If you are on Universal Credit you’d better not get ill

Panic attack icon design

A recent phone query revealed yet another serious problem with Universal Credit. Frank rang us on behalf of his daughter, Jen, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. Jen is on Universal Credit and was caught by the last throws of the Work Programme, so she can look forward to two years of being given useless things to do. However, going to the Work Programme provider was making her conditions worse – especially when they shut her in the computer room – so she has had to ask her doctor for help. When Frank contacted us Jen had just handed in her second six-week ‘fit note’, and was worried about being sanctioned if she didn’t go to her Work Programme appointment.

As we told Frank, what is supposed to happen when someone on Universal Credit gets ill for more than four weeks is that they automatically receive a UC35 form to apply for being treated as long-term unfit for work, and so eligible for the additional elements of Universal Credit that are the equivalent of ESA. However, as a bit of Google research showed, this automatic referral can’t be relied on, and getting the application form can prove a major hurdle. Jen had to go into the jobcentre the next week so she took the opportunity to ask for the form. In line with our Google research, she was told that she couldn’t expect it for a further few weeks as there was a major backlog. We know there are long delays in getting a date for a Work Capability Assessment, but this was an additional delay before Jen could even get into the queue. That means more time when she is expected to cope with a ‘jobsearch’ routine that makes her condition worse, and a longer wait before she receives any extra money she might qualify for.

When you apply for ESA, you are treated as unfit for work during the waiting period between putting in your application and getting the result of the Assessment. Under Universal Credit you are treated as fit for work and for sanctionable ‘jobsearch’ and ‘job preparation’ tasks.  Meanwhile, all you can do is argue, with the help of your GP, that there would be substantial risk to your mental health if you were found fit for work or made to do work-related activities, and it is not reasonable to expect you to do these.

After we had discussed the situation, Frank rang the Work Programme provider and explained that Jen wouldn’t be able to come and do their tasks. They told him – despite the ‘fit notes’! – that they were unaware of her situation and offered a phone appointment instead, which they promptly failed to keep. But Jen managed to ring them. We also suggested getting the MP involved to try and speed production of the form, but this has proved unnecessary as a copy actually arrived soon after Jen put in her request.

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Another phone call that same week came from a man whose benefit money had been stolen by a friend. He was able to get a Scottish Welfare Fund grant (once he had a police crime number), but that was hardly going to last the month until his next payment, so we suggested he ask for a Short Term Benefit Advance. This he did, but was told firmly ‘no’; and so he is having to rely on the support of his mother. Which raises the question, if you don’t have friends or relations to help, or you live in part of the UK without the Scottish Welfare Fund or any Local Authority grants, what are you supposed to do in these circumstances?

Social Security in devolved Scotland

This is the second of three talks jointly organised by The Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network and Common Weal Dundee. It looks at what improvements we could make in Social Security for Scotland under devolution. Paul Spicker was Professor of Public Policy at Robert Gordon University from 2001-2015. Besides a huge number of academic books and papers he writes a regular blog and has contributed policy papers to Common Weal.

The first talk introduced our SUWN book, Righting Welfare Wrongs.

In the final talk, at 7pm on 27th July  in the Butterfly Cafe, Dundee, Annie Miller will discuss Universal Basic Income. Annie is a cofounder of the Basic Income Earth Network and of Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland. Her book, A Basic Income Handbook, has just been published by the Luath Press

A glimpse of a silver lining

social attitudes survey

We have always said that with the Tories getting increasingly trigger happy, bringing more and more people into their line of fire as they attacked welfare, so attitudes would change. The latest British Social Attitudes survey suggests this has started to happen. The rigours and hypocrisy of austerity have encouraged people to support an increase in tax and spend, with the percentage supporting more spending overtaking supporters of the status quo for the first time since the financial crash in 2007-8. And when it comes to benefits, the percentage of people who agree with the statement that ‘Many people who get social security don’t really deserve any help’ fell between 2014 and 2016 from 32% to 21%. There was a similarly big drop – from 35% to 22% – in the percentage of people who thought that ‘Most people on the dole are fiddling in one way or another’. Both figures are record lows.

