Lessons from the welfare reform summit

Welfare reform and its effects have rarely been out of the news in the past few years – and rightly so. But the focus of coverage is often on political arguments taking place at Westminster. It’s vital we hear from those directly affected by the changes to social security, and from those who work with and support them. There is a wealth of experience to be learned from people on the front line.

For that reason, earlier this year Staffordshire University hosted a welfare reform summit in partnership with CPAG, the Social Policy Association and the Centre for Health and Development. Welfare rights and housing professionals joined social policy academics and students in identifying the impact of welfare reform based on their own experiences and research. The evidence gathered fed into CPAG’s Early Warning System, and informed meetings between CPAG and DWP ministers and senior civil servants, including the Universal Credit Director General. The top five issues delegates identified are:

1. The scale and extent of benefit changes

Delegates at the summit emphasised that many claimants face a negative cumulative impact from multiple benefit changes. They shared case studies that showed that many people are facing the multiple consequences of changes to disability benefits, the introduction of universal credit, reduced housing costs and gaps in local welfare assistance. And they identified the uneven effects of welfare reform in that benefit changes have a disproportionate impact on women, lone parents and some ethnic minority groups. Sheffield Hallam University research has identified that welfare reform has created a widening ‘prosperity gap’ between local authorities as the most deprived areas suffer the greatest financial losses as a result of recent benefit changes. This was borne out by the evidence provided by delegates, notably those from North Staffordshire, who identified the challenges of supporting clients with multiple benefit issues who live in constituencies where there is a proven risk of working-age poverty.

2. Poor decision-making on disability benefits

Significant concerns were raised at the summit about the revised eligibility criteria and assessment process for personal independence payment (PIP) and employment support allowance (ESA). Delegates identified that the claimant journey for both of these key disability benefits is fraught with risk and uncertainty for claimants, often connected with issues with face-to-face assessments and poor communication with the DWP. Again these uncertainties are most keenly felt by the most vulnerable groups and significant time at the summit was dedicated to discussing the most appropriate ways to support claimants with mental health problems. In relation to PIP, welfare rights advisers expressed concerns about the lack of consistency in decision-making and challenges presented by a system producing unpredictable awards.

The summit showed that welfare rights professionals continue to dedicate a significant amount of time to representing clients at disability benefits appeals. This representation is often critical in achieving positive outcomes for service users and the latest Ministry of Justice statistics indicate a high overturn rate in their favour for both PIP and ESA appeals (71% for both benefits). Some delegates expressed concern about the move to online social security appeals and the increasing trend for appeals to be heard in court settings. Both of these moves raise concerns about access to a fair hearing.

3. Problems with universal credit

Unsurprisingly a significant amount of focus at the summit was on the challenges the rollout of universal credit presents. Delegates raised many specific concerns about universal credit (such as waiting times, migration following a change of circumstances, work-related requirements and the online claims process) but in addition to these particular issues there were broader areas of concern. These often centred on the DWP having an overly optimistic view of the support available to universal credit claimants and confusion around the timing of a claim. The capacity of advice agencies to deal with such a fundamental benefit change was raised. Delegates were also eager to emphasise that in many cases problems with universal credit are accompanied by issues with other areas of welfare reform, and the broader consequences of austerity such as personal debt and food insecurity.

4. Consent issues

The introduction of universal credit has been accompanied by a change in the policy for representatives acting on behalf of a claimant when trying to resolve a benefit issue. Previously a system of ‘implicit consent’ was in place allowing representatives to make enquiries to the DWP where verbal or written consent could be implied – a process that allowed for some professional discretion. This has been replaced with a system of ‘explicit consent’ where a claimant must give consent via their online account and a representative must be present with the claimant whether the query is made over the phone or face-to-face. A further restriction imposed under this new protocol is that consent only lasts for a single query and is not assumed to continue on an ongoing basis.

Delegates understood the importance of data protection but raised concerns that the system of ‘explicit consent’ will impede advisers’ relationships with the DWP and obstruct the timely resolution of queries, both complex and more minor.

5. Conditionality and sanctions

Delegates expressed concerns about the increasing severity of the sanctions system, the often arbitrary nature of sanctions and the overrepresentation of groups such as the homeless and disabled in the conditionality and sanctions regime. There was almost universal agreement amongst delegates that the sanctions regime fails to provide a genuine ‘carrot and stick’ approach to benefit entitlement and instead delivers a punitive system. Delegates questioned the rationale for the increasing conditionality within the system and provided many examples of a lack of support from work coaches and a failure to clearly explain to claimants the conditions which they are compelled to meet.

Does your experience chime with these top concerns? If you’re a front-line professional with experience of welfare reform, please report what you’re seeing to the Early Warning System to support CPAG’s policy and campaigning work on social security.