The ‘Precarious Places, Precarious Lives’ event was an opportunity for me to immerse myself in research, and I was drawn by my Social Policy interest: poverty in my home region, Teesside. As a welfare rights adviser, my response to the concept of ‘precarity’ was also as a practitioner. My work ameliorates the situation of social housing tenants affected by ‘welfare reform’, particularly income, fuel and food poverty and of course, tenancy insecurity.
Immersed in the legal and practical technicalities of the welfare benefits system it is possible to overlook the broader philosophical concept of social security. The negative connotations of the term ‘welfare’ used by media and government (as highlighted by Michael Orton and Tracey Jensen), reminded me of my reaction when the new Department for Work and Pensions was announced back in 2001; that it represented a clear withdrawal of the state from the concept of ‘social security’. Although alert to the direction of policy travel, we had little idea then that foodbanks were on the horizon.
The pejorative use of the term ‘welfare’, in combination with ‘dependency’ to hint at ‘undeservingness’, is at odds with the concept of ‘wellbeing’ of fellow citizens which is at the heart of advice work and depends on sufficiency of income and housing. ‘Rights’ is the other side of the equation; legal entitlements to financial support, which are actively promoted by advisers when denied to people by the complexity of the benefits system, its embedded biases, and by the government’s misinterpretation of its own laws. Areas of ‘discretion’ and poor practice have already eroded rights; the widely-reported sickness assessments and the sanctions for minor infringements are prime examples. Yet at least these bad decisions are subject to appeal process, and can often be overturned using law and facts.
Increasingly, though, advisers’ arguments rest on more difficult concepts such as ‘good cause’ and ‘hardship’ and there is a risk of ‘deservingness’ creeping into our advocacy tactics in the face of increasing selectivity. The ‘behaviourist turn’ in policy since the 1990s has ushered in creeping conditionality and there is evidence that it is causing severe financial and material detriment together with considerable anxiety (Welfare Conditionality first wave findings 2016).
One aim of my job is ‘tenancy sustainment’ for people with financial difficulties; advice and action to bring a tenancy back from the brink, or prevent it getting to that precipice. Increasingly no particular life event or behaviour has brought the person to this point other than persistently low or frustratingly variable income. Housing benefit reforms, including the bedroom tax, have brought a particular form of insecurity. The availability of Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP), represents a partial amelioration to the sweeping generalisations of the bedroom tax, an admission that there are ‘exceptions’, people who do ‘deserve’ to have their rent paid. However, under a partial ‘localisation’ of discretion, each council is left to decide who it wants to protect and to what extent, subject to national guidance.
With a limited DHP pot, councils have no option but to ration, and that rationing is made harder by the increasing numbers now in additional hardship beyond the original means-test because of the cumulative effect of benefit cuts. Those with the bedroom tax deduction are the same people now paying minimum Council Tax and are often the same people who have been sanctioned or found ‘fit for work’. With political challenges to the bedroom tax defeated, judgement from the Supreme Court is eagerly awaited in respect of the legal challenges. The ‘human rights’ argument rests not on a ‘right’ to housing, nor on the discrimination against disabled people and domestic violence victims, which is accepted, but on whether the existence of DHP justifies that discrimination (Meers, 2015). DHP is a ‘safety net’ with huge holes in it; time-limited with no guarantee of renewal, a postcode lottery with the differing approach of councils, and it has to be claimed in the first place. If refused there is no appeal to the courts.
DHP brings ‘conditionality’ alongside discretion, and changes the nature of the relationship between the citizen and the welfare state. Where financial hardship is no longer exceptional, help is rationed to those most deserving on other criteria. The forms therefore question behaviour; are you trying to downsize? have you altered your spending? are you engaging with employment services? An adviser prefers the clear objective territory of ‘rights’ as set down in rules. With DHP, decisions are inconsistent between and within councils, the ‘priorities’ listed in their policies either too numerous or too vague. Effective advocacy means a claim for ‘deservingness’ based on a client’s work history, intentions and efforts, extent of disability, caring responsibilities, or a traumatic life event they would normally be reluctant to write on a form. Every successful claim means someone else, whose home is also at risk, is refused as less-deserving.
One tenant with a mental health problem was too ill to attend a benefit ‘medical’. She had phoned DWP, who would not agree to rearrange because she had missed a previous one due to illness, and proceeded to stop her benefit. The ‘precarity’ of this situation; that people on sickness benefits not be sick on the day their level of sickness is to be assessed, came harshly to light when her friend called three months later and found her very unwell without food or heat, with threat of eviction due to unpaid bedroom tax, and with suicidal intent. She had been effectively abandoned with no safety net. The appeal was subsequently won with a ‘good cause’ argument, and her money reinstated. DHP is now in payment but only for six months.
Another tenant in low paid part-time work had a sharp reduction in income when her son left education and she was no longer a single parent. Not only did the young person have to contribute £17 per week rent and council tax out of an apprenticeship wage of £56, but the tenant also faced the bedroom tax. Mounting debt was affecting her mental health. She did get DHP but only for ten weeks, because the council ruled she had not sent in payslips, which were in fact waiting in its own backlog. Her tenancy precarious, she secured a second part-time job, but her earnings now take her just above benefit entitlement. After paying housing costs, she is left with the same as a jobseeker, £73 per week. Such a ‘striver’ will surely qualify for the flagship Universal Credit once it is rolled out? Unfortunately not. She would have done, had the ‘work allowances’ for single people not been abolished in the very latest government reforms.
If the Welfare Reform Act 2012 represents the ideological dismantling of the welfare state, as suggested by Tracey Jensen, then the Welfare and Work Act 2016, is a further major ‘shift’ because even the idea of ‘making work pay’ seems to have disappeared. I recently heard another adviser say, resignedly, after completing a ‘budget’ for someone on £73 per week, “Well, I’ve kept you alive, but that’s all”. On paper there is enough money only for food, bills, and bus fares, but not enough for any clothing, social activity, haircut, grandchild’s birthday card or unexpected emergency. The ‘precarious’ health implications were highlighted when I intervened to support a tenant found ‘fit for work’ who was clearly not fit, and had missed several vital medical appointments because of Universal Credit job-search pressure and threat of sanctions.
To me, the term ‘reform’ is more negative than ‘welfare’, because ‘cuts’ or ‘destruction’ would be a more accurate description. Cuts and conditionality are impacting on the wellbeing of real people, Teesside residents. As financial support becomes more ‘discretionary’ and the claims of citizens more precarious, it is time to advocate for ‘welfare rights’ again.
Sarah Batty is studying MA Social Policy at York University. You can find her on Twitter here.