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Friday, 7 March 2014
Exclusive: George Osborne's tax and benefits changes have hit women almost four times harder than men
George Osborne’s tax and benefit changes have hit women almost four times as hard as men, according to new research which threatens to compound the Conservative Party’s unpopularity among women.
Analysis by the House of Commons Library shows that the Chancellor’s tax and benefit strategy since 2010 has raised a net £3.047 billion (21 per cent) from men and £11.628 billion (79 per cent) from women.
Labour will mark International Women’s Day today by celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women and seizing on the figures. It will demand measures to close the “gender gap” and tackle the “cost of living crisis” in the Budget on 19 March.
The analysis suggests that women were hit hard by the cuts to tax credits, which top up the earnings of those on low incomes: the 2010 Budget took £2.7 billion from women and only £750 million from men. Reductions in childcare support through tax credits in the 2010 government-wide spending review saw women lose £343 million and men £47 million.
The Chancellor’s three-year freeze in child benefit, usually paid to the mother, took £1.26 billion from women but only £26 million from men.
Conversely, men reaped the most benefit from Mr Osborne’s controversial decision to reduce the top rate of tax on income over £150,000 a year from 50p to 45p. Some 85 per cent of the gains went to men, and only 15 per cent to women.
Labour will also point to a separate study by HM Revenue & Customs showing that the decision to bring in a £1,000 transferable tax allowance for four million married couples next year will give a £411 million handout to men (84 per cent) and only £84 million to women (16 per cent).
Labour is not promising to reverse all the changes but argues that the gender bias illustrates “the choices” made by Mr Osborne and David Cameron.
Catherine McKinnell, a Labour Treasury spokeswoman, said: “It’s little wonder the Government has made such unfair choices when women are so absent from the top table. After significant progress under Labour, when the gender pay gap fell by over 7 per cent, the pay gap between men and women is now increasing again. The cost of childcare places has risen by an average 30 per cent on David Cameron’s watch – five times faster than pay. The truth is that for women across the country this is no recovery at all.”
She added: “George Osborne’s Budget is one of his final opportunities to turn the tide on this Government’s failure towards women. But after their woeful record of the last four years, I’m not holding my breath.”
However, some experts argue that the apparent bias against women stems from the make-up of those receiving benefits and pensions rather than the result of specific policies targeted at women.
The Treasury insisted the analysis was flawed. A spokesman for Mr Osborne said: “The Government’s long-term plan is working, with 1.6 million new private sector jobs and more women in work than ever before. This means more women and families with the peace of mind and financial security that comes with a regular pay-packet. This is why the biggest risk to the recovery and to women would be abandoning the plan that's providing economic security for hardworking people by going back to the days of more borrowing, more spending and higher taxes.'
The spokesman added: “By focusing only on the named beneficiary of tax and benefit measures, this analysis fundamentally misunderstands the way in which families and couples share their income, thereby distorting the impact on men and women. The increase in the personal tax-free allowance, child tax credits and marriage tax allowance have all benefited women and families, while ensuring that the Government can tackle the debt that it has inherited in the fairest possible way”.
Most opinion polls show a gender gap. This week’s ComRes survey for The Independent gave Labour an 11-point lead over the Conservatives among women (39 to 28 per cent) and a four-point advantage among men (36 to 32 per cent).
Thursday, 6 March 2014
Government resumes bid to shut Independent Living Fund in 2015
The government is to press ahead with the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF), despite losing a Court of Appeal battle over the plan.
The Department for Work and Pensions originally planned to abolish the fund on 31 March 2015, but was forced to review the move after the Court of Appeal ruled that it had failed to comply with its legal duty to promote equality when making the decision.
The fund provides cash payments to top-up local authority social care support to around 18,500 severely disabled people so they can live more independently.
In a statement to Parliament, disability minister Mike Penning said the department carried out a new equality analysis following the court’s verdict and that he recognised the concern users of the fund had about closing the ILF.
