Returning to the work being done at King’s Church in Catford this week, I talked to Andy, who is a paid support worker. This church in South-East London sees social action and reaching out to the community as a priority.
He reports that since the most recent changes in welfare benefits, most of his work has involved giving benefits advice. “The changes might not affect everyone, but they have hit most of the group we work with particularly hard. Some of them are from very disadvantaged backgrounds. There’s been a demise in manual work, and the £6.31 minimum hourly rate is not enough to live on, even with housing benefit – and that’s if they’re lucky enough to work.” London, for those on minimum wage or no wage is not a city where you can live with dignity. This minimum wage is of course set far below the new London Living Wage rate of £8.80 an hour that employers can opt to sign up to.
As for schemes such as Universal Jobmatch – which claims to match jobseekers with vacancies – Andy says he has “never known anyone from that scheme who’s had even a reply (about a vacancy) through it”. He says he challenged someone from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on this. “I was then told they were very fussy about people’s CVs.”
Sanctioning people on benefits has a detrimental impact on them, he says: “If jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) is stopped, housing benefit is automatically stopped, and they often need support to get their housing benefit reinstated.”
One of Andy’s key roles is to act as an advocate at tribunals for people who are challenging Atos (one of the private companies administering fit-for-work tests) decisions to refuse them employment and support allowance (ESA) – the higher rate of benefit that takes into account their inability to work because of ill health. Andy tells me he only represents people at tribunal if he’s convinced they’re not fit for work. “If people don’t get enough points, they don’t get the benefits and they don’t have the confidence to take matters forwards themselves. You have to feel you deserve it.”
The issue for many of those he comes across it that they lack the self-esteem to take on the system themselves. He adds: “I think there’s a section of society that has low self-confidence, and often have mental health issues without a formal diagnosis.”
His success rate at tribunal is very high. He hasn’t taken anyone there who hasn’t ended up with a minimum of 15 points, and some of them score higher than this. These are people who have scored “maybe nothing or a few points in the Atos assessment”. It goes without saying that he thinks the Atos assessment process is obviously not working.
In March this year it was announced that the £500 million contract with Atos, mired in accusations that the tests they applied were inhumane and crude, would end early. Judge Robert Martin, the departing head of the tribunal which hears appeals, was reported in the Guardian here as saying that the work capability assessment (WCA) process has undergone “virtual collapse”. In a confidential journal distributed to tribunal members, he said that this collapse was the biggest single factor in the decline in the numbers going to appeal.
He added in the article that the removal of funding under the legal aid scheme for advice and assistance on welfare rights matters, “compounded by continuing cutbacks in local authority spending on advice services has severely reduced the help and support available to claimants to pursue their legal rights in challenging benefits decisions”. Judge Martin says that if a supplier to replace Atos is found “presumably at a premium, the company will have to address the chronic shortages of healthcare professionals which has dogged Atos and which is exacerbated by the need for additional resources to deal concurrently with PIP (the personal independence payment introduced to replace disability living allowance over a three-year period beginning last October)”.
Given the difficulties facing those who want to challenge benefits decisions, the people who end up with Andy on their sides are the lucky ones. Andy is an expert and they’ll usually win their case. But there aren’t enough people around like him now – committed inviduals with the benefits know-how to successfully take on the DWP. Legal aid lawyers and welfare rights experts are a dying breed in the UK.
All the signs are there that the outlook for this most vulnerable group can only get worse. The majority of the spending cuts deemed crucial to the austerity narrative lie ahead and are set to bite even deeper into welfare spending. Chancellor George Osborne said in what the Guardian called a “grim New Year’s message” in January that the biggest chunk of savings of around £12bn will come from welfare in the two years after the election, with young people and those of working age most at risk from cuts.