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Open Letter to Iain Duncan Smith

Ekklesia and The Centre for Welfare Reform here publish their correspondance with Iain Duncan Smith, the Government Minister leading the UK's version of 'welfare reform'. The initial letter (published 3rd July) was signed by leading Catholic thinkers and asked Mr Duncan Smith to consider whether his reforms were consistent with his Catholic faith. His reply (14th July) is also published, as is our response to that reply (24th July).

Initial letter to Mr Iain Duncan Smith - 3rd July 2015

Dear Mr Duncan Smith

We are fellow Catholics and people who were brought up in the Catholic faith. We are writing to express our concern at the impact on our communities of your welfare reform policies. We understand that your Catholic faith is important to you, and your approach is driven by a desire to improve the quality of individual lives. However, we believe that they are in fact doing the reverse. We would urge you to rethink and to abandon further cuts which are likely to cause more damage.

Of particular concern are benefit sanctions. We were shocked to learn that your Department recognises sanctions can lead to a deterioration in the health of a claimant. Yet sanctions continued to be imposed. This, as a punishment for what may be a clerical or timekeeping error, seems excessive. We would not expect prisoners in our jails to be punished in this way, and would be grateful if you would consider whether it is an appropriate way to treat people who are unemployed, sick, or disabled.

We are also very concerned at the way the Work Capability Assessment is currently managed and the change from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments. Both these systems are causing great harm to sick and disabled people as are the enormous delays in administering disability and sickness benefits. To become seriously ill or disabled is bad enough. To then have to wait months for help whilst unpaid bills mount up, perhaps fearing eviction or needing to use a foodbank, is distressing and damaging. The recent suggestion to reduce Employment Support Allowance - currently funded at a level that recognises the additional costs of illness or disability - to the rate of Jobseeker's Allowance will cause further hardship.

We appreciate that you believe the benefits cap encourages people to take control of their lives and find work. However the evidence suggests that it is in fact driving families into poverty. The main reason families exceed the benefit cap is that they require high levels of Housing Benefit in order to pay excessive rents. As a result, thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes, which is disruptive to families and damaging to local communities.

We know you place great faith in Universal Credit to restore fairness to the system, but would ask you to reconsider many aspects of it, including the halving of the disabled child’s allowance. Disabled people, and families with disabled children, are already more likely to be living in poverty - it does not seem fair that they should lose more.

We are aware of your wish to promote personal responsibility and self-reliance, and we too believe these qualities are to be encouraged. However, we feel that for large numbers of people, policies aimed at promoting these qualities are having the opposite effect, pushing them further into poverty, and worse.

We would ask you to consider these words from Quadragesimo Anno, the Papal Encyclical written in 1931, as the world dealt with the Great Recession:

To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods; and the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is labouring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice. (Quadragesimo Anno para 57/58)

The Encyclical went on to stress that this entitlement to a share of the wealth of the community was not dependent on work. In other words, when people are unable to work through ill health or disability, or unable to find a job, it is our duty to make sure that they receive the basic requirements of a dignified life; adequate food, shelter, warmth and security.

We believe that a supportive welfare state is an expression of Christian justice and compassion. When this support is removed, we may think we are saving money, but the consequential problems, like poorer mental and physical health, and educational underachievement, all bear a human and financial cost, and will have to be paid for in some way.

We accept that your reforms have been undertaken in accordance with your conscience, but we would ask you to accept in return that our concerns are genuine, and our experiences of increasing social distress are real. Our consciences, informed by our faith and experience in our communities, leave us with no alternative but to speak out when we see some of the most disadvantaged people in society being harmed.

We would like to enter into a dialogue with you, to explore how as citizens we can best support and enable our less fortunate neighbours, whilst treating them with dignity and respect. We have constructive proposals on how to make our welfare system work better, and in a way that is more compatible with Catholic and Christian values. We would not wish to find ourselves reliant on charity to survive, and are saddened that so many of our neighbours have become so in recent years. As Saint Augustine said, "Charity is no substitute for justice withheld."

We would like to thank you for taking the time to read this letter.

We remain your sisters and brothers in Christ.

