A petition for a fairer Social Security system for Scotland

PLEASE SIGN OUR PETITION AND HELP TELL THE SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT WHAT WE WOULD LIKE TO SEE IN OUR DEVOLVED SOCIAL SECURITY SYSTEM.

16-08-28 drawing for petition trimmed

We have highlighted some key issues, based on our experience. If you agree with us, please sign our petition to the two ministers concerned. This petition is a response to the current consultation on the new Scottish social security system that will take control of the devolved disability benefits, and to on-going discussions about the new employability service that will replace the Work Programme. It reads:

When more welfare powers come to Scotland, please can you make sure that:

  • No-one can get sanctioned for not attending or complying with any devolved ‘employability’ scheme, and this is made clear to everyone affected so that these schemes are effectively voluntary.
  • Scottish health services and other social and community services are kept completely independent of any DWP schemes that pressure people to apply for jobs. (We especially don’t want to see anything like the placing of ‘work coaches’ in GPs’ surgeries recently trialled in Islington).
  • The new Scottish PIP assessment process takes full account of evidence from health and other care professionals, and the GPs etc. have to provide this evidence.
  • Everyone who has lost benefits as a result of the cut-off for Higher Rate Mobility having been dropped from walking 50m to walking 20m can apply to get them reinstated.
  • There is no role for private companies in any devolved service.
Advertisements

The not-so-Flexible Support Fund

Since Jobseeker’s Allowance isn’t even enough to live on, many people have real problems managing to get to job interviews. This is the sort of thing where the Flexible Support Fund is meant to help with – only the SFS is notoriously elusive. John, who we met outside the buroo today, has been unemployed for three years and is currently on the Work Programme with Triage. He has a job interview coming up and asked for help to get some new clothes for it. Triage had refused and sent him to the Jobcentre, and the Jobcentre had told him that the fund was not for people on the Work Programme. Despite this he had been sent to find suitable stuff in Primark, but when he came back and requested a £30 voucher to buy it, he was told he could only have £15. As he didn’t have the other £15, this was no help anyway.

charlie-chaplin

Work Programme providers are supposed to help with travel expenses, but I can’t find anything about clothing grants; and once on the Work Programme you aren’t supposed to get help from the FSF, so it’s not clear what people are meant to do. A budgeting loan, even if you were given one, could take two weeks to come through.

And it seems that the FSF isn’t helping that many people not on the Work Programme either. A 2015 Dispatches Programme exposed DWP advisors being told not to let people know about the fund, and a House of Commons briefing paper from March 2016 [H of C Briefing Paper on Flexible Support Fund] found other problems. In 2014-15 only £72 Million of a possible £136 Million was allocated, allowing the DWP to drop the total available for 2015-16 to £69 Million. Allocations from the fund are discretionary, in line with national policy and locally decided priorities, but advisors are told to apply the ‘tabloid test’ and ask themselves how they would defend their decision if it was taken up by a hostile press. This briefing also quotes an alarming extract from Lord Freud, the Minister for Welfare Reform, that from 2017 some money will be specifically targeted ‘to help those affected by the changes to the ESA WRAG and the UC limited capability for work element to attend training courses on gaining practical skills, access mental health support, attend community projects or take part in motivational courses.’ I think we’ve seen enough of the DWP’s ‘motivational courses’; and more DWP meddling in mental health support is very worrying indeed.

This week at Dundee buroo

IMG_2410

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)

16-08-12

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

What_happens_in_Debating_Chamber_pic_1

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

16-08-05

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.