This is the latest exchange in the row between the Work and Pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, and a group of prominent Catholics. Three weeks ago the group wrote an open letter to Mr Duncan Smith, a Catholic, criticising the Government's welfare reforms. In this week's Tablet he responds, saying the reforms were changing attitudes attitudes towards gaining employment and that saying the Government had already made "considerable improvements" to the Work Capability Assessment process. However in a new letter, printed below, the group takes issue with his argument.
Dear Mr Duncan Smith,
Thank you for your detailed response to our letter which we have read carefully. We have the following observations to make.
Whilst we welcome your view that the welfare system should "support the elderly, vulnerable and disabled", we would reiterate that the reforms passed in 2012 have in fact done the opposite, and the 8 July budget will make things worse.
1. Protecting the vulnerable
We are pleased that people on disability benefits are exempt from some of the changes in the 8 July budget. However, these exemptions are insufficient to safeguard people you refer to as the "most vulnerable". There is clear evidence from a number of sources that sick and disabled people have been harmed by cuts to welfare and social care. The Centre for Welfare Reform reported on this in 2013 bringing this to your Department’s attention in 2014. The Equality and Human Rights Commission reached similar conclusions in July 2014.
Furthermore, the latest official poverty figures show that in families where at least one member is disabled, the number in "absolute low income" has increased to 30 per cent. Children in families where at least one member is disabled are twice as likely to be "in combined low income and material deprivation".
In the face of this information, it is hard to see how your belief that disabled people are being protected, can be justified.
2. Impact of sanctions on health
You assert that there is no evidence that benefit sanctions cause a deterioration in a claimants' health. However this is contradicted by your department’s own guidance for decision-makers on this subject. In sections 35098 and 35099 the authors state that a healthy adult is likely to experience a deterioration in health if they are without essential items such as food or heating. It advises that decision-makers should therefore consider whether the health of a person with a medical condition is likely to decline further than a healthy adult. The example given, of a diabetic woman, notes that if she was sanctioned for two weeks her health "would decline further than a normal healthy adult because lack of funds would not allow her to follow a regular diet".
This guidance caused the writers of the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) report, "Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions", to argue "that any human society should be disturbed by a statutory system that deliberately causes harm to another human being."
You also state that "no one is sanctioned without first being made aware of hardship payments". This does not fit with the experiences reported within the JPIT paper cited above, which found many people discovered they were sanctioned only when they tried to draw cash out from their bank.
3. Spending on disability benefits
Whilst it is true that spending on disability benefits has increased in cash terms, spending on out-of-work disability benefits is falling rapidly as a share of GDP, as illustrated by Figure 6.1 on page 97 of the Office for Budget Responsibility's Welfare Trends Report published in October 2014.
The Journal of Economic Perspectives also stated that forecasts of spending on disability benefits for 2018-19 were projected to be at their lowest share of the national income since the late 1960s.
4. Changes to Personal Independent Payments
We very much welcome your efforts to reduce the waiting times for people being assessed for Personal Independence Payments. However, we continue to be concerned that the reassessment process is expected to lead to hundreds of thousands of people having their benefit cut, or losing it altogether. This will have a negative impact on people’s ability to be independent and restrict the ability of many people to take up paid work.
5. Employment Support Allowance, Work Capability Assessment and WRAG
Whilst any improvements to the process of assessing people’s fitness to work are to be welcomed, the change of provider from Atos to Maximus still does not solve the fundamental problem, that the Work Capability Assessment itself is unfit for purpose.
We see no justification for the cut to the incomes of people in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) of ESA made in the Budget. There are only two outcomes to a Work Capability Assessment: being found fit to work, or being found entitled to Employment and Support Allowance.
People entitled to ESA and placed in the WRAG include those who are undergoing cancer treatment, and people who have progressive illnesses like Parkinson's Disease and Multiple Sclerosis. They have been assessed by your own department as not fit to work, which is why they are not on Jobseekers' Allowance currently. They are certainly not in the same position as Jobseekers, and would not be regarded as such by employers. Allowing them a higher but still very modest income is not writing them off to a life on benefits, but simply showing some compassion and understanding of their situation.
6. The benefits cap
We are puzzled by your assertion that households with a benefit cap were 41 per cent more likely to go into work. The recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report on the impact of the cuts suggests that only 2,000 out of 27,000 families affected had someone move into work, ie 7 per cent of the population. The same study also noted that "Many experienced very large reductions in income". We therefore believe a further cap will have a similar effect.
7. Rationale for welfare reforms
You note that the system the Conservatives inherited from Labour was uncontrolled and unaffordable. We would dispute this. As the Work Foundation has found, the most recent OECD estimate of public social spending accounts for 21.7 per cent of UK GDP, slightly above the average of 21.6 per cent. In addition, public social spending since 2007 has risen by 1.6 per cent in the UK compared with 2.7 per cent across the OECD. They conclude "These figures do not suggest that the UK is devoting an excessive share of GDP to social expenditure or that the increases forced by the recession have been over-generous."
8. National Living Wage
We do welcome the proposed rise in National Living Wage announced in the Budget. Unfortunately the accompanying cuts to tax credits will make workers on low incomes worse off. Assessing the Budget as a whole, the IFS said, "the changes overall are regressive – taking much more from poorer households than richer ones."
