Why Universal Credit is like the Victorian workhouse


The UK’s Universal Credit programme, which aims to roll six forms of state welfare including unemployment and housing benefits into one, was launched in 2010 with the aim of supporting people to work. So far it has resulted in real hardship for numerous claimants. In early January, the minister in charge of its rollout, Amber Rudd, announced reforms to its design, including piloting new ways to ease the payments system.

While the lessons of history are sometimes rather hard to discern, in this case there is a clear precedent that supports those calling for Universal Credit to be paused, or even scrapped: the Victorian workhouse.

The overall Universal Credit policy coheres quite closely to that of amendments to the poor law in 1834, which kickstarted a large programme to build workhouses. The two policies, nearly 200 years apart, were prompted by some of the same economic concerns.

At the time the 1834 law was passed, the high cost of the parish poor relief had been a focus of anxious public attention for some time. Parishes gave people some money to live on if they could not make ends meet, but this technically gave them a purchasing power they had not earned through work.

The rising costs of poor relief in the early 19th century, combined with post-war recession after 1815, inspired an increasingly austere attitude towards the poor. The fear among local taxpayers was that the list of poor-law beneficiaries was being artificially swollen by people who were physically capable of work, but who preferred to live on parish subsidies. This fear was based on rhetorical narrative rather than research, and talk among legislators was quickly translated actions driven by ideology.

Read more: Universal Credit: from benefits panacea to government blunder 

Sent to the workhouse

The laws governing welfare before 1834 were notoriously flexible, and some parishes chose to experiment by imposing strict boundaries on the allocation of poor relief in the lead up to the statutory change.

The parish of Southwell in Nottinghamshire, for example, piloted a stringent suppression of claims for relief. The goal was to make welfare simpler, more affordable, and more likely to encourage the poor back into self-supporting work, by ending all forms of assistance outside of the workhouse. A workhouse built in 1824 was central to the scheme, and it still exists today, owned by the National Trust. Life in the workhousewas planned to deter the lazy from asking for help. The subtext of this sort of “support” to work was to chastise people into productivity.

Southwell workhouse, now owned by the National Trust. CC BY-NC

When a special commission was formed in 1832 to consider the existing poor laws, the example offered by Southwell was a specific focus of attention. The commissioners sought advice from George Nicholls, a former official or overseer of the poor in Southwell. They made the abolition of relief outside of workhouses a central tenet of their recommendations, based on a desire to eradicate “idleness”, and to punish the people capable of work but not in work. The national legislation of 1834 was framed on the basis of the commission’s report, and Nicholls was appointed as one of the three men charged with implementing the new law.

As a result, in the second half of the 1830s, England and Wales embarked on a programme of workhouse building to rival even the raft of 21st-century private finance initiatives. The investment of effort and cash was extraordinary: newly elected boards of guardians raised local taxes, purchased land, commissioned brickmakers and architects, signed contracts and sought workhouse staff. By 1838, around 95% of all parish locations had been incorporated into larger administrative units or “unions”, the vast majority with a repurposed or newly-built workhouse.

The workhouses were intended to be large and all encompassing: universal in their capacity. They were designed to cater for all varieties of poverty separately. There were discrete accommodations for men, women, and children with further adult subdivisions to differentiate the elderly, sick, and disabled from the vigorous, able-bodied and morally dubious.

Bad economics

But the delivery of welfare through workhouse placements only was never going to work as the ideologues intended. The austere sentiment, and the premise on which the law was founded, was faulty: the welfare bill was not being overblown by the capable poor, but was rising owing to the complexity and severity of need. Legislators had been afraid that people preferred to live idly on parish relief rather than work, when in fact subsequent research has shown they had been unable to earn enough to support themselves even if they were in full employment.

A workhouse regime could be imposed that coerced or compelled groups of people to undertake laundry, cooking, nursing or gardening. It could not deter people out of underemployment, age, or extreme youth. The result across the Victorian period was an expensive, burdensome, and frequently stigmatising set of institutions that never fulfilled their intentions. At the same time, money given to poor people outside of the workhouse was never abolished, and spending on this “outdoor relief” remained at least twice as high as spending on workhouses throughout the 19th century. Meanwhile, the workhouse very effectively punished the elderly and the unfortunate whose scope for work was very limited or nil.

Despite campaigns to abolish workhouses, the suffering of inmates, and potential applicants, continued well beyond the Victorian period. From 1930, workhouses became “public assistance institutions” – workhouses in all but name – and most surviving buildings entered ownership of the NHS in 1948 to be used as hospitals for the chronically ill.

