Welfare Reform and Work Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Manchester and Warrington Area Quaker Meeting Social Justice Group (WRW 05)

A Quaker group meeting in the Manchester area

1. Summary

1.1. Quakers nationally are concerned that the Welfare Reform and Work Bill proposes a raft of further cuts to our social security system. Quakers believe that everyone is equal in the eyes of God. This leads us to the view that as a society we have a responsibility to respect and care for the most vulnerable. Whilst the social security system alone cannot deal with the underlying causes of poverty and inequality, an effective social safety net, based on the principle of need, is a vital foundation of a just and compassionate society.

1.2. As Quakers in the north west of England, we see much poverty and a significant increase in street homelessness in recent months. We have collected evidence from people who have claimed state benefits, to find out whether they have been enough to cover their basic needs, and to learn of any problems such as late payments and sanctions.

1.3. The evidence we collected shows that the present level of benefits is not adequate to give a decent standard of living, and that any further cuts would lead to increased deprivation and suffering.

1.4. We call on Parliamentarians to ensure that there is a full debate about the human and social costs of the proposed changes during the Bill’s progress through both Houses of Parliament.

2. Background

2.1. The Social Justice Group is a group within Manchester and Warrington Area Quaker Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Friends in the Manchester area collected evidence. This was obtained by Quakers who interviewed people who receive benefits, and people who work with those who receive benefits. Reports of some of the interviews are in the Appendix.

2.2. Quakers are concerned about the incorrect perceptions that lead people to believe that unemployment benefit is a huge burden that cannot be afforded, thus creating a climate where inhumane cuts are possible. Quakers in the North West of England have produced publicity materials to try to inform the public. Lancaster Friends produced a T-shirt which shows what a tiny percentage of the welfare budget is represented by unemployment benefit. East Cheshire Friends produced a poster showing how much greater the cost of tax evasion is than the cost of benefit fraud. Manchester and Warrington Friends produced a poster reminding us that we are a rich country, and asking why we need food banks.

3. Concerns

3.1. It is very difficult to live on the present level of benefit, and reduction in benefit would lead to great hardship. Interviewees say:

"I feel I have only just enough, and any further cuts … would cause me real hardship."

"I struggle to pay water and heating bills … Any further cut in our support would be a disaster."

3.2. A large percentage have experienced extreme hardship when their benefits were cut, and have a strong sense of injustice. Interviewees say:

"The worst period of my recent life occurred when, because of a change in my husband’s circumstances, for reasons which I do not fully understand, all benefits except child benefit were cut off. I found the officials totally unsympathetic. For about a year we were homeless and placed in a hotel room. The children were then 3 and 2 years old. The room contained no cooking equipment, only a kettle. We were expected to take all our meals out. I was very worried that I could not give the children a proper diet. It was a nightmare."

"I was deeply shocked when an official suddenly wrote to say I no longer qualified for ESA. This was not based on a medical examination. I appealed and was told to attend a centre in Manchester. There I was seen by a doctor, whose exact qualifications are unknown to me. The examination lasted about two minutes. To my horror the authorities then continued to withhold ESA from me. This deprivation lasted for a year, during which I was in desperate straits, obliged to accept means from kind neighbours. The food bank was a lifesaver for me then. At the end of that period I was able to present to a judge the inconsistencies in the officials’ case, and she restored my allowance."

4. Amendments to the legislation

4.1. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill is a radical Bill which will profoundly affect the lives of the vulnerable and poor. We consider that the following clauses should be removed from the legislation:

4.2. Sections 7 and 8 regarding the benefit cap. This appears to remove the link between need and benefits. Benefits should ensure that everyone has enough to survive and not live in extreme poverty. Even under the present system, our interviews indicate that we often fail to achieve this. We consider that benefits should be based on need, and that arbitrary limits should not be set that will lead to people being unable to meet their basic needs, such as being able to pay for somewhere to live.

4.3. Sections 9 and 10 regarding the benefit and tax credit freeze. Our interviews indicate that people are suffering extreme hardship under the present regime, and a freeze of benefits is effectively a reduction, as the cost of housing and other essentials increase.

4.4. Sections 11 and 12 regarding restriction of tax credits. We consider that all children should have enough for a reasonable lifestyle, and should not be penalised and expected to live in poverty, because they have two older siblings.

