- Job Seekers' Allowance
Claimants caught up in pilot studies for the Job Seekers’ Allowance say their benefit offices are close to riot zones. Andy Johnson reports on the wide ranging opposition to the national nightmare due next October
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pp. 38-40.
Pernicious is a good word. It means wicked (evil), extremely harmful or deadly. Of all the words used to describe the new Job Seekers’ Allowance, and their have been many, pernicious is perhaps the best. Fire “This Pernicious Bill” from the tongue and it hits the target of understanding pretty near the centre.
Only it is not a bill anymore. On June 28 Royal Assent was given to the Job Seekers Act and it became law.
From October 1996, when JSA will be introduced, it is estimated that 70,000 people will no longer qualify for unemployment benefit or income support. Pernicious.
It is estimated that 85,000 people will receive less benefit, and 95,000 people will be means tested for their benefit. Pernicious.
From October 1996 it is feared that countless numbers of people will be forced into unsuitable low-paid work, bringing down wage levels across the board. Pernicious.
It is feared that many disabled people will find themselves in the “Twilight Zone”. No longer able to qualify for the new incapacity benefit due to the new stringent tests, they will neither be “available” for work because they are “incapacitated”. Pern - see what I mean?
During the “consultation” period for the new act anybody with a modicum of decency pointed out these, and many more, pernicious results to the government. A list of some of those involved in the consultation process is given below.
Despite intensive lobbying the government only agreed to a few amendments which would not detract from Mr Lilley’s or Portillo’s (for indeed this is the child of their union) “harsh benefit regime”.
Squall 10 carried a full brief of the new rules and regulations, so dig a copy out. There isn’t a most pernicious aspect of the Act, in a parade of perniciousness they all share the prize. But for now, it is worth remembering that the JSA will be means tested after the first six months and the income of the claimants family with whom they live will be taken into account.
From October 1996 it is estimated that 70,000 people will no longer qualify for unemployment benefit or income support.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the JSA can be suspended for up to four weeks without hardship payments if the so-called job seeker refuses to take a job (regardless of pay level); attend a compulsory course; reply to an advert; or undertake any other direction given by their claimant adviser. For the last clause read appearance - hairstyle, piercings, attire.
A road protester could very well find themselves “directed” to take a job as a security guard.
The JSA was originally to be introduced in April 1996, but was delayed for six months at the last minute. However, this meant that the government would lose £25 million in savings. So they kept the bit about reducing unemployment benefit entitlement from twelve to six months on schedule. This part of the new regime comes into effect in April.
Who Wanted What and What They Got (Which was Not a Lot)
Low Pay Network - are worried about the effect of the JSA on wage levels. Helen Flanagan, from the network, said that people will be forced into jobs that otherwise they wouldn’t do, because of the meagre remuneration. But this will take away an employer’s incentive to offer higher wages for dispiriting monotonus jobs they can’t fill. A major concern is that once this incentive is removed, employers will pull down their wages across the board, knowing that people will be forced to take them by the employment service.
“We tabled one amendment,” said Helen Flanagan, “that people should not have to take a job that pays less than £4.00 an hour, which is the lowest 10 per cent of earners. People should not be forced into a job that pays them less than that. We do not have a minimum wage in this country and there are jobs paying as little as as £2.00 an hour in the security industry. The amendment was thrown out.”
In effect, the impoverished will find themselves with a job, be just as poor, if not poorer, and have no chance to find something they want to do.
Low Pay Unit
- are mainly concerned about the reduction in entitlement of Unemployment Benefit (UB) from six to twelve months and the means-testing regime. “Many women with young children will see an immediate reduction in benefit because their partners are claiming,” said Bhati Patel from the unit.
This aspect is of particular concern because although UB will only be payable for six months instead of twelve, the level of national insurance contribution, which is paid as insurance for unemployment, is being increased from 9 to 10 per cent.