In many ways, the desire to pull all of those in poverty under one roof, literally or figuratively in the case of Universal Credit, stems from the same impulses today as it did in 1834: a desire to drive down spending and make people work, or work harder. In both cases, a simple injection of cash, whether on buildings or for other purposes like the administrative integration of a new policy, cannot overcome the essential complexity of needs among those in poverty. When it comes to humane support, there is no such thing as “one strategy fits all”.



More than 21,000 sick and disabled people died waiting for vital benefits

Campaigners warn the ‘appalling situation’ is set to get even worse under Universal Credit.  By Sue Jones
Photo credit: Knox O (Wasi Daniju) via photopin cc

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted that over 21,000 ill and disabled people died waiting for their Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment to be completed, between April 2013 and 30 April 2018.

PIP is claimed by people with a range of health conditions and disabilities, many of which are chronic, degenerative or life limiting.

Sarah Newton MP, the Minister of State for Disabled People, published the figures on 11 January following a question raised in parliament by Labour MP Madeleine Moon in December. She asked: “How many people have died while waiting for their personal independence payment assessment to be completed; and what were the conditions those people died from?”

More than 17,000 sick and disabled people have died while waiting for welfare benefits, figures show

Responding to the question, Newton said: “All benefit claims can be made under the special rules for people who are terminally ill which will mean that they are fast tracked. “These are currently being cleared within 6 working days for new claimants to PIP. “The Department would encourage all claimants with a terminal illness to let the department know and to apply using the special rules.”

The private firm Capita were given responsibility to carry out disability assessments for Personal Independence Payments (PIP), have been criticised by MPs over the accuracy of reports sent to the DWP. source

“The cause of death of PIP claimants is not collated centrally by the Department”, she added. Over 3.6 million applications to PIP were made between April 2013 and 30th April 2018. Of these:

  • 4,760 claimants died between their case being referred to, and returned from, an assessment provider;
  • 73,800 claimants died within 6 months of their claim being registered; and
  • 17,070 claimants died after registering but prior to the DWP making a decision on their claim.

Overall, the total number of PIP claimants who died was 95,000. But Newton’s response does not indicate at what stage of their claim the 73,800 people, who died within six months of it being registered, were at.

Nor does it indicate what those people who did not have terminal or degenerative illnesses died of – including those with mental illness. For example, 270 of those mortalities are listed as having had anxiety and/or depressive disorders as their primary disorder.

The DWP has admitted 21,000 people died waiting for benefits


Of those who did have terminal illnesses, we need to ask why these people were so cruelly left waiting so long for their assessment, if, as Newton claims, they are ‘fast tracked’ through the claim and assessment process.  She also said: “This is unpublished data… It should be used with caution and it may be subject to future revision.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “It is shocking that so many disabled people have died waiting for their social security claims to be processed at a time when they need and should be able to get support.

“Sadly this appalling situation is set to get even worse with the waiting times for first payments of universal credit.”

The DWP has been contacted for comment.




Please spare a thought for this 64 year old severely disabled client of mine? Please share this post to see if we can garner a response from the Tories although, I doubt we will.
My client was thrown off ESA by ATOS 18 months ago. Since then, he has been expected to sign on. Obviously, he’s been sanctioned and forced to go hungry. so much so he weighs 6 stone. On Friday, not surprisingly he was at death’s door with pneumonia. Fortunately, I was able to get him into hospital.Evidently, his left lung was full of fluid with his right not much better, he’s now on the mend.
He has been unable to heat or look after his home properly because his health has deteriorated which I suggest is obvious from the photographs. He lives in one room of his 3 bedroom house he rents from a private landlord. It is rat infested, he cannot use the toilet nor is he strong enough to put water in a kettle. He relies on bottled water. I am making efforts to have him rehoused in sheltered accommodation. However, I think he may have to go into a nursing/residential home in the interim.
Birkenhead Benefits Centre has ignored my continuous please for help, heartless bastards!


The decimation of the welfare state

It’s sickening that the British welfare state is being gradually demolished by successive governments, to be eventually replaced with private healthcare insurance [1] and what’s even more galling is: they [some members of the UK govt] went to the USA to find out how to decimate our welfare state and NHS, encouraged by American corporate funders. Mo Stewart has written extensively about this in her book Cash not Care.

