Monday 23 December 2013

The food bank debate

On 18th December Parliament debated food banks: this debate happened because of public concern: a petition, started by blogger Jack Monroe, was signed by 142,000 people, comfortably more than the 100,000 needed to secure a debate. Iain Duncan Smith disappeared during the debate, leaving his minister, Esther McVey, to answer questions. 

As you might expect, the government wasn't prompted into any soul-searching, but the issue was at least brought out into the open, and Maria Eagle, for the opposition, made a clear and well-informed speech, disposing of spurious points from Tory back benchers with ease. The full debate is available here:

But what is going on? What do we know about this crisis, and what might be causing it? Well, research undertaken by Warwick University[1] on the matter might shed some light on the matter: unfortunately the government, who commissioned the report, have stalled publication for months. We can only speculate about the reasons for this delay.  

In the meantime let's look at what we do know, and see if we can join the dots.

(None of this is exactly rocket science: you probably know most of what I'm about to say already. But it's important to have fact available, not just a general sense of injustice.)

We first need to ask if there is really a crisis. 

Is food bank use rising?

The main provider of food banks is the Trussell Trust.  I hadn't even heard of them until this year. In an intervention at the debate Conservative MP Sir Gerald Howarth said that Trussell's 49th food was opened in his constituency in 2009, and that 'this illustrates that it was the destruction of the public finances by her government' which was to blame. (Regarding the tired mantra of blaming Labour, I'd encourage you to check out skwalker.../the-myth-of-the-inherited-mess-52/, for example.)

In January 2011 Trussell operated 80 food banks: by January 2013 this had grown to 300.

The source for the statistics above, including the graph, is the Trussell Fund itself[2].

Of course, correlation does not necessarily imply causation: I also note that the use of food banks was rising before the coalition came to power. Perhaps it is simply that more people have been able to use foodbanks as more have become available. However:
  • this argument is hard to sustain when it is noted that Trussell reports that 76% increase in food banks 'over the past year', which is a considerably smaller increase than that of the number fed . 
  • in the three years up to 2009-10 use increased by a factor of about 4.5, whereas in the three years up to 2012-13 use increased by a factor of about 8.5.

Is this really a crisis?

But even if it given that food banks use has increased, it doesn't follow that this amounts to a  crisis: possibly people are using banks to supplement their own sufficient resources, and they don't really 'need' food banks. If you're reading this it's unlikely you'll subscribe to this point of view, but let's make sure we can justify our response. Here is some fragments of evidence:
  • In a letter published in the British Medical Journal by David Taylor-Robinson from the University of Liverpool and others[3] concern is expressed about the rise in malnutrition related hospital related admissions, which have doubled since 2008-9. They also quote a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which has reported a decrease in calories purchased and substitution with unhealthier foods, especially in families with young children[4]. They warn that 'this has all the signs of a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventive action'. 
  • The Conservative MP for Wycombe, Steve Baker, speaking in favour of the motion during the debate (that surprised you, didn't it) , said that one in five children in his constituency are going to bed hungry, rising to one in three in some areas, and that 12,000 children in Buckinghamshire live in income poverty[5].
  • Food banks haven't got enough food to give it to people without restriction. The Trussell Trust, for example, requires referring agencies to establish need (selecting a range of categories such as 'waiting for benefit payment') before issuing the necessary voucher. Without a need indicator no voucher will be issued.
  • For the first time since the second world war, the Red Cross is collecting and distributing food to the needy this winter [6]

So there is clear evidence that the use of food banks is increasingly markedly, and that this reflects a real crisis in our society.

Are welfare reforms (at least partly) to blame?

The truth is that we don't know why so many people are having to resort to help from food banks. Iain Duncan Smith, and his department, the DWP, don't think so. And there's obviously other possible causes: increases in fuel costs, below inflation pay rises, and increased part-time work, for example.

And I haven't got any statistics to draw on. All I can do is suggest some possible culprits.

But let's remember a basic detail about means-tested, earnings replacement benefits, like income based Employment and Support Allowance, income based Jobseeker's Allowance, and Income Support. The amount paid, before deductions, is supposed to be the minimum amount a person needs to live on. There is no contingency for occasional large expenses, like replacing a broken fridge, or for any frills, like Christmas presents for your children. So any deduction from this, by definition, results in a claimant living on less than what the government says they need to live on.

