Exclusive: Benefits watchdog wants tougher punishment for jobless and disabled claimants after DWP bungles new sanctions system

New sanctions to be imposed in Jobcentres

From November 3 the Department for Work and Pensions introduced a new tough regime for people claiming the new Jobseekers Allowance and the Employment and Support Allowance. They will like those already on Universal Credit have to sign up to a ” claimant commitment ” to undertake whatever work coaches at the DWP demand from them to get a job, Failure to do so leads to a rising number of financial penalties ultimately leading to the withdrawal of all benefits.

The new regulations like the ones dealing with domestic abuse should have been scrutinised by Parliament but the main body that vets them is the little known Social Security Advisory Committee,(SSAC) a watchdog which is expected to see whether the benefit regime is fair and equitable.

Minutes and correspondence released by SSAC show that it has been doing its job since September and is currently involved in discussing the new regulations with Mims Davies, the employment minister.

Mim Davies, Parliamentary undersecretary at the Department for Work and Pensions

But people might be surprised to know that SSAC’s main focus has been on increasing the penalties on claimants rather than reducing them.

The reason is that the watchdog spotted that the tabled regulations had a big loophole which, in their view, made them less effective. The hideously complicated benefit system means that there are people who claim both Universal Credit and Jobseekers Allowance or the Employment and Support Allowance. Where they claim both the new regulations say only one penalty can apply on Universal Credit alone – and the Jobseekers Allowance and the Employment and Support Allowance remain untouched.

SSAC want the penalties to apply to both.

Dr Stephen Brien

Dr Stephen Brien, the chair of SSAC wrote to the minister: “in circumstances where the value of UC element of the benefit was lower than the sanctioned amount, the claimant would be in a more favourable position than a claimant solely in receipt of either UC or a new style benefit who would be impacted by the full force of the sanction. As it is possible that the UC element of a dual claim
could be zero, this presents a significant inconsistency.”

He went on: ” the Committee is of the strong view that this inconsistency be reviewed and addressed at the earliest opportunity.” The ministry went ahead with regulations as they stand and is still discussing what it should do while it looks at the effectiveness of the new sanctions.

Since the sanctions system depends on the views of the DWP work coach it looks like the fate of many claimants will decided by individual civil servants. Now it so happens that SSAC has done some serious work on the ” claimant commitment ” rules under Universal Credit which decide whether sanctions will be applied.

The report two years ago is a somewhat idealistic document which expects a parity of esteem between the civil servant handing out the sanction and a desperate claimant getting the benefit. It says the commitment should be accessible, clear, tailored to the claimant’s needs and the state of the local labour market, and agreed by both the claimant and the DWP. It also says claimants should be properly informed.

Real world not the same as the idealistic picture of claimant commitment

However in the real world SSAC found it was pretty mixed picture. It found some good practice but also examples of lone parents not being informed of their right to reduced work searches, re-assessment interviews lasting just ten minutes and “not all work coaches are using discretion fairly or reasonably and opt for generic, rather than tailored, actions. We saw examples of work coaches copying and pasting actions from a shared document which had become standard in their local Jobcentre.”

As usual the DWP itself didn’t seem to have an overall picture of what was happening as it couldn’t be bothered to put together a national picture. So it is rather strange that the present SSAC committee is concentrating on punitive measures. Or is it?

The present committee under Stephen Brien, who worked for Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Policy Studies and now works for the United Arab Emirates funded Legatum Institute is more inclined to want to correct inefficiency in the DWP than to take tough action over the welfare of claimants.

What is deeply worrying is that many claimants – particularly more elderly disabled claimants now looking for work in their 60s and suffering poor health could get some very harsh treatment. They might be lucky and get a really sympathetic work coach or they could be landed with a jobsworth or worse a power maniac who enjoys putting the disadvantaged down. Will SSAC be bothered? Documents referred to in this article can be found on the SSAC website here.

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DWP dumps on benefit watchdog and ignores plea for more help for victims of domestic violence

The Department of Work and Pensions has rejected any changes to its new minimalist regulations to exempt victims of domestic violence -mainly women – from paying the ” bedroom tax ” and helping them to find out how they could qualify to keep more of their benefits.