Signatories:

Steve Atherton, Justice and Peace Fieldworker, Archdiocese of Liverpool
Francis Ballin, Cardiff Justice and Peace Commission
Phil Barrett, Liverpool Archdiocese Justice and Peace Commission
Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies, Director, The Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing (DSRC),Digby Stuart College, University of Roehampton
Anne Booth, children’s author
E. Irene Brennan, Jean Monnet Profess of European Integrated Studies (retired) University of Westminster
Frances Brown, Banbury Justice and Peace Group
Joseph Brown, Banbury Justice and Peace Group
Terry Brown, Justice and Peace Coordinator, ArchDiocese of Southwark
Bernadette Callaghan, retired teacher
Sheila Cogley, retired social care worker
Michael Cook, retired academic
Margaret Cook, retired schools inspector, school governor
Frank Cottrell-Boyce, author and screenwriter
Denise Cottrell-Boyce
Henrietta Cullinan, Ekklesia administrator, London Catholic Worker
Brian Davies, Birmingham J&P Commission, former CAFOD Head of Education
Sir Tom Devine, OBE, academic historian
Dr Claire Dwyer, Reader in Human Geography,Co-Director, Migration Research Unit, University College London
Paul Donovan, writer and journalist
Rev Kevin Duffy, Deacon, Corpus Christi RC Church, Rainford
John Eade, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Dept of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton
Fr Rob Esdaile, Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Thames Ditton, Surrey
Hannah Flynn, Christians for Economic Justice
Pat Gaffney, Coordinator, Pax Christi
Mary Glennon, retired teacher
Mary Grey, Professor Emeritus University of Wales, Chair, Living Stones of the Holy Land Trust, Hon. President, Wells for India
Catherine Hale, independent researcher
Mary Hallam, retired teacher
Dr Alana Harris, Teaching Fellow in Modern British History, King’s College London
Stephen Hoyland, Ignatian Outreach - IGO
Fr Chris Hughes, Chair, Hexham and Newcastle Diocesan Justice and Peace Co-Ordinating Council.
Fr Peter Hughes, Coordinator, Columban Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation
Barbara Hungin, Chair Middlesbrough Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission
Dr Deborah M Jones, Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics
Matt Jeziorski, Education Officer, Pax Christi
Ann Kelly, Administrator, National Justice and Peace Network
David Lodge, author and former professor of English at Birmingham University
Kathryn Lydon, retired social worker (mental health) and CAB volunteer
Fr Marc Lyden-Smith, Chaplain to Sunderland University and Sunderland Football Club
Dr Susan O’Brien, Visiting Lecturer, Margaret Beaufort Institute
Dr Carmen M Mangion, Birkbeck, University of London
Vincent Manning, Chairperson, Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Support
Bernadette Meaden, writer and Ekklesia Associate
Tony McNicholl, Co-ordinator, Wrexham Diocese Faith, Justice & Peace Network
Virginia Moffatt, Chief Operating Officer, Ekklesia
Anne O’Connor, Editor, North West National Justice and Peace Network E Bulletin
John O’Brien, Accountant, Chair of Nottingham Ark
Dr Susan O’Brien, Visiting Lecturer, Margaret Beaufort Institute
Marie O’Sullivan, Advocate
Anne Peacey, Chair National Justice and Peace Network
Dr Terry Phillips
Fr Hugh Pollock, Chair, Lancaster Diocese Justice and Peace Commission
Geraldine Poole, trustee mental health charity
Gerry Poole, peace and justice campaigner
Fr Nick Postlethwaite, CP, Catholic Priest
Moira Potier de la Morandiere, Consultant Clinical and Forensic Psychologist
Dr Marcus Pound, Associate Director, Centre for Catholic Studies, University of Durham.
Dr Maria Power, Lecturer, Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool.
Joe Prendergast, Project Assistant, Liverpool Hope University
Christopher Rawthorne, retired Headmaster
Josephine Rawthorne, retired teacher
Jean Raymond, Salford
Frank Regan, Writer on Christian faith in dialogue with culture and politics
Dr Anna Rowlands, Lecturer in Catholic Studies, University of Durham
Councillor Jennifer Rowlands, Luton Borough Council
Lee Siggs, Editor, Justice Magazine
Tony Sheen, Westminster Justice and Peace
Denise Sheen, parishioner St George’s Church, Enfield
Fr Shaun Smith, Hallam Justice and Peace Commission
Ellen Teague, writer and journalist
Stan Thomas, retired social worker
Marian Thompson, Editor of Mouthpeace, Justice and Peace Newsletter, Liverpool and Shrewsbury Dioceses
Cate Tuitt, Vice Chair, London Cooperative Party
Union of Catholic Mothers
John Usher

Iain Duncan Smith sent the following response - 14th July 2015


Dear Ms Moffatt et al,

Thank you for your letter dated 3rd July. I welcome your engagement with the vital issue of social justice. It might be helpful to bring to your attention the principles behind the measures announced at the July 8th Budget and also some of the latest evidence around the impacts of our reforms.

The Chancellor recently announced a services of measures to reduce welfare spending, and the 4 principles that have underpinned his decision making. Firstly, the welfare system should support the elderly, vulnerable and disabled people; secondly, those who can work should be expected to look for work, and take work when it is offered; thirdly, the working-age benefit system has to be more sustainable and fourthly, the system shouldn't support lifestyles or rents not available to the taxpayers who pay for that system.

