Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Omnishambles Update 64

Whilst half asleep and listening to the radio at the weekend, I'm sure I heard something about Universal Credit creating lots of debt for claimants and how the DWP was having to 'step in' and offer help. 

The official spokesperson said 'this was the reason the government was running a pilot in Warrington so as to discover if there were any problems'. I remember thinking it's a bloody shame the government didn't think the same before rolling out TR, but the trouble is I can't find the damned report anywhere. I did find this though in the Guardian:-
Spending watchdog accuses DWP of hiding universal credit's failings
Parliament's public spending watchdog has today accused ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions of hiding the failings of the coalition's troubled universal credit scheme. The public accounts committee said the decision to devise a new category of "resetting" projects could have been a way of preventing scrutiny and obscuring problems.
Universal credit is the £2.4bn centrepiece of Iain Duncan Smith's reform programme and involves merging six different benefits, with the claimant receiving a single monthly household payment. Ministers started implementing it three years ago, but have been criticised by successive watchdogs for failing to come clean about the problems the DWP has experienced with the technology.
The assessment comes in a report by MPs on the Major Projects Authority, the government watchdog responsible for assessing the scheme's implementation. According to the report, the DWP, in consultation with the MPA, published their delivery confidence assessment of the universal credit project as "reset" in September 2013. It was a new term that appeared to have been devised specifically for the the new programme, committee members said.
"We are particularly concerned that the decision to award a 'reset' rating to the universal credit project was an attempt to keep information secret and prevent scrutiny," the report said.
There are many similarities between the Universal Credit programme and TR and of course the formers introduction is going to seriously affect the lives of many probation clients and make any rehabilitation that much more difficult. Just as a reminder, this is why it's also going to fail as outlined as far back as January by the New Statesman:- 
Five reasons Universal Credit will fail - even if they sort out the IT
Another week, another government blunder on Universal Credit. Most attacks on Iain Duncan Smith have been about the administrative shambles at the top. But there are problems just as serious on the ground - and eight million unemployed and low income claimants will suffer the consequences. Here are five key problem areas we can expect to hear more about as a larger number of claimants are transferred to the new benefit. 
1. Claimants have to manage benefits online
Under the new system, all benefit claimants will ultimately have to apply for and manage their benefits online. Many will be unable to do this. Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) research released last month suggests two-thirds of their clients will fail without significant help. For some, it's a lack of digital skills and confidence. The government promises support - but it's hard to imagine austerity-obsessed ministers laying on tailored training sessions for several million claimants. Cash-strapped charities and councils are not likely to plug the gap either. It's also not enough to be digitally literate. Computers and the internet are expensive, particularly on £71.70 a week. Libraries are not the obvious solution they may first seem - 1,000 will have closed by 2016, travel is costly and even impossible in rural areas, and public computers are often time-limited and oversubscribed. 
2. Tenants pay their landlords directly
Universal Credit rolls housing, unemployment and other benefits into one. Currently, around a quarter of housing benefit claimants have their money paid to their landlord directly, because they are seen as "vulnerable" or have previously missed payments. The government wants them to take responsibility for paying rent themselves, and will transfer the money into their bank accounts for them to do so.

Landlords recently warned this may stop them letting to Universal Credit claimants as they fear tenants will be unwilling or unable to pay their rent. Arrears rose from around £20,000 to £140,000 among council tenants in Torfaen, Wales, just seven months after a pilot of the new system began. Housing associations in some trial areas have had to hire new staff to chase up residents in arrears. Part of the problem lies in access to banking. Nearly half of the CAB's clients were unable to pay priority bills using a bank account:

Some need help understanding how they can use direct debits and standing orders. Others do not feel comfortable using services that seemingly undermine their ability to control the money that comes out of their pocket. Money may be tight, or they may fear becoming overdrawn and incurring charges. But much of the problem is linked to the challenges of budgeting on a low income, something not helped by a further part of the Universal Credit reforms - monthly payments. 
3. Claimants receive the benefit monthly
Paying out Universal Credit in a single monthly sum makes budgeting far more difficult as money has to be made to last a far longer period. Claimants currently receive different benefits across the month. According to the CAB, many will struggle to "adapt existing patterns of managing their money to spread their costs". Paying housing benefit to claimants only makes the challenge harder. It will be the first time some have had thousands of pounds lining their accounts.
"If you have more money, it is tempting to use it to cover other, more immediate pressures," said Richard Goodman, a CAB manager in Hammersmith, where Universal Credit has already been rolled out. Keeping warm, getting three meals a day and replacing children's school shoes are often greater priorities than rent. Some CAB clients also lacked basic budgeting skills. As with IT, there are fears that government funding for support will be inadequate. Goodman, whose branch currently offer budgeting lessons to those requesting it, says: "We're worried we won't be able to satisfy demand." 
4. Officials are unprepared for difficult cases
So far Universal Credit has only been piloted and rolled out in a handful of areas for several thousand claimants. Only the simplest cases - single, first-time claimants without dependents - have been included in the trials and phased launch. Goodman suggested this initial group is likely to be mainly young people, and to pose fewer problems than other claimant types. One can only assume Duncan Smith is more interested in a smooth rollout that appears "successful" than in learning from the harder cases - the long-term unemployed, immigrants, single parents, large families, the sick and the disabled. As Goodman put it:

