It has certainly been a hectic week here at IncomeMAX as Welfare Reform dominates the headlines as a result of the Queens Speech and the revealing that their will be a “root and branch” reform of the welfare system through a Welfare Reform Bill.

Having been involved in benefits and tax credits for the last 16 years, I can’t help having the feeling of deje vu, in that we’ve been here before, but the fact that there is a promise of a comprehensive review is a positive and welcome change from other reforms which quite frankly have done very little to change what is a creaking, fragmented and incredibly complex system.

My worry is that once again the reforms will not go far enough to make the system more accessible for people and that once again reform will only skirt round the edges of the problem.

So my message to the Government is to be bold, and here is how you can do that…

Re-communicate and reinforce to the public what the welfare system is there to do and the help it is supposed to provide  

This is so important, more so than fancy headline grabbing policies such as re-testing Incapacity Benefit recipients (wasn’t that the plan anyway when Employment & Support Allowance was introduced?).

In my opinion, one of the major problems of the welfare system is that everyone, and by everyone I mean the general public, the government and the media have largely lost sight of what the system is there to do and the support it is supposed to provide to people. I know this because I have spent much of the last 16 years up and down the country delivering benefits overview courses to thousands of people and believe me, when it comes to the welfare system, people are seriously confused and misinformed.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is obviously complexity. The system is so complex that it is impossible to get your head around it without studying it in real detail.

The second is the public perception of the welfare system, often reinforced through the media. Think about the last time you read a tabloid news story or watched a TV programme about benefits. I bet you £65.45 (the current single rate of Job Seekers Allowance for a person aged 25 or over) that it mentioned fraud, or possibly scrounging at some point.

Is it any wonder then that the message about the welfare system and the type of support it is supposed to be able to provide to people has been lost?

For the record, my understanding is that the welfare system is there to support people with genuine reasons for requiring financial and social assistance. Here are some of those reasons;

–        Jobseeking (working age, good health, looking for full-time work) 

–        Incapacity/Sick (working age, health problems or disabilities mean that you are limited in your ability to work full-time)

–        Disability (requiring help with mobility/care needs)

–        Caring for a disabled person

–        Pension age (this is currently a very complex area as some men can claim Pension Credit earlier than their state pension age)

–        Lone parent

–        Having dependent children

–        Working full-time and on a low income (inc help with childcare)

–        Maternity/Adopting a child/Paternity

–        Needing help to pay Rent/Council Tax/Mortgage 

–        Bereavement of a spouse/civil partner

–        Industrial injury or disease

Is your head spinning reading through that list? I expect it is as it is easy to forget how complex our lives are and the types of situations and circumstances we can find ourselves in as human beings, meaning that working or using pension provision as a way of surviving is not always an option for people.

So at the heart of the welfare system is something positive e.g. it is intended to support people for a range of genuine reasons and this is why I would like this message reinforced as part of any reforms. Re-branding and re-communicating what the system is there to do and the support it can provide would have many benefits (excuse the pun) including: 

  • Supporting the public to know where they stand on the subject
  • Enabling culture change and fostering the idea that people need to use the system responsibly
  • Enabling people that do need to use the system to use it without fear or stigma

 Involve the experts – and I don’t just mean people in government or government departments!

My second key recommendation on being bold is to ensure that the government involve a range of experts in the consultation process. It is intended that there will be a cabinet committee set up to co-ordinate the strategy between government and government departments but it will also be important to involve experts outside of government, many of whom will have been supporting the general public with their benefits and tax credits problems for many years.

IncomeMAX for one would love to be consulted and I think it is fair to say that my colleagues from organisations such as Advice UK, Citizens Advice, Law Centres Federation, Age UK etc would also like to be involved.

And what about the general public? Why not consult with them? Let the general public feed into the debate so that we end up with a sustainable system that everyone has shaped and feels comfortable with.

Independent advice and personalised support is the solution you might be looking for…

My final point is one relating to advice. I am certain that there is a long-term sustainable solution to supporting people in relation to their welfare needs and that that solution is independent advice and personalised support for people.

There is without a doubt a need for a welfare system and we have already discussed that the complex nature of peoples’ lives contributes to having a complex system.

IncomeMAX would like the government to support the provision of quality, independent, personalised advice and support. For too long, it has just been accepted that “no-one tells you what you are entitled to” and that “the system is just too complex”.

This has to change but I can see that even after reform, the general public will still find it difficult to understand the system. It is, after all, a niche financial area, albeit an area where the Government spend over £100billion pound plus on benefits payments every year.

So, I would urge the Government to consider not just welfare reform, but to support charities and social enterprises to have the resources to provide good quality advice and personalised support to people. If this were a key element of the system, then quite often personalised advice and support would get to the heart of the problem as to why people need to access the welfare system in the first place.

Advice can help in so many ways; 

  • It helps people use the system correctly and responsibly
  • It uncovers other underlying issues that need to be dealt with e.g. debt problems, housing, employment, skills & training, financial capability etc
  • It supports people to report changes of circumstances effectively
  • It helps people in transition phases, e.g. retiring, moving from benefits and into work, splitting from a partner etc
  • It helps people challenge incorrect decisions or injustices
  • It helps ensure people maximise their income and that poverty is relieved

 A free training offer to the Government!

 Here is an offer to the new Government – I’d love to share with you my experiences of the benefits and tax credits system over the last 16 years and I’d actually think you would get a lot out of the IncomeMAX benefits overview course! So if you are reading this, I’d be more then happy to deliver it to you at No 10! You can find my email address at the contact us section of the website!

Lee Healey

IncomeMAX Managing Director