TAP to Work & Pensions Committee of MPs. Abolish #Jobcentre #benefits sanctions. Start Magistrates Court fines solely for wilful refusal to seek work. Leave money for food with other safeguards
SUBMISSION TO THE WORK AND PENSIONS COMMITTEE INQUIRY INTO BENEFIT SANCTIONS
By the Reverend Paul Nicolson, Founder
- The Rev Paul Nicolson received the Best Non-Academic Award 2015 from the Social Policy Association and is a member of the Advisory Council of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition. He founded the charity Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) in 1997 to help benefit claimants in debt in the aftermath of the Poll Tax. Z2K now helps 3,000 cases of claimants in benefit debt each year. He founded Taxpayers Against Poverty (TAP) in 2012 as a response to the Charity Commission’s interference in the campaigning of charities with and for the people they serve. TAP is not a charity. It has 20,900 followers on Facebook and 530 members. It is a not-for-profit company with its objects based on Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
- Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
- Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
TAP is addressing the following questions:
- To what extent is the current sanctions regime achieving its policy objectives? It is not fit for the purpose. It forces benefit claimants into long-term unmanageable debt, making them hungry, homeless, ill and unfit for work.
- Are levels of discretion afforded to Job Centre staff appropriate? No, they are far too wide, with powers to impose totally disproportionate punishments; they are not making the independent judgements required by the law. Their role is a confusion of the executive and the judiciary.
- Are adequate protections in place for vulnerable claimants? No.
- The State ought never to stop the income of a citizen. The consequences for their health and wellbeing of such extreme and draconian punishment are too serious and can be fatal. The current administrative procedures for imposing benefit sanctions in Job Centres ought therefore to be abolished and replaced by procedures similar to the imposition of fines. The Department for Work and Pensions should be enabled to prosecute claimants in open court, where all the facts can be taken into account and justice can be seen to be done when there has been a wilful refusal to seek work.
- health-impact assessment of welfare reform. para 4.
- The Wednesbury Principles. para 6
- Case history: the procedures of the Job Centre and the Magistrates’ Court. para 10.
- A zero-hours contract and transfer to the Universal Credit after a Benefit Sanction – three ways the State stops an income. para 15.
- The total inadequacy of Jobseekers’ Allowance at £73.10pw / Universal Credit at £317pm. para 16.
- The folly of leaving women without an income before and during pregnancy, and the probable tragic consequences for their babies, and an unprecedented rise in infant deaths in 2015. para18.
A. Health-impact assessment of welfare reform
- Throughout the passage of the Welfare Reform Acts 2012 and 2016, the government refused to undertake a health-impact assessment of all the welfare reforms, despite repeated and persistent requests. A comprehensive review of the impact of poverty and debt on the health of individuals and families and society as a whole by the Institute of Health Equity, the Equality Trust and the University of Brighton can be found on Taxpayers Against Poverty’s website, via nine expert provided blogs.
- It should be remembered by the committee that the benefit sanction is imposed on claimants struggling to cope with many other reforms:
- The Bedroom Tax, the Benefit Cap and the Local Housing Allowance all cut Housing Benefit, which means that rent has to be paid from Universal Credit or Child Tax Credits. In other words, the very low benefit income that is intended – and desperately needed – to pay for food, water, fuel, clothes, transport and other necessities has been required instead to supplement rent payments since 2011, as a matter of national government policy.
- The Council Tax Benefit has also been cut since 2013, with the same consequences as the above cut in Housing benefit. It is made worse by the enforcement of Council Tax arrears through the Magistrates’ Court and the bailiffs, both of whose costs are added to the benefit claimants’ Council Tax arrears. Haringey Council alone took 11,000 benefit claimants to court for late or non-payment of Council Tax in 2017, as a matter of local government policy.
