Select Committee on Work and Pensions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 6

Memorandum submitted by the Greater Manchester Welfare Rights Advisers Group (SS 07)

INTRODUCTION

  1.  Thank you for the invitation to comment on the role and future of the SSAC. Greater Manchester Welfare Rights Advisers Group (GMWRAG) is a network of advice agencies with over 120 member agencies. With our independent voice, we seek improvements in social security and tax credit policy and service delivery. GMWRAG, and its member organisations, have submitted a great many reports to the SSAC over almost every one of its 15 years, so we are well placed to comment on its role, scope and potentials.

SUMMARY

  2.  In brief, our view is that the SSAC is a valuable, talented and hard-working expert resource. It is needed and it is effective when given the opportunity. We have been dismayed at apparent recent attempts to diminish its role in terms of substantive scrutiny of legislative change. Alternative mechanisms of scrutiny, such as the Government's Green and White Papers in Welfare Reform in the late 1990s, under full Parliamentary attention, also brought disappointing aspects for external groups. These include limited direct evidence of a government listening to concerns about the adverse effects of implementation. The scrutiny of the Work and Pensions Committee is robust and constructive, but practical concerns are sometimes dismissed. New consultation processes range from poor to good. Cabinet Office guidelines and a social security "Consultation Tsar" are steps forward. However, the fast-track Regulatory Reform Act 2000 provisions, we believe, will ultimately sit badly with substantive social security changes. Overall, the independence of the SSAC always brings a formally recognised additional "policy and practice" wisdom which the current alternative mechanisms too often lack, together with a formal mechanism which necessitates greater transparency in decision-making.

  3.  The SSAC needs an expanded remit, and perhaps a name change and partial relocation, to cover Tax Credits and better reflect the full responsibilities of the DWP and the relevant responsibilities of the Inland Revenue.

  4.  Over the page, we set out some further comments to explain our concerns.

COMMENTS

  5.  You have asked several "Relevant questions". These comments respond on our main concerns. In the first place the SSAC does an excellent job when given the chance. There are a great many instances over the years of the Committee anticipating major policy flaws or operational difficulties. These have led to constructive amendments or withdrawal of proposed actions on occasions. At other times, the concerns of the SSAC have proved right with hindsight.

  6.  Quick examples Include: Report of the Social Security Advisory Committee Made Under Section 174 of the Social Security Administration Act 192 on the Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (General) Amendment (No.X) Regulations 2000—this led to the withdrawal of proposed restrictions on backdating Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit, in a context of major delivery problems and delays. This meant the proposed changes would deeply exacerbate existing deficiencies.

  7.  Another was the proposed restrictions in 1996 on Housing Benefit for General Counseling and Support costs, put forward by the previous administration. These would have devastated a sector without view to the wider consequences. The SSAC report was particularly helpful in explaining the consequences and the proposal was dropped. In turn a more thoughtful review process was put in place and Supporting People will result in 2003.

  8.  The SSAC anticipated many of the problems for private tenants due to the restriction mechanisms for Housing Benefit, which proceeded in the mid to late 1990s. The Single Room Rent has been subject to further long reviews, hardship on the ground continues and the sector has contracted seriously. The remit of the Committee is wide, for example, from identifying the extensive and discriminatory problems with the Habitual Residence Test, which have been borne out in practice, to anticipating difficulties with the Social Security (Disability Living Allowance) (Amendment) Regulations 2001, which have brought continued problems for claimants.

  9.  Secondly, alternative mechanisms are too often not sufficiently robust, when it comes to listening to the policy and practice lessons which external groups can capably provide. Examples of the various mechanisms of scrutiny include those under full Parliamentary attention. However, even here, there are disheartening omissions in the Government's consultation and decision-making processes. As an example, we would site the Government's Green and White Papers on Welfare Reform in the late 1990s. These gave limited direct evidence of a listening government, when obvious problems were presented to them. The Greater Manchester Welfare Rights Advisers Group, along with many others, gave extensive comments[1] on ways to shape the new agendas to avoid unnecessary hardship, poor decision-making, or victimisation. However, there was little formal acknowledgement of our specific concerns throughout the Government's policy developments. This led to us later issuing a detailed note[2] on how the Government had failed to offer a response on many of our comments. We recite this tale because the government effectively ignored, or perhaps decided against, many of our early warnings about impending problems in the enthusiasm of rather broad-brush new policies.

  10.  The consequences are worth revisiting, because they show that the early warning of problems could save considerable hardship and financial costs, if attended to properly. For example:

    —  When we warned that, "The Benefits Agency Medical Service (BAMS) should be made more accountable", this was largely ignored, but it has since involved extensive unfairness for claimants, and it has consumed a great deal of attention from advisers, MPs, the Select Committee, the Government and many others. Poor performance is still a harmful fact to this day, although the complaints procedure has improved.