“However,” he said. “I do not believe that continuing a separate system of support, operating through a discretionary trust and outside the statutory mainstream adult social care system is the right approach.”
Penning said the choice and control the fund gave disabled people was now being offered through adult social care services and that a two-tier arrangement that only benefitted a “relatively small proportion of disabled people” was unjustifiable.
He said the government will now shut the fund on 30 June 2015 and that councils in England will take over responsibility for the care and support needs of those supported by the fund from that date.
What happens to fund recipients in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is a matter for the devolved administrations, he added.
Sue Bott, director of policy and development at Disability Rights UK, said its members would be “very disappointed and worried” by the decision.
“The Equality Impact Assessment whilst acknowledging there will be an adverse impact dismisses such concerns on the grounds that they can’t be quantified accurately, or the Care Bill will make everything in the garden rosy again, or – extraordinarily – some concerns are simply the result of an outdated view of local authorities,” she said.
“The priority now must be to ensure that all fund recipients get the best package possible from their local authority.”
The union Unite also condemned the decision.
Siobhan Endean, national officer for equalities at the union, said: “Unite believes that the closure of the Independent Living Fund will have a catastrophic impact on disabled people and their right to live independent and fulfilling lives.
“The government has shown a complete disregard for disabled people and the Court of Appeal decision. The people who benefit from the fund, will now face a local government postcode lottery.”
However the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) said councils are well-placed to take over the reins.
“This move will not in itself create any kind of postcode lottery; it will simply replicate the existing distribution of Independent Living Fund funding, which has developed historically with differential take-up across the country, but within local council budgets,” said John Nawrockyi, co-chair of the ADASS Disabilities Network and director of adult social services at Greenwich Council.
“Councils are in a strong position to take up this work, with extensive experience of direct payments and personal budgets.”
“Furthermore, ADASS has worked closely with the Independent Living Fund and the Local Government Association to agree a formal protocol for the re-assessment and review of fund recipients in the Transitional Review Programme taking us to December 2014 prior to the funding transfer.”
Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Blind man repeatedly had his benefits stopped because DWP failed to send his letters in braille
Rob Powell had to turn to payday loans to survive after blundering pen-pushers continually sent him letters he couldn't read.Robert Powell, a 46-year-old small business adviser from Dagenham, Essex, has been blind since shortly after his birth.
He has worked most of his life, but in September 2011 he was made redundant by a charity and applied for disability benefits. “I wrote on the form that I am totally blind and have been since birth,” he says. “I told the Department for Work and Pensions I’ve got no sight at all.”
Despite this, instead of sending him letters in Braille, the DWP -communicated with him by an ordinary letter on numerous occasions. When he didn’t reply, his housing benefit and -Employment Support Allowance were repeatedly delayed.
“I had no money to eat,” says Rob, a Gamesmaker at London 2012, forced to turn to payday loans to survive.
He was eventually told by the DWP that he could have Braille letters, but that there was a four-week delay in translation. “So, by the time you get your letter, you’ve already missed the -appointment,” Rob says. “It’s like a nightmare. Your benefits are then stopped for four weeks until another appointment comes through.”
New DWP figures have revealed the use of punitive sanctions has rocketed under the Coalition -Government. In the year to September 2013, 897,690 people were sanctioned.
For missing an appointment, the -punishment can be as harsh as one month without benefits, three months or even up to three years.
On Monday night, Panorama showed footage of a wall chart in a Grantham jobcentre which explicitly set out the cash savings to the DWP through -sanctions, ranging from £227.20 for a four-week sanction to £3,728 for a -sanction lasting one year. The DWP called it “an isolated incident”.
The same day, the Policy Exchange, David Cameron’s favourite think-tank, joined an outcry of Anglican bishops in speaking out on sanctions, benefit delays and the link to foodbanks. The think-tank’s research found up to 68,000 people are wrongly having -benefits stopped every year.