“People are putting more in but will be getting less out, particularly at the lower end of the scale where people come in and out of work and on and off benefit.
“The amendments that we put forward were to retain the existing rules on UB. None went through. It was very difficult to get anything through because the government wasn’t being concrete about anything. A lot of things in the Act are being left to discretion (of the local employment centres who will assess entitlement).”
Church Action on Poverty
- CAP’S main concerns were about the effect of the new benefit on young people and low pay. Clause 6 of the Act, which details new rules regarding availability of work, were a particular objection.
“We wanted to make sure that people wouldn’t be penalised on the grounds of religion, belief or conscience,” said Catherine Shelley, of the group. “Clause 6 changed quite substantially and now incorporates the right to restrict availability on these grounds. The government have also said they will allow a commons debate on availability in the next session of parliament.
“But it is still a pernicious act. It still has clauses that you can’t refuse work on the grounds that the pay is too low. That’s pernicious.
“That they’ve halved what people are getting back from their national insurance contributions and getting back to means-testing is fairly pernicious. It doesn’t target benefits. It helps to create and feed an underclass.”
- the charity for single homeless people, have a plethora of objections to the new act. In particular is a sneaky amendment to schedule five of the 1992 Social Security Act tacked on to the end of the JSA Act. This removes the duty of the secretary of state for social security to provide shelter for homeless people, or those “without a settled way of life”. These used to be the old spikes - night hostels for the homeless. The responsibility will move into the private/voluntary sector.
“The government called this a tidying up exercise,” said Heather Petch of Char, “because things are already moving that way. But the voluntary sector has it’s own procedures and targets. So it can be argued that direct access provision (ie turn up on the night) will be lost. This will mainly effect older homeless men. Spikes are appalling places, but often the only places that will accept them. If they are drinkers and drunk, they are more likely to be turned away from the voluntary sector. What worries us is the fact that the word ‘duty’ has been taken out. And voluntary sector funding has only been granted until the end of the decade, which is only five years away.”
CHAR are also concerned about the discretionary powers given to employment service staff and the compulsion to do things the JSA will impose on the unemployed. The insecure accommodation, or complete lack of accommodation, experienced by the homeless does not help in the soon to be compulsory job seeking department.
“It’s already a problem but will get much worse,” said Heather Petch. “Homeless people will be even more discriminated against within the benefits system than they are now.”
Young people will also suffer because of the JSA, according to CHAR. The Act specifies that if young people turn down two “reasonable” offers of training then they will no longer be entitled to benefit.
“The JSA takes away discretion,” said Ms Petch. “We’ve been doing a lot of work on hardship payments. Currently if benefit is suspended because people don’t fulfill career requirements or turn down offers there are loopholes in the legislation which allow us to push the benefits system to grant hardship payments for young people, especially 16 and 17-year-olds (who do not qualify for unemployment benefit or income support). But with the JSA there is no grey area to do that left. They will definitely not get any hardship payments.”
CHAR laid down several amendments, particularly to reinstate the word “duty” on homelessness provision. None went through.
Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation
- As with other disability groups, RADAR’s primary concern is that disabled people would no longer qualify for Incapacity Benefit because of the new stringent tests, yet be too “incapacitated” to be available and actively seeking work.
Two hundred thousand people who qualified for the old Invalidity Benefit under the old tests will not pass the Incapacity Benefit tests. Ninety thousand new claimants will not receive Incapacity Benefit, but would have qualified for Invalidity Benefit.
“These are people that would have satisfied the old criteria,” said Margaret Lavery of RADAR. “They have a significant level of impairment or disability.”
The only financial recourse left to these people will be to either get a job or claim JSA.
But to qualify for JSA “they will need to prove that whatever restrictions they have aren’t unreasonable,” according to Margaret Lavery.
A study carried out by RADAR and the Disability Alliance looked at 77 people who had been found fit for work or fit for work within limits by the new tests. Of these, 22 had difficulty being accepted as being able for and actively seeking work.
