By Ellie Roberts
Last week George Osborne announced another round of cuts to the welfare state in the Spending Review including a commitment to annually cap welfare spending, a promise to make new job-seekers wait seven days before receiving Universal Credit, and increased obligations on these job-seekers to be more ‘job-ready’. These come on top of drastic changes to the structure of the welfare system introduced over the last 3 years, and the introduction of the Work Programme which is still underperforming for some groups.
We think it is important to try and track the combined impact of all these reforms on people who experience them firsthand, so are conducting research over three years on the impact of welfare reform on Newham residents.
We have just published the first interim report – “I don’t understand it at all” – based on focus groups with 30 residents receiving benefits from late 2012, before many of the reforms were introduced. Key findings include:
- People knew very little about upcoming reforms: levels of awareness and understanding were extremely low and misunderstanding was common
- Previous negative experience of changes to the benefits system led people to view any reform with extreme suspicion
- People were sceptical that major reforms could be introduced without the administrative delays and failings that have accompanied previous reforms, for example tax credits or the introduction of Employment and Support Allowance
- People were suspicious of the motives behind reforms and suspected the impacts would be mostly detrimental to themselves, friends and neighbours.
To bring this up to date and as part of the ongoing research this month we conducted focus groups with employment advisors and legal advice staff to gauge their impressions of the impacts of changes introduced so far.
Amongst other feedback, staff felt that the new sanction regime was having particularly damaging effects on the people they support, with sanctions being disproportionately issued to people who do not have the necessary skills or competences to meet the requirements of the regime (for example, people who lack IT skills). Advisors got the impression that they were only just starting to see people impacted by the reforms but expected things to get worse, especially as arrears and other debts build up. There were already reports of people turning to friends and family or payday lenders to borrow money, cutting back on food or self-disconnecting from pre-pay meters to cover shortfalls in income.
All of this is in the context of more reform and funding cuts to advice services and support organisations which means charities like Community Links are able to support fewer people. Our research has shown us that people just don’t understand what is happening; let alone how to mitigate the impacts. With this in mind, it is vital that DWP make efforts to better communicate the changes to those who will be affected and ensure proper support is available particularly in the transitions.
Community Links’ programme of research will continue with 16 in-depth case-study interviews with individuals affected by the reforms in early Autumn this year. Please do contact us to find out more.