Unsympathetic public attitudes have been used by the UK Government as arguments to support their unsympathetic policies, but these attitudes don’t just happen. They are very deliberately cultivated by government propaganda. The latest survey shows that people have begun to see past all that ‘strivers and scroungers’ rhetoric and become more aware of what is really going on. And this was done before the major political shifts produced by the movement around Corbyn in the recent general election.

Further confirmation of more sympathetic attitudes is provided by the debates on Social Security that have taken place at Holyrood. Although the Tories stick to defending UK Government policy, other MSPs show a good understanding of the realities of the benefit system, which they will have had ample opportunity to get familiar with through casework for their constituents. Indeed SNP and Labour MSPs appear to be competing to demonstrate their empathy. We can only hope that this positive competition encourages maximum use of Scotland’s limited devolved powers.

When did working for nothing become a thing?

17-07-08 Courier

Yesterday’s Dundee Courier carried an article that amounted to little more than a free advertisement for ‘volunteer’ stewards at next month’s big music event in Camperdown Park. Not only are they expecting stewards TO WORK FOR NOTHING, ‘anyone interested will have to pay a £20 deposit and a £15 processing fee, with no guarantee they will actually be selected to volunteer.’ They are also expected to provide their own tent, food and toilet roll. Whatever happened to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work? This is run by a commercial organisation not a charity, and I’m sure plenty of people will be taking home a nice profit, so why won’t they pay the people who work for them? And does Dundee City Council consider this acceptable? What about all those people looking for and desperately needing a paid job? Some may even feel pressure to ‘volunteer’ for the sake of their CV?

We put this up on Facebook last night, where it was greeted by well-deserved horror. We also tagged one of the local councilors who has promised to speak to the organisers. If nothing changes, I can feel a picket coming on…

This is becoming a bit of a pattern. Remember all those cheerful helpers working for nothing at the Commonwealth Games (we complained about that too). And the zero-hours contract workers hired to clean up Glastonbury and sent away because volunteers had kept the site so tidy. People on zero-hours contracts also lost out in Glasgow when a major gig was cancelled at the last minute. Just because a company is involved in the entertainment business, that doesn’t give it the right to make profits on the back of other people’s goodwill or desperation. All these events involve licensing, if not the use of public spaces and – in the case of the Games – public sponsorship, so there is plenty of scope for local authorities to take action.

 

How to mislead – DWP-stylie

post office account letter

Letters sent by the DWP to people with Post Office Accounts are not only economical with the truth, they are quite clearly designed to mislead people into thinking they have no alternative but to open a bank account instead. One of our activists got one of these letters this week. It read:

‘We are paying your benefits or tax credits into a Post Office card account. You are now expected to use a bank, building society or credit union account. Most people now use one of these accounts. Please call us now with your account details’

Of course is doesn’t actually quite say that you have to change from your Post Office account, but it is written in a way that suggests you have to. Our activist wasn’t so easily taken in, but she thought she should ring just to confirm: ‘She told me that at the moment it is an option but the letters will keep coming and that one day in the future it won’t be an option. I told her that I will keep the payments going into the PO and she said that’s fine.’

This is all part of the drive to make as many payments digital as possible. Even basic bank accounts allow direct debits, which Post Office accounts don’t. But people who can only just make ends meet often don’t want to set up direct debits because it is harder to keep track of every penny.

The pressure to move people to bank accounts has been there since the Post Office card account replaced paper based systems in 2003, when there were accusations that opening a card account was being made deliberately difficult. The demise of Post Office accounts has been reported regularly,  but the Coalition Government proudly announced in 2014 that they had made a new contract that would guarantee the accounts until 2021.