Before closing, we would like to endorse and reiterate the recent report by our colleagues at Caritas Social Action Network, which stated, "the culture and the processes of the welfare system that were making it increasingly difficult for clients to survive, let alone flourish. The effect of welfare reform cannot be isolated to individual pieces of legislation. Rather, it is the multiplicity and speed of these reforms, hand-in-hand with the tightening of the sanctioning process, that has increased the desperate state of many people’s lives."
We believe that between us, and our colleagues working in frontline charities, we have a wealth of experience of what is actually happening regarding the impact of welfare reforms.
We could, if you would accept our invitation to talk, be a source of nationwide grassroots feedback, enabling you to identify problems and to use your authority to alleviate the considerable suffering and hardship we are seeing in our communities. We seek only to work with you in the pursuit of the common good as laid out in the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. Together we could ensure that we uphold the common dignity and value of every human being in need of assistance. We extend this invitation in the spirit of Christian justice and compassion and we look forward to hearing from you.
Steve Atherton, Justice and Peace Fieldworker, Archdiocese of Liverpool
Francis Ballin, Cardiff Justice and Peace Commission
Phil Barrett, Liverpool Archdiocese Justice and Peace CommissionTina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies, Director, The Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing (DSRC), Digby Stuart College, University of Roehampton
Anne Booth, children’s author
E. Irene Brennan, Jean Monnet Profess of European Integrated Studies (retired) University of Westminster
Frances Brown, Banbury Justice and Peace Group
Joseph Brown, Banbury Justice and Peace Group
Terry Brown, Justice and Peace Coordinator, Archdiocese of Southwark
Bernadette Callaghan, retired teacher
Sheila Cogley, retired social care worker
Michael Cook, retired academic
Margaret Cook, retired schools inspector, school governor
Frank Cottrell-Boyce, author and screenwriter
Henrietta Cullinan, Ekklesia administrator, London Catholic Worker
Brian Davies, Birmingham J&P Commission, former CAFOD Head of Education
Sir Tom Devine, OBE, academic historian
Dr Claire Dwyer, Reader in Human Geography,Co-Director, Migration Research Unit, University College London
Paul Donovan, writer and journalist
Rev Kevin Duffy, Deacon, Corpus Christi RC Church, Rainford
John Eade, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Dept of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton
Fr Rob Esdaile, Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Thames Ditton, Surrey
Hannah Flynn, Christians for Economic Justice
Pat Gaffney, Coordinator, Pax Christi
Mary Glennon, retired teacher
Mary Grey, Professor emeritus University of Wales, Chair, Living Stones of the Holy Land Trust,Hon. president, Wells for India
Catherine Hale, independent researcher
Mary Hallam, retired teacher
Dr Alana Harris, Teaching Fellow in Modern British History, King’s College London
Stephen Hoyland, Ignatian Outreach - IGO
Fr Chris Hughes, Chair, Hexham and Newcastle Diocesan Justice and Peace Co-Ordinating Council.
Fr Peter Hughes, Coordinator, Columban Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation
Barbara Hungin, Chair Middlesbrough Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission
Dr Deborah M Jones, Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics
Matt Jeziorski, Education Officer, Pax Christi
Ann Kelly, Administrator, National Justice and Peace Network
David Lodge, author and former professor of English at Birmingham University
Kathryn Lydon, retired social worker (mental health) and CAB volunteer
Fr Marc Lyden-Smith, Chaplain to Sunderland University and Sunderland Football Club
Dr Susan O’Brien, Visiting Lecturer, Margaret Beaufort Institute
Dr Carmen M Mangion, Birkbeck, University of London
Vincent Manning, Chairperson, Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Support
Bernadette Meaden, writer and Ekklesia Associate
Tony McNicholl, Co-ordinator, Wrexham Diocese Faith, Justice & Peace Network
Virginia Moffatt, Chief Operating Officer, Ekklesia
Anne O’Connor, Editor, North West National Justice and Peace Network E Bulletin
John O’Brien, Accountant, Chair of Nottingham Ark
Dr Susan O’Brien, Visiting Lecturer, Margaret Beaufort Institute
Marie O’Sullivan, Advocate
Anne Peacey, Chair National Justice and Peace Network
Dr Terry Phillips
Fr Hugh Pollock, Chair, Lancaster Diocese Justice and Peace Commission
Geraldine Poole, trustee mental health charity
Gerry Poole, peace and justice campaigner
Fr Nick Postlethwaite, CP, Catholic Priest
Moira Potier de la Morandiere, Consultant Clinical and Forensic Psychologist
Dr Marcus Pound, Associate Director, Centre for Catholic Studies, University of Durham.
Dr Maria Power, Lecturer, Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool.
Joe Prendergast, Project Assistant, Liverpool Hope University
Christopher Rawthorne, retired Headmaster
Josephine Rawthorne, retired teacher
Jean Raymond, Salford
Frank Regan, Writer on Christian faith in dialogue with culture and politics
Dr Anna Rowlands, Lecturer in Catholic Studies, University of Durham
Councillor Jennifer Rowlands, Luton Borough Council
Lee Siggs, Editor, Justice Magazine
Tony Sheen, Westminster Justice and Peace
Denise Sheen, parishioner St George’s Church, Enfield
Fr Shaun Smith, Hallam Justice and Peace Commission
Ellen Teague, writer and journalist
Stan Thomas, retired social worker
Marian Thompson, Editor of Mouthpeace, Justice and Peace Newsletter, Liverpool and Shrewsbury Dioceses
Cate Tuitt, Vice Chair, London Cooperative Party
Union of Catholic Mothers