Social Security Has Never Been So Insecure

by Izzy Köksal

As Universal Credit is rolled out, life for those on low income is about to get even less secure. But there are grounds for hope

First published: 02 October, 2013 | Category: Activism, Employment & Welfare, Housing

Universal Credit, the government's massive overhaul of the benefits system, was supposed to be fully rolled out across the country by this October. But the project, which includes a whole new IT system, has encountered serious problems that have limited its roll out to six locations in the UK. The IT system has already had £34 million written off, a figure which could grow to £200 million. Civil servants have described the project as 'soul destroying'. The DWP, desperate for something to boost spirits in the face of such chaos, has stooped to celebrating the one year anniversary of even tougher sanctions. Yet even if the project is never fully realised, aspects of Universal Credit are already being pushed through, the effect of which is to make receiving subsistence benefits even more difficult and uncertain for claimants.

One does not need to subscribe to a myth of a welfare 'golden age' to appreciate the significance of the changes underway. Where once basic needs for food and shelter were (just about) met, the state has now absolved itself from guaranteeing either of these. Beyond the realm of the welfare state, other actors, such as food banks and other charities, replicate its conditionality and artificial scarcity.

This October two key features of Universal Credit will be implemented: the 'claimants commitment', setting out (yet more) conditions for receiving benefits that, for many, will mean a 35 hour job search; and 10 in-work conditionality pilots, the extension of the conditionality regime to low paid part-time workers (the conditionality regime means that benefits can be stopped if it is deemed that a claimant has failed to meet the conditions set by Job Centre Plus). The latter is a significant change as it will mean that those in paid work who had previously escaped the DWP's conditionality regime will now be subjected to it. The DWP ominously states its desire to accompany people on their 'work journey'; even more ominously, it has set out a vision of increasingly flexibilised, irregular work thanks to Universal Credit. The extension of sanctions to those in work will mean that welfare becomes increasingly uncertain and insecure for one million more people.

Zero income – Sanctions and the post-welfare state

Benefit sanctions, whose length was dramatically increased last October, cut off people's sole income for supposedly failing to comply with demands set by the Job Centre or one of the 'welfare to work' companies (a list of particularly silly sanctions has been collected here). Before this increase in length, the DWP's own reports showed that sanctions were leaving people without food and heating. Grassroots campaign group Boycott Workfare is currently compiling sanction stories into a zine series and tumblr in order to highlight their effects.

The number of sanctions issued has increased significantly since 2010, with a record one million sanctions likely to have been issued this year. Sick and disabled people claiming Employment Support Allowance who have been declared unfit to work by ATOS can be sanctioned for failing to do workfare. The sanctions culture has taken hold, with Work Programme providers in particular putting a great deal of their time into making sanction referrals. Some of the attitudes of those with the power to sanction were revealed publicly when an employee used Twitter to brag about sanctioning claimants. Those wielding so much power over claimants' lives are subject to sanction targets and offered financial and other rewards for sanctioning. Despite such outrageous and harmful bribing, the union for job centre staff, the Public and Commercial Services union, has taken no action on what is both a workplace issue and one which goes beyond to the people and families who are sanctioned, and the decimation of the welfare state.

We are rapidly moving towards a sort of post-welfare state, which provides no financial support for those unable to meet the ever-increasing obstacles of Job Centre Plus. The government's drive to end welfare payments to claimants was made clear when it refused to repay £130 million to claimants that the High Court had ruled had been illegally sanctioned. Instead it retrospectively changed the law to avoid paying back what Mark Hoban sickeningly described as 'an undeserved windfall'—fortunately, claimants and welfare campaigners were able to confront Mark Hoban about this. The government is also taking steps to deny justice to claimants wanting to appeal their sanctions by slowing down the already nearly stationary process. The government's 'hit squads' target those who have survived the Work Programme, and have had claimants called into the Job Centre on a daily basis and subjected to nasty interviews. Claimants offered this 'support' have been told by advisors, 'why don't you just sign off?', encouraging a self-sanctioning.

