Serious questions about the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)
Over the past few years the DWP has developed something of a reputation for having scant regard for facts or statistics. It has been accused by the UK Statistics Authority of twisting or misrepresenting figures in order to justify its own policies.
The people who suffer the consequences of this are usually the most vulnerable; the poor the sick, and the unemployed.
Now however, the DWP stands accused of also having inadequate regard for the law. Opponents of its Workfare scheme, through which large corporations were supplied with free labour, and unemployed people made to work in return for their Jobseekers Allowance, celebrated as the Appeal Court ruled that the regulations surrounding Workfare were unlawful.
But DWP Minister Mark Hoban was unabashed. He seemed to feel that this was a minor blip, which could be dealt with swiftly: it would soon be business as usual.
The DWP spun the Workfare ruling as a mere inconvenience, but it may be just the beginning of a process in which the Department’s whole approach to the vulnerable may be exposed as unworkable and just plain wrong.
Whilst Workfare has aroused much hostility and anger from the people subjected to it, their objections have previously not been given much publicity or sympathy. This may have been because it was so outrageous that much of the public did not grasp the reality of the situation. When I have told people that somebody could be working in a supermarket for less than £60 a week, they seemed to think I was making it up. It sounded like a scenario from the developing world, not 21st Century Britain.
But the incoming bedroom tax has begun to capture the public imagination, perhaps because the idea of disabled people losing their homes is simple, graphic, and to put it rather crassly, makes good television. Several news reports have portrayed the victims of the bedroom tax in a reasonably sympathetic light, in stark contrast to the coverage that has previously been given to unemployed or disabled people facing harsh DWP policies.
However, not only is the bedroom tax beginning to look unpopular: it may also, like Workfare, prove to be illegal. As far as sleeping accommodation is concerned, the Housing Act 1985 specifies the floor space required per person, according to age. Interestingly, a room smaller than 50sq.ft cannot be classed as a bedroom, according to the Act.
The Secretary of State, who lives rent-free in a mansion complete with tennis court and swimming pool, may not realise this, but in the real world many rooms smaller than that are considered bedrooms, and used as such. Indeed it is possible that in order to comply with the requirements of the bedroom tax, children are being forced to share rooms that are far too small. This could be legally considered overcrowding, and a contravention of the Housing Act. It is surely only a matter of time before somebody mounts a legal challenge to the bedroom tax.
Add to this the imminent introduction of Universal Credit, and the DWP may soon find itself facing a storm of adverse publicity. Universal Credit relies on a system called RTI, Real Time Information exchanged between employers, benefits offices and HMRC. In January it was revealed that in trials this system was failing in 25 per cent of cases. The DWP seems oblivious to, or unconcerned by, the real-life turmoil that could be caused by such failures when the system goes live.
For the sake of all the human beings who rely on the DWP operating in an effective and benign manner, one can only hope that there is a fundamental change of attitude soon.
To call for a Cumulative Impact Assessment of Welfare Reform, particularly as it affects sick and disabled people, please sign the WOW petition.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor.
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