The Government scorns data because sanctions were never about getting individuals into jobs

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The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report on Benefit Sanctions has just been released. This is highly critical of the way the system is run, and does point out that sanctions can have serious negative consequences – for people’s ability to find work as well as their wider well-being. But it never really questions underlying principles, or stops to ask what this is all for. Any changes that it manages to squeeze out of the government will only be nibbling at the edges, though they may make a difference to some people directly affected.

A system that is conditional on people looking for work will always include some form of sanctions to ensure that people comply. The current concern is that both the conditions put on people and the sanctions applied have grown exponentially in recent years – especially under the Tories but under New Labour too. By making conditions for people on benefits increasingly onerous, the government ensures that British workers accept poor pay and conditions without public protest for fear of something worse; and by deliberately stigmatising the unemployed, government aims to cut across people in and out of work making common cause in resistance.

The report criticises the DWP for being inconsistent and for failing to collect data and monitor the effects of their actions. But, it’s not so much they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t really care to know, because sanctions were never about getting individuals into jobs. This is a system of control, and as such it is working just as intended. And for control based on fear, inconsistency and unpredictability is a bonus. In fact, they don’t even have to sanction people as often as before, because that fear has been absorbed by both benefit claimants and those in precarious work and is expressed as self-regulation.

In the SUWN we argue against all sanctions – not just for a return to a less punitive past. This is not a dream. It can be achieved through the adoption of a system of Universal Basic Income for everyone. That would bring an end to means testing too.

Here are the key conclusions and recommendations from the House of Commons report:

  1. Benefit sanctions affect a large number of people, sometimes leading to hardship and undermining efforts to find work. Around a quarter of people on Jobseeker’s Allowance between 2010 and 2015 had at least one sanction imposed on them. Suspending people’s benefit payments can lead to rent arrears and homelessness. While these consequences can encourage some people to look for employment, they can undermine others’ efforts to find work. The consequences of sanctions on claimants can be serious so they should be used carefully. However, sanctions can be imposed for honest mistakes. Citizens Advice highlighted the need for flexibility for people who are trying their best. Recommendation: The Department for Work and Pensions should undertake a trial of warnings (rather than sanctions) for first sanctionable offences, as recommended by the independent Oakley Review and the Work and Pensions Select Committee.
  2. Sanctions are imposed inconsistently on claimants by different jobcentres and providers. Sanction use varies substantially, some Work Programme providers refer twice as many people for sanctions as other providers in the same area. The Department for Work and Pensions (the Department) told us there will always be variation. This does not mean that current levels of unexplained variation are acceptable. It is important that the use of sanctions is fair and consistent and the Department has not analysed why some jobcentres use sanctions so much more than others. Jobcentres may be applying different standards. Citizens Advice and Crisis are concerned that inconsistency affects vulnerable claimants the most. Some vulnerable claimants can be excused from having to meet benefit conditions, but the Department does not monitor how often these exemptions are used, so it cannot be sure that vulnerable people receive the protection they are entitled to. Recommendation: The Department should monitor variation in sanction referrals and assess reasons for the differences across jobcentres. It should monitor the use and take-up of protections for vulnerable groups, reporting back to us by the end of 2017.
  3. The Department’s data systems are not yet good enough for it to routinely understand what effect sanctions have on claimants’ employment prospects. There are significant gaps in the Department’s understanding of sanctions and it has not prioritised the improvement of its data. It may be difficult or impossible to determine an ideal level of sanctions, but the lack of data in this area is a barrier to making improvements. The Department now plans, over the next 12 months, to improve its old and poorly-connected systems, to extract better data, and allow it to track the impact sanctions have on claimants’ earnings. Recommendation: The Department should report back to us by the end of 2017 on its progress in improving data systems, including on linking earnings outcomes to sanctions data, and addressing recommendations for better information made by the UK Statistics Authority and National Audit Office.
  4. The Department does not understand the wider effects of sanctions. The Department intends that sanctions prompt claimants to comply with conditions and take up support from jobcentres. This should make people more likely to find work. The Department emphasised evidence that sanctions increase employment, but the evidence is also very mixed. Sanctions can lead to short-term and lowerpaid work. Other people stop claiming after a sanction without finding a job. This can create knock-on effects that others pay for, such as using food banks or needing advice from local authorities or charities for dealing with debt. Recommendation: The Department should work with the rest of government to estimate the impacts of sanctions on claimants and their wider costs to government and report back to us on progress at the end of 2017.
  5. The impacts of sanctions can be worse for people with housing-related barriers to employment. For some people, their main barrier to moving into employment is the struggle to find, or keep, a permanent roof over their head. The charity Crisis raised concerns about sanctions exacerbating these housing-related barriers to employment, and even causing homelessness in some cases. A third of people surveyed by Crisis who were claiming Housing Benefit had this stopped because of a sanction. The Department confirmed that Housing Benefit should not be stopped due to sanctions and told us that it found no evidence of the problem when it examined the issue in one area. Recommendation: The Department should work to better understand the relationship between sanctions and the housing-related barriers to employment that some people face. It should set out what more it will do to assure itself that Housing Benefit is not being stopped in error due to sanctions.
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A week in the life of welfare activists

