The announcement of a General Election was as much a surprise to Zacchaeus 2000 Trust as everyone else. We recognise that feelings are running high on both sides of the political divide over Brexit, but 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 to pass judgment on those as well.
Given how marginalised many of the clients Z2K represents are, it’s hard to see the political and media establishment spending much time focussing on their concerns in the next six weeks. Two recent documentaries have exposed that the Government’s lower Benefit Cap of £440 a week is simply driving many of those affected into rent arrears, leaving some at risk of eviction. Frustratingly, the Work & Pensions Select Committee inquiry into it, has been put on hold because of the election. And I can’t see this issue being covered more widely in the heat of the campaign.
Similarly, homelessness has been rising inexorably since 2010. The numbers of formal acceptances has increased somewhat, but the real evidence lies in the 50 per cent increase in the numbers of homeless households in temporary accommodation. More than a thousand families with children are also unlawfully placed in B&B beyond the six week legal limit by their local authority. The truth, however, 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 really could flex a political muscle are disabled people. Cuts to disability benefits have been hugely controversial throughout the past two years, 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 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 ESA in the first place.
The same problems apply to the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment process. With DWP “migrating” ever more Disability Living Allowance claimants onto the much tougher PIP regime, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust has been seeing more and more disabled people who have lost the money they rely upon to cover the costs of their disability. In the past year alone, we helped 273 claimants challenge the refusal of PIP. We won 80 per cent of those cases. Many other unsuccessful claimants would win too, if they had the right advice and representation.
Overall then this Parliament won’t be remembered fondly by Z2K or our clients. We hope the MPs elected next time will do a much better job of scrutinising all these “welfare reforms”.