It is with a heavy heart that I write this piece. I realise now that I have been asked not just to mark Citizens Advice 80th anniversary, but also to write for the last edition of ‘Adviser’ magazine. A magazine that holds great significance for me. Not simply because I was Editor for many years, but because it signifies the essence of working in the social welfare field. A desire to share information, to learn from each other, to empower, to promote good practice and, ultimately, to be a force for change.
I started my own career in advice in 1988 as a volunteer with Newcastle Upon Tyne CAB. I had completed a degree in Politics and Sociology at Sunderland Polytechnic that summer and decided that, alongside learning to play the guitar, I should do something else worthwhile while I had time on my hands. The late 1980s were not a great time for social science graduates. Not much has changed in that respect!
From an early age, I wanted to do something that ‘made a difference’ but I was never sure what that was. I actually can’t remember what made me walk through the doors of the CAB and have that interview with my original mentor, Graham Dickson, but I am so glad I did. I realised quickly that this was the work I wanted to do.
Some readers may recall that April 1988 saw the introduction of Income Support as a replacement for the previous system of Supplementary Benefit. The government argued that Income Support was a simpler system that would do away with the complexities of additional allowances for special diets, clothing, heating and such like. It would be easier to administer and would be readily computerisable. (Sound familiar?)
Alongside this major change was the introduction of the Social Fund; a largely discretionary system of grants and loans to help people with additional costs but with little recourse to formal appeal if a claim was unsuccessful. Thirty years on, we now have voluntary food banks, places of worship, community centres and other charities as the ultimate arbiters of discretion.
In January 1990, I secured paid work with the Southwick Neighbourhood Action Project in Sunderland (later, part of the city council Welfare Rights Service). These were the days of community projects, managed by local people, genuinely engaging with local residents, working with them and for them. Once the 22 year-old-me had established some credibility as an adviser, I was thrown headlong into preparing cases and representing people at tribunals. And I loved it. We ran drop-in sessions that were bursting at the seams. We gave out appointments for which people queued up the street. We ran take-up campaigns for ex-miners and shipyard workers in the local clubs and pubs. We wrote articles. We battled.
Sunderland had, at that time, a network of community advice centres who all worked together on take-up initiatives and other activity. We worked closely with several other organisations, including the Unemployed Workers Centre, Trade Unions and local community groups, to help ensure as far as possible that the people of Sunderland were able to recognise and assert their rights and entitlements.
Since that time, I have managed a neighbourhood advice centre, been head of the (then) Specialist Support Benefits team at Citizens Advice, including my time as editor of this magazine, and am currently Director of Service of a charity providing outreach advice based in communities across Coventry.
A golden age
Looking back, it is tempting to see the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s as a ‘golden age’ of welfare rights advice. We had a network of committed individuals, the full backing of the local authority, support from across the community and, importantly, we had Civil Legal Aid available through local solicitors who had an interest in social justice. Those familiar with the changes to legal aid may remember the period of CLACs and CLANs; attempts to jointly commission advice services based on targets and opening access to private sector companies.
With further widescale changes to legal aid in April 2013, access to justice has been significantly eroded and the expectation (remember the Big Society? ) has been that voluntary organisations will pick up the pieces. At the same time, those voluntary sector organisations have been battling against their own cuts and those to local government funding. The National Audit Office say local governments in England have seen a 49% real-terms reduction in Government funding from 2010–11 to 2017–18 and is projected to have reduced by 56.3% by the end of the current financial year. It is also evident that the poorest areas have been hit the hardest.
For a significant part of my career, I have also been Chair of the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers (NAWRA) , the membership body for organisations and individuals providing advice across the UK. NAWRA grew from the welfare rights campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s and now regularly tackles the big policy issues, giving evidence to parliamentary committees and campaigning for change.
I can honestly say that it has been a privilege to work for all these organisations. I have made lifelong friends and have a very real sense of the enormous value of high-quality advice, particularly in these times of austerity.
