The media have reported widely on research from Sheffield Hallam University which indicates that a critical consequence of the welfare reforms is how unequally they will be felt around the country. For some areas the cuts will reverberate; for others they will hardly be noticed. Worryingly, the predicted worst affected areas also happen to be the most deprived areas of the country. These areas will suffer financial losses twice the national average and up to four times as much as the least affected areas, in essence, perpetuating the inequality between the North and South of the UK. In Sheffield we will experience a loss of £471 per working age adult; the total annual impact is about 2.4% of the region’s disposable income, or about 1 year and 5 months of regional growth. Put this in context of massive cuts to other services and amenities, from public toilets to Sheffield Libraries to the closure of Don Valley Stadium and you start to get a picture of a city under threat.
And it’s not just that cuts are being made to welfare, it’s the fact that citizens are also losing the ability to protect themselves from illegality and injustice. The legal aid reforms have removed welfare and benefits from the scope of legal aid. This means if you feel you have a legal case against the Government with regards to welfare; that you are not receiving your entitled amount, or that you are being forced to pay a tax which compromises your human rights, you cannot receive legal advice or representation without paying (or being fortunate enough to receive help from a charity).
What we’re creating is a system which many are predicting will be grossly unfair, but taking away the ability for those profoundly affected to make a case that it is unfair. We’re putting the most deprived in a potentially devastating situation, and giving them no legal infrastructure through which they can influence their situation.
This is not to say that the welfare reforms are necessarily unwelcome. A lot of voices from across the political spectrum have welcomed reform in theory. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced a report which indicated that the introduction of Universal Credit could have countless benefits for the UK; the problem is the way in which reforms are being implemented, the time of implementation and the new mechanism for receiving benefits.
JRF’s report concluded that Universal Credit worked on principle but should only be implemented in prosperous times as it would be extremely expensive. Introducing the changes at a time when the labour market is poor could be disastrous, and Chief Executive of JRF Julie Unwin is now predicting a potential “decade of destitution”. Moreover, the practical implementation of the new system is causing concern. New claimants will be expected to use the internet to apply for Universal Credit and the entire system will be digitalised. This means the amount each claimant receives will be worked out by an IT system, but this IT system will have to be able to cope with a huge amount of variables which fluctuate often within themselves in terms of taxation, inflation and the like. The worry is that putting everything on to one system is putting all the eggs in one basket, or rather millions of people’s social security in one, precarious environment.
Put in the context of simultaneous legal aid cuts and potentially worrying scenarios manifest. If the system fails or produces errors and a local authority or state claims it hasn’t, for example, an individual won’t have access to legal aid to advise them on what to do next or represent them if needs be. The worry is that a lot of people will not only get less benefit from the outset, but could receive the wrong amount due to an IT problem and find it difficult to fight their corner.
Beyond this, the expectation that claimants will have to apply online and use the internet to job seek assumes that the majority of people own computers, have access to the internet and are computer literate, which is a naïve assumption. Those without computers are being directed to local libraries and in Sheffield a lot of these libraries are threatened with closure.
So what’s the picture looking like for Sheffield? Well, the city is already feeling the impact of the cuts with Food Banks being put under massive strain. Over the past year, 8 more food banks have had to open and organisers predict they could be ‘overwhelmed’ as we start to feel the full impact of cuts. As libraries start to close those who are told to apply for benefits online may struggle to find a computer accessible enough for them to begin their application or carry out tasks expected of them to ensure they qualify for continued benefit. From a legal point of view, fewer Sheffield residents will be guaranteed legal protection and access to justice. Overall, our city is likely to be impacted by the cuts more than the average.