This week at Dundee buroo

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Whilst it was quite busy ootside Dundee buroo earlier this week, it was much quieter today, which suggests that us being there coincided with the Connect team being on duty inside the building – as regular readers will be aware, Dundee buroo is one of the only jobcentres anywhere, that we are aware of, where welfare rights officers dispense advice to jobcentre ‘clients’, or, as everyone else would call them, unemployed people.

We have noticed increasing numbers of cases of people being bumped from ESA and onto JSA, and this week was no exception. We met Emily, a nineteen-year-old woman with ADHD, and suffering from extreme anxiety, who had recently failed her Work Capability Assessment (WCA), and had also been refused PIP when she failed to turn up to her PIP medical assessment. Emily could not tell us precisely when she had received her award letter telling her that she had failed her WCA, so we weren’t able to advise her to go ahead with a mandatory reconsideration. Her confusion and poor memory was a sign of her anxiety, and proof positive that she has problems with coping, as was her failure to turn up to her PIP assessment.  In the ‘Brave New World’ ushered in by Tory welfare reforms, however, the symptoms of her medical conditions become the basis to disallow her the help she really needs. All we could do was provide her with contact details of welfare rights, and urge her to contact them asap in order that they can investigate her case more thoroughly.

We also came across Dave, an older guy with a newly fitted hip, who suffers from meningitis. He had also been bumped from ESA, and was waiting to hear on word of his upper tier tribunal. In the meantime, he was on JSA and being forced to look for work, despite the fact that he had trouble standing for any time, even with the aid of the walking stick he was now forced to use. We could only wish him luck with his forthcoming tribunal. We came across a similar case today, again an older guy who had been bumped off ESA and who was now forced onto JSA. He explained that he could not understand why he was being forced onto JSA when he felt he could not, in all honesty, hold down any kind of regular work, despite the fact that he would love to return to paid employment rather than being treated like a scrounger. We urged him to submit a mandatory reconsideration BEFORE he applies for JSA; as a single claimant he can be forced onto Universal Credit (UC) if he makes a new claim, but if he puts his mandy recon in first he will not be classified as a new claimant, and will thus avoid being put onto UC. Remember, if you are removed from ESA, always submit your mandy recon against that decision BEFORE you make any claim for JSA. We also advised him that once he is on JSA he can get a doctor’s line for an Extended Period of Sickness of 13 weeks

Many people have complained to us that they have been unable to secure medical evidence from their GP’s to accompany their ESA, and PIP, application forms, as Dundee GP’s have refused to provide such evidence without payment of fees that most cannot afford. This is becoming an increasingly serious issue, as the number of failed ESA applications may well suggest. It is a matter that we have raised with the Scottish Government and we will be raising it again at the Scottish Government consultation on the devolution of limited welfare powers.

Finally, we came across Angela, a sixty year old woman with caring responsibilities for her three grandchildren, comprising a five-year-old child who suffers from Cystic Fibrosis, a fourteen-year-old who is awaiting a diagnosis for suspected ADHD and an eighteen-year-old. Angela had been called into the jobcentre and was anxious that they were about to put her under pressure to find work. We were able to calm her down and reassure her that, as someone on Carers Allowance (CA), they could not do this, and offered to accompany her into her appointment. When Angela and the SUWN volunteer re-appeared around three quarters of an hour later they reported that whilst the meeting had went well, and she had been informed that she would not have to come back into another appointment for three years, Angela was put under an enormous amount of ‘soft pressure’, in the nicest possible manner, to sign up for ‘voluntary’ employability programs. She was having none of it, however, and informed them that, given her caring responsibilities, she has barely enough time for a couple of hours’ sleep.

All names have been changed. We would like to thank Sarah S, Gary, Sarah G, Tony, Gordon, Norma, William, Susan, Grant and Ryan for helping with this week’s stalls.

Trial By Triage – how they profit from other peoples misery (12 August)

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This week’s report is dominated by cases generated by the private firm, Triage, which advertises its services on its website in the following glowing terms:

‘Founded by Kate Carnegie MBE in 1998, the company has grown to become one of the most successful Scottish private sector welfare-to-work companies in the UK. Its mission is to develop new and innovative approaches to employment and training that work for both individuals and companies alike.’