- The Benefit Sanction, Universal Credit and the zero-hours contract stop for up to three months the aforementioned very low income intended – and desperately needed – for food, water, fuel, clothes, transport and other necessities, as a matter of national government policy. The consequence of all three policies is debilitating debt and hunger, which is known to damage mental and physical health, as shown by the expert-provided blogs on the Taxpayers Against Poverty website.
- The two child limit and the Work Capability Assessment can also have impacted a household before the benefit sanction
B. The Wednesbury Principles
- During the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, Lord Freud gave the following assurance to Parliament.
House of Lords, 25 January 2012, 4.15 pm. Column 1062
Lord Freud: ‘We spoke about the Wednesbury Principles at our seminar, and I can reassure noble Lords that the decision-making process is and will continue to be consistent with these fundamental principles of public law. The department strives to ensure that no decision is influenced by irrelevant factors and that decision-makers act in a rational and fair manner, taking into account all relevant matters before exercising a discretion. For example, the primary legislation expressly sets out that a conditionality sanction applies only if there is no good reason for the failure. In determining whether there is such good reason, decision-makers will have to consider all relevant matters raised by the claimant within a particular time period, including information about a claimant's health condition and financial circumstances.’
- The background to the above statement is as follows. At the time, Paul Nicolson, working with the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, was lobbying both the House of Commons and the House of Lords for there to be a clause in the Bill requiring Job Centre decision-makers to abide by the Wednesbury Principles when using their discretion for or against claimants. That was because he had many times followed the principles when acting as a McKenzie Friend for vulnerable claimants who could not pay their fines in the Magistrates’ Court, their rent to a landlord or their Council Tax to the Local Authority.
He feared for vulnerable claimants if the principles were not obeyed and all relevant facts were not taken into account by Job Centre decision-makers.
- ‘The leading case on this is Associated Provincial Picture Houses v Wednesbury Corporation (1948) 1 KB 223, which involved a Local Authority that banned persons under 16 going to the cinema on a Sunday. This was held to be an unreasonable decision. The Master of the Rolls, Lord Greene, explained that a decision-making body was bound to act reasonably. If it acted unreasonably, its decisions could be quashed on judicial review.
Reasonableness in law consists of:
- Considering all relevant facts and information when making a decision.
- Disregarding irrelevant facts and irrelevant information.
- Not acting perversely (ie, irrationally)
These are the so-called Wednesbury Principles. Any decision that breaches these principles may therefore be said to be “Wednesbury unreasonable”.’. Alan Murdie, barrister.
- An amendment embedding the principles in the 2012 Bill was tabled by Lord Ramsbotham, a crossbench Peer, and rejected by the government. Lord Freud agreed to a seminar that was also attended by Lord McKenzie (Labour) and Lord Kirkwood (Liberal Democrat). Also invited by Z2K were representatives of Liberty, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Citizens Advice Bureau and the aforementioned barrister Alan Murdie, who was working with Z2K at the time.
Each NGO representative was allowed a minute to express their concerns. The Royal College of Psychiatrists emphasised the proven link between mental health problems and debt, and Z2K drew attention to the same point, made powerfully by the Government Office for Science in its 2008 report;
It was this seminar that gave rise to the above statement by Lord Freud.
C. Case history – procedures of Job Centres and Magistrates’ Courts
- Paul Nicolson describes the case of John Smith:
I helped John Smith (name changed) through the traumatic aftermath of a Benefit Sanction imposed as a result of his missing an appointment at the Job Centre. Three powerful government departments had descended on a single unemployed adult with a history of depression. The DWP stopped his income, the DCLG/Local Authority enforced rent and Council Tax arrears, and the MOJ enforced a TV licence fine, with threats of eviction, the bailiffs and prison.
- During a three-month sanction, Mr Smith’s unmanageable debts piled up. When it ended, they were enforced, against a totally inadequate £73.10 a week Jobseekers' Allowance. He was then told his block of council flats was due for demolition. He had got to the point of speaking about his thoughts of throwing himself off his fifth-floor balcony when Z2K intervened to offer support.
