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Ad Nauseum: Addressing America’s Advertising Problem

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/06/2022 - 12:41am in
by Haley Mullins

One of the biggest roadblocks to achieving a steady state economy is advertising. While seemingly innovative solutions to consume conscientiously are becoming more prevalent, most people aren’t Marie Kondo-ing their way through each purchase, stopping to question whether the item in their shopping cart will “spark joy.” But how much blame can we really assign consumers when they’ve been dropped onto a hamster wheel of coupons, cash-back credit cards, and “consumer confidence” indicators?

We live in the age of the internet, where we can purchase anything with one click on Amazon. Websites track our movements and preferences as we surf the web, offering us personalized advertisements so we can discover and buy more of what interests us. To put into perspective how expansive advertising is in the USA, China is the second-largest advertising market in the world, yet its ad expenditures are estimated at less than half the amount calculated for the USA.

Advertising and Growth

Super Bowl promotions in a grocery store, featuring doritos advertising.

Super Bowl Sunday might be better named National Advertising Day. (CC BY 2.0, JeepersMedia)

In 1941, right before a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies, the first legal TV commercial aired in the USA. It was just ten seconds long and only cost the company nine dollars. Forty years later, the standard for prime-time TV was 9.5 minutes of ads per hour; today, it’s up to 14–17 minutes per hour. The cost of advertising has skyrocketed, too, but marketers are still willing to pay big bucks to make buyers aware of the “Next Big Thing.” In 2020, advertisers spent an average of $5.6 million for a 30-second spot in Super Bowl 54.

Firms advertise to create demand and promote consumption. (I don’t know about you, but I didn’t want socks with my cat’s face on them until I saw a Facebook ad for it.) While firms compete against each other for our business, they rally around the goal of GDP growth. Wall Street and Madison Avenue aren’t far apart—figuratively or politically—and both have skin in the growth game.

Americans have a love-hate relationship with ads though. A typical American might understand the role of advertising in economic growth, yet—apart from Super Bowl Sunday—we detest ads and go to great lengths to avoid them. By 2021, 27 percent of U.S. internet users used ad blockers on their connected devices. Younger generations are particularly put off; 48 percent of Gen Z consumers and 46 percent of Millennials prefer to pay a premium than watch advertisements on streaming video services.

First Things First

Steady staters have some significant hurdles to overcome in the degrowth of the American ad industry, the first of which is the First Amendment.

Advertising falls under the First Amendment right to free speech and free press, the most cherished of our constitutional rights. However, even the sanctity of the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee the freedom to say anything. The circumstances are important, too. Reasonable restrictions of free speech are imposed most notably when public safety is concerned. The classic example of unprotected speech is yelling “Fire!” at the movie theater when no fire exists, as the welfare of people supersedes your right to yell “Fire!”

While advertising isn’t as directly harmful as in this example, the prevalence and effects of advertising—unnecessary consumption, growth, and environmental impact—have become increasingly harmful to public welfare. Advertising restrictions already in place substantiate our cultural awareness of advertising as a danger to the public. Under the law, claims in advertisements must be truthful, and cannot be deceptive or unfair. Additionally, there are restrictions on promoting harmful products like tobacco and alcohol, as well as advertising to children, who can’t interpret ads with a critical lens.

Society understands the power of advertising and the dangers it poses when used manipulatively. Thus, it’s poor reasoning to use the First Amendment as an excuse for “anything goes” in the advertising industry. So, what policies could we enact to moderate advertising, slow consumption, and (in the process) improve wellbeing?

Ad-equate Policies

Defenders of advertising argue the importance of the practice in aiding competition, a fundamental facet of a capitalist system to keep prices low and fair. As American economist Lester Telser once described, “If sellers must identify themselves in order to remain in business, then formally unless they spend a certain minimum amount on advertising their rate of sales will be zero. Regardless of price, buyers would not know of sellers’ existence unless the sellers make themselves known by incurring these advertising outlays.”

1960 Budweiser advertisement with four Black men holding beers and chatting in a kitchen.

Advertising: framing the consumption of market goods as raising one’s quality of life. (CC BY-NC 2.0, ChowKaiDeng)

Touché, Telser. Eliminating the practice of advertising isn’t practical, as people would struggle to discover necessary goods and services. But billions of dollars are spent annually on advertising, far surpassing the optimal scale of the industry. In 2020, U.S. firms spent $240 billion on advertising; all of it tax deductible, as it’s considered a necessary business expense to generate or keep customers. Herman Daly and Joshua Farley argue for advertising taxes in Ecological Economics (Second Edition), declaring it appropriate to tax advertising as a public bad because production should meet existing demand rather than create new demands for whatever gets produced.

But if we’re truly to curb overconsumption of market goods, merely reducing the quantity of advertising will only do so much in the aggregate. To change consumer habits, an alternative to market goods must be introduced. Thus, in addition to taxation, Daly and Farley suggest making media information flows more symmetric so that the public is equally exposed to nonmarket goods as they are to market goods. Essentially, we need a sort of nonprofit advertising to balance out the advertising of firms.

Nonmarket goods, things that are neither bought nor sold directly, do not have a readily quantifiable monetary value. Some examples include visiting the beach, birdwatching, or going for a walk. Perhaps, with more attention given to nonmarket goods, consumer culture might shift to better appreciate our planet and better understand the true cost of frivolously consuming market goods that come from the Earth and return to the Earth as waste. Our resources might then be reallocated to the preservation of invaluable nonmarket goods, a shift that may aid in transitioning to a steady state.

Redefining Ethical Advertising

Cartons of cigarettes with several different warning labels making it clear that smoking is hazardous to people's health.

Full disclosure: unchecked consumption kills people and planet. (CC BY 2.0, kadavy)

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) defines “ethical advertising” as “truthful, not deceptive, backed by evidence, and fair.” The FTC assesses the adherence of these principles through the lens of a “reasonable consumer” to determine whether an ad meets the requirements. However, some argue that the FTC has a responsibility to protect the ignorant consumer to the same extent as the reasonable one.

If the last several decades of celebrated economic growth are considered, I’d say the vast majority of consumers fall into the ignorant category—ignorant to limits to growth, at least. Is it not within the scope of ethics, then, to make the true cost of consumption for advertised market goods evident? Is it not deceptive for ads to display a price tag that fails to factor in the environmental costs of production? We have warning labels on tobacco and alcohol products that consumption may lead to adverse effects, so why aren’t we warning buyers of the consequences of consuming other goods?