  • The Bedroom Tax (which affects tenants of registered social landlords). This one's well known. In a simple example, a healthy 40 year old living alone in a property with two bedrooms for which the rent is £80 per week will normally have to pay £11.20 per week (14%) towards her rent. If she was on income based Jobseeker's Allowance this would eat into her normal weekly amount of £71.70 (for more information: ).
  • Changes to the rules for private sector rented accommodation. These are much more complex, and generally more subtle, but include changes such as restricting the annual increases in local housing allowance figures (essentially, these are the amount of rent that can be paid by housing benefit), and limiting entitlement for those under 35. The Local Government Association (LGA) estimates that the overall effect of these changes reduces weekly entitlement by £25 per week on average[7].
  • The abolition of Council Tax Benefit and its replacement by local provisions. Of their nature the effects of these changes depend on where you live, but in general these changes require many working age claimants to contribute to their Council Tax, even if they are entitled to full means-tested benefits. For example, working-age claimants in Manchester will be expected to pay 8.5% of their bill, which currently works out as £78.16 per year, or £1.50 per week.
  • The Benefit Cap. This restricts total, combined, benefit paid to a maximum of £500 per week for a couple, or £350 for a single claimant. This only impacts on claimants living in London and the south-east, and those with large families, but for those groups the consequences can be severe. A recent case at the supreme court[8] concerned, amongst others, a claimant who had her benefit reduced by £85.40 per week.
  • A new one-year limit on entitlement to contribution based Employment and Support Allowance for many claimants. People affected by this include couples where one partner is unfit for work, and the other is working, but is in low paid work, and is not working enough hours to be entitled to Working Tax Credit. A couple who owned their own home might lose £100.15 per week in this situation.
  • A change to the appeal procedure rules. This has the effect that claimants who are challenging decisions finding them fit for work will have to decide whether to claim Jobseeker's Allowance while the DWP looks at their case, or live off nothing until the 'looking' is concluded. For more information:
  • Changed sanction rules, which have the double whammy effect of making it harder to avoid being sanctioned and getting sanctioned for longer: up to three years in some cases. Many claimants will be able to get hardship payments during sanction periods, but this will normally result in a weekly reduction of £26.68.
  • Finally, loads of little changes that have mostly gone under the radar but overall have big effects. These include: tinkering with the elements, thresholds, and disregards for tax credits; limiting annual rises by 1%; and adjusting housing benefit deductions for non-dependants. The LGA's estimates[7] suggest that these changes will account for about 60% of overall savings in 2015/16. The tax credit adjustments account for about 38% of the savings: many tax credit claimants are, of course, in work.
To be fair, I should also give examples of aspects of the welfare reforms that might increase income, but, apart from Universal Credit, I can't think of any. Universal Credit may assist claimants who are moving into paid employment, but given the substantial delays with this project I'm not willing to include them in the mix.

Overall, the LGA estimates that the income of households claiming benefit will be reduced by £31 per week on average in 2015/16 as a result of benefit reforms excluding Universal Credit[7] (the report quotes government projections that suggest that Universal Credit will reduce the losses by around £4 per week).

In addition to all these specific effects, there is another problem. The combined effects of these changes, and of other issues, is likely to result in increased levels of debt: in fact, it is hard to see how this could be avoided, no matter how well claimants manage their finances. So we need to add the consequential costs of this to the mix.

Arguably the government agrees that the poorest losing out more than most, apart from the very rich. The following chart is taken from the statistical report accompanying the autumn statement[9].

So if you're a single adult, the overall effect of all the government changes is negative if your income is less than about £14,000, or above around £50,000. The chart shows actual cash differences: clearly the proportional effect of someone in the bottom decile losing £1 is greater than that on someone in the top decile.

Where have we got?

We now know that the use of foodbanks has increased, and that there is professional concern that more people are going hungry.

We can see how specific changes in benefits rules are certain to reduce income for many people, and we have noted that for those on income based earnings replacements they were already receiving the legally agreed bare minimum.

And we have seen that government statistics suggest that the poorest are likely to lose out the most due to government decisions, apart from the very rich.

Yes, Mr Duncan Smith. We can't be sure that these dots are joined in the way I'm suggesting. And yes, other factors are certainly at work as well. But it's hard to see how else the facts could be read. Please can we see the Warwick University report now please?

Thursday 7 November 2013

Universal Credit - another update

Well here we are in November, and Universal Credit continues to sweep across of the country: or perhaps not.

In July I reported that the full 'roll-out' was to be replaced by a more modest programme of increasing the number of pilot areas from October.

On 28th October I read a press release with the exciting title: 'Universal Credit expands to London'[1]. On reading a bit further, I realised it wasn't quite that exciting: this exciting new opportunity only applies to jobseekers in Hammersmith. 

Then I realised that Hammersmith was one of the pilot areas announced in July. 

This is what the government was saying in July[2]:

'Universal Credit will expand to 6 new Jobcentres starting from October 2013. The following Jobcentres will be included:

  • Hammersmith
  • Rugby
  • Inverness
  • Harrogate
  • Bath
  • Shotton'
This is what they are saying now:

'Universal Credit will expand to Rugby, Inverness, Harrogate, Bath and Shotton by the spring.'

