Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

THE SCOURGE OF “UNIVERSAL CREDIT”

In A.Graham, R.Richardson on November 7, 2017 at 6:51 am

Explained by RUTH RICHARDSON

Universal Credit was introduced in 2012 as part of the Welfare Reform Act (sic). Its aims were to simplify the system whereby clients claimed a number of benefits with a multiplicity of forms to fill in. It also aimed to encourage people into work and to make sure that work paid. And, it was claimed, the system would reduce fraud and be cheaper to administer.

The transition to Universal Credit from so-called “legacy benefits” such as Jobseekers’ Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax Credit and Housing Benefit has been gradual. But it is the Government’s aim that the roll out should be completed by 2022.  A report from the Trussel Trust [1] lists a number of points of difference from the previous system.

These include:

  1. A six-week delay for first-time claimants.
  2. Payments made in arrears with housing benefits paid directly to claimants rather than landlords.
  3. New forms of conditionality for claimants both in and out of work.
  4. Digitisation of how payments are managed (ie, on-line communication regarding benefits).
  5. Some reductions in the amounts received.

The Trussel Trust report detailed the problems clients face in coping with these changes.  The six week delay in the first payment hits particularly hard and food banks report that this alone has led to a 65 per cent increase in referrals.

Digitisation seemed fraught with difficulties with misinformation, claims being lost and documents misplaced.  To speak to an advisor directly, claimants have to hold on for an average of 40 minutes (at no small cost).  In fact the administration in general seems to be in disarray.

Since Universal Credit has been introduced, Food Banks have seen increasing problems with mental health, debt, work issues and housing. The report emphasises that where possible clients are sign-posted to local support services such as Citizens Advice – though these services are often stretched with a waiting list for appointments.

CALL FOR RE-THINK:

This report was published in April this year.  More recently, a newsletter from the Trust asks for the Universal Credit roll-out to be halted.  The Trust asks the Government to re-think the six-week waiting time for a first payment and to tackle the poor administration that can lead to ever longer waits.  More support for claimants could be provided through programmes like Universal Support [2]

Meanwhile the Trust calls for a  pause “particularly until appropriate emergency financial support is available and accessible to all people left with no income and no food in the cupboard.”

It is feared that as winter approaches problems will only get worse for the most vulnerable in our society.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] The Trussel Trust is the largest provider of Food Banks in the UK. Like many charities (such as Amnesty International) it bends over backwards to appear non-political.

[2] Universal Support is a partnership between the DWP and local authorities to give advice on the transition to Universal Credit.


FOCUS: What happened to public transport in the Forest?

a Clarion report by A. Graham

There was a time when we were well served by bus and rail services both in and out of the Forest of Dean – but sadly those days have long since gone.

The network of bus services is now dominated by Stagecoach, whilst all that’s left of the public rail service are the trains that serve Lydney station.  The network that once ran up into the Forest (and indeed across the Severn) has long since gone (true, we have the Dean Forest Railway, but that is basically a tourist-style “heritage” line).

ON THE BUSES:

The bus network in the Dean, and indeed beyond, was swallowed up through a ruthless takeover of other local companies in Gloucestershire by the Stagecoach group. It followed a series of acquisitions by the company throughout the country.  When Stagecoach finally set its sights on our neck of the woods in the early 1990s, it took over four companies in one fell swoop – Cheltenham & District, City of Gloucester, Stroud Valleys – and Red & White Services with its network of routes in the Forest and into South Wales.

The “Red & White” company had its head offices in Bulwark, near Chepstow, though its roots were in Lydney, having been founded by the John Watts’ group of companies between the wars. In 1950 Red & White was brought under public control along with other major bus undertakings throughout the UK. Routes were co-ordinated in order to provide an integrated network of services throughout the country, and fare levels were controlled.

In the Forest, there were two major bus service “hubs” – one in Lydney and the other in Cinderford. In Lydney (as an example) there was a sizeable bus depot and a cafe. The main service operated from Gloucester through Lydney and on to Cardiff – whilst there was also a service up to Hereford. From Cinderford there were connections with the Western Welsh company’s buses.

“DE-REGULATION”:

All this came to an end with legislation passed by the Thatcher Government in October 1986. This de-regulated the way that buses were operated, and effectively ended public control. Before then there had been a legal obligation on bus operators to provide adequate services, whilst any changes in routes or fares was subjected to scrutiny.

CHAOS – FOLLOWED BY CO-ORDINATION:

The immediate result of the legislation was chaos, when any old Tom, Dick or Harry who felt that he/she could run a bus service could buy up an old bus or two and put it on the road. In many parts of the country, timetables ceased to have any meaning. But then came a phase of co-ordination, with the big companies putting the privateers out of business. Within a short while Stagecoach and the “First Bus” groups established a virtual monopoly in their respective areas.

It should, though, be noted that for a while some well-established local operators (such as Soudley Valley Coaches, Cottrells, Willetts and – of courses – Bevans, continued to provide an adequate network of local services in the Forest – but over time they were put out of service or taken over. Now only Willetts and Bevan’s survive.

OFF THE RAILS:

What of the rail network that once served the Forest? Much of it survived the notorious “Beeching Report” (although there was a degree of shrinkage), but the old Forest and Wye network suffered a mortal blow with the destruction of the old Severn rail bridge in 1960. After a decade of inaction it was finally decided to demolish it in 1970.

When John Major came to power he decided to de-nationalise British Rail and carve up the remnants of the network into an overlapping patchwork of franchises. At the present time, our last remaining railway line is served by two passenger rail companies – Arriva and CrossCountry. Both are now owned by Deutsche Bahn (the German state railway) – although their franchises are up for renewal. So, as they say, watch this space!

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