Making Welfare Work

welfare reform 2

The BBC website carried a story the other day, reporting a UK charity’s concerns over the increasing number of benefit recipients who are approaching them for emergency food parcels as a consequence of benefit delays.

This echoes CHAI’s experience.  One of the lesser publicised aspects of our services is the emergency food store that we maintain in order to provide basic food relief to people who present to us in crisis.  In the 6 months from April to September 2011 we handed out 107 food parcels to individuals and families who either presented at our ‘Drop In’ service or who were referred by Housing, Health or Social Work professionals.

As with the story covered by the BBC, it is frequently the case that the need for food aid arises because a claimant has been caught in a change of circumstances which result in breaks or delays in their receipt of benefit.  This is often an unfortunate consequence of the current move to re-assess all existing Incapacity Benefit claims – moving them, often not quite seamlessly, either onto Employment & Support Allowance or Job Seekers Allowance.  This is a process which is now well underway, with all of those in receipt of Incapacity Benefit expected to be re-assessed and re-allocated by 2014.  A recent report by Sheffield Hallam University suggests that, in the case of Edinburgh, this process will see a reduction in incapacity claimants of 8,000 – with over half of these being removed from benefits altogether.  That is a lot of people who are likely to experience some disruption in their benefit status, and who may have to seek short-term relief from the very practical human difficulty of having no money and no food.

However, increasingly we are seeing that the need for this type of short-term support isn’t just about benefit delays:  it’s becoming just as common that the reason for presentation is simple, straightforward budgeting.  With the prices of staple food items and fuel costs continuing to rise it’s becoming more and  more difficult for many people to make that benefit payment stretch from one ‘pay day’ to the next.

It is with some alarm, therefore, that welfare support agencies are viewing the UK Government’s developing proposals around the introduction of Universal Credit from 2013.  Universal Credit (UC) aims to replace a range of existing in and out of work means-tested benefits with one single payment – which will also include the housing costs element of support that is currently paid via Housing Benefit.

While much of the detail of UC remains to be worked through, what is clear is the Government’s intention to make payment of the new benefit monthly in arrears.  The idea is to mimic the ‘work experience’, where people in employment are often paid monthly and have to account for all their own living costs.  This raises two real concerns.  Firstly, if the cost of living is already putting pressure on the management of fortnightly benefit payments, then stretching the period between payments to a full month is almost certainly going to further increase pressure on the sort of emergency food aid services that are out there.  Secondly, the inclusion of housing costs directly to the claimant – while on the face of it increasing the payments received – may present a degree of temptation to those not currently used to having to ring-fence their rent payments for onward transfer to their landlord.

The Department of Work and Pensions say they are aware of these concerns and intend – at some point in the future – to bring forward proposals for how to protect vulnerable people who will be placed in defined support groups.  Those of us who work with these vulnerable groups will await these proposals with interest.

Meantime – and before any of these changes come along – we will continue to respond to the increasing presentations from those who are already struggling to live from day to day … and from hand to mouth.

Note:  CHAI’s Food Store is maintained through the generous donations of food items by local schools, churches and private sector organisations.  We are grateful for this vital assistance.

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