Helping disabled Scots now – some practical proposals for the Scottish Government

mobility

This week saw the publication of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, but it will be 3 to 4 years until Scottish disability benefits begin to replace the deeply problematic Personal Independence Payment (PIP), and activists want to know what help disabled Scots will be given in the meantime. Scottish activists in Action Against Austerity have declared a week of action on PIP, and in support of this the SUWN has written to MSPs. We asked what they will be doing to ensure that the Scottish Parliament does all it can to look after Scotland’s most vulnerable citizens, and to prevent some of the worst travesties resulting from the current transfer from DLA to PIP. In the most blatant change, PIP awards the high mobility rate if you can’t move more than 20 metres; for Disability Living Allowance the distance was 50 metres. This change has resulted in people losing their mobility vehicles and so their freedom to get out of the house and live a fulfilling life. In response to this, we are calling for the mobility element of the benefit to be taken over by the Scottish Government early, and for extra help through the Scottish Welfare Fund.

When we wrote to the Social Security Minister, Jeane Freeman to ask for interim improvements before the new disability benefit was up and running – such as changing the mobility requirements or halting the shift from DLA to PIP – we were told that the Scottish Government was not taking over responsibility for the benefit until the whole new improved system was ready. So this time, after taking some expert advice, we have made these two very specific practical proposals. We have also visited Joe Fitzpatrick, MSP for Dundee West, who has promised to follow these up with the people working out the benefits. We will be talking to Shona Robison for Dundee East too, and making sure that we keep up the pressure and the questions. When the time it would take to change the system was made public last November, opposition politicians – Labour and Tory(!) – were quick to cry foul. PIP became just the latest political football in a debate that wasn’t interested in practical solutions. A semi-devolved system is a bureaucratic nightmare, full of potential traps, but we are sure that where there is a will there is a way – just as a way was found, eventually, to mitigate the bedroom tax. Our job is to point out possible openings and to make sure that the will to find a solution is strong enough – without forgetting that the ultimate source of the problem is Tory ‘welfare reform’.

Our letter to MSPs is reproduced in full below.

Transfer of Disability Benefit to the Scottish Government – AVOIDING THREE YEARS OF EXTRA SUFFERING

Along with many others who have experience of the current nightmares caused by PIP and the transfer to PIP from DLA, we were excited to learn of the Scottish Government’s plans for the new Scottish disability benefit – but then stunned to discover that these would not come into effect for three years, which translates as three years of extra suffering.

This crushing of hope, was greeted with horror in Third Force News and has prompted a group of activists from across Scotland, Action Against Austerity, to declare this week a week of action on PIP.

For our part, we in the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network are writing to every (non-Conservative) MSP to ask you to press for using all available powers to help disabled Scots over this interim period. We are fully aware of the magnitude of the task of transferring the benefit mechanisms and data base without risking disruption to anyone’s vital benefit income, but believe that even if the full transfer won’t take effect until all the structures are in place to deliver the new Scottish system, there are improvements that can be made in the interim. Indeed, with such a long waiting period, these must be made.

One of the biggest groups who have suffered in the shift from DLA to PIP has been people who have lost out on the higher rate mobility payment due to extra stringent rules on the distance you can move. Often this has left them without transport, and virtual prisoners in their own homes. One way to prevent this happening to many more people would be to take over the mobility element much earlier as a first stage of transfer. People who have already lost out could be given discretionary help through the Scottish Welfare Fund before applying again under the new Scottish system.

In calling for this intervention at a time of cuts to the block grant, we don’t want to be accused of robbing Peter to pay Paul, or being part of a competition for which cuts most need mitigating. We would like to see serious and transparent discussion (not political point scoring) on how the Scottish Government can use its powers to make changes and to top up benefits without running foul of a DWP ready to claw back money; and how it can use tax powers, including Land Value Tax, to fund welfare properly. Whether you argue that devolution is enough or that real change is not possible without full Independence, you will want the Scottish Government to make the biggest impact it can; and that must begin by looking after Scotland’s most vulnerable citizens.

Please let us know what you will be doing to help!

 

Unemployment is not entertainment

 

watching-tv

Recently we got another message from a television company. We are always wary about television. Generally, when media people contact us it’s to ask us to source people for them who are facing a particular problem situation. This isn’t easy as even when we know people who fit the bill, they probably won’t want to talk on camera. And we have learnt through experience that after we have worked hard to find someone and they have given their, often very personal, story, the chances are it won’t be used. Now we need to be convinced that media people are committed to a serious bit of reporting; otherwise we tell them to go to a jobcentre themselves and talk to the folk coming out.