4.5. Section 13 regarding employment and support allowance, which reduces the income of people who are temporarily unable to work as a result of illness or disability. Our interviews showed that people with health issues are struggling to survive and cope with the current system, and think any reductions in the help given will be harmful.

4.6. These are not the only clauses that concern us, but the Bill would have a less damaging effect if these particularly harmful parts were removed.

September 2015

APPENDIX - STATEMENTS FROM INDIVIDUALS

1 Statement from a woman interviewee

I suffer from multiple disablements including lupus and asthma, and have been prone to depression since the age of 15. I receive Disability Living Allowance of a little over £300 a month, EESA of £218 a fortnight, and a work pension of £57 a month. But after paying my mortgage, gas and electricity charges and other fixed charges I find I am struggling to obtain a bare subsistence. I have had to pay debts incurred when appliances broke down. I have had to obtain a little more income by surrendering a life assurance policy.

I normally find that I can afford to spend no more than £20 a week on food, and if I could not use a Food Bank I would suffer severe hardship. My clothes are always bought from charity shops. I can travel locally on my Disability Bus Pass, but I have no holidays, only visits to relations who pick me up from time to time.

I believe I am a positive person who wishes to be useful. I do voluntary work supporting the carers of Alzheimer’s patients.

Although officials have dealt with me fairly and politely, I feel I have only just enough, and any further cuts or adverse chances would cause me real hardship.

2 Statement from a woman interviewee

I am a widow aged 53 living with my daughter. I am a graduate and have worked for the NHS as a phlebotomist, but since 2007 my health has not permitted me to work. I suffer from spasmodic tortocolis, diverticulitis and back pains. In the financial difficulties which ensued I lost the house which I was buying and am now renting a small flat.

My present financial position is very straitened, and I appreciate very much the support I receive at a local food bank. I receive £76 a week Disability Living Allowance, £240 a fortnight ESA.

My daughter works in a café on the minimum wage, and has only a small number of hours a week, typically about 10 hours. Our rent is £500 per month. We scrape along on a bare minimum, and the support of the food bank is vital to us. I first visited it in the acute crisis which I suffered in September 2013. At that point I was deeply shocked when an official suddenly wrote to say I no longer qualified for ESA. This was not based on a medical examination. I appealed and was told to attend a centre in Manchester. There I was seen by a doctor, whose exact qualifications are unknown to me. The examination lasted about two minutes. To my horror the authorities then continued to withhold ESA from me. This deprivation lasted for a year, during which I was in desperate straits, obliged to accept means from kind neighbours. The food bank was a lifesaver for me then. At the end of that period I was able to present to a judge the inconsistencies in the officials’ case, and she restored my allowance.

I feel that the arbitrary way in which this period of hardship was inflicted on me was highly unjust. I wish parliamentarians to realise how vital such support is for the sick, and how wrong it would be to inflict more cuts.

3 Statement from a woman interviewee

I am a married woman in my early forties with two children, a boy aged five and a girl aged four.

I have had a difficult life from the beginning. I was brought up in care in a children’s home and with periods of foster care. At about the age of 17 a job was found for me as a hotel chambermaid and I was placed in a flat. This did not last and I was for a time homeless, living for about eight months in a tent in Manchester, with my partner, now my husband.

I am a long-term sufferer from rheumatism and asthma, and have been unfit to work for the last fifteen years. My husband is my full-time carer.

The worst period of my recent life occurred when, because of a change in my husband’s circumstances, for reasons which I do not fully understand, all benefits except child benefit were cut off. I found the officials totally unsympathetic.

For about a year we were homeless and placed in a hotel room. The children were then 3 and 2 years old. The room contained no cooking equipment, only a kettle. We were expected to take all our meals out. I was very worried that I could not give the children a proper diet. It was a nightmare.

We are now in a two-bedroomed council house and the rent is paid by housing benefit. I have a very tight budget, I receive £300 a fortnight sick benefit and £100 a week child benefit. I am paying off water rate arrears totalling £350 and ab out £5 a week for the TV licence. I would estimate that filling the fridge for two weeks for the four of us costs about £150. I spend practically nothing on clothes for my self and my husband; we manage on what we have got.

I am leading a very plain, basic life. My great idea is to give my children a better life than I have. By careful saving we have managed four days in a caravan in Wales as a little holiday for them.