Ministry turns down plea from social security watchdog

As I reported ten days ago the release of minutes from the little known Social Security Advisory Committee revealed in July the body chaired by Stephen Brien who worked for Ian Duncan Smith’s think tank had written to the ministry criticising the proposed regulations for being too narrow and the ministry for not running a prominent campaign to let victims know they will now be exempt.

The exemption applies to anybody who wants to stay in their own home and has thrown out an abusive partner and enrols in a sanctuary scheme – which provides extra locks, a fireproof letterbox and in extreme cases a reinforced door to a ” panic room” should the abusive partner return and break into the house.

The problem is that not all women know about this and the exemption only applies to council homes and flats. Also abuse from stalkers or strangers is not covered by the new regulations.

Mr Brien wrote: “Given the vulnerable situations of those affected, there is a compelling case for the Department to examine what options exist in terms of proactively identifying those potentially affected. This should be supplemented by a strong communications strategy that sets out clearly the criteria for this exemption, along with guidance on how to access it.”
“There is a risk that a number of claimants entitled to take advantage of this scheme, particularly those who have already benefitted from a sanctuary scheme security adaptation prior to these regulations coming into force, will be unaware of this change.”

Ministry rejects plea to change the regulation

But the DWP has told me not only will there be no changes but they had already implemented the regulations which came into force on October 1.

A DWP spokesperson said:

“The Department offers support to victims of domestic abuse, whether in the private rented sector or not. The benefit system acts as a safety net for people who find themselves in need of financial support with living and housing costs for a variety of reasons. A range of Universal Credit measures are designed to support victims of domestic abuse, including special provisions for temporary accommodation, same day advances, easements from work-related requirements and signposting to expert third-party services.”

Now for these regulations to become law they have to be scrutinised by Parliament. So I looked up what had happened.

It turns out the ministry laid the regulations before the House of Commons and the House of Lords on September 9 – a Thursday evening just before MPs and peers went off for the weekend. They were laid under what is known as a negative statutory instrument – which means that unless a peer or a MP objects they automatically can become law three weeks later.

Not one MP or peer spoke up about this

The regulations were laid alongside numerous other regulations including changes to Covid 19 pandemic regulations. Not one MP or peer objected or even spoke about it.

They would not have known about the criticism from the watchdog body because its minutes had not been published then. Nevertheless this shows up the ineffectiveness of MPs and peers – who have more time – in scrutinising what the executive is doing.

Given the high profile issue of violence against women after the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met Police officer it is pretty deplorable that a ministry can get away with this.

Benefits watchdog keeps mum

I sent the ministry’s response to the watchdog body – which regards scrutinising regulations as its main priority – and it decided not to comment, preferring to keep silent about its advice being ignored .I haven’t had a reply from the House of Lords on why the new regulations were missed.

However I have discovered the ministry has issued new advice six days ago to its housing benefit officers. It is here and victims of domestic abuse should challenge officials about getting an exemption.

For those in England I would suggest contacting Shelter. The charity has a comprehensive guide for victims of domestic abuse here. It includes a list of other charities who can help.

So if the ministry, the social security watchdog and Parliament are so ineffectual, at least this blog can highlight some information so more people know about it.

Previous Blog

https://davidhencke.com/2021/10/03/exclusive-half-baked-and-half-hearted-dwps-help-for-women-facing-domestic-abuse-and-violence/

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How the ” emotionally attached ” architect of Universal Credit will now be its chief DWP scrutineer

Dr Stephen Brien: The architect of Universal Credit. Pic credit: BBC

Self declared non politically active appointee turns out to be one of Iain Duncan Smith’s close advisers

A very important quango appointment has been made by the Conservative government which could affect the treatment of millions of benefit claimants -especially the huge number on Universal Credit.

It is to a fairly obscure body known as the Social Security Advisory Committee – which provides impartial advice on social security. It scrutinises most of the complex secondary legislation that underpins the social security system.

Put it more simply, its advice will influence how the DWP treats millions of poor, disabled, jobless people who are living on the breadline. It will cover a period when the government plans to to claw back money after the huge spending splurge to combat Covid-19.

The appointment is for the chair of the body and it has gone to Dr. Stephen Brien, a man who is publicly credited as the architect of one of the country’s most hated benefits, Universal Credit.

