Attending the “Impact of the Welfare Reform Seminar” which was held on Friday 6th July, as part of the Birmingham Social Inclusion Process, I was struck by how utterly crucial partnership working is in dealing with any legislation affecting our City. As the details of the Act emerged it was clear no single agencies could adequately respond to it.
Luckily an enthusiastic, committed and compassionate group of influential individuals who attended as representatives from a diverse, but essential range of public, private, community, religious, and voluntary organisations were present. The adjectives; “enthusiastic, committed and compassionate” were chosen carefully. Taken in reverse order, those people were there because they are compassionate. They do feel and care strongly for others, and are clearly committed to working to address the potential impact that this legislation will have on the people who live and work in Birmingham. Their attendance on a Friday afternoon and their willingness to engage confirmed their commitment. But more importantly they were also enthusiastic because as the bleak, devastating picture of the potential impact this legislation could have, and the damage it could inflict, was painted in ever darker, and darker colours, one response would have been to crumble and collapse in despair. Luckily this was not the way these delegates chose to respond. No! They chose to take up the challenge, to enthusiastically continue to seek ways to mitigate the impact of these changes. To find solutions and to continue meeting and working together to bring solace to those whose lives will be devastated as this legislation comes slowly into being.
The first speaker at the event was Chris Gibbs Assistant Director, Revenues and Benefits, at Birmingham City Council. He outlined some key details stating that:-
The Act itself received Royal Assent on 8 March this year and legislates for the biggest change to the welfare system for over 60 years.
He went to suggest that the purpose of the Act is laudable as:-
…it aims to make the benefits and tax credits systems fairer and simpler by:
- creating the right incentives to get more people into work
- protecting the most vulnerable in our society
- delivering fairness to those claiming benefit and to the taxpayer
However, as Sam Scharf, from the Citizens Advice Bureau was to point out later, during his own presentation, the simplification was far from simple. The various benefits that had been combined into Universal Credit still left several benefits outside it’s scope, and much of the way this would work in practice seemed yet to have been thought through in detail. The issue of getting accurate data from the Government was one that was to re-echo throughout the afternoon.
Returning to Chris Gibbs he went on to outline the main elements of the Act:
- the introduction of Universal Credit to provide a single streamlined payment that will improve work incentives
- a stronger approach to reducing fraud and error with tougher penalties for the most serious offences
- a new claimant commitment showing clearly what is expected of claimants while giving protection to those with the greatest needs
- reforms to Disability Living Allowance, through the introduction of the Personal Independence Payment to meet the needs of disabled people today
- creating a fairer approach to Housing Benefit to bring stability to the market and improve incentives to work
- driving out abuse of the Social Fund system by giving greater power to local authorities
- reforming Employment and Support Allowance to make the benefit fairer and to ensure that help goes to those with the greatest need
- changes to support a new system of child support which puts the interest of the child first.
Having dispensed with generalities Chris quickly got down to the meat. The impact of the Single room rate, applicable to under 35 year olds, would see 1,700 claimants in Birmingham losing, on average, £43 per week. The overall benefit cap (commencing April 2013) will see 750 people losing between £50 – £100 per week. The bad news continued unabated.
Next up was Birmingham born Imran Hussain from the Child Poverty Action Group who had travelled up from London to deliver his presentation. The good news was that all parties had signed up to the Child Poverty Act. This had set targets for reducing child poverty dramatically by 2020, but the bad news was that the targets were slipping and projected results showed child poverty set to rise even further. He went on to outline the impact the Walfare Reform would have on high risk groups especially those likely to be hit by the changes to Housing Benefit.
Zanny Lomas, from Department for Work and Pensions, presented detailed analysis of figures from her department, discussing new initiatives being put in place to help people back into work, and outlining the key elements of the new Work Programme. She ended on a positive note citing new businesses and infrastructure programmes across the region that were sure to provide an uplift in the number of jobs available. Good though this final presentation had been, one was still left with a bitter taste in one’s mouth. The taste of impending doom!
But, despite the real torrential rain outside, and the clouds of despondence still hanging in the air after the presentations, slowly but surely the sun began to shine through. Delegates moved into round table mode and quickly began to consider ways to mitigate the impacts of the Act. Working together and sharing ideas and solutions in the true manner of partners, a way forward began to emerge. One of the immediate proposals was the need to communicate widely and effectively to those who were likely to be impacted by the effects of the Act. Sharing networks and resources plans were hatched to make sure those most at risk were firstly made aware of changes likely to take place, and were then provided with a strategy which could help them to deal effectively with these changes. By the end of the hour, each of the four tables had come up with a stream of ideas and proposals that could be used to tackle the withdrawal of housing benefit, cuts to benefits, and changes to the way the current welfare system was delivered.
In was clear that once againBirminghamhad met a challenge head on and come out fighting. The ideas suggested will be gathered together into a report and further meetings of those interested will take place. From the meeting it was clear thatBirminghamwill produce a united front in order to embrace the best of the new act and find ways to challenge or even reverse the potential impact of the worst.
Watch this space …