11 Nov 2010

Over half of public support benefit changes

Washington Correspondent

More than half of the British public support the Coalition’s planned changes to the benefit system, an exclusive YouGov/Channel 4 News survey shows.

Of the 2013 adults who responded to the survey, 58 per cent thought that the Coalition should either cut benefits more, or have got the balance of change about right.

Prime Minister David Cameron is leading major reform of the welfare system in the UK, changing benefits across the board including alterations to child benefit, housing benefit and Job Seekers Allowance.

Our survey suggests that the public supports the changes, in marked contrast to yesterday’s student protests against tuition fees, which erupted into violence.

See the Benefits Survey results in full 

Job Seekers Allowance

The Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith outlined plans today for a new Universal Credit to replace all the out-of-work benefits and tax credits, as well as unveiling plans to make the unemployed face tougher rules and sanctions.

Unemployed claimants who turn down offers of work, refuse to apply for jobs or fail to turn up for interviews will lose their Job Seekers Allowance. If they do this once, they lose the £65-a-week allowance for three months. If they do this twice, for six months; and if they do this three times, for three years.

Public supports Coalition's benefits overhaul

Our poll showed that 66 per cent of respondents supported this change. Just 21 per cent of people said they opposed the plan to automatically withdraw Job Seekers Allowance if claimants turned down the offer of a job or job interview.

Those surveyed were from a broad mix of ages, geographies and political backgrounds – but there was majority support across voters of all parties.

Of Conservative voters in the survey, 82 per cent backed the move on Job Seekers Allowance, with 71 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters supporting the change and even 57 per cent of Labour voters – still more than half of those surveyed.

73 per cent overall also supported plans to make the unemployed spend four weeks doing unpaid work in order to keep receiving their full benefits.

Housing benefit

Proposed changes to housing benefit – which caused a row last month when Boris Johnson said he would resist “Kosovo-style social cleansing” – were also supported by the survey respondents.

More than two-thirds said they supported putting a maximum limit of £400 a week on the amount of housing benefit people can claim, even if this means claimants are forced to move house if they live in an area where the rent is high.

Disability living allowance

People also supported another change to benefits proposed by the Coalition, to put in place more stringent testing for people receiving Disability Living Allowance. This move was backed by 69 per cent of respondents.

Benefits: William's story
William Oketch is 29, writes Siobhan Kennedy. He came to Britain after the civil war in Rwanda. He's had periods being homeless, living rough and staying with friends. He's now getting training through Arlington House, a refuge for the homeless in Camden that provides support and courses for unemployed and vulnerable members of society.

He's someone who's found it difficult to get even part-time work in the past as it's meant having his benefits taken away.

"When I was working part-time, I found I could not earn over a certain amount of money, otherwise it would affect my benefits, you know? So I think they need to give a bit more incentive for people to be able to stay in work."

William says he actually found himself trying to work less hours just so he could keep the few benefits he has. Jobseekers allowance and - now that he has a place of his own - housing support and council tax credit too.

'No incentive'
He's exactly the kind of person Iain Duncan Smith says he's trying to help. Under the old system, people like William could work for 16 hours, or about 3 hours a day, and not have their benefits taken away. If they worked over that time, their benefits were withdrawn often at a rate of as much as 90 per cent and in some cases, even higher. Hence why people like William get stuck in what's called the "benefits trap" whereby there's no incentive to look for more work.

"There's no incentive when you're doing part-time work," he says. "I found I was worse off really, no better off working."

William says he hopes the government's new Universal Credit system – which rolls all the benefits into one and allows claimants to keep a bigger chunk of their benefit as they go back to work – will help people like him crack the problem and get back on their feet.

But he's worried by Mr Duncan Smith's plans to apply tough sanctions for those not taking up job interviews, work experience and jobs offered to them.

He says people like him try really hard but, in reality, there aren't the opportunities open for them.

'I try my best'
"I don't agree with them on that issue because I try my best to find a job so for them to say that they're going to penalise you after a while. In the real world, you don't get these chances, it's very, very hard even to get a job interview, so for them to suggest that they're going to withdraw the benefit if you don't attend these interviews…."

William says to do work placements and attend interviews will require a lot more support, not just for things like travel expenses to get to work, but also emotional support, particularly for the long-term unemployed or those with troubled histories who have lost confidence and fear interaction with the outside world.

But even then, he's worried that employers simply won't want to know.

"My CV's got a gap where I was out of work. So if an employer asks me, "What have you been doing during that 12 month period?" then obviously I was unemployed. Some employers are not interested, they want to see a proper CV that you've been doing this and that."