Responding to today’s Feeding Britain report, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) Alison Garnham said:
“The DWP is quick to attribute blame for poverty to those in hardship themselves but many of the problems are closer to home. So far its response has been dilatory. If it wants to reduce our shaming high reliance on food banks, the DWP needs to act with greater ambition and urgency on the evidence of poor administration on its doorstep and commit to widely recommended ideas for turning its delivery around.
“A year ago we and Feeding Britain gave the Government simple, inexpensive ways to fix benefits administration in order to reduce the need for emergency food aid. Our latest research with charities and advisers on the ground shows jobcentre processes have barely improved – and much has got worse – despite assurances the DWP made a year ago that some of the changes we recommended would be made.
“We need to be clear: bad administration of social security is the primary trigger for food bank use. Every delayed benefit, prolonged review and erroneous sanction racks up the risk that families will have to eat from the food bank - or not eat at all.”
Research conducted for a submission to Feeding Britain by a working party of 12 charities finds that the large majority of welfare rights advisers think the level of DWP errors is the same or worse than a year ago. 1
Delays, poor communications and failure to follow guidance remain endemic in the administration of benefits, the research shows, and often the result is claimants go without the money they need.
Led by Child Poverty Action Group, the submission draws on a survey of 225 members of the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers (NAWRA) and on the experience of the 12 charities, including Church of England, the Children’s Society, Oxfam and Mind.
Key findings of the research include:
Short Term Benefit Advances (STBAS) :(discretionary payments that can be made to claimants in need and waiting for a benefit). The number of STBAs has continued to decline in the past year despite a DWP publicity campaign, suggesting DWP efforts to raise awareness of STBAs have been ineffective and/or other barriers are preventing people from accessing the payments Applications for advances dropped since the publicity campaign started in March 2015, from 105,000 between Apr-Aug 2014 to 86,000 Apr- Aug 2015.
One welfare rights adviser reported: “We have yet to encounter a single client who has managed to access an STBA regardless of whether we have been involved or not. …”
Others reported that many jobcentres are not following DWP guidance for claimants waiting for a benefit to be processed, referring them directly to food banks or local welfare assistance schemes rather than first considering their eligibility for STBAs. And 65,000 STBA applications are rejected without a formal decision.
Charities in the Working Group want Government to reconsider Feeding Britain’s 2014 recommendations - originally rejected by the DWP - which would allow advice workers to submit claims on their clients’ behalf and to make STBA payments automatic after a certain amount of time.
Sanctions: Letters notifying claimants of a sanction remain opaque , despite the Government ‘s commitment in response to Feeding Britain 2014 to make the letters easier to understand. 2 Often letters fail to make clear why the claimant has been sanctioned or even that benefit has been stopped. They do not routinely contain information on applying for hardship payments (ie discretionary back-up payments for people facing destitution) and there is no evidence that information on claimants’ right to appeal sanctions decisions is offered systematically. Around half of sanctions challenged are overturned.
Mandatory reconsiderations: (MRs) (claimants who want to appeal a DWP decision on benefits must ask for a revision of the decision before they can appeal. Claimants do not receive benefit while an MR is underway.)
The Government rejected all Feeding Britain recommendations on MR last year but said it plans to introduce clearance time target for all benefits from April 2016, and to set a target and report internally on this measure in the year prior to that.
Child Poverty Action Group’s experience suggests MRs of decisions specifically on whether claimants are fit for work have got quicker –typically turned around in 2 weeks - but this has come at a cost. Advisers report that the written consideration is less extensive than previously, and actual reconsiderations are rarer - -to the extent that MR has become a rubber stamping of the original decision - an analysis repeated several times in the survey. MR does not, therefore, serve its original purpose of cutting the need for appeals and in effect creates an extra delay for claimants with no commensurate improvement in quality assurance. For claimants who have had a wrong decision, this creates additional hardship, since benefit is not payable during the MR period.
Wrong advice: Asked for examples of wrong advice given by DWP to clients more than half of 129 respondents cited an issue related to ESA – for example, not being advised that clients could reclaim ESA under a new condition; not advising of the possibility of appealing an ESA decision; and being told they cannot claim JSA after being turned down for ESA.
Communications between claimants and DWP: Almost one third (32.4%) of welfare advisers said that in the past year it has got harder to get through by phone to the DWP. Advisers often referred to a lack of expertise on the part of DWP staff at different levels including inaccurate advice being given. Of the 178 who responded to a question on quality of advice over half were ‘not at all confident’ that the DWP could correctly advise their clients on their entitlements; 21.9% were neither confident nor not confident . Only one was very confident
This level of confidence was diminishing for more than two fifths of respondents: out of 178 who answered this question, 43.3% said they’d become less confident in the last year, more than half (53.4%) said things had stayed the same, and 3.4% said they’d become more confident.
Notes to Editors:
1 For its submission, the working party conducted an online survey of NAWRA members from late October to early November 2015. 225 responses were received to 18 questions. The report also draws on FOI requests, parliamentary questions and interpretation of national data. Members of the working party are: Child Poverty Action Group, Children’s Society, Church Action on Poverty, Church of England, Church Urban Fund, First Love Foundation, Joint Public Issues team, Mind, Oxfam, St Vincent de Paul Society, Trussell Trust, and YMCA England.
Of 166 NAWRA members responding to a question on the level of errors, 49.4% felt things had stayed the same, 48% that mistakes were more common and 1.8% that they were less common.
2 The Government agreed to implement recommendations from the 2014 Oakley review of the operation of the sanctions system including identifying improvements to letters notifying claimants of a sanction. More recently the Government accepted in principle that hardship payments should be available to a wider group of claimants within 14 days of a sanction.
3 A November 2014 report Emergency Use Only produced by Child Poverty Action group, Church of England, Trussell Trust and Oxfam interviewed 40 food bank users at seven Trussell Trust food banks across the country whose experiences help shed light on the factors that are driving food bank use in the UK. These interviews were backed up by additional data collected from more than 900 recipients at three Trussell Trust food banks and an analysis of the cases of 178 clients accessing an advice service at one food bank. Between a quarter and a third of the food bank cases analysed were people waiting for a benefit claim which had not been decided.
4 CPAG is the leading charity campaigning for the abolition of child poverty in the UK and for a better deal for low-income families and children.
5 CPAG is the host organisation for the Campaign to End Child Poverty coalition, which has members from across civil society including children’s charities, faith groups, unions and other civic sector organisation, united in their campaigning for public and political commitment to ensure the goal of ending child poverty by 2020 is met.
For further information please contact:
CPAG Press and Campaigns Officer
Tel. 020 7812 5216 or 07816 909302