Welcome to day four of the Breadline Britain live blog.
This morning, we’ll be following up on our investigation into the health risks of benefits reform on vulnerable citizens.
All our Breadline Britain stories from the past few days are collected in one place: here.
We’ll be hearing more today from job centre staff about whether they feel properly equipped to handle vulnerable customers. And we hope to hear from a DWP minister.
And we’ll be looking into the wider psychological impact of austerity on people living on the cliff edge of poverty.
This is the last day of the blog: we’d love to hear what you thought of our project. But it doesn’t end here: we’ll be continuing the series on an occasional basis, starting next week with housing.
Please leave comments below the line. The twitter hashtag is #breadlinebritain
good letters in the Guardian today on the Breadline Britain series, including this from Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children:There are some
Poverty is all too often wrongly portrayed as a problem created by workshy people, scroungers happy to live off benefits. You rarely hear about the parents struggling to keep their heads above water in low-paid and insecure jobs, or parents desperate but unable to find work (Breadline Britain: 7m adults just one bill away from disaster, 19 June).
The real challenge in driving down child poverty is a labour market that isn’t delivering anywhere near enough decent, well-paid and secure jobs to parents in deprived communities. At present, 58% of children living in poverty are in households where at least one adult works, and the number is rising. Record numbers of parents have to work part-time because there aren’t enough full-time jobs. Tax-credit cuts and lack of support for childcare costs barely make financial sense for families bringing home a low income.
The government can start to tackle this by letting parents keep more of their earnings before benefits are taken away, and give more support towards meeting the extortionate costs of childcare. We have to put an end to the parent poverty trap.
Does the prevalence of suicide increase during a recession? The answer, sadly and almost inevitably, appears to be yes.
Here’s an extract from research published in the Lancet medical journal in 2011, which looked at the link between suicide and unemployment in European countries:
In both old and new EU Member States, official unemployment did not increase until 2009, after the banking crisis. Job loss then increased rapidly, to about 35% above the 2007 level in both parts of Europe (about 2.6 percentage points in the EU overall).
However, the steady downward trend in suicide rates, seen in both groups of countries before 2007, reversed at once. The 2008 increase was less than 1% in the new Member States, but in the old ones it increased by almost 7%.
In both, suicides increased further in 2009. Among the countries studied, only Austria had fewer suicides (down 5%) in 2009 than in 2007. In each of the other countries, the increase was at least 5%.
Once data from elsewhere become available, our analysis will need to be updated and the differences in experiences across Europe explored. However, we can already see that the countries facing the most severe financial reversals of fortune, such as Greece and Ireland, had greater rises in suicides (17% and 13%, respectively) than did the other countries, and in Latvia suicides increased by more than 17% between 2007 and 2008.
The article can be read here.
But how will life in Breadline Britain affect mental wellbeing more generally?
According to a report published this week by Sir Michael Marmot’s UCL Institute of Health Equity:
Economic crisis increases the risk factors for poor mental health, such as low household income, debt and financial difficulties, housing payment problems, poverty, unemployment and job insecurity
It says the risk of depression, according to this report, is more likely to affect women:
Indeed, poverty is associated with worse mental health outcomes (including sleep deprivation and depression among new mothers) … This is particularly the case for women because they are more likely than men to handle family budgets, have caring responsibilities and are often the ‘shock absorbers’ of reduced family incomes, meaning that they ‘go without’ to protect their children from the worst effects of poverty.
What are the likely recession-related trigger factors for mental illness? The worse off you are the more at risk you are. But it says debt is a key factor:
Studies show that households in debt or facing financial difficulties or housing payment problems suffer worse mental health, including an increased likelihood of having a mental disorder. Debt has commonly been associated with increased stress, stigma, shame and relationship problems with partners and children. It should be noted that the causal pathway may work both ways: those with a pre-existing mental health problem are more likely to get into debt.
More anecdotally, the Deep End research carried out by 100 GP practices in some of the most deprived parts of Scotland earlier this year found:
A central concern of Deep End practices is the number of patients with deteriorating mental health.
