Is the benefit system too baffling to be solved?

Welfare composite

Simplifying welfare is a top government priority. But why are benefits so baffling?

Benefits are fiendishly complicated. If Franz Kafka were to write a novel today, he might plunge protagonist Josef K into the baffling UK welfare system, rather than the claustrophobic legal process of The Trial.

People increasingly expect technology to make complex systems work intuitively. But the opacity of the UK benefits system has not been resolved by high-powered websites, smartphones or clever apps.

Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud has said that reform is necessary to sweep away a "tangled mess of add-ons and premiums" to make the system "simple and understandable".

It's so bamboozling that many benefits go unclaimed, according to DWP figures released for 2009-10.

My life on benefits

Ms Davies was being treated for breast cancer and her husband had given up work to care for her. They also had a child to support. It left the family dependent on five benefits.

"There were a lot of forms. I still don't understand benefits now and I never got any help."

In order to keep receiving employment and support allowance, she was asked to attend a work capability assessment. But it clashed with a hospital appointment. Shortly afterwards her working age benefits were stopped.

The Citizens Advice Bureau, which sees 700,000 people a year struggling with benefit complexity, intervened on her behalf. It turned out the authorities had not told her she needed to cancel with another office. It took weeks to get the money restarted.

"We had no money except for my son's child benefit and tax credits. We got into rent arrears. We were worried about losing the house."

There is a paradox for policymakers. Make benefits simple via a few clear cut-offs and the effect is unfair - many will miss out either because they earn just too much or because their complicated circumstances are not recognised. If, on the other hand, there is generous universal provision of things like child benefit, the rich receive hand-outs they don't need. The challenge is to design something that is simple, fair and well directed.

The current system relies on labyrinthine rules to impose means testing and prevent abuse.

Eligibility is the first hoop to jump through. And it is regularly being tweaked by politicians.

Once eligible, the claimant has to find out the amount they'll get - each benefit comes in different rates according to range of criteria.

Then if the claimant's circumstances shift - they take a job for example - the amount they are entitled to changes. Claimants are allowed to earn a small amount on top of their benefits without incurring a penalty.

Earning more than this small top-up will cause claimants to forfeit a proportion of their benefit. This "withdrawal rate" or "taper" differs between benefits.

So far, so simple.

There is the complicating factor that some benefits are awarded to people according to their income after "means testing". Others are only available to people who have paid a sufficient amount of national insurance contributions.

The complexity makes benefit recipients cautious, says Mike Dixon assistant chief executive of the Citizens Advice Bureau. "It's really hard to understand at the moment. People moving into work have to move from one benefit to another, which makes them nervous."

Easterhouse Iain Duncan Smith was influenced by his time on Glasgow's Easterhouse estate

Tax credits are supposed to help make work pay. But analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that those who are most dependent on benefits - the poorest families - face a steep withdrawal of benefit when they move into work. It found 1.5 million people on an effective tax rate of 70% to 100% when they began working.

The question is why it needs to be so complicated?

None of this was part of the plan 70 years ago when William Beveridge wrote the blueprint for the modern welfare state. The language in 1942 was grand and poetic.

A brief history of the universal credit

Ian Duncan Smith

Plans for universal credit were unveiled in November 2010 by Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith.

The Welfare Reform Bill began passage through parliament in February 2011 and, after several challenges from the House of Lords, became legislation in March 2012.

New system will be rolled out in pilot areas from April 2013.

"Want is one only of five giants on the road of reconstruction… the others are disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness," he wrote in Social Insurance and Allied Services.

The post-war Labour government agreed to his proposals. In came unemployment benefit for a period of six months, unlimited sick pay, and five shillings a week for each child after the first.

It was a different age. Society as a whole was poorer. It was also less complicated. There was full employment, nuclear families were the norm and there was little awareness of the rights of women or the disabled.

As society has become more complex, successive governments have added bits, tweaked and tweaked again, says Mr Dixon. "A good way to think about the welfare system is as a big ramshackle Victorian house. It's had lots of owners doing extensions but it's quite hard to move around."

Beveridge's system was founded on people paying contributions. But over the past three decades there has been a dramatic increase in means testing as governments have sought to save money and focus resources on the poorest.

The effect is a rash of rules and conditions to prevent people claiming who earn too much. Critics argue it has created perverse incentives for people to stay on benefits rather than take jobs.

"Part of the complexity is down to the variety in people's lives," says Tim Nichols, parliamentary officer at the Child Poverty Action Group. "Another aspect is the lessening of universalism - the more means testing, the more complex it becomes." Governments have practised "incremental penny pinching", adding conditions and sanctions, he says.

Brick Lane By the end of the 1970s, the benefits system had become more complex

Next year, the government will launch the biggest reform of benefits since the modern welfare state came in after World War II. A central plank is the universal credit, which will merge six benefits - housing benefit, jobseeker's allowance, income support, child tax credit, working tax credit and employment support allowance - into one monthly payment.

But trying to simplify something so complex is a headache in itself, and the question is whether Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith's audacious reforms will make the system any simpler.

A pessimist might echo the words of Kafka, who once said: "Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy."

How it all began

East Ham

The modern benefits system started after WWII with four main pieces of legislation:

  • Family Allowances Act (1945) - five shillings a week for each child after the first
  • National Insurance Act 1946 provided sickness and unemployment benefit, retirement pension and widow and maternity benefit
  • Industrial Injuries Act (1946) - extra benefits for people injured at work
  • National Assistance Act (1948) - benefits for anybody in need, 40 shillings (£2) a week for a married couple

"The current system is more complicated than it needs to be and the government has decided to simplify it by integrating most means-tested benefits for working-age people," says James Browne of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. "However, the rules for calculating universal credit will still be complicated."

