people realise”. She ticked off a series of “burning injustices” that must be tackled: extreme variations in life expectancy and educational chances; the gender pay gap. She highlighted job insecurity and financial insecurity. “Frankly not everybody in Westminster understands what it’s like to live like this,” she revealed. “What the government does isn’t a game, it has real consequences for people’s lives.”

You are right.  I have been working with people who cannot pay their rent, council tax, utility bills etc.; since the poll tax. I founded the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust in 1995 and Taxpayers Against Poverty in 2012. I am on the Advisory Council of the Institute for Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition and I was given the 2015 award for Best Non-Academic by the Social Policy Association. Here are some of the things that, it seems to me, “not everybody in Westminster understands”.

HOUSING

The 1979 government deregulated lending, abolished rent controls and allowed the free flow of money in and out of the UK. National and international speculation flooded money into a UK land and housing market in short supply forcing the rents and prices of a home to rise. The 1997 government let it rip while the banks recklessly set about gambling with derivatives.   Housing benefit was allowed by both the 1979 and the 1997 governments to drift upwards with the market from a £ 5 billion a year to a £22 billion cost to the taxpayers. Then the banks collapsed.

UK citizens who owned land in 1979 and since have seen their wealth multiplied many times over; but landless tenants, who comprise 33% of tenures in England and 47% in London, according to the 2011 census, have had to pay for the collapse of the banks with three cuts in housing benefit, the local housing allowance, the so-called bedroom tax and the benefit cap. Despite cuts in housing benefit the chaotic UK housing market has continued to push upwards the cost of housing benefit to the taxpayer to £25 billion.

A number of factor have led to more than a record 170 tenants being evicted every day in England and Wales in 2015, according to Ministry of Justice figures. They are cuts in housing benefit, the governments definition of affordability at 80% of a rising market median, inadequate and benefit incomes, frozen benefits inevitable rent and council tax arrears plus court costs and bailiffs fees.

THE LIVING WAGE.

From the beginning of the Living Wage housing costs in the chaotic UK housing market have eaten into the minimum income needed to cover other human needs.  In 1999, when I was the Vicar of Turville in Buckinghamshire,  and Chair of the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, I raised £100,000  to commission the Family Budget Unit to research the minimum income needed for healthy living for a couple and a single mother, each with two children.  The purpose was to provide government with robust research into the minimum weekly cost of human needs for shelter, food, the fuel to cook it and keep warm, clothes, transport and other necessities. That research was used by UNISON and London Citizens to persuade Ken Livingston to launch the first London Living Wage in 2004. This work is now done for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by the University of Loughborough and promoted by the Living Wage Foundation.  

Last year George Osborne stole the name “Living Wage” without   accepting any input on human needs.

To be effective in improving health and productivity the National Living Wage needs a working definition of affordable housing.     

“An affordable home is one where the rent/mortgage leaves enough income for an individual or family to buy a healthy diet, cook it and keep warm, to buy clothes, a bus or a train ticket, other necessities and to participate in the community AFTER rent, council tax and income tax have been paid”

COUNCIL TAX

Since April 2013 central government benefits have been taxed by 259 local councils in England and Wales out of 326 (See New Policy Institute).  Local authorities are taking away with one hand what central government has given with the other to meet minimum human needs. It is a wasteful and damaging policy.

On Friday the 9th July 2016 Citizens Advice produced “Catching up - Improving council tax arrears collection”.  It is a much needed factual report on the link between enforcing council tax arrears against frozen benefits and the cuts in housing benefit, council tax benefit, and the additions of court and bailiff costs, which lead to individuals and families not eating or heating.

https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/…/Catching%20up%20improvi…

They report that;

·        58% cut back on food or heating to pay council tax

·        Council tax has overtaken credit cards as their biggest debt issue.

The report is however disappointing because, while expressing concern about the vulnerability of many benefit claimants required to pay council tax from April 2013, it does not mention the  DCLG, MOJ and DWP guidance about vulnerable people. .