- These extreme punishments imposed by the State, extending to over a year, due to the enforcement of debts, were totally disproportionate to the offence of missing one Job Centre appointment. John Smith did not receive a ‘fair trial’ at the Job Centre.
- When the bailiffs called on John Smith, I told them I was taking the case back to the magistrates’ court. The court subsequently remitted the £135 fine and dismissed the bailiffs.
- My submission to the magistrates at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court on
9 March 2015 in the case of John Smith of Tottenham was as follows:
- We are asking you for a statutory declaration or the remission of the £135 fine in full on the following grounds that: the fine should never have been imposed; he is a vulnerable person as described by the Ministry of Justice; he cannot afford to pay.
- Mr Smith has no record of having been fined before. The first he heard of the fine in question was when the bailiffs called to tell him he had been fined for TV-licence evasion, demanding a £445 down payment, at 7.30am.
- He protested that was impossible because the TV Licencing Authority representative had frequently told him he was not liable because his TV set is only used for games and DVDs. He does not therefore require a TV licence. He has no TV or broadband account. Two representatives from the TV Licencing Authority have inspected his flat and agreed with him.
- He called the Rev Paul Nicolson at 8am the same morning. Rev Nicolson informed Marston, the bailiffs, about Mr Smith’s circumstances and they agreed to suspend the enforcement action.
- Mr Smith has a long history of anxiety and depression. and has been treated by NHS’s psychological services.
- On 1 January 2014, he was sanctioned for three months for attending an interview on the wrong day.
- His Housing and Council Tax Benefits were stopped, creating rent and Council Tax arrears. He is still paying off rent arears at £10 every two weeks out of his £72.40 a week Adult Unemployment Benefit (ESA).
- It was after the sanction that NHS psychological services referred him for 12 50-minute sessions of therapy.
- He received a letter from Haringey Council this week giving notice of the intended demolition of the block of flats where he lives.
- His means statement is attached.
- The court’s attention is drawn to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s minimum food standard for a healthy diet – that is, £43 a week – and the impossibility of buying such a diet and all other necessities on £72.40 a week, which will be raised by 1% on 1 April 2015 to £73.10.
- Mr Smith’s mental health is not improved by debt.
- The court’s attention is drawn to the link between debt and mental-health problems, which has been reported on by the Government Office for Science and the Royal College of Psychiatrists:
What is the relationship between debt and mental-health problems?
- One in four people has a mental-health problem
- One in four people with a mental-health problem is in debt
- One in two people in debt have a mental-health problem
- Debt may be both a cause and a consequence of mental-health problems
We also draw the attention of the court to the Taking Control of Goods: National Standards report, published by the Ministry of Justice in April 2014. Sections 70-78 cover ‘vulnerable situations’. It states: ‘Enforcement agents/agencies and creditors must recognise that they each have a role in ensuring that the vulnerable and socially excluded are protected, and that the recovery process includes procedures agreed between the agent/agency and creditor about how such situations should be dealt with.’
D. A zero-hours contract and transfer to Universal Credit after a Benefit Sanction – three ways the State stops an income
- John Smith was then required to cope with the mass of debts that had piled up during a three-month sanction while he was employed on a zero-hours contract and was transferred from Jobseekers’ Allowance to Universal Credit. During that time, the Job Centre paid £0.01 into his bank (see below). This was the amount deemed sufficient to cover his outgoings for a month while his employer had no need of his services.
E. The total inadequacy of £73.10pw JSA / £317pm Universal Credit
- For many families, State benefits are a lifeline. But these benefits have been shredded by national government since 2010 and taxed by local government since 2013. The inadequacy of the Jobseeker’s Allowance can be traced back to 1979 and the onset of the Thatcher era. It was not supposed to be like this. Unemployment Benefit was created by a Liberal government that intended to raise the finance out of the land-tax proposals contained in the People’s Budget (1909). The benefit came into operation in 1912, at 7 shillings a week – about 22% of average male earnings in manufacturing. By 1979, the benefit rate was still about 21% of average earnings (Bradshaw and Lynes, 2009). By 2008, however, the renamed Jobseeker’s Allowance had been halved to an all-time low of 10.5% of average earnings. This was the result of tying benefits to the price index while real earnings increased. Understanding the forces that created the crisis must lead to a more human resolution for the nation’s low-income and vulnerable families.