If we don’t restrict the amount or reach of advertising, the least we can do is demand full-disclosure advertisements that detail the environmental cost of producing and purchasing the product. This would, at minimum, include estimated life-cycle emissions, quantity of natural resources extracted, and the energy required to produce each unit. Such disclosures would, over time, raise awareness of limits to growth and could, perhaps, be the catalyst that converts our culture of conspicuous consumption to one of careful conservation.

Haley Mullins, managing editor for CASSEHaley Mullins is the managing editor at CASSE.

The post Ad Nauseum: Addressing America’s Advertising Problem appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

On the Frontline of the Battle for Benefits

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 23/06/2022 - 9:52pm in

Chaminda Jayanetti speaks to those affected by the Government's failing system of assessing support for some of the most vulnerable people in our society

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Earlier this year, Byline Times reported on how Government assessments delivered by private firms are unfairly denying the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) benefit to disabled people, with a high success rate for people when these decisions are appealed.

Figures published last week show that two-thirds of tribunal appeals by benefit applicants were upheld in 2021/22, with the Department for Work and Pensions' (DWP) assessments amended or overturned. That’s just among appeals that reached a hearing – large numbers of appeals are ‘lapsed’, meaning that the DWP does not contest the appeal, sometimes withdrawing its opposition to it at the last moment.

Tribunal appeals come after the compulsory ‘Mandatory Reconsideration’ (MR) phase, where the DWP looks again at the initial assessment.

In 2021/22, the DWP only decided in favour of the benefit applicant in three out of every 10 MRs. Successful tribunal appeals effectively overturn the DWP’s MR decisions.

To dig deeper into how the Government is failing vulnerable people in need of support, Byline Times spoke to those on the frontline of trying to get PIP benefits about how the battle for benefits has affected their lives.

Victor's Story

Victor Calver was diagnosed in May 2019 with stage four prostate cancer – terminal and metastasized. He continued working, but was hit with a perfect storm early in the Coronavirus pandemic, when he was made redundant from his job and served with an eviction notice by his landlord.

In November 2020, he applied for PIP. “I phoned them up myself," he told Byline Times. "They sent through the form – about 300 million pages.”

Calver has a tumour in his femur and another in his hip, plus two small fractures in his back caused by his cancer treatment making his bones fragile.

“I live with chronic pain,” he said. “Whilst I'm talking to you, my back’s in absolute agony, my legs are in absolute agony. I don’t know if it sounds weird, but I've kind of got used to it. I just kind of accept pain really. And it’s part of my life.

“If you looked at me, if you met me, when I tell people I’ve got stage four cancer, they don't believe it – because generally I’m very, very positive. And that’s how I deal with it. That’s why I don’t get a lot of support, because everyone thinks ‘he’s alright’. 

“Mentally have I coped? Probably not. I don't think many people would be able to cope with the pain I’m in. Sometimes it literally brings tears to your eyes.”

Calver’s PIP application included a letter from his doctor confirming the extent of his illness. But nothing happened for months, until he received a phone call from the benefits assessors.

He told Byline Times: “They’d ask me questions like ‘can you feed yourself?’ Of course I can feed myself. They say ‘what do you eat?’ And I’d say ‘eggs and spinach’ because I used to buy them egg pots from the BP garages. That’s what I’d eat. They said ‘can you walk?’ I said 'yeah, oh yeah'.

"‘Can you go to the supermarket?’ ‘Yeah, of course I can go to the supermarket'. ‘What do you do? Can you walk 50 yards?’ And 'yeah, of course I can walk 50 yards – but I might have to stop 30 times in between'. 

“I said to them ‘yeah, yeah I can go to the shop’. And they suck you in, so you’re ‘yeah I’ll be fine’, you know, ‘I’ll fight this disease’. The moment I put down the phone I’m in tears.”

Despite the doctor's letters and his terminal cancer diagnosis, Calver scored hardly any points in his application for PIP and its Motability element. His application was rejected.

“According to them I was an Olympic athlete,” he said.

By now it was 2021. Calver had to go through the MR phase, whereby the DWP reviews the decision. It didn’t work – there was no change to his assessment score.

“They didn’t even look at it," he told this newspaper. "I don’t think I got a call back or nothing – just a manager, one of these DWP managers, wrote back, says ‘we agree with the assessor’.”

Despite the doctor's letters and his terminal cancer diagnosis... his application was rejected

Calver went to Citizens Advice. The organisation handled his tribunal appeal and secured further supporting letters from his clinicians. The hearing was scheduled for November 2021. Amid the pandemic, he had to take part over the phone. 

But just 10 minutes before the hearing – and a full year after his original PIP application – he got a call from the court telling him that the Government had conceded on all counts. He was given full PIP and full Motability support, backdated to the time of his original claim and awarded indefinitely.

“It’s absurd," Calver said. "Their solicitor or their barrister probably would have looked at the evidence and said ‘you’re going to lose this hands down’. And they conceded, obviously on legal advice – because they took it all the way to the courtroom only for counsel to tell them ‘you’re going to lose this’. Or even the judge might have told them ‘you’re going to lose this’. To concede 10 minutes before the hearing, it seems like the judge or their counsel has told them ‘what have you done?’

“They knew my personal circumstances – we had to give them details about money, earnings, what we’ve got. They knew I had just been made redundant. They knew I was living alone, I was shielding.”

The backdated PIP helped clear some of Calver’s bills and debts that had built during the pandemic and eventually managed to get him rehoused – although not until a lack of suitable accommodation had left him living in a freezing caravan and sleeping in his car over winter.

“How I got this flat now is they considered my PIP money," he said. "They said now I can afford somewhere. Because before, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it anywhere.”

Alison and John's Story

Alison (not her real name) has supported PIP applicants since the benefit was introduced in 2013, having previously worked for a Government department. She told Byline Times that the introduction of the compulsory MR phase simply delayed the process to get to appeal and placed more stress on the people trying to claim benefits.

Even worse, she has come across cases where the person assessing the MR was the same person who carried out the benefit assessment being appealed against.

“I have problems with the Mandatory Reconsideration process, because they're marking their own homework,” she said. “And they say that the person who's made the original decision, the decision-maker, doesn't do the MR. But I know, because I've seen signatures on letters, that the person who made the decision has also done the MR.

She said that the process was "corrupt" because "it doesn’t abide by the rule of law".

"Its decision-making is highly questionable," she added. Also, the decision-makers are people with no medical qualifications.”

One of the people Alison helped was John (not his real name). Having been on the old Disability Living Allowance (DLA) benefit, he was assessed for PIP in 2017, under the DWP’s programme of moving people from the old benefit to the new one.

Aged around 60, he had lost his leg in a motorbike accident at 18 and had been a full-leg amputee for 40 years. He drove an adapted Motability vehicle that let him use all the pedals with one foot.