I struggle to pay water and heating bills, never quite knowing how to pay the next bill.

Any further cut in our support would be a disaster.

4 Statement from a woman interviewee

I am a single female parent aged between 30 and 40.

I have 6 children aged 18, 16, 14, 11, 9 and 5.

My sources of income:

1) I regularly work 7-8 hours per week as a school dinner lady. I have accessed specific training in the management of children with behaviour problems, which I use in the course of this work. This career development was undertaken voluntarily and I receive no extra remuneration.

2) I receive Job Seekers’ Allowance, which amounts to £72 per week so long as I work less than 16 hours per week.

3) I do extra paid work from time to time, providing cover as a cleaner in the school where I work as a dinner lady. This is also the primary school attended by my youngest children.

4) I receive Child Tax Credit whilst my children are in full-time education.

5) I receive a contribution to my rent.

Unpaid work:

1) I am a governor at the primary school where I work, and which my youngest children attend.

This not only involves attending meetings, but also taking on responsibility, eg for organising the provision of in-house school catering, which will be of financial benefit to the school. At times it involves working for a whole day, as when I sat in on interviews for new staff, and when I acted as a SATS Officer ensuring that the teachers were not helping the children or tampering with the results.

2) I also work as a volunteer for "Stay and Play" at a Barnado’s Centre (formerly Sure Start)

Financial stresses:

Because the amount of benefits I receive varies wildly from week to week, I am unable to budget and plan ahead, and this causes a great sense of insecurity.

Some weeks I have to choose between buying food for the family and spending the money on other essentials – eg by September I’ll need to buy uniform for my 11-year-old who is due to start high school. At those times I’m dependent on the food bank.

1) I have to spend more on food during the school holidays, as my children lose the benefit of free school meals.

2) I recently earned £100 by doing 19 hours’ cleaning over a 3-month period. At no time did I work 16 hours or more in one week. However, it was paid all at once at the end of the third month, and I spent it on things I needed. When I collected my next Job Seeker’s Allowance, I was stunned to find that it was only £12 for 2 weeks, when I had been expecting £144. I realised that because the £100 had been paid all at once, I was deemed to have exceeded the 16 hour/week limit and my Job Seekers’ Allowance had been reduced as if I had earned it all in one week. I received only £64 for the following 2 weeks. I have had no explanation of how these figures were calculated.

3) My 18-year-old daughter has just left further education, and the tax credit for her should have continued until the beginning of September. However, in order for this to happen, I was told I had to produce a letter from the college detailing the start and end dates of her time there, together with her exam results. I have been unable to do this as yet because the college is closed and the exam results are not yet out. In the meantime, the tax credit amounting to nearly £50 per week has been stopped.

4) My 16-year-old son has just left school and is hoping to start further education in September. I am still receiving tax credit for him, but am being threatened with that being stopped unless I confirm that he will be going into further education – something I’m unable to do until his exam results are available.

5) Before the introduction of the £500 benefit cap, the whole of my rent was paid, but now I pay some of it myself. The amount varies depending on how much benefit I have received in the previous 2 weeks.

6) I pay my Council Tax by means of a bar-code on a letter from the council. For the first time ever, I was recently prevented from paying the £9 I owed because the letter was old and well-used, and the bar-code didn’t function. I was told that I would be taken to court for non-payment; after phoning and explaining the situation, it was decided not to take me to court, but I have to pay a total of £85 in court fees, thus increasing my Council Tax payment.

Health and wellbeing:

I was recently diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but despite this I only had one week off work sick, and I intend to continue with my work and personal development.

My voluntary work as a school governor has been a great opportunity for personal development, but in my interviews at the Job Centre it is often regarded as of no significance because it is unpaid. It’s hard work maintaining my self-esteem in when the contribution I’m making to society is not recognised.

The past 5 years:

My situation has definitely got worse in the past 5 years due to the benefit cap; this means I have to pay a variable amount of my rent which often doesn’t leave enough to buy food and other essentials.

Other comments:

I’m concerned about the situation of mothers on benefits who have to go from Income Support to Job Seeker’s Allowance when their youngest child hits 5.

I’m also concerned that the 15-hours’ free childcare for children over three is increasingly being provided by young and inexperienced staff , presumably because they can be paid less than more well-qualified

Prepared 11th September 2015