At one end of the spectrum, there are those who are in work, and previously well:
• under increasing stress at own jobs due to cutbacks
• taking on extra work/jobs, with resultant impact on family and relationships
• experiencing stress of job insecurity
At the other end of the spectrum, there are those with chronic mental health issues and established physical problems who are "deemed fit for work" and have their benefits cut:
• struggling to make ends meet
• increasing contact with GPs and psychiatry
• increasing antidepressant/antipsychotic use
• self-medicating with drugs and alcohol
You can read the Deep End research here.
And as I mentioned in the blog yesterday, the Mind charity has some interesting statistics about the rise in calls to its helpline over the past year.
comment below the line, Celato asks:Meanwhile, in a
We hear far too much from government ministers and their shadows. The strangely silent – or sidelined? – voices are those of constituency MPs in unemployment blackspots.
* What, for example, are these MPs doing on a practical level to support individuals needing their help through the benefits’ minefield?
* How active are they in challenging local cutbacks, closures and failures to achieve regeneration – and what form, if any, does this campaigning take?
* How "vocal" are they in parliamentary debates and behind-the-scenes discussion with party leaders on issues surrounding poverty?
* Do they have anything to say AT ALL in response to the Guardian’s Breadline Britain coverage ..?
Labour MP for Pontypridd, and shadow secretary of state for Wales:With superb timing – it’s almost as if he had seen Celato’s comment below – I’ve received this note from Owen Smith, the
"The Guardian’s Breadline Britain series is helping expose the social reality of economic failure under this Tory-led government.
"Yesterday, I raised the findings from Day 1 of the series with the Welsh Secretary but it fell on typical deaf ears. Evidence which shows that, across local authorities in Wales, an average of 15% of households are living on the edge of poverty.
"And on the same day that the series’ focus shifts to benefit changes, the IFS has confirmed that council tax benefit recipients in Wales are set to lose an average of £74 a year due to spending cuts imposed on Wales by the Tories in Westminster. This decision will hit hardest precisely those families which the Guardian has highlighted as teetering on the brink of poverty.
"The Tory-led government should pay very close attention to these findings and awake from its extraordinary complacency".
He wasn’t the only one. Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne cited the Guardian’s benefits suicide story during the opposition day debate on disability yesterday.
Have any more MPs been getting stuck into the Breadline Britain issues this week?
We are hoping to get a response from a DWP minister today by the way – more on that later.
a rolling survey of its members about the impact of austerity and funding cuts on both charities and their beneficiaries.The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has been conducting
The Charity Forecast report published next week is expected to highlight that charities are under acute financial stress: demand for services is increasing at a time when funding is shrinking or static.
The fear among charities is that, financially, "something has got to give".
NCVO has shown me some of the responses to the survey from mental health and disability charities. The first, from a mental health project, states:
Demand for our service is rising and we are fighting to retain our reputation for not turning people away, although I have serious concerns about the toll this may take on our very committed staff team.
A club for disabled people told the survey:
The local authority is closing day centres and dumping people on us without any funding.
A local brain injury charity wrote:
Forward planning at a time when cuts in adult social care funding are impacting hugely on the provision of services is virtually impossible. Having any element of financial reserve within an organisation has become a liability.
The final quote is from an advice agency:
With wide-ranging welfare reforms underway, the demand for welfare benefits advice is predicted to continue to increase, yet welfare benefits legal aid has been completely removed from scope, meaning the loss of at least 120,000 individual acts of assistance through the scheme. These people will not simply go away, and because of their circumstances, they will not be able to pay for alternative sources of advice.
Voluntary sector advice agencies will be of crucial importance in helping these reforms succeed, both for government and for those affected, yet their short and medium term sustainability is seriously under threat.
The NCVO report is expected to be published on Tuesday.
My colleague John Domokos spoke to a number of Job Centre Plus staff during his research into the effects of welfare reform on vulnerable people.
He told me:
I found widespread frustation at what many say is a target-led culture that makes it difficult to deal effectively with vulnerable customers.
Here are some of their remarkable testimonies. They suggest that cuts at Job Centres, coupled with an increase in the number of customers, is affecting the quality of the service they can provide.
The first testimony comes from a call centre worker, who spoke to John in May:
There’s been a gradual snowballing effect as the year has gone on. Every new thing the government brings in, we think ‘how are we going to deal with this?’