“He’s a part-time actor,” said Alison, “and his job is being a casualty. He works with emergency services and the Ministry of Defence, and he takes his prosthetic limb off, and they transport him to where he’s got to lie, cover him in fake blood, he has to scream, and the emergency services are assessed.”

She said a private firm employed by the DWP to conduct benefits assessments carried out his PIP assessment and asked him about his job.

“His job requires him to remove his prosthetic leg,” Alison told Byline Times. “And we'd had a hot summer and he’d had to stop wearing this prosthetic leg because he’d got ulcers on his stump, which meant the only way to get about was on a pair of crutches and one leg. And he lost his higher rate PIP mobility component because he was able to do this job – that's how they rationalised it.

“He couldn't get to his job without his mobility car, which is adapted for an amputee, and his job requires him to remove a prosthetic limb, without which he can't really stand up – he’s not particularly stable. But they used this job as a rationalisation for taking his high rate mobility component off him.”

As a result, John lost funding for his adapted car, which his DLA payments had funded. Instead he had to borrow the money to buy it.

John then failed at the MR stage – with the MR apparently done by the same person who did the original assessment.

“I'm pretty sure it was the same person who assessed it, and I've seen others where that's been done as well,” Alison said. “I clocked it on the signature – ‘this is the same person’. They’re actually looking at their own decisions.”

John also lost his appeal at tribunal. At that point, Alison helped him go to a second tier tribunal – a route that can be requested if there has been an error in law. 

For a disability benefit award to be lowered or removed, the DWP has to prove ‘betterment’ – essentially, that the person has to some degree got ‘better’.

“How do you improve from having a full leg amputation?” Alison asked. “You can’t.”

Alison found a very similar case to John’s that had previously gone to appeal – as luck would have it, the same person who presided over the tribunal in that other case presided over the second tier tribunal in John’s case too. 

“She looked at it and said, ‘this needs to go back to the original tribunal hearing and the tribunal has erred in law, and they need to make a fresh decision’," she said. "And that case got him his car back.”

John’s payments were reinstated and backdated. It was 2019 and the case had gone on for two years. He sold the car he had bought, paid off the loan, and got his new Motability vehicle with the restored benefits. 

“If he'd lost, if he couldn't afford to use that car, if he couldn't afford to keep it and have a loan, he wouldn’t have been able to do his job,” Alison said. “It’s pretty outrageous.”

Natalie's Story

Natalie (not her real name) is 32 and has been diagnosed with agoraphobia, depression and anxiety. She has rarely left the house since she was 18 and never leaves without someone with her. 

“Most of the time I go out the house three to four times a year for blood tests and that’s it,” she told Byline Times.

But when she applied for PIP, she scored zero in both assessments – for the ‘daily living’ and mobility components.

“The second assessor used me going to my doctor occasionally for blood tests, and the time I was taken to the dentist because I kept getting abscesses, against me as evidence of somehow being able to get out and do everything unaided and having no mobility issues," she said. "So even getting medical treatment is being used against us.”

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Both the initial report from her mobility assessor and the response to her unsuccessful MR request explicitly referred to her seeing her GP every three months.

The DWP’s response opposing her subsequent tribunal appeal spelled it out more clearly, using her visits to the GP – which always require a lift from her family or partner – as evidence that she can independently interact with people despite her mental health conditions, and that she can manage her medication independently.

At no stage prior to the tribunal appeal have the private company conducting the assessments or the DWP contacted her GP regarding her PIP application, despite her asking the tribunal to do so.

The report from her mobility assessor also referred to her manner when speaking: "At your telephone assessment, you were pleasant and polite and engaged well. You were not breathless when speaking and spoke in full sentences. Despite mentioning that you felt anxious, you responded to reassurance from the assessor. There were no signs of overwhelming anxiety or distress." 

Natalie told Byline Times that the assessments ignored or distorted what she said.

“I mentioned my new meds [Mirtazapine, which treats depression and anxiety], they asked me to read the name," she said. "Then they reported I hadn’t started any new meds. I explained my vision is slightly worse than it would be if I hadn’t been stuck in almost half my life (I am very short-sighted). Apparently I have no issues with vision according to them. All they have done is lie.

“I told them I was overweight and how my partner cares for me. So they mention I’m not underweight. And somehow come to the conclusion everything my partner does for me I can do on my own too.

“I can’t comprehend it. I heard it was bad but I didn’t realise it was this bad.”

Natalie knows what she would do with the PIP money if she wins her appeal: “At first I’d like to be able to get taxis to get out to somewhere with people. Get used to the drivers, that’d allow to eventually start going on my own. After that, I’d like to work on using public transport, with someone at first then build up to doing it alone. Things like that. I want to use it to help me get better and get passed this point in my life.”

The Government's Response

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions told Byline Times that "the majority of applications for Mandatory Reconsideration go directly to another decision-maker based in the department’s Disputes Resolution Service and where that doesn’t happen, we have robust internal quality checks so ensure all the correct processes were followed”.

“For the majority of PIP claims, we get decisions right and all assessments are carried out by healthcare professionals trained to consider the impact of someone’s health condition or disability, but we are exploring what more we can do so the welfare system better meets the needs of disabled people through our Health and Disability Green Paper,” they added.

Do you have an experience about claiming benefits to share? Contact the newsdesk by emailing news@bylinetimes.com

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Five Years on From Grenfell: A Community Betrayed

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 14/06/2022 - 11:49pm in

Former Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad reflects on the broken social contract that has underpinned the Grenfell tragedy and the five years since

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The social contract has been broken. The bond between those who vote for, put their trust in, and pay their taxes to those charged with their affairs, has been trashed by both national and local government.

We saw that in the disdain paid towards laws and regulations in 10 Downing Street as ministers wasted billions of pounds of our money on bad, and possibly corrupt, contracts during the pandemic. And while we were scrupulous not to hold hands with our loved ones as they passed away, those in charge danced on their graves.

We see the destruction of the social contract in the Government’s constant attempt to wriggle out of accountability for the Grenfell Tower fire – now five long years ago – and its unwillingness to implement meaningful improvements to building and fire safety.

They have pitted businesses, professions and individuals against each other, just as they have divided so successfully the various Grenfell communities. Divide and conquer is the guiding mantra of our governing elite.

We see this in local government, also, where councils across the country struggle with impossibly large workloads for building remediation, attempting to navigate unattainable eligibility criteria to access to Government funding. They need help, but have been placed in an obstacle course.