Amber Rudd has the absolute nerve to say Universal Credit has not always been compassionate whilst her dept have overseen the demolition of the welfare state causing misery not seen seen Victorian times [2] and I have added hundreds of  DWP atrocities like the one of Alan Chrisman [below] which have contributed to many suicides [3] 

Since 2010

Denied: How some Tennessee doctors earn big money denying disability claims

Alan Chrisman holds medical bills and records near the McDonald’s where he worked at as a maintenance employee before being diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer

By the time Alan Chrisman was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer, he was too sick to work. The cancer had spread to his lungs. His doctors said he may never get better. He applied for disability, the federal safety net program he contributed to with every paycheck during his 30 years working as a stonemason.

But a doctor hired by Tennessee’s Disability Determination Services to review applications quickly concluded Chrisman wasn’t sick enough to get the $804 monthly benefit.

That physician, Dr. Thomas Thrush, is one of about 50 doctors contracted to review applications for Tennesseans seeking disability. The doctors are paid a flat rate for each application file they review. How much they earn depends on how fast they work.

Thrush, like many of the doctors who contract with the state, works very fast. In fiscal year 2018, he reviewed — on average — one case every 12 minutes.

Thrush’s productivity has paid off. He earned $420,000 for reviewing the applications of 9,088 Tennesseans applying for disability during the year ending June 30. He has made more than $2.2 million since 2013. On average, 80 percent of the cases he reviewed were denied.

6 takeaways from this investigation: Doctors speed through disability claims, make millions

Tennessee has among the highest denial rates for disability applicants in the nation, rejecting 72 percent of all claims in 2017. The national average for denials was 66 percent. Outside experts and former and current state employees say it’s impossible to review cases so quickly without making mistakes that lead to wrongful rejections of disability benefits.

In Chrisman’s case, Thrush failed to obtain one critical piece of evidence: a discharge paper from a hospital that stated Chrisman’s cancer was inoperable and had metastasized. The prognosis clearly qualified him for disability, even under the complex rules set by the Social Security Administration. The mistake was discovered only after Chrisman hired a lawyer.

A USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee investigation examined 5½ years of data for physicians and psychologists who review disability applications. The investigation found that between January 2013 and July 2018:

• Some doctors raced through cases. More than half of all contract physicians outpaced the federal standard of 1.5 cases per hour, and 1 out of every 5 doctors doubled that pace.

 A whistleblower was fired. The contract of a former medical consultant was terminated in 2017 after he raised concerns about some physicians reviewing a high volume of cases.

• Speed pays. Seven high-volume doctors billed for more than $1 million each between fiscal 2013 and 2018. These physicians’ annual payments range from $103,000 to $451,000. By contrast, the acting chief of the Social Security Administration, a Cabinet-level position, earned $240,000. For some physicians, this was not their sole source of income.

 Staff doctors take more time. The state employed a small number of staff doctors whose compensation is not tied to the number of cases they review. These doctors reviewed cases at a rate that is in line with federal recommendations. They typically earned less than $150,000 annually, according to the state’s salary database. Beginning this year, however, the state is terminating all doctors on salary and relying only on contract physicians.

 Some doctors have a history of misconduct. At least two doctors under contract with the state are felons, including Thrush. Two other physicians had their medical licenses placed on probation. Another physician had his license revoked twice in the past 20 years and now works on a restricted license that bars him from treating patients.

Five current and former contractors and state employees said they believe disability applicants are being wrongfully denied in an effort to process as many applications as possible. Most spoke to The Tennessean on the condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisal.

“It’s like a cash register,” said one contract physician. “From our perspective it’s unethical. From a consumer’s point of view it can be a tragedy.”

One doctor who raised the issue through official channels lost his contract. Dr. John Mather, the whistleblower, was the former chief medical officer for disability programs at the federal Social Security Administration, and worked as a contract doctor for the state after he retired.

“Who knows how many applicants for disability benefits have had their applications denied without justification,” he said.

A whistleblower

Mather said he warned James Stanfield, director for the state disability department, and Raquel Hatter, then commissioner of the Department of Human Services, in 2016 about the dangers of some doctors performing large numbers of reviews. The Human Services Department’s general counsel responded in a letter saying there was nothing illegal or fraudulent.

Mather emailed the Social Security Administration, which referred the matter to the Office of Inspector General. That office determined no investigation was warranted. Mather met with auditors at the Comptroller of the Treasury, then received no further response.

In 2017, Stanfield declined to renew Mather’s contract. “I don’t think they care about the claimant,” Mather said of administrators. “They just want to see the cases out. I don’t think they care too much about quality. People who are high producers — they are very happy to have them around.”

Current and former personnel said they were speaking up now because they want an outside investigator to review all cases to ensure individuals have not been wrongly denied.

“These findings are troubling,” Tennessee U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper said in a statement. “Physicians, especially those dealing with state and federal funds, should be careful and thorough in their work. Social Security Disability Insurance is a vital program, and we have to keep it strong.”