The difference between the firm’s rhetoric and the reality of the kind of ‘service’ (sic) they actually provide, can be demonstrated by this observation, from the pages of a Scottish Left review article;

‘A BBC documentary illustrated how staff of Triage (a sub-contractor of Ingeus and Working Links) in Aberdeen referred to clients of the Work Programme as LTBs – code for ‘lying, thieving bastards’. The documentary also reiterated that staff were told not to spend much time and effort assisting jobseekers with disabilities as they were seen as too difficult to get paid employment.’ (Stephen MacMurray, ‘The Not Working Programme’, SLR, Issue 78)

At the Dundee office, ‘clients’ are habitually treated as sanction fodder – you have a much greater chance of finding a job under your own steam, and you are also much more likely to be sanctioned than ever finding a job through the efforts of Triage. At yesterday’s too busy stall we found clear conformation that Triage’s business plan and raison d’être can be summarised as ‘profiting from other peoples misery’. No sooner had we set the stall up than we were approached by Helen, a mother of two young children, who explained that she had been sanctioned for missing an appointment following an appointment letter from Triage, which she firmly insisted that she had not received. She raised the matter with her ‘advisor’ at Dundee Jobcentre, who informed her that this was not a good enough excuse, as Triage had insisted that the letter WAS sent. She then turned to her family social worker who accompanied her into the Jobcentre to argue the toss with her ‘advisor’, and, hey presto, the sanction disappeared. Now, this is all very well, but what about the vast majority of people who don’t have a social worker or any other ‘professional’ to speak on their behalf?

We met Linda, the mother of a twelve-year-old child. We have worked with Linda in the past, and when we spoke to her yesterday she was in high dudgeon; she reported that she had received a letter informing her that a 12 week sanction was due to come to an end in early September, and that she would then receive full entitlement. She reported that she had been sanctioned for failing to take part in a ‘work focused interview’, but explained that she was ACTUALLY in the Triage office at the time of the interview conducting an internet jobsearch, and that her advisor was aware of this.

In addition, the day following the receipt of this letter she received a further letter from Triage saying that she was now facing a further sanction from mid-July to mid-October. No reason was given for this further sanction. Two and half months of subsisting on hardship payments of around £48 per week had taken their toll, and she was now facing the prospect of a further two months of Triage sponsored starvation. We made a referral to Taught by Muhammad for a food parcel for the two of them, provided her with details of Scottish Welfare Fund grants, and urged her to sign up with Welfare Rights. We also asked her if she is in contact with the social work department, but she baulked at this suggestion, saying that she had had dealings with social work before and had little confidence in them – fearing that she may have her daughter taken from her. We have spoken to Linda today, and she tells us that she has received the food parcel and that welfare rights have supplied her with vouchers for gas and electricity.

I further advised her to contact welfare rights and arrange an appointment, so that they could take up her case, and suggested that she also take her case to her MP, Chris Law, who has been very active in taking up such cases since being elected. She admitted, however, that she has no credit in her phone and will have to wait until Monday before she is in a position to use her phone again.

We also came across Bill, an older gentleman who is stuck on the Work Programme, and who had just been granted an extended period of sickness (EPS). He approached us to ask if he would still be ‘bothered’ by phone calls and appointments from Triage whilst he was on EPS, and, if so, whether he could just ignore them. We cautioned him against this approach, but were able to confirm that he should not be expected to take part in work related activities when he has been declared too ill – despite the claims by the DWP that work IS a clinical outcome for the sick and disabled.

In addition to speaking to many other unemployed folk, and dispensing other bits and pieces of advice, we were also briefly visited by Mike Arnott of Dundee Trades Council who was on his way to deal with a union issue in another part of town. It would be fair to say that Mike was not a happy chappy, following news that his Union, the GMB, had just declared for Owen Smith in the Labour leadership race. Major questions will be asked of the union leadership after only 43,000, out of over 600,000 GMB members, had actually participated in the election, and not a single GMB member in Scotland had received ballot papers.

Thanks to Gordon, Norma, Chris, Tony and Sarah for helping with this week’s stall.

Talking to the Scottish Government

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Yesterday I went to one of the public consultation meetings for the new Scottish Social Security system – and, within the constraints of our miserly devolution, I have to admit to being cautiously optimistic.

Bob Scott of Inclusion Scotland, who were hosting the event, reminded us that governments don’t implement progressive change without pressure from below, but I think that Jeanne Freeman, the Minister in charge, is genuinely pleased to have that pressure, and, of course, politically this is an opportunity to demonstrate how much better a Scottish system could be. Having said that, only 15% of the Scottish welfare budget is being devolved, with the Scottish Government being put in charge of the disability benefits – DLA, PIP, and Attendance Allowance – and Carers Allowance, and also winter fuel and cold weather payments, funeral payments, maternity grants, and discretionary housing payments. In addition, we will get the ability to make minor improvements in the way Universal Credit is delivered, the management of systems to replace Work Choice and the Work Programme, and the freedom to add to existing benefits and create new ones (though with no extra money).