Meanwhile, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – the council that contains Grenfell Tower – local leaders crow about keeping the streets clean and the al fresco revolution of outdoor eating, but refuse to accept full accountability for the questionable spending on Grenfell-related services, or the huge sums spent on local directors while so many in the community are still traumatised, unable to or barely-able to work. Indeed, children still struggle with intense mental health problems – affecting their everyday schoolwork – and face the danger of falling behind and being ‘off-rolled’ into a pupil referral unit, that some call ‘crime academies’.

The Westminster Government has decided that it can spend billions on dodgy contracts, writing off yet more in fraud, yet cannot feed children or raise benefits. Parents already working full-time are therefore forced to find another job to pay for soaring food and energy bills. The Government’s refusal to raise wages, or to put in place meaningful support, belies its real intent – to keep the poor in a state of deprivation and desperation.

The inequality divides witnessed during the pandemic are suffered by those whose ethnic background, social status, or indeed accent doesn’t match what is deemed acceptable by those we entrust to care for us. And when these people suffer, there is little safety net to fall back upon.

An Alternative

All of this was mirrored in north Kensington in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire atrocity. Inequalities have worsened in the area around the tower, despite ten of millions of pounds spent there. Where did the money go? we ask, while obfuscating council reports tell us nothing.

Inequalities are a festering wound in Kensington and Chelsea, where even half the money ‘invested’ in vanity projects, if spent on tackling poverty long-term, could make a genuine difference. Not just hand-outs, not just hardship funds or tokenistic gestures – local spending could and should offer serious financial investment in people to improve their life outcomes and financial incomes.

There is simply no excuse for the extreme inequality in Kensington and Chelsea. Here, at least, in the wealthiest corner of Britain, it could be fixed. The problem is a lack of commitment from those who make decisions. They will not share power, they will not devolve responsibility to our energetic, caring and organised communities. Instead, they want to limit any attempt at self-organisation, and they do this by imposing an arcane and complex funding system.

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They forget that council money is our money. They forget that the council is there to serve and not to rule. And they will do everything possible to maintain the pyramid of power that keeps the little people at the bottom.

This attitude has been made clear throughout the revelations of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. What we always knew, and what was always denied, has now been evidenced. The game is up.

Realising that the social contract has been broken, and that we owe no deference to those who have failed us so comprehensively, is painful but essential.

Many in the community say they no longer recognise the authority of the council. Once we have recovered from these years of abject failure, the community will look for potential alternatives. And many of us will be beside them all the way.

Emma Dent Coad was the Labour MP for Kensington from 2017 to 2019

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High Value Fraud Ignored as Government Chases Welfare Cheats

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/05/2022 - 9:28pm in

Tom Robinson investigates the disproportionate state investment ploughed into benefit fraud, while other anti-fraud efforts suffer from austerity

More than half of all public sector fraud officials work for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – despite benefit fraud only amounting to 11% of all public sector fraud.

A new Government policy to crack down on benefit fraud will hand the DWP a 75% funding boost, increasing its budget to £467 million a year, its workforce by 3,000 to 11,000, as well as giving its staff the power of arrest. 

However, analysis by the Byline Intelligence Team shows that this policy will entrench an inequality of resources that means benefit fraud is prioritised over tackling other, more costly, financial crimes. 

Welfare fraud cost a record £6.3 billion in 2021 as millions turned to Universal Credit during the pandemic and an overwhelmed DWP relaxed checks on new applicants. 

However, tax fraud is estimated to cost at least £15.2 billion annually, and the unit at HMRC dedicated to stopping it is less than half the size – 4,900 – of the DWP’s counter-fraud unit, while its budget is 36% smaller, standing at £300 million. 

Under the new plans, DWP staff will be handed the power to undertake searches and seizures, compel banks to hand over customer data as well as make arrests. Disability campaigners have strongly criticised the new plans, describing them as having “sinister implications” which are “an overreach” and “could well result in a massive rise in heart attacks or suicides”.

The Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, supported by campaign group Foxglove, has sent a legal letter to the DWP asking for further details on how the benefit fraud algorithm works, as it believes that it discriminates against disabled people.

Pre-pandemic, benefit fraud made up 1% of total welfare spending, costing £2.8 billion in 2020. Fraud increased to 3% of total welfare spending in 2021, although in the same year £2.1 billion in legitimate benefit claims were not paid by the DWP due to error. 

Financial crime costs the UK more than £300 billion a year, of which public sector fraud – including that connected to the pandemic – is estimated to have cost £56.2 billion last year. 

Money laundering costs £100 billion, private sector fraud £140 billion and fraud affecting individuals, such as online scams, £7 billion. 

However, the National Crime Agency (NCA), which investigates and prosecutes serious offences such as financial and organised crime, has a workforce half the size (5,687) of the DWP’s counter-fraud unit and a budget only 6% bigger. 

The Serious Fraud Office is responsible for tackling money laundering, corporate fraud, bribery and corruption. Yet it has a budget more than six times smaller than the sum spent by the DWP on tackling benefit fraud – and a workforce 16 times smaller

The police are responsible for tackling fraud that affects individuals, such as online scams, yet in England and Wales, just 1,753 police officers and staff were dedicated to tackling economic crime, including fraud. The DWP, by contrast, will soon have 11,000 staff dedicated to tackling benefit fraud. 

‘Arrogance, Indolence and Ignorance

Newly-released data analysed by the Byline Intelligence Team shows that convictions for fraud have fallen year on year since 2017. Five years ago there were 10,313 fraud convictions, more than halving – to 4,042 – by 2021.

Byline Times has previously reported how austerity has undermined efforts to tackle dirty money and financial crime. Despite repeated requests from law enforcement bodies for more funding, the Government has instead delivered real-term cuts, leaving financial investigators to conclude that going after corrupt businessmen with access to “expensive QCs and claims of private wealth” is a “waste of time”.

However, distorted priorities within Government mean that significant resources are disproportionately dedicated to tackling benefit fraud instead of going after the tax avoiders, criminals and corrupt individuals who cost the UK hundreds of billions every year. 

A new ‘fraud squad’ based in the Cabinet Office has been given £25 million to recover the £4.9 billion lost to COVID loan fraud. By contrast, the DWP has been given a £613 million funding boost over three years to tackle benefit fraud. 

In January, Lord Theodore Agnew resigned as the Government’s anti-fraud minister over what he called the “schoolboy” handling of fraudulent COVID loans. He said “a combination of arrogance, indolence and ignorance” was “freezing the government machine” when it came to tackling public sector fraud.

This month, Lord Agnew announced that he would be giving evidence against the Government at an information tribunal brought by the campaign group, Spotlight on Corruption, which seeks to force disclosure of the identities of COVID loan recipients. 

Pursuing benefits fraudsters and criticising those who could work but choose not to has been a long-standing political tool of successive Conservative administrations.

“Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?” then Chancellor George Osborne memorably asked at the 2012 Conservative Party Conference.

In reality, more than a third of Universal Credit claimants – the flagship benefits system conceived by the Coalition Government – are in employment, rising to 40% in Scotland.

A Government spokesperson told Byline Times: “Fraud against the taxpayer takes money away from public services that people rely on. That is why the Government is committed to reducing irregular spending and has invested over £750 million since last March to tackle the issue.

“The new Public Sector Fraud Authority will modernise how the Government tackles fraud – including an increased use of data and analytics to recover and prevent fraud loss. Our plan to fight fraud in the welfare system will save £2 billion over the next three years.”

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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The Ignored Long COVID Crisis

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/05/2022 - 6:45pm in

The Bank of England has warned of COVID-related labour shortages in Britain, but why aren’t we taking its long-term effects more seriously? Sasha Baker investigates

It was September 2020. Lisa had been unable to work due to Long COVID for the entire summer. She was attempting to return to her job as an executive assistant but it was making her symptoms worse. She could often feel her heart racing. One day she collapsed on the kitchen floor, struggling to breathe.

“I was there for about an hour before I could get the strength to even find my phone and make a call,” she said. She was taken to hospital in an ambulance but returned home that evening without a clinical explanation for the day’s events.

The 40-year-old from London had always been career-driven – but now she could think of little but her health. “I went to bed for about a six-week period thinking I was going to die every night,” she told Byline Times.

Even the smallest tasks were insurmountable. One morning, a flat tyre meant that Lisa had to walk her youngest son to school. It was a short walk – scarcely a kilometre – but the nine-year-old raced ahead as she struggled to keep up. “He kept turning round and saying, 'mummy, I’m so sorry you have to walk’,” she recalled.

Quitting her job seemed to be the only option. A few months later, feeling slightly better, Lisa took a civil service role below her skill level. It meant a £10,000 pay cut but she found the job easy and it would ensure financial security if she needed to take time off. As it turned out, she was signed off for most of the following five months.

There are an estimated 1.8 million people in the UK living with Long COVID and the number is rising rapidly. The Bank of England warned last week that the condition is contributing to labour shortages, with an estimated 320,000 chronically ill people dropping out of the workforce before retirement age.

Some – known as ‘long-haulers’ – have been unwell since the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic with little to no respite from the debilitating exhaustion, brain fog, chronic pain and trouble breathing associated with the condition. Many are unable to work.

Throughout the crisis, the advice to people with COVID-19 has been to return to normal activities as soon as they are feeling better – but many Long COVID sufferers blame returning to work too quickly for the severity of their illness.

Dr Asad Khan, 46, is a respiratory consultant for the NHS in Manchester who went back to work for three days after a bout of acute COVID-19, which is when his Long COVID symptoms started.

Dr Khan has been unable to practice for the past 18 months because of severe illness. He used to love cycling and swimming but now says that he “can barely go to the corner shop”.

Dr Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, has been raising the alarm about Long COVID throughout the pandemic. According to her research, and the published research of other groups, “consistently what you find is that being able to rest when you have persistent [COVID] symptoms correlates with recovery”. She has also noted that the illness is occupational, with those in health, social care and teaching most likely to be unwell.

Long COVID patients also struggle to access disability benefits.

Dr Khan has applied for personal independence payments (PIP), a non-means-tested benefit to help disabled people with the extra costs of managing their condition, but was initially denied. He has asked the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to reconsider his case, but the process involves writing a “long, complicated letter, which with fatigue and cognitive issues is not easy.” While he is waiting to hear, he is relying on money from his parents.

The DWP has recorded only 1,600 PIP decisions relating to people with Long COVID, with half of that number being awarded payments. Figures for decisions before March 2021 are not recorded as COVID-related and some without a formal diagnosis may also not be counted.

The Government also does not collect figures on the number of people with Long COVID claiming Universal Credit.

Herd Immunity

Workplaces vary in how they treat people with Long COVID.

NHS workers are meant to be protected because COVID-related sickness absences are not subject to usual policies, but these are not applied consistently. 

Emma, 44, is a clinical coder for the NHS in Bristol, but has not been able to work since the start of the pandemic. “I haven’t been hit financially but I did really have to fight to get my illness recognised as COVID-related,” she said.

COVID tests were not yet in widespread circulation when she fell ill so there was no way to confirm her diagnosis. Her employer moved to dismiss her because of her illness.

“When they were talking about sacking me I’d only been off for like three months,” said Emma. “I’d had no referrals. I had no idea what was going on.”

She has been allowed to continue on full pay, though she worries that the NHS will one day stop paying COVID-19 long-haulers.

For those in the private sector, there are no such protections.

Sy, 44, is a former call-centre worker and DJ from Leeds who has experienced debilitating Long COVID symptoms for two years. He has been claiming Universal Credit for most of that time, after no longer being to claim statutory sick pay.

“My workplace actually tried to take me down the road to a disciplinary for not being at work” he said. He appealed the decision and won in May 2021 but when his workplace tried again that August, he “didn’t have anything left to give” and had to accept the disciplinary procedures.

For some, claiming benefits is simply not an option.

Wil, 23, is a Dutch student in Bristol who has been struggling to juggle her degree with the 10 hours of work she is legally allowed to undertake each week, while managing her Long COVID symptoms. “My student loan just covers my rent and my tuition so if I didn’t work I wouldn’t be able to eat,” she said.

For most of this year, Wil worked 10 hours a week in a pizzeria, which used up practically all of her energy. “My attendance was below 30% in the first semester because I just couldn’t bring myself to walk 15 minutes to campus,” she said.

She has learned to manage her energy well enough to complete her degree, spending an hour or two in the morning and evening writing her dissertation with a long nap in the middle of the day. Now she is about to graduate, Wil is ineligible for benefits, having not contributed enough national insurance in her three years as a student in the UK.

She is moving in with her partner, which will help with rent, but she is struggling to find full-time work that won’t worsen her illness. Anything physically demanding is out of the question but there are other considerations.

“I also can’t really do an office job because screens and reading aggravate my symptoms,” said Wil, whose Long COVID is currently manifesting as a months-long migraine. She needs to find ways to work, but without significant accommodations from future employers that will be a challenge.

The extent of the impact of Long COVID on the economy is still to be seen, but the country has not adapted to meet the needs of those suffering from the illness or taken steps to prevent hundreds of thousands more from becoming disabled.

According to Dr Gurdasani, the Government’s approach to the pandemic has made the spread of Long COVID inevitable.