Alan Chrisman walks with his wife, Joyce, near the Sevierville, Tenn., McDonald’s where he worked as a maintenance employee before being diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer. Chrisman applied for disability but was initally denied by a medical contractor hired by the state to review claims.

A spokesman for the Department of Human Services, which oversees the disability program in Tennessee, disputed any connection between how fast doctors review case files and their mistakes. “We have no reason to believe that doctors that average faster reviews are more prone to have errors in their reviews,” Sky Arnold said in a statement.

The Social Security Administration provided its own statistics that showed Tennessee doctors were spending on average 47 “medical minutes per case.” Patti Patterson, a spokeswoman, noted that was more than the national average of 38 minutes.

But the federal data adds the time multiple physicians spend reviewing the same case, a common occurrence when someone is claiming both a mental and physical disability requiring two different specialists. The state data analyzed by The Tennessean details each doctor’s speed.

A letter brings crushing news

For weeks, Chrisman did not feel well. Some days he would lose control of his bowels. After stonemason work became scarce, he got a job as a maintenance man at a McDonald’s in Sevierville, Tennessee, two years ago. One day in November 2017, he showed up to work at the restaurant and promptly soiled himself.

At the insistence of his wife, Joyce, he headed straight to a walk-in clinic. It was his first medical visit in a long time. The Chrismans cannot afford insurance. He was referred to a doctor, then another. The diagnosis was swift.

Chrisman had late-stage cancer of the intestine. The cancer had spread. There were two spots on his lung. A golf ball-sized tumor and about a foot of his intestine were removed in surgery.

Alan Chrisman worked as a maintenance employee at this Sevierville, Tenn., McDonald’s before being diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer in November 2017. He’s now on his 11th dose of chemotherapy. After his 12th next month, he will return for a scan.
Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel

Weakened by chemotherapy and radiation, emaciated after shedding 40 pounds, and in extreme discomfort with tubes protruding from his backside, Chrisman occasionally can’t sit or stand. On a good day he can walk outside to pick up a single log for the fireplace in the couple’s unheated two-bedroom cabin.

The Chrismans earned about $32,000 a year between his earnings and his wife’s $10 hourly wage cleaning laundry at a Smoky Mountain resort. The mounting medical bills and Chrisman’s lost wages devastated his wife, who tried to arrange payment plans with medical providers. Chrisman applied for disability in November 2017. The rejection letter came six months later.

“Although your therapy is currently causing you discomfort, it is expected these effects will be temporary,” said the denial letter, based on the recommendation from Thrush.

Joyce Chrisman cried when she read the letter.

Mistakes unlikely to be caught

The disability process has two layers of oversight designed to catch errors, but doctors know there is little likelihood anyone would catch a mistake in denying someone’s application.

First, a quality assurance department in Nashville spot-checks approvals and denials to make sure staff and doctors have followed procedures. Then, federal regional offices review a portion of disability applications.

Tennessee has consistently ranked high in the quality of its case reviews, averaging a 95.8 percent quality rating since 2016, said Arnold, the state spokesman. In 2017 DDS earned a Social Security Administration “Phoenix Award” for its performance.

But the state and federal offices review a tiny percentage of denied disability claims for accuracy.

By law, half of all approvals by state DDS personnel are reviewed by Social Security Administration staff — a provision meant to safeguard public funds.

The law, however, doesn’t set specific requirements for denials. As a result, the Social Security Administration reviewed fewer than 2 percent of all rejections, according to an analysis by the National Association of Social Security Claims Representatives.

“If the adjudicator is making poor decisions, if they tend towards denials, they’re just not going to be reviewed,” said Jen Burdick, an attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. She is is among advocates nationwide asking for Social Security to review more denials.

Wrongful denials may be appealed, but long delays for a hearing can take a devastating  toll in lost wages, lack of access to health care and medical bills. In fiscal year 2017, at least 9,570 people died waiting for their disability appeals to be heard.

Speed pays — sometimes millions

The Social Security Administration oversees two disability programs: Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, for low-income individuals without a work history, and Social Security Disability Insurance for workers who become disabled.

The federal government delegates to the states the administration of the programs. Tennessee received $8.5 million last year from the Social Security Administration to hire medical consultants with a variety of specialties to review medical records.

These doctors never examine claimants in person, although they occasionally order a physical exam by another doctor.

Seven days a week, setting their own schedules, the doctors swipe their badges to access secured floors of a brown and glass office building on the outskirts of downtown Nashville, logging into a computer system that generates a queue of cases to review.

