Gareth Williams argues that the UK Government’s welfare cuts will cause economic difficulties for many families
The planned changes to the British welfare system, some of the deepest and most far-reaching in decades, have been the subject of much debate. However, one aspect which has received less attention than it deserves is their impact on women in Wales. While the absence of detailed statistics makes predicting the gender impact of the reforms difficult, it is highly probable that Welsh women and their families will be severely affected in large numbers.
Before analysing the reforms, it needs to be acknowledged that it is not the principle of reforming the welfare system that is problematic. The present system often provides insufficient work incentives and is highly bureaucratic. Many aspects of the current reforms, such as permitting claimants to retain some benefits while in work, do further these objectives and are much-needed. However, there are certain, highly problematic elements which compromise the intended goals of reform, and risk causing real hardship for Welsh women and their families
The headline change of the Act is the consolidation of six means-tested benefits into one monthly lump sum, the Universal Credit which will be phased in from next October. There are already concerns regarding the impact of this transition, highlighted in a recent report by the Social Market Foundation. An evaluation of how this transition impacts those affected will have to wait until next year.
Meanwhile, budgetary disputes between the Treasury and the Department of Work and Pensions over the programme’s spiralling cost raise questions as to whether or not it will even go ahead in its projected form. What can be assessed however are the changes preceding it, many of which are already underway. These raise serious concerns about the impact of areas of the reforms on Welsh benefit claimants, and female claimants in particular
Around 8,600 sick and disabled Welsh women who receive Contribution Based Employment and Support Allowance could face losing their entitlement as a result of the changes. As they are not categorised as severely disabled and placed in the Support Group, and receive the non means-tested Contribution Based element, they stand to lose all eligibility after one year.
The requirements for the means-tested component are so strict as to prevent many from qualifying. For instance, partners of claimants are not allowed to work for more than 24 hours a week, regardless of household income or savings. This reduces work incentives for their partners and compromises the eligibility of disabled women.
Time limiting the universal component which women have paid in through National Insurance contributions will leave many with the options of either seeking work which they are likely to struggle with, apply for benefits with requirements which are unsuitable for them or, if their partner works less than three days a week and they have sufficiently low savings, apply for the means-tested component. It is hard to see how any of these strengthens work incentives for female partners of affected claimants, or ensures adequate need for the 8,600 women who could lose their eligibility.
The abolition of Income Support for lone parents after their youngest child turns five will also impact women in significant numbers. As 97 per cent (29,740) of Welsh lone parent Income Support claimants are female, its loss after their child’s fifth birthday will overwhelmingly affect women. With many predicted to move on to job-seeking benefits, the changes to these are a major concern, and one of the most problematic aspects of the reforms
Despite women making up only 30 per cent of all Welsh Jobseeker’s Allowance recipients earlier this year-a time of high unemployment, they represent 40 per cent of all individuals in decisions where fixed-length sanctions were imposed in Wales since 2000, indicating a notable disparity. This is likely to worsen as more lone parents will move on to job seeking benefits.
Lone parents are often not aware of certain provisions available to them, for example limiting the hours they work to school hours. If they are not aware of these provisions, they may fail to apply for or reject work which is incompatible with childcare demands, infringements which can merit high level sanctions.
Penalties can also be imposed for minor infringements such as missing a Jobcentre appointment without good reason. This is something lone parents with childcare demands and a greater reliance on public transport may be at increased risk of doing. The guidelines for what constitutes ‘good reason’ are vague, with the power to levy sanctions lying effectively entirely at the discretion of Jobcentre staff. The length of sanctions for violations such as these will now be one month for the first, and three months for the second if occurring within a year of the first.
While negative inducements are needed to prevent abuse and ensure that claimants are actively seeking work, there is a real question of proportionality raised by sanctions of this length. Penalties such as these could result in severe deprivation for women and their families, and especially lone parents. Given the relatively minor nature of the infringements the penalties seem disproportionate.
There have also been reports of Jobcentres in England setting sanctions targets. This led to staff sometimes intentionally providing inaccurate or incomplete information on requirements to claimants in order to sanction them. This further questions the impartiality of the sanctions regime. It will be essential to monitor the implementation of changes to ensure that similar abuses of power are not repeated.
Reforming welfare to promote independence, reduce dependency and strengthen work incentives is essential. These welfare changes – cuts, not reforms – are unlikely either to accomplish these objectives or improve the situation of Welsh women and their families. There are some positive aspects to the changes, such as their attempts to reduce the poverty trap by allowing claimants to receive benefits while in employment. However these risk being cancelled out by the problems analysed here. The overall result is that the proposed changes are likely to fail to address existing difficulties, while simultaneously creating more harmful ones.