As Universal Credit is rolled out, the number of sanctions is set to increase further as claimants are forced to deal with a 35 hour job search as well as the full time job of surviving on subsistence benefits. It is estimated that one million new people will be subject to conditionality. With the extension of conditionality to those in part-time work, housing benefit and even child tax credit may be sanctioned by the job centre, directly sanctioning children and increasing the likelihood of homelessness.

Food banks

The increase in sanctions has contributed to soaring demand for food from the food banks that have proliferated across the UK. Whilst distributing food to hungry people is a laudable activity, food banks do nothing to address poverty and are to that extent part of the problem. Canada saw the emergence of food banks as an emergency response to the recession of the 1980s; now they have become institutionalised, a part of Canadian society. Food poverty and malnutrition is a growing problem there, and the government has used the existence of food banks to drive through its welfare reforms. Canada's experience is a warning for the UK. Yet to date, there has been no meaningful discussion here about the rise and role of food banks. Instead we've had well meaning but incredibly uncomfortable actions in which UK Uncut turned HSBCs into food banks.

Food banks, far from meeting the needs of people when the welfare state has failed to do so, in fact replicate the conditionality of the welfare state. Moreover they simply do not have the resources to meet the demand on them. They are part of our materialising post-welfare dystopia in which basic needs are not met and people live with an intense and pervasive insecurity. The Trussel Trust, which runs a network of food banks, recently revealed that the DWP has been blocking referrals to food banks from job centres. Even before this was known, people's access to food banks was heavily restricted. One woman described to me how she had visited a food bank when she had no money or food; 'they told me I had to go to my doctor for a voucher. As if it wasn't bad enough having to go to a food bank, they make you grovel for it'. The Trussell Trust food banks limit people to 3 vouchers a year. Some food banks refuse to give food to those they consider to have 'chaotic' lifestyles or who have had their benefits sanctioned.

Once people have jumped through the hoops to be considered deserving enough to access the food bank, it is not guaranteed that they will receive the three days' worth of food that the voucher provides for. Food banks are struggling to meet demand and have been forced to turn people away and close early. Those who are given food may find a tub of Fortnum and Mason organic goose fat sitting in their bag, 'a reminder, as if we needed it, that this is class war'.

Other front line services attempting to bolster the welfare state and prevent people falling into destitution are creaking under enormous pressure. Community law centres and the Citizens Advice Bureau will often only provide help to those facing imminent eviction. And this is while they are still open. One woman wanting to appeal a benefit sanction and other issues with Job Centre Plus explained how she could not find help anywhere. She had tried the law centre and CAB but they told her they could not help. She eventually found Boycott Workfare's website through a google search and used the information on there to help her with her case. Sitting in on an Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty support and solidarity session, I heard these words echoed many times: 'there is no help anywhere [else]'.

Housing cuts and caps

For many people wondering how much money they will have to get by on that week, another deep uncertainty is whether or not they will have somewhere to live. Hannah Schling, writing in Open Democracy, described the intense housing insecurity experienced by many in London. One woman I spoke to in Crawley about the impact of the bedroom tax told me that she no longer felt safe in her home; her friend described how she imagines herself homeless on the street. The already severe UK housing crisis is being exacerbated by the recent raft of housing benefit cuts and the benefit cap.

The most well-known of these is the bedroom tax, which has received some decent media coverage. However, a number of other cuts have not been picked up by the press and will also see more and more people under the threat of losing their homes. In January 2012, those aged between 25 and 35 ceased to qualify for the cost of a self-contained flat in the private rented sector, from then on receiving only receive housing benefit for the cost of a single room in a shared property. Homeless charities in inner London have reported an increase in young homeless people as a result of this cut. Another cut is the benefit cap which limits the total benefits that a family can claim to £500 a week regardless of family size and private sector rents, and £350 a week for a single person. It was trialled in four London boroughs in April and has since been rolled out across the UK. The cap will mean that many families will face a significant shortfall in rent and will be forced to move out of their home borough, and even out of London completely.