Jeanne Freeman said all the right things about ‘fairness, dignity and respect’, and ‘social security’ as a ‘collective investment’; about the need to avoid terms such as ‘strivers and skivers’ and ‘hardworking families’; and about the need for people with lived experience to help government design services that best meet need, and to hold government to account so that Scotland can be an exemplar. And she stayed long enough to get round the tables and talk with folk.

When it comes to concrete proposals for the future of the disability benefits, the discussions already seem promising. They are looking at making much more use of clinical evidence rather than face-to-face assessments, at making long-term awards for chronic conditions, and at investing further in helping people get good advice and advocacy; and there is a serious question mark over using private companies. But, of course, whatever is done has to be coordinated with other benefits still being administered by the DWP, and the logistics of transfer and change even of these limited benefits will be very complicated.

Our three workshops looked at advocacy, assessment and the transition phase. Very full notes were taken by Inclusion Scotland as part of the report back. We will be putting together our own more detailed response to the whole consultation, but here are some initial thoughts coming out of those discussions:

1/ The Scottish Government already provides money for advocacy (eg for Dundee Independent Advice Service). We need to stress the importance of the support provided by friends and family and self-help groups such as ours. The Scottish Government can help this by ensuring that the right to be accompanied is well known and acknowledged, and by ensuring there are readily accessible back-up services such as that provided by the CPAG phone-line for advisors. (I was able to make both these points to the Minister.) We also need to persuade the government to speak to Police Scotland so that they stop acting as the DWP’s minders.

2/ When it comes to assessment, the folk around our table were keen on the idea of a greater role for GPs but also that there should be flexibility in the type of evidence people might provide. We also felt that the criteria for qualification should not be so limited and should take account of ability to be included in social activity. We discussed the possibility of linking the benefit with a more holistic and proactive approach to health planning. At present, if people get a bit better they may lose their benefit and get worse again; a more holistic approach could help address this. There was instant agreement that there should be no role for the private sector.

3/ In looking at the transfer period – which could be quite some years – we agreed that the Scottish Government could straight away provide more help with advocacy and could set a limit on the time taken to process mandatory reconsiderations and appeals. The Scottish Government has tried to calculate the amount of money that is being lost by people currently on DLA losing all or part of their award on being reassessed for PIP. This is difficult as recent statistics are not available, but the sum is very large and they are not inclined to think that mitigating this is the best way to spend their limited budget. This might be a situation that could be helped by more Scottish Welfare Fund money given on a case-by-case discretionary basis.

There will be lots more consultation events of this kind as well as the opportunity to comment in writing . They do seem to want to listen, and we are going to make sure they can never say they were not aware of all the problems with the current system or of better approaches. The Living Rent Campaign have shown how effective a strategic response can be, and I think we could emulate their example of a detailed written response as an organisation together with a mass campaign where lots of people can sign up to supporting a few key points. (Watch this space.)

The replacement for the work programme was not discussed, but I have spoken to some very helpful civil servants about this since. I learnt that it falls under the remit of a different department and minister: Jamie Hepburn, Minister for Employability and Training. The consultation on this was last year – and we sent a short submission . Westminster has since decided that the money available for the replacement scheme will be much less than is being spent at present, and that people will only be sent on it after they have been signing on for two years. The current system will stop in March 2017. From 2017 to 2018 the only ‘employability’ schemes in Scotland will be for people on ESA, and they will all be voluntary. The Scottish Government is currently putting together plans for a new programme for the long-term unemployed that will start in 2018. They are concerned that if they make it voluntary almost no-one will use it, as that was the experience in Northern Ireland. It seems to me that the answer to this is not the stick, but the carrot. Why not give people a small financial reward for the time spent on courses etc.? As well, of course, as making sure the courses are actually useful. In our experience, the great majority of people do want to find work, but they will only be interested in activities that are genuinely helpful and not just box-ticking exercises. The Minister is currently arranging meetings with ‘service users’ to discuss what should be in the new service, and we have asked to meet him. We hope that he will be able to see us, and urge others to contact him too . We can also let him know a lot of things that are wrong with the current system, and pull away the happy mask put up by various members of the poverty industry.