But this message was about a different sort of programme. This was for reality TV, and the plan is to combine two tried and tested favourites: people on the dole, and the personal makeover. Unemployed people will be invited into their ‘salon’ and be given a makeover by ‘top stylists’ in order to prepare them for a job interview, or simply to give them confidence after long term unemployment. It would all be well and fine, were it not being screened for public entertainment. For fifteen minutes of fame and a haircut, participants will expose their lives to be picked over by strangers. Added to which, the naïve simplicity of the programme’s premise feeds into the idea that there are no structural problems affecting people’s life and work chances – in fact nothing that can’t be solved by a good stylist. We know of examples in the real world of hairdressers offering free haircuts to unemployed people, and these are a fine example of community support, but they are private arrangements – and no-one expects them to be life-changing.

We thanked the company for contacting us and told them that we don’t consider unemployment a suitable subject for reality TV. In fact it is hard to think of any subject that would not be damaged by this sort of exposure. Humiliation served up as entertainment seems to be the twenty-first century version of the Victorian fairground freak show.

Would it be too much to hope for that we might one day see TV programmes that actually examined the structural causes of unemployment and questioned the political imperative of austerity?

Beware ‘disaster capitalism’

grenfell-tower-fire

When a building collapses somewhere like Bangladesh, we have no hesitation in looking for lax regulation and corrupt practices. Now the searchlight is being shone on the UK, and we didn’t have to look far to find a shelved parliamentary report and gagged and disregarded local residents. Of course it’s political. This is what happens when you think only of financial profit and avoid regulations that might get in its way – especially regulations designed to protect less wealthy members of society. Capitalism cuts corners. The Tory government regards safety legislation (such as for the introduction of sprinklers) as constrictive red tape, and is antagonistic to the whole idea of social housing. In the Kensington case, we also have a Conservative local authority housing convenor straight out of central casting with major aggressive property interests, plus management hived off to an arms-length organisation that regarded concerned tenants as trouble makers.

gosford_house_near_longniddry_east_lothian

Gosford House, East Lothian, one of the family homes of Cllr Rock Feilding-Mellen, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s Cabinet Member for Housing, Property and Regeneration

The rapid spread of the Grenfell fire is increasingly being attributed to the cladding. Insulated cladding has been promoted by government since the days of New Labour as part of a series of measures to counteract some of the neglect of the Tory decades and bring social housing up to better standards, including modern levels of insulation. This was a step in the right direction, but there was never enough funding to do a really good job, and – of course – all the work was contracted out to private companies, and often managed in an increasingly market-like manner. The fire risks of badly designed cladding have already been disastrously demonstrated several times and should be well known. Examples of past fires range from English social housing to Dubai sky scrapers.  The risks are huge and these building practices should have been both stopped and remedied. But that would have required regulation that would impinge on the right to make maximum profit. A friend made the following facebook observation ‘Having worked in property, I know just what contractors, developers and planning cook up in the name of cost cutting at the high end spec of the market, so at the ‘low priority’ end it’ll be far, far worse with Govt cuts limiting best practice delivery.’ I expect that such a prominent catastrophe will now make the use of flammable cladding a financial risk to profit too, but we can’t wait for similar disasters to prevent other dangerous practices.

The lessons should be obvious: we need proper regulation and investment – beginning with remedial work to other buildings with similar construction. But we cannot take that for granted.  Capitalism has a nasty way of turning the disasters it makes to its own advantage, and there will be no shortage of property developers who will see this as a golden opportunity to get rid of social housing and replace it with private profit-making opportunities. As someone who has campaigned against the demolition and reduction of council homes I speak from bitter experience.  Potentially dangerous blocks – and many others that are not dangerous at all – will be targeted, and no effort will be spared to portray them as unsafe and unwanted, and to portray replacement private development as salvation. We will need to be constantly wary to ensure that all hazards are properly investigated and put right so that people can feel confident and secure in their homes, and that any demolition of social housing is replaced by at least equal amounts of new social housing.

What exactly is the jobcentre for?