It means trade-offs. The IFS calculates that 2.5 million families will gain, 1.4 million will lose out and 2.5 million will see no change. Mr Duncan Smith's gainers are people for whom going into work is least economically attractive.

The number of people paying an effective tax rate of 70% to 100% as they move into work will be reduced from 1.5 million to 400,000, the IFS says. But some people who currently pay a lower rate will find themselves paying more.

James Purnell, who was work and pensions secretary in the last Labour government, believes universal credit will make it simpler for the Department for Work and Pensions to administer and cut down on error. But it won't solve the problem of incentivising work, he says. Means testing requires arbitrary cut-off points.

And universal credit is not the end of the story - disability benefits, for example, will be outside its remit. Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, the champion Paralympian, agrees with the need for greater simplicity. But the government's plans for "tough cuts" to disability living allowance will make life hard for disabled people, she says, and some parents even fear they will have to put their disabled children into residential care.

According to the IFS, the fact council tax benefit will be paid separately "risks introducing the sort of complexity and lack of transparency that the government says it wants to reduce".

The system as a whole will have more up-to-date information, supporters argue, such as details of the tax and national insurance deducted from people's wages.

It all depends on a powerful new IT scheme. And that is the other big unknown. Government IT schemes do not have the best of records.

Without the computers, how will mere mortals be able to get their heads round the benefits system?

Below is a selection of your comments.

After serving as a police officer for 30 years, I was told by my local job centre that i was entitled to no benefits as the police pension was deemed income. It made no difference how much or for how long I had paid national insurance. I am now working but may soon be out of work knowing i am entitled to no benefits.

Terry Scott, Crawley, West Sussex

My daughter claimed sickness benefit in June and so far has not received a penny. She has had a letter saying she can't be paid as they have no national insurance number for her. This on a letter headed by her NI number.

Frances Washbourne, Derby

The implication of the complexity is that everyone is inherently dishonest and out to defraud the government. Most unreasonable of all, in my experience is the need to provide your personal bank statements to claim some benefits, such as Council Tax Benefit. They are pored through by someone who can then question any transaction and make a judgement about how you have spent your money.

Nerissa, Ilminster

My son has autism and I've got to reapply for DLA as he is coming up to 16. The form to fill in is the most complex thing you have ever read and it's about 60 pages long.

Neil, Sunderland

The system is a shambles. Every time I phone about tax credits I get a different figure. There is no way at all for me to work out what I am entitled to so I can verify it for myself - the system is unfathomable even to the people running it. Why even have tax credits in the first place, why not just lower my tax bill in the first place?

Fred, Guildford, Surrey

As an intelligent professional businessman recently taking redundancy I was appalled how convoluted the whole benefits process has become. The amount of time taken to trawl through the websites and leaflets about what you can and cannot claim is ridiculous. Job centre staff are not able to advise. I once spent 35 minutes going through an online form only to find out at the end I wasn't eligible for housing benefit or council tax relief.

Alan Heeley, Huddersfield

The arbitrary cut off points and multiple means testing is one of the most horrible things about the system. Claim Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), get income assessed then get awarded Contribution-Based JSA because I have NI contributions to use up. Then claim Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit, get income assessed again. Automatic Free Prescriptions? Only if you're on Income-Based benefits. So I need to fill in a HC1 form and get income assessed again.

Barry McGuire, Darlington

Overcomplicated, draconian and unsupportive of those who have fallen on hard times. It is less Social Security and more Welfare Hate. I work - but i have seen what this government has been doing to disabled people and I am sickened by the prospects that await them, particularly the mentally ill who are always treated as scapegoats for society's problems.

Andy, Oxford

After doing a day's casual work for a self employed friend, I informed the benefit office. All my benefits were stopped immediately so adjustments could be made and I had to re-apply for housing and council tax benefit. This meant having to supply supporting documents which had to be applied for. My bank supplied me with a statement free of charge, but informed me that if I required any further statements, each would cost me in excess of £30. In the end my reduced unemployment benefit was delayed for ten days and I had to borrow money from friends to get by during this period. My housing and council tax benefit was delayed for three months!

Terry, Hastings, East Sussex

I've worked in different benefits for 20 years now, also had to live on them briefly as do family members still. The system is a nightmare. Staff in the system couldn't tell you about much more than their area of expertise, so how the layperson manages is anyone's guess.

Dave, Cheltenham

I've been on both sides of the counter. The reason that the benefit system is so complex is that it seeks to deal with that most complex of things - people. It would be difficult to find two families in Britain whose circumstances are exactly the same. Of course, it's all based in law and that's how 'the code' is written. Sometimes the language seems a little intimidating. But people don't come in standard 'sizes' do they?

Paul Edwards, Peterborough

We are expecting our first baby in March, my wife hasn't been able to get a job since her contract ran out in July. We don't qualify for some benefits as she has already earned £4000 (before tax) this financial year. I'm in a pro rata job and get paid under £950 a month (our rent/bills are £1500 a month). We get £66 a week from JSA and housing benefit (even though we were told we could get £600 a month). We will probably have to move out of our rented flat next month with not many options. We seem to have found a very annoying loophole.

Ben Shaw, Worthing

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.