Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Fix the bureaucracy, for heaven's sake!

The Trussell Trust says there has been a sizeable increase in applications for assistance from its foodbanks. This has been reported in both the Guardian and on the BBC's website. But they aren't saying quite the same thing.

According to the BBC, which appears to have interviewed someone from the Trussell Trust, the reasons for the increased use of foodbanks are rising food and utility bills, job loss and less disposable income, and greater awareness of foodbanks. Hmm. These last two look suspicious to me. Money required for essential food isn't "disposable income", really - but if you know that there is a foodbank that will provide you with food if you're so skint you can't feed your kids, you just might maintain or increase your spending on less important things, mightn't you? Or am I being too cynical?

But what is much more interesting is the Guardian's report. This identifies two main causes for the increased use of foodbanks:
  • the dire state of youth employment, coupled with high rent costs. 16% of those seeking emergency assistance from foodbanks are aged 16-24. Interestingly, the BBC failed to report these figures but did have an interview with a 23-year-old who was having to choose between rent and food. I suppose they went for the human angle rather than hard facts.
  • the abject failure of the DWP bureaucracy to make benefit payments on time or correctly. 
Now, I've been writing recently about youth unemployment. There is no doubt that we do have high levels of youth unemployment in the UK: the headline figures are bad enough, but they are "massaged downwards" by excluding young people who are doing short-term and/or part-time work, and all those who are working as volunteers or unpaid interns to gain experience as a gateway to a career. But there seems to be an assumption on the part of governments not only here but across the EU that parents will support their 18-25 year-old children. The UK government is proposing to withdraw housing benefit from under-25s, presumably in the belief that they can just stay with Mum and Dad. How they are supposed to do this while making themselves available for work anywhere in the UK is beyond me. And what about those youngsters whose parents have died, or separated, or moved abroad, or simply don't want them there? What about those who have been thrown out of the care system? Really the Government hasn't thought this through. If they go ahead with this measure far more young people will be using food banks (or sleeping in doorways).

But the best bit of this, without doubt, is the DWP incompetence angle. Now, I'm not blind to the Guardian's political sympathies, and it occurred to me that the reporters could be using this as an opportunity to bash the Government, so I checked the Trussell Trust's website. In the notes to their press release on the increased use of foodbanks, we find this:
The two main reasons that people were referred to foodbanks in 2011-12 were benefit delay and low income. 
So the Guardian is right, it seems - and the BBC is wrong. Benefit delay is a major issue. The DWP has some explaining to do. 

Actually DWP incompetence has been a running sore for a long time now. They simply don't seem to be able to cope with the instability of people's lives - an instability to which the Government is contributing by changing the eligibility criteria for benefits. Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust is in my view absolutely right to call them out on the dreadful effect that late payment of benefits can have on people's lives. People who are dependent on benefits for basic living expenses cannot tolerate bureacratic inefficiency or incompetence that leaves them without money for extended periods of time. They end up in arrears with essential bills, they may lose a place to live, they may even end up unable to feed or warm themselves. And we are not talking about the elderly here: the Trussell Trust make it clear that the elderly are not a large proportion of claimants at the moment. We are talking about working-age people who for whatever reason are unable to find enough work to support themselves and their families.

The DWP's response to the Trussell Trust's criticsm is mealy-mouthed. No apology for their inefficiency. No promises to improve the timeliness and accuracy of their claim processing. The tone of their response suggests that they think 80% of claims being turned round within 16 days is good. No it isn't, it's awful. That is one in five claims taking more than three weeks to turn round - and during that time the claimants receive nothing. Not a bean. No wonder the food banks are busy.

The DWP then blame the previous Government for their CURRENT inefficiency. You know, the Government that was voted out of office in 2010? I am getting more than sick of the propensity of the current Government to blame the last one for anything and everything that is found to be wrong now. They've had over two years. Even if it was a mess when they took over, they should at least have started to fix it by now. That they clearly haven't - in fact they appear to be making things worse - is down to THEM, not the previous lot. 

But worst of all, the DWP try to change the argument. The issue raised by the Trussell Trust is the DWP's demonstrable inability to run a large and complex social benefits system effectively. But the DWP claim that the reforms the government is making to the benefits system will make it more effective. Words fail me. Bureaucratic inefficiency is bureaucratic inefficiency, whatever system you adopt. Changing what the system does won't necessarily make it work any better. 

