Income Support and Social Security Policy Responses to Covid-19 (Part Four)

Unprecedented new policies show how change comes quickly when political will is present. Today we outline 17 key policy recommendations to build on these changes. Paige Jennings  |  Thu Jun 25 2020
R2W's People's Proposal campaign has secured the support of all local Councils but the Minister has yet to implement it

Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) works to support groups of people whose rights have been denied under some of the longstanding policies and programmes described in this series.

Housing4All and End Destitution campaign to end the homelessness and enforced destitution asylum seekers endure at different points during their asylum process due to No Recourse to Public Funds and related policies. In June 2020, PPR also launched a right to work campaign for asylum seekers. The bulk of fundamental social and economic rights fall under the remit of duty bearers based in Stormont, chief amongst them the Department for Communities and Department for Economy. However the UK Home Office retains responsibility for decision making on asylum claims, and habitually rejects around two thirds of them the first time they are submitted.

Under Home Office practice, once a claim is refused, people are designated as having No Recourse to Public Funds - they are evicted from asylum accommodation and even denied access to homeless hostels. Despite this enforced destitution, some manage to appeal the initial refusal; in nearly half of these cases, the Home Office reverses its decision and grants the person asylum. A June 2020 report by the National Audit Office found that the Home Office is unable to assess whether its policies limiting access to work, housing, benefits and services have "any meaningful impact on the likelihood that an individual will leave the UK voluntarily".

In the context of welfare reform, the PPR supported Right to Work: Right to Welfare (R2W) have been campaigning since 2012 against benefit sanctions and to guarantee the integration of human rights impact assessments into benefit entitlement decisions and for the protection of basic rights to due process through their People's Proposal. R2W have also been calling for the creation of real jobs through the use of public procurement. A recent pre-Covid report on the group’s work contains more detail on these recommendations.

Civil society recommendations

Below is a collection of recommendations from a range of bodies, authorities and organisations, made since the pandemic began and covering emergency measures and gaps in existing coverage (carers, those with No Recourse to Public Funds, artists and musicians, and those without digital literacy, tech devices or internet access, among others). Importantly, some also include proposals for addressing pre-Covid structural inequalities during the recovery period.

In terms of emergency response measures, charities including the Trussell Trust, the Child Poverty Action Group, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and others have called for a temporary Coronavirus Emergency Income Support Scheme that would:

  1. Increase benefits for families to help with the costs of raising children
  2. Extend the suspension of benefit deductions to cover Advance Payments – the loans offered to cover the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment
  3. Lift the benefit cap - which sets limits on the amount of benefit individuals and households can get - to ensure this support scheme benefits everyone

In Scotland, where the government has been committed to extending the Real Living Wage to additional groups of workers, a rise to the Real Living Wage for social care workers was reached between Health Secretary Jeane Freeman government and councils in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has declined to do the same for care workers here.

  1. Implement a Real Living Wage programme for all UK health and social care workers.
  2. Ensure Statutory Sick Pay for health and social care workers with No Recourse to Public Funds.

Identified gaps in support must be filled, covering a range of areas including those below. While Scotland announced an additional £19.2m in Carer’s Allowance Supplement during the pandemic, amounting to an additional payment of £230.10 per person, this has yet to be done across the UK; meanwhile, Carers UK research found that 70% of carers are providing more care than before the pandemic, in many cases because of the closure or reduction of local services. Initiatives such as the introduction of Carers IDs have been welcomed by Carers NI, who have also called for an increase to the current £67.25 weekly allowance as well as a one-off supplement in line with Scotland’s.

  1. Increase support to paid carers in line with calls by Carers NI. Carers NI reported in June that up to 98,000 people – a rise of almost a third - have become unpaid carers because of Covid-19.
  2. Building on the 8 June announcement of Carers ID to be issued through Health Trusts to facilitate carers’ access to some shops and services, take further steps to offer concrete supports to unpaid family carers to offset their increased burden under Covid-19.

Bodies such as the Local Government Association in England, the Welsh Local Government Association and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) have called on the UK government to remove the No Recourse to Public Funds condition for all affected people during the pandemic.

  1. NI authorities should join colleagues in England, Wales and Scotland in calling for the No Recourse to Public Funds condition to be lifted.
  2. In line with increases to basic Universal Credit, increase the level of support to groups excluded by this programme such as asylum seekers – currently receiving £37.25 per week - to help them meet increased household costs during the pandemic.

The Department for Communities committed £1.5m to a Creative Support Fund, but this alone is not enough to support the 7,500 musicians and artists reported by the Arts Council of NI to be employed in the sector.

  1. In line with calls from prominent arts figures in the UK, increase support for artists and musicians who have fallen through the safety net for workers affected by Covid-19.
  2. As per recommendations from the Arts Council of NI, revise the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme to ensure that no freelance worker falls through the gap.
  3. Also as recommended by the Arts Council of NI, provide further emergency funding for arts organisations over the next 12 to 18 months.

When a host of benefits and services are only available to those who can apply online, people without devices, internet access or digital literacy are left behind.

  1. Take immediate steps to identify and reach those in need who have been left behind by the ‘digital by default’ benefits system. Implement robust systems to bridge the digital gap, including through provision of kit, broadening of free internet access and skills training for those who need it.

Finally, a range of organisations have offered proposals for structural change as we exit the lockdown phase, to build on the progress made in ensuring income support but also to address endemic poverty and the impact of austerity measures that have weakened the programmes and policies underpinning the UK’s social safety net. These form an important frame of reference for policy making going forward. They include, amongst others:

  1. A Universal Basic Income, as recommended by a range of current and former elected officials, academics and charities across the UK and Ireland and beyond. A 21 April letter to the Chancellor from a cross-party group of 110 MPs and peers (which included two SDLP and one Alliance MPs) stated: "as we likely exit lockdown in a non-uniform way at an uneven speed, the system simply won’t be able to keep up with people’s individual changes of circumstances. This is why we need to put in place plans for a Recovery Universal Basic Income - a regular cash payment to every individual."
  2. The movement for a Recovery Basic Income for Northern Ireland is calling for a direct payment of £1000 per month for working age adults and £500 for each child to provide a basic level of financial security for everyone during the pandemic.
  3. A Green New Deal including both relief and sustainable stimulus and recovery efforts around renewable energy production and related areas. These efforts would be guided by principles of social justice, inclusive growth, environmental sustainability, and universal basic services (Nevin Economic Research Institute, Global Green New Deal and national Green New Deal groups (UK and Ireland))
  4. The movement for a People’s Bailout incorporates call for a Green New Deal, and calls for a just transition to a zero-carbon economy with decent wages, full and equal access to income support, healthcare and labour protections for all, including migrants, gig workers and people on zero hours contracts.

Paige Jennings is a policy officer for PPR. She has worked in human rights and development roles in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, for a range of local, international and United Nations organisations. She has been an Amnesty International researcher and has written for Minority Rights Group, Child Soldiers International, UNDP and UNHCR.