It seems to be the case that our welfare system has strayed away from its sole purpose, which is, and must always remain, ensuring the welfare of its recipients. This statement is as obvious as they come, but its meaning may be distorted if one fails to define welfare. Welfare, we should all agree, can only be achieved and sustained when people are equipped to pursue their own happiness on their own terms.
A step in that direction is giving welfare recipients the incentive to become entirely self-reliant at their own pace, and encouraging them to pursue full-time employment and complete independence. This can be accomplished through a welfare reform which I fully endorse and whose successful implementation we should all aspire to.
The Universal Credit system would see several different benefits incorporated into one monthly payment – a move which would significantly simplify the navigation of the welfare system. More importantly, Universal Credit would also see the measured reduction of welfare benefits in accordance with the gradual increase in the recipient’s earnings. This would replace the current system which abruptly ends benefits as soon as the claimant’s earnings enter a certain pay bracket.
In order to ensure the smooth transition from previous benefits to Universal Credit and an effortless change in procedure, we must set aside political differences and prevent further scaremongering inspired by ideological competition, rather than actual issues with the reform.
When I recently visited the DWP office, I was informed that aggressive political posturing, e.g. the use of strong adjectives such as “disgraceful” or “hated” in regards to the reform, has been proven to discourage those in need to seek assistance. The manner in which we, as elected representatives, behave politically has a direct influence on the lives of our constituents. This is why we must not use the welfare reform to incite further political division, but rather to engage in constructive debate at all times.
Furthermore, it is our responsibility to foster cooperation between the State and the voluntary sector, as this has always been at the heart of successful policy implementation. We all appreciate the continuous work government and civil servants do in order to ensure the smooth running of the administrative mechanism and the effortless interaction of recipients with the welfare system. However, they are not capable of providing recipients with the practical support they need in their day-to-day lives the way voluntary organisations are. Volunteers on the ground are much better equipped to ensure welfare recipients regain confidence and belief in their own abilities until they reach the stage where they can fully rely on themselves once again. This is why it’s vital we, as a society, make sure they have all necessary resources at their disposal so they can continue to do what they do best.
I would like to emphasise that my impression of the value voluntary organisations can add to policy initiatives is founded on real-life practices I have had the pleasure to witness in my constituency. I am proud to say that Stirling has always had an exemplary diversity of voluntary organisations and I couldn’t stress enough on the positive contribution they make to our community’s wellbeing.
For instance, Home-Start Stirling volunteers support families with small children through their home-visiting service which consists of practical help with household chores, child care, or just social interaction. The organisation ensures that the process of matching families with volunteers is conducted very carefully in order to encourage them to build a strong relationship and battle social isolation together.
Another organisation, ACE Cornton, provides adult learning lessons for people who might have been prevented from taking conventional educational paths. Their services include CV writing lessons, mock interviews and basic IT skills among others. Volunteer organisations of this nature are invaluable to the community and especially the people they have helped and they can only complement State efforts in ensuring welfare recipients remain in control of their lives.
As every other initiative of this scale, the welfare reform faces certain issues which we must tackle as swiftly and vigorously as possible. It is no coincidence these changes have been postponed by previous governments and it is on us to ensure we see them through to their complete enactment. So far, our method of gradual implementation using pilot schemes has reaped certain benefits, but has also demonstrated the challenges that lie ahead.
There are a few concerns I would like to focus on, one of them being the six-week delay in initial payments. Although it aims to mirror realistic working conditions, there is persuasive evidence it can have a negative impact on vulnerable families and push them into debt. The government has taken steps to ensure vulnerable groups are exempt from the six-week wait, but I believe in the ability of our civil service to limit that period down to four weeks for all claimants. This is a much-needed change which could make a real difference for people in dire need of immediate help.
Having said that, the government has taken steps to ensure money reaches those who need it fast by allowing applications for advance payments. Even though the money needs to be paid back eventually, there is no interest rate and the payment period can be extended to up to 12 months when necessary. The government has also ensured judicious sanctions are used only as a last resort, and even when they are, claimants can apply for hardship funds to compensate for their temporarily reduced Universal Credit payments.
Another issue which may not seem directly related to the welfare reform but is important nonetheless, is the poor quality of broadband coverage in rural areas. This is a problem which has been experienced by constituents in Stirling and something I have been continuously working on. The new system requires for claims to be made online exclusively, so a lack of digital connectivity can present a severe difficulty for applicants.
Accessing the system should be made simple to limit the workload for both civil servants and welfare claimants. This is a problem that should be tackled on a national scale, but whose resolution can start on a regional level. The staff of the Stirling District Citizens Advice Bureau, backed up by eager volunteers, have been hard at work, providing guidance and advice to constituents. They recently launched the Plain English Guide to Help Sort Out Benefits which will boost claimants’ capacity to deal with welfare issues confidently on their own. By setting out the basic rules and procedures of key social security policies in plain language, the book makes it much easier for claimants to maintain their personal independence – one of the main goals of the welfare reform.
We must remain vigilant and not downplay the challenges we are facing, but we should also be careful not to let them discourage us from fully implementing the much needed, long overdue welfare reform. Heraclitus said himself that nothing endures but change. This is why it’s essential we fully endorse it and make sure it happens on our own terms. The only way to achieve that, is through cooperation and joint efforts: not because it will be easy, but because our constituents deserve it. They have chosen us to look after their interests, so let’s make sure we do just that by putting their welfare back under their control.
Stephen Kerr is the Member of Parliament for Stirling.