Some applications contain just a few pages. Others include hundreds of pages of doctor’s notes, hospital reports, X-rays, lab results and employment records. Doctors must write a brief report to justify their findings, too.

The decision to grant or deny benefits is officially made by a state employee, but doctors who work for the state say it is their recommendation that carries the most weight.

For this work, the doctors are paid a flat fee ranging from $30 to $47 per case. Doctors also bill $68 per hour in most instances for the time they spend consulting with staff or mentoring other physicians. Use the database below to search for physicians. Like Thrush, some of these doctors work very fast.

Dr. Kanika Chaudhuri, a pediatrician, evaluated 3,872 cases last fiscal year, averaging more than four cases per hour when she worked. She earned $192,000 in fiscal 2018 and $1.1 million since 2013.

Out of all the cases Chaudhuri reviewed over the five years, 78 percent were denied, according to data provided by the state. State officials later noted that the denial data included cases in which multiple doctors made assessments, meaning Chaudhuri and other doctors may not have made the final assessment.

Asked whether she felt pressured to review cases too quickly, Chaudhuri said: “No direct pressure. They recommend that we must keep up. They always recommend you do your best. There are so many applications and so few doctors. We are overwhelmed with cases.”

Jenaan Khaleeli, a psychologist, has averaged 4½ cases an hour since 2013. Nearly 80 percent of those cases were denied. Over the five years, Khaleeli earned $1.2 million, including $209,000 in fiscal 2018.

Dr. Frank Pennington, an ear, nose and throat specialist who is also a felon, earned $144,000 reviewing cases in fiscal 2018, and more than $1 million since 2013. During the five-year period he reviewed 20,835 cases, at a rate of three per hour.

Pennington is one of five contract physicians with a history of misconduct. Pennington is confined to the administrative practice of medicine after three separate felony cocaine convictions and two stints in federal prison in the 1990s.

Thrush had his license placed on probation for four years in 2008 after he  pleaded guilty to prescription fraud in 2006. Arnold, the DHS spokesman, said the physicians were all doctors in good standing while employed.

“It’s important to remember these are not forward-facing doctors,” Arnold said. “Their role is to examine medical records and reports. They do not meet with patients in person.” Thrush, Pennington and Khaleeli did not respond to messages.

‘A flawed system’

Tennessee’s pay-by-the-case model — and the sums paid to contract doctors — surprised even advocates and attorneys who routinely assist people with disabilities. “There is an obvious financial incentive under such a payment arrangement — to process cases as quickly as possible,” said Russ Overby, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee, who represents individuals seeking disability.

“I am concerned that some clients who are in fact eligible for disability benefits will be denied because there has not been a sufficient review of the case.” Carrie Hobbs Guiden, executive director of The Arc of Tennessee, advocates for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities who occasionally apply for Social Security disability benefits. Doctors have to invest the time to properly review cases, she said, especially when it involves people with untreated mental health issues.

“If they’re getting paid based on how many they get done, that’s a flawed system,” Guiden said. “That’s not encouraging quality. You have to question if the purpose is to deny as many people as possible.”

Under pressure to meet ‘workload goals’

State disability determination departments face enormous pressures to meet “workload goals” set by the Social Security Administration.

In 2018, the Social Security Administration set a goal of 103,161 disability applications to be cleared by Tennessee’s office.

The staff and consultants needed to clear those cases in Tennessee have shrunk by 24 percent between 2010 and 2016.

Failure to meet goals can result in a financial penalty from the federal government, according to Jeffrey Price, the past legislative director for the National Association of Disability Examiners.

Doctors elsewhere push back

About half of all state disability offices in the United States operate on a similar model to Tennessee’s, in which physicians reviewing applications are paid by the case, according to Price.

The contract model, in which doctors receive a fee for each assessment, introduces some risks, Price said.

“If you were paid by the case, it behooves you to sign off on as many cases as you can,” he said. “I think that model at least has the potential for increased error rates.

“A doctor can review cases effectively at about two cases per hour,” Price said. “You’re hoping that the doctor will actually look at the whole case, not just what the examiner wrote.”

Doctors like Thrush, who processed more than five cases per hour, might be valued in an office trying to shovel itself out of a large caseload, Price said, but the pace is implausible.

“I think that would be dangerous, actually,” Price said. “Inherently you would be missing something if you’re looking at five cases an hour.”

At the North Carolina Disability Determination Services office, where Price has worked for nearly 40 years, managers recently asked doctors to process an average of three cases per hour instead of two. Doctors in that office are all on staff, as opposed to contractors.

“Some of our doctors are pushing back,” Price said. “They say that’s too many.”