It’s a soft launch. It doesn’t stress-test the system. For instance, claimants will probably have greater digital literacy than others with more complicated circumstances. If they’re dogmatic about the 2017 deadline, they’ll squeeze a lot of people onto universal credit without fully testing it. And that means systems crashing, people not being paid and lots of hardship and misery. 
5. The cost of living has not been addressed
Budgeting to the last penny is tough on any income, let alone incomes under sustained attack. Half a million people have been forced to turn to food banks, and there is little to suggest the queues will shorten any time soon. With energy firms hiking prices, landlords increasing rents and affordable housebuilding slowing to a trickle, the rising cost of living means every penny has to go further for unemployed and low-income families. 
Four in five new jobs pay under £8 an hour, and are often precarious. 2.4 million people are unemployed, chasing 0.8 million vacancies. Benefits have been slashed, capped, frozen and abolished across the board, their recipients stigmatised and sanctioned with ever greater ferocity. All in all, shoving eight million people onto a botched new benefit in such circumstances is a toxic recipe for debt, arrears, eviction, poverty and distress. Will the Prime Minister evict Iain Duncan Smith, too, in a reshuffle before 2015? Sadly, even if he gets the chop, there seems little prospect of millionaire IDS having to sign on to universal credit for a taste of his own medicine.
Of course the real reason for the changes was revealed back in September last year on The Void blogsite:-
For over two years now Iain Duncan Smith has been pretending that his brutal and bodged welfare reforms have been about encouraging people back to work and making that work pay.
Throughout this period it has often been suggested that a more brutal social security system is really intended to increase competition for jobs and allow employers to force down wages and working conditions for everyone. Vastly increased benefit conditionality has led to hundreds of thousands of benefit claims being stopped or sanctioned. With workfare or destitution the only option left for those unable to find a job, exploitative employers have free reign to treat workers like shit, knowing full well if they leave, or are sacked, they will face increasingly desperate poverty.
Few have been cynical enough to suggest that Universal Credit will also make it easier for employers to casualise their existing workforce and make it easier to cut worker’s hours in times of ‘business troughs’. Yet just released DWP guidance for employers explaining Universal Credit suggests that this – along with increasing competition for jobs – is the real thinking behind the new benefit regime.
From the DWP’s own website (PDF): 
"How does it affect my business?
Universal Credit will have a positive effect on your business as you will:
  • find it easier to fill any job as more jobseekers will be willing to consider short term or irregular work  
  • be able to identify opportunities for flexible working using your existing part time employees to meet business peaks and troughs, without the overheads associated with recruiting and training new staff  
  • have access to a wider pool of applicants for your jobs, many of whom are registered on our Universal Jobmatch service, to help you fill your job vacancies quicker.
At least the DWP are telling the truth for once.
Talking of massive government IT failures, I was interested to see that Dame Ursula Brennan has been sitting on a government Taskforce looking into the whole sorry affair. Well-versed in the MoJ IT failures, she would appear to be highly qualified for such a role. They have just published a report:-
Government IT offers many challenges but, it seems, few solutions that satisfy everyone. There is a well-documented history of too many high-profile and costly failures. This is rarely the fault of the underpinning technology: policy complexity, late additions to already-long lists of requirements; inadequate change management processes; and a failure to bring users fully in to the picture, all play their part. As with many organisations, there remains a critical dependence on legacy systems for large transaction processing, with the consequent need to deal with interoperability between systems. These issues haven’t suffered from a lack of analysis: the National Audit Office; the Public Accounts Committee; and many other commentators all have opinions and viewpoints on what needs to be done to put matters right. However, the plain fact is that problems continue, despite forceful recommendations from powerful groups about how to improve the process so that government does better.  
This letter in the Guardian outlines the situation with education in prison, again not helping with rehabilitation one jot:-
Prison education is imperilled by cuts 
The news that A4e is terminating its contract to deliver education at 12 London prisons because it cannot make a profit (Report13 August) will hit those teaching in the sector hard. In our report Prison Educators: Professionalism Against the Odds, written with the University and College Union, we discovered that the small group of teachers in prisons are older than the average for further education, better qualified but less well paid, with fewer holidays. They are positive about the benefits of education in prison, highly motivated and enthusiastic.
But the view given by those teachers is that prison education is no longer a viable career and is losing its potential to play a positive part in the rehabilitative process. Teachers’ most frequent complaint is about the pressures of constant retendering. As one put it: “Changing employer every three years is not beneficial to a department. It can take up to two years to get properly acquainted and set up smoothly with a new employer. Changing so often is unsettling for staff and does not allow continuity of systems for learners.” Quite possibly this respondent will soon have another employer to notch up.
Education in prisons remains one of the few ways available to change a prisoner’s life trajectory. Yet the process of outsourcing, with its cycle of retendering, budget cuts and ever-greater exhortations to “efficiency”, has led to a regime where prisoners spend ever-greater amounts of time in their cells doing nothing that will help move them on.
Short-contract outsourcing of education for the prison sector has failed to deliver a service that prisoners, prison educators and the public have a right to expect. Prison education is dying a death by a thousand cuts. The prison population is just under 85,000; we send a greater proportion of our population to prison than any other country in Europe and they spend longer incarcerated than in other European countries. Rehabilitation must be the overriding aim of the service, not simply the narrow focus on job skills. 
Prof Jane Hurry, Prof Greg Brooks, Margaret Simonot, Anita Wilson, Brian CreeseCentre for education in the criminal justice system, Institute of Education
There's an excellent comment piece on tagging by Frances Crook and Mike Nellis on the politics.co.uk website:-
Secret plans to GPS tag 75,000 people show privatisation is out of control
We understand the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has been planning to put 75,000 men and women on GPS tracking under new outsourcing contracts. It is currently unclear who these people will be, why they would be tagged and how much it will cost. This is an ideological use of justice money. Planning to place them on GPS tracking represents a sea change in the way we supervise people in the community. It's a crazy, unworkable plan, but even to come up with it suggests something transformational is going on in criminal justice - especially as it coincides with the untested and risky privatisation of the probation service.
The plan needs far more open discussion than it has had and the MoJ should have been much more honest about the projected numbers, the time scale and the people who will be targeted. The GPS tracking scheme will start in 2015, yet the plan has, in effect, been secret.
How was the figure of 75,000 arrived at? Does it include prisoners released on temporary licence? It seems to - but how many? Release on temporary licence mostly works well as it is. Only a few prisoners might warrant GPS. Is there any serious penal basis for it? Or is the figure market-driven - a minimum or optimum number necessary to persuade potential contractors to submit a tender?
There are a limited number of useful ways in which GPS tracking could be used - none of which get anywhere near a figure of 75,000. France, the Netherlands and Germany all use GPS tracking on some high risk sexual and violent offenders, but mostly we are talking low hundreds - and often less than a 100.
Some police forces have experimented with the use of GPS tracking on a voluntary basis with "persistent and priority offenders" but the numbers are very small and the tracking is part of a holistic package that includes housing and intensive personal support.
These projects are working with people who want to desist from crime and the tracking is a positive way that they can prove their commitment to it. Their tracks show whether or not they are at crime scenes. These voluntary schemes aimed at helping people out of a life of crime are the opposite of the government's new plan to place tens of thousands of people under surveillance in order to boost the profits of the private security companies.
The numbers being proposed are baffling and it looks like the MoJ itself is, yet again, in a muddle. Last week, the MoJ confirmed the figure of 75,000 people on GPS, then it backtracked and showered a senior financial journalist investigating the story with other figures to explain its 'plan'. The MoJ appears to be confused and it is impossible to get a coherent explanation. Probably it has gone into overdrive to kill the story.
The MoJ is being very secretive about GPS and doesn't want to let anyone know what its plans are. Those plans may well be a mess rather than a conspiracy. Seventy-five-thousand per day was never a plausible or realistic goal, even though that is what they asked would-be contractors to aspire to in 2012. It's possible the ministry has realised that now.
But whichever explanation turns out to be true, the secrecy surrounding the transformation of the justice system is unacceptable.
Back to the subject of prison, I've been meaning to highlight a fairly recent blog Prison UK : An Insider's View:- 
This is a new Blog and is intended to serve as a source of useful information for people who may face being sent to prison in the UK and who need factual advice or guidance. It is also intended as a forum in which to answer questions from family and friends of people serving prison sentences, as well as members of the general public or media who are curious about life inside British prisons. It doesn't claim to have all the answers, but it will try to provide information, advice and personal opinions. It will also aim to dispel some of the more common myths about prisons and prisoners.

