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The Work and Pensions Committee at Westminster have criticised the government for its response to a report they compiled on the issues Universal Credit claimants requiring help with childcare costs have. They have accused the government of failing to listen and for showing contempt to those who gave evidence of the struggles they face.
The Work and Pensions Committee is made up of MPs from all the main political parties in Westminster. Its role is to scrutinise and investigate the effectiveness of government’s policies on welfare and pensions. They ensure that government policies are bringing value for money and importantly that they are fair and effective for those effective.
The committee have been highly critical of Universal Credit. One report was damning citing the risk the benefit placed on victims of domestic abuse.
After releasing a report on Universal Credit and Childcare Costs in December, the government finally responded to the committee’s recommendations on March 6th.
Having looked at the response given, the body have now given their thoughts on what the government had to say. To put it lightly they are not impressed.
Curt and Dismissive
In the committee’s latest publication they concluded;
“The Secretary of State has acknowledged the very serious problems that structural flaws in Universal Credit are causing for parents who rely on childcare support to be able to work. This makes the Government’s curt and dismissive response to our recommendations all the more disappointing. Witnesses—including parents, charities and support organisations—gave up their time to contribute to our inquiry. They deserve much better treatment than this.”
The reason they have come to this conclusion is because the government haven’t only dismissed their recommendations, they have completely ignored some instead giving soundbites.
One area they zeroed on in was, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) comment to the media after the publication of the original report in December 2018.
The committee said;
“The Department’s dismissive approach to our inquiry was evident shortly after we published our Report.”
I have spoken before about how the DWP use the media to defend themselves rather than having to do so in Parliament. An example of this was Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd telling chosen media reps about new policy before MPs. Only certain journalists where present and they didn’t press Rudd on anything.
When it came to telling MPs, she sent a junior Minister to face MPs instead. Since taking over, this is something Amber Rudd has consistently done; announce to media, send a junior Minister to Parliament.
Direct Payment Recommendation Ignored
In the December report, it was recommended that the DWP; “develop Universal Credit’s systems to enable childcare costs to be paid directly to childcare providers”. The reasons cited for this were;
- Address the difficulties faced by parents who had to make upfront payments for childcare, which were often unaffordable.
- Give childcare providers certainty about receiving payments.
- Support the Department’s aim of reducing the risk of fraud and error in childcare payments.
Like housing costs, childcare payments are causing significant difficulties for claimants. A glaring issue is that claimants have to find the first months payment themselves as, they can only claim them back in arrears. Stories of parents selling possessions or going without food emerged in the evidence sessions of the committee. It was thought this recommendation would be taken seriously by the government given the issues raised.
It wasn’t. The DWP’s response was that it has “no plans” to make direct payments. They didn’t address any of the points raised nor rebut any of the evidence. Instead they chose to simply ignore it.
Attempts to Keep Flexible Support Fund Hidden.
Jobcentres do have a fund they can use to help claimants with upfront childcare costs and other support. It is called the Flexible Support Fund (FSF).
The fund is a discretionary fund that Work Coaches can use to help claimants in certain situations. Since April 2017 the DWP have not kept statistics on how the fund is being spent. The December report stated;
“The Department does not consistently gather and publish data on usage of the Fund. […] The failure to gather data means the Department cannot verify that the Fund is fulfilling its intended purposes. And it should not expect claimants, or the organisations supporting them, to take on trust that the Fund will meet their needs.”
In light of this, it was put to the government that it publish a “quarterly statistical update on the use of the Flexible Support Fund.” This seems like a more than fair request. It is imperative that the DWP can account for how it is spending public funds.
The DWP didn’t agree instead they first used the odd response that they didn’t want “to introduce unnecessary administration on operational staff which may deter the use of this fund.” I can just about understand the admin defence, not that I agree with it, but are the DWP inferring that their Work Coaches hate admin so much they wouldn’t help claimants?
The most damning quote from the government about the Flexible Support Fund (FSF) was;
“We do not publish financial data [about the Flexible Support Fund] as we do not wish to detract from the discretionary nature of this fund.”
This should probably say “we don’t want claimants knowing they can get help.” I fail to see how it could mean anything else.
Committee Call for a Revised Response
In their conclusions the committee stated;
“The Government should now review its response and provide a response which matches the consideration the Committee employed in an attempt to help parents to move into work .”
They then set out 4 key areas they wanted the government to explain themselves on. One asked that the real reason statistics from the Flexible Support Fund cannot be published.
They were very blunt when it came to the refusal to introduce direct payments to childcare providers. They asked in light of this refusal what the DWP are going to do to “address the serious difficulties that both parents and childcare providers are experiencing with the current system.”
My overall take on the Work and Pensions Committee’s latest report is that they are seething at the contempt shown by the government. They put hundreds of hours of work into gathering evidence and reporting it for it to simply be ignored.
If any committee in Parliament is going to have a meaning there needs to be reform so that they can force change when hardship is identified. Otherwise, why are they there if they can simply be ignored?
Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner MP responded to the committee’s latest report saying;
“It is frankly astonishing that Ministers have shown such contempt that a cross party committee has publicly complained that they have been treated “like dirt”.
“Sadly this dismissive attitude is nothing new for struggling parents who are denied access to vital childcare support. From huge shortfalls in tax free childcare to the systemic under-funding of childcare providers, the early years sector and parents who rely on it have been neglected by this government.
“Labour will radically reform our childcare system, with 30 hours of high quality free childcare available to all 2-4 year olds and, as the committee recommended, a new funding model which avoids the need for parents to pay huge costs up front as they currently do under Universal Credit.”