A rule put into place by the Social Security Administration in 2017 has made the work of DDS physicians even more critical in deciding an outcome of an application.

Previously a “treating physician rule” required DDS to give more weight to the opinions of an applicant’s personal doctor than doctors hired by DDS. That rule was eliminated, giving doctors hired by DDS more influence in deciding the outcome of applications.

‘Something needs to be done’

After Chrisman was denied, he and his wife found a lawyer in Sevierville to file a request for reconsideration.

In September, Joyce Chrisman came home from work and brought the mail inside their cabin. The letter from Social Security said, “We found that you became disabled under our rules on November 8, 2017.” That was the day after she urged Chrisman to visit the walk-in clinic.

Another physician had examined Alan Chrisman’s file and recommended he be granted disability.

“We said ‘wow,’ ” Chrisman said. “We couldn’t believe it.”

George Garrison, his lawyer, said he was troubled by The Tennessean’s findings.

“People come to me at a point they’re about to lose everything they’ve got,” he said. “They’re sick. They’re dying. They’re having to deal with a complex system.”

The benefit meant that Joyce Chrisman no longer had to worry about paying medical bills. The bills would be paid dating back to the time her husband applied for disability.

His disability approval also automatically qualified Alan Chrisman for TennCare, which is now covering his ongoing chemotherapy, medications and hospitalizations.

Chrisman sits on his couch most of the time. He’s on his 11th dose of chemotherapy. After his 12th next month, he will return for a scan. “Then we’ll go from there,” he said.

Thinking about the months he spent rejected — when he and his wife were barely scraping by — Chrisman gets angry.

“Something needs to be done,” he said. “They’re either getting too much of a caseload or they’re getting greedy.”


Tory U-turn on two-child benefit cap doesn’t go far enough

DWP scrap extension of the two-child limit to Universal Credit for children born before April 2017.

The SNP has renewed calls for the UK government to scrap the hated two-child cap and rape clause – after the latest U-turn on the policy by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The call follows an admission by Secretary of State Amber Rudd that the current Tory policy is flawed and “not right”, and the news that the UK government will finally ditch the extension of the two-child limit to Universal Credit for children born before April 2017 – originally due to be implemented from 1 February 2019.

Alison Thewliss MP, who first uncovered the cruel policy in the then-Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget in 2015, and has led the campaign to scrap the two-child cap and rape clause, said Tory ministers were only tinkering at the edges with minor changes that “does not go anywhere near far enough”..

Commenting, Alison Thewliss MP said: “This latest Tory U-turn does not go anywhere near far enough. “The two child cap and rape clause is still set to push hundreds of thousands of children into poverty and must be scrapped. “This disgraceful UK government policy has been condemned by the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and a multitude of charities and welfare advice professionals. “It is discriminatory at its core, and hits women and BAME families hardest – which the DWP is well aware of.

“Amber Rudd’s announcement is a welcome admission that this cruel Tory policy is deeply flawed – but merely tinkering at the edges with minor changes will not help the majority of families who are still set to suffer.

Universal credit: Two-child benefit cap to be relaxed

SNP launch campaign against tax credits ‘rape clause’. Photo Credit: SNP/Alison Thewliss MP.

“The risk with what the UK Government is now proposing is that two classes of family emerge; those with third or subsequent children born after the 6th of April 2017, who will continue to fall victim to the two child policy, and those with children born before who won’t.

“Those families with children born after the 6th of April 2017 will still be subject to the two child cap and rape clause, and will still be forced to fight for exemptions to feed their kids.

“This will cause confusion and perpetuate unfairness.

“If the Tories are not willing to scrap this hated policy for everyone, they should devolve the powers to the Scottish Parliament so we can build a truly fair and equal social security system that meets Scotland’s needs and values.”

Work and Pensions Committee Chair Frank Field, said: “What on earth were they thinking? “There are serious concerns about this policy as a whole, but the retrospective element is simply inexplicable.

“The Government claims this policy is about fairness, but it’s hard to think of anything more unfair than taking money from families whose children were born before the policy was even thought of. “It cannot be justified on any count and must never see the light of day.

“This policy is so cruel that I cannot believe the Secretary of State has knowledge of what is being done in her name. I hope our report will therefore be read by her and that the decision to make this policy of limiting benefit to two children retrospectively is dropped—and quickly. “How can it be justified to limit support to two children when a third or subsequent child is already born? “It would be wicked to push these children into or further into poverty.”

