How did we get here?
Last April, in an early attempt to respond to the impact of Covid-19, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, introduced a temporary uplift for Universal Credit claimants of £20 a week. That might not sound like much in the scheme of things, you’d think? Wrong. it’s had such an impact on the families that have received it, that the potential of having it taken away would now be too much to bear. £20 a week means money in utility metres, food on the table, activities for families stuck at home. It’s a life-changing amount of money for families who are only just coping, or already experiencing daily deprivation in their lives.
The temporary extension
To the relief of many charities, campaigners and, of course, UC benefit claimants, the Chancellor announced in his Budget speech last week that the £20 a week uplift introduced last April was to be extended a further 6 months. To help mitigate the impact of coronavirus on household finances the uplift, which was due to end on 31 March, will now remain in place until September. The Chancellor also confirmed working tax credit claimants would receive equivalent support over the next six months through a one-off payment of £500.
But with the UC uplift extension have we just kicked the can further down the street and will the uplift need to be extended or indeed made permanent beyond September?
Surging unemployment has led to a massive increase in UC claimants
The number of people claiming Universal Credit in the UK has doubled since the start of the pandemic, surging from 3 million in March 2020 to 6 million at the start of this year. Around 446 people were still making new claims every hour in the first week of January 2021, and a total of 4.5 million people have made a claim for the benefit since the start of the public health crisis. The statistics reflect the scale of the hardship caused by Covid-19. This has been laid bare with new figures showing that more than a third of claims since Universal Credit was introduced in April 2013 have been made during the COVID19 pandemic.
Moreover, the number of people on company payrolls has fallen by 726,000 during the same period according to the Office for National Statistics, and the unemployment rate reached a five-year high in December. There is no doubt the £20 uplift has provided a safety net for people that have been made redundant or the self employed who have seen their profits drop due to lockdowns and social distancing measures. This is a very bad state of affairs indeed, that we predict will get worse before it gets better.
Why the £20 uplift proves so vital?
Over 620,000 families with children have started claiming Universal Credit since the start of the pandemic, marking a 51 per cent increase. Two thirds of the families now receiving Universal Credit are single parent families, and around 90 per cent of single parents are women. Analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) last year concluded that withdrawing the temporary increase in March risked sweeping 700,000 more people, including 300,000 more children, into poverty.
With the current uplift lifeline in place, Citizens Advice estimated that lockdown debts have already reached £1.6 billion, 2 million households are behind on their energy bills and half a million tenants are behind an average of £730 on their rent. Citizens Advice research showed that the £20 a week uplift equates is the equivalent of 3 days food shopping and almost 7 days of energy costs for many households. With the announcement by Ofgem that energy bills are to rise by £96 to £1,138 a year in April for households on standard or default tariffs combined with the fact we already have higher energy costs due to being confined to our homes and the children having being at home due to schools being shut. Many have already found themselves in a perfect storm of fuel and food poverty due to these factors and the recent cold weather snap.
The loss of the uplift at the end of March would have proved devastating not just for families on Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits, but to the economy as a whole; it was estimated that the uplift alone is pumping £500 million a month into local economies at a time when they find themselves on life support due to many high street shops being closed.
What next for the £20 lifeline?
At this time, it is unclear whether the £20 uplift will be extended beyond September. With the vaccine roll out proving successful so far and infection rates dropping it is hard to gauge what will happen when lockdown ends and how quickly people can get back to work. It is difficult to predict how swiftly the economy can bounce back and if we will see a rise in redundancies again as the furlough or job retention scheme winds down similarly to what we witnessed last year as the rates the government paid to businesses were gradually reduced.
The chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on poverty, Kevin Hollinrake, recently recommended that “There is a compelling case for making the uplift permanent.” The Trussell Trust found that before the pandemic struck 70% of Universal Credit claimants had experienced debt during the 5 weeks wait for the initial payment of the benefit. They also found out from their survey that only 8% of respondents said their full Universal Credit payment covered their cost of living and only 5% of people who said they were disabled or had ill-health said their full Universal Credit payment covered their cost of living.
The Government has expressed on multiple occasions that the uplift is ‘temporary’ and impossible to sustain. We say families livelihoods will be impossible to sustain without it.
Let’s hope social responsibility takes hold before the Autumn.
As a proud non-exec Director of social enterprise Society Matters cic I’m on a mission to make a difference. Alongside my talented co-Directors, our wonderful staff team and our parent charity Citizens Advice Gateshead, we have a vision of a fair society for all, with lives well lived.
So what does that mean? To me, that means we are determined to help people in need to achieve their potential in life, to help families living in poverty, with disadvantage and deprivation, to become more self-reliant, resilient and move towards a lifestyle that is stable and secure.
You might say – “well good luck with that” – and yes, it is a huge job.
And it is one that is becoming more challenging daily while Covid takes its toll and employment – life itself – is ever more precarious. Even people who are in employment are struggling to make ends meet and dealing with insecure jobs.