Based on the above principles he announced a number of protections for the most vulnerable in our society: exempting disability benefits and Carer's Allowance from the Working-age Benefits freeze; maintaining the state pension triple lock; exempting the most vulnerable disabled people from the Benefit Cap; and exempting the disabled/severely disabled child elements in Child Tax Credits (and their Universal Credit equivalent) from the Tax Credits/Universal Credit payment limits. These exemptions show that safeguarding the vulnerable is at the very heart of our reforms.

With regards to sanctions let me be clear that there is no evidence to suggest that sanctions have caused claimants' health to deteriorate. There is however evidence to show that sanctions are changing attitudes towards gaining employment - over 70% of JSA claimants and over 60% of ESA claimants have said themselves that the possibility of being sanctioned makes them more likely to engage in the job finding process. Benefit sanctions have been part of the system for at least the last four decades; however they are only applied as a last resort. Needless to say, we ensure the most vulnerable are protected, and no-one is sanctioned without first being made aware of hardship payments.

The department, as we always have, will continue to support disabled and vulnerable people, providing a strong welfare safety net for those in need. We spent £50 billion on disability benefits and services in 2012/13. We increased spending on the main disability benefits by over £2 billion over the last parliament, and we will be spending more on the main disability benefits in 2020 than we were in 2010.

With regard to Personal Independence Payment (PIP), this was introduced to ensure that support goes to those who most need it and has already resulted in more people receiving the top rate of benefit than did on Disability Living Allowance (DLA). Ipublically recognised that the delays faced by some PIP claimants last year were unacceptable and drove significantly improved performance. The average time a claimant waits for a PIP assessment is now 5 weeks for new claims, and 4 weeks for reassessments of existing claims.

You also discuss Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). We have already made considerable improvements to the WCA process, including accepting over 100 recommendations from 5 independent reviews and terminating the failing contract with ATOS.

At the Budget, we announced that we would align the ESA Work Related Activity Group (WAAG) rate with that of Jobseeker's Allowance for new claims, alongside a package of measures to increase health and employment support for ESA claimants. This is because it is important not to write disabled people off to a life on benefits. Many can work, want to work, and need our support to get them into work. More and more disabled people are successfully making the transition into work, with latest figures showing that the number of disabled people in work is up by 238,000 on the year.

The benefit cap strikes a balance between incentivising work, fairness for working households and supporting the most vulnerable. In order to protect the most vulnerable, we have however ensured that the cap does not apply to any household where someone receives DLA or is in the Support Group of ESA. Where the cap does apply, households were 41% more likely to go into work after a year than similarly uncapped households just below the cap level, illustrating how the policy incentivises work. Very few capped households have moved and there has not been large scale moves out of London.

There is a clear rationale for this Government's welfare reforms.The system we inherited from Labour was uncontrolled and unaffordable. It wrote-off people with a disability to a life on benefits, and it made welfare a more attractive option than work for millions of people. Our welfare reforms are restoring fairness, simplifying the benefit system, and helping people into lasting employment. Employment is up nearly 2 million since 2010, and 800,000 fewer people are in relative low income than in 2010 -clear signs that these reforms are working.

Last week we announced a new National Living Wage. This will be set at £7.20 an hour from next April and will rise to £9 by 2020. This will benefit over 2 million workers. By 2020 a full time worker on the national minimum wage will earn over £5,200 more by 2020. I am sure you share in my delight at this announcement, which will see millions of workers earn more through work.

The Rt Hon lain Duncan Smith MP

SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WORK AND PENSIONS

Ekklesia and The Centre for Welfare Reform reply - 24th July

Dear Mr Duncan Smith

Thank you for your detailed response to our letter which we have read carefully. We have the following observations to make.

Whilst we welcome your view that the welfare system should ‘support the elderly, vulnerable and disabled’, we would reiterate that the reforms passed in 2012 have in fact done the opposite, and the July 8th budget will make things worse.

1.Protecting the vulnerable

We are pleased that people on disability benefits are exempt from some of the changes in the July 8th budget. However, these exemptions are insufficient to safeguard people you refer to as the ‘most vulnerable’. There is clear evidence from a number of sources that sick and disabled people have been harmed by cuts to welfare and social care. The Centre for Welfare Reform reported on this in 2013 and bringing this to your Department’s attention in 2014. The Equality and Human Rights Commission reached similar conclusions in July 2014.

Furthermore, the latest official poverty figures show that in families where at least one member is disabled, the number in "absolute low income" has increased to 30%. Children in families where at least one member is disabled are twice as likely to be "in combined low income and material deprivation".

In the face of this information, it is hard to see how your belief that disabled people are being protected, can be justified.