1. The DCLG "Guidance to local councils on good practice in the collection of Council Tax arrears" which emphasises the need for local authorities to look after "vulnerable people" seven times (google "vulnerable")

2. The DCLG guidance refers to the MOJ "Taking control of goods - national standards" which suggests a procedure when bailiffs meet "vulnerable situations" see paragraphs 70-77.

3. The assurances given Parliament by Lord Freud that decisions makers will consider all relevant matters "including information about a claimant's health condition and financial circumstances. Hansard 25 Jan 2012: just above Column 1062

4. It makes no comment on local authorities exacerbating the damage done to health by enforcing a tax against benefit incomes provided by central government, which,

(a) before April 2013, were to intended enable the poorest citizens to pay the rent, buy food, cook it and keep warm, clothes transport and other necessities

(b) but which since April 2013 have been reduced below the level needed to sustain a healthy life.

5. The most disappointing part of the CAB report is its bland assumption that intrinsic unfairness of enforcing a tax against shredded benefit incomes will continue and only needs to be "improved". It must be stopped.

Note should be taken by Government and Local Authorities of the comment by the Supreme Court when they found unlawful Haringey Council's 2012 council tax reduction scheme consultation.

"....the effect of Haringey’s proposed scheme would be to reduce it even below that level and thus in all likelihood to cause real hardship, while sparing its more prosperous residents from making any contribution to the shortfall in government funding".

See paragraph 29 and 22.

I am particularly concerned that these governmental supports for vulnerable people are not reaching the front line of impoverished debtors because I had a hand in the lobbying for and the achievement of all of them.

I am attaching an article about council tax enforcement published last week by the Iona Community.

LOW BIRTHWEIGHT AND INEQUALITY OF LIFE EXPECTANCY.

I was born in the Courtfield ward of the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in 1932 where life expectancy is 91 years. I retired to Tottenham in 1999 to continue my work with vulnerable debtors.  I now live between two wards where the life expectancy is 71 years. I am embarrassed by the fact that neighbours born in the same year as myself died 13 years ago.

In the same wards there is a higher than average incidence of low birthweight, in one of them it is over 10% of live births. The Institute for Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition has been reporting to government since 1972 that poor maternal nutrition before and during pregnancy leads to permanent developmental brain disorder. Given the scientific evidence it cannot be right for government to cut incomes and create rent and council tax arrears to such an extent that women are forced into food banks. Three days emergency food does not cover the human need for adequate nutrition during a nine month pregnancy.

What many in Westminster do not understand is that fact that a woman receiving £73.10 single adult JSA cannot buy a healthy diet and other necessities. It was inadequate before April 2013. Since then has been reduced by a freeze on increases, the bedroom tax, should their partner leave or die, other cuts in housing benefit, and the council tax to which are added court costs and bailiffs fees.

SANCTIONS, DEBT AND MENTAL HEALTH

I have helped a single adult with a history of depression. His benefit was stopped for three months by the job centre imposing a benefit sanction.  I met him after the sanction had ended. The council was enforcing rent and council tax arrears during the three month sanction and after it. Debts had accumulated while he had no money due to the sanction. The bailiffs called at 7.30 am one morning demanding £400 the next day for a TV licence fine he could not pay.  He was talking about throwing himself off the balcony of a five story block of council flats.

The benefit sanction is an brutally severe punishment undertaken by administrators at the jobcentre by stopping incomes, when it should be undertaken by the magistrates using judicial processes and fining incomes proportionately so leaving the unemployed enough money to buy food and other necessities.   

Since 2007 I have been drawing the attention of governments to the link between debt and mental health problems identified by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Government Office for Science and the Faculty for Public Health; MIND, MENCAP and The Mental Health Foundation have done that for much longer.

CONCLUSION

The governmental emphasis is on the treatment of mental and physical ill health when attention should also be given to prevention of poverty related ill health by the provision of adequate incomes and affordable homes in work and unemployment.  

Yours sincerely, 

Paul Nicolson. 

 

 

 


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