Select Committee inquiry into the Welfare Safety Net

As the Work & Pensions Select Committee begins a new inquiry into the reasons so many people are falling through the Welfare Safety Net into severe poverty and destitution, Z2K's Marc Francis explains why we hope they will take a closer look at the role played by the "localisation" of Council Tax Benefit.

One of Zacchaeus 2000 Trust’s highlights of 2018 was giving evidence to the Work & Pensions Select Committee’s inquiry into the impact of the Benefit Cap.  The committee seemed genuinely concerned about the extent to which people who are not actually required to be actively seeking work are being hit by the cap as a “work incentive” and so we are hopeful it will at least recommend these households are made exempt.

While we await that report, the committee has begun another inquiry, which is just as relevant to the people we work with – the Welfare Safety Net.  This seems to have been prompted by the preliminary report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty following his visit to the UK in November.  His scathing criticism of many of the Government’s policies, especially those that leave families without enough money to eat, cloth themselves and heat their homes, added to the wave of negative headlines the Government suffered in the run-up to Christmas.

The committee’s inquiry is designed to get behind those headlines to discover the real reasons for the extent of hunger, deprivation and destitution in the UK today.  It’s Chair, Frank Field MP, has been around long enough to have seen the Welfare Safety Net that was in place prior to 1997.  And if he wasn’t always a fan of the actions the New Labour Government took, he is undoubtedly a supporter of a national system of Social Security.

That is probably what persuaded him back in 2015 that the committee should undertake an inquiry into the Local Welfare Safety Net.  In our evidence then, we raised concerns about the increasing “Postcode Lottery” of Social Security, with some boroughs seeking to mitigate the impact of cuts while others simply passed them on to their residents.  The most striking example of that was the “localisation” of Council Tax Support, but something similar had begun with the Social Fund too.

As part of that inquiry, the committee met some of the clients we were working with the Beethoven Centre in Queens Park.  MPs heard that, while there were some examples of innovation by London boroughs in the use of the Local Welfare Assistance, most had more restrictive eligibility criteria than those that had been in place under the national Social Fund.  Similarly, Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) were increasingly being rationed or made subject to “conditionality”, which meant many of the tenants we worked with were falling into arrears and facing eviction.

In the three years since then, the situation has deteriorated even further with some authorities adopting behaviours not seen since the Poor Laws were finally swept away by the Post-1945 Welfare State.  Several Boroughs have closed their Local Welfare Assistance schemes completely and most of those that remain have only a fraction of the funding they had when responsibility was devolved in 2013.  The pressure on DHPs has increased too, with many tenants being awarded funding for just three months and/or required to contribute to the shortfall from other benefits.

Our biggest concern remains the disastrous localisation of Council Tax Support and our evidence to the committee focusses on this issue.  Over 400,000 disabled and unemployed Londoners are being required to pay Council Tax they wouldn’t previously have had to pay.  And while half a dozen Boroughs are still not charging people and several others are only charging around £100 a year, most are now charging upwards of £200 a year.  £5 a week might not sound much, but when you are trying to survive on just £73 a week Job Seekers Allowance (JSA), it is £5 you just don’t have spare.

No wonder then that, despite the overall reduction in CTS claimants in London as the economy has improved, the number being served with a court summons for late-payment is still more than 90,000 a year (some Boroughs refuse to provide this data).  Worse still the number of CTS claimants having bailiffs instructed against them has stayed the same too – at least 19,000 in 2017/18 and 85,000 over the whole five-year period.  For many, this policy will have sent them into a spiral of problem debt as they struggle to keep up with the payments and extra “court costs” and “bailiff fees”.

Back in 2015/16, the select committee was put off looking at Council Tax Support in more detail by the Government’s impending “independent review” of the policy.  That turned out to be a complete sham – it was conducted by a former MP who had voted to abolish Council Tax Benefit and who didn’t speak to a single person affected by it.  Nearly three years later, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, is still considering its response to some recommendations.

If the figures in London are anything to go by, across England as a whole, up to half a million CTS claimants may have been served with a court summons each year since 2013 and 100,000 referred to bailiffs.  This new inquiry gives Parliament a real chance to examine the impact this new “Poll Tax” has had on those claimants.  Zacchaeus 2000 will be doing everything we can to ensure ministers don’t get away with sweeping the evidence under the carpet again.

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