This month sees the introduction of a raft of benefit and tax credit changes across the UK. Although they were passed by the previous administration, they are only now being enacted. As such, these changes will take many people by surprise, including social workers and other professionals working with people who receive benefits.
Key changes that are likely to have a major impact on worsening wellbeing and long term poverty, including child poverty, include:
People claiming disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) will get £29.05 less every week if they're deemed fit for 'work-related activity' (WRAG). They will get £73.10, the same as jobseekers' allowance, instead of £102.15
Jobseekers aged 18 to 21 will no longer be able to get Housing Benefit, worth varying amounts and always paid directly to the landlord
Three different benefits are being replaced with one new Bereavement Support Payment. It's worth £3,500, plus £350 a month for 18 months only, for claimants with dependent children. Currently bereaved families can receive a payment up to the time the oldest child reaches 16, so the loss is very significant
Child Tax Credit, worth up to £2,780 per child per year, will now only be paid anew for the first two children in any family - meaning anyone with two children or more will no longer receive child tax credits at the birth of their next child or subsequent children, unless an exception applies. This policy also affects those making a new claim to Universal Credit
A particularly controversial reform is to tax credit, whereby to gain Child Tax Credit or Universal Credit for a third child in the future, a parent will need to claim an exemption. This can be the unforeseen circumstance of a multiple birth. But in other cases, women will need to claim that their third or subsequent pregnancy was the consequence of coercion or rape. This has been dubbed 'the rape clause' by opponents.
The UK government is introducing a third party evidence model where listed organisations or professions will be authorised to sign a form in support of the claim of coercion. Importantly, this claim can only be made if the woman is no longer living with the man she alleges coerced or raped her. Social workers with adults and children are amongst the professionals expected to be approached and will be authorised to sign off this exemption.
Commenting on the reforms, BASW Chief Executive Dr Ruth Allen said: “BASW, in common with many other professional bodies, social researchers, pressure groups and media commentators, regard these latest policy reforms as a new low; adding further complications to the maze of the welfare system.
“There are a few winners within the reforms but as the Resolution Foundation and Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) have shown, the least well off are by far the most badly affected by the changes. The overall intention is clear; to ensure unemployed adults and low income families, including those who work for low wages, those with disabilities and those facing life tragedies such as bereavement, have reduced access to state support. Even many of the so-called ‘just about managing’ families will be worse off under the changes to working tax credits. The culmination of the changes has been estimated by CPAG to be likely to put 10% more children into poverty.
“While all of these reforms are very concerning for social workers across the UK, the 3rd child tax credit change is perhaps the most unacceptable. BASW stands with many other organisations in denouncing this requirement for women to disclose abuse or coercion to gain a benefit intended for their child, and to only be able to do this if they have escaped from an abusive situation with the biological father. This is justified in terms of ensuring abusive partners do not financially benefit from their abuse, however, the effect is much more likely to be one of driving more women and children deeper into poverty.
“We are very concerned that women in cultures or religious groups that make choice about contraception and family size more difficult, or impossible, will be disproportionately affected. On this ground alone, this provision may breach the provisions of the Equality Act 2010. Politicians in Scotland have already stated they will not implement the two child tax credits and Universal Credit cap. This policy and others introduced in April will be a source of further disquiet between the devolved governments and Westminster's commitment to austerity-based welfare reform.
“We are also mindful of the invidious ethical situation for social workers and other professionals in being asked to collude with this deeply unfair form of rationing of public resources. BASW will be monitoring the impact of this new provision for women and children, and for practitioners. We will be issuing more guidance for social workers and considering further how we can join with other organisations to counter this unacceptable policy which is an unethical low in welfare reform".