Austerity is perhaps a good place to start some wider reflections. Although times have always been hard for many in society, and nostalgia can sometimes give us a rosier view of the past, I would say without much hesitation that the situation we find ourselves in as a result of government welfare reform programmes is the worst that I have experienced during my 30 years in advice.
Take the value of working age benefits, for example. In 2011, the government announced a reduction in the amount by which benefits would be uprated, to just 1% per year, implemented just a few months after the increase in the standard rate of VAT from 15% to 20% and at the same time as a freeze in Child Benefit. These changes immediately made it more difficult for the poorest households to meet the rising cost of essentials. Then, in 2013 the Benefit Cap was introduced, placing a limit on the total amount of working age benefits that a family could receive. In 2016 came the complete freeze on benefit uprating, meaning that the value of benefits was further eroded in real terms. That freeze has been in place ever since and is only due to end in 2020.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that the four-year benefit freeze will have increased the number of people in poverty by 400,000 and affected 27 million people, including 11 million children. The evidence of increasing poverty is there for all to see. Nearly 4 million adults are using foodbanks, with numbers increasing year on year.
In 2013, Esther McVey (then Deputy Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) felt it was “positive” that people were turning to food banks as this was evidence of communities supporting each other. She also compared benefit sanctions to a teacher giving out lines or detention at school. Speaking before the Work and Pensions Committee she said: “They are teaching you; they are educating you but at the same time they will also have the ability to sanction you.” Jacob Rees Mogg, MP for North East Somerset, said that having foodbanks was “rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are. Inevitably, the state can’t do everything, so I think that there is good within food banks.”
Conditionality and sanctions
The UK has one of the least generous, with one of the harshest conditionality based, social security systems in the world . Not that you would think that if you followed the prevailing narrative over the last decade or so. Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation back in 2009, for example, found that most people believe high incomes are fair and based on effort, while people on low incomes largely deserve to be poor. The Benefits Stigma In Britain’ report, commissioned by the charity Turn2Us in 2012, noted the increasing references in the media to ‘benefit scroungers’ and the huge range of articles in the popular press to benefit fraud, even though levels of fraud remained extremely low. At the same time, disability charities were reporting increasing abuse against disabled people.
Despite all the publicity around social security, there is still evidence of significant underclaiming. Official statistics. show that over £10 billion of income-related benefits went unclaimed in 2016/17. Of this, £3.5 billion in Pension Credit is unclaimed, yet the government push ahead with changes to the rules which will see, potentially, mixed-age couples losing a further £7000 a year.
The implementation of Universal Credit has seen a further shift in thinking about the role of social security. Tax Credits furthered the concept of ‘progressive universalism’ where working people were increasingly brought into the benefits system through wages ‘top-ups’ in an attempt to address income inequality. Ultimately, Tax Credits were supplementing low wages and passing the burden of paying decent wages away from employers and towards government. Universal Credit works in the same way, except it now includes the potential for people who are working to be sanctioned for not working enough hours.
Conditions placed on receipt of benefits were increased from the late 1980s and, with the introduction of Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) in the mid-1990s, we saw increased monitoring of the steps unemployed people were taking to look for work. The need to demonstrate that you were ‘actively seeking work’ meant that claimants had to clearly document and demonstrate the steps they were taking and could have benefits ‘sanctioned’ if the evidence was not deemed satisfactory.
Conditionality and sanctions have been hugely ramped up in recent years, despite a wealth of evidence that the latter has little or no effect in ‘helping’ to move people into work or to work increased hours. The National Audit Office called sanctions into question in 2016 . The large-scale Welfare Conditionality research project , a five-year study involving academics from six UK universities, found no evidence that sanctions ‘worked’ but did find evidence that sanctions were causing people to disengage from the benefits system, pushing them further into poverty and in some cases, towards crime. Even an internal DWP report. found sanctions were ineffective. Yet the government continues to pursue this policy based on ideology rather than evidence.
