Throwing this one out there for your inspection:
Recently, I came across strict, new-ish Derby City Council conditionality rules for people who apply for Discretionary Housing Payments, Council Tax hardship payments and Local Assistance help.
For those who don’t know the territory: Discretionary Housing Payments are short-term payments to help people cover housing-cost problems such as rent shortfalls. Local Assistance Schemes buy items like furniture and fridges when people can’t afford them. Council tax hardship payments are, obviously, for people who struggle to meet council tax bills after council tax support.
Since November 2016 in Derby, this help has come with hefty conditions for some applicants. Of course – it is not unusual for councils to ask people to engage in an activity such as debt advice in exchange for a DHP, etc. That’s happened for ages. The Derby list sets out more hoops to jump through. That’s why I’m posting it. I found it while I was searching for help generally for a single mum. Other councils may have similar. No doubt more and more will as time goes on and more funding is cut.
You’ll see from this page that people who apply for DHPs, Council Tax help and Local Welfare Assistance and fall into certain categories: “must be willing to take up and remain engaged with appropriate support recommended by the council.”
This “support” may include:
– money advice
– budgeting support
– access to banking products
– access to digital skills support
– access to job clubs
– training and housing advice
Failure to participate could mean you get and/or keep nothing:
“If you do not engage with your support programme, any award that you receive from the Single Discretionary Award Scheme may be at risk.”
“Towards work” requirements are among the conditions as you can see.
You may think this is all perfectly fair.
I do not.
This is the kind of list which gets on my nerves very badly. It smacks to me of gatekeeping and of the state’s ever-tightening grip on people who are in extreme financial hardship. Conditions for receiving benefits and hardship help become more and more invasive and exacting, as anyone who signs on for JSA or Universal Credit will tell you. Anyone who requests state help these days automatically loses all right to autonomy.
No matter that people often require extra financial help because government has imposed extra costs – the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, LHA caps and so on. None of that matters a damn. The assumption is that people can and should work their way out of holes that governments dig for them. Anyone who struggles to do that must hand themselves over to government and/or council entirely. They must give bureaucracies all details of money they spend. They must engage in often-pointless “towards work” activities for money to stay fed and housed.
You wonder how well things really turn out as a result – you know, in real life. Do these strict application conditions really help everybody to find the well-paid work that makes it possible to meet ever-escalating housing and living costs? I don’t see that too much, myself. The odds are too high for many people to beat them. The best reality for a lot of people I work with is low-paid work, an everlasting struggle to stay housed and a lot of time spent either going without, or answering to the state for measly topups. I can’t say that I’ve seen a major shift on that front.
What I can say for sure is that people find the state’s tightening grip and invasive questions and programmes upsetting. This is especially true when costs have been imposed on people and/or when there’s no obvious way to get the kind of money they need to really sort debt and income problems out.
The woman in this story, for example, was furious about the details that she was forced to give a debt adviser when she was charged the bedroom tax and in need of a DHP.
In this story, a young woman with a serious rent shortfall had to listen while the DWP pulled her up for spending a few quid on hamburgers. In this story, we have people on the street who avoid council and DWP application processes altogether, because they feel they’ll fall foul of some demand of rule somewhere. They’re probably right.
It is true that people are not always forced to engage at council level – I’ve helped people apply for DHPs that have been granted without a murmur – but the point is they can be. The literature around applications makes that clear as you can see on the Derby page. It also strongly suggests to people who are in financial hardship that they’re swinging the lead and must Learn Responsibility and never expect Something for Nothing. That implication riles people in a very big way. I see that anger all the time. People say there is one rule for them and one rule for others (I’ll post a transcript on exactly that topic later this week). Bailed-out bankers seem to feel entitled to Something For Nothing. Everyone else gets their nose rubbed into an itemised personal spending chart.
I suppose we’re in perfect storm territory, really. High rents, benefit caps, LHA caps, the bedroom tax, cuts to council tax benefit and all the rest make people’s costs harder and harder to meet. Meanwhile, councils are under major financial pressure. They must find ways to weed people out, or put people off altogether.
Derby council said as much, after a fashion. In an FOI response about the application criteria discussed in this post, the council told me that it was the council’s aim to apply conditionality to people who might find work: the council was “focusing the support on those people closest to the labour market from this DHP customer group.” The council said, “the requirement to engage in support is designed to promote financial independence to allow the council to focus funds on the most vulnerable groups moving forwards.” (I’ve posted the council’s whole response here if you want to look through it).
You’ll see that I asked the council if the engagement conditions applied to people who were struggling to meet costs, because of rent changes imposed on them by welfare reform. You’ll see that the council gave that line: “We are currently focusing the support on those people closest to the labour market from this DHP customer group.”
I took that as a Yes.
There really are no winners here.