Leeds City Council - Support constituents on Universal Credit!
Leeds City Council - Support constituents on Universal Credit!
An open letter to Leeds City Council:
We the undersigned say enough is enough to Universal Credit!
By the government’s own admission, Universal Credit makes people on average worse off than when they were on "legacy" benefits and/or Tax Credits, with income reductions ranging from hundreds to thousands of pounds a year. Disabled claimants and single parents on low earnings are amongst the hardest hit.
The government is boasting about how "cautiously" it is introducing so-called "managed migration" (that is, moving people from the old benefits to Universal Credit). They say that people's benefit incomes will be protected, and that people on Housing Benefit, JSA, ESA or Income Support will get a two-week run-on to cover part of the wait for Universal Credit to be paid. What they avoid saying is that "protected" incomes will lose value over time until they are equal to the lower amount you would get as a brand new claimant; that a change of circumstances requiring a new claim would mean that transitional protection would be lost; that the two-week run-on is far too little to cover the five-week wait for UC; and that there is no run-on of Tax Credits.
And what they also don't mention is that the vast majority of people who end up on Universal Credit will have got there through so-called "natural migration" - that is, through making a brand new claim (either before or after managed migration comes to their area), or because of a change in circumstances which is counted as a new claim. People claiming UC under "natural migration" get no run-ons of JSA, ESA or IS, and no transitional protection. They have a minimum five-week wait which can easily become far longer, with only a DWP loan which has to be paid back from benefits which are already too low to live on.
With or without the loan, many claimants and their children face hunger, cold, debt and potential homelessness, with all the knock-on effects to physical and mental health and reduced life-chances. In Leeds where "natural migration" has taken place since October 2018, in our communities, work places, neighbourhoods and through our campaigns we have seen, heard and experienced numerous horror stories of people on UC.
UC is a system designed intentionally to catch people out and provide less welfare support to vulnerable people, people on low incomes and sick and disabled people. All of this under the guise that it is ‘making work pay’.
But for so many, the vast majority of people who need benefits, it doesn’t make work pay. Many people claiming benefits cannot work for valid and legitimate reasons. One Leeds based resident, a nursing student, was made homeless with her two children as the UC awarded to her was significantly less than the Tax Credits she was previously on. She was forced to suspend her studies. Students in vocational courses such as nursing cannot work, nor should they.
This is just one example of the devastation UC has caused in Leeds alone. It is well known that UC is causing stress and tragedy nationally, not to mention the UC-related suicides that are being revealed frequently in the press. We are sure Leeds City Council is fully aware of the main problems with UC, and that we do not need to repeat them here in detail!
UC is a part of the ideology of austerity that ordinary people have borne the brunt of since the 2008/09 financial crisis. Bankers and the gambling of capitalist businesses caused the crisis, yet in the UK and in many other countries, neoliberal governments have used it as an excuse to implement savage cuts and privatisations that harm ordinary people. Neoliberal governments fundamentally reject the idea of collective support through the state for those in need. They believe that every individual should be responsible for supporting themselves through the job market, and that if you need support you should pay. This is why we have seen the Conservative party strip back our public services, NHS and benefits.
But austerity has also meant refusing to raise the minimum wage to keep up with inflation. The economy recovering slightly is what neoliberal politicians care about, they do not care that their policies have devastated the living conditions of many people in the UK and have made things far harder for the majority of people.
The harder it becomes to survive by earning a wage, the more people are pushed onto the benefit system. But at the same time, Universal Credit helps to keep wages down, by forcing more and more people to take up any work at any pay and conditions. Indeed, research has shown that the harsh conditions placed on claimants make it more likely that they will remain stuck in a cycle of low-waged, short-term or zero-hours work with regular bouts of unemployment.
The idea that severe financial hardship is needed in order to "incentivise" work is even used by the government to justify massive cuts to the benefits of the most severely disabled claimants under Universal Credit - people who are mostly unable to access the job market at all. Despite the government's insulting talk of a "safety net" for those most in need, the UC system clearly exposes the ideology that anyone who can't support themselves through employment - whether because of disability, sickness, childcare or other caring responsibilities - is "failing", is a burden on society and is unworthy of an adequate quality of life.
This ideology must be challenged at all costs!
We understand that Leeds City Council is not responsible for the national roll out of UC. Nor do we expect the council to have the ability to stop it in an isolated case in Leeds.
