Welfare reforms impact on our students

Shane Chowen calls for greater recognition of the impact welfare cuts will have on FE students.

The parliamentary process isn’t one that lends itself to straight forward explanation at the best of times.

But when complicated and contentious pieces of legislation work their way through Westminster, it’s all to easy to get caught up in the process and the politics and lose sight about the practical realities that new laws and regulations will have on people’s lives.

I often use this column to call on leaders in our sector to involve themselves more in the public policy debates surrounding the lives of learners, not just those directly affecting their institutions, and do all they can provide spaces for learners themselves to use their experiences to improve the quality of policy that is affecting their lives.

Looking to welfare, figures published in July 2015 showed that the number of benefit claimants enrolling in FE courses has risen to 650,000, up from 480,000 in 2009/10.

The overall number of learners in that time has decreased substantially, so as a sector, an increasing proportion of our learners are on benefits.

The majority claim Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) or Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

Theatre aside, reforms to the welfare system are happening alongside reforms to FE and skills and both impact on the lives of learners and their ability to access the support they need to get on in life

This is why the passage of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill is really important to our sector.

The bill seeks to increase a number of policies to help the Government meet its commitments to reduce spending on benefits, achieve full employment and half the disability employment gap.

Putting to one side for a moment whether you think current public spending on welfare is acceptable or not, we everyone in FE can probably agree that getting more people into good jobs, particularly helping to find more and better employment opportunities for people with disabilities, is laudable.

However, the Government is struggling to convince members of the House of Lords to agree to one element of the bill in particular.

It’s the plan to reduce the amount people on ESA, who are ill or disabled but deemed fit for ‘work-related activity’, down to the same level as JSA, which is a cut of about £30 a week for new claimants.

Opponents of the cut in ESA argue that cutting the incomes of disabled people will hinder rather than help them to find work, whereas proponents argue the changes won’t affect current claimants and people with severe health conditions and disabilities will continue to receive higher levels of support from elsewhere in the benefits system.

Having passed through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the bill which includes this controversial cut in benefits to disabled people, is now at the stage known as ‘ping pong’ where measures that both houses disagree on are passed back and forth either until there is agreement, or until Ministers use measures to pass the legislation without consent from the Lords.

Theatre aside, reforms to the welfare system are happening alongside reforms to FE and skills and both impact on the lives of learners and their ability to access the support they need to get on in life.

That’s why I would like to see both agendas work much closer together over the coming months and years.

In particular, more recognition is needed through area reviews of the provision that people on benefits need — 88 per cent of which are level two and below, alongside what employers say they need.

Also, look out for a government white paper on disability, health and employment expected soon and contribute.


Shane Chowen is head of policy and public affairs at the Learning and Work Institute

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