The author was until recently a serving prisoner who has had a lot of experience as an Insider, a prisoner who has the job of supporting and advising other prisoners, particularly those who are new to the prison system. He also trained as a peer mentor and worked extensively in prison education departments to help other prisoners improve their literacy skills. He served his sentence in B-cats, C-cats and a D-cat (open prison).
It's extremely good, very well-written and I'm hugely envious of the author's attention to detail with the layout and number of illustrations. I think it's one of the best blogs around on the topic and I highly recommend it.

Finally, I find this twitter quote from Prof David Wilson, Professor of Criminology Birmingham City University; Vice Chair of the Howard League for Penal Reform; Editor of the Howard Journal, extremely disturbing:-
Sources say President of PGA - Eion Mclennan-Murray threatened by MoJ about making further comments re "crisis" in prisons. Disgraceful.


  1. I'm sorry, but I have to but in again. At risk of your commentators denouncing me as a racist and a savage class enemy who'll be first up against the wall when the revolution comes but.

    1) Internet access is near universal. And where poor people congregate, there's always internet cafes.
    2) People with chaotic lives are always going to struggle to budget, but housing benefit distorts the entire market BECAUSE it's paid to the landlord, and so the tenant has no interest in keeping costs down. This is probably the most important part of getting people with chaotic lives to get control of their existence. Some won't. But this doesn't mean the reform's a bad one.
    3) Yes. working people on low incomes must budget. So too must the benefits recipient.
    4) of course they're unprepared for difficult cases, bureaucracy always is.
    5) The cost of living crisis IS being addressed. In part by a stronger pound, lower fuel prices, which means energy prices will fall in time. Inflation's low, and wage-growth is catching up.

    The logic of UC is simple and sound: the implementation is hard. The resistance of the public sector to the one thing that might start to solve the labyrinth of benefits which has catastrophically trapped the poor into a bureaucratic hell not of their own making, is disappointing, and tediously partisan.

    The suspicion remains. Your objection isn't to WHAT (UC) but BY WHOM (Tories).

    1. A simplified benefits system does make sense. I'd also like to see a simplified tax system - not a Ukip-style 'flat tax' set-up, but a removal of all the little loopholes exploited by investment bankers and stockbrokers to make money for themselves and their clients without actually doing anything useful.

      If Universal Credit were genuinely a way of simplifying the benefits system then it would have my support, but it's not. It's a way of driving down the benefits bill, with utter disregard for the human misery it will cause, in the interests of following right-wing dogma and probably funding tax cuts in the next 9 months in an attempt to buy the votes of wavering Tories.

    2. Thatcher's politics generated the culture of 'entitlement'. That government drove a wedge into the heart of the UK, told everyone to help themselves, and told them they were entitled to what they could get. In 1979, all students were being paid to go to university and claiming benefits during term times. The government paid the unemployed and the low paid vast sums in grants and 'entitlements' - money was available for moving home, redecorating, furnishing, travel, clothes, mortgage payments, rent; pretty much everything if you knew what to claim. This was when the benefit culture grew up, and this was how the wedge split the nation into three distinct parts: the privileged, the shafted and the rest. The privileged made a killing on everything and asset stripped the nation (shares, property, tax avoidance, foreign investment); the shafted worked harder than anyone else (in their bid for their share of the promised land) and paid more than anyone in taxes (because they, in reality, were the only regular source of income for UK plc); and the rest created their own economy out of crime, benefits and desperation.