Meanwhile, letters I receive tell stories of DWP and Atos incompetence – lost letters, clashing appointments – as well as a complete failure of humanity. People have been sanctioned for attending funerals or missing -appointments due to ill health, which people on sickness benefits often do.
Last night, the DWP said that Robert had never formally been sanctioned by them. But they agreed that he might have had delays in his benefits being paid if he hadn’t replied to letters.
Rob said: “I received formal letters that said my benefits had been suspended because I hadn’t supplied medical -certificates or attended Atos appointments. If that isn’t a sanction it certainly felt like one.”
Either way, blind people not receiving their benefits for weeks because they have failed to reply to letters sent to them in the wrong format, is a new low.
In fact, Robert’s story is seen so frequently by the RNIB that the charity has decided to take his case – and four others – to court. Lawyers are also -examining another 50 potential cases.
“RNIB is being contacted weekly by people who did not get Braille or audio information from DWP for example,” the charity says. “Other blind and partially sighted people tell us that it takes four weeks or more for DWP to provide an alternative format.”
In 2011 to 2012, having received only printed letters, Rob only realised that his benefits hadn’t been paid when his direct debits started bouncing – and his bank informed him by Braille.
As bank charges mounted, his cupboards emptied. “I asked a friend if they would guarantee me a loan at the loan shop,” he says. “The rate was 49%. I borrowed £180 and paid back over £500.” The costs mounted to the point where he is still unable to get any credit.
“I would never even know they had written to me,” Rob says. “You just feel the letters on your doormat. Anything important comes in Braille – gas bill, water bill, Virgin Media, I’ve even had a default letter from the bank in Braille.
“It was before I met my fiancee, and I had to pay someone to read my non-Braille mail. I don’t like to use a neighbour or friend to read personal stuff, and it seemed more of a priority to pay someone to clean the kitchen and make sure it’s hygienic. I can’t see for myself how clean it is.”
When he eventually got a form through in Braille, “it wasn’t even possible to fill the Braille form in using a Braille printer,” he says.
“I still don’t understand why they couldn’t communicate with me by email. I have an app on my phone that reads emails to me, but the DWP said it wasn’t possible for security reasons.
A spokesman for Atos said: “Alternative formats, including Braille, and help with filling in the ESA50 questionnaire, are available from a Jobcentre Plus. Our customer services team are aware that this is where people can go for help.”
The DWP added: “We send visually impaired customers correspondence in alternative formats, including large print and Braille, when asked to do so. It is possible they may receive a generic letter in standard format as well.”
Now, Rob is working in a local -government job. But he still receives Disability Living Allowance, an in and out-of-work benefit to help disabled people. His last letter from the DWP was in January – again sent in a format he couldn’t read. “Yes, we’ve got to get more disabled people working,” he says. “But instead the DWP is actually putting more barriers in their way.”
Government fails to empower disabled people
Tressa Burke, chief executive of Glasgow Disability Alliance, explains why her organisation is objecting to the community empowerment bill.
“They want to know what disabled people think about community empowerment but they won’t enable us to read it,” said a Glasgow Disability Alliance member during our recent consultation for disabled people on the proposed community empowerment bill.
Disabled people were shocked when the Scottish Government told us there would be no easy read version of the consultation because it is too detailed. Not only is this a fundamental misunderstanding of accessible communications (anything can be easy read – that’s the point), it also breaches Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People, and the Equality Act.
Unfortunately, this exclusion of many disabled people from the consultation process itself is a very apt metaphor for what’s in the bill, or for that matter, what is not. Disabled people in the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities in Scotland struggle to see much of value for themselves.
Some of the original ideas focused on empowering and renewing communities: this could have been transformative. We know that culture change cannot come from legislation alone. However, we can legislate to empower communities to help make change happen. We would almost certainly never have greater equality without legislation, such as the Equality Act or the Equal Marriage Act.
