Tory conference: Charity’s silence on universal credit deaths, hours after minister announces £51m funding

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A charity has refused to criticise the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over four deaths linked to universal credit, hours after a minister announced it would receive tens of millions of pounds to support claimants on the new benefit system.

Work and pensions secretary Esther McVey (pictured) told the Conservative party conference on Monday that the advice charity Citizens Advice would receive the funding to deliver support to claimants.

It will be delivered through “universal support”, which provides universal credit claimants with advice and assistance, particularly with budgeting and the online aspects of their claims.

Since last year, local authorities have provided this service, funded by DWP, but Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland will take responsibility for delivering a “strengthened” version across England, Wales and Scotland from next April.

The two charities will receive £12 million in the run-up to April 2019 to “ensure a smooth transition to the new delivery model” and then another £39 million from April 2019 to provide the service.

A DWP spokeswoman confirmed today (Thursday) that the funding of £39 million was for just one year, “with a review at the end”.

But she also appeared to confirm that the contracts signed by the charities includes a clause preventing them from attracting “adverse publicity” to the department or to McVey herself, as in contracts signed by some of the disability charities who have signed up to deliver services as part of DWP’s new Work and Health Programme.

Such a clause is likely to say that Citizens Advice must “pay the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of McVey and must promise not to do anything that harms the public’s confidence in her or DWP.

Asked whether the contracts do include such a clause, a DWP spokeswoman said this afternoon: “Such paragraphs are typical in DWP grants.

“The grant sets out the relationship with DWP and its grant recipients so that both parties understand how to interact with each other.

“The wording is intended to protect the best interests of both the department and the stakeholders we work with, and it does not stop individuals from acting as whistle-blowers under the provisions of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, nor from raising any concerns directly with the department.”

Disabled activists have already raised serious concerns about whether the DWP funding will put the independence of Citizens Advice at risk, and this admission is likely to fuel those concerns.

Disabled activist Rick Burgess said in a blog this week that people he had spoken to in the advice and welfare rights sector were “aghast” and “appalled” by the charity’s decision to take the funding.

He said: “Make no mistake, this is a historic betrayal that is not business as usual and is not ‘okay’.

“The executives and board of [Citizens Advice] have catastrophically sabotaged their organisation’s independence and reputation in return for medium term financial security.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said on Twitter: “[Citizens Advice] selling out to DWP for £51million. No wonder we don’t trust charities.”

And Dr Jay Watts added: “Can’t believe [Citizens Advice] has sold out to the DWP for £51 million after 79 years of independence.

“It is near impossible to bite the hand that feeds – as we have seen with so many charities – so a clever way to mute criticism of #UniversalCredit.”

Just hours after McVey’s announcement, Citizens Advice’s head of policy on families, welfare and work, Kayley Hignell, spoke at a Conservative conference fringe event on universal credit and its impact on mental health.

Hignell and the other panellists were asked by Disability News Service about secret DWP reviews that have linked the deaths of four universal credit claimants with the department’s activity, and whether they thought DWP had taken those deaths seriously enough.

One of the deaths was linked to the “claimant commitment” that universal credit recipients must sign, with DWP’s panel of reviewers warning in their report that it appeared to be “overtly threatening, especially to individuals who are vulnerable”.

But Hignell, who had been told about the reviews before the fringe event, failed to raise concerns about this report or the four deaths, criticise the government, or call for urgent action.

Instead, she spoke about how much more there was to do to implement universal credit properly and how people with more “niche” support needs were currently “losing out”.

She said: “Those groups of people need much, much more attention within the system.”

She said DWP faced a challenge over the “speed” of the rollout and its “capacity” and that the department needed to do more work to “tailor” universal credit to the needs of individuals.

Earlier in the meeting, hosted by The Trussell Trust – which runs a national network of 400 foodbanks – Hignell’s comments about the universal credit roll-out had also appeared to contrast with much stronger criticisms of DWP from her fellow panellists.

Hignell had told the meeting that universal support was “not consistently available across the country”.

And she said that universal credit was “at a critical point at the moment” and that there was “more to do” for DWP in preparation for the “significant upheaval” of “managed migration” for disabled people.

From next year, and over the following four years, managed migration will see hundreds of thousands of disabled people forced to end their existing employment and support allowance (ESA) claims and apply instead for universal credit.

Hignell said: “We do believe government needs to do everything they can to identify those who may struggle with the system.”

She added: “We want to make sure that UC works for everybody and that it’s ready for its next stage of rollout.”

In contrast, Sophie Corlett, head of external relations for the mental health charity Mind, described managed migration as “a juggernaut that’s rolling towards us” and “something that we are really concerned about”.

She described the flaws in the system that will make managed migration difficult, if not impossible, for many people with mental health conditions.

She warned that the implications of failing with a claim for universal credit as part of managed migration were “really huge”, as the person would then be treated as a new claimant and would not be entitled to transitional payments previously announced by ministers.

She also pointed to the tight deadline for claimants to complete their online application for universal credit once they have been told their old ESA claim is about to end.

Corlett said: “There can’t be a deadline at which point your current benefit stops dead. That is a ridiculous situation.”

Sue Weightman, who manages three Trussell Trust foodbanks in the Taunton Deane area of Somerset, one of the first to cope with the universal credit rollout, in October 2016, said the impact of its introduction had been startling and immediate.

She said: “Almost overnight we went from a foodbank that would see maybe a dozen clients in an afternoon to opening the door at two o’clock and having a queue of 15 to 20 people around the corner.

“Almost overnight I needed more volunteers, more food donations, more funding. I also needed more training for the volunteers who were working at that time.”

She said there had been an improvement since changes to universal credit announced by the government last November, but that many people were still suffering from the after-effects of falling into severe debt when they were moved onto universal credit two years ago.

She said this particularly affected those with mental health conditions or learning difficulties, whose problems have “got a lot more severe in the last two years”, including struggles with the complexity and length of the system.

She said: “We have a much higher rate of sanctioning for clients with any form of mental health illness than with any of the others and some are getting sanctioned two or three times.”

And she said many people with mental health conditions were still “fearful” of taking out advance payments through universal credit because they were worried they would not be able to pay the money back and would fall further and further into debt.

She said: “Most clients with any form of mental health illness we have seen in the last two years have seen a spiralling down of their health.

“We have seen a high percentage of people having to move home and getting into rent arrears.”

Citizens Advice has so far refused to confirm that its contract with DWP includes an “adverse publicity” clause.

But a spokeswoman for the charity said in a statement: “Citizens Advice is independent of government and always will be.

“The people we help are our first priority, and this funding will mean Citizens Advice will be able to help even more people who are struggling to make a universal credit claim.

“The advice we give people will always be totally impartial, and we’ll continue to advocate on behalf of the people who come to us for help.”

 

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