At Z2K, staff and volunteers have been discussing the surprise announcement of the General Election and its relevance to our clients. Although feelings are running high on both sides of the political divide over Brexit, we hope the election won’t just be seen as a chance to re-run last year’s referendum on EU membership. Some very big social policy changes have happened since the UK last went to the polls in 2015 and 8th June offers an opportunity for the electorate, including the community Z2K supports, to pass judgment on the policies that impact most greatly on them.
Given the significant impact of welfare reform on our clients, it is understandable that many of our clients feel marginalised from Westminster politics, and our concern is that they are at risk of being completely forgotten during what is a highly significant election in determining social security and housing policy over the next 5 years.
Welfare policy can play an important role in reducing poverty and inequality, but it can also increase it. A recent Panorama documentary exposed that the Government’s lower Benefit Cap of £440 a week has already driven many of those affected into rent arrears, leaving some at risk of eviction. This very issue was being addressed by the Work & Pensions Select Committee up until the election was announced, but, frustratingly, the dissolution of Parliament has put the inquiry on hold.
Similarly, homelessness has been rising inexorably since 2010 and the numbers formally accepted as homeless have increased significantly. But the real evidence lies in the 50 per cent increase in the numbers of homeless households in temporary accommodation. It is of genuine concern to us at Z2K, as it is many other charities, that more than a thousand families with children are unlawfully placed in Bed and Breakfast accommodation beyond the six week legal limit by their local authority. The truth is that while homelessness could affect almost anyone, it still only actually impacts on a small minority of the population and many aren’t even registered to vote.
The one positive on homelessness from the past two years is that Bob Blackman’s Private Members Bill will make it on to the Statute Book before Parliament is dissolved. It’s a huge credit to Mr Blackman and the Bill’s backers in the voluntary sector – especially Crisis – that the Bill secured the Government’s backing and made it through unscathed. Of course, the new duties on local authorities to prevent homelessness will be onerous, especially given the quite limited new funding being made available. But this is a welcome progressive step nonetheless.
Perhaps the one group of our clients who have received significant political and media attention are those on disability benefits. Cuts to disability benefits have been hugely controversial throughout the past two years and hugely unpopular, particularly the reduction of £30 a week for new Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) claimants placed in the Work-Related Activity Group. We really hope whichever political party is elected to form the next Government will reverse this cut and also address the woefully inadequate assessment process DWP and its contracted providers put disabled people through when applying for both ESA and PIP.
Overall this Parliament won’t be remembered fondly by Z2K or our clients but we do hope that they will turn out to vote and challenge all prospective candidates during the campaign to work hard on their behalf, should they be elected.