UK’s most senior judge condemns government’s austerity policies

UK’s most senior judge condemns government’s austerity policies in extraordinary political attack President of Supreme Court makes rare political comment, saying benefits changes affect women, children and disabled most

Lady Hale, the first female president of the UK's highest court, said austerity had disproportionately hit women, the disabled and minorities

President of Supreme Court makes rare political comment, saying benefits changes affect women, children and disabled most

The UK’s most senior judge has condemned the effects of government austerity on families, women and minorities, in an unusual political attack.
Lady Hale, president of the Supreme Court, said cost-cutting had worsened the struggle of some families to find enough money for daily life and had caused problems in the legal system.

In a speech about human rights and family life to the Isle of Man Law Society, she talked about how a law allowing different-sex civil partnerships would become law in October. But she went on: “While some families are fighting for legal recognition of their relationships, we should not forget that other families are fighting for enough to live on and to make ends meet.

“The UK government’s austerity policies have undoubtedly made this worse and have posed some uncomfortable problems for the courts.”
She added: “The problem that we have in the courts is that it is quite obvious – indeed it is officially conceded – that many of the recent changes to the benefits system impact more harshly on women, children and disabled people than they do on other groups: for example, the recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Is Britain Fairer?, states that ‘UK-wide reforms to social security and taxes since 2010 are having a disproportionate impact on the poorest in society and particularly affecting women, disabled people, ethnic minorities and lone parents’ (p 87).”

Speaking last month, she also quoted the report as saying: “Government policies on social security and taxation have increased pressure on living standards for some groups, particularly disabled people, women and some ethnic minorities.”

It is rare for senior judges to comment on politics. In response to the global financial crisis of 2008, David Cameron as prime minister initiated a programme of public spending cuts that became known as austerity.

The aim was to keep the UK economy in good shape while reducing the national deficit by relentlessly reducing public spending. Austerity affected most areas of public life, from police numbers to healthcare, and from a public sector pay freeze to social services.

Funding for local authorities was halved. The sharp rise in people turning to food banks was also blamed on austerity. But last month former chancellor George Osborne denied that “a lack of money” was the cause of Britain’s homelessness crisis.

Earlier this month, Lady Hale spoke out in favour of diversity among judges, saying the judiciary needed to be more diverse so that the public felt those on the bench were genuinely “our judges” rather than “beings from another planet”.

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We continue to spend around £90billion a year on working-age benefits, and we are spending more than £50billion a year to support disabled people and those with health conditions.
“We are committed to helping families improve their lives by moving into work, and there are now more women in work than ever before.”


The UK’s brutal austerity regime is acting as a template for similar programmes in Canada

The UK’s brutal austerity regime is acting as a template for similar programmes across the Atlantic in Canada.

Image result for grenfell tower fire austerity
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The greatly intensified austerity that has been imposed in the UK since 2010 has been looked to with considerable approval by right wing imitators. Among countries that had developed a relatively adequate ‘welfare state,’ the attack on social provision in the UK has been outstandingly severe. One of the key elements of this has been a drive to degrade social benefit systems.

The central objective has not been, as is generally claimed, to save money but rather to ensure a level of desperation that drives people into low wage precarious work and depresses the level of real wages.

In Canada, where a federal system of government exists, most of the political decisions related to the undermining of social programmes are taken at the provincial level. It is worthwhile to compare the specific assault on income support in Ontario, the province with the largest economy and population, with the situation that has unfolded in the UK. Before doing this, however, I want to go a little deeper into why the architects of neoliberal austerity have placed such emphasis on reducing the adequacy of systems of income support that unemployed, poor and disabled people turn to.

Poor Law roots

When the peasantry was being driven from the land in England, the Tudor authorities at first imagined that the anger of the dispossessed could be contained with large doses of state violence and intimidation. However, the jobless and homeless portion of the new working class created a public order problem that required a reluctant concession. This took the form of the Poor Laws and, as is still the case with modern income support systems, they were intended to maintain social stability while offering the least attractive alternative possible to the worst jobs on offer.

The 1834 New Poor Law articulated a principle of ‘less eligibility’ that has cast its shadow over benefit systems ever since. The terms and conditions of receiving relief, featuring the dreaded workhouse, would ensure that recipients would be worse off than the poorest workers. Modern benefit systems, with bureaucratic intrusion and moral policing replacing the workhouse, retain the guiding principle of less eligibility. The Ken Loach film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’demonstrates this very starkly.

It is often suggested that ‘austerity isn’t working.’ In fact, in both the UK and Ontario, the degrading of benefit systems has produced startling results for employers, especially those paying the lowest wages. If benefit levels had not been driven down and made more punitive and precarious, it is hard to imagine how the proliferation of low wage precarious work could have been so successfully imposed.