So, to achieve our ambition we have looked really closely at the part Society Matters cic can play – how our small but perfectly formed team can help to support people on a journey that leads to them ultimately supporting themselves.
Mobilising lived experience and specialist knowledge into the system
Proper support for people in need is crucial to enable them to emerge from poverty and avoid the traps that come along with it that often have long term impacts. Debt, health problems, fuel poverty, housing and the knock-on impacts on education and social isolation are only a few examples of issues that that put people in crisis situations that are difficult to get out of.
The Social Welfare system is there to provide such support but its complexities mean that people do not always get their entitlement and in many cases do not even realise they are eligible for benefits. Accessing support can be difficult and not for the faint-hearted. Not the best situation when you’re worried where the next meal is coming from or where you can get the bus fare to work.
So to help people access the support they need our approach is to mobilise the knowledge that resides in the advisers who deal with the complications of the system on a daily basis. The value of those experts, whose knowledge is second to none, and who have made a tangible difference to people’s lives, can’t be over-estimated. So those advisers have invested their lived experience and specialist knowledge into the design, development and delivery of cutting edge training which is now delivered in a virtual classroom by Society Matters cic.
This is not training you can get from a book or a website. It’s coming at social welfare problems from the people perspective – not just relaying policy and practice. If you are one of the hundreds of people who have received this training, you’ll have the tools in your toolkit to really help people to navigate the social welfare and benefits system, and to get the best possible outcome for them and their families through your work.
We need more people to be able to help more people
Like I said, this is a big job. So we’re on a mission to spread this acute, front-end knowledge far and wide.
On the ground, that means more people accessing the benefits they so desperately need, more people avoiding crisis points, more people moving out of poverty, more people taking the step from benefits to employment – more people reaching their potential. More people living their lives as well as they can. Isn’t that what we, as a society, should expect for everyone?
And of course, through the pandemic the public have grown a heightened awareness of the close connection between society and the economy. Through engendering more people with spending power the local economy gains, so we all gain. Did you know that in Gateshead alone in 2019-2020 the advice and information given to people by our parent charity Citizens Advice Gateshead gained £7.8m additional income, most of which will have been spent locally – mind blowing!
Just think what could be done across our region with a bit more know-how.
Knowledge is power – Society Matters is mobilising knowledge through its training so the Social Welfare system provides the means to progress for people who need and want to battle successfully against poverty. And it’s already working. Front line staff we’ve trained are picking up on potential problems with their users at early stages and averting crises like eviction and arrears, and people are being able to work through their disabilities because they have the right support to do so, because they’ve been helped in the right way to get what they needed. Critically, through mobilising knowledge the trained support staff feel confident and empowered in their work, and the service users relieved – what’s not to like in such a great result.
This is real social value.
We’re so happy with our very first webinar, kindly hosted as a ‘Live Learn Lunch’ by the Institute of Employability Professionals mid December. We chose to talk about the 6 elements of Universal Credit, with an explanation of each element, and then a focus on how changes in circumstances can impact on people’s claims, as well as some obvious references to adjustments associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.
The webinar was formatted as a presentation from myself and Adam, followed by questions and answers. We think it’s so important for the support system to understand this dimension of the benefit, because then they can spot opportunities to help early on, before a problem brews and a claim is affected, so we were really pleased to have a good turn-out but also to have the opportunity for a recording to be viewed by those who weren’t able to attend.
Of course there’s a lot of detail we weren’t able to explore during the session, that we cover in a lot more detail in our Get to Grips with Universal Credit online training course, but the webinar did provide participants with some red flags they should look out for so that’s definitely a good start.
Lee Booth, 18th December 2020
The Community and Voluntary Sector (CVS) is probably better known as a route for people to volunteer, perhaps as a way to ‘give back’ at the end of a career, than as a provider of formative or developmental career opportunities. That’s understandable. To the unaccustomed the ‘third sector’ or ‘not-for-profit sector’ can appear to be a bit detached from ‘real life’ compared to the cut and thrust of the private sector, and the gargantuan establishment that is the public sector. But if you think about it, selecting the CVS as your career choice has the potential to transport you to as close to ‘real life’ as you can get.
So can you have a ‘career’ in the sector, really?
What’s the shape and size of the sector?
If we stand back and look at the sector in all of its different guises, there’s no wonder really there’s uncertainty about its potential. At one end of the spectrum we have un-constituted community groups run entirely by volunteers that deliver localised support, and at the other we have social enterprises that operate, from the outside, as a commercial private business, but with the unique characteristic of creating social rather than material wealth; and this comes with varying levels of obligation – some, like Society Matters cic for example, are asset locked, meaning that all profits/assets must go to the community they serve. Then firmly in the centre we have the charity sector, governed by the Charities Commission.
