A welfare reform early warning system

Issue 240 (June 2014)

Kirsty McKechnie, welfare rights worker at CPAG in Scotland, describes CPAG in Scotland’s welfare reform monitoring system.

It is estimated 100,000 more children will be living in poverty in Scotland by 2020 largely as a result of changes to benefits and tax credits policies. For this reason, CPAG in Scotland has developed an early warning system to gather information and case studies about the impact of welfare reforms on children and their families across Scotland. Funded by the Third Sector Early Intervention Fund, we are gathering information from:

  • CPAG in Scotland’s advice line, training and events;
  • frontline workers across Scotland, including welfare rights officers, housing advisers and support workers;
  • two qualitative studies.

As CPAG’s own advice line is second tier, queries tend to be of a technical nature, with little information recorded about how an issue affects the client in question. Recognising this, we are asking frontline workers from external organisations to contribute anonymous case studies through an online form, to help us develop a better understanding of the effects on families. We have also been asking people attending training courses what the issues facing their clients are and inviting trainers to record cases studies and concerns during the courses.

Two additional qualitative studies are allowing us to collect more in depth information about families’ circumstances. The first study has involved asking people attending food-banks about the events leading them to the foodbank and what would have to change to prevent them returning. The second study is following 10 families over more than a year in order to scrutinise the cumulative impacts of welfare reforms.

The system in action

We are analysing the information collected, then disseminating it to inform policy makers, service planners and third sector partners about the impacts of welfare reform. We hope this will enable services to be targeted in a way that will mitigate any negative effects and promote good practice. We are making the information available by producing policy bulletins; holding seminars; delivering presentations, writing blogs and responding to consultations and calls for evidence. We will also develop information resources to support people working with the issues that arise.

To date we have added 300 case studies to the early warning system. The cases added are chosen because they demonstrate an impact on the client from their interaction with the benefit system. A third of the cases added include the client’s claim being processed incorrectly, or the client being given inaccurate information by the DWP, HMRC or the local authority. This suggests that better training and support alone would have a hugely beneficial impact for families claiming benefits.

The initial findings of the early warning system also highlighted the overwhelming impacts of sanctions; delays processing claims; mandatory reconsideration; ‘the bedroom tax’, and the benefit cap. For this reason, our first series of policy bulletins is concentrating on ‘Families in Crisis’ and can be found on the CPAG in Scotland website. The policy bulletins look at the issues, present case studies and make recommendations about actions that could be taken to mitigate some of the negative impacts.

Case studies

The case studies we have collected do not just demonstrate the direct impacts of welfare reform, but also bring to our attention unintended consequences. We have a noted a number of cases where the client’s housing benefit and council tax reduction has stopped because of a disruption in another claim – eg, the client has been sanctioned or has failed the work capability assessment and submitted a mandatory reconsideration. This has led to rent arrears and threatened the stability of their tenancy.

One client had been having court fines deducted from his jobseeker’s allowance (JSA). The fines were not paid during a sanction period and the client now faced two weeks in prison.

Another client is had his access arrangements to see his daughter reviewed. His JSA claim had been sanctioned. His daughter cannot visit him as there is no furniture in his flat and now he cannot visit her as he has no money.

A case has been noted of a client who is currently in temporary accommodation. Her child is being looked after by the local authority, but the intention is that they will be reunited, however, because of the bedroom tax, housing associations are only considering allocating a one bedroom property, which would put her in the position of not having enough space when her child is returned to her.

There are a number of cases that talk about the added stress and anxiety for clients. For example, a client undergoing chemotherapy who has been extremely anxious about how he will manage financially having experienced a £200 a month drop in his income and been waiting more than five months for a personal independence payment assessment. It is not just the clients who are directly affected. One case notes the increased anxiety of a client’s teenage daughter, who is her carer, from having visits from housing officers to discuss the bedroom tax and having to reapply for discretionary housing payments on an annual basis.

What might the system do?

In addition to reporting emerging issues, the early warning system will facilitate discussion about action that the Scottish Government and frontline services could take to mitigate some of the impacts of welfare reform. For example, transport has been raised as a barrier to people attending jobcentres. Is there a way of subsidising transport to help people overcome this? Could the availability of flexible childcare for jobseekers be considered or increased?

We have already highlighted the issue of clients being given inaccurate information and having their claims processed incorrectly. In addition to demonstrating a need for better training and support for staff administering benefits, this highlights the necessity of continued investment in advice services to support clients to identify possible entitlement and challenge decisions when things do go wrong. From the case studies already mentioned it is clear that other services such as health, housing education are being inadvertently affected and we will be looking what their roles might be.

If you would like more information about the early warning system, contact Kirsty McKechnie at kmckechnie@cpagscotland.org.uk.

 


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