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Executive Leader Cllr Brenda Warrington

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Councillor Brenda Warrington, Executive Leader of Tameside Council

Welfare That Works for Everybody

Friday, 01 June 2018

Almost half a decade ago now, Tameside became one of the first parts of Britain to pilot the new Universal Credit benefit system. Our conclusion, then and now, was clear. Despite some positive elements on paper, most notably the simplification of an incredibly complex system of benefits and entitlements, the implementation of Universal Credit was broken almost beyond repair, and that, far from helping people back onto their feet and into work, it often drove people further into poverty and away from the jobs market entirely.

Both then and now, our findings and concerns were ignored by the government, who chose to plough on ahead regardless. All through that time, the evidence that our current benefits system isn’t fit for purpose has been growing and growing. Now, a new report seeks to show just exactly what kind of mess our social safety net is in, and that a different approach is urgently needed.

Supported with a grant by the Economic and Social Research Council, with contributions from universities in Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Sheffield and York, the report gathers together evidence from almost 700 participants, stakeholders and service users from across the UK over a five-year period. Nobody, anywhere, has conducted research on that many people for that amount of time before. Their question was simple, “Does the current system of welfare conditionality (sanctions, support etc.) help people get off benefits and back into work?”

The answer is a resounding “No”. Their final findings conclude, and I think it’s worth quoting this in full, that “Welfare conditionality within the social security system is largely ineffective in facilitating people’s entry into or progression within the paid labour market over time”. On benefit sanctions, the report goes even further, stating that “Benefit sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek, or enter paid work. They routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes”. Where people do find employment, it is more likely to be temporary, low-paid employment as opposed to anything that can lift them out of poverty in the long term. Put simply, not only is the current welfare system needlessly cruel, it also actively works against the very goal it’s supposed to achieve.  

No wonder that a majority of service users found that the welfare system in its current form seemed to be more interested in “looking for excuses” to impose sanctions than supporting them into employment. So, if the current way we’re doing things doesn’t work, then what’s the alternative? In a few isolated cases, service users who received personalised employment support, backed up by appropriate high-quality skills training, could achieve some quite remarkable turnarounds. The report highlights one particular example of a man who had lost his business, his family and his home to a severe drug addiction, who eventually managed to find a new job and live independently again. He credits his success almost entirely to his Job Centre adviser, who persisted with offering him positive and personalised support. On several occasions, rather than imposing sanctions, the adviser chose to instead to work with him to help address the root causes of any breach of conditions.

This, the report suggests, provides a way forward. Stop treating people like case numbers, who need to be forced into compliance with sanctions and conditions, and start treating them like individuals who may need different levels and types of assistance. Make sure that the support is there to turn the search for work into something that happens *with* jobseekers, as opposed to something that happens *to* them.

Since we took part in the Universal Credit pilot we have been looking at ways to make this happen, most notably through the “Advice Tameside” website, which brings together the council and partners to give residents a one-stop shop for advice on applying for Universal Credit and other work and life skills. I therefore wholeheartedly support this report and its recommendations for a welfare system that is both more humane and more effective, and sincerely encourage the government to do the same on a national level.


Posted by: Executive Leader

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