Weekly Report, 5 August

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The impact of the recent loss of 160 jobs at the Galloway engineering group was clear today, as we met 3-4 very angry workers who were at Dundee buroo for the first time since losing their jobs. One guy was apoplectic with rage, as he had been told that he qualified for no help as he had savings. He complained that he had paid NI stamps all his working life, but was now expected to eat into his savings in order to survive, whilst also adding that ‘if I was a junky or a refugee, I’d be fine.’ Whilst sympathising with his plight we were able to inform him that he wasn’t being picked on, as everybody, including ‘junkies’ and ‘refugees’ were also ‘getting it large fae the DWP’. We also believe that the ‘advice’ that he received from the buroo was wrong, as, with having up-to-date NI contributions, he should be receiving contribution based JSA for six months.

We have recently heard that a welfare rights team is now stationed in Dundee buroo on a daily basis, working either mornings or afternoons. We, therefore, turned up to this week’s stalls with an expectation that things would be quiet – how wrong we were. At Monday’s stall our first case was Catherine, a young woman with quite severe cerebral palsy and anxiety and depression, who was in a right state due to delays with her claim for ESA – close to tears and totally confused with regards to the situation with her claim. We managed, with some difficulty, to calm her down. As she had no credit on her phone, one of our volunteers made a call to the ESA helpline in order to chase up her case. After an interminable wait of around 20-25 minutes she was eventually able to talk to an advisor, who was, though, unable to put her mind at rest. We advised her to get in contact with welfare rights, so that they could take up her case, and we took her contact details in order that we could monitor her progress – after a short chat on the phone today, Catherine was in a much better state, and was able to confirm that her claim was now back on track.

On Monday, we also met Joe, an ex-prisoner who was visiting the buroo for the first time after he was removed from ESA. He explained that he was meant to be accompanied into a work capability assessment by a welfare worker, who, unfortunately, did not turn up. He was not prepared to go into a WCA on his own, and, as a result, found his ESA claim was shut down and he was forced to apply for JSA – he should be able to have a further WCA arranged by phoning the ESA helpline and showing ‘good cause’ as to why he missed his WCA. We urged him to phone in his mandatory reconsideration asap – in order to clear the way for the second appeal stage, as, in our experience, mandatory reconsiderations are simply an unnecessary hurdle that rarely succeed, as they are judged by an internal ‘decision maker’. We further advised him to contact welfare rights as soon as he hears that his mandy recon has failed, which it will, so that they could help with the second stage of the appeal process – the independent tribunal.

In addition to 3-4 other inquiries of a less urgent nature, we also made a referral to the Taught by Muhammad food parcel delivery service, for John, a Universal Credit claimant, who was facing major delays with receiving full housing benefit allowance. This is a problem we have come across a few time before, with some people having to use the reduced UC payments they do receive in order to pay their rent, thus leaving them short of money for food, whilst the cumbersome UC bureaucratic machine attempts to solve the problem. John was not due to receive a payment for four days, but was completely out of money and food, as he had to use the last of his money to keep his electric switched on.

At today’s stall, Friday, SUWN advocates were required to accompany three people into the buroo, including Jess, a woman in her late fifties who had attended her daughter’s wedding in Portugal, and when she returned had found that her JSA claim had been shut down in her absence. Our advocate advised Jess to put in a mandatory reconsideration, and then to ask for a rapid reclaim of her JSA. The advisor, however, wouldn’t have it, and forced Jess to open a new claim for JSA, which would mean she would lose money as well as experiencing a delay whilst her new claim was being processed. We helped Jess complete her mandatory reconsideration and JSA application form, and advised her to contact Dundee City Council housing office in order to ensure that her housing benefit was not affected by her JSA claim having been closed. We also took her contact details in order that we can monitor her case and provide further help, if required.

We also met Ewan who had recently had his ESA claim shut down – a major problem that we are coming across on a regular basis – due to the failure of ESA to inform him of the correct date for his Work Capability Assessment. Ewan had already submitted a mandatory reconsideration to challenge this decision, and was now being forced to claim JSA. We advised him to ask for a 13 week extended period of sickness (EPS), whilst his mandatory reconsideration was being dealt with, and, if his mandy recon failed, urged him to take his case to the next stage of the appeal process, the independent tribunal. Readers, who are single people on JSA or ESA, should note that if your claim is shut down, that you should ensure that you submit a mandatory reconsideration before re-applying, as, if you re-apply for JSA or ESA first, you are liable to find yourself being forced onto Universal Credit.

This by no means exhausts this week’s case load, which also involved SUWN advocates accompanying people into ESA and PIP assessments. We had hoped for a bit of boredom outside the buroo this summer, but, it appears, that this is not to be. Thanks to Gordon, Susan, Chris, Jonathan, Gary, Grant, Sarah and Tony for helping out at this week’s stalls.

