Dignity must be restored to welfare rights system

MUCH of our modern welfare state was inspired by William Beveridge’s 1942 report on social insurance and allied services. He identified five “giant evils” for the government to fight after the second world war: “want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness”.

Seventy-five years ago, Labour swept to power and Clement Attlee’s government delivered a new National Health Service and social security system built on national insurance contributions. The vision was to protect all people across the UK from the “cradle to the grave”. What would Attlee and Beveridge think about today’s welfare rights system?

A system where people have committed suicide because the process of claiming social security made them feel so worthless, desperate and depressed. The constant threat of sanctions and benefits being docked. Having to choose between eating or heating. Intense feelings of stigma and shame from reliance on food banks just to get by. A system that dehumanises each human being.

Earlier this year, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its findings on the information held by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) on deaths by suicide of benefit claimants. In the last five years the DWP had investigated 69 suicides of people who were in receipt of social security.

The NAO found that “It is highly unlikely that the 69 cases the Department has investigated represents the number of cases it could have investigated in the past six years”.

The DWP investigated more cases in 2019/20 than the four proceeding years. No robust records of cases existed before 2014/15 and its own guidance was unclear about when a claimant’s death should be investigated.

The fact that the DWP had failed to prioritise whether its own rules were contributing to mental illness and death was deeply concerning. This led the DWP setting up a new Serious Case Panel for vulnerable people. Yet, until last week the activities of that panel were shrouded in secrecy.

In early July, the chair of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, Stephen Timms MP said: “It is appropriate, and welcome, that the Secretary of State is now making this work a priority even in the midst of a pandemic. Her willingness to appear before the Committee is a significant step forward”.
“But the Department seems still to be too wedded to secrecy, reluctant even to publish the terms of reference—let alone the recommendations—of a panel set up to look into its most serious failures. Without transparency, there can be little hope of the wider public—and, most importantly, the people DWP serves—having confidence that it has really learned the lessons of the past”.

Last week the Commons Select Committee published the terms of reference and minutes of the Serious Case Panel. These documents span six sheets of A4 paper in total and make for brief reading over a four-month timeframe.

How does the commitment to prevent suicide by people in receipt of welfare benefits square with the DWP’s decision to restart benefit sanctions this month? Sanctions were halted at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic is still with us, so why are sanctions back?

Claimants have to meet “conditionality rules” in order to avoid losing some or all of their out-of-work benefits through sanctions. This can include pledging to carry out a certain number of hours looking for and applying for jobs, networking, updating a CV, or attending training.

Last week Select Committee member Chris Stephens, the SNP MP for Glasgow South West, said: “One of the things the department is looking at and piloting is the yellow card system where there will be an initial warning prior to a sanction. Is that something, Secretary of State, that the department is developing in terms of policy and is that something that could be scaled up?”

In response, the Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey said she had “briefly” discussed the policy with the Minister for Welfare Delivery. No assurance was forthcoming. A pilot of the yellow card system in 2016 resulted in a reduction of around 50% of sanctions. Why is the DWP not joining up its thinking between preventing needless suicides and avoiding one of the drivers that can push people over the edge?

We got rid of the notion of the deserving and undeserving poor 75 years ago. As far back as the 15th century such discriminatory practices were rife across Scotland and England as the deserving poor got to go into poorhouses; while the undeserving poor were treated as criminals and often faced the death penalty. Where is the dignity, compassion and human empathy in our system of welfare rights today?

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