Sluggish wage growth exists in all OECD countries but the UK’s long-term decline in real wage levels is especially stark. The numbers of people forced into precarious employment has shot up and the increase in workers forced to accept zero hour contracts has been dramatic. Changes in the level of exploitation and the expansion of the low wage sector have been comparably appalling in Ontario. In 1997, only one worker in forty was forced to accept a minimum wage job but, by 2015, that had increased to one worker in eight. By 2013, among workers in the densely populated Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas, barely half were in permanent full-time jobs.

Liberal war on the poor

Until recently, when a hard-right Tory Government took office, the task of imposing austerity and reducing the adequacy of the social assistance system in Ontario was in the hands of a Liberal Government. As the dubiously progressive face of the neoliberal mainstream, the Liberals were somewhat circumspect in how they carried out the attack. Their task was made easier by the work of an earlier Thatcher-like Tory regime that held office from 1995 until 2003. Brutal cutbacks in the social assistance rates were an accomplished fact and the Liberals spent most of their fifteen years in office providing parsimonious increases below the rate of inflation while holding round after round of public consultations to keep alive the illusion that they would address a growing crisis of poverty and homelessness.

At the very end of the Liberal period, after so successfully reducing the adequacy of Ontario’s income support system and driving people into a mushrooming low wage sector, they concluded that the attack could be eased and they tactically shifted to the left. Under considerable pressure from a ‘Fight For $15 and Fairness Campaign,’ they increased the minimum wage, announcing that it would rise to $15 in 2019, and introduced a series of measures to strengthen workers’ rights. They also announced a 3% increase in social assistance rates that, while inadequate, would be the first general increase that exceeded the rate of inflation since 1994. They also announced a series of modest but beneficial measures to improve the lives of people receiving benefits.

Anti-austerity protest in Manchester 2017. Photo: Jim Aindow

Tories take over

When the new Tory regime took office last June, there was no delay in moving towards a more ruthless and extreme form of war on the poor. The minimum wage increase was cancelled and the scheduled improvements in social assistance met the same fate. The Tories even cancelled the basic income pilot project that the Liberals were running. While many neoliberal thinkers look approvingly at the concept of basic income, the Ford Tories, as meat and potatoes reactionaries, had no interest in anything that smacked of reduced conditionality. The attitudes of former work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, and her Ontario counterpart, Lisa MacLeod, on this social policy proposal are striking similar.

After killing off the impending reforms and cutting the 3% rate increase in half, the Ontario social services minister declared a review of the social assistance system. The results of this are predictably horrifying and chart directions that will be familiar to those in the UK who have experienced or resisted the Tory attack on social benefits under Cameron and May. MacLeod is very fond of the right wing cliche that ‘the best social programme is a job.’ This is the key to the Ontario Tory approach to ‘welfare reform.’ Having acted to preserve poverty wages, the plan is to refine the social assistance system as a means of forcing people into the worst jobs.

In the UK, the work capability assessment has been used to brutally and systematically deny benefits to disabled people. The Ontario Tories share the goal of ensuring that disability benefits are restricted massively so as to give disabled no option but to enter the job market. Their solution is to change radically the definition of disability. The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) will now only be for those who can show that are permanently and severely impaired with no prospects of taking employment.

All others will be forced onto the ‘short term’ Ontario Works (OW) programme where they will be treated as job ready workers, regardless of their situation. At the same time, OW is to be reworked as a much more coercive supplier of low wage workers.  Just as benefit sanctions and claimant commitments have been used to ensure people in the UK understand they must scramble for employment on the employers’ terms, the Ontario plan takes similar directions. ‘Placing a greater focus on outcomes,’ people will ‘complete individual action plans.’ Municipalities that function as delivery agents ‘will be held accountable for helping people achieve their goals’ (provided those goals include working for low pay with no rights and few supports). So directly is the refined system to work as a supplier for the most exploitative employers that the Tories are ‘launching a website, Ontario.ca/openforbusiness to make matching job seekers with businesses easier.’ The vilest employers will know where to go for a supply of vulnerable workers who must accept employment on their terms or face loss of benefits and outright destitution.

A working-class issue

Theresa May’s recent claim that austerity is over is exposed as a lie as communities in the UK experience the horrible effects of the roll out of Universal Credit. In Ontario, too, austerity and the degrading of benefit systems is a work in progress. What must be understood is that this attack doesn’t only impact the poorest people. It is a careful and ruthless strategy to increase the supply of super exploited workers and, in doing so, depress wages generally. The broad working-class movement has a stake in resisting this attack and defeating the austerity driven war on the poor.