When perpetual spring becomes endless winter



Anyone who has had to ring up the DWP – and often ring them repeatedly since few problems are resolved with one phone call – will start to curse THAT music! That particularly tinny version of the first section of Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ from the Four Seasons, played again and again and again… There was a Parliamentary petition in 2014, calling on the DWP to scrap it  – though it can’t have been very well advertised as it only got 43 signatures, and it also features in Daniel Blake’s protest graffiti.

In 2012, a Mr Savage was frustrated enough to put in a Freedom of Information Request specifically about the choice of on-hold music. This is the response from the DWP:

‘The current DWP telephony system was introduced in 2006 and the on-hold music was agreed by a group of staff representing different contact centre operational areas across DWP at that time.

‘Selection of the on-hold track was influenced by the desire to obtain a cost-effective solution. The DWP telephony provider has a group wide licence to use the Vivaldi music, which means that it is free for DWP to use. If we had chosen to use another piece of music outside of the group wide licence, they would have had to obtain the licence for it, which would have cost DWP, and, ultimately, the taxpayer.

‘DWP does not have any plans to change the ‘on hold’ music.’

Perhaps they would like to rethink – or employ more people so you aren’t kept waiting for so long, or get things right in the first place so you don’t have to ring and get them sorted, or get rid of the whole stupid system and bring in Universal Basic Income. Meanwhile, perhaps they could apologise to everyone who has to be subjected to this – and also to Vivaldi, who must be turning in his grave.

(And yes – I have spent a large part of today, being sent from pillar to post on various DWP phone lines…)

Welcoming Paul Laverty back to Dundee


Paul Laverty I Daniel Blake in Dundee

Paul is the screenwriter for I Daniel Blake, and lots of other award-winning films. Here he is taking part in a Q and A following a screening of I Daniel Blake hosted by the SUWN at Dundee University. His research for the film included a day spent with our group talking to people at our stall outside Dundee jobcentre and afterwards in the pub, which he recalled with heartrending detail in the preface to our book. As he described yesterday, as well as talking to the casualties of the system and the people who are working with them and fighting for change, he was able to discuss with whistle-blowers from within the DWP. And, like us, he stresses that the system’s cruelties are not just bureaucratic incompetence but the result of a deliberate policy to make it harder to have a decent life, or even survive, on benefits.

Councillor Jimmy Black, who chaired the Q and A, was chair of Dundee’s Fairness Commission. We were glad to hear him tell people again that it was our stalls that prompted the Council to bring their own welfare rights workers into the jobcentre.

For us it was an opportunity not just to re-watch a powerful film that accurately depicts the cruelties of the ‘welfare’ bureaucracy with both humour and genuine humanity, but also a chance to suggest a positive direction for people’s anger at the system it depicts. There were well over 200 people there, including people with their own horrific tales from the DWP, and a lot of students. Even if only a few of them join us in our advocacy and campaigns, that could make a real difference.

(We have a follow up meeting to discuss the advocacy work for anyone interested from 7-9pm at Dundee’s new Butterfly Café in Commercial Street, opposite Waterstones, on Monday 30th January.)

Thank you to Chris Scott Photography for the pictures

Courier Business Awards 2016, Apex Hotel, City Quay, Dundee, 29/10/2016

After the meeting

A big round of applause for Universal Basic Income – thoughts from the Scottish Independence Convention


There was a range of political approaches at Saturday’s Scottish Independence Convention, but one thing united everyone in enthusiasm – besides the important desire for a more progressive independent Scotland. Whenever UBI was mentioned, and that happened quite often, it received wholehearted applause; especially so when Dr Philippa Whitford, SNP MP for Central Ayrshire, supported the call by pointing out that the very active involvement of pensioners in our communities demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that giving people money makes them lazy. (In fact it frees them to do all those things that don’t bring financial reward or for which – as with learning new skills – the financial reward may be in the future. See our article on UBI for more details.)

The room held 800, and we were told that the tickets could have sold three times over.While some speakers, such as the SNP’s Jim Mather, restricted their ambitions to calling for a more cuddly capitalism, others showed more awareness of the fundamental contradictions within this so-called pragmatic view and called for a more radical approach. The clearest example of this was from Commonweal’s Ben Wray, who has conveniently published a version of his speech in the National. Green co-convenor Maggie Chapman called for a decentralisation of power to local communities and stressed – as we do in the SUWN – the importance of making the best use of the powers we already have; and Richard Walker, who founded the National, emphasised the importance of holding the SNP to account – supporting them when their actions are positive but also allowing criticism when needed (an approach we are demonstrating here, I think).

