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Charities condemn Chancellor’s threat to cut benefits

22 November 2023


The Chancellor delivers his autumn statement on Wednesday afternoon

The Chancellor delivers his autumn statement on Wednesday afternoon

THE Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has been criticised by charities for threatening to stop paying benefits to people who have not looked for a job for six months.

Mr Hunt announced the policy as part of his autumn budget, which he presented in the House of Commons on Wednesday. Measures included a rise of 6.7 per cent in benefits and 8.5 per cent in the state pension, both from April; an unfreezing of the local housing allowances; and the statutory minimum wage rising to £11.44, also from April.

Benefits’ recipients would be asked “for something in return”, Mr Hunt said. “If, after 18 months of intensive support, job-seekers have not found a job, we’ll roll out a programme requiring them to take part in mandatory work placement to increase their skills and improve their employability. And, if they choose not to engage with the work-search process for six months, we will close their case and stop their benefits.”

Shortly after the Autumn Statement was announced, Church Action on Poverty published a blog post by one of its trustees, Stef Benstead, who wrote the book Second Class Citizens: The treatment of disabled people in austerity Britain.

Those who risked having their benefits taken away could include “people who are living in temporary accommodation, B&Bs, hostels, refuges, or sheltered or supported accommodation”, she wrote. “They might be sick or disabled, but not have this recognised by Universal Credit because they’re not deemed ill or disabled enough. They might have shared caring duties, but again not have it recognised by Universal Credit because the other carer is claiming those duties on their benefits.

“Precisely because their extra challenges aren’t recognised by Universal Credit, these people can be some of our most vulnerable. And now the Government is saying it wants to make these people’s lives even harder by kicking them off benefits completely, just because the challenges of their lives make it difficult for them to do anything and everything a work coach might decide to impose on them.”

Ms Benstead criticised the Government’s plan to force people on benefits to undertake unpaid work placements at private companies — often performing “low-skill, entry-level” tasks.

Instead, she suggested, volunteering should be encouraged by, for example, treating “every hour of volunteering as two hours of job-search when it comes to applying conditions to jobseekers. This would recognise that people want to work and want to make a meaningful contribution to their community and society. It would recognise that actually, doing 35 hours of job-search every week for weeks on end is pretty meaningless and de-skilling, and helps no one.”

The joint chief executive of YMCA Exeter, Si Johns, called on the Government “to not forget to treat people as individuals”. He said: “It’s vital that we don’t generalise about people who are claiming welfare benefits like Universal Credit. Supporting over 100 young people every year at YMCA Exeter, we see many young people desperate to get back into work and others who need time and support to deal with serious issues before attempting to return to employment in a sustained way. We can only understand where people are at in this journey by engaging with them as individuals and listening.”  

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) also criticised the move to sanction more benefits’ claimants. Two-thirds of destitute people whom the charity had surveyed reported having chronic health problems or disabilities, “demonstrating that this group is already at risk of the most severe form of hardship”.

But the JRF welcomed measures announced by Mr Hunt to raise benefits. This included, from April, raising Universal Credit and other benefits by 6.7 per cent, in line with September’s higher inflation figure, and not, as expected, October’s lower figure, and raising the state pension by 8.5 per cent to £221.20 a week, also from April.

The JRF warned, however, that “we now need to ensure that the fundamentals of our support system are compassionate and adequate for all of us who need it, whether we are on low pay, sick, disabled or have lost our job.”

The chief executive of the Children’s Society, Mark Russell, said that the rise in benefits and the unfreezing of the local housing allowances “offers a lifeline for struggling families”, but “falls far short of addressing the broader challenges facing our nation’s children”.

He continued: “The absence of increased funding for children’s services is a glaring omission and we are deeply troubled by the implications of the Chancellor’s proposal to bring in stricter conditions within our social-security system.”

The Just Money Movement, an ecumenical Christian charity, was not convinced by Mr Hunt’s argument that his budget would help people in poverty. Before the Budget, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams had supported the charity’s calls to shift taxes from income to wealth, so as to generate more money to alleviate poverty.

The movement’s executive director, Sarah Edwards, said on Wednesday: “Whether in terms of hospital waiting lists, unsafe school buildings, or benefits that don’t even cover the basic cost of essentials, we needed the Government to step up and offer bold reforms for the common good. We want to see a fairer tax system, where we all — including the very wealthiest — pay a fair share to create a flourishing society. Unfortunately, the political will to bring this about was nowhere to be seen.”

Christian Aid’s policy, public-affairs, and campaigns director, Osai Ojigho, also criticised the Chancellor for not taxing the wealthy. “Had we seen leadership today, we would have seen a Chancellor adopt a ‘polluter pays’ principle to raising taxes on fossil-fuel giants and the extremely wealthy to tackle the climate crisis,” she said. “We would have seen a Chancellor tackle global inequality by agreeing to legislation to get debts cancelled for the poorest countries.”

The executive director of Debt Justice, Heidi Chow, said that Mr Hunt had prioritised the interests of big business over the needs of households that are weighed down by heavy debt. Whilst a handful of shareholders and CEOs will be popping corks tonight, over six million people still need government action on energy debt-relief. Without this, people are facing a daily struggle to put food on the table and stay warm over what is going to be a long and difficult winter.”

Mr Johns, of YMCA Exeter, welcomed the increase in the minimum wage, but said: “It’s also important that the Government ensure that funding allocated to sectors like Child care, Enablers and supported housing providers is also increased in line with these salary increases. To not do so means that it is often charitable organisations that have to make up the difference between the income given to provide these services and the increased salary costs of providing them.”  

He continued: “Unfreezing the Local Housing Allowance will go some way towards helping young people move on into private rented housing, but the housing crisis remains. There are still thousands of people on local waiting lists for housing that doesn’t yet exist. Real, sustained investment into the building of social housing must be a priority for this Government.” 

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