I think that there's at least a difference of emphasis here...

In any case, it's a very limited pilot. As the government itself makes clear, only single jobseekers can claim Universal Credit at present. Nobody else. As its name implies, Universal Credit is designed to cover all working age claimants of mean-tested benefits (rolling six benefits into one), this seems to be a bit unwise.

Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) certainly thinks so. In their latest,  highly critical, report about progress and management of this project[3], they say:

'The pilot programme is inadequate as it does not deal with the key issues that Universal Credit must address: the volume of claims; their complexity; change in claimants' circumstances; the need for claimants to meet conditions for continuing entitlement to benefit; and the security of information to prevent fraud. The scope of Pathfinder is much narrower than originally planned. It is now restricted to only the simplest new claims of people who are single, have no dependants and would otherwise be seeking Jobseeker's Allowance. The Pathfinder does not deal with most claimants' circumstances or examine how the behaviour of different types of claimant might change with the introduction of Universal Credit. Pathfinder also includes limited IT functionality, with staff having to enter some information manually, and it lacks the identity assurance and anti-fraud components that the full system will need. While Pathfinder will provide some useful information, we are sceptical that it will adequately inform the full roll-out of Universal Credit.' [conclusions and recommendations, paragraph 6].

There has been wide coverage in the media of the PAC's criticism of the project's management and oversight, particularly with regard to the IT infrastructure, so I'll resist the temptation to go on about them myself (a good example is at ). 

However, what worries me - as it worries the PAC - is how on earth this is all going to get sorted in time to meet the original deadline of 2017: a deadline that Iain Duncan-Smith still insists will be met. If the government were acting pragmatically, they would extend the deadline to ensure that the  infrastructure was robust, and to include realistic and comprehensive pilots. The PAC states in the report summary:

'The Department must be realistic and transparent about its expected costs and timescales, and the milestones against which we can hold it to account. We believe strongly that meeting any specific timetable from now on is less important than delivering the programme successfully.'

Unfortunately it seems unlikely that the government will follow this advice. 

An apology... people who have sent comments. I've only just found the bit on Blogger where pending comments are sent for moderation. Oops! And thanks for the comments!

Thursday 24 October 2013

MPs' pay - a benefit expert's point of view...

You might think I would have good reason for objecting to the proposal to increase MPs’ pay by a cool 11%, to around £74,000 a year. 

But I don’t. The arguments for increasing MPs’ salaries are fairly compelling. Comparable jobs in the private sector, and indeed in the public sector, are better remunerated: if we want to attract high calibre people to represent us we need to pay more. Additionally, and crucially, a number of current MPs are supported by reliance on private wealth or business interests: it would be regrettable if potential candidates without independent means were deterred from becoming Members of Parliament.

What does rankle with me, though, is the thought of paying that increase to those members who do have income from elsewhere. At a time when normal people are seeing their real-terms income decrease, when public services are being cut-back, and foodbanks are struggling to cope with demand, the thought of paying thousands of pounds more to the already wealthy sticks in my craw.

However, as an expert in social security law, I have identified a solution to this conundrum. In the benefits world, we are well accustomed to adjusting payments when claimants have additional income: we call it means-testing.

We could use the approach applied to income support, and other similar means-tested benefits. For every pound an MP earns, a pound would be deducted from his or her salary. But there is some good news for them: not all their earnings would be taken into account. Under benefit rules, £5 per week is normally disregarded if the claimant is single, or £10 per week if they have a partner.

Our representatives may now come to regret not having uprated these disregards (at all) since the relevant benefits were introduced in 1988: if they had been increased in line with the RPI the figures would now be about £12.50 and £25.00 per week respectively.

Under my proposals, and assuming that a backbench MP’s pay is increased £80,000, a single, childless, MP earning a relatively modest £30,000 from outside interests would see their annual salary reduced by £29,740 to £44,260.

But I foresee an objection: it might be argued that we should be keeping up to date, and that it would be fairer to apply the principles of the shiny new benefit kid on the block, Universal Credit. It’s a bit harder to explain how this new and, er, simpler benefit works, but suffice it to say that our specimen MP will see their annual salary reduced by 65% of the difference between his earned income and a fixed work allowance of £1332 per year (other work allowance figures are available). I estimate that this would reduce their pay by about £18,634 to £55,366.

At a stroke, the dilemmas about MP’s wages are solved. Members with no other income, and who devote their working lives to the House, and to their constituents, get a pay rise that fairly reflects the responsibilities of the job. Those who treat their parliamentary duties as a sideline to making money elsewhere will have a nasty shock.