- The value of that £73.10 per week has not been increased since April 2015. It is the income the disabled are left with if they fail the Work Capability Assessment. It can be removed by a Benefit Sanction for one month, three months or three years, leaving no money to pay for essentials or outstanding debts, the enforcement of which continues. This Job Centre-administered procedure inflicts punishment greater that a fine for theft. At least the thief is left with enough money by magistrates to buy food and other essentials, or will be fed in prison. The policy of starving people into work hits a scandalous depth of injustice not seen since the 1920s. It is impossible not to speculate whether the impact on the wellbeing of tenants of increasingly unaffordable rents and of uneconomic state benefits have not contributed to the steady rise in the cost of mental illness to the economy, now estimated at an annual £113bn, according to the Faculty of Public Health.
F. The folly of leaving women without an income before and during pregnancy, and the tragic consequences for their babies
- During the passage of the Child Poverty Act 2010, Lord Kirkwood moved the following amendment. Professor Baroness Finlay supported the amendment as follows (25 Jan 2010. Column GC2500): ‘The noble Lord, Lord Freud, touched on the importance of maternal nutrition, and I should like to elaborate a little further. In brief, it is becoming apparent that low birth weights, of which Britain has the highest rate in Western Europe, are associated with poor cognitive abilities and serious brain disorders such as cerebral palsy.
I remind the Committee that I come from South Wales, where we have the tragedy of the highest epidemic of spina bifida and anencephaly through folate deficiency. That was due to diet. Since folate supplements have come in, we have seen that drop dramatically. If you do not get diet right in pregnancy, you store up problems that will be there for the whole of the child's life, from the moment it is born.
In 2002, Sir Derek Wanless's report to the Department of Health, Securing Good Health for the Whole Population, expounded an egalitarian sentiment, harmonious with the spirit of Every Child Matters. He identified birth rate as a pivotal cause of a vicious cycle of poor health; he recognised that the cycle repeats itself from generation to generation and traps communities in poverty and health inequality. The cycle of poverty will remain repetitive and relentless unless we have the courage to tackle its very core and root that out. That is what the amendment seeks to do.
By identifying the amount necessary to ensure pregnant women and children have sufficient money to eat properly, my amendment aims to tackle the origins of this crisis in a serious and effective way. The Minister in another place reminded us that a health and pregnancy grant is available to women from the 25th week of pregnancy, but that is far too late. From the time of conception and in those early phases of cell division, long before you might say that the foetus is medically viable, is when the nutritional influences probably have their major effect. We have to get this dealt with pre-conception, let alone from birth. I also emphasise the importance of educating women, which means girls at school onwards, about the value of a nutritious diet and what it contains. Unless we do that, the policy will not be able to be enhanced.’
- The Health in Pregnancy Grant was abolished immediately after the 2010 election in the Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grant Bill 2010. The following summary of this event was given in the House of Commons Library research paper 10/77 of 18 November 2010: ‘The global financial crisis has had a profound effect on the public finances. Both the previous and current governments planned for reductions in public expenditure. This Bill gives effect to decisions made as part of the initial review of public expenditure undertaken soon after the 2010 General Election. Three schemes introduced by the previous Labour Government – the Child Trust Fund; the Saving Gateway; and the Health in Pregnancy Grant – are deemed unaffordable by the Coalition Government and will therefore stop. This Paper summarises proceedings in the Commons Committee Stage of the Bill. Several amendments were put to a division, but none were successful.’
- In 2015 and 2016, there was an unprecedented rise in infant deaths of the babies of poor mothers, according to the Office of National Statistics and reported in The British Medical Journal with the following graph:
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