As the Christie Commission made clear, we have to transform our public services and invest in preventative spending. That’s not just about saving public money, but building the social infrastructure which enables human rights and independent living. More important than our rights existing in law is that they are intrinsic to humanity. Our lives have value because we live them, not just because we work or add to GDP. After all we don’t just live in an economy, we live in a society. And we want to contribute in so many ways which would have been enabled by a stronger bill.
The community empowerment bill could have been a vehicle to enable real, progressive change. But, a right to request to participate in property allocation or the planning of a service is not the same as genuine co-production between public agencies and the communities they serve. Community Planning Partnerships do not guarantee the interests of communities of place or interest will be actively served. This was a lost opportunity to revive the National Standards for Community Engagement, designed with the input of over 500 people which put local people and communities of interest into the heart of public service delivery.
Over my 20 odd years in community development, I’ve learned a lot and was excited to be asked to share some of this with the reference group for the bill. Along with many others who are at the heart of real community empowerment in Scotland we contributed ideas and voices of those who are not usually heard. Sadly, these are not reflected in the bill, and I fear that this legislation will only serve to entrench and widen inequality in Scotland. As we made clear in our consultation response, this is regression for the most marginalised and deprived communities in Scotland, not empowerment.
Tuesday, 4 March 2014
Charities claim Scotland faces 'humanitarian crisis' caused by povertyA campaign aimed at highlighting the 'humanitarian crisis' caused by poverty in Scotland has been launched by a group of charities.
The Scotland's Outlook campaign claimed hundreds of thousands of people were being 'battered' by welfare reforms, stagnant wages, rising utility bills, higher living costs and job insecurity.
And it said many families were having to use food banks to feed themselves.
It called on people across the country to 'join the fight against poverty'.
The campaign is being run jointly by Macmillan, Shelter Scotland, Oxfam, Alzheimer Scotland, Children's Hospice Association Scotland (CHAS), Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), the Poverty Alliance and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO).
It claimed more than 870,000 people in Scotland were living in poverty, with a fifth of children in Scotland living below the breadline and 23,000 people having turned to food banks in the past six months.
Martin Sime, chief executive of the SCVO, said: 'With nearly a million people in Scotland living in poverty, we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands and we need everyone's help to tackle it.
'Thousands of people are turning to food banks, struggling to heat their homes, and to clothe themselves and their children. It's not right.
'We want people to wake up to the poverty storm that's engulfing Scotland and get active in the fight against it.'
Graeme Brown, director of Shelter Scotland, said: 'People across Scotland are being battered by welfare reforms, stagnant wages, rising utility bills, higher living costs and job insecurity.
'Set against the background of 155,100 households on council waiting lists and nearly 40,000 homelessness applications last year, it is clear that much more needs to be done to combat the root causes of poverty if we are to improve the prospects for everyone living in Scotland.'
'We see and hear the misery poverty causes every day. Not only does it have a devastating impact on home life, it has long-term detrimental effects on people's health, wellbeing and life chances - especially children.'
The campaign said a key issue was easing the financial burden of childcare in order to make it easier for parents to work.
Hazel, a lone parent living in Fife, said: 'I did not want to be a single mum on benefits, like you see on the news. Those mums were portrayed as lazy scroungers and I definitely was not like that.
'I really wanted to work but every way I turned I was hit with barriers and this made accessing employment so difficult. Childcare was so expensive and not readily available in my area.'
She added: 'I think there needs to be more support for lone parents accessing employment but from an early stage. Childcare needs to be made a priority in all areas, and it should be more affordable and easily accessible.'
The campaign will use social media in an attempt to public awareness of the work they are doing to combat poverty across the country.
In a report published last month, the Joseph Rowntree foundation said child poverty in Scotland had fallen at about twice the rate of England over the past 10 years.
And official government statistics released in June said the number of people living in relative poverty had fallen slightly, from 780,000 in 2010/11 to 710,000 the following year.
But the figures from Scotland's chief statistician also showed there had been a fall in the average household earnings in Scotland, from £461 per week to £436, over the same period.
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