 

Notes from Dundee buroo – week ending 29 July

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Some people are just not very good at looking for work. They may have problems with writing or organisation or computers – or just with life more generally. And when work is short, their chances of finding a job are next to nothing. If you read the mission statements put out by the DWP, you would think that jobcentres would focus on helping these people be better placed to find employment. That still leaves the problem of lack of jobs, but it’s supposed to be all about ‘employability’ isn’t it? Except, of course, it isn’t. It’s about going through the motions of looking for work. And if you are not very good at looking for work and you have problems with literacy and your life is in a mess, then you probably won’t be able to do that either – so you are likely to get a sanction to add to your problems.

On Tuesday we met with two people who were being sanctioned and went in with them to find out what was going on. John is a lone parent and has a seven-year-old daughter with ADHD. He has poor literacy and organisational skills and problems using the computer, but is expected to be on Universal Jobmatch (the DWP’s computerised jobsearch) four times a week. This is not easy and also means going to the library, which is difficult in the school holidays. Jobcentre staff can make different arrangements for school holidays where you can’t arrange affordable or appropriate child care – but they hadn’t. John has been sent to ‘training’ sessions at Triage in the past, which were completely useless, but because he lives in a small place, going to something like a job club would cost a prohibitive amount in bus fares. He already has to pay out a lot each time he goes to the jobcentre. We are helping John challenge the sanction and explain about the problems of childcare, but we are worried about the future.

Anne lives on her own and suffers from alcohol addiction and depression. She tried to apply for ESA two years ago, but dressed up nice for the doctor and got no points. Now her jobcentre advisor has been insistent that she is not able to work and shouldn’t be on JSA. He told Anne to get a doctor’s fit note. The doctor wrote that Anne was able to do restricted work, which is an option on the form, but the Jobcentre was not accepting this. Anne had not realised that as well as getting the note, she was still expected to complete her jobsearch requirements. On top of which her mother had had a stroke and she had lost her jobsearch book. Sanctioned! She was left with no money and empty cupboards, so we helped her apply for a Hardship Payment and Crisis Grant and got her a food delivery from Taught by Muhammad. We will help her put in a Mandatory Reconsideration and find out if there is any possibility of her reapplying for ESA, and have suggested she go to Dundee North Law for further help.

Of course there are supposed to be disability officers in the jobcentre to help with these sorts of problems, but according to the account we heard today, their approach can be rather less than respectful. The woman I was talking to (who is fifty) told me that when she gave the disability officer her date of birth, his response was ‘you’re no spring chicken’.

Finally, we have also just posted off a copy of the Work Programme Provider Guidance notes to Paul, who is on ESA, so that he can show Triage that they cannot make him look for work.

Thanks to Gordon, Chris, Tony, Gary, Dave, William and Jonathan, and to Robert from Boycott Workfare, who joined us on Tuesday and is planning to organise similar stalls in Haringey.

As one door opens another closes

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Anyone fighting the welfare ‘reform’ monster will be familiar with just how slippery it is. You think you have kept it at bay, and then it rears its ugly head to attack something else.

So, first, the good news. Since the ending of Mandatory Work Activity and Community Work Placements there appears to be no strictly mandatory work schemes currently operating in Dundee. Learndirect, who administered both these programmes, has quietly vanished from its office on City Quay, and Triage assures us that none of the schemes it sends people to is mandatory.

The less good news is that there is no attempt to inform people that they can say no to being sent on a work scheme without incurring a sanction; and within the DWP’s punitive regime we have been taught not to question instructions. The system still promotes a culture where people are expected to work for free to earn the right to get a job interview, and to ‘volunteer’ as part of their thirty-five hour a week jobsearch.

And the really bad news is that the DWP is spreading its tentacles into even more areas, and polluting what should be safe spaces. We have already commented on the way pressurised volunteering has drawn charities and community groups into their orbit. In March, Third Force News reported that ‘So called job coaches from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) are to be placed in schools, social care settings, libraries, and housing schemes’. Dundee City Council seems determinedly complacent about the implications of this type of approach. Their website explains that they are ‘working closely with a range of partners including Jobcentre Plus’; their first suggestion for anyone affected by welfare ‘reform’ and considering looking for work is to contact a Jobcentre advisor; and their independent ‘employability’ service, Discover Opportunities, hosts a jobcentre ‘outreach worker’ twice a week. If they cannot see how important it is to keep services designed to advise and help separate from those set up to control and punish, then we would suggest that they try and imagine what they would think if they learnt about a similar system of state surveillance in some distant autocratic regime.