17-04-27

It’s been a long time since jobs were advertised in jobcentres and you went there to look for work, but a jobcentre actively intervening to stop people’s own efforts to find a job places it firmly in the category of worse than useless. It’s not just that they’re making people waste time with pointless exercises. People are telling us about ‘work coaches’ making them stop doing things that would be genuinely helpful.

Frank has been trying to find bits of work through advertising his services locally – and was amazed as well as angry to be told to stop. Susan has recently completed a science degree as a mature student. We know that after three months on unemployment benefit you can be made to apply for all sorts of jobs even if they don’t match your skill level, but Susan had been specifically told that she was not to apply for graduate level jobs, and that the time she was taking putting together these more testing applications was being misspent. We reassured both Frank and Susan that they were quite correct to feel that the jobcentre was acting unreasonably and outwith the rules, and that they should insist on continuing with what they were doing.

Donna’s situation was very different, but her ‘work coach’ was equally unhelpful. We accompanied her to her interview because she was worried about being sanctioned for missing an appointment. She is six months pregnant with multiple health problems, and new medication had made her so ill she had just forgotten the date. As it turned out, she had informed the jobcentre as soon as she realised what had happened and her excuse had been accepted, so she suffered nothing more than a few days unnecessary worry, but her work coach is known for her thoroughness, and the interview was doubly uncomfortable. First, the work coach was keen to make sure that all the details they had about Donna’s situation were up to date, which sounds fine until you realise that meant Donna being asked lots of intensely personal questions by a stranger in an open plan office. The second part of the interview was frankly bizarre. Having ascertained that Donna was not only on ESA – so currently not fit for work – and due to give birth in three months, but also a recovering drug addict who needed a support worker, the work coach proceeded to ask her to sign up to Universal Jobmatch, the DWP’s notoriously useless job website. Donna protested that her main concern at present is proving that she is fit to keep her baby, and I made sure that it was clear that Donna would not actually have to do anything towards preparing for work until the baby was one, and wouldn’t have to look for work until she was three. The work coach accepted this, and that it wasn’t actually compulsory for her to sign up to Universal Jobmatch – but insisted that it would, nevertheless, be helpful for her to get into practice!

From the ballot box to the street

election results

Labour’s result with Corbyn at the helm has demonstrated the hunger that exists for a more progressive politics. We saw this same hunger here in Scotland in 2014. On both occasions it was not quite enough to overcome the massive bias produced by an elite-dominated media (and in 2014 by the broken promise of The Vow). It is a nasty irony that the Tories look to be able to keep hold of the reins of government  thanks to their gains in Scotland. Ruth Davidson is oozing even more smugness than usual, but her party only got a 29% share of the Scottish vote. The rest was divided between two leftish parties, so the result was always going to be messy. For the Scottish Tories this was a single issue campaign, and they undoubtedly succeeded in capturing unionist votes from Labour in the competition to unseat the SNP. At the same time, and despite the myopic narrow-mindedness of their local leadership, Scottish Labour benefited from Indy supporting socialists who wanted to back Corbyn and are not at all pleased that their vote is being interpreted as a turn away from Independence and a boost for Kezia Dugdale. The SNP, who still have 35 of the 59 Scottish seats, has many progressive policies, but they are not good at shouting about them, and – just as in the early stages of the Yes campaign – their generally guarded and careful approach can’t stimulate mass involvement. As a result we have lost some good left SNP MPs, notably George Kerevan and Ann McLaughlin. The SNP will also have lost support from those who don’t share its prioritising of EU membership. We have always argued that the crucial redline issue to trigger a break from the UK should not have been Europe, but welfare, and the need to have the power to protect our most vulnerable and poorest citizens. If the Tories pull together another government with the help of the DUP, then we will need those powers more than ever.

What a difference a day makes. These are certainly ‘interesting times’ and we can expect a lot more political surprises, but we have to be more than onlookers and occasional voters. Progressive politics needs to be built on practical action and campaigning, and with the Tories in power there will be no shortage of people who require support, or issues to campaign on – especially around welfare. We will be back out with our stall in Dundee City Centre on Saturday (2-4pm).