Category Archives: Work and Pensions Select Committee

Aberdeen South MP Blasts Government’s Welfare Reforms

In a day of debates highlighting the effects the Government’s changes to the welfare system are having, Aberdeen South MP and Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Dame Anne Begg delivered a statement on the Committee’s recently published Fourth Report from the Work and Pensions Committee on support for housing costs, highlighted the need for a second independent review into the use of sanctions by Jobcentre Plus and she spoke about the specialist employment support which is being wrongly targeted at individuals closer to the employment market.

During the statement on the Select Committee’s recent report, Dame Anne called reforms such as the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and the Household Benefit Cap a “blunt instrument”. Dame Anne mentioned that although the reforms were originally intended to make better use of housing stock and reduce welfare expenditure, they are instead causing financial hardship to vulnerable people who were not the intended targets of the reforms and are unlikely to be able to change their circumstances in response.

Amongst a number of issues raised by Dame Anne, she called on the Government to exempt disabled people living in adapted homes or who have a legitimate reason for requiring a spare room and to disregard disability benefits when considering eligibility for Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP).

Following on from the statement Dame Anne took part in a Backbench Business Committee Debate on the sanctions regime being used by Jobcentre Plus, Dame Anne called on the Government to launch a second independent review on the workings of sanctions to assess whether the increased use of sanctions is leading to more people finding work or whether they are purely punitive.

Dame Anne said

“The number of JSA Sanctions are at a 12 month high, and probably the highest ever on record. Yet, we don’t even know if these Sanctions are working. There have been many examples of people being sanctioned and not knowing why. If the aim of a sanction is to change peoples’ behaviour then people need to know why their benefits have been stopped otherwise it is just a punitive punishment which is trying and save money.”

Dame Anne also spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on the migration of Incapacity Benefit claimants to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Dame Anne highlighted a constituent who hadn’t worked for ten years but was able to find a job with specialised employment support. Dame Anne raised concerns that this is specialised help is lacking in the new areas the Government has introduced and called for a well funded, specialised support system to enable people who have the highest barriers to work to find employment.

After the debates Dame Anne said

“These debates are vital to holding the government to account for their welfare changes. The government has launched wholescale changes to a vast number of benefits in a very short timescale. My recent Select Committee report, approved by Conservative and LibDem members on my committee, attacks the government’s ‘bedroom tax’ as hurting the most vulnerable most. Backbench Government MPs often say ‘Disabled people are exempt’ but it simply isn’t true.”

“There are a lot of myths surrounding the Government’s welfare changes and speaking in these debates is an important way to set the record straight, and raise the many problems which are being caused by the Government’s welfare reforms. I hope the government heeds my calls and helps alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable in our society.”

Vulnerable people suffering as result of housing welfare reforms

Reforms to the support provided for housing costs – including the Bedroom Tax and the household Benefit Cap – are causing financial hardship to vulnerable people who were not the intended targets of the reforms and are unlikely to be able to change their circumstances in response, say the Work and Pensions Committee in a report published today.

The Bedroom Tax is having a particular impact on people with disabilities who have adapted homes or need a room to hold medical equipment or to accommodate a carer. The Committee recommends that anybody living in a home that has been significantly adapted for them should be exempt from the Bedroom Tax.  The Report further urges the Government to exempt all households that contain a person in receipt of higher level disability benefits (DLA or PIP) from the Bedroom Tax.

Commenting Committee Chair, Dame Anne Begg MP, said:

“The Government has reformed the housing cost support system with the aim of reducing benefit expenditure and incentivising people to enter work.  But vulnerable groups, who were not the intended targets of the reforms and are not able to respond by moving house or finding a job, are suffering as a result.

“The Government’s reforms are causing severe financial hardship and distress to vulnerable groups, including disabled people. Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs), which local authorities can award to people facing hardship in paying their rent, are not a solution for many claimants. They are temporary, not permanent, and whether or not a claimant is awarded DHP is heavily dependent on where they live because different local authorities apply different eligibility rules.

“Using housing stock more efficiently and reducing overcrowding are understandable goals.  But 60-70% of households in England affected by the Bedroom Tax contain somebody with a disability and many of these people will not be able to move home easily due to their disability. So they have to remain in their homes with no option but to have their Housing Benefit reduced.”

The report can be read in full here: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/work-and-pensions-committee/news/support-for-housing-costs/ 

MP calls for retention of vital fund which benefits the most severely disabled in Aberdeen

Aberdeen South MP, Dame Anne Begg, has called on the Government to save the Independent Living Fund (ILF) and allow the most disabled people to continue to live independently in their homes. She has also called on the Scottish Government to clarify what they will do to protect the independence of those living with a severe disability in Scotland.