On Scottish ‘Justice’

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All things right and dutiful

He’s great and we are small

The sheriff’s wise and wonderful

Don’t question him at all

 

Like a laird with castle

(The poor man’s in the dock)

‘God’ made them high and lowly –

Go figure and take stock

 

For we have eyes to see with

And lips that we might tell

The system is a bogey

And the judge belongs in hell

 

(picture from Glasgow Anarchist Collective)

No Justice No Peace

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On 23rd June, Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network activist, Tony Cox, was found guilty of ‘threatening behaviour’ when attempting to insist on accompanying a vulnerable woman to her Work Capability Assessment. Today the court decided his sentence.

I suppose, from our previous acquaintance with Sheriff Griffiths, that we should have expected the worst, but I was still naïve enough to believe that a sympathetic social work report and a dozen supportive personal references (from food bank managers, academics, a retired social work manager, an MP, a priest, an award winning screen writer… ) would make a difference. But I don’t think that anything could have pierced that wall of superiority. As it was, the sheriff just scanned a couple of the references, and then pulled out the comment that one ‘found it almost inconceivable that [Tony] has in fact threatened anyone’ in order to suggest that this was disrespectful of the court. He ignored the social worker’s recommendation of a suspended sentence and the defence lawyer’s point that it would not be in the public interest to take Tony away from the work that he does with the SUWN, and imposed a community payback order of 150 hours unpaid work.

So – 150 hours ‘community work’ as punishment for working for the community: because that was what Tony was doing.

Work Capability Assessments are based on a simplistic tick-box system and on casual observations by the assessor, and are often conducted so as to try and present someone as fit when they are not. Thousands have died not long after being found ‘fit for work’. The horrors of this system have resulted in widespread hardship, often making the original conditions worse, and have even pushed people to suicide. Those going for an assessment are naturally terrified that the assessors will recommend that they don’t qualify for the benefit. It is important that they can have someone with them who understands the system and can check that the assessor is aware of all relevant points and records events accurately.

BUT the Maximus assessors – just like jobcentre advisors – don’t like being checked up on and don’t react well to being corrected. Back in December 2014 Tony pointed out to one of the assessors that he was fully entitled to take notes and use them in any subsequent appeal, and she took against him and called the police. However, the person he was accompanying was able to reassure them that no crime had taken place. When, almost a year later, he attempted to accompany someone else to an assessment, that same assessor insisted he left the building. When he refused to abandon the person he was helping and demanded to speak to a manager, the assessor called the police. By the time they came Tony had gone outside; but without stopping to ask his side of the story or speak to the other witnesses present, they arrested him for ‘threatening behaviour’. Last month the sheriff told us that he ‘preferred’ to believe the Maximus employees than the woman Tony was accompanying.

This follows an earlier instance when Tony was arrested for trying to assist someone navigate the jobcentre – but on that occasion the DWP case fell apart in court and had to be abandoned. Every day jobcentres and assessment centres deprive thousands of people of their basic subsistence – often twisting and ignoring their own rules in the process. These life-destroying acts of cruelty are real crimes, and they are ignored by our ‘justice’ system. But any time that anyone questions what is happening, the DWP and their subcontractors cry foul and call for the police – and the police hurry to their ‘protection’. As we have seen with the Labour party plotters, the easiest way to try and discredit someone who disagrees with you is to accuse them of threatening you.

Of course we do intend to be a threat – but not in that way. We hope that by helping people navigate the system and by exposing its excesses we can prove a threat to its existence. We have no intention of threatening the people who work for the DWP and Maximus – but the punitive edifice constructed by so called welfare reform is firmly within our sights.

Yet again we were supported by other welfare activists who realise the significance of this case and how it is being used to try and prevent us from doing our work. The solidarity shown by comrades from Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, Glasgow Anarchist Collective and Castlemilk Against Austerity as well as local folk is what gives us the strength and determination to go on.

We also met up with an old friend who had helped out on the stall in Paisley and had himself just been given 90 hours for threatening behaviour. His ‘crime’? Driving a car with masked hunt saboteurs. And the reason they were masked? Because they were being personally targeted by the huntsmen. A topsy turvey world indeed.

