Universal Credit: more reasonable in Northern Ireland
The relationship between governments and benefits claimants has become adversarial. It wasn't always this way.
Social security is viewed as a cost that should be cut. Here in the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been accused of all sorts of poor behaviour during its significant reforms since 2010: being misleading, being arrogant, being cruel.
As the old system has, over time, changed to Universal Credit, DWP has repeatedly faced allegations of setting targets for its benefits allocations - as opposed to taking each case on its merits - and designing and implementing a sanctions system for non compliance that is purely punitive.
However, the dynamics between government and citizen do not have to be like this. The temperature of debate does not need to be so high.
Northern Ireland's Department for Communities (DfC) wants local people to be assessed honestly. In fact, they have funded a guide "designed to assist frontline generalist advisers in their work in supporting benefit claimants who are at risk of being sanctioned or who have been sanctioned."
Understanding, Avoiding & Challenging Sanctions was produced by the Law Centre NI and published in April, put together "to avoid claimants being sanctioned".
This contrasts with DWP's own aggressive pursuit of sanctions. Scope spoke with Ciara Fitzpatrick, from the Law Centre, who said DfC "wants to take a different tack" compared with the rest of the UK.
"They want to make sure that they assert sanctions as a last resort, therefore they provided funding for this publication to understand, avoid and challenge sanctions and they was to make sure as few people as possible are sanctioned.
"DfC has also put in place a number of extra steps, when compared with the rest of Britain, to protect the claimant from the sanction being imposed."
These extra steps include assessors making three attempts to find out whether there has been a good reason for non compliance, and also much more readily available home visit provision to make things easier for claimants.
Universal Credit, and the extent of its sanctions, are largely the preserve of the past two Tory governments. But in truth the change in social security, and in the relationship between politicians and claimants, has been happening for decades.
Scope wrote previously about the WelCond report, published last month, which looked into welfare conditionality and, in particular, at sanctions - and concluded the current system is not just imperfect but broken.
Ms Fitzpatrick - whose PhD thesis looked at the intensification of conditionality from 1974 until now - said she agreed with the conclusions of the WelCond report.
"I think generally the Welfare Conditionality project is right. Sanctions have been proven, through research, not to be productive or useful at getting people into work. Therefore they are purely for punitive reasons - to punish, and reduce the entitlement of the most vulnerable and the poorest.
"There's evidence going as far back as 2008 they haven't been working so one has to call into question the government's reasons for continuing with such harsh sanctions regimes.
"It's ideological legislation. That has been the case since the 1980s, particularly the Welfare Reform Act of 2007 and the Welfare Reform Act 2009. They really intensified conditionality and the coalition government was able to build on that when making reforms. So, when it comes to sanctions, the Labour government really started things off.
"There are quite a few problems with Universal Credit that need to be fixed but the [Westminster] government doesn't seem to be interested in doing that so the advice sector will have to pick up the pieces and ensure that people get the best advice they can."
Design and execution
Sanctions are not the only problem with Universal Credit. One issue - among many - that Ms Fitzpatrick says is a problem is in-work conditionality, whereby people who are in work and claiming social security can have conditions placed upon their benefits.
"The concept of in-work conditionality is almost completely untested anywhere in the world.
"For example, as part of this you have to try and increase your hours to full time. So, if you are doing 16 hours a week you need to work more hours or find a different job - and you can be sanctioned if you don't do enough to increase your hours worked.
"In many ways it is a contradictory policy because the government and employers are quite supportive of zero-hours contracts but in-work conditionality seeks for individuals to work full time - it's not really workable with the zero-hour contract model. They rub against each other in the wrong way.
"I also don't know how much contact the government has had with employers, in terms of the impact on them; employees on Universal Credit will be seeking more hours, or have to get another job, possibly increasing staff turnover.”
The Law Centre's new guide for independent advisors is part of their effort to boost the third sector's capacity (the centre also offers a course for welfare advisors, to help them fully understand the benefits programme).
The importance of doing this is obvious to people working in advice.
"It really isn't easy to be a benefits claimant in the current system.
"Their time is spent trying to survive rather than being able to find training and job opportunities, so in a way it's counterproductive.
Ms Fitzpatrick said she believes that Universal Credit was conceived as a simplification of social security but concurrent cuts from the Treasury undermined its stated aim of ensuring that all claimants or potential claimants would be better off in work in all circumstances.
The new system is still being rolled out across NI and the Law Centre has not received a huge number of calls asking for help, yet, but expects this to change over the coming months.
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