I would like to be able to report back on Angela Constance’s speech, since she is Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, but she didn’t really say very much. In fact it was left up to John and Tony from Yes2 to make an impassioned response to the brutality of UK Welfare ‘Reform’. John McHarg told us that the event that spurred him into political action was hearing about a teacher who had asked a child why he was eating all the sauce packets only to discover that he had had nothing to eat for two days because his mother had been sanctioned when she couldn’t afford the bus fare to the jobcentre ten miles from their home. Grassroots groups often seem to have a much clearer understanding of the urgency of taking on the UK government over their attack on welfare than is shown by more established political campaigners. We were able to point out to the gathering that many people on benefits cannot afford to wait. We have also argued  in our book that the inability of our government to protect its most vulnerable citizens should itself be enough to make them reject a devolution settlement that makes a mockery of the pre-referendum ‘vow’.

(picture from Commonspace)

Nursing oor wrath tae keep it warm


The phoaties dinna really gie an indiciation oa just how Baltic it wis yisterday at the SUWN advice and leafleting stall in Dundee, to prepare for the free screening oa ‘I, Daniel Blake’ on Wednesday nicht. We wir able to noise the street up a wee bitty, courtesy oa Ailsa, Chris and Duncan geen it a bit oa laldy oan the megaphone. Despite the streets being pretty quiet, we still dealt with a couple oa cases, including Bella, a 56 year auld wummin wha’s recent marital separation meant she has ended up living in a homeless shelter, and trying tae get by oan aroond £80 a week, fifty odd oa which she hands ower to the homeless shelter. She is suffering fae a number of medical conditions, including epilepsy, high blood pressure and Sciatica, but when she contacted DWP help line, she was very unhelpfully informed by the advisor that applying for ESA wid be a waste oa time – not only is this advice wrang, we believe it is culpably wrang, and that advisors are being directed towards a course oa action aimed at limiting the number of successful social security applications. If you intend applying for PIP or ESA we would advise that when you phone the respective helplines, on 0800 917 2222/0800 055 6688, to request that a application form is sent to you, you should avoid completing the form on the phone – tell the advisor that you have problems using the phone and that you need face to face help with filling it in, otherwise your’e likely tae get the same treatment as Bella.

The top phoaty shows Ailsa checking her lines, and Gary trying tae levitate the SUWN stall using the skills he’s gleaned fae the Paul Daniels big book oa magic he goat fir Crimbo, whilst the ither phoaty shows Gary, Jock, Sarah and Ronnie indulging in a bit oa synchronised shivering. Thanks to Norma, Duncan, Chris, Gary, Ailsa, Jock, Ronnie and Tony for braving the cauld.


Resisting the new normal


I am worried that people are getting so used to be treated like mushrooms that they have forgotten to demand anything else. You know, the kept in the dark and thrown handfuls of shit thing. A lot of people come out of the jobcentre and tell us everything is OK, and then you meet someone who has been struggling through six weeks with no money waiting for his Universal Credit to come through because no-one told him he could get an advance and get help from the Scottish Welfare Fund, and you wonder how many more people are in the same situation but have just accepted it as the new normal. Or you meet people wasting hours and days on the DWP’s next-to-useless Universal Jobmatch, because they hadn’t known that it was not compulsory to agree to this unless specifically directed. Or you meet someone who wants to confirm that the unpaid ‘work experience’ that they have been offered is not actually compulsory, and you realise that many people don’t dare ask questions. but just do what they are told and go where they are sent. Or you talk to someone who is concerned about what they are being made to sign as a Claimant Commitment, and think how many people just sign what they are given without comment. As we have observed before, although sanctions are – thankfully – much less common than they were, the fear of sanctions is as potent as ever, so they are still performing their disciplinary role. Newspapers highlight the worst cases of DWP abuse, but this constant erasure of expectation and hope can slip under the radar. We can’t let that happen.

2016 – a year with the SUWN

Hogmanay, the beach and firelight

Comrades, sparklers, soup and beer

First new blog in brand new website

Starting off the brand new year



Make us work but pay no wages –

local  centre, big rich store –

Name and shame on public pages

Activists outside the door


Range 1

Range boss boasts of making profit

Work for nothing and he may

Give a job – we say ‘come off it!

Fair day’s work for fair day’s pay!’



Few days early, march for May Day

Folk in jobs and unemployed

‘Spite the differences on payday

All exploited, all annoyed.


At the Range to protest workfare

Joined by Dundee TUC

Outside centre where the day care’s

Done by unemployed for free



Tried to help an ESA-test case

Staff ganged up and said ‘get out!’