I'm not questioning here whether the Government's reforms of the benefits system are a good idea, although I do have serious reservations about them. I'm questioning their statement that those reforms will make the system more effective. Because unless the Government addresses the DWP's sclerotic processes and procedures, the reforms will make matters worse, not better. We can expect to see many, many more cold and hungry people waiting weeks and weeks for legitimate benefit claims to be met. And that, in a supposedly civilised society, is a disgrace.

4 comments:

  1. "The UK government is proposing to withdraw housing benefit from under-25s, presumably in the belief that they can just stay with Mum and Dad. How they are supposed to do this while making themselves available for work anywhere in the UK is beyond me. And what about those youngsters whose parents have died, or separated, or moved abroad, or simply don't want them there? What about those who have been thrown out of the care system? Really the Government hasn't thought this through. If they go ahead with this measure far more young people will be using food banks (or sleeping in doorways)"

    What is worse is that the government may have thought this through and the resultant suffering is deliberate.I have known many claimants over my lifetime whose unemployment and / or housing benefits were suddenly stopped without any reason given to the claimant. In nearly all cases, the stoppage turned out to be a mistake, or a "computer error".

    I agree that the Guardian's explanation for the rise in food bank usage is more likely to be the correct one.

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  2. This is an area of my research and it should also be noted that bureaucratic incompetence & changing eligibility rules act as a huge disincentive to work. Many, in low skills, low wage jobs also suffer from job insecurity and often rely on zero hours contracts, temporary and agency work. But they can be reluctant to take these kinds of jobs on as they know from bitter experience the difficulties they face if/when the job finishes and they need to claim welfare again. These people have little or no personal safety net and weeks without money as they cycle between benefit claims and short term work and back again are unsustainable. It is therefore not surprising that the evidence suggests some prefer to survive long term on welfare rather than take the risk of joining the labour Market; existing & budgeting on a known amount of income (however meagre) is better than having no money for potentially for many weeks while claims are sorted.

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  3. Two brief comments on this, Francis:

    1 - There has been lots of work on the impacts of this DWP system failure by advice agencies funded by the Baring Foundation - you can see some of the results here: http://www.adviceuk.org.uk/projects-and-resources/projects/radical/nottinghampilot

    &

    2 - The issue of poverty-while-waiting-for-a-decision is going to get *massively* worse next year. Currently when a claimant appeals against an Employment support Allowance decision they can get emergency payments while waiting for the appeal to be heard (which leaves them unthinkably poor, but with some cash at least). From next year the DWP is going to internally reconsider all decision before passing them to the Tribunal Service for the full appeal hearing - however there is going to be no time-limit for the reconsideration and no emergency payments while the file is stuck down the back of a filing cabinet at the DWP. See here for the DWP (non-)thinking behind this: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/mandatory-consideration-consultation-response.pdf and here for a response from CPAG: http://www.cpag.org.uk/sites/all/modules/contrib/pubdlcnt/pubdlcnt.php?file=/sites/default/files/Mandatory%20consideration%20of%20revision%20before%20appeal%20-%20April%202012.doc&nid=914

    It's going to be a disaster, with thousands more disabled people made destitute, while waiting for cases to be passed to the Tribunal...





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  4. Anecdotal evidence only but the DWP has been catastrophic to the point of farcical for me.

    During my ESA renewal the form (sent recorded delivery) was said never to have been received and my claim was closed from one day to the next with no warning, leading to suspension of all benefits.

    I had to place an appeal just to ask for the case to be reopened (not even against the decision, just to ask for them to please MAKE a decision!). It then took several more weeks for the actual reassessment itself to take place and for me to be awarded ESA and be put in the support group.

    This fiasco happened to someone who was known to them to be seriously disabled, in the support group and getting daily care from social services. Whether they thought a miracle had occurred I'm not quite sure.

    In total I was without benefits for 9 weeks. Luckily I had a good job before becoming ill and disabled and have savings I could fall back on. Otherwise I don't know what I would have done. For one thing I am physically unable to even get to a food bank and have no idea if they are accessible.

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