CAB and Welfare Reform
Given the strong links between having a protected characteristic and not being in employment or living on a low income, it was always clear that the process of welfare reform would have significant equality implications. But no group are more affected by welfare reform than disabled people as key disability benefits (such as income based employment and support allowance, disability elements of child and working tax credit, and other disability additions) are incorporated into the support provided through the new Univeral Credit, affecting the rates at which disability support is paid. In addition to which there are changes to the social fund, council tax benefit, relpacement of Disability Living Allowance, and abolition of the severe disability premium.
The DWP initial equalities impact scoping showed up data gaps and difficulties in mapping administratative data on protected characteristics to the proposed reforms. Whilst Equality Impact Assessments were prepared for each individual policy change under the welfare reform programme, there appeared to be no willingness in DWP to consider the combined and cumulative impact on different equality strands of the whole programme and package of legislative, regulatory and administrative changes in the social security system, or to give weight to particular vulnerabilty factors (such as single parent households with disabled children.) In the view of one legal opinion, insufficient attention to the holistic affect of the changes in the Impact Assessment preparation and consideration process may have fallen short of the “due regard“ standard. Yet it is not rocket science; Citizens Advice and the Children Society reports on Disability and Univeral Credit offer good examples of how to determine impact on the support for disabled childrens, adults with severe disabilities, or support for disables people in work by reference to household budgetary scenarios.
Another less publicised or discussed feature of welfare reform is that the Mortgage Interest Scheme (SMI) will eventually get incorporated into the Universal Credit system. Citizens Advice have raised concerns that had not hiterto been picked up in Impact Assessments that the rules covering the SMI scheme could exclude people with Sharia compliant Islamic mortgages from help with their housing costs.
Even with such large scale and systemic change programmes with disperate impacts as welfare reform, there should be no excuse for poor calibration of data or insufficient engagement with affected groups. At the local level bureaux have been able to engage very positively with public bodies concerning benefit and tax credit issues as they affect their communities and client groups – often using the Equality Duty as an engagement tool or as the basis for persuing a complaint. For example:-
- A Lincolnshire CAB client was a Roma woman who could not read or write or understand forms of any kind. She hadmultiple physical health issues. She had been on Jobseekers Allowance but due to severe depression her GP has signed her as unfit for work. She was sent by Jobcentreplus to the bureau for help with completing forms. By the time the client got to the bureau she was extremely confused about what was needed and why. It turned out that the forms were for Employment and Support Allowance but this had not been explained and no help was offered to complete them by Jobcentreplus even though they knew her health issues. The bureau thought that she should have have been offered some basic assistance by Jobcentreplus as a function of their Public Sector Equality Duty, prior to be referral to a voluntary agency for ongoing support.
- A Devon CAB complained that ATOS were failing to provide appropriate interpretation service to their client whilst undertaking a medical examination as part of his application for ESA. ATOS confirmed that despite the client asking for an interpreter in his ESA50 questionnaire, and despite his poor English the assessment would continue. Whilst of course the PSED does not impose an absolute obligation to provide translation services, not taking the client's reasonable request into consideration could place him at a disadvantage, which would not be in line with the duty to eliminate discrimination and promote equality.
 Source: Public Sector Equality Duty: Submission to Government Equalities Office Review, Citizen’s Advice [April 2013]