And we, the voters, can be reassured that they are in it with us. 

Monday 7 October 2013

Bedroom Tax - further update, and story so far...

There has been two more interesting first tier tribunal decisions on the Bedroom Tax. Both are supportive of the tenants in question, although I have some problems with one of the cases.

Case 1

Again it's in Scotland, and again the claimant has been helped by Govan Law Centre.

In this case[1] the claimant has multiple sclerosis, and needs a specially adapted bed and bedside equipment. The judge accepted the argument that her husband needed a separate bedroom because of this, and ruled that the bedroom tax should not be applied in this case.

Judge Lyndy Boyd made this decision on human rights grounds. She found that applying the bedroom tax to the claimant and her husband would violate their right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions and the right not to be deprived of them (Article 1 of the First Protocol) in the context of the prohibition of discrimination (Article 14).

Again, this, as a first tier tribunal decision, does not set a legal precedent, but it is still likely to be taken into account when other judges decide similar cases.

It is very important here to appreciate that the cases considered thus far fall into two categories:

  1. Cases where what matters is whether a room is a bedroom or not for the purposes of the bedroom tax (is it too small, is it being used for other purposes, etc?)
  2. Cases where it is argued that applying the bedroom tax would be in breach of someone's human rights.
This recent case is important because it is the first one in which the Human Rights Act has been successfully applied to an adult.

Case 2

In this case[2][3] the claimant lives in Redcar with her partner. Because of her disability she and her husband sleep in separate rooms, and store various disability related equipment in a third room. Because of this they were hit with a 25% cut in their maximum Housing Benefit on the basis that they only needed one room but actually had three.

The judge allowed the appeal in part, reducing the cut from 25% to 14%, ruling that the couple 'reasonably require one bedroom each': the cut was not reduced to zero because the judge did not agree that the third room needed to be use to store equipment as it could be kept elsewhere.

In the decision  notice the judge states that 'the local authority have not taken into consideration her disability and her reasonable sleep in a bedroom on her own.'

I have real problems with this decision. Although it is clearly a good decision morally, the judge's reasoning is, in my opinion, flawed. There is no scope in the Housing Benefit (Amendment) Regulations 2012[4] for a local authority to exercise any discretion with regard to reasonableness, or indeed to anything else. The rules require that a the decision maker 'must determine a limited rent' [italics mine] in accordance with the formula specified, which in turn specifies that a couple are only entitled to one bedroom. The only scope for employing 'reasonableness', in fact, is a paragraph which allows the local authority to reduce the rent to a lower figure than the limited rent imposed by the bedroom tax if the authority thinks it reasonable.

I think that the judge would have been wiser to allow the appeal explicitly on the human rights argument as per Case 1.

I would be happy to be proved wrong if anyone disagrees with me!

The story so far...

Let's recap:
  • May 2012 - Court of Appeal rules against the government with respect to disabled children (human rights)
  • July 2013 -
    •  High Court ruled against disabled adult claimants (human rights)
    • High Court rules in favour of disabled child claimants, and criticised the government for not acting on previous Court of Appeal decision.
  • Early September 2013 - 1st Tier Tribunal (Scotland) ruled in favour of a number of claimants (definition of bedroom)
  • Late September 2013 - 1st Tier Tribunal (England) ruled in favour of claimant (definition of bedroom)
  • Early October 2013 
    • 1st Tier Tribunal (Scotland) ruled in favour of adult disabled claimant (human rights)
    • 1st Tier Tribunal (England) ruled in favour of adult disabled claimant (reasonableness).
(As the Bedroom Tax applies equally to England/Wales and Scotland decisions made in one jurisdiction are equally applicable in the other.)

As I've said previously, as the parties that have lost appeals to claimants are local authorities, not central government, and it's not particularly in their interests to challenge the recent decisions, they are unlikely to get tested in higher courts, which is good news for the particular claimants involved but annoying for everyone else because we would like to see formal precedent out of all this. In particular, if (admittedly it's a big 'if') the Higher Court or above were to rule in favour of a claimant because of the human rights argument, the judge would have the power to make a 'declaration of incompatibility' to say that the law was in breach of the Human Rights Act. This would put the government in a very uncomfortable position.

But then the Conservative Party wants the UK to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights...



Wednesday 2 October 2013

Conservative Party Conference

The annual Conservative party conference makes its presence felt by pronouncements about benefit claimants, and this year has been no exception.

We've heard from George Osbourne, Chancellor [1], Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Social Security, and David Cameron (briefly). The first two focused mainly on jobseekers (i.e. claimants on Jobseeker's Allowance and, in some cases, Universal Credit). 