“There’s never been a focus on reducing transmission, which is what’s needed to prevent Long COVID, and I suspect that’s very political,” she said. “I think the reasons for ignoring Long COVID and minimising it have been because doing so normalises the Government’s strategy.”

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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‘We Can’t Live Like This’: Universal Credit Falls Short of Cost of Living Price Hikes

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 19/05/2022 - 6:45pm in

Rising energy bills, increased food costs – and yet benefits have not risen with inflation, leaving families struggling to make ends meet, Sian Norris reports

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More than half of families receiving emergency charity aid are also on Universal Credit, with the benefit failing to meet families’ basic financial needs.

Data from the charity Action for Children has found that 54% of people receiving emergency help from its Children’s Crisis Fund were on Universal Credit, suggesting that the benefit simply does not go far enough in helping families make ends meet. The situation has been made worse by the decision to cut the £20 uplift to Universal Credit last autumn.

The uplift was a temporary measure introduced to new Universal Credit claimants at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. Chancellor Rishi Sunak cut it in October, in what was the biggest single slash to welfare support since the Second World War. Nearly one-fifth (18%) of people accessing emergency help cited the £20 cut as making life harder. 

If winter was bad, summer and autumn risks being even worse for low-income households. Inflation has reached 7%, as food and energy bills continue to rise. But despite the increasing cost of living, the Treasury opted not to raise Universal Credit in line with inflation – meaning that those on benefits have endured a real-terms income cut. 

The Government has claimed that the best way to tackle the cost of living is through employment and economic growth. The Prime Minister has said “we’re creating jobs, jobs, jobs” to tackle the crisis. Safeguarding Minister Rachel Maclean has said that people struggling with the cost of living should “take on more hours and get a better paid job” – although some have pointed out that she was talking about aspirations for a high-wage economy. 

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Despite the Government insisting that more jobs are the answer, it also boasts of a record low unemployment rate, at 3.8%. This means that most people struggling with the cost of living crisis are already in “jobs jobs jobs”.

Indeed, more than 40% of Universal Credit claimants are in work and 75% of children in poverty have at least one working parent. The solution to the cost of living crisis cannot, therefore, solely be found in getting more people into work. Instead, there needs to be a focus on tackling low-paid, insecure and precarious work – as well as efforts to create a benefits system that supports those who cannot work. 

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, told Byline Times: "The Government committed to using the tax and benefit system to reduce child poverty in its 2019 election manifesto. And yet, with inflation set to reach its highest level for four decades this year, the policy responses introduced by to date will not do nearly enough to support low-income families.

"We desperately need a cross-government plan to reduce and ultimately eradicate child poverty in the UK, but we can start today by guaranteeing benefits keep pace with the cost of living and target help to children in low income families through a rise in the child element of Universal Credit.”

‘We Literally Can’t Live’

For a mum like Leanne, the advice to “take on more hours” to beat the cost of living crisis is meaningless. She already works 37 hours a week on top of raising her two children. “There’s no way I could work my way out of this situation like the Government says I could,” she said. 

Leanne is on Universal Credit and has no disposable income left at the end of the month. Her electricity bill has increased from £188 per month to £279 per month, her council tax has gone up, as has the cost of her groceries. 

The daily struggle to make ends meet is impacting her physical and mental health, she told Byline Times. “I have palpitations worrying about the bills coming out. I’m constantly stressed. Emotionally I feel really drained and really down.”

Already, the cost of living crisis is having an impact on her children. She cannot afford to feed them fresh food as it's so expensive, even though she knows that the cheaper food she relies on is bad for their health. As for treats and days out, there is no money left to give her children those magical extras that make childhood special.

“I feel like I am failing my children,” Leanne told Byline Times. “My daughter is nine and she doesn’t understand why she can’t have things anymore. She doesn’t understand why she can’t have an ice cream when we walk past the ice cream van. I am trying to protect her from the stress while having to say 'no' to her all the time. My son is 18, and he feels like he has to support the family. But I don’t want him to feel like that – it’s not his responsibility, it’s mine.”

Leanne is terrified about what the autumn will bring, when energy prices are set to increase again. Her son is hoping to go to university to study robotics this September – an amazing achievement that is dampened by the family’s fears that she will lose her child benefit and see her income decrease even more. “It’s more pressure”, while she needs to help him through his studies.

“What should be an exciting trip to go and buy his essentials for university is just another added stress,” she said. “He will get a maintenance grant when he’s there, but that won’t cover all his costs. I should be able to help him. He shouldn’t be going to university and worried about his finances, he should be able to enjoy the experience.” 

More than a third (37%) of families like Leanne’s who are on Universal Credit and receiving crisis support from Action for Children said that, without the additional help, they would have struggled to feed their children. 29% were having to choose between eating or heating. 

“The worst pain and misery of the cost of living crisis is being felt by children in low income families, yet the Government is refusing to target help for these children or accept that it needs to rethink its huge cut to Universal Credit,” said Imran Hussain. “The levels of severe and persistent financial hardship our services are seeing are among the worst they can remember and are robbing too many children of the bright futures they deserve.”

A Government spokesperson told Byline Times: “We are committed to ending poverty and the latest figures show there were half a million fewer children in absolute poverty after housing costs than in 2009/10.

"We recognise the pressures on the cost of living and we are doing what we can to help, including spending £22 billion across the next financial year to support people with energy bills and cut fuel duty.

"For the hardest hit, we’re putting an average of £1,000 more per year into the pockets of working families on Universal Credit, have also boosted the minimum wage by more than £1,000 a year for full-time workers and our Household Support Fund is there to help with the cost of everyday essentials."

The figure of half a million fewer children in poverty relates to absolute, not relative poverty, as Byline Times has previously reported. The £1,000 per year more in the pockets of working families on Universal Credit would benefit around two million people – however the removal of the £20 uplift impacted 5.5 million families.

You can listen to our interview with Leanne, and learn more about the cost of living crisis from Imran Hussain, on the Byline Times Podcast

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Food Bank Britain

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/05/2022 - 9:04pm in

Rachel Morris considers the malaise of modern Britain as the Conservatives initiate Austerity 2.0

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“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam today”, said the Mad Hatter. Perhaps he wrote this year’s Queen’s Speech, as delivered by golden calf Prince Charles, and subsequent tweets by Her Majesty’s Government.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak suggested that the Government could help you with the cost of living crisis, if you start a small enterprise first. A jam stall, perhaps.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng shared his passion for nuclear power plants – not exactly a short-term fix – in the week when it was revealed that we’re set to receive glowing veg from Fukushima.

Most ministers repeated the bit from their propaganda manual about being laser-focused on “the people’s priorities”. Nothing like a bit of alliteration to drown out those noises emanating from your stomach.