The communication is abysmal. People (staff) will have a change of process emailed to them, and it will be with immediate effect.
I have literally had to google things to find out what contributions-based ESA is, because we didn’t know anything about it.
We feel it’s been handled very badly. We feel we’re not giving (customers) the service they deserve, and we feel we look stupid. It’s going to break down trust. The customers want honesty, they want to know where they stand. It’s a ridiculously fragmented service, it’s messing them around when they clearly need a lot of support. We want to give them that but feel that we don’t have the tools.
There is also the fear that for someone who is on the edge it could be the final straw, and you don’t want your name involved in that.
Since people have had to go from 16 hours to 24 to claim tax credit, people are ringing up and we have to tell them that they can’t claim this and that. We’ve become more aware that there are a forgotten group of people who are caught between rock and a hard place.
This is from a junior manager at a jobcentre, speaking in May:
The culture now is to achieve ‘quick wins’ and focus on the easiest to help customers. This means less job-ready customers can be ‘parked’, potentially receiving dramatically less support. These customers will include those with disabilities or health conditions, ex-offenders, low education and the long-term unemployed.
Basically the customers that receive the most help are the ones who would find work on their own anyway.
The (vulnerable) customers are usually very hard to find work for and often have the attitude (understandably) that ‘I’m only on JSA until my ESA appeal goes through’. The effect on frontline staff is that they will do shorter and shorter interviews with customers they should really be spending an hour with rather than 5 minutes.
Staff are demoralised because they know full well they cannot help these customers in five minutes every fortnight and sooner or later they will probably have to sanction their claims as the only chance of getting a short-term sign off.
Increased stress, less time with the customers they should be helping, the threat of losing their own jobs. This makes advisers deliver a worse service and will lead to some of them no doubt joining the unemployment register.
On the subject of mental health he says:
There are some specialists called DEAs (Disability Employment Advisors) who tend to be spot on. The problem is with flagging people up to them, for example if someone has been on ESA. Very few people do get referred who could do.
Training on the whole is pretty poor.
Plus you’ve got the attitude that some people may have been milking it and shouldn’t have been on ESA in the first place.
This is from a former lone parent adviser who was transferred to be a general adviser, speaking to John in August 2011:
More vulnerable people are coming through the doors because of ESA changes … and because of people who have been on Income Support (lone parents moved onto Jobseekers Allowance).
If you’ve been on a benefit that has not required you to be actively seeking work, suddenly you are in a world where you are now required to make your priority looking for a job.
It’s a big big culture change. If JCP separated out LPs [lone parents] and [people coming off] incapacity benefit and said these people are only going to be seen by specific advisers … I think it would be less frightening … and probably lead to more positive results.
There hasn’t been a shift, as you might have thought, to have specialist advisers. In some cases, it appears to have gone in the opposite direction. The idea is that everybody should know what they are doing, but a lot of people don’t.
The lack of continuity of adviser affects them badly and leaves them vulnerable. Sanctions will come in, because people who have been on IS (and ESA) have quite a learning curve to conform to requirements of JSA. Some advisers will [use discretion]. It depends very much on the advisers.
There is huge pressure to challenge the claimants. You need to be quite brave as an adviser, under that kind of pressure.
John also shot this video interview with Lynne Hows, a PCS union branch officer on the Wirral, Merseyside.
In it she talks about the lack of training and preparation staff have for dealing with vulnerable customers.
Such customers are on the increase, Hows says, with many more being found fit for work.
powerful contribution from clarebelz, on the uncertainty and trepidation among people on the estate where she lives who will be affected by forthcoming welfare changes: the so-called "bedroom tax" and council tax benefit cuts.From below the line, a
Here’s an extract:
I’ll have to pay £100 every 4 weeks to stay here, plus any shortfall in Council Tax, and there is nowhere for me to go either. Similar to my neighbour, this will mean that I will have to go completely without heating, or live on rice or pasta; basically an almost nil food budget.
I haven’t slept well for 2 weeks due to the worry, and I’ve had chronic depression and anxiety for 2 years due to realising how welfare reform would affect me.
I’m already seriously ill and the anxiety on top of everything, not knowing even if you’ll qualify for disability benefits in the future, that even if you do that they will not cover your living costs, the feeling that there’s no way out of what will amount to abject poverty for me, makes you think that life just won’t be worth living.