He will now lead until 2024 a committee of people who will both comment on future benefit changes and do independent research on the effects of the benefits system on the poor. The membership of the committee includes Seyi Obakin, Chief Executive of the homeless charity Centrepoint: Phil Jones,Director, The Prince’s Trust Cymru and Liz Sayce, board member of the Care Quality Commission.

Charlotte Pickles.Pic credit: Conservative Home

But Therese Coffey, the secretary of state for works and pensions, has also recently appointed Charlotte Pickles, director of the “non partisan” think tank, Reform and former adviser to Iain Duncan Smith, who piloted Universal Credit. She wrote an article for Conservative Home calling for the abolition of child benefit for millions of people and taxing the Disability Living Allowance. Read it here.

The appointment process for Dr Brien was marred from the start. The works and pensions committee was never informed of the recruitment process which is a breach of Cabinet Office guidelines as the appointment has to be scrutinised by Parliament. They learnt about it after a member of the committee staff spotted it.

This led to an exchange of correspondence between Stephen Timms, the committee’s Labour chairman and Therese Coffey. It is reproduced here.

Not only did Mr Timms complain about the omission but also some subtle change in the wording of the job specification. The 2018 wording asked for ” strong leadership qualities”. The 2020 specification is ” measured and balanced leadership qualities”. Similarly the words ” independent” has been dropped in favour of “impartial”.

Therese Coffey defended the change in wording to reflect the future strategic direction of the organisation and that she wanted ” to strengthen relationships” between ministers and shareholders. She admits she was embarrassed by the omission but can’t bring herself to apologise. It took an earlier letter from Mr Timms to Baroness Stedman-Scott, Lords minister for work and pensions to give her ” sincere apologies”.

The appointment process looked fair – though the small number of applicants -12- were overwhelmingly white with just one disabled person. Six were ruled out without an interview including the disabled person.

Six made the interview including one BAME person. Four were women and two men but only three were considered appointable.

The interviewing panel itself did include one BAME “fast track” woman , Tammy Fevrier, from the DWP Partnership Division.

Dr Brien’s appointment comes under the category of a ” non political ” one according to the code adopted by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. He declares himself :” I am not now and have never been politically active.”

Yet his CV is pretty questionable on this matter. As well as developing the idea for Universal Credit he was on the board of Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice from 2008-11 and 2013-19. This is where he developed the idea of Universal Credit and this is the body that wants to deprive people in their late 60s and early 70s of a state pension by raising the age to 75.

Official Commons portrait of Sir Iain Duncan Smith

On top of this he was a special expert adviser to Iain Duncan Smith in the coalition government from 2010 to 2013 at the DWP where in his words he “Played a substantial role the DWP’s engagement with the Treasury and Office for Budget Responsibility to secure the financial settlement for the reform programme” and “Worked in partnership with the senior officials delivering the Universal Credit”.

This was the time the Treasury insisted on speeding up the rise in the pension age to 66, refused to introduce national insurance auto-credits for women born in the 1950s while keeping them for men and imposed other welfare cuts.

And guess what Charlotte Pickles – also just appointed to SSAC- started her policy career at the Centre for Social Justice and then went on be the expert special adviser to Iain Duncan Smith at the DWP.

Critical friend

MPs did question Dr Brien thoroughly at the appointment hearing – with both Labour MPs Stephen McCabe and Debbie Abrahams pushing him on disabled people’s deaths and whether he was emotionally attached to Universal Credit. See here.

Dr Brien’s mantra was he would be impartial and he kept repeating he will be a ” critical friend” of the ministry.

I wonder. It depends on the balance of being friendly and critical. Either he will use his knowledge- he claims to be passionate about social security since he was 19- to try and make the new system work better. Or will he be part of the new Chumocracy – which takes in everyone from Dominic Cummings, the PM’s adviser and Michael Gove to Rishi Sunak – and give a fair wind to new benefit cuts no doubt with the approval of Charlotte Pickles.

I did an article for Byline Times on how the Conservatives through a former Vote Leave adviser are trying to pack quango appointments with Brexit inclined Tories – though it is not clear whether this is one of them.

I shall be watching. He can start with something he did promise to MPs over transparency. The minutes of SSAC should be public. They have not been published for over a year which is a disgrace. Let’s see how he gets on with this first.