While French people got a state-delivered energy price cap limiting increases to 4%, our 54% rises can surely only be deliberate.

There’s no question that we’ve embarked upon Austerity 2.0. But the ‘A’ word can’t be said out loud, because according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, Austerity 1.0 caused 130,000 preventable deaths.

That’s one in every 517 people. COVID has now killed one in 347, if you divide the 2020 Census population by deaths with COVID on the certificate (193,713 at 11 May).

Austerity has therefore been rebranded. The Conservatives have driven the more comfortable classes into needing food banks, so has started calling them ‘pantries’. This was exactly the approach of Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt who on 22 April declared a partnership with Hive Portsmouth, setting up ‘food pantries’ in her constituency to save households an “average £800 a year in food bills”.

The accompanying video makes the food bank look like Waitrose, with more gorgeous veg and eggs than I’ve seen anywhere in France. Mordaunt appeals for generous individuals to run them, off the Government pay-roll.

In an article for the Daily Express earlier this week, Mordaunt said that anti-Brexit “doomsters want Britain to fail”. If she doesn’t understand that Britain is already failing, perhaps the minister should spend an afternoon in the food ‘pantry’, when it’s open for business.

According to Mordaunt, Remainers must instead become Tinkerbells: they must close their eyes tight and believe in Brexit hard enough, so food banks – sorry, ‘pantries’ – will vanish. For most people, however, closing their eyes just makes the hunger more apparent.

Asset-Stripping

Closing his eyes is something well-known to Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who spends his days lounging on the green benches of the House of Commons.

Ultimately, the people in charge see widespread hunger and poverty as a game: an exercise imagined in public relations school – or perhaps a question on the Eton entrance exam – designed to prove how they can wriggle out of a tight spot.

And the latest frontier of this PR campaign has focused on Labour Leader Keir Starmer having a beer and a curry during a work event. The nation’s attention has been diverted away from yet more Downing Street party fines, a catastrophic Conservative local election performance, and the High Court ruling that the Government consigned elderly people to death during the early stages of the pandemic.

It is also deeply ironic that this ‘scandal’ focuses on food, when 4.7 million adults are currently suffering from food insecurity.

Indeed, there are fewer McDonald’s (1,358) in the UK than food ‘pantries’ (more than 2,200). But, according to Conservative MP for Ashfield, Lee Anderson, it’s poor people who are to blame for their growling bellies.

Meanwhile, Prince Charles can still utter the phrase “levelling up” in Parliament while sitting in front of a gold-encrusted wall on a gold-encrusted throne wearing gold-and-medal-encrusted clothing – saying that regional rebalancing will be achieved by “ensuring everyone can continue to benefit from al fresco dining”.

There’s a reason why the Government has run out of ideas about how to fix the country. Primarily, because fixing the problems would involve a recognition that they created the problems in the first place and – secondly – because the Conservative Party takes its instructions from its paymasters in the private sector.

Everywhere you look, the Government is privatising – or threatening to privatise – whatever hasn’t already been sold-off. Passports, driving licenses, Channel 4, alongside our crap-filled waterways. But this asset-stripping goes much further. The state’s role itself has been privatised.

If you want to challenge the lawfulness of a Government action, you must crowdfund it yourself. If you want veterans to have something to sleep on, you must support a charity like Forgotten Veterans UK, whose ambassador is – Penny Mordaunt.

There will come a time when too few can afford to support privately-funded efforts by the third sector, with time or money, and some of these needs simply won’t be met at all. What happens when there are more GoFundMe pages than people who can donate to them? When there are more charities than the charitable?

Up to 14.5 million people lived in poverty before the pandemic – one in every four or five – which is projected to rise to 16 million by 2023. And the Government’s response is indifference.

Last October, the Prime Minister told businesses that it wasn’t his job to fix their every problem. The Chancellor said he “can’t do everything” after criticism of his Spring Statement. Other ministers are saying similar.

We’re on our own now, shivering in a corner with the Trussell Trust. Only £3 million crowns get a lift in a Rolls Royce. The Government makes no bones about it: you’ll have to figure it out on your own. Perhaps you could use those bones to make a tasty broth? If you can afford to put the cooker on. But don’t think there’ll be jam with it. Not today.

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People Hosting Ukrainian Refugees Still Subject to Bedroom Tax, Government Confirms

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 29/04/2022 - 2:51am in

Public housing tenants will still face spare bedroom penalties – even if that bedroom is used to host a Ukrainian refugee, reports Sascha Lavin

Social housing tenants will still be hit by the bedroom tax, even if they are participating in the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal.

According to a recent parliamentary question, almost half a million people who have been paying the so-called 'bedroom tax' will continue to be charged – even if their additional room is filled by a Ukrainian refugee seeking sanctuary under the Government scheme allowing volunteers to host individuals in their home. 

The controversial tax – officially known as the spare room subsidy – was introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government and punishes social housing tenants for having a spare room in their home. 

A tenant affected by the bedroom tax could lose up to £25 a week, according to 2015 estimates – a quarter of the £350 tax-free monthly Government payment handed out to all Homes for Ukraine hosts.  

Boris Johnson promised that the new scheme would be “a route by which everybody in this country can offer a home to people fleeing Ukraine” – but the very poorest face an additional barrier if they want to have the same “rewarding” and “humbling experience” as former Government minister Robert Jenrick by participating in the scheme.

Last week, Minister for Welfare Delivery, David Rutley, made it clear that people liable for the bedroom tax would continue to lose out on the spare room subsidy, despite their spare room being filled by Ukrainian refugees fleeing Putin’s invasion. 

In response to a parliamentary question by Labour MP Anneliese Dodds, Rutley said: “Under the Homes for Ukraine Scheme the Ukrainian nationals are treated as not normally residing with their host. This means that there is no change to the number of bedrooms which the claimant is entitled to under the removal of the spare room subsidy.”

When Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove introduced the Homes for Ukraine scheme, he reminded the House of Commons of the UK’s “long and proud history of supporting the most vulnerable during their darkest hours”. 

But the punitive bedroom tax has done the very opposite: domestic violence survivors have been penalised for having a police-adapted panic room, and disabled people have been fined for requiring a room for medical equipment. 

The Homes for Ukraine small-print shows that, in Boris Johnson’s broken Britain, no good deed goes unpunished while no bad deeds – crony contracts and lockdown breaches – are punished.  

The Department for Work and Pensions was approached for comment and reiterated the response offered by David Rutley.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE BYLINE INTELLIGENCE TEAM

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Government To Put All Pensioners On Harvey Norman Gift Cards

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 26/04/2022 - 7:00am in

Leaked documents have today revealed that the Morrison/Joyce/Murdoch Government plans to put all pensioners on a Harvey Norman gift card form July 1st this year.

