Welfare Reform: the priorities for the next stage.

NICVA and the Northern Ireland Advice Services Consortium have two priorites for the further consideration stage of the Welfare Reform Bill. They are - to create the right to independant advice and a change to how sanctions are implementated.

Statutory right to advice

Any claimant who requires assistance with an application during the implementation phase of Welfare Reform or any claimant facing a reduction in their income as a result of Welfare Reform, should be informed of their right to independent advice. We would propose that this initiative runs concurrently with the other proposed “mitigation schemes” during the roll-out of Welfare Reform, before being reviewed by the Department for Social Development and the voluntary advice sector. Statutory agencies should, where applicable, also make this explanation available via the claimant’s preferred communication channel, particularly in the case of vulnerable claimants.

Welfare Reform, when implemented, will constitute the single biggest set of changes to the welfare system in Northern Ireland since the 1950s. Implementing and realising these changes will be an enormous challenge for decision-makers, administrators and claimants alike.

Speaking in the Assembly on 12th January, the Minister for Social Development observed: ‘If anything has been learned from the way in which Universal Credit in particular has been rolled out in the rest of the UK, it is more about its implementation than the overall policy intent.’

By implementing a statutory right to independent advice, the Executive would allow the independent advice sector to provide an additional layer of protection to those citizens most vulnerable to changes in the welfare system. This would allow the government, claimants and the independent advice sector to work co-operatively through the challenges of implementing the new welfare systems, and develop procedures and practices which work for all concerned.

By simply amending communications to include details of relevant independent advice centres in the claimant’s area, we can ensure that all claimants who are negatively affected by welfare reform are afforded the option of free, expert, independent advice. This advice would have to be properly funded. Implementing a statutory right to advice would result in significant extra traffic to independent advice centres across Northern Ireland, which will bring extra cost to these centres. However, we are confident that any cost would be more than offset by significant long-term savings to the public purse, as independent advice improves the accuracy and success rate of benefit decisions and implementation.

Sanctions

NICVA and NIASC do not condone any fraud or wilful deception by a claimant or prospective claimant, which may lead to sanctions legitimately being applied. However, we believe that sanctions will not be effective in achieving their stated objectives of encouraging employment and altering claimant behaviour. Evidence from the implementation of sanctions in the UK suggests that claimants rarely understand why they have been sanctioned, and these sanctions cause little change in claimant behaviour in addition, recent research by multiple universities and charities has established that benefit sanctions do not demonstrably reduce unemployment amongst claimants.

Finally, data recently released by the Department for Work and Pensions has indicated that sanctions can have a disproportionate effect on claimants suffering mental health problems: this data revealed that ESA claimants who suffer from long-term mental health problems are being sanctioned at a rate of more than 100 per day.

Given such significant barriers to claimant understanding of the sanctions process, and the serious impact which any benefit sanction would have upon a claimant, we believe that the Assembly should focus on ensuring that the benefit sanctions process is fully understood by all decision-makers and claimants. This could be achieved by approaching sanctions in the following way.

 On any occasion when a decision is taken to enforce a benefit sanction on a claimant, the following steps should be followed:

  • The relevant statutory agency/agencies must provide the claimant with a clear, easy-to-understand written explanation detailing why this decision has been taken
  • Claimants must be given a 1-month window in which they can commence a formal challenge against the sanction, during which time any sanction will not commence and the benefit will continue as normal;
  • In their written explanation, the statutory agency must inform the claimant of the availability of independent advice, and provide details of independent advice centres in their area.

We believe that any disproportionate effect of sanctions is best mitigated by ensuring that statutory agencies provide claimants with clear accessible communication and explanation of the sanction decision; and that claimants are informed of their right to challenge the sanction, and the availability of independent advice.

Implementing these steps would ensure that claimants are fully aware of the sanction process, and their rights in relation to it – this would, in turn, reduce the number of “unsuccessful” or wasteful sanction referrals, and significantly reduce public expenditure on the sanctions system.