However, we do not believe the city council is powerless to support its residents through hardship because of UC, nor do we believe that the city council can’t have any influence on austerity nationally. Leeds City Council is a Labour council. The Labour Party nationally has been outspoken against austerity, with many of its national policies opposing what the Conservatives are doing to our public services and benefits. Yet locally Leeds and other Labour councils are voting through cuts, saying that "their hands are tied" and that constituents need to wait for a general election.
We don’t believe that their hands are tied. Taking a stand, uniting with other Labour councils and councils sympathetic to ending UC and rejecting Tory austerity would be a powerful way to render UC and other Tory austerity policy unworkable.
Labour councils hold money in pockets called reserves. Some of this money is pre-allocated, some is money for ‘a rainy day’. In this year's budget, Leeds City Council added £4.5 million to their general fund reserves whilst making cuts to services worth millions more. The council also has other reserve money like their Spring Budget Reserve which they have no plans to spend from in the 2019/20 financial year and which equates to over £2 million. Further, the council had a projected underspend in the last financial year of over £3 million. We believe then, that the council does have money that it can use legally to offset the impact of austerity on people’s lives and not make cuts. Of course, this reserve money would not last forever, but should be used as an emergency measure whilst the council links with other councils in a campaign against central government cuts to reject government austerity. It should be noted that the council has used its reserve money in previous years to fund statutory services.
We therefore urge the council to work with us to look at the money it does not immediately need within its reserves or will not need for some time. We demand that they use this money to stop making cuts to welfare services, to look at what the residents of Leeds need in order to support people who are suffering from poverty, mental health issues, domestic violence, ill health etc. We demand that the Labour party nationally promise to reimburse what money is spent, upon winning a general election victory - a victory that would be made more probable if Labour councils were seen to be taking a stand against austerity.
We therefore call upon Leeds City Council, to act on the following demands as a matter of urgency to stop people worrying about how they will make their bills, living without necessities, becoming homeless and worse, losing their lives due to lack of security and money from UC:
1. That the council sets up and sufficiently funds a hardship grant, open to all on UC. This should be aimed at providing people with non-repayable relief to cover bills and living costs, and prevent the spiraling debt which can be the result of advance loans from the DWP which then have to be paid back leaving claimants well below the level needed to meet basic needs and consequently going without food/heating or resorting to loan sharks. The grant should also be made available to students who are trapped by UC, and be sufficient to ensure that no-one is locked out of studying because they are disabled or a single parent.
2. That this system be managed by a specific support and advocacy service for UC and staffed by workers in the support, advocacy/ advice sector who have significant experience in working with vulnerable people and who have significant knowledge of the benefits system. This should go beyond the provision of information and advice and assessment for grants, to concrete practical and emotional support and advocacy for those struggling to navigate or cope with the requirements of the Job Centre. This would be a temporary emergency measure until national change is made to scrap Universal Credit and introduce a benefits system which doesn’t leave people without. – DWP workers are often not adequately trained on UC, often have insufficient training on how to respond to people in distress and are completely overloaded with work due to the DWP cuts to staffing.
3. That the council ensure no tenants on UC in rent arrears are evicted from council properties or properties managed by council commissioned services. The council should also use its influence to secure similar policies in housing associations operating in Leeds.
4. That the council fund and manage child care services for Leeds constituents. – The 85% child care costs that are covered by UC are not practical for those on low incomes who cannot afford to pay child care costs upfront. This is plunging people into debt and financial insecurity. Ideally, parents of young children should have a choice whether to return to the labour market - they should not be forced to work the "double-shift" or to prioritise work over a child's well-being. However, the reality is that lack of affordable child care and a cap of 30 hours of what free childcare there is, is locking parents, predominantly women, out of employment or keeping them stuck in part time jobs, the majority of which are insecure and low paid. We demand that the council ensure that free good-quality childcare is available for all who need it, giving more parents access to decently paid and secure jobs – this would ultimately allow more people to come off of benefits.
5. That the council take a fighting stance on austerity, reject Tory central government austerity budgets and set budgets based on what people need. It should work with other Labour and sympathetic councils to reject national cuts budgets using their reserves as an emergency measure to do this. And, as part of this fightback against austerity, we demand Leeds City Council campaigns to Stop and Scrap Universal Credit.
Ultimately this is what we demand because it is what is needed to save lives.
Leeds TUC Alternative Budget Proposals https://leedstuc.files.wordpress.com/2019/02/leeds-alternative-budget-proposals-2019-20.pdf