There has always been a degree of conditionality within the welfare state but this has now become central. The past 30 years have seen a series of programmes, including the ‘New Deal’ and the ‘Work Programme’, which focus on work as the route out of poverty. However, we must remember that we are now living in the ‘gig economy’, characterised by low paid, short-term, insecure jobs, and that the number of working families in poverty is rising. The latest available statistics show that 72% of children in poverty have a parent who is working. This is a trend that has been increasing since the mid 2000s, despite the rising national living wage and headline employment figures.
As I said earlier, the introduction of Income Support was originally trumpeted as a major overhaul of social security system. When Universal Credit was introduced it was hailed as the biggest change to social security since the Beveridge report. The problem with this statement was that Beveridge wanted to see a cradle to grave social security system that protected people from income shocks and provided a safety net against poverty. The new system had positive intentions. Universal Credit, on the other hand, seen within the overall package of punitive welfare reforms, has been an unmitigated disaster.
I could probably write a separate article on Universal Credit, highlighting all of the problems, the evidence, the misery it has caused countless individuals and families. Instead I will focus on how Universal Credit is a clear example of how much the system has changed over the past 30 years.
It is easy to forget that Universal Credit is but one part of the overall package of reforms. One of the most popular resources on the NAWRA website is the Welfare Reform Benefit Changes Chart . This covers all the changes to the social security system since 2011 and currently runs to 24 pages.
Universal Credit saw a ‘test and learn’ approach to social security being developed by government. Rather than roll-out the whole system without proper IT in place, as we saw with Tax Credits, the benefit would be launched in stages so that issues could be picked up, reviewed and refined as necessary. At least, that was the theory.
Unfortunately, or more likely by design, ‘test and learn’ did not include ‘listening’. As a result, the appalling and widespread stories of claimants being left without money, of increasing rent arrears and rising use of foodbanks were largely ignored. Feedback from advice agencies, charities, thinktanks, local politicians and others has been dismissed as ‘scaremongering’. In February 2018, for example, Neil Couling, as Director General of the Universal Credit Programme, wrote to NAWRA suggesting that adverse publicity about Universal Credit was driving people away from claiming the benefit and that organisations like NAWRA should “reflect on how the debate on Universal Credit is conducted as I am increasingly concerned for the welfare of the public.”
But this is a system that was designed with hardship inbuilt. It intended to cut a significant amount of money, roughly £2.7 billion per year , from the social security budget. While the government focuses on the number of people who will be better off, the Institute for Fiscal Studies have confirmed that 1.9 million people will be worse off under Universal Credit by at least £1000 each year with some disabled people losing over £2200 each year.
Universal Credit was designed this way. It was intended to leave people without money for the initial weeks of their claim. It was intended to pay less to disabled claimants. It was intended to ‘ramp up’ conditionality, resulting in further hardship for the most vulnerable. It was the flagship policy of a programme of reforms aimed at enforcing a hostile environment towards benefit claimants.
Even the Work and Pensions Committee have recently called the governments continued refusal to consider evidence “disrespectful” and, back in 2017, accused the DWP of “deliberately concealing” information and statistics about the early impact of Universal Credit. In fact, Rt Hon Frank Field MP, who is chair of the Committee, went further than this. It is worth quoting more of his response because it serves as a reminder of how much has changed in the last 30 years.
He said “We on the Committee are frankly sick of these disrespectful Government responses that treat us like dirt and fail to engage with our robust, evidence-based conclusions. It’s not clear they’ve even read this one. Worse, in responding this way, Government dismisses the experience and evidence of the individuals and organisations that have taken the time, and made the effort, and are working with us to try to fix the unholy mess that is Universal Credit.”
The attitude of some DWP officials was recently exposed with the story of the claimant called “a lying bitch” within a set of papers submitted to a tribunal hearing . While this offensive term was surely never meant to be included in the final edit, it does highlight the culture of disrespect that Frank Field refers to.