Judge decreed ‘they have the best case’

Status gives no room for doubt



Down to Manchester to meet with

Others fighting Thatcher’s curse

Folk to fight beside and greet with

Scotland’s bad, but England’s worse!


Maximus hanging figures

Triage still a sanctions factory

No note of meeting – ‘no excuse!’

Maximus not satisfactory –

Disability abuse!

August [Triage are a Work Programme provider subcontracted to the DWP, Maximus administers the Work Capability Assessments]


Two years on and we’re still fighting

To escape from UK rot

Plus petitioning in writing:

‘Make the best of what we’ve got’


Triage worst in all the nation

For its callous attitude

We decide an occupation

Demonstrates our gratitude



People ’cross the land are crying

For the fate of Daniel Blake

Tory’s protest, ‘it’s all lying,

He’s not real’ – He’s no fake!



If you’ve not had in your stocking

Our new book on why and how

British ‘welfare’ state’s so shocking

Not too late to order now!



Paperback £10 or download for FREE







Waiting for Maximus



Yesterday, David accompanied Isobel to Cadogan Street for her Work Capability Assessment. Nothing remarkable about that – except that this was the third time that they had made the journey. Isobel contacted us in July when she was waiting for her appointment – and then again in October when she had finally heard that they would see her on 1 November. So we made arrangements, and she made arrangements, but then, as David explained:

‘Isobel’s assessment was postponed due to the amount of time she was forced to wait in extreme discomfort. They knew about her injury and still kept her waiting, with the modern excuse of the “systems” were down. Eventually she felt she could no longer cope with the pain and, despite being “assured” it wouldn’t be long if only we’d wait, she postponed and a new appointment time for assessment is being sent out. They did say next time she’d be a priority. Nearly £5 on parking tickets and a lot of pain for nothing, and they definitely don’t like advocates much either. Very glad I was there as I feel they would have had her waiting all day. A “manager” came out to apply some pressure after I said we’d have to postpone.’

The new appointment was on the 23 November, and we made arrangements and she made arrangements but – as David explained:

‘Cancelled again!! This time after an hour of waiting in severe pain and discomfort only to be told the specialist she was due to see had left after a busy day. Isobel was meant to be a priority today, however the manager who’d assured us of that last time seemed not to remember saying that, and was again fobbing us off by telling us she’d be seen “shortly”. An hour later, and a different lady with a very apologetic nature gave us the news the specialist had left and Isobel will have to come back again. Told her I appreciated the apology but it’s not good enough and this would be the 3rd appointment made for someone in extreme pain. Noticed the words “priority” in black pen on her file so the manager appeared to be lying through his teeth. At this point a few people in the waiting room who were still to be seen started crying, as did Isobel . Shocking display of contempt for their “clients” and appalling mismanagement.’

Yesterday was third time lucky – at least as far as moving beyond the waiting room was concerned…

Shocking though this account is, it is, in fact, not particularly unusual. Although the person applying for ESA – who by definition has health problems – is expected to get to their appointment on time or provide very good reason, the assessment centres are always cancelling at the last minute. Sometimes they manage to let people know before they actually turn up – though after they have suffered the anxiety of preparation; and sometimes, as in Isobel’s case, they only find out after they have already been waiting. But this callousness is symptomatic of the whole way ESA is administered.

*             *             *

It’s been fairly quiet outside Dundee jobcentre recently, but our chilly stall today demonstrated a distinct lack of Christmas spirit within those walls.  One person told us that despite a previous agreement that she could pay back a loan in small increments, the jobcentre had taken it upon themselves to deduct £46 a week from her benefits (we advised her to ask Welfare Rights or CAB to renegotiate this). Another said that he had been told that he could get his interview travel costs repaid at a standard mileage rate, but that they then only allowed him the cost of the petrol and made him pay back the difference (we advised him to put in a complaint). And another person told us that he lived in Brechin and his doctor was in Dundee, but when he handed his doctor’s line into the jobcentre in Dundee to be scanned they grumbled that he should be taking it to Forfar, which is 11 miles from Brechin and 14  miles from Dundee.

Happy Christmas!




Over a barrel



The Claimant Commitment is presented as though it were a contract agreed between two freely consenting parties, but that is far from the case. If you don’t sign the Claimant Commitment that the jobcentre has prepared for you then there is no benefit money, so your negotiating position is pretty fatally undermined from the start. There is provision to get a second opinion, but only from another jobcentre worker who can simply back up their colleague – as these two cases demonstrate.