2. Impact of sanctions on health

You assert that there is no evidence that benefit sanctions cause a deterioration in a claimants' health. However this is contradicted by your Department’s own guidance for Decision Makers on this subject. In sections 35098 and 35099 the authors state that a healthy adult is likely to experience a deterioration in health if they are without essential items such as food or heating. It advises that Decision Makers should therefore consider whether the health of a person with a medical condition is likely to decline further than a healthy adult The example given, of a diabetic woman, notes that if she was sanctioned for two weeks her health "would decline further than a normal healthy adult because lack of funds would not allow her to follow a regular diet".

This guidance caused the writers of the Joint Public Issues Team Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions report to argue "that any human society should be disturbed by a statutory system that deliberately causes harm to another human being".

You also state that "no-one is sanctioned without first being made aware of hardship payments". This does not fit with the experiences reported within the JPIT paper cited above, which found many people discovered they were sanctioned only when they tried to draw cash out from their bank.

3. Spending on disability benefits

Whilst it is true that spending on disability benefits has increased in cash terms, spending on out of work disability benefits is falling rapidly as a share of GDP, as illustrated by Figure 6.1 on page 97 of the Office for Budget Responsibility's Welfare Trends Report published in October 2014.

The Journal of Economic Perspectives, also stated that forecasts of spending on disability benefits for 2018-9 were projected to be at their lowest share of the national income since the late 1960’s.

4. Changes to Personal Independent Payments

We very much welcome your efforts to reduce the waiting times for people being assessed for Personal Independence Payments. However, we continue to be concerned that the reassessment process is expected to lead to hundreds of thousands of people having their benefit cut, or losing it altogether. This will have a negative impact on people’s ability to be independent and restrict the ability of many people to take up paid work.

5. Employment Support Allowance, Work Capability Assessment and WRAG

Whilst any improvements to the process of assessing people’s fitness to work are to be welcomed, the change of provider from Atos to Maximus still does not solve the fundamental problem, that the Work Capability Assessment itself is unfit for purpose.

We see no justification for the cut to the incomes of people in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) of ESA made in the Budget. There are only two outcomes to a Work Capability Assessment: being found fit to work, or being found entitled to Employment and Support Allowance.

People entitled to ESA and placed in the WRAG include those who are undergoing cancer treatment, and people who have progressive illnesses like Parkinson's Disease and Multiple Sclerosis. They have been assessed by your own department as not fit to work, which is why they are not on Jobseekers' Allowance currently. They are certainly not in the same position as Jobseekers, and would not be regarded as such by employers. Allowing them a higher but still very modest income is not writing them off to a life on benefits, but simply showing some compassion and understanding of their situation.

6. The benefits cap

We are puzzled by your assertion that households with a benefit cap were 41% more likely to go into work. The recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report on the impact of the cuts suggests that only 2,000 out of 27,000 families affected had someone move into work ie 7% of the population. The same study also noted that "Many experienced very large reductions in income". Research by Shelter and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau suggests that the revised cap will "exclude poor families from large parts of England".

7. Rationale for welfare reforms

You note that the system the Conservatives inherited from Labour was uncontrolled and unaffordable. We would dispute this. As the Work Foundation has found, the most recent OECD estimate of public social spending accounts for 21.7% of UK GDP, slightly above the average of 21.6%. In addition, public social spending since 2007 has risen by 1.6% in the UK compared with 2.7% across the OECD. They conclude "These figures do not suggest that the UK is devoting an excessive share of GDP to social expenditure or that the increases forced by the recession have been over-generous"

8. National Living Wage

We do welcome the proposed rise in National Living Wage announced in the Budget. Unfortunately the accompanying cuts to tax credits will make workers on low incomes worse off. Assessing the Budget as a whole, the IFS said, "the changes overall are regressive – taking much more from poorer households than richer ones."

Before closing, we would like to endorse and reiterate the recent report by our colleagues at Caritas Social Action Network, which stated, "the culture and the processes of the welfare system that were making it increasingly difficult for clients to survive, let alone flourish. The effect of welfare reform cannot be isolated to individual pieces of legislation. Rather, it is the multiplicity and speed of these reforms, hand-in-hand with the tightening of the sanctioning process, that has increased the desperate state of many people’s lives".

We believe that between us, and our colleagues working in frontline charities, we have a wealth of experience of what is actually happening regarding the impact of welfare reforms.

We could, if you would accept our invitation to talk, be a source of nationwide grassroots feedback, enabling you to identify problems and to use your authority to alleviate the considerable suffering and hardship we are seeing in our communities. We seek only to work with you in the pursuit of the common good as laid out in the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. Together we could ensure that we uphold the common dignity and value of every human being in need of assistance. We extend this invitation in the spirit of Christian justice and compassion and we look forward to hearing from you.