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Reforms could push the jobless to point of destitution

Scottish campaigners have condemned tough new welfare reforms unveiled by the UK Government, warning that they risked stigmatising the unemployed and pushing people to the point of destitution.

Charities, anti-poverty groups and churches also reacted with anger to claims by Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, that the Tory-LibDem Coalition would not punish people trying to find work.

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Critics pointed out that ministers plan to dock 10% of housing benefit from anyone who has been unemployed for a year, no matter how hard they are looking for a job.

Other proposals outlined yesterday include withdrawing unemployment benefit entirely for up to three years from those who refuse job offers, and forcing some unemployed people into unpaid manual labour.

Unions accused the Coalition of a campaign to create a new class of “undeserving poor” to mask swingeing public spending cuts that could leave tens of thousands of Scots out of work.

Charities also warned that penalising the “workshy” would hurt children not responsible for their parents’ actions.

Labour and the SNP said the proposals would not work when public spending cuts were creating more unemployment.

However, the plans were backed by Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader, who said the Coalition wanted to restore the “distorted” dreams of William Beveridge, the founder of the welfare system, to give people “protection from cradle to grave but not one that would act as a crutch every day in between.”

Outlining the changes, Mr Duncan Smith insisted he wanted to ensure work always paid, to free people “trapped” in the benefits system.

The Coalition estimates that the changes could help lift about 85,000 Scots, including 35,000 children, out of poverty.

Under the plans, the current complex system of at least 30 work-related benefits will be merged into a single Universal Credit. The Government will also end “perverse disincentives” that mean people are better off on benefits than in work.

However, the former Tory leader was forced to scale back how much extra money people who re-enter the workforce would keep. Initial plans had suggested that figure should be 45p in every pound, but this was reduced to 35p in every pound in a white paper published yesterday.

Mr Duncan Smith defended that rate in the Commons, telling Labour that to increase it they would have to explain where the extra money would come from.

About 1.5 million people in the UK claim Jobseeker’s Allowance, including 135,000 Scots, while across the country more than five million people claim some out-of-work benefit.

Jobcentres currently have only about 450,000 vacancies.

Douglas Alexander, the Labour Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “Some of the key aspects of Iain Duncan Smith’s original plan already seem to have been cut and that could mean some people facing bigger barriers to getting back to work.

“Our overriding concern is that there is a fatal flaw at the heart of these proposals -- without work, they won’t work.

“Scotland knows all too well from the 1980s that a longer dole queue ends up meaning a bigger benefits bill.”

Unemployment benefits will be withdrawn from people who turn down offers of work, refuse to apply for appropriate jobs or fail to turn up for their mandatory unpaid labour.

Those who refuse to comply will have their £65-a-week Jobseeker’s Allowance taken away for three months for a first offence, six months the second time and for three years for the third breach.

There will be no penalties for those disabled people currently not expected to work.

The right to withdraw the benefit is expected to be handed to advisers at jobcentres.

Former social policy professor Bob Holman, a community worker in Easterhouse and the man credited with influencing Mr Duncan Smith on welfare reform, criticised the plans.

He said: “I think Mr Duncan Smith is a sincere man and I think it is a good idea [to help people off benefits], but I don’t think this will work in practice.”

When the Tory minister first came to Easterhouse he had shown “a lot of respect for the unemployed people who were volunteering,” he added, “but now saying that if you don’t take a job you have to do unpaid labour is degrading”.

Bill Scott, spokesman for the Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform (SCoWR), an umbrella group that includes Citizens Advice Scotland and Oxfam, said the Coalition was already slashing benefits of those who were jobless through no fault of their own.

“Folk unemployed for a year will soon lose 10% of their housing benefit, putting them at risk of homelessness,” he said. “These reforms risk being less about ‘making work pay’ and more about making the very poorest in our society pay for the economic mess created by the banks”.

Rev Ian Galloway, Convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, accused ministers of “stigmatising unemployed people”.

Sally Copley, head of UK policy at Save the Children, said the poorest children would be affected by sanctions.

“It is the children who will suffer when the safety net is withdrawn for three months, living in homes where mums and dads already struggle to put a hot meal on the table or buy a winter coat,” she said.

 

 

‘If I had a full-time job I’d be left with nothing’

 

Spend one day outside Springburn jobcentre and it becomes almost impossible to believe in the stereotype of the “typical” unemployed person.

All human life is here, from the genuinely down-in-his-luck worker to the benefit-scrounging bogeyman who haunts Iain Duncan Smith’s dreams.

Perhaps nowhere else in Scotland does such a disparate group rub shoulders so closely, and all are bound by their dependence on the Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) doled out within. Competition can be fierce; at the Springburn branch in Glasgow, official figures record 23.5 JSA claimants per unfilled vacancy, which is nearly five times the UK average.

However, for the crowds flowing in and out yesterday, there was a more pressing problem: the shared fear that they will lose out in the biggest reshuffle of benefits since the Second World War.

Michelle Wales, 31, has been on JSA for five years, and was claiming disability benefits before that. She is not looking for work now, she says, but is unapologetic about the £127 a week she and her partner claim.

“There’s a lot of people that haven’t worked for years, and that just don’t want to work,” she adds. “If I had to take a full-time job I’d need to pay full rent on my house, so it wouldn’t be worth my while. I’d be left with nothing.”

 

 

Case Study: Jane Watson, 48, Springburn, Glasgow

 

I had a confrontation at work, and my father died at the same time. I lost it a bit, so I’ve been off work for two years now.

I always worked before that -- in a Spar shop and in hospitals. I paid taxes for a long time.

I do claim housing benefit, and live in a GHA house. I get the full benefit, which is just under £400 a month.

If my benefits were cut I would find it hard, I would really struggle. I struggle at the moment.

In some cases these changes are quite right, because a lot of people do take advantage of the benefit system. But it’s the ones that really depend on them who are going to lose out.

I’m not looking to get a job at the moment, because my knees have gone and my back’s gone, so it’s difficult. I would love to return to work. It’s a confidence booster.

Testing for disability allowances is fair, as long as they don’t try to take benefits off people who really need them.

You can go in smiling and lose your benefits just because you’ve been smiling. Or maybe you’ve moved a bit better that day. It’s cruel.

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