John, from central Scotland, contacted us last week. He was not unnaturally concerned that the document he was being made to sign effectively required him to promise to do anything he was asked by his ‘jobcoach’ or by the Work Programme. He will have to sign this to get his benefits – though he can push for a change in the wording afterwards. This is bad because it increases the risk of a sanction and of all the worry that goes with that risk, but if he does get sanctioned his Claimant Commitment shouldn’t actually affect the legal requirement that all demands made of him should be reasonable and that everything that is actually mandatory should be clearly signalled as such. If what he is asked to do doesn’t fit these criteria, then he should win an appeal – but only after he has gone through the inevitable hardship first (see our advice on Universal Credit). And he can still refuse to sign documents given to him by his Work Programme Provider because that is a data protection issue (see our advice on surviving the Work Programme).

Aisha’s case from the west of Scotland shows the jobcentre using its powers to carry out much more flagrant abuse – in fact, in this instance, clear religious discrimination. The Claimant Commitment is meant to be a general agreement rather than anything to do with specific jobs, however Aisha’s jobcoach, who has given her trouble in the past, included a requirement that Aisha attend an open day for a particular company. She included it because she knew Aisha didn’t want to go, and one of the reasons she didn’t want to go was because it was primarily a debt collecting firm and lending money for interest is not allowed in Islam (Incidentally, the jobcentre is supposed to respect ethical objections too, not just religious ones.) Aisha refuse to sign the document and her benefit was stopped. She has now had to reapply for Universal Credit and go through the initial waiting period all over again. To make it worse, though the jobcentre told her when she asked that by not signing the Claimant Commitment she wouldn’t jeopardise the benefits she was due before that day, this was not actually the case. Universal Credit is worked out on a monthly basis so she ended up receiving no payment for the previous three weeks too. In fact she has now received nothing from the DWP since the beginning of October, and although the Scottish Welfare Fund has enabled her to keep going, this hasn’t covered the rent, and she is being threatened with court proceedings for eviction. She has submitted both a Mandatory Reconsideration letter and a complaints letter about the way her previous claim was ended and she was hoping that her payment would come through by the end of the week – but everyone she speaks to at the DWP gives here contradictory information and advice for every question she asks.

(Thanks to our good friends at Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty and the Child Poverty Action Group for their help with these cases.)

National Audit Office criticises DWP Sanctions


The National Audit Office has just produced a critical report on Benefit Sanctions. Of course they were only looking at sanctions within the official dialogue of getting people into work – where we all know they score very badly. But sanctions were never really about this. After all, there aren’t enough jobs. What the NAO doesn’t discuss is the unspoken agenda, where sanctions have proved very effective in disciplining people on benefits and in helping to create workers who dare not protest about their pay and conditions for fear of ending up unemployed and potentially destitute. You don’t even need to keep sanctioning people at such a high rate to achieve this – just enough to maintain a fear of being sanctioned.

Nevertheless, the NAO’s criticism provides an important tool with which to attack the credibility of this pernicious system – and DAVID WEBSTER has provided a summary of the KEY POINTS:

*  The report is generally critical. It uses a ‘traffic light’ scoring system. On sanctions, DWP scores:  red 2, red/amber 1, amber 3, amber/green 3, green 0. (Figure 1, p.11, Figure 8 p.21 and Figure 20, p.38)

*  A recurring theme is the lack of evidence to support the sanctions regime, and the DWP’s unwillingness to make use of its own data to evaluate it or to collaborate with outside researchers. The report is particularly critical of the DWP’s reliance on ‘international evidence suggesting that broadly some form of sanction has an effect’. (para.23)  It repeats the call for a wide review of sanctions made repeatedly by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee. (para.24)

*  Using Work Programme data, the NAO did its own analysis of sanctions’ employment effects. This found that JSA sanctions had a large effect in getting claimants off benefit, but they were as likely not to find work as they were to find it. There was no positive effect on earnings for those who found work.

*  The report finds that ESA sanctions actually reduced claimants’ likelihood of working. This bears out the findings of the important report by Catherine Hale, Fulfilling Potential? ESA and the fate of the Work-Related Activity Group (2014).

* The report finds that the rise and fall in referrals over the period 2010 to 2016 cannot be explained by changes in claimant behaviour. (para.13, p.8) This supports the conclusions of my analysis published at www.cpag.org.uk/david-webster, although in other respects the conclusions are different.