To show her support for the retention of ILF, which is relied upon by over 18,000 severely disabled, Dame Anne is the primary sponsor an Early Day Motion calling on the Government to reverse their decision to close the fund in June 2015. You can view the EDM here: http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2013-14/1234

The Independent Living Fund (ILF) provides discretionary cash payments directly to disabled people so they can purchase care from an agency or pay the wages of a privately employed Personal Assistant (PA). This support enables disabled people to choose to live in their communities rather than in residential care.

The Government has stated that money will be devolved to already cash strapped local authorities in England, which means that it would cease to be ring-fenced and would be subject to normal constraints and cuts within a local authority budget. And the local authorities have already said that they will not be able to offer the current level of financial support provided on ILF, potentially forcing many disabled people to move out of their homes and into residential care homes.

 Further, the Scottish Government has given no indication whether this will also be the case in Scotland and Dame Anne has written to them seeking clarification.

 Dame Anne said:

“I have spoken to a number of constituents and their families who have told me how important ILF is in allowing them to live independent and fulfilling lives in our community and I know that losing this support will have a devastating impact on them.

 

“Not only are my constituents concerned about losing the fund, but they are also living with the uncertainty with regards to what support will be provided after the ILF closes.”

The Government initially decided to close the fund by March 2015 but this was delayed until June 2015 after five disabled people challenged the Government’s decision in the High Court.

The Court of Appeal unanimously quashed the decision to close the fund and devolve the money, on the basis that the minister had not specifically considered duties under the Equality Act, such as the need to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people and, in particular, the need to encourage their participation in public life. The court emphasised that these considerations were not optional in times of austerity.

In March 2014, the Government announced that it would go ahead with the closure of the fund on 30th June 2015 saying that a new equalities analysis had been carried out by the Department for Work and Pensions.

MP Questions Government on Pension Changes

During yesterday’s Budget Debate in the Commons, Dame Anne raised questions over the Government’s pension changes and called for a rebrand of annuities.

Dame Anne said:

“Annuities need reform, I’ve called for annuity reform, my Select Committee has called for annuity reform and the Shadow Front bench has. Indeed the Government and the Pensions Industry has called for reform.

“As Government Members have emphasised again and again today, we need consumer choice so that people can make the right decision about how they will spend their own money. For some people paying off another debt might be the most sensible thing to do. However, the best thing for many people to do is to buy an annuity.

“Annuities are an excellent principle — someone saves into a pot and then buys something that lasts them to the end of their life. We do not know how long we will live after reaching pension age, so an annuity provides insurance: we know it will not run out before we reach the end of our life. It insures against old age.

“All of that is right. However — this is the big but — what if there is no annuity market? What will the many people for whom an annuity is the right choice do then? That is the question that I have for the Government. Did they intend to undermine and destroy the annuity market, or did they hope that a new form of annuity would rise phoenix-like out of the flames of their announcements last week? If the annuity market were to collapse, the choice that they say they want to give consumers will not be there for those for whom an annuity is absolutely the right choice.

“Do the Government anticipate that the annuity market will be undermined or strengthened?”

Dame Anne went on to call for an Annuity rebrand:

“Annuities have got a bad name because there have been low interest rates and low returns, but other products have the same problem. Some of them might actually give a worse return than annuities. What guarantee can the Government give that people who buy another product will not get a worse return than if they had chosen an annuity? We know that high charges and costs need to be dealt with.

“I wonder whether the Government thought about just rebranding annuities because they have such a bad name. Perhaps they could have called an annuity a pension for life, which might have changed people’s attitude. I wonder whether the Government intend to turn the UK private pension system into a saving system, and if they do, will tax reliefs remain?

Was that the Government’s intention, or is it an accidental consequence of last week’s proposals?”

You can read the full Budget debate, including Anne’s contribution here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm140325/debtext/140325-0003.htm#14032588003560

Disability benefit delays unacceptable

A report published today by the Work and Pensions Select Committee says that the length of time disabled people are having to wait to find out if they are eligible for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is unacceptable.

The report highlighted that some claims are taking six months or more to process and calls for urgent action to improve the current unacceptable service provided to PIP claimants.

Committee Chair, Dame Anne Begg MP said:

“Many disabled or sick people face waits of 6 months or more for a decision on their PIP eligibility. Even those with terminal illnesses are having to wait far longer than was anticipated. This not only leaves people facing financial difficulties whilst they await a decision, but causes severe stress and uncertainty.  It is completely unacceptable.

“It is vital that all disabled people, but especially the terminally ill, experience as little delay and stress as possible in making a claim. Basic failures – from appointments being cancelled without notice to unsatisfactory responses to queries about claims – are happening too often. Claimants, and their MPs, have often been unable to get any information about when a decision will finally be made.

