The Files of Mason Dixon, Autistic: Universal Discredit Part 2

The Files of Mason Dixon, Autistic: Universal Discredit Part 2.

A must read.

In fact to save you the bother of clicking through, here’s what Mason says:


When the Guardian a few months ago described almost three-year old allegations about shenanigans at A4e as ‘fresh revelations’ as if it had not already been in the public domain but completely ignored by the newspapers, I set my mind to looking out for more cases where they do precisely this. I made a point of re-iterating my previous requests for articles about current welfare matters more frequently because it simply wasn’t good enough that coverage was only being given months or even years after the fact. I suspected the reason for this was the Guardian was trying to avoid litigation or bad relations with corporate clients who sponsor their events and pay for advertising space. So the risk of being sued by reporting information already in the public domain soon after it comes out is taken on entirely by bloggers without the resources to defend themselves if it ever came to that. Then when enough time has passed without those bloggers being sued, the Guardian decides to pull their fingers out and partially cover an issue.

For this, Amelia Gentleman was awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism, whilst Kaliya Franklin was nominated but missed out on the Orwell for blogging. I don’t want to be nasty about Amelia Gentleman(I am about to be), but having read the Rangers Tax Case blog which won the Orwell in that category it seemed Kaliya’s BenefitScroungingScum blog was beaten by the best. Amelia Gentleman’s nomination articles whilst good are still below the standards I’d expect for social affairs. She gets the human interest, but this does not provide the critical balance that is lacking in the British media, which is saturated with factual falsehoods about welfare. Human interest just doesn’t cut it. In time, people will be forgotten but truth and lies are immortal: facts matter. If Gentleman provided the best political writing from a journalist for the last year, then the public are being poorly served by journalists. She won not because she was brilliant but because there was no one better.

Use your head to do this if you’ve ever tried getting journalists to listen

If the Guardian or Amelia Gentleman finds that assessment unfair, then they could easily change it by actually covering current events in welfare more often rather than old ones. They could challenge ministers rather than passively accept their comment as providing balance. That accounts for at least half of the factual inaccuracy in welfare articles at the Guardian; unchallenged ministerial assertions. This means that issues are treated purely as matters of opinion rather than being heavily rooted in demonstrable facts. They could share some of the burden of risk in being sued. This immense pressure is part of what I attribute to the suffering endured by Karen Sherlock in her final months. I told the Comment is Free editorship on the daily You Tell Us thread that I had fingers to point and this included the Guardian and it’s cowardly behaviour.

Almost a week ago the Guardian made a fuss over how striking workers were going to be docked Universal Credit when it comes in. They printed this article as if this was some sudden surprise and I was reminded about their ‘fresh revelations’ from the A4e news-storm. But this isn’t new. Campaigners against the Coalition’s Welfare Reform Bill spotted in the text of the legislation that Universal Credit would behave in this way, but for everyone not just strikers. If you lose income which causes your UC claim to rise, there are conditions under which it will in fact be docked- you will be held responsible for not only this though but any lack of an increase in income. Claimants will be expected to keep increasing their income until they no longer claim at all, with JSA-type conditionality and sanctions for this if their income drops or just doesn’t rise at a speed to be determined by the Secretary of State in either regulations or issued guidelines. Yes; the part about the conditionality is in the primary legislation, but the actual time scale and specific criteria are free for ministers to decide. That’s how ‘simplifying’ the system leads to more regulations and guidelines, even after it is basically those which are used to argue how ‘complicated’ the benefits system is.

This does not reduce complex regulations and guidelines

The relevant parts of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 are Section 14 concerning the Claimant Commitment:

(1) A claimant commitment is a record of a claimant’s responsibilities in relation to an award of universal credit.
(2) A claimant commitment is to be prepared by the Secretary of State and may be reviewed and updated as the Secretary of State thinks fit.
(3) A claimant commitment is to be in such form as the Secretary of State thinks fit.
(4) A claimant commitment is to include—
(a) a record of the requirements that the claimant must comply with under this Part (or such of them as the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to include),
(b) any prescribed information, and
(c) any other information the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to include.

(5) For the purposes of this Part a claimant accepts a claimant commitment if, and only if, the claimant accepts the most up-to-date version of it in such manner as may be prescribed.

Sections 15-18 then detail the ‘requirement groups’ which include requirements to attend work-focused interviews, work preparation, work search and work availability. There are then other groups detailed in Sections 19-22 which are those with no requirements, those required to only do interviews, those required only to do interviews and preparation then those who are required to do all of them. For our purposes the one to focus on is who is not required to do any of these; Section 19. To fall into this category the primary legislation says:

A claimant falls within this section if—
(a) the claimant has limited capability for work and work-related activity,
(b) the claimant has regular and substantial caring responsibilities for a severely disabled person,
(c)t he claimant is the responsible carer for a child under the age of 1, or
(d) the claimant is of a prescribed description.

Everyone must agree to a Claimant Commitment. Anyone not in the four categories above in Section 19 is subject to the requirements stated in Section 14. For (d) where the claimant is of a prescribed description, the government has given themselves wriggle room in case it hits the fan. In Section 19 Subsection 3 it expands the general criteria which will go into regulations:

Regulations under subsection (2)(d) may in particular make provision by reference to one or more of the following—
(a) hours worked;
(b) earnings or income;
(c) the amount of universal credit payable.

The regulations are a statutory instrument that allows the government to change the law without having to pass a new Act of Parliament. This is however a large downgrade to the status of all the benefits that will be merged into Universal Credit: as it is now, they are all statutory entitlements where the Acts of Parliament that made them are binding, they are part of the law of the land. They are the reason why the government can be taken to tribunal or court if they refuse to pay benefits to someone who is rightly entitled to them. Universal Credit will be the first non-statutory social security payment for a very long time, I’ve not been able to find any other. This is why low-paid workers who strike are able to be docked from their Universal Credit claim. The Guardian think that is a big story, but the reasons behind it is something much bigger and broader.

Whilst the payment of benefit is no longer a strict statutory requirement, each of the Sections 15-18 contain this specific phrase in important places and it is a statutory requirement:

for the purpose of obtaining paid work (or more paid work or better-paid work)

That is not a condition applied to people out of work, the bit in brackets make it clear that if you aren’t working enough or earning enough according to how the Secretary of State decides, you can be found in breach of both your Claimant Commitment and the statutory criteria for eligibility, where that statutory line has already been polarity-reversed. Where it appears it is also in language that gives over the greatest power to the Secretary of State. It’s no longer what the law says you are entitled to, but the opinion of who ever is sitting in the seat currently occupied by Iain Duncan Smith and they’re able to delegate that ability to an officer of the DWP.

Claimants of Jobseekers Allowance are the only group at the moment subjected to the legally-binding mechanism of having to sign a document like a Jobseekers Agreement, but even they are given the protection of statutory status in their basic eligibility. With Universal Credit, not only is that taken away for those who already have the most restrictive and severe conditionality; it gets applied to virtually everyone. It’s no longer about being jobless, it’s about being poor.

Posted by at Monday, June 25, 2012

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