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.