5 Conclusions - Emerging Issues
This chapter presents the conclusions that have been reached so far and a discussion of issues for Sweep 2 of the interviews. As it is based on a qualitative study, great care needs to be taken about generalising from the results.
5.1 This chapter summarises the key emerging findings of the research, and suggests areas in which improvements could be made or circumstances mitigated with additional support.
A lack of clear information and advice
5.2 There appears to be a need for - but a lack of - clear, concise information about benefits and impending changes to benefits. The Jobcentre, and the DWP's website and telephone line, were generally considered to be a poor source of information. Participants felt that Jobcentre staff often lacked knowledge about benefits, and that it required a great deal of effort on the part of claimants to obtain the information they needed. Official communications from the DWP were also cited as being confusing and too lengthy, and some found them threatening in their tone.
5.3 Participants expressed a preference for third sector organisations in seeking advice. Some had found Citizens Advice Bureaux helpful, while others cited local or specialist organisations as more likely to have the relevant knowledge to help them. However, not all participants knew of sources of information they could consult if they needed to.
5.4 Recommendation:These findings suggest a need for much improved official communication about benefits and benefit changes, as well as continued support for third sector organisations providing impartial, specialist support.
The current administration of benefits can be inconsistent and stressful
5.5 Sometimes errors and delays were a source of considerable financial instability for claimants, and several participants had experienced such mistakes, including seven who reported that their benefit payments had stopped suddenly and without warning. However, it should be noted that these mistakes can occur in any benefit system, and it is not possible to say from this research whether the situation is worse now than it was before recent changes.
5.6 There is evidence suggesting that Jobcentre staff were sometimes inconsistent in how they dealt with claimants. Some participants had extremely negative experiences at the Jobcentre, while others came into contact with helpful advisors. While specific circumstances and expectations may influence their perceptions, it would appear that a participant's experience is sometimes down to the particular advisor they had dealings with.
5.7 The assessment process for ESA placed a considerable strain on claimants. There was a general feeling among participants that the process was not dignified or fair, and that the criteria employed failed to truly encapsulate a person's ability to work, particularly for those with fluctuating or 'invisible' conditions.
5.8 Support seemed to be more readily available once a person had reached a crisis situation; but it may be more effective to provide support (e.g. Housing Benefits) earlier to prevent a crisis from happening in the first place.
5.9 Recommendation: These findings suggest a need to improve the administration of benefits, including more sensitive service provision by departments, better administration of benefits changes and seeking to reduce the feelings of stress related to applying for them. They also highlight the crucial importance of recourse to emergency funds to mitigate the impact of these situations when they occur.
The current benefit system is not meeting claimants' basic needs
5.10 Most of the study participants reported struggling to manage financially. The current system does not appear to be meeting people's financial needs, and participants reported making difficult choices about which essential household items to prioritise. Some had got into debt, often due to unforeseen expenses such as the breakdown of household equipment, or simply in the process of trying to keep up with bills. Few were able to afford 'treats' that went beyond basic sustenance such as days out, and a lack of money restricted opportunities for social interaction, which reinforced feelings of isolation and loneliness. It appears that the level of benefits currently provided does not allow participants to attain the minimum standard of living identified by the public. This is outlined in the work on Minimum Income Standards by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
5.11 Some participants had been able to turn to family and friends for support in an emergency, and this support was crucial in helping participants to manage their daily lives and make ends meet. However, some people did not have this option and were completely dependent on benefits income to survive. Those without any other source of support were hit hardest by any errors and delays in payments mentioned above.
5.12 Recommendation: These findings highlight the problem of the cost of living for those on a low income, and the need for quicker intervention for those who are struggling to cope.
Stigma, financial insecurity and anxiety about the future have a negative impact on well-being
5.13 Participants all identified the stigma attached to being in receipt of benefits, and all believed that wider society looked down on them as a result of their benefit claimant status. Such sentiments were felt by all participants, irrespective of their reasons were for claiming. The media was felt to be particularly stigmatising. Participants felt that the focus on particular groups of 'undeserving' claimants served to stigmatise all benefit claimants. Some participants had also experienced negative and stigmatising attitudes from Jobcentre staff when claiming benefits.
