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Our social security system needs to be radically reformed

Instead of raising universal credit and funding its administration, the government has chosen once again to make things worse for the most vulnerable — it’s time to fight back, writes MARTIN CAVANAGH

THERE has been a long-term decline in benefit rates within Britain, which are now at their lowest in over four decades. This systemic problem has become more acute since 2010, with over a decade of cuts under the coalition and subsequent Tory governments taking £14 billion out of the welfare system.
The standard allowance of universal credit (UC) now equates to just one-seventh of the average weekly pay.
As more and more we see the most vulnerable in our communities falling into the benefits trap, rather than apply much-needed increases to these rates and improve access to our social security system, recent months have instead seen the Tories double down on their attacks on benefit claimants.
Changes to the Average Earnings Threshold (AET), announced by the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement will mean that over a million UC claimants will be negatively affected. These claimants will be expected to look for more work, with the disabled and women disproportionately impacted.
This is a requirement even if they are already employed and regardless of whether extra hours are suitable or practical. Moreover, the failure of claimants to comply will result in sanctions.
PCS has long campaigned for a new, fairer, properly funded social security system, and members in the DWP are opposed to these new changes.
The broadening of the work search criteria will include sick and disabled UC claimants, and will have a damaging impact on the most vulnerable.
The DWP’s own Equality Impact Assessment makes it clear that claimants who are sick and/or disabled, who don’t meet the new work-related requirements “without good reason” will be liable for sanctions. This is a travesty.
Sick and disabled claimants
The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has found that “grave and systematic violations” of disabled persons’ rights had taken place since 2010, due to successive austerity measures and welfare reforms.
They made clear this has had a “disproportionately and adversely” effect on the rights of disabled people.
The committee specifically cited changes to housing benefit, eligibility criteria for Personal Independence Payments and social care, and the cessation of the Independent Living Fund as evidence of these violations.
Ahead of the UN committee reconvening in March, to hear evidence from the British government, I was honoured to travel to Geneva alongside disability activists and other unions, to discuss the issues facing disability users.
The session on March 18 followed a hearing last August, at which the British government should have given evidence alongside disabled people’s organisations, but failed to attend.
The session reviewed three key areas of law. Article 19 (independent living), Article 27 (work and employment) and Article 28 (adequate standard of living and social protection).
Campaigners have argued breaches of these articles were caused directly by government policies and services between 2010 and 2015, and the government’s failure to address the issues raised since 2016, and instead implemented policies that have further cut funding and services, leading to severe, enduring and worsening impacts on the lives of disabled people in Britain.
The government is still implementing policies that are hitting the sick and vulnerable the hardest.
Claimants who refuse to look for a job will lose their right to free NHS prescriptions, dental care and help with energy bills.
PCS will continue to oppose these cruel policies, and the conditionality and sanctions regime, and I was happy to second the motion at this week’s Scottish TUC demanding an end to benefits sanctions.
Radical Reform is the only answer
PCS has long campaigned for a massive expansion of the jobcentre network, with less reliance on digital-only services, which exclude the sick and disabled.
The social security system should play an integral role in providing people with access to high-quality training skills and training programmes, with those who cannot work being offered the support to allow them to live with dignity and respect.

DWP in crisis
Discussions about DWP reform and the rights of disabled claimants must include resources for the DWP and its staff. Over 24,000 staff in the DWP find themselves on the National Living Wage.
Research commissioned by PCS shows staffing levels in the DWP are at least 20 per cent below the minimum requirements to deliver this crucial public service. The jobcentre network is, by the DWP’s own admission, over 10 per cent understaffed.
The research also corroborates the view of PCS that pay levels, often set just above National Minimum Wage levels and low enough to require employees to claim benefits to supplement incomes for skilled jobs requiring sensitive and significant decision-making responsibilities, are simply not attractive to recruit and retain staff, and this lies at the heart of the DWP’s staffing crisis.
Understaffing in the DWP limits the support given to those requiring help in entering or re-entering the labour market. The DWP has a track record of failing to handle disputes within its own workplaces, losing more tribunal cases than any other employer on disability related matters.
If the DWP does not support its own disabled staff why should other employers, and what level of support can be expected for disabled claimants? The PCS bottom line is that the DWP should be given the resources it needs in order to provide the vital services the public relies upon.
PCS will continue to collaborate with campaigners and other unions to pursue our demands. These demands must include, an immediate and permanent uplift in benefit rates to match inflation, with a guarantee in law that they will never fall below it, and a reversal of the expansions of the work-related requirements in UC.
In the short term, we will call on the government to immediately scrap the punitive measures within UC, including the two-child limit; benefits cap; the five-week wait for UC; high deduction rates; local housing allowance freeze; and the sanctions and conditionality regime.
In the long term, our movement must call to scrap UC entirely and replace it with a system that treats claimants and staff with dignity. A failure to do so will be a failure we will struggle to recover from.

Martin Cavanagh is acting president of PCS and its DWP group president.


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