Osbourne and 'Help to Work'

Osbourne's full comments on this are as follows [2]:

"But what about the long term unemployed? Let us pledge here: We will not abandon them, as previous governments did. Today I can tell you about a new approach we’re calling Help to Work. For the first time, all long term unemployed people who are capable of work will be required to do something in return for their benefits, and to help them find work. They will do useful work putting something back into their community. Making meals for the elderly, clearing up litter, working for a local charity. Others will be made to attend the job centre every working day. And for those with underlying problems, like drug addiction and illiteracy, there will be an intensive regime of support. No one will be ignored or left without help. But no one will get something for nothing. Help to work – and in return work for the dole. Because a fair welfare system is fair to those who need it and fair to those who pay for it too."
Before we go any further, I'd better contexualise the proposal amongst all the other schemes that currently exist. It's quite confusing...

At the moment, jobseekers are (normally) placed in the 'Work Programme'[3], in which contractors are required to provide a range of measures to help them find work. This programme lasts a maximum of two years. If a claimant does not comply with the requirements of the programme (for example, fails to apply for a job) they can be sanctioned, but they cannot be required to work for nothing. On the other hand claimants can be required to work for nothing as a 'Mandatory Work Activity'[4] for four week placements of up to 30 hours per week: they are 'expected to complete placements which are of benefit to the community, including helping charities or environmental projects'. Finally, in some areas there is also currently something called the 'Community Action Programme' which is in effect, a pilot for what  Osbourne is now talking about, and is also a sort of development of the Mandatory Work Activity but requires 26 week involvement. If you remember the case where a geology graduate was required to work at Poundland it might be helpful to know that she was on the Community Action Programme[5].

Having got that out of the way, we can also note that this isn't actually as new as it's being presented. In  July 2012 the Guardian reported[6] that Chris Grayling, Employment Minister, announced to extend the Community Action Programme across the country, calling it - then -  'support for the very long-term unemployed'.

Leaving aside the value judgements and self-praising included in the speech, what can be said about these proposals?

Jonathan Portes, director of the (left-leaning) National Institute of Economic and Social Research was interviewed on 30th September by Jeremy Vine for his Radio 2 show. His concern was that there was no strong evidential base that could justify the proposal (The scheme is likely to affect about 200,000 jobseekers and will cost £300 million). He noted that the DWP's own research review concluded that there was little evidence that 'workfare' schemes increased the chances of finding work. he also said that the information gained from the Community Action Programme was not supportive. Although some people did move off benefits while on the scheme, after the trial was over they were generally found to be back on benefits, and, indeed, some were now on sickness benefits. He was guardedly positive about the concept of intensive support for people with drug, alcohol, and literacy problems, but noted that any programme of this nature was certain to be expensive and that it was therefore unwise to roll it out without piloting it first. He emphasised that it would only be any use if it improved long-term prospects.

I would largely echo these comments. I also raise the following questions:
  • How will clearing up litter, for instance, improve a claimant's chances of finding work?
  • How will claimants be able to afford to attend a jobcentre every day, especially in rural areas?
  • Which low-paid workers will lose their jobs so that jobseekers can carry out their roles for nothing?
Iain Duncan Smith - Mandatory Attendance Centres

The relevant part of Duncan Smith's speech is as follows [7]

"But today I want to tell you about those who are already showing early signs of not being able to commit to their obligation to work. Prior to the Work Programme we are going to pilot a Mandatory Attendance Centre where selected individuals will receive expert support and supervision while they search and apply for jobs – that is 9 o’clock  to 5 o’clock – 35 hours a week – for up to six months, simulating the working day. These pilots will be targeted at claimants who will benefit from the intensive support - one pilot before the Work  Programme and one for after the Work Programme."

His comments have been accompanied by a DWP press release:

Note that what is being proposed is a pilot, though no doubt it will be eventually rolled out across the country irrespective of whether it turns out to be helpful or not.

Note also that claimants will be required to attend 5 full days a week for up to six months: again, how will claimants afford the accompanying transport costs?

Duncan Smith was asked about the transport cost issue on Radio 4's the World at One on 01/10/2013. His response was that, firstly, claimants could seek help from the flexible support fund (the FSF)(although they couldn't guarantee that they would all be helped), and that, secondly, the Attendance Centres would be close to where claimants lived. There doesn't seem to be much information available about the FSF, including how big it is, as a Parliamentary Briefing note plaintively observes [8], but I'll be very surprised if the majority of claimants who incur travel costs get them met. And we don't have any details on how close is 'close'.

Actually I have some sympathy with the concept here. It is based on the understanding that jobseekers are not all the same. Some have no experience of the world of work: of coming in at the same time, day after day, of being subject to authority, of not being able to call your time your own. And without this experience, forcing them to take jobs is likely to be futile. And I accept that there are difficult questions about failure to engage, and about whether and how compulsion is appropriate. But in order for this kind of scheme to work, and not simply to be a way to remove people from benefit, the balance between support and compulsion would have to be vastly different from what it is almost certain to be.