 

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In between showings of I, Daniel Blake we have been helping real Daniel Blakes navigate a system that is always evolving new ways of punishing them. We tell everyone that if they are bumped off ESA (the benefit for those unable to work) at their Work Capability Assessment they can put in for a Mandatory Reconsideration, sign up for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), as they have been found ‘fit for work’ and this is the only way they can claim benefits, and then – like others on JSA who become ill – get a doctor’s note for an ‘Extended Period of Sickness’. Indeed we have argued that if Daniel Blake had known to do this it might have been a very different film. But at our stall outside Dundee Jobcentre on Tuesday we came across a very frustrated and worried man who had gone through this process and just spent over an hour failing to persuade the jobcentre to accept his ‘fit note’ – the DWP’s new name for a sick note. This looked alarming, both for him and for others in similar circumstances. One of our activists went with him when he had to sign on on Friday, and they brought a copy of the rules on the Extended Period of Sickness, as set out in the official JSA Regulations (1996 with later amendments). This time he was told it was just a case of his not yet being fully registered on JSA, and there would be no problem once this had happened. We will go with him to his next meeting to check this is indeed the case.

Our stall was also there at the right time to provide emergency help to John and Karen, who had no money for either food or fuel. She had also recently signed onto JSA after having been refused ESA, and had been expecting a payment; but the DWP had decided that she and her fiancé should apply for benefits as a couple, and rather than help them transfer over, they had just closed their existing claims, leaving them with nothing. We arranged a food delivery from Taught by Muhammad and sent them off to the council to contact the Scottish Welfare fund for an emergency grant.

John and Karen were content to be treated as a couple, but Nick and Gemma were not. The trouble was that someone had contacted the DWP asserting that they were living together while claiming benefits separately. The rules on cohabitation are absurd. Many modern relationships don’t fall neatly into one category or another, and no-one should have to make decisions on whether to move in together based on benefit rules; but in this instance – and we’ve come across similar examples before – the underlying problem was homelessness. Nick lost his tenancy in September, and since then has been sofa surfing between his two sisters, his father, and Gemma. They asked us to accompany them to their ‘Compliance Interview’ at the jobcentre, where they had to give statements to a DWP officer. Nick explained that Gemma is a long-term friend and that he had been persuaded to use her address by his ‘Jobcoach’, who had told him that without a contact address he would have to come to the jobcentre every day to sign on. Gemma was there and so it was easy to ask to use her address as a ‘care of’. No-one had warned him of the possible implications. Their statements and completed form will now be sent to a ‘decision maker’ who will decide if he or she chooses to believe them – or not. (We were able to give Gemma advice about applying for PIP too.)

We accompanied one woman to a PIP assessment and another, Betty, to a Work Capability Assessment for ESA. Betty had major mobility problems (among other things), so I suggested that she ring Maximus first to arrange for someone to punch a code in the car-park barrier so I could drive her right up to the door; but they told her firmly that this was not possible. As it turned out, I found someone else working in the building to let my car in, and the Maximus doctor arranged for the barrier to be raised so I could bring my car up to the door again afterwards – but I wonder how many people are forced to go through extra un-necessary pain by that barrier. It was bad enough watching Betty struggling slowly, with frequent stops, down the internal corridors.  Betty had first asked us to accompany her back in the summer, but that time, after we had struggled to the centre through monsoon rain, she had been told to go away again as the assessor hadn’t been able to come in that day. It had taken them six months and another cancelled appointment before they finally saw her. A letter of complaint is being sent to Maximus about the barrier.

We were also able to help with a couple of further cases over the phone.