Because the instigator of this long and destructive saga was the Maximus Assessment centre, we thought we would complete our protest across the city centre in front of their office. We didn’t disrupt access because we wouldn’t want to interrupt people getting to their assessments, but that didn’t stop a manager coming out and telling us – and especially Tony – that he was calling the police. By the time the police came we had moved to outside the car-park barrier and there was nothing they could reprimand us about. That didn’t stop them spending a long time in the office and watching us through the window. In the end they came out without a word and drove off, as we waved them goodbye.

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The battle in the court is important – not least for Tony – but we can’t let it distract us from the wider battle against this pernicious and punitive ‘welfare’ system. We will go on doing what we do and urge anyone who has been angered by this account to come and join us and demonstrate that we won’t be intimidated.

We are looking to appeal both the verdict and the sentence, but without much hope of justice.

 

 

Trial by torture at Dundee ESA assessment centre

interogation cell

Linda works as a cleaner for Angela, who is 58 years old, and suffers from a badly damaged back, comprising three fractured vertebrae and five bulging disks. In addition, Angela has also been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a hiatus hernia and depression (these are only her main conditions – she has many more). Back in April, Angela received an ESA form, and she eventually attended a Work Capability Assessment at the Greenmarket Assessment Centre last week. She had been provided with a phone number in order to ensure that taxi travel would be paid for, and, in the course of the phone call to Greenmarket, Linda, who had agreed to help, also asked how far Angela would be expected to walk to reach the assessment rooms – she was informed it was no further than ‘fifteen steps’. Linda was also informed that a taxi could not be arranged for her and that she would need the code to operate the barrier to the assessment centre car park. Things seemed a little more complicated than they should be and Linda agreed to accompany Angela to the assessment centre.

They took a taxi, which managed to sneak under the barrier as a car in front of them entered the car park. When they disembarked from the taxi, however, they found, to their horror, that the ‘fifteen steps’ they had expected to negotiate turned out to be more in the region of 25-30m from the entrance to the reception area. This was a real problem for Angela, as based on the info they had received, she had came with crutches rather than the wheeled buggy she also has, which provides more support. Linda then asked staff for a wheelchair so that Angela could negotiate the corridor, but was informed, to her horror, that no wheelchairs were kept on the premises. Having struggled into the reception area, and nearly fallen over, Angela and Linda were, mercifully, only kept waiting for ten minutes before she was called into the assessment, but they were again horrified that Angela was expected to walk a frightening distance (for her) to get to the assessment room, which she only managed with extreme effort and no little pain.

The assessment itself, they had been told, could last as little as twenty minutes, but it took more than an hour of questions before the male assessor was ready to conduct a physical examination. Angela was asked to stand up and to hold her arms out in front of her. The effort involved was too much for Angela and she fell over, and was left by the male assessor to pick herself up. The assessor then left the room in order to let Angela ‘compose herself’. By this time, Angela was in a highly distressed state, in tears and in a lot of pain. When the assessor came back to the office, after consulting a doctor, he, unbelievably continued with the physical examination, but allowed Angela to be seated, which, I am sure readers will agree, was very compassionate of him.

The assessment came to an end shortly afterwards, but the torture did not end there; Angela still had to walk back the length of the corridor. She was absolutely shattered, emotionally and physically, by her experience at the hands of Maximus. Linda admitted that the experience had also ‘shaken’ her, and she said this as someone who does not see themselves as a person who is easily upset. The treatment that Angela received is appalling, but all too common. We can assure Maximus that they have not heard the last of this inhuman outrage, and we have advised Linda on the best course of seeking redress. As for Maximus, hell mend them.

 

Sharing knowledge in the face of further attacks

 

Unemployed in Manchester 1862 collecting tickets for bread etc

Unemployed cotton workers in Manchester at the time of the American Civil War

Three overwhelming impressions from last weekend’s Boycott Workfare gathering in Manchester:

  • what a lot of knowledge and experience was combined in that room
  • the size of the task we have taken on as the ‘Welfare Reform’ monster continuously morphs into new shapes
  • however dreadful things are in Scotland it is even worse south of the border (without the Scottish Welfare Fund, mitigation of the bedroom tax, funding for welfare rights, a wide political awareness of the horrors of welfare ‘reform’, and the expectation that MPs will be broadly sympathetic).

Five SUWN activists made the long bus journey down to Manchester for an important boost of UK-wide solidarity and a whole lot of useful information. We want to share some of the things we learned.

The first session was run by Rick from DPAC and was full of helpful discussion on applying for ESA and PIP. Here are some key points:

When you start a claim only give the minimum information on the phone. Keep details of your condition for when you have the form and time to think.