David Cameron - young people

These comments[9] were brief, in a long speech, and are not linked to any proposals: but they suggest some worrying (though not totally surprising) changes are on the horizon. 

"There are still over a million young people not in education, employment, or training. Today it is still possible to leave school, sign on, find a flat, start claiming housing benefit and opt for a life on benefits.
It’s time for bold action here. We should ask, as we write our next manifesto, if that option should really exist at all. Instead we should give young people a clear, positive choice: Go to school. Go to college. Do an apprenticeship. Get a job. But just choose the dole? We’ve got to offer them something better than that. And let no one paint ideas like this as callous. Think about it: with your children, would you dream of just leaving them to their own devices, not getting a job, not training, nothing?  
No – you’d nag and push and guide and do anything to get them on their way… and so must we. 
So this is what we want to see: everyone under 25 – earning or learning."

A few years ago young people and their advocates learned that Housing Benefit was to be restricted for people under 25. It looks like soon we'll be thinking of that as the good old days, as it appears that the government's intention is to remove all benefit entitlement to young people who are not in employment, education, or training.

A briefing to journalists after the speech made it clear that removal of Housing Benefit will be in the next Tory manifesto, and removal of other benefits may be in the manifesto.

I think no-one would disagree that an aspiration for all young people to be in work or learning is a positive one. The problem here is reality: what if there are no jobs; no suitable training? What if a young person has behavioural or attitudinal problems as a result of their upbringing?

I also don't accept Cameron's analogy: yes, a good parent would 'nag and push and guide', but if it didn't work out would a good parent throw their child out the door, without money, food, clothes?

Concluding thoughts

This isn't an original observation, but under all the data, proposals, and schemes what really disturbs me is the underlying world view. It is one in which there is a clear distinction between those who take from the community and those who contribute to it; between 'those who need it' and 'those who pay for it';  between the deserving and undeserving poor.

What about the bloke who has done the same kind of manual work for decades but is made redundant when the company closes down, and has none of the skills needed for the jobs available? Is he a shirker?

What about the young woman who spent her childhood caring for her disabled mother?  Perhaps her mother is in a home now, or dead. Is she just a freeloader?

And what about the young single mother with a one-year-old baby?

The bottom line, of course, is that although the rhetoric is about helping people and improving society, the reality is about balancing the government's books by targeting the most vulnerable rather than sharing the burden more fairly. And caricaturing claimants as people who want something for nothing sets them up against everyone else.

Tomorrow the benefit claimant could be me. Or you. Although, probably not Osbourne, Duncan Smith, or Cameron



Friday 27 September 2013

Bedroom Tax - another update...

Further to my last post, there have been two new developments.

Firstly, another tribunal has ruled in favour of a claimant. In this case the claimant lives in London, rents a housing association flat in Westminster, and is blind. He uses one of the 'bedrooms' to store equipment he needs in his life and work because of his blindness. He maintained that this room could not be treated as a bedroom and the judge agreed, noting in his decision notice:

"The term 'bedroom' is nowhere defined [in the relevant regulations]. I apply the ordinary English meaning. The room in question cannot be so defined."

You can read more about this case here:

The argument used by this claimant is similar to that used in one of the Scotland case (see previous post) in which a physically disabled claimant needed a room to store his wheelchair.

In the Guardian's report it is stated that Westminster Council will not be attempting to challenge the decision but that the DWP may do so. It is not surprising to me that the council don't want to take the case further: as I said in my last post, local authorities don't want tenants to be caught by the bedroom tax any more than the tenants do. Frankly I don't see how the DWP can appeal this decision: they are not a party in the case. 

Legally speaking this is all a bit unsatisfactory, as none of these new cases are - technically - legal precedent, and if none of the local authorities appeal these decisions no actual case law on the point is going to emerge. Judges will therefore be making decisions on an ad hoc basis, though undoubtedly they will take account what has happened already. Oddly, it might be really helpful if a judge refused a claimants appeal on a case like these, so that the claimant could take it to the Upper Tribunal for some authoritative comment on the matter.

Secondly, there has been some progress in a ten key test cases. 

In July ten claimants took their cases to the High Court in July, arguing that the bedroom tax rules were discriminatory, but the Court ruled against them (I wrote about this in my post on 17th July). 

However an appeal judge has just given them permission to take their cases further, to the Court of Appeal.