    —  We said that "There should be much better training for Adjudication Officers in relation to physical disability and mental health difficulties, particularly in terms of fluctuating conditions". To this day, as well as some progress, the situation for DWP and contracted staff making these decisions is such that pressurised, under-informed, time-limited assessment is too often penalising many claimants unfairly.

    —  When we noted that, "Racial awareness training for Personal Advisers, co-ordinated by black mental health groups, would go some way towards countering much of the negative racial stereotyping (particularly in the context of mental health) which damages the confidence of black mental health care users in the current system", we received no reply, nor mention in formal papers or correspondence. New, extensive outreach work is now commencing for the New Deal in core cities, in acknowledgement that the New Deal has not served Black and Minority Ethnic Communities sufficiently well, but comparable initiatives still trail behind in other government departmental services for people of working age, children and pensioners.

  11.  Next, the scrutiny of the Work and Pensions Committee is robust and constructive, but reports may be almost dismissed—in our view unfairly. In particular, a great many practical cautions are ignored. New consultation processes range from poor to good. For example, the new "permitted work" rules from April 2002 were consulted on in a way which was haphazard, incomplete and desultory. A small number of external groups were initially contacted, but many others were omitted. When, under pressure, wider consultation was secured, a summary of the comments given by external groups was never released, to our knowledge, and despite out repeated requests. The fact that there were many concerns with the proposed policy might have been a factor in this. The incompleteness of the consultation process has added to the official dissemination of inadequate information and guidance concerning the changes. For example, recent DWP guidance for Social Service Departments gives the impression that earnings limits of £66 a week apply to all incapacity-based benefits, when in fact lower limits apply to income-based benefits. Whilst earnings rules for income-based benefits are mentioned in the Q&A section at the end of the guidance, no details are given and the misleading impression remains. Better consultations give proper timescales, detailed summaries and full responses. The Cabinet Office guidelines and a social security "Consultation Tsar" are steps forward. But the fast-track Regulatory Reform Act 2000 provisions, to remove business burdens quickly, we believe, will ultimately sit badly on substantive social security changes. Surely Parliament did not intend them to be used for this purpose? Overall, the independence of the SSAC always brings a formally recognised additional "policy and practice" wisdom which the current alternative mechanisms too often lack. It results in a fuller exploration of the issues and accountability for actions.

  12.  The SSAC needs an expanded remit, and perhaps a name change and partial relocation, to cover Tax Credits and better reflect the full responsibilities of the DWP and the relevant responsibilities of the Inland Revenue. This is its natural territory, please expand it.

  13.  The role of the SSAC in scrutinising DWP publicity has been helpful. However, it is not clear that it is the best use of this expert forum. Publicity requires feedback and assessment from the people who matter most—the target groups of claimants, the wider public, community groups, advisers, staff, etc. People's Panels and specialists in good, accessible, rights-based publicity need to be engaged more systematically. The DWP has been slow over the years to improve its approach to publicity. It has taken major reviews for it to arrive at a more holistic, person-centred position. Yet there remains much further to go. Many independent agencies, including local authority welfare rights services and voluntary groups, continue to find that the DWP materials give inadequate coverage of the range of issues which a person needs to consider when on the sick, having a baby, etc. Local authorities and non-statutory groups, in consequence, spend further time and expense to produce more relevant materials to promote higher take-up of lawful entitlements to benefits. There continue to be various problems in the DWP materials, including over the limited range of topics, the balance of the material and the tone taken. A small example is with the use of images in an era when attempts are underway to take equal opportunities seriously. For example, the Pensioners' Guide PG1 and Retirement guide RM1, both May 2002, each have a cover image of a smiling older white woman. In contrast other Pension Service publications, such as the Customer Charter PSCUST1, June 2002, The Pension Service Guide, PSL1, February 2002 and Tell us your comments and complaints, GL22, April 2002 show a range of faces and backgrounds. What's needed is a set of more consistent standards and wider, multi-disciplinary involvement in publicity production and vetting.

Terry Patterson

September 2002


1   "Unlocking Poverty in Greater Manchester-Towards Fairness in Benefits for Incapacity and Disability". A response to the Green Paper on Welfare Reform by Greater Manchester Welfare Rights Advisers Group, By Arvin Prashar, July 1998, available at http://www.gmwrag.org/WelfareReformReport1998.rtf Back

2   "A Response to the Government's Consultation Exercise on Social Security Reform". By the Greater Manchester Welfare Rights Advisers Group, January 1999, available at http://www.gmwrag.org/WeforeReformUpdate1999.rtf Back


 
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