But we are not just a welfare organisation, albeit an organisation giving the sort of help that office based organisations can’t give. We don’t want just to provide sticking plaster for the wounded, we also try and publicise what is happening and campaign to change the system. Alongside this welfare work, I spoke for the SUWN at post I, Daniel Blake panel discussions in East Kilbride and Blantyre, and we leafleted other showings of the film at community centres round Dundee. We want to make sure people have up to date information on the rights we still have, and we also hope we can help direct some of the anger generated by the film into useful organised resistance. All the post-film discussions I have taken part in have been different; the Blantyre one was noticeable for focussing on the link between unemployment and insecure and zero-hour jobs.

And finally, we took the SUWN placards and leaflets on the demo against cuts in Dundee’s Albert Square. While we will never forget that the source of these cuts is the Tories’ brutal attack on public services and the welfare state, and while we welcome those actions that have been taken by the Scottish Government to mitigate their impact (including mitigating the Bedroom Tax and providing the Scottish Welfare Fund), we know that a lot more could be done to make the best of the powers that we already have in Scotland, and to actively resist the implementation of Westminster’s attacks on the most vulnerable. We all, including our politicians, have to decide which side we are on.

We are still not many and there is so much to do – if you want to join us, or discuss plans for similar activities in your community, please contact us! admin@scottishunemployedworkers.net or 07803 052239

(Photo by Sinaed Daly)

Cautioned for attending a job interview

 

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One of the people who came to our showing of I, Daniel Blake in Dundee sent us this account of his experience of the jobcentre’s unthinking uncaring bureaucracy, three years ago:

‘I had a job interview on my signing-on day, so I went into the jobcentre the day before, and a staff member I asked said it was fine for me to come in the day after the interview instead.  When I did so, the worker to whose desk I was sent did not look up to me, did not greet me, but said sternly “Where were you yesterday?”  I said, “At a job interview.”  I was asked what I did the rest of the day. I said I went to my usual part-time job.  I was then asked how much time I had had between the job and the interview, and why I hadn’t come in then. I said I needed that time to calm down as I get nervous at interviews, and that I had asked for permission.  The reply was “I have to refer you for a decision.”  I mean I had got myself a job interview, what more did they want?  I went to my local MSP, which I think may have made a difference They must have helped as the attitude of jobcentre staff (a number of them were always kind anyway) changed a little I felt.’

(Getting help from an MP (or MSP) has the added advantage of keeping our politicians informed about what is happening in the real world. We are lucky in Scotland that most of our MPs will be sympathetic.)

What does welfare activism have to do with Trump? – Quite a lot actually

 

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In response to our well-read post about jobcentre abuse, someone pulled us up for neglecting the big issues assailing our world. While this was an extreme example, I suspect the tendency to pass over grassroots campaigns as a distraction from protesting the terrifying emergence of a reborn fascism is not that unusual, and not only by those newly awakened to political activity. Many of us are seasoned protesters over a range of issues and we were glad to be part of a large emergency protest in response to Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, but we were disappointed that despite widespread publicity, very few people came on to our meeting on welfare activism, which chanced to be immediately afterwards. Conversely, I have heard people who are active in community politics dismiss agitation over Trump as a distraction. Both views can be dangerously myopic.

The rise of the far right, in the US but also in Europe, is a consequence not just of the inequalities resulting from decades of triumphant neoliberalism (a key Trump message is that he will provide jobs), but also of the failure of the left to provide a coherent and convincing alternative. Of course the left has been under attack from those in power in a way the far right never is, but it has also been undermined from within its own organisations – most notably in the British context, the Labour Party. In the US, the Democrats ensured that people were not given the option of voting for the leftish Bernie Sanders, but had to choose between Trump and the neoliberal Clinton. And they are still reluctant to come to terms with the fact that Trump did not so much win the election as Clinton lost it. Even within more ostensibly socialist organisations there has been a tendency to concentrate on individual rights at the expense of neglecting structural economic forces. But it is these economic forces that are the engine for inequality and want, and that also facilitate and thrive on all forms of oppression, domination and social division. We shouldn’t need the super-rich Warren Buffett to remind us that we are living through a class war that his side is winning.

Insecurity, especially economic insecurity, has made people desperate to chase any sign of hope – even when it comes as a false prophet in the unlikely form of a billionaire, racist, misogynist, climate-change-denying, war-mongering, reality TV star. We may mutter ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’, but these ‘turkeys’ had no genuine way out of their neoliberal predicament. Now they will be forced to watch deregulation and tax cuts hand even more power and wealth to the 1%, while the social security safety net is further eaten away. Any jobs that are created are likely to be low-paid, insecure, increasingly subject to automation, and dependent on hastening the world toward ecological destruction and war. And racism will cut across people’s ability to unite in resistance.