This case has been reported here:

The judge who granted leave to appeal, Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Aikens, in his reasons*, stated that 

 “[the cases] raise issues of public importance concerning the amended housing benefit scheme and the needs of disabled/ young people and so should be considered by the Court of Appeal.” He also went on to say, “Further, the points raised in the grounds of appeal and the proposed ‘skeleton’ argument have a reasonable prospect of success…” 

The last point is quite encouraging, obviously.

*Source: (yes, the last 'l' is supposed to be missing)

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Bedroom Tax - an important development...

Govan Law Centre in Glasgow has been very active in fighting for its clients - and for the wider good - with regards to the Bedroom Tax (or, as the government would have it, the 'Spare Room Subsidy'). This work seems to have borne fruit.

A 1st Tier tribunal judge has made decisions on a number of cases brought by them on behalf of clients, and has made some important findings. It is important to note that, unlike decisions issued by the (higher) Upper Tribunal, or, say, the Court of Appeal, these decisions do not have the force of legal precedent (this also means that we cannot ask to see the written reasons for the decisions). Nonetheless they are still valuable, as other judges will now be aware of them.

Apart from being a horrid piece of legislation, the Bedroom Tax, or, to give it its official name, the ‘Housing benefit size criteria restrictions for working age claimants in the social rented sector from April 2013’, has a fundamental failing: it does not actually say what a bedroom is. Hitherto the number of bedrooms in a property has been whatever the landlord said it was. The judge wasn't happy with this, and said that whether a particular room is a bedroom has to decided on the facts of the case.

He also made some very useful findings when he looked at specific cases:

  • He noted that, under overcrowding legislation, a bedroom for one adult need to be at least 70 square feet in area, so a claimant whose spare room was only 66 square feet should not have that room classed as a bedroom (he also noted that a room smaller than 50 square feet is not even suitable under overcrowding legislation for a child under 10);
  • He argued that if a room was being reasonably used for something else, it should not count as a bedroom. So in one case, a claimant who stored his wheelchair in one room, and, because of the layout of his home, could not store it anywhere else, won his appeal as the room could not be classed as a bedroom. On the other hand, another claimant who stored his gardening equipment in a room lost his appeal, as the judge didn't find this to be reasonable.
Paradoxically, it would probably be good if the local authority against whom these appeals were made did appeal these decisions to the Upper Tribunal, as it might enable useful precedent to be set, as his arguments appear (at least to me, and especially regarding room size) to be sound. However they may not do so, as the decisions in claimants' favour are in their interests too, as they don't want their tenants to be falling into rent arrears any more than the tenants do.

If you're affected by the bedroom tax yourself, or are helping anyone who is, it's really important that you take action urgently. Measure all the rooms in the house, consider what rooms are used for, and appeal if appropriate. Many claimants will be outside the one month time limit for appealing but it is still worth trying. No claimant will yet be outside the final 13 month limit, but the longer a claimant delays the less likely it is that the tribunal will admit their appeal.

I have updated BenefitsOwl. info accordingly:

Sources: (at about the 19 minute mark)

Govan Law Centre haven't yet updated their blog, but for when they do, here's a link to them:

Thursday 12 September 2013

The Bedroom Tax - Human Rights Commissioner comments

Grant Shapps, Conservative Party Chairman, is not happy.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik, has issued a press release following an investigation into housing problems in the UK. It was the 'bedroom tax' that particularly concerned her: this, in turn, was what angered Mr Shapps.

You can find her full press release here:

It's quite a short statement, and is worth reading in full. The full report will presented to the Human Rights Council in March next year.

If you are interested in social welfare in the UK it's unlikely that anything she says will be news to you. What matters here is not so much what is being said but who is saying it. Having said that, I will now quote her...

'The so-called bedroom tax has already had impacts on some of the most vulnerable members of society. During these days of my visit, the dramatic testimonies of people with disabilities, grand-mothers who are carers for their families, and others affected by this policy, clearly point to a measure that appears to have been taken without the human component in mind.'

It was not just the bedroom tax that concerned her. She was also disturbed by conditions in the private rented sector, particularly given that more people are being forced into this sector by the shortage of social housing.

It appears that Mr Shapps was especially annoyed, firstly, by her not meeting with members of the government, and, secondly, by referring to the measure as the bedroom tax and not by its 'proper name' of the 'spare room subsidy' (source: (the embedded interview).

The second point is interesting, and wrong. While it is true that 'bedroom tax' isn't the measure's real name, neither is 'spare room subsidy'. The measure's actual name is:

‘Housing benefit size criteria restrictions for working age claimants in the social rented sector from April 2013’ 

'Spare room subsidy' is just as opinion loaded as 'bedroom tax', and - arguably - more misleading. For example, imagine a home where two sisters, aged 12 and 15, have separate rooms. There is no 'spare room', but as the law now requires these sisters to share a room, their parents would still be facing a reduction of 14% in their maximum Housing Benefit (for more information about this, see ). 