“The thing about the new incapacity tests,” says Margaret Lavery, “is that it looks at people’s capacity to perform daily living tasks. Such as ‘can you walk up 12 stairs, bend down, stretch, pick up a pen?’ It does not consider your chances of finding work given your condition.”
- an umbrella group for over 200 organisations pressing for a secure income for disabled people, shared RADAR’s concerns that disabled people will fall between the two benefits. But their briefing paper also outlines some other pernicious affects the new benefit is likely to have on disabled people.
A road protester could very well find themselves “directed” to take a job as a security guard.
If a disabled person fails the new incapacity test they can appeal. During the consultation process for the JSA the government announced that after April 1995 new Incapacity Benefit claimants who failed the test and appealed would lose 20 per cent of their Income Support unless they signed on as unemployed pending the appeal.
With the problems disabled people face being accepted as able and actively seeking work, this was seen as a disincentive to appeal.
There is also a problem with ‘vulnerability’. If JSA is suspended no hardship payments will be made unless the person comes from a ‘vulnerable’ group, ie has children, cares for an elderly or disabled relative.
Disabled people are classed as vulnerable only if they qualify for a disability premium or have a serious medical condition.
An amendment put to the House of Lords to widen this definition of vulnerability was lost.
According to the DA briefing: “Ministers indicated that medical health problems would not be included in the definition of a ‘serious underlying medical condition’.”
Whether a disabled person is classed as vulnerable or not will be left to the discretion of individual adjudication officers. No clear guidelines have been laid down. However, the government has argued that “the best route for disabled people is to get back to work”.
“It’s been quite difficult for the voluntary sector to get anything through,” said Marilyn Howard, of Disability Alliance. “A lot of the issues raised were clarified during the consultation process. But overall it’s not good news for disabled people anymore than it’s good news for anybody. It really is giving the state too much power. It’s dependant on what happens in practice, whatever the policy intention maybe.”
Disability Alliance is also concerned about the delegation of decisions regarding suspensions and hardship payments to frontline staff at job centres rather than specialised Adjudication Officers (AOs).
Currently, employment officers advise AOs who make the actual decision. In 1993 AOs reinstated 54,000 claimants who had been referred by the Employment Service for breaching availability and actively seeking work rules. This was 42 per cent of all decisions referred.
National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux
- with much experience of advising unemployed people, were concerned about “the range and severity of sanctions against unemployed people” which would cause “grave financial difficulties” for their clients.
Although they accepted “the need for some sanctions to protect the National Insurance (NI) fund” they thought these were “overly punitive”. They were also concerned about the quality of compulsory training and the “coercion” of unemployed people.
With much experience of advising sick and disabled people, Nacab were also concerned that “disabled people must not be left between two systems - too fit for incapacity benefit, but not fit enough to be actively seeking work”.
According to a Nacab consultation report, JSA will hit women, young people, unemployed people with savings and couples the hardest. A couple with one partner working will see their UB income halved. Young people under the age of 25 who have worked and paid NI will find their benefit cut by 20 per cent - to the present income support level of £36.85 per week. Citizens’ Advice Bureaux have reported cases where young people, unable to survive on this amount of money, fall into debt, can’t pay their rent and end up homeless.
NACAB made numerous suggestions for amendments to the government, from increasing free school meal provision for low-paid families, to advising that training schemes would be more effective if they were voluntary, and suggested by the employment service, rather than compulsory.
They squeezed one concession from the government. That JSA would be paid while doubts about voluntary unemployment were considered. (Benefit will continue to be suspended for 26 weeks should a claimant voluntarily leave their job).
“The government want this benefit to be seen as being more hardline,” said Sean Roberts of Nacab. “So it was made very clear that this concession was against a much harsher background generally.”
- Civil service unions’ main worry is for theCivil and Public Servants Association (Civil Service Union) employment agency staff who will have to implement the new benefit and make decisions regarding the suspension of JSA. Already the focus for frustrated claimant’s anger, the CPSA believe the risk to their members will increase.