“The Minister acknowledged that the service claimants were receiving from Atos and Capita – and in some cases from DWP itself – was not acceptable.  Whilst this recognition is welcome, urgent action is also required.  DWP should not only consider invoking penalty clauses in contracts, but must look at its own systems to ensure that the current dire situation is resolved.

“By the end of last year decisions had been made in fewer than 20% of new claims submitted since April 2013. It is essential that the backlog is cleared before the limited natural reassessment of existing DLA claims is extended any further.”

The Report also assesses DWP performance in a number of other policy areas.  It found that the DWP needs to exercise care in the language used in accompanying press releases and ministerial comments in the media, to ensure it avoids the risk of feeding into negative public views about benefit recipients.

Dame Anne commented:

 ”Statistics should be used to shed light on policy implementation, not to prop up established views or feed preconceptions.

“The UK Statistics Authority reprimanded DWP a number of times in 2013 for the way it was handling benefit statistics.

“Government efforts to promote a positive image of disabled people will be undermined if the language used by DWP when communicating benefit statistics to the media feeds into negative perceptions and prejudices about benefit recipients, including disabled people.”

The report can be read in full on the Committee’s page at http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/work-and-pensions-committee/news/dwp-monitoring-report/

 Further media coverage on the report can be read at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-26615853

 http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/mar/18/mps-criticise-dwp-spin-statistics-benefit-claimants

The Government isn’t doing enough to get people back in to work

Anne was recently interviewed by RT about the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s recent inquiry into Jobcentre Plus and she highlighted that the Government are not doing enough to get people back in to work.

You can watch the full interview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lD7k9vjNdVM&feature=c4-overview&list=UU1nrVLHNfnsxpJthrAP8wNw 

MP Calls on Government to Launch Impact Assessment on Welfare Reform

During a Backbench debate on Welfare Reform, Dame Anne Begg MP called on the government to launch a cumulative impact assessment on their reforms to the welfare system which are unfairly targeting people with disabilities. The Back Bench Committee allocated time for this debate after a WOW petition was signed by over 100,000 people.

As Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Dame Anne has continually called for the government to carry out a full impact assessment of welfare reform to show the effect they are having on people with disabilities.

Dame Anne said

“Although the Government states it isn’t picking on disabled people or people with health problems, their policies are impacting that group the hardest
“When you look at the changes they’ve made to the welfare system – Work Capability Assessments, Employment Support Allowance and the new Personal Independence Payments, you can see who they are aimed at.

“The government has reformed almost every benefit in the welfare system. The migration of disabled people to Employment Support Allowance from Incapacity benefit[...] the ATOS Work Capability Assessment[...] the introduction of new Personal Independence Payments[...] reforms to Housing Benefit and Housing Allowance[...] are hitting the disabled and those with health problems the hardest.”

After the debate Dame Anne said

“I have been calling for years for a full impact assessment of welfare reform. The government has continuously refused. Either the government don’t want to know what the impact of welfare reforms have been or they don’t want us to know. Surely good policy making involves reviewing the effectiveness and impact of decisions you have made?”

Housing Costs in a Reformed Welfare System

The below article written by Dame Anne Begg MP appeared in this month’s edition of  24 Housing.

Because housing costs form a large part of any household’s budget they also figure large in the benefits system.  It is not surprising, therefore, that a government who wishes to make huge cuts to the cost of welfare has turned its attention to Housing Benefit to realise some of these savings.  Over the past 4 years there have been many changes to the amount paid to tenants to help with their housing costs, in both the social and private rented sectors.  Which is also why the current inquiry of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee entitled “Housing Costs in a Reformed Welfare System” is important.

The UK social security system is often criticised for being overly complex and contains various disincentives to work.  That is why both the last government and this have attempted reforms of the system aiming to “always make work pay”. The last Labour government’s solution was the introduction of Tax Credits while the Coalition government is staking its reputation on a wholesale reform of working age benefits by consolidating most of them into the Universal Credit.

However, once you factor in housing costs the tapers which are meant to smooth the transition from benefit to work don’t always work effectively, especially in areas with high housing costs.  That’s because in this country we calculate the level of housing benefit based on the actual cost of housing in different parts of the country, not a flat rate depending on the size of your household.

What identical families living in different parts of the UK can receive towards their Housing costs can vary by as much as £1000 per month depending on whether they are in a private rent, receiving Local Housing Allowance in Central London or rent a Council house in deprived area in the north of England. Therefore the work incentives, or lack of them, can vary hugely.

The government’s reforms have been a rather blunt instrument and are only beginning to make themselves felt.  The changes to LHA introduced in 2011 only applied to new private sector tenants  or once existing tenants tenancy agreement came up for review, so the impact wasn’t immediate.  As more tenants face a shortfall between what they receive in benefit and their rent, the larger their arrears grow.  This means fewer private landlords are willing to take tenants who are benefit claimants which, in turn puts pressure on the social rented sector where there is already a shortage of properties.