5.14 Those claiming disability benefits experience high levels of anxiety in relation to the impending move to PIP and the required medical assessment related to that. The on-going uncertainty and associated stress of being reassessed, including the length of time for decisions to be made, and of the process of future reassessments, was strongly expressed.
5.15 There was some concern about the proposed move to a monthly payment under Universal Credit, as it was widely felt by participants that it would be considerably more difficult to budget the small amount of money they received over such a long period of time.
5.16 Recommendation: Stigmatising messages from the media need to be countered by education about those on benefits and of the true (limited) nature of benefit fraud. Jobcentre staff should receive more training in dealing with groups with specific needs and have specialist officials to deal with all those key groups (such as lone parents or those with different types of disability).
The current benefit system fails to fully take account of the specific issues facing certain groups or types of claimant
5.17 The movement of increasing numbers of disabled people and lone parents onto Jobseeker's Allowance can be problematic, as the current Jobseeker's Allowance regime does not adequately take into account the needs of all those with specific barriers to employment, and as a result does not effectively help them into employment.
5.18 Lone parents overwhelmingly report difficulty in obtaining employment which fits around their childcare responsibilities, and in finding suitable and affordable childcare that would allow them to work. Some participants felt that the Jobcentre did not take the impact of these childcare responsibilities into account, or offer any appropriate opportunities to take up employment around them. The obligations upon lone parents, such as when their youngest child reaches 5 years old, to take up work in order to receive benefits have increased in recent years, and it is important that they are able to take up these opportunities.
5.19 Different groups face different challenges to managing financially. Lone parents struggle to meet their family's needs on the amount they receive, and often cannot rely on maintenance payments. Disabled participants noted that they faced expenses that were not covered by the benefits they received, including higher heating bills and equipment costs. Those in rural areas argued that their cost of living was particularly high due to the higher cost of food and their reliance on private transport.
5.20 Changes to occupancy rules in social housing do not adequately take into account households' unique and sometimes complex needs. Some disabled participants reported that they needed a spare room due to their condition (e.g. for occasional use by a carer). Some families also raised the issue of fluctuations in family size and the number of bedrooms required, for example in some cases children may move in, out of, or between households.
5.21 The proposed move to a monthly payment may have a more adverse effect on certain claimants. For example, those with a learning disability, or certain mental health conditions, may be unable to manage their finances sufficiently well to handle this more challenging budgeting situation.
5.22 Recommendation: There needs to continue to be policies to help ameliorate specific polices such as the social housing occupancy rules and specific circumstances, such as those who cannot rely on maintenance payments from their former partners. There appears to be a need for specialist employment services and staff who more fully understand the employment barriers facing specific groups, such as lone parent advisors in Jobcentres.
Related policy issues
5.23 In addition to the recommendations for welfare benefits, the research also highlighted a number of issues affecting those on benefits, and which policy could seek to address. One of these is the need for affordable childcare in order to enable parents, particularly lone parents, to compete for jobs that do not fit around school opening and closing times. Another is the development of a network of formal and informal support - this is especially important for groups such as lone fathers, who report a lack of support.
The next stage of the research
5.24 Based on the initial findings mentioned above, the following issues may be worth exploring in the next round of interviews (Sweep 2, April-June 2014), in addition to the specialist module on training and employment:
- Participants' individual circumstances: any changes in perceived income, labour market participation, debt, stress, health, stigmatisation since last interview.
- Participants continuing experiences with the DWP and Jobcentre: attitudes and experiences concerning the management of the benefits (including time to process claims etc.).
- Exploration into the current labour market situation: further exploration into labour market opportunities for jobseekers since last interview. This will allow us to find out whether further opportunities for employment have come about since last interview, and if there have been any further developments e.g. job interviews, training programmes etc.
- Powerlessness: including participants' perceptions of power relations in the process, including to what extent their own voice is taken into consideration, and the perceived fairness of the reforms.
- Exploration into the relationship between benefits and being able to sustain a 'minimum income standard': issues to be addressed include the cost of living (including 'non-essential' living expenses such as socialising as well as food and heating).
- Outcome of any appeals: some participants were awaiting a decision regarding their ESA claims. Appeals will be followed up in order to discover the outcome and participants feelings about any decisions made.
- Stigmatisation / media: further exploration into feelings of stigma, whether or not participants feel any different since last interview.
Email: Franca MacLeod
There is a problem
Thanks for your feedback