A letter to the Minister for Employability and Training

Dear Mr Hepburn

We in the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network have been very relieved to see your public announcements about not allowing Scottish ‘employability’ schemes to be used for sanctions, and we congratulate the Scottish Government on following through on your anti-sanction rhetoric and taking this position.

At the same time, we would like to draw your attention to the growing risk of Scottish public institutions becoming tied into the DWP’s punitive regime by the back door. As I am sure you are aware, there is pressure from the UK Government to integrate DWP ‘job coaches’ into a range of public and community organisations and spaces, including libraries, schools, social care settings and housing schemes. But these ‘job coaches’ are the very people who have the power to sanction the unemployed, to dictate how they spend their time (their one remaining asset) and to deny them their dignity. We believe it is absolutely essential that services designed to advise and help are kept – and are seen to be kept – completely separate from those set up to control and punish. People need to be able to use their own community services without feeling that they may be being spied on. Otherwise those most in need of community support will be further isolated.

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However, this integration is already happening. Here in Dundee, for example, our council ‘employability’ service hosts a jobcentre ‘outreach worker’ twice a week . And back in April, North Ayrshire Council was shown to have taken on the whole disciplinary ethos and was running a training scheme that included a system of fines – £1 for forgetting your name badge, £5 for falling asleep or getting a call on your mobile.  (The story appeared in the Ardrossan Herald on 1 April and we had to ring the paper to check it wasn’t an April fool.) I am sure there will be many more examples.

With the Westminster Government putting renewed pressure on the sick and disabled, they are especially at risk. We are very concerned about plans for closer integration between the DWP and Department of Health, as this will be based on the UK governments dangerously simplistic premise that work is good for health – an approach that is the product of a long collaboration between successive Tory and New Labour governments and US-based health insurance company, Unum (Mo Stewart (2016) Cash not Care: the planned demolition of the UK welfare state). In a society that fetishises work and defines people by their job, it is inevitable that lack of work will affect self-esteem and social engagement; and when benefits are also cripplingly low, those without work can be starved of the necessities for basic subsistence, never mind social engagement. However, these impacts are not the result of lack of work per se, but of the place given to paid work in our social system. And, on top of this, even research commissioned by the DWP acknowledges that ‘Beneficial health effects depend on the nature and quality of work’. Of course they do – and yet people are continually being pushed into searching for work – any work – as soon as possible and at any cost. In contrast, recent research from Australia showed how retired people were able to develop healthier lifestyles by using the time not spent working.

We recognise, of course, that there are many people with mental and physical health problems who would welcome helpful adjustments to allow them to find and do a paid job, but this natural desire for equality and acceptance has been distorted by government policy makers and turned into a stick with which to beat all sick and disabled benefit claimants. It is being made increasingly difficult to get ESA, and at our stalls outside the jobcentre we are increasingly coming across desperate people who have been found ‘fit for work’ while this is clearly far from the case. Even when they may be technically able to manage some limited types of work, it doesn’t make sense to force them to do this rather than give them the opportunity to improve their health and perhaps even return to something more like their former employment.

In England we have seen health professionals getting sucked into the system, at the expense of their independence, their relationship with their patients, and their professional ethics. There are examples of Cognitive Behaviour therapists in jobcentres, and there was a pilot introduction of DWP ‘job coaches’ in GP surgeries. Even if therapies, or supposedly therapeutic work advice, are nominally voluntary, the atmosphere in which they are delivered, with the ever-present fear of sanctions, will make it difficult for people to exercise their right to say ‘no’. We hope that the Scottish Government will be able to give us a firm assurance that they will maintain a clear line between the DWP and the Scottish Health Service, and that we will not see similar practices here. (Scottish examples of welfare rights advisors in GP’s practices, as here in Dundee, are very different, and thoroughly welcome.)

We are also very concerned, both from our own experience and that of other grassroots advocates, that the DWP and their subcontractors (such as Maximus) tend to call the police whenever their statements are questioned by claimants or their friends, and that Police Scotland has been too ready to listen only to the officials and not allow the claimant and their friends to give their side of the story. If the Scottish Government wants to change the nature of social security in Scotland, then our Scottish police will need to be part of that change.

Returning to the sanctions policy with which this letter began. We hope you have a plan B for if Westminster says ‘no’. We trust you will not let them overrule your decision and that you will make a stand to preserve the right to protect some of Scotland’s most vulnerable citizens. If it comes to that, we can assure you of our support.

Finally, we wrote to your office some weeks back asking to meet you as a group as part of your consultation over the new Scottish legislation. Your office was very friendly on the phone, but we are still waiting for a date. We would like the opportunity to discuss these issues in more detail based on our experience. Meanwhile, we hope that you and your staff will come to our talk at Commonweal’s IdeaSpace (on Welfare and Decent Work, Thursday 13th at 7pm together with Oxfam) and visit our stall, where we will have copies of our new book, Righting Welfare Wrongs.

P.S. I have put ‘employability’ in inverted commas because this word tends to suggest that the reason people don’t have jobs is due to personal failing – lack of employability, rather than a lack of employment. Alongside the Scottish Government’s welcome changes in word usage, can we suggest that you replace this demeaning term? How about simply ‘training’ schemes? (I realise you might have to change your job title too.)

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