Poverty is a political choice
Poverty in the UK is a political choice. Don’t take my word for it. This was the conclusion of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston, who visited the UK last year. Prof Alston pointed out that the UK is the world’s fifth largest economy (at the time of writing) and contains areas of enormous wealth. Yet a fifth of the population, 14 million people, live in poverty and 1.5 million of those are destitute. According to the National Audit Office, homelessness in England has increased by 60% since 2010 and the number of people sleeping rough is up by 134% . Prof Alston remarked that by “emphasizing work as a panacea for poverty against all evidence and dismantling the community support, benefits, and public services on which so many rely, the government has created a highly combustible situation that will have dire consequences.”
Social security is supposed to be a support mechanism, not a stick to beat the most vulnerable with or as a punishment for unemployment during a time of austerity. In the ‘old days’, there was a separation between the administration of benefit payments and helping people to find work. Now Jobcentre Plus (surely a misnomer) is not somewhere that you go to find a job. Rather more often now, it is somewhere you go to plead for lower than subsistence level benefits.
The role of advisers has also materially changed. Increasingly they are helping people to challenge negative decisions or exclusion from the system, rather than identifying basic entitlement. Securing basic entitlement is often the most that can be achieved. We are moving from helping people to identify what they are entitled to, toward explaining why they are not entitled to something.
Rising to the challenge
So, what does the future hold? More austerity, certainly in the short term. It has taken years for this narrative to be developed and for it be largely accepted by the mainstream political parties and traditional media. Turning around a tanker takes a lot of time and energy. But the debate can be moved on and advisers are a key part of that fight.
The rise in foodbanks, their semi-official role within the welfare state and their increasing use by people who are in work, is an embarrassment in the 21st century. Children turning up hungry at school and families being forced to choose between heating and eating is a national disgrace. Evidence of increasing suicide rates among sick and disabled benefit claimants. is truly shocking. Something has to give. This is not the society that I want to live in, and I am sure that this is not where you want to be either.
The role of welfare rights advisers, housing advisers, debt advisers, employment advisers and others working in communities across the UK, has perhaps never been more important as access to justice is eroded and recourse to the law is so difficult to achieve. We must continue to change the debate, away from ‘welfare’ and back towards ‘social security’. We must continue to rise to the challenges being faced throughout our communities.
Over my 30 years in welfare rights, let alone the 80 years that Citizens Advice has existed, there have been significant changes. Society itself has changed. We have seen major technological advances. Even 20 years ago, few people had mobile phones. Information is now more accessible. As an adviser, you no longer need to go to a library and pour through books to research caselaw. Most legal decisions are available in seconds online.
But as information has become more accessible, so has the fear that information may not be completely accurate or definitive. ‘Fake news’ is widespread and while Google is the first choice of most people looking for advice, we know that links may be inaccurate, completely fake or seeking to impose a fee for information and services that should be free.
That is why Adviser has such a strong reputation within the sector. It is written by experts, backed by the authentic voice of a respected national charity. In these days of social media, polarised opinions and misinformation we need that authentic voice to be strong.
When I became editor of Adviser, in time for the magazines 20th anniversary in 2006, it was genuinely one of the most exciting moments of my career. I knew the value of the magazine, and the respect it commanded, and I was thrilled to be a part of it. As Mike Stock said in that anniversary issue, reflecting on the magazines launch, “…The Adviser is the voluntary sector at its enthusiastic best – people inspired with an idea and getting on with it together.”
At the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers (NAWRA) conference in Salford earlier this year, the Mayor of Salford referred to advisers as “national heroes who are doing all they can to protect people from the worst effects of poverty”. Advisers, whatever category of law you work or specialise in, are at the forefront of the fight to achieve fair treatment and a measure of equality for vulnerable individuals and families in this country. You may all be so busy with your day jobs to realise this, but you are. And you should be very proud of this.
(This article appeared in Adviser magazine, issue 189, in July 2019.)