Oh, and while we're thinking about children sharing rooms, I can't help mentioning Michael Gove, Education Minister, who, in the context of a discussion about planning changes, said (

'There are children, poor children, who do not have rooms of their own in which to do their homework, in which to achieve their full potential'.

However subsequent interviews suggest that he's either incapable or unwilling to make the obvious connection between this aspiration and the bedroom tax...

Further Reading:
There's a good opinion piece by Zoe Williams on the UN press release:
For more information about the bedroom tax check out my website:

Tuesday 10 September 2013

National Audit Office reports on Universal Credit

The National Audit Office (NAO) has just published a report on progress of the Universal Credit project. It's fair to say that it's not that impressed.

The Executive Summary can be found here:

It will come as no surprise to anyone with their ear to the ground that the Universal Credit  project is struggling. As I've observed previously, October was supposed to see it 'rolled out' across the country, but as it turns out, and if you'll excuse me replacing their imagery with mine, it will actually dribble out like urine from a prostate-obstructed urethra.

What's gone wrong?

The NAO gives the impression of a project where, although everybody knew where they wanted to end up, nobody was exactly clear about how to get there, and where management-speak trumped actual effective management. Crucially, there appears to be no evidence that anybody had learned from previous government experience with large IT projects.

Is that hyperbole? I don't think so. It's unusual, I imagine, to laugh out loud at a report on the progress of a government initiative, but at times I couldn't help myself. For example, the NAO describes how, at the outset, the Department (of Work and Pensions) decided to use what it described as an 'Agile' approach to its management of the project - an approach that it had never used before. According to the NAO, this approach is described as using 'iterative and collaborative project management to develop its IT and policy'. Well, it didn't work. So in January 2012, the Department introduced 'Agile 2.0', a hybrid of the Agile and traditional approaches.

Crucially, the NAO finds that 'throughout the programme the Department has lacked a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work.' I don't know about you, but I would have thought that was rather important. Certainly the NAO seems to think so. It notes that there has never been a clear 'blueprint' for the introduction of Universal Credit, nor for the transition to Universal Credit from existing systems. This was also a concern of the Major Projects Authority, who oversaw a 'reset' of the project between February and May this year. Despite this, the concerns that cause this intervention do not, in the opinion of the NAO, appear to have been addressed.

'The Department recognised that the detailed policy for Universal Credit would not be approved by Parliament until 2012. It estimated that its traditional ‘waterfall’ approach to programme management, whereby systems are developed after policy is set, would lead to roll-out in April 2015. The Department was not able to explain to us how it originally decided on October 2013 or evaluated the feasibility of roll-out by this date.'

IT Problems

Unsurprisingly, IT is a key concern.

The Department does not yet know to what extent its new IT systems will
support national roll-out. Universal Credit pathfinder systems have limited function
and do not allow claimants to change details of their circumstances online as originally
intended. The Department does not yet have an agreed plan for national roll-out and
has been unclear about how far it will build on pathfinder systems or replace them.

The report records that the Department has had to write of £34 million of its new IT assets. This, together with the delayed roll-out, will reduce the expected savings which Universal Credit is supposed to generate. In addition, the NAO believes that 'it is unlikely that Universal Credit will be as simple or cheap to administer as originally intended.'

What are the consequences?

Of course this isn't all simply an interesting example of government hubris. Real people will be affected by this. The NAO is plainly worried that if the government persists in its requirement that the transition will be complete by 2017 the final transfer process will be compressed: large numbers of claimants would have to be migrated over a very short period of time.

What's Iain Duncan Smith's spin on all this?

His position (see, for example, is that:

  • It's not his fault - civil servants are to blame - and in fact he's the hero of the hour for intervening to ensure that problems have been dealt with;
  • The programme will be delivered on time and on budget: losses due to the IT problems will be made up elsewhere.
Regarding the first blob, I'm not really in a position to comment, although I do suggest that as the whole thing is his baby the buck should stop with him. He does seem to have been a bit disingenuous with Parliament, though, as he apparently told it in March that the project was 'proceeding exactly in accordance with plans', despite the fact that the whole thing was 'reset' a month earlier. Perhaps he didn't know.

As for being delivered 'on time and on budget'... If by 'on time' he means 'the roll out will be complete by 2017, as planned', it's still possible, although only by having a very rapid final migration, which as noted earlier gives the NAO some concerns. The roll out for new claimants is certainly not 'on time'.

On budget? Only time will tell. But this can only happen if costs are cut from now on. It would be a miracle if this did not result in poorer quality delivery, and, of course, more problems for hard-pressed claimants.