* The report comments that sanctions are not rare. It finds that of all people who claimed JSA at any point between 2010 and 2015, 24% were sanctioned, before challenges. (Figure 5, p.16) The only previous published figure of this type (in FoI response 2014-4972) showed that 22.3% of the 8,232,560 individuals who claimed JSA over the five year period 2009/10 to 2013/14 inclusive, were sanctioned, after challenges. After allowing for the pre-/post- challenge difference, these figures are similar (about 10% of sanctions were overturned over these periods). DWP ministers and officials have deliberately and persistently misled politicians and the public by quoting the monthly sanctions rate of around 5% as if it meant that only 5% of claimants are ever sanctioned.

* The NAO report explains why the DWP hasn’t been publishing statistics on Universal Credit sanctions: it hasn’t been collecting them. Only from Sept 2016 has the DWP been recording whether UC decisions relate to sanctions or to other matters. (Note 4, Figure 2 p.13)

* The NAO report does not give statistics on Universal Credit sanctions, but it does show that the sanction referral rate for UC, at 11.7% of claimants per month, is approaching twice what it is for JSA (6.5%) (Figure 2, p.13) This implies that the UC sanction rate is also likely to be double that for JSA. The report also says that decision making for UC sanctions is understaffed, with 42% of UC sanction decisions in August 2016 taking more than 4 weeks while 90% of sanction referrals for other benefits are decided within 5 working days.

*  In August 2015 the UK Statistics Authority made recommendations to DWP for improvement of its sanctions statistics and removal of misleading aspects including the misrepresentation of the proportion of JSA claimants who are sanctioned. Very little has happened since and the NAO report urges DWP to get on with implementing the UKSA’s 5 recommendations, which are listed in para.3.5.

* The NAO finds that some Work Programme providers make more than twice as many sanction referrals as other providers within the same geographical area, even though claimants are randomly allocated so that the caseload characteristics are identical for each provider. (para.2.12) It finds that where providers referred more people for sanctions, they had a worse employment performance. On average, the best provider in an area achieved 6% more employment outcomes and its participants received 20% fewer sanctions. (Figure 22, p.42)

* A particularly embarrassing finding for DWP is that it applies sanctions to a similar proportion of referrals from every Work Programme provider, whether they have a high or a low referral rate – in other words, while some providers are making an assessment of whether they should make a referral, DWP is not making genuine assessments of whether claimants should be sanctioned. (para.2.12 and Figure 13, p.29) Not surprisingly therefore, the report also finds that 26% of Work Programme sanctions are overturned compared to 11% of those imposed directly by Jobcentres.

* The NAO estimates that the amount of money not paid to claimants as a result of sanctions (sanction value minus hardship payments made) was about £97m in 2015. On the basis of a straightforward pro rata calculation, this supports the estimate of £332m which I previously made for 2013/14. The difference is due to the big fall in sanctions between 2013/14 and 2015.

*  DWP has made no overall assessment of the costs and benefits of the sanctions regime including on other public services and should do so. (para. 3.20)


Triage strikes again


Triage seem to be keeping up their exemplary level of abuse. On Monday we met Steve who couldn’t understand why his ESA had been stopped. He is on the assessment phase: he has submitted his detailed medical form (ESA50) and is still waiting for a Work Capability Assessment. He had already had problems with his form getting lost in the system and miraculously found again, but all had seemed OK and his doctor’s lines were up to date. Only, his money never appeared in his bank account. With no credit in his phone, he went to his mother’s work-place, and after an hour-long phone call with the DWP was again told that they didn’t have his form, and advised to go to the jobcentre. I went with him into the building, and a remarkably helpful, if slightly puzzled, advisor looked up his case and told us that his claim had actually been shut down as the Work Programme Provider, Triage, had reported that he had failed to do something. Steve explained that last time he had been in the jobcentre his advisor had told him that since he was now getting ESA and had a doctor’s line he no longer had to go to Triage, and that she would inform Triage of this fact. So either she never passed on this message, or, as has happened so often in the past, Triage took the message and ignored it. He would now have to appeal against the stopped claim, but the woman who was helping us suggested that it might still be possible to get Triage to rescind their complaint. So off we went down the road to Triage. On reflection, it would have been better for someone else to have gone with Steve. As soon as they saw me they panicked and refused to let us in on the grounds that I was going to occupy the building again. I told them that I would go so they could see Steve without me, but even with me gone, they refused to let him in, and then laughed at his predicament.

We have made contact with Welfare Rights who should be able to get this resolved, and we were able to sort out immediate help in the form of a food parcel and an application for a Scottish Welfare Fund Grant. Although Steve was understandably angry, he was not surprised, as this had not been his first experience of Triage’s interpretation of ‘supporting’ people into work.