A fundamental problem of the Act is its vagueness…. Because the Act merely outlines general guide-lines, purposely, much is left to individual claimant advisers to interpret the rules.
“We are concerned about the impact of the benefit on the unemployed,” says Chris Kirk, who worked with the CPSA’s consultation. “But also we’re concerned for our members who will have to deliver an unpopular benefit. Our members will be put at risk, and so will their jobs.
“The unpopular decisions at the moment are given by Benefits Agency Staff (the Dole Office). If you do not qualify for unemployment benefit then the last port of call is the social security office. Unpopular decisions are related by Benefit’s Agency staff and sometimes there is a confrontational situation because people are desperate. So there are security measures such as screens.
“With the JSA the decision is given by the employment office (job centre) where there are no screens.”
Trade Union Congress
- The TUC expressed many concerns, regarding the effect on employment, civil service staff, women, the young and disabled. These fears are covered elsewhere.
They lobbied the government over many things, particularly less non-entitlement clauses and a tightening up of the rules regarding actively seeking work, so they are more uniform and not left to the discretion of individuals. Only one amendment was successful: that part-time fire fighters would not lose entitlement to benefit under the JSA.
The government’s argument for JSA is that it will help people back to work while at the same time clamping down on fraud. But it is also designed to save money and, in the words of Helen Flanagan from the Low Pay Network, “create and feed the underclass”.
A fundamental problem of the Act is it’s vagueness, which all groups mentioned. Because the Act merely outlines general guide-lines, purposely, much is left to individual claimant advisers to interpret the rules.
For the Homeless - CHAR, Homeless Network
For the Impoverished - Unemployment Unit, Low Pay
Network, Low Pay Unit, Child Poverty Action Group.
The Disabled - Disability Alliance, Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, Disablement Income Group, the ME Association, Royal National Institute for the Blind, Scope The Young - National Union of Students, Coalition of Young People and Social Security (includes Church Action Group on Poverty, Youth Aid, Barnardos and the Children’s Society). Unions - Civil and Public Public Servants Association, National Union of Civil and Public Servants, Trades Union Congress. Others - National Association of Citizen’s Advice Bureaux, National Council of Voluntary Organisations, Child Action Poverty Group, Unemployment Unit,
What they say:
“It is still a pernicious act. It still has clauses that you can’t refuse work because the pay is too low. It doesn’t target benefits. It helps to create and feed an underclass,” Catherine Shelley, Church Action on Poverty:
“Homeless people will be even more discriminated against within the benefits system than they are now. The Job Seekers Act is a real disaster for older homeless people,” Heather Petch, CHAR
“It is the most arbitrary power I have ever seen conferred in English law. It gives one person total control over the life of another. In fact, it comes remarkably close to forced labour,” Earl Russell, Lib Dem Peer.
“People will be forced into a job that pays as little as £1.00 an hour. It will pull people into poverty and remove the option of entering employment to get out of poverty,” Helen Flanagan, Low Pay Network.
“We have a lot of concerns about the JSA. I could go on for hours about all the things I dislike about the JSA,” Richard Exell, TUC.
“JSA will be a modem benefit designed specifically to help the needs of unemployed people and get them back into jobs,” Job Seekers’ Allowance White (consultation) paper.
“Disability Alliance is concerned that the JSA is another cost cutting exercise, designed to save £140 million in its first year. The government argued that the best route for disabled people was to get back to work,” Disability Alliance briefing paper.
“Nothing I have heard has persuaded me that this Bill is not perverse at its very core,” Baroness Hollis of Heigham.
“The change in attitude at the benefit office has been dramatic. They used to be civil, now they treat you like scum, presumably so you’ll do anything not to go back there. My benefit office is close to riot,” Jay, a UB40 in Norwich, a pilot area already operating the JSA.