CHURCHES in the UK have welcomed a report by MPs which calls on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to give better support to unemployed people challenged by addiction, homelessness, or illiteracy in securing jobs.
The report Welfare to Work, by the Work and Pensions Committee, published on Wednesday, urges the DWP to refocus its Work Programme and Work Choice (for the disabled) on securing jobs for the disadvantaged, before the contracts are replaced in 2017.
A spokesperson for the Church in Wales said that it was “very concerned” by the Government’s current Work Programme — which provides benefits, work experience, and training for the unemployed — because the vulnerable were “unfairly sanctioned and losing benefits”.
“We believe vulnerable people should be helped and supported into work, not threatened and penalised, as too often is the case,” the spokesperson said. “People with poor mental health are bearing the brunt of the system.”
The Committee said that the current payment models were “unnecessarily complicated”, and did not provide incentives for the unemployed to find work. The board suggests a “character-based” assessment — factoring in illiteracy, innumeracy, employment history, substance misuse, and housing issues — over a financial one.
The latest criticism comes after the Church in Wales, together with the United Reformed, Baptist, and Methodist Churches, and the Church of Scotland, published a joint report in March, Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions, which stated that seven million weeks’ worth of benefit cuts had been made in sanctions in 2013/14 (News, 27 March).
On Wednesday, the public issues policy adviser for the Methodist Church in the UK, Paul Morrison, said that the Work Programme had had a “bad start”, despite being “substantially cheaper” than previous schemes.
“People who need intensive support are not faring well,” he said. “The Select Committee has indicated . . . that contractors find supporting the people with most difficulties less profitable.”
Mr Morrison agreed that the Government should “rethink the sanctions regime”, which was causing participants to feel “fear”, “threat”, and “contempt” for the system.
The chairman of the committee, Frank Field MP, said that the DWP “must do much better” than the Work Programme, through which just 30 per cent of disadvantaged people found work.
“The evidence is clear,” he said. “Pure payment-by-results has not worked in relation to people who need a lot of help to return to work. Some up-front funding from the Government is needed.”
The committee also pointed to government plans to increase the employment rate of disabled people to match that of the non-disabled population. Mr Field said that the “very ambitious aspiration” must be represented in “separate, voluntary” DWP employment schemes.
On Thursday the Government outlined a series of policy changes in response to the Committee's report on benefit sanctions, including a trial run of a “sanctions warning system”. The trial will give claimants 14 days to provide evidence of why a sanction should not be imposed. The Government is also to issue new guidance for employees of Jobcentre Plus to “improve awareness of vulnerability”.
Mr Field welcomed the introduction of the “yellow card” system but added that the Government's response “leaves a number of questions unanswered”.
He said: “We will be tracking the progress closely to ensure that the Government follows through on the spirit of this constructive response in practice.”
A spokesperson for the Church of Scotland said that all work programmes should be “flexible and appropriate” to individuals. “The design and delivery of a system needs to involve the people who are affected.”
Chancellor 'comfortable' with tax credit cuts The Chancellor, George Osborne, has said that he is “comfortable” with the Government’s decision to go ahead with tax credit cuts despite heavy criticism from MPS including some from within his own party.
Mr Osborne told the Commons Treasury Select Committee on Thursday that the call to push through £4.4 billion of cuts to tax credits was a “judgement call” on whether the welfare system is too expensive as it stands.
“Do you think we should move to a higher wage, lower welfare economy and ultimately that's the decision we are all being asked to take as Members of Parliament?” he asked.
Mr Osborne added that it is the poorest in society who are most affected when the UK overspends: “They are the people who lose their jobs. They are the people who suffer when the economy fails, when the country can't live within its means, when the welfare bill gets out of control.”
The Labour MP John Mann, who serves on the committee, said that the row is at risk of becoming a “political disaster” for the Chancellor and for the UK.