      Blair & New Labour were the privileged in drag, pathological egocentric weasels without an ounce of compassion but a good line in soundbites. They compounded Thatcher's game plan by blaming the rest and pretending they would help the shafted. But they just helped themselves - in fact they were considerably more greedy than the Tory Establishment because they didn't have 'old money' to begin with, so they took all they could carry.

      Today's Tory ideologues are now trying to complete Thatcher's vision of a return to Victorian values. These are the nurtured privileged who simply loathe anyone that doesn't fit into their world. For these ideologues, swaddled and molly-coddled, nothing else matters but their own wants and needs. Money, power, ego. There is nothing else.

      Or is there?

    3. 'It's a way of driving down the benefits bill, with utter disregard for the human misery it will cause'

      He already knows this - this is the bit that excites him!

      Simon Garden

  2. Thank you for pre-interrupting the fact that anyone who disagrees with you is a politically correct lefty who has created the problem of welfare dependency. It is appreciated.

    What frustrates many of us who work with the recipients of state benefits is the almost complete lack of insight that many have into the lives of those who are being failed by the system. Internet cafes, FFS? Great if you are already IT literate, can afford a cup of coffee for £3 and can afford to GET to one (the nearest to me is 16 miles away). Astonishing. Also, there are significant numbers of people in our society who are semi-literate and cannot read a bus timetable, let alone fill in a form on-line. I know university lecturers who struggle with their own IT systems. What chance has someone with limited or no IT skills? There is nothing dumber than bright people who think everyone is a bright as they are.

  3. pre emp ting - spellchecker doesn't like it.

  4. Ignore the trolls. "Energy prices will fall", ffs! And,my,what's with the "fleg"?

  5. What frustrates me is the shroud waving: the idea that there is a significant cohort of people so feeble, so stupid, so lacking in an human ingenuity that they need the intermediation of state workers just to survive. There are some vulnerable people, but it's not very many. If working poor can budget monthly and pay the rent, or make it to an internet cafe, so can the benefits recipient.

  6. "What frustrates me is the shroud waving: the idea that there is a significant cohort of people so feeble, so stupid, so lacking in an human ingenuity that they need the intermediation of state workers just to survive. There are some vulnerable people, but it's not very many. If working poor can budget monthly and pay the rent, or make it to an internet cafe, so can the benefits recipient."

    I don't know how to put this politely Jackart, but your ignorance of the majority of our clientele appears to be total. If your unshakable opinion is representative of most Tory and Lib Dem MP's, then imposing TR on us makes perfect sense.

    1. Jackart is showing his ignorance of a significant proportion of the population, not just probation clients. He obviously hasn't spent much time around those less fortunate than himself, otherwise he wouldn't be so breathtakingly complacent.

    2. Dear Jackart
      Let them eat cake eh???

    3. Jackart is a self styled 'libertarian' Social Darwinist arsehole who gets a hard-on from hating oppressed people for being 'weak' : 'Well it isn't fucking fair, and neither's life. Some people are born rich, pretty and intelligent and some are born poor, ugly and stupid'


      Simon Garden

  7. Blimey Jackart you walked into this one. You question
    "the idea that there is a significant cohort of people so feeble, so stupid, so lacking in an human ingenuity that they need the intermediation of state workers just to survive". You should know this group well. We call them bankers. The State really got to help them in 2008 when the British Taxpayer got to buy them out of the morass they had landed everyone in. Now I see from your profile that you are an investment banker and a stockbroker, so I fail to understand how you have missed this group... ;)

    1. Is " investment banker" a euphemism?

  8. Good collection of articles, Mr B.Have had a look at the Prison UK blog.It looks to be a good thing and will suggest it to my CRC colleagues as a point of reference.

  9. can I reccommend http://reformingprisons.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/chris-grayling-must-accept-whats.html
    and highlight the sentence therein 'As Zola put it, "if you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way".'
    by way of answering some of the more downbeat and disheartened comments posted on your blog yesterday

    1. Absolutely! Grayling's folly will one day soon come and kick his arse!