The questions on the application forms are not designed to enable you to make a good case. You need to work back from the descriptors of what gets you points and make maximum use of the description spaces on the form, adding as many extra sheets of paper as necessary. You can also expressly point out at the assessment how you qualify for those points. You can check them off during the assessment and remind the assessor at the end. And you can prepare beforehand how to answer the question of how you spend a typical day. (Remember that PIP will only be given for conditions that affect you for more than half the time, but being able to do something means being able to do it reliably and repeatedly, and preparing food means a proper nutritious meal.) (You can find the descriptors here: http://www.benefitsandwork.co.uk/personal-independence-payment-pip/pip-points-system and here: https://www.benefitsandwork.co.uk/employment-and-support-allowance/start-the-esa-test.)

Assume you will have to appeal the decision so you are not disappointed, and don’t let your almost inevitable failure at the Mandatory Reconsideration stage stop you from going on to the full appeal.

Views differ over getting them to record the assessment. This will provide an accurate record, but will include things that you could have said better.

Greenwich Unemployed Workers Centre have produced a ‘safeguarding form’ which you can use to make the different authorities take extra note of any vulnerabilities, but people may be wary of giving permission to share their data, and mothers need to be extra careful not to do anything that might be interpreted as showing them unfit to care for their children.

In the session we coordinated we discussed the wide range of activities that can be combined so that practical grassroots help and wider campaigning boost each other – also the possibilities of getting more working people involved in campaigning as Universal Credit puts them under the same pressures as the unemployed. We learnt that In Ashton Under Lyne, where Universal Credit is already being applied to everyone, low paid jobcentre staff are sent to Oldham for jobcentre interviews so they don’t have to be sanctioned by their immediate colleagues; and we heard that Keep Volunteering Voluntary has signed up 660 charities who will not use workfare. Similarities were drawn between treatment of the unemployed and of prisoners forced to provide free labour – including the same private companies involved. And we discussed the difficulties of carrying out direct action while not preventing people accessing vital benefits.

The final section (with Refuted.org and Debbie from Ashton Under Lyne) looked at some recent and upcoming DWP attacks. Here’s some of what we’re going to be up against:

From April 2017 there will be extra pressures on 18-21 year olds from the day they sign on, with compulsory training or work placements after six months.

Supported housing for young people can be made dependent on compliance with jobsearch requirements – this is currently being trialed in Salford.

DWP staff are being sent into schools to advise pupils on their future careers – but their only training is a 6 week NVQ in jobcentre admin and management and people have been given really bad and factually incorrect advice.

Workfare is embedded in Universal Credit legislation, and people in work but deemed not to be earning enough could be forced to do unpaid work as well to qualify for their Universal Credit.

Further integration of unemployment and health services and their budgets is already being piloted in various parts of England and Wales. (This is based around the idea that work is a health outcome.)

It is expected that people will have to make fewer visits to the jobcentre as more is done on line. This may make it harder for us to reach people.

Universal Credit can require people to wait up to 12 weeks for their first payment – and eviction processes in England can start after just 8 weeks.

Some under 25s on Universal Credit have been made to sign a Claimant Commitment to look for work for 48 hours a week, not 35, to compensate for their lower minimum wage.

A lot of Universal Credit rules have been brought in through statutory instrument, so avoiding any parliamentary scrutiny.

In England all this is being implemented using a computer programme called Verify that gathers together all personal data.

But we also discussed some possible areas that can be campaigned on:

The business case for Universal Credit is not yet signed off. Anything we can do to make it more difficult to administer (such as appealing every sanction) could help kill it off – and small businesses might be persuaded to campaign against it on the grounds that it will give them extra costs.

Now that the DWP can go on putting pressure on you even when you are employed it can be important that employers respect your confidentiality so that the DWP can’t use them to spy on you or to change your work hours against your interests. You can make it clear to your employer in writing that you do not give permission for them to pass on information about you, though you will still need the DWP to have some information about your work hours etc as Universal Credit is calculated on what you have earned each month.

Discussion on how to get more young people involved inevitably brought up the 1985 School Student’s strike, which stopped the mandatory enforcement of YTS – Thatcher’s Workfare. So it was particularly apt that a couple of days later we received this link to BBC footage of the protests, featuring our own Tony Cox. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p040qbk8 As you can see, the ‘threatening’ raised finger, which has caused so much consternation in DWP offices, is a long ingrained habit.

There was general recognition of the need to keep in touch with each other and keep sharing information and tactics. None of us underestimates the scale of what we have taken on – or its potential significance in the bigger political changes we are caught up in.