”The pension is a form of welfare and people need to remember that,” said a Government Insider. ”Now it’s time for pensioners to give something back to society and they can do that by shopping at Harvey Norman.”

”Here’s hoping that by the end of the year every pensioner in Australia will have a new couch that they can have paid off by the year 2032.”

When asked how Pensioners would be able to buy milk, bread and other groceries from Harvey Norman, the Government Spokesperson said: ”Harvey Norman stock many, many products.”

”I mean last time I was there I saw that they had a wonderful café, maybe they can negotiate to buy milk there.”

”Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to have a very important meeting with a one Gina Rinehart. She has some ideas on how to make work for the dole work better, for her.”

Mark Williamson

@MWChatShow

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Rishi Sunak’s Plan to Soften Blow of Universal Credit Cut has been a £1 Billion Bust

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/04/2022 - 7:30pm in

Nic Murray explores the Chancellor’s under-funded and misjudged scheme to help deprived families make ends meet

“Is that it?” came a heckle from the Labour frontbench. The response could have been used to describe any number of his policies, but the exasperation on this occasion was directed at what the Chancellor had just announced in his Spring Statement.

The Household Support Fund, an emergency pot of funding for local authorities to help residents with essential costs, due to wind down on 1 April, was to be given an extra £500 million to run until September.    

First launched a week before the removal of the £20 Universal Credit uplift late last year, it was clear the fund – initially resourced with £500 million – was barely a sticking plaster, aimed more at placating Conservatives ahead of its annual conference than helping the 500,000 swept into poverty as a result of the Universal Credit cut.

According to the Government, the fund was supposed to “be distributed by councils in England to directly help those who need it most" and it would be "distributed through small payments to support vulnerable households meet daily needs such as food, clothing, and utilities”.

At the time, the Household Support Fund was estimated to, on average, to replace less than 18p for every £1 cut from Universal Credit. New figures provided to Byline Times show how far short the scheme is falling, with tens of thousands of people across England lucky to get even that. 

Data obtained by a Freedom of Information (FOI) request indicates that, by January, halfway through the fund’s original duration – before the cost of living crisis truly began to bite – one in five applications to the fund were not being approved.

Of the 95 English county councils and unitary authorities open for applications to the fund that responded to Byline Times' request, a total of 174,000 applications were received, 22% of which had not been approved.

Brent Council, a third of whose residents are living in poverty, only approved 35% of the 1,182 applications made to its funding pot. For Blackpool, one of the most deprived areas in the country, this figure was a staggering 12%.      

Not all local authorities require direct applications from individuals. Some have automatically targeted funding towards households that already received support such as free school meals or council tax reductions. However, millions already miss out on this support, and are likely to be left out again.

For those required to apply, the fund is often a last resort, but one that requires applications to meet unspecified levels of ‘deservingness’ when competing against hundreds of others for already insufficient funding.

“I have £4.01 in my bank to last until 21 April,” Ashleigh in Liverpool told Byline Times. “Never asked them for anything before, applied and was rejected and told I could appeal, asked what I was rejected for so I could appeal against it and was told that they don’t give a reason.” 

Less than one in five local authorities operate their own local welfare assistance scheme, research in 2021 by End Furniture Poverty found, leaving many rushing to establish eligibility criteria. While some have used their discretion generously, such as Newham, by ensuring those with no recourse to public funds were eligible, others have replicated the most discriminatory aspects of the benefits system. 

Applicants in Preston, for instance, are required to submit two months of bank statements with no signs of ‘irresponsible’ spending. Meanwhile, in the City of London, any financial support comes with a stipulation that individuals must also show proof of receiving debt advice. Both frame the problem as one of individual choice – rather than an inability to make ends meet in a climate in which energy bills are rising 17 times faster than benefits.

Austerity Reborn

For those who have been lucky enough to have their applications approved, there is no guarantee that even accessing this support will be easy.

Janina told Byline Times that Ashfield District Council approved her application but that her internet was down for a couple of days, which meant that the vouchers sent to her expired two days later.

"I was hardly given the best chance to access it," she said. "I simply don’t know how I’m going to manage. As things are, I stay in my bedroom most of the time so that I can use an electric blanket when I’m cold.”

Plenty of people in local government feel that those on both sides of the Household Support Fund are being let down.

“The Government hasn’t properly involved local government in the shaping of the guidance so that we can then go ahead and deliver it effectively from day one,” Ian, head of a district council in the Midlands, told this newspaper.

“There is a danger they are setting local government up for failure in two ways – one by failing to deliver what we’ve been asked to do, and second at the end of the process as the Government isn’t going to carry on giving us some extra money to dole out.”

Rather than distributing necessary financial support through a social security system already set up to target those most in need, the fund places the administrative burden on local authorities – many of which have chosen to direct much of this to local ‘delivery partners’, adding another layer of administrative cost.

By the time it reaches individuals in need, not only has the total amount been depleted, it may not even come in the form of financial aid. FOI responses showed that at least £2.7 million has already been given directly to food banks across England. Kensington and Chelsea was the largest donator, directing £200,000 of its £1.8 million funding total to local food banks.  

Ultimately, slashing welfare funding accompanied by piecemeal increases to pots of local authority funding is a path well-worn by the Conservative Party over its 12 years in power.

The Welfare Reform Act 2012 – which introduced Universal Credit and the ‘Bedroom Tax’ – abolished the £732 million a year Social Fund, providing just £170 million for local welfare assistance in its place.

Meanwhile, former Chancellor George Osborne’s three-year freeze on Local Housing Allowance in 2015 – part of a raft of £4 billion worth of cuts to the welfare budget which put more than a million families at risk of homelessness – was accompanied by just an extra £170 million per year to the Discretionary Housing Payment. 

In the current political climate, this austerity is taking place while households face the largest fall in real-term incomes since the 1970s – delivered by a Chancellor whose approval rating is currently in free-fall, in part due to his piecemeal approach to tackling the cost of living crisis. 

Current guidance issued to local authorities stipulates that they must “reference that the grant is funded by the Department for Work and Pensions or the UK Government in any publicity material”.

The Household Support Fund may be funded by the Government, but only with the same amount of cash that it allocated in the Spring Statement to "increasing DWP’s capacity to detect fraud and error" – highlighting just how inadequate the scheme truly is. 

Almost a month on from Rishi Sunak's announcement, the latest guidance for local authorities is still in draft format – leaving many in the dark. For Ian, one question is particularly pressing: “This fund only runs until September. So what’s the answer for next winter’s fuel bill?”

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