The shortfall between HB received and level of rent is being replicated in the social sector with the introduction of what has become known as the “bedroom tax”.  If the policy had worked perfectly, the government’s own impact assessment shows that there would have been no savings.  Those in homes deemed too large would simply move to smaller properties freeing up the larger houses for those overcrowded, who would then qualify for more HB.  But we don’t live in a perfect world.  Councils and Housing Associations have not been building 1 bed properties for years so the smaller houses don’t exist in sufficient numbers. At the moment few are moving house, preferring to subsidise their housing from their other benefits.  However, the crunch can’t be far off as this is not sustainable for most households in the long term.

There has been an enormous outcry against the “bedroom tax”, even amongst those who believe that the government is right to be cutting the benefit bill.  I think this is because it is seen as being unfair.  It is not floor size, or bed spaces which are the determining factors, but bedrooms regardless of how small they might be.  Many of the government’s own backbenchers believe that disabled people living in houses specifically adapted for them are exempt.  They aren’t. They have to apply for the temporary Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) to make up the shortfall. A married couple who can’t share a room because one or both of them has a disability are not exempt either.  Nor are households where it is a family member who is the full time carer.

For these households, moving is not an option, nor is increasing their income by working. So the government will have to keep paying out DHP so it makes sense that such households should be exempt.

There are a number of cases where it might even be costing the government more.  Apart from in London, many of the people who have been caught by the Benefits Cap are in temporary accommodation, which by its very nature is more expensive.  Of course some of them are in temporary accommodation because they have been evicted from their cheaper accommodation because of rent arrears caused by the government’s reforms!  A one bed private rent is likely to cost more than a 2 bed Council house but a tenant will qualify for full benefit for the more expensive tenancy, but not for the cheaper one.

All this, and I haven’t even mentioned how things might change with the introduction of Universal Credit.  Lots, then, for my committee to get their teeth into.

Dame Anne Begg MP

Chair of Work and Pensions Select Committee

16th January 2014

Dame Anne Questions Iain Duncan Smith

As Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Dame Anne led the questioning Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions Ian Duncan Smith yesterday on the problems facing Universal Credit and the delay in vital information being passed to the Committee.

With the Department’s controversial welfare reforms, of which Universal Credit is the flagship, being implemented and rolled out, the role of the Select Committee is to scrutinise the Department and offer recommendations as to how proposals can be improved or amended.

During the heated questioning session, Mr Duncan Smith was accused of not being open with a Commons Select Committee and of treating it with arrogance and disrespect.

Dame Anne also raised her concerns over failings in the policies and the negative implications of botched welfare reform.

Coverage of the evidence session can be found on the following sites;

Read the full transcript on the Parliament UK website- http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/WrittenEvidence.svc/EvidenceHtml/5774
Watch on Parliament TV- http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=14819
Guardian – http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/feb/03/iain-duncan-smith-universal-credit
BBC – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-26020025
Telegraph – http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/benedictbrogan/100257938/whitehall-is-shuddering-over-universal-credit-problems/

Visits Back-to-Work Programme for People with Disabilities

Dame Anne was delighted to visit the Shaw Trust and their centre to witness its work in action.

The visit included a tour of the centre, meeting with people with disabilities on the programme and holding discussions with staff. Dame Anne was introduced to Shaw Trust job coaches and employment advisors who provided detailed, step-by-step overviews of the intensive, tailored support Shaw Trust provides its beneficiaries to guide them into sustainable employment and independence.

Anne at Shaw TrustStaff at the Aberdeen centre emphasised the holistic nature of the support Shaw Trust offers, highlighting the assistance given to the charity’s beneficiaries to help them overcome the challenges facing them.

Work Choice is the Government’s specialist disability employment programme designed specifically for people who, due to their disability or health condition, may find it difficult to find or keep a job. Shaw Trust delivers the Work Choice employment programme as a subcontractor to prime provider, Momentum Skills, in Aberdeen.

Dame Anne Begg said of the visit:

 “Nearly half of all working age people with disabilities are out of work, underlining the need for effective employment support. People often need to be supported over a long period of time to ensure they are successfully guided into independence and long-term employment. Programmes like Work Choice, as delivered by Shaw Trust, can help get more people with disabilities into work.”

Tanya Gilchrist, Shaw Trust head of operations for Scotland, added:

“Work Choice is proving an incredibly effective programme, with over 2,500 people supported into work in Scotland so far. As a charity, Shaw Trust offers help to the most vulnerable members of society in need of extensive support. Many of our beneficiaries contend with a range of severe disabilities and health conditions, and as a result, require intensive and long-term support.”