As a result of this diversity and varying levels of formality it’s really difficult to get absolute clarity on the numbers of people actually employed overall, however according to the UK Civil Society Almanac 2020 the voluntary sector has a paid workforce approaching one million, almost 3% of the total paid workforce, and representing a 17% growth rate in jobs since 2010. Most of these jobs are in voluntary organisations with less than 50 paid staff (which is a similar proportion to the private sector). Over a third of employees are engaged in social work activities, followed by education and residential care which each represent around 12%. It should also be said that although the sector’s primary focus is social wealth, a significant economic contribution is also made, estimated by NCVO and ONS to be valued at £18.2bn 2017/18, or 0.9% of total GDP.
Obviously when reviewing the shape and size of the sector, we can’t get away without making reference to Covid19 which has had an inordinate impact on the CVS. For some organisations income has been lost, with a fifth of small UK charities reported to be expecting an income reduction of more than 50% as a direct result of the pandemic, and as many as 1 in 10 charities are said to be facing imminent bankruptcy. Income through trading has been slashed due to lockdown restrictions, particularly in the case of charity shops, but for others their capacity has grown exponentially as a result of the availability of volunteers, which will improve their impact statistics which has the potential of helping them raise funds for next year.
However in my view the most fundamental shift is the heightened recognition of the part that not only the CVS, but citizens individually and collectively, can (should) play in supporting society and societal change. At every level the concept of community has entered spheres of influence that hitherto had been severely lacking. Beyond Covid19 this presents a tangible opportunity for growth for a sector that stands out for its essential contribution to all our lives.
So onto career prospects and the need for new skills. Interestingly, according to the UK Civil Society Almanac 2020, employees in the sector are highly educated, with over half of the workforce being educated to degree level of higher, similar to the public sector and much higher than in the private sector. What also stands out is that reported skills gaps are lower than the other sectors, however the skills gaps that do exist contrast with other sectors, mainly focusing on hard skills such as complex analytical, operational and digital skills, and on soft skills most particularly self-management and management and leadership. This mirrors my own experience which can be explained in part by the starting point generally being that the charity and its people tend to be for society first, and a business second.
But of course, despite the social drivers, CVS organisations are economic structures – they are businesses: they employ people, they manage finance, they market, they manage facilities and IT, they develop operating models that enable services to be delivered. Although this is evolving, the culture of resisting ‘behaving’ like a business, combined with skills gaps that potentially get in the way of innovation, marketing and strategic change, present a significant barrier to survival and growth for many. However it must also be said, as someone who has worked in both the private and the community and voluntary sector, running a social business is far more complex than its private counterparts – at the very least because your main customer is highly unlikely to be able to pay for what you have to offer.
If we can get over this stand-off, a significant opportunity does exist for a heightened focus on leadership and management development across the sector (not necessarily delivered by those already in the sector), and a call for collaboration with the buoyant and growing digital sector, to uplift the capability of the CVS to build its efficiency and its ability to compete.
A word about volunteering
Volunteering and employability do go hand in hand, both with respect to presenting opportunities for acquiring work experience and employment-related skills and assets, and as a direct route into employment. As an example, over 20% of paid employees at Citizens Advice Gateshead, the parent charity of Society Matters cic, started with the charity as a volunteer.
As the employment landscape continues to change as a result of the pandemic, the need for reframing and retraining to enable people in the sectors worst hit to move forward, volunteering in the CVS has the potential to provide the answer. An investment in making this work for the sector, however, is critical; the misnomer that volunteers provide ‘free’ resource needs to be eradicated, as under-investment will have a catastrophic effect on the sector, and will prevent this workforce development opportunity to be realised alongside draining the already limited resources needed to deliver social value.
Jayne Graham MBE
Executive Director, Society Matters cic
Social enterprise Society Matters cic is looking into skills gaps that are challenging the community and voluntary sector. particularly with respect to understanding the complexities of welfare benefits such as Universal Credit and PIP, and is calling for as many people across the sector to complete the survey, for a chance to win a free welfare benefits training course for up to 12 people early in 2021.
The team at Society Matters needs to understand the gaps that exist because they are looking for ways to support the sector at a time when investing in training is not currently on the agenda, for obvious reasons. Hundreds of paid staff and volunteers from the sector who have attended Society Matters’ social welfare training have said that without the right skills and knowledge they had found it difficult to provide the right help to the communities they support, and that once they understood the detail of the benefits being claimed by many of their clients they had so much more confidence, just after a few hours spent on learning and development.
Lee Booth, Trading Manager at Society Matters cic, who’s leading the survey explained “this year has been challenging for us all, but the community and voluntary sector has stepped up to make such a difference to so many people’s lives, and we send our sincere thanks. Through completing this survey the community and voluntary sector can help us to design programmes that can be delivered free to those who need it most, but don’t have the resources to pay.”
So please complete the short 2 minute survey to help Society Matters to understand the skills gaps you are experiencing in your organisation, and have a chance to win a free accredited welfare benefits training course of your choice for up to 12 staff and volunteers to give you a great start to 2021.