Haringey was one of the trial boroughs; here local community action groups Haringey Solidarity Group and Haringey Housing Action Group have been campaigning against the cap and supporting people affected by it. They have made an information sheet about the cap and are hoping that the campaign can be taken up nationwide. This sort of work is really important. In a misleadingly worded poll, which should be treated with caution, 86% of Unite members claimed to support the benefit cap. That the union has failed to engage in dialogue with its members about this cap and other welfare cuts leading to this result is shameful. It also begs the question, why would any claimant want to join Unite Community (the union's initiative to extend union membership to those not in paid work) when so many others in the union hold such views?

Another significant change contributing to this internal forced migration was quietly slipped through as part of the Localism Act, permitting councils to discharge their housing duties by offering private rented accommodation. This means homeless people in London boroughs with high rents could find themselves provided with housing outside of their communities and London itself. Previously, a person who the council has a duty to house could have refused an offer of private rented accommodation and waited for secure and stable social housing, but this is no longer the case. Whilst the housing office should ensure that the private accommodation is suitable for the person or family, taking into account children's education and an adult's caring responsibilities, in practice this often does not happen.

People are being forced from their homes and scattered across the country as a result of this new raft of housing benefit cuts and the benefit cap. At a public welfare cuts meeting in Lambeth town hall, one woman stood up and told the room that the council were sending her to Lincoln. 'I'd never even heard of Lincoln before!' As well as the basic right to food going unmet, the right to shelter is also increasingly meaningless. Recent calls by Lambeth politicians for the complete criminalisation of squatting, in the context of an acute housing crisis that is particularly extreme in their own borough, take away the last hope people have of finding shelter.

Claimant organising

Faced with benefit sanctions, 35 hour job searches, and evictions, a growing number of new support groups are being established across the UK, complementing the campaigning work of Boycott Workfare and Disabled People Against Cuts. These new groups, alongside those already established, often follow the principles outlined by London Coalition Against Poverty, organising with mutual aid, direct action and a commitment to horizontalism. Claimants meet to discuss the problems they are facing and decide collectively what action to take, ranging from filling out forms together to occupying the local housing office to demand emergency housing. A national gathering of these local groups is being organised by Boycott Workfare so these groups can interact with and learn from each other, and to support people in starting up groups in their area. These groups are cause for hope. International links are even being made. Boycott Workfare visited Austria for a Europe-wide claimants conference back in April of this year, where they were informed by the people there that the UK's welfare system is seen as the 'bogey man' of Europe.

However, there are risks that this grassroots energy and action could be undermined. Unite the union's 'community membership' for those who are unwaged is an attempt to boost union numbers and funds—charging unwaged people 50p a week to join. Membership provides access to a legal advice hotline and access to local groups which are being set up. However, the resources for and commitment to those with community membership is questionable, with a Unite community organiser asking Boycott Workfare to help with their casework. As described above, Unite hasn't bothered to discuss the implications of the government's welfare reforms with its members; in fact, it offered support for Ed Miliband's speech about his own workfare programme and his call for a cap of the total benefit budget. Claiming to support and organise with claimants, then, looks a little unconvincing. On hearing about Unity Community, an activist friend recounted to me how the Justice for Cleaners campaign was sabotaged and sold out by Unite (on which, more here). To him, Unite Community looks like a repeat of this. Whilst navigating the DWP's benefits maze, claimants could soon find that they are being sent down dead ends by their own union.

Universal Credit, however it manifests itself, is the latest in a series of welfare policies covering decades that denies low income people their basic needs. Food, housing and other prerequisites for a meaningful existence are no longer guaranteed by the welfare state, or by the organisations attempting to compensate for its decline. Meanwhile, attempts to provide for ourselves are clamped down on and criminalised. For millions of people, social security has never been so insecure.

Izzy Köksal is involved in welfare and housing campaigns, and loves reading and bikes.

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