First Conservative Budget in 19 years declares war on poorest and the young

The most eye-catching announcement in today’s Budget perhaps was the one about the “National Living Wage”, set to be introduced for over 25s next April at £7.20 per hour. This falls below the actual living wage of course, said to be £7.85 an hour outside London, but Osborne announced his intention to raise it to £9ph by 2020, which assuming the OBR’s inflation forecasts are right would actually see wages rise (outside London) to above the living wage by 2020. Iain Duncan Smith in particular seemed delighted:

With this announcement Osborne also managed to make Labour leadership hopeful Liz Kendall look a bit daft after she announced last week that she would look for ways to get businesses to voluntarily pay the living wage.

What Osborne didn’t say of course, was that the lowest paid won’t actually be any better off (for the most part) as they will lose their entitlement to tax credits at a similar rate to the increase in the minimum wage. Even so, it seems to me better to have employers pay more and have the government pay out less in tax credits.

At the same time though, these changes don’t apply to those under 25 who still have to make do with a minimum wage at a much lower level.

It was Osborne’s announcements on changes to the social security system that are most controversial, and I would say cruel. He is practically ending benefits for young people, making poor students take on even more loans and worst of all cutting by £30 a week the amount new claiments of sickness benefit ESA (WRAG) are entitled to. He’s also freezing working-age benefits for 4 years. They are already at below subsistence levels. To me it sends a clear message about what people like George Osborne think about the poorest.

It’s a very 19th Century attitude to the poor. George Monbiot spelled out this attitude rather well in a recent column, but in summary, here are some of the underlying assumptions that form the basis of the proposed changes:

  • Those who are declared unfit for work will quickly turn into malingerers if they are given too much. Many are outright faking their conditions when they could get a job.
  • If you are unemployed, you must not be trying very hard to get a job
  • If you are young, you are basically lazy and unproductive and will do nothing useful unless forced.
  • Young people all have strong family bonds which they can draw on for support in hard times.
  • The only reason the low paid and poor have children is in order to claim more ‘welfare’. They must be stopped.

If these things are true, there won’t be much hardship suffered as a result of the new changes. People will just pull themselves together and find work. Those that don’t, obviously deserve only contempt. If they in fact turn out to be utter bullshit though…

Backlog of assessments for ESA. Double the passport backlog, but none of the coverage

Via the Vox Political blog, I learn that it was admitted yesterday by the DWP that there was a backlog of 700,000 assessments for ESA claims. ESA is Employment and Support Allowance, a sickness benefit for those unable to work. 400,000 of the 700,000 backlog are new claims – that is people who feel they are too sick to work have lodged a claim for ESA, but have not had their claim assessed. While they wait, they have to make do with a lower level of benefit. The longer they have to wait to be assessed, the more anxious they are likely to become, risking exacerbating their health problems. The risk of falling into serious hardship also increases the longer they have to wait. The remaining 300,000 will be existing ESA claimants awaiting re-assessment of their claims. Any delay there brings with it the stress and worry of not knowing whether the outcome of this reassessment may mean their ESA is removed altogether.

I raise this now because at the same time, this week there has been wall to wall coverage of the Passport Offices backlog of about 300,000 passport applications. I don’t want to diminish the seriousness of this issue. Delays in processing applications could cause people to miss holidays they had saved up for, to miss weddings, funerals, or job interviews. It needs sorting out. At the same time though, it doesn’t seem in the same league as the ESA backlog, and yet a search for “Passport Office backlog” on Google News yields 13,400 results, while “ESA claims backlog” shows only 7 results.

The Labour Party have been jumping up and down about the passport issue (even though they had the same problems while in office), but on ESA (with a couple of exceptions), they have been silent. I suppose it isn’t surprising they go for the easy option, but it is rather sad.

Why do people drop their claims for ESA before assessment?

This week, some of the Coalition’s nastier benefit reforms become live, and because of this, we were subject to the spectacle of both Iain Duncan Smith and Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps taking to the airwaves to give their spin on the reforms. On Monday, IDS came under fire for stating that if he had to, he could live on £53 a week. This gave rise to the inevitable petition, which, at the time of writing has garnered almost 150,000 signatures.

Shapps’ ‘contribution’ to the debate involved pointing to DWP figures showing that 878,000 claimants of Employment and Support Allowance had ceased their claim before undergoing the Work Capability Assessment. Shapps heavily implied (and this slant was run with in many of the media stories, e.g. here) that these claims had stopped because people were not actually sick and knew they would fail the assessment. As with much of what Shapps say though, to get to the truth, you have to go to the source.

Figures about assessments for Employment and Support Allowance are released quarterly here. So what does it say about the reason why 878,000 have ceased their claims?

“Current data does not allow anything conclusive to be said about the destinations of closed and in progress cases, nor to infer what would have been or would be the outcome of assessment.”

So at best there seems to be no evidence about why they have ceased their claim, so Shapps inference seems baseless. But it gets even worse for Shapps because the same publication does refer to some qualitative work also published by the DWP that did look at the reasons why people ceased their claims. It said this:

Most of the interviewees in this research whose claim had been closed or withdrawn before it was fully assessed said they had ended their ESA claim as their health condition had improved. Examples of the types of conditions that had improved included diabetes, mental health problems, including stress and depression, and conditions alleviated by routine operations. These people tended to be working or looking for work, often in the same type of work as they had done before, though not commonly with the same employer.

Some had proactively withdrawn their claim, informing Jobcentre Plus of this, while others simply stopped submitting medical certificates or did not return their ESA50, in the knowledge this would prompt Jobcentre Plus to close their claim. Nobody interviewed consciously ignored an invite to a WCA as a means of closing their claim.

A smaller number of customers had their claim closed by Jobcentre Plus because they had difficulty completing and returning the ESA50, submitting medical certificates, or attending a WCA, even though they did not really want to end their claim. In some cases, this was because the customer’s condition made co-operating with the assessment process difficult, while in others, other life events, such as bereavement, made it difficult for them to progress their claim.”

So the evidence (allbeit based on interviews with a relatively small number of claimants) suggests people do not stop their claims for ESA because they are not genuine, but because their conditions improved (not surprisingly as the period between initial claim and assessment can take months) or worse, because the process of claiming was too arduous for them given their medical condition. Shapps’ interpretation of the data was just another lazy attempt to smear some of the least fortunate in society and to provide some cover for his Government’s shameful welfare policies.