Well worth a read
Lord Freud, the welfare minister, has written a response to the Guardian’s Breadline Britain series, in which he addresses some of the issues we raise.
His piece will be going online on Comment is Free around 4.30pm. In the meantime, here are a couple of taster extracts:
On working poverty:
The Breadline Britain series began by tackling the subject of in-work poverty and challenged the notion that work is the best route out of poverty. We have never disputed that people can be poor in work. But there can be no doubt that being in a job is the best way to prevent poverty. Being in work gives you the chance to develop a career, to earn more and this can not happen if you are left on benefits.
On the Work Capability Assessment:
Your blog has highlighted concerns some people have around the Work Capability Assessment. The Government is not wedded to the WCA existing in a set form, so Professor Malcolm Harrington, an acknowledged expert in this field, is keeping it under continual review to ensure that we make this process work as well as it can for those who undergo an assessment. We have accepted all his recommended changes so far, and he will carry out the next stage of his review for us shortly.
Lord Freud adds:
Changes of this scope are understandably worrying for some people. We are working to build a welfare state that gives the support to vulnerable people when they need it, but doesn’t abandon them to a life on benefits. People deserve and expect better and we are determined to do right by them.
What is life like on the brink of poverty in rural Britain?
Our map of local authority areas on the "cliff edge" revealed that many rural parts have high proportions of households facing "financial stress," from Fenland and the Western Isles to North Devon.
Professor Mark Shucksmith, Professor of Planning at Newcastle University and a commissioner at the Commission for Rural Communities, sent me this conttribution:
People in rural Britain are well used to work not always offering a route out of poverty, but this has not made them ‘benefit-dependent’.
Analysis of the British Household Panel Survey shows that people living and working in rural areas are much more likely than those in towns and cities to suffer persistent low pay, but that they are also less likely to claim the welfare benefits to which they are entitled or to register as unemployed.
Instead many try to make ends meet by combining two or three poorly paid, insecure jobs. And levels of poverty among the self-employed are far higher in rural Britain. Low pay in rural areas seems to be associated with small firms, and with low-paying sectors like tourism and agriculture.
The introduction of the National Minimum Wage has helped, along with other benefit reforms which lifted many out of poverty in work after 1997. What would really help, though, would be policies which promoted a rural economy based on better-paid employment sectors, and this would help the economic recovery too.
The think tank Demos, and Scope the disability charity have been tracking the impact of benefit cuts and the recession on six disabled households over the past two years.
The latest installment of its findings are published in a report, Destination Unknown, which is out on Friday. It’s a fascinating report, which I’ll be writing about tomorrow (in a news story, not on this blog).
One of the main impacts of austerity on these households, the report finds, is deteriorating mental health. By way of a taster, here’s an extract:
All of the households in the study have reported stress, anxiety, fear, a sense of persecution or depression at some point during the course of the project.
It is clear the financial uncertainty caused by a prolonged period of significant welfare changes, combined with a shifting local support environment (such as
closures) and higher costs of living (utility and fuel bills), have been compounded by fluctuating health typical of so many disabled people to create a perfect storm of mental distress.
Aisha’s mother’s mental health has deteriorated, and she is now on medication. Carla has had to increase her medication too. Helen is feeling at her wit’s end fighting for the proper support for her son, and even Philip – who had hitherto always been supportive of the Government’s deficit reduction plan and stoical about the financial sacrifices he needed to make – is now worried about his next work capability assessment and feels his benefit income is under threat.
below the line on work capability assessments. The post contains a link to a blogpost they have written about the "fit for work" test tribulations of one of their patients, who had chronic depression, anxiety and panic attacks.A GP has commented
It’s incredibly powerful and moving. I won’t extract from it because it is best read in full. You can read it here.
The GP, posting here as onegpprotest tweets at @onegpprotest
OK, that’s it for today, and for the Breadline Britain live blog (at least for now).
Our investigations this week are collected in one place – here
We’ll be continuing the project on an occasional basis over the next few weeks and months, and hope to follow up many of the leads you have given us.
Many thanks to everyone who helped us with our project, and to you for reading and contributing your views, tips and comments over the past week.
Social policy editor
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