Breaking the cycle of poverty and criminalisation with #BetterBenefits

This blog post was originally published on www.russellwebster.com.

For women, poverty and crime are closely correlated. The offences for which women are most often prosecuted – shoplifting, fraud, TV licence evasion – are directly related to financial difficulty.

At Working Chance, our mission is to support women with criminal convictions to find meaningful and sustainable employment. Two thirds of our clients are claiming benefits when they register for our employability service. When we look behind a woman’s conviction, it is often lack of a financial safety net that led her there.

That is why it is so important to have a strong social security system to keep women afloat while they are putting their lives back together. Unfortunately, while more than half of people on Universal Credit are women, the system isn’t functioning well enough for women to keep their heads above water, let alone find work. Their situation is made worse by the rocketing cost of living and increased pressure from the government for claimants to find any job quickly. In April, benefits were uprated by just 3.1% while inflation is predicted to hit 8%. We need better benefits urgently, or we risk seeing crime rates soar.

The inadequacy of the benefits system is both a reason why some women are swept into the criminal justice system, and the reason that they can’t escape it.

Currently, monthly Universal Credit payments fail to cover basic life costs. There is an unavoidable five-week wait for the first payment, while advance loans leave claimants in debt and reduce their payments for up to two years. Women leaving prison have no way to avoid that five-week wait, practically guaranteeing that they will fall into poverty or debt on release. Lack of the right support at the jobcentre can prevent women from moving on and rebuilding their lives. Plus, the hefty deductions that can be pulled back from Universal Credit payments are unpredictable and can be crippling. At Working Chance, it is not uncommon for women to tell us that their monthly payment has been reduced to £0.

When you’re rebuilding your life after a conviction, these problems with benefits only make life harder, putting women at increased risk of reoffending.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Working Chance has worked with a group of women with lived experience of the criminal justice system and claiming Universal Credit, to reimagine the benefits system. Together, we have launched the #BetterBenefits campaign.

The group, called Changemakers, know first-hand how difficult it is to find a job with a criminal record. The disruptions that a conviction cause – whether prison, debt, losing a home, job or custody of children – along with employer discrimination mean that even the most motivated may well struggle to get a job. For women who have no choice but to survive on benefits for long periods, Universal Credit can be a vital lifeline while they look for work.

That is why we are calling for a benefits system that tangibly helps women with convictions and enables, rather than hinders, their journeys to employment. We are asking the government to urgently instate:

  1. A grant to see claimants in financial difficult through the five weeks before first payment.
  2. All jobcentres to have staff specifically trained to support women with convictions and understand their needs.
  3.  A reduced cap on deductions so that claimants keep hold of more of their payment.

You can find out more about our reimagined benefits system, and our recommendations in full, in our report Fighting for a better benefits system: A case for Universal Credit reform from women with lived experience of the criminal justice system.

Lashan, a member of Changemakers, says it best. ‘So many people have convictions and are stuck on benefits because they’re just out of prison or on probation. That’s the trap they put you in – a person has a hard life from a young age, they’re in problems, and it spirals and they get pulled into the criminal justice system and then you can write them off and no one takes responsibility for them.’

It is time for the government to take responsibility for women with convictions who are claiming benefits. Out-of-work support is at a 30-year low in real-terms, and the failure to uprate Universal Credit in line with inflation in April constitutes the second cut to benefits in six months, after the £20 uplift was removed in October 2021.

Meanwhile, the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, once it has passed into law, will lead to many more women and men being saddled with a criminal record. The government is building 500 new prison places for women, meaning that yet more women will be swept into the criminal justice system. That means more people likely to be dependent on benefits.

River, another member of Changemakers, expresses the anxiety of being a criminalised woman in this context. ‘I’m extremely anxious about how I’m going to cope. I’m already struggling so much. It’s a huge detriment to my health and mental wellbeing. I worry about what alternative steps I’ll have to take in order to survive.’

We call on the government to make vital changes to Universal Credit, so that women with convictions aren’t failed by the system that’s supposed to protect them. A better benefits system would offer safety and security for women with convictions, supporting them to find work and contribute positively to society.

Olivia Dehnavi is the Policy and Research Officer at Working Chance, the UK’s only employment charity solely for women with convictions. Find out more about Changemakers and the #BetterBenefits campaign here: https://workingchance.org/betterbenefits

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