Spotlight on the Early Warning System: families’ experiences lead to meaningful change | CPAG

Spotlight on the Early Warning System: families’ experiences lead to meaningful change

Many of the highlights from our work in 2018-19 start with our Early Warning System. The Early Warning System (EWS), funded by Oak Foundation, Barrow Cadbury Trust and the Scottish Government, helps us get a better understanding of how changes to the social security system, including the introduction of universal credit, are affecting people’s lives. We gather information from advisers about the experiences of children and families, and identify recurring problems. By the end of this year we had collected over 7,000 of these experiences across the UK – stories of families struggling because they are worse off or because the system has not worked as it should.

These stories are the basis of much of our work. They mean we can spot patterns and come up with solutions, leading the sector in our policy and advocacy work. They mean we can share and raise awareness of the lived experiences of people in poverty through our high-profile media work. And most importantly they mean we have a solid evidence base to push for change – securing important improvements which help low-income families, preventing and reducing child poverty.

To illustrate how the EWS informs much of our work, here is one particular issue it uncovered and how we responded.

Assessment periods in universal credit are used to calculate the amount of universal credit people should get. The problem is that they are rigid, and this can lead to people being worse off or struggling to budget because their universal credit payments fluctuate wildly and unpredictably.

"Child Poverty Action Group has done some work on real cases and has found low-paid workers who are losing hundreds of pounds a year because their payday clashes with the monthly assessment period for universal credit."

Baroness Sherlock, House of Lords

First, we analysed the problem and potential solutions. We raised our cases from the EWS with the DWP. We published a report of our analysis called Rough Justice: problems with monthly assessment of pay and circumstances in universal credit, and what can be done about them. This report got significant high-profile media coverage, drawing attention to the problem and solutions among a wide audience.

Our report and media work opened doors for meetings with ministers and senior civil servants. We also gave evidence to select committees and briefed politicians from all parties.

Once we knew the DWP were not going to resolve the problem voluntarily, we started the legal process. Litigation is always a last resort, and takes a long time, but it is sometimes the only way to establish and protect people’s rights. We represented three working single mums who had been badly affected by the fact that their rigid universal credit assessment clashed with their pay days to produce unfair results. In January 2019, the High Court ruled in our favour. The DWP wants to appeal the decision so the case may not yet be over, but this was a significant victory for these women and for CPAG – our head of strategic litigation Carla Clarke was named Times ‘Lawyer of the Week’ in recognition.

"This is a very welcome and common-sense judgment which clearly establishes that the DWP has been applying its universal credit regulations incorrectly. Working parents on low incomes should not lose out on the support that Parliament intended them to receive because the DWP has designed a rigid process that is out of step with both actual reality and the law."

CPAG head of strategic litigation Carla Clarke

This year we also began a new legal project, funded by the Legal Education Foundation, which supports welfare rights workers to use judicial review proceedings for their clients. This has already seen some success for people facing problems with the social security system, and has increased the advice community’s ability to push for change to DWP guidance and processes themselves.

We also keep advisers up-to-date with rulings through our advice, training and publications.

This story shows the different tactics we use, and how we apply pressure to bring about change in a systematic way, with the aim of benefiting many families and children. The social security system is there for all of us – and most of us will call on it at various times in our life. It is there to help families meet their needs and get on in life. It can prevent poverty and help families escape from its grip. When something goes wrong in the social security system, we encourage advisers to tell us about it through our Early Warning System, and this will often set in motion a campaign to fix it.

"Top work by a top team. Seriously don't know where we'd all be without CPAG (and their trusty Welfare Benefits Handbook, of course)."

Welfare rights adviser on our assessment period case