It is no coincidence that all this is happening when the left is weaker than it has been for a long while. We can stand up against Trump and say we don’t like this sort of thing, but that won’t change the underlying conditions that push desperate and neglected people towards a far right ‘solution’. We need to build up a credible left force that can put forward an alternative agenda that addresses inequalities of power and resources. That means not shying away from political and economic analysis, at the same time as building an engaged movement through social solidarity and grassroots work in our local areas; working together to address immediate problems, while analysing them as consequences of bigger forces.

As history continually demonstrates, there is no short cut to building a political movement. Those who are so dazzled by the headlights of Trumpism that they pass over people’s immediate problems risk being dismissed as irrelevant in return. In showing our support for those fighting Trump’s policies we need more than demonstrations, however morale boosting these can be. We can also demonstrate practically that another way is possible through building our own left movement and undercutting any potential attraction of right populism. That is why protests against Trump need to move beyond speeches calling for human decency, and address the uncomfortable truths of the underlying economic inequalities perpetrated by our neoliberal governments. That is also why the liberal fear of giving a platform to ‘angry white men’ – which I heard voiced in so many words at our local anti-Trump demo – is not only absurd and discriminatory, but also dangerous. The working class – still predominantly white and 50% male – has good reason to be angry and to demand to be heard. If these angry voices and their immediately pressing issues are not welcome on anti-fascist protests, protestors can’t complain if they are seen as elitist, or even disregarded in favour of the false friend of our own British populist right.

At the risk of over simplification, we are in danger of developing two separate political movements: an alliance of people demonstrating moral anger against Trump’s fascism – and especially his racism and misogyny – but afraid to engage in political discussion and address systemic inequalities lest it cause division; and salt of the earth community groups committed to class solidarity but with little time to give to wider analysis or ‘international’ issues. An effective left movement needs to bring together activists in both groups through uninhibited political analysis and debate that is not afraid to take on the structural inequalities of capitalism, alongside protest and practical action. If we want to change the world we need to understand it, and our actions need to be relevant to those who have been dealt the weakest hand.

(Picture by Karen Brownlee)

A report from Dundee buroo

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It was OK until they bumped me off ESA – how often have we been told that by worried people coming out of the buroo? It was certainly a common theme at our stall this week.

When we met Kate she had just signed onto JSA while she asked for her Work Capability Assessment  to be looked at again under a Mandatory Reconsideration. She had been invalided off work due to serious back problems, but was now being expected to look for jobs she had been proven to be unable to manage. She had a note from her doctor and she had explained to the ‘work coach’ that although she might be able to sit at a check-out for 10 minutes, she couldn’t sit for longer. But their only acknowledgment of her problems was to say that she could look for part-time work – which makes no sense for her or for any potential employer. It sets her up to fail. Her Claimant Commitment also noted that she ‘acknowledged’ that she should use the DWP’s Universal Jobmatch website. Kate didn’t have enough money to use the internet on her phone, so this meant regular visits to the library. Universal Jobmatch is generally a waste of time even for those who could actually do a job, and using it is not mandatory unless you are specifically directed, but it is always presented as though there is no option. Although Kate found moving around a struggle, the jobcentre had also decided that she must come in, not fortnightly, but weekly. Claimant Commitments are supposed to be ‘reasonable’, and although the DWP holds all the cards – if you don’t sign the Commitment they have effectively dictated you won’t get any money – there is scope to ask to get them looked at again. We have offered to help Kate argue for something that takes account of her very real limitations.

We always warn people that asking to be moved from the ESA Work Related Activity Group into the Support group does incur the risk that when the DWP look at the evidence again they could move the other way and declare them fit to work. This is what had happened to Mary. She had arranged to get help with taking this decision to appeal, but meantime she was very low and very worried – especially as the DWP seemed uncertain whether her JSA claim had been registered so whether she was going to get her payment that week at all. As she was about to see a professional advisor we didn’t have to give her advice over the benefits, but she was clearly pleased to have someone else to listen to her and take her situation seriously, especially as this is something she hasn’t been able to rely on. She told us that despite her spinal problems being clearly recorded in her medical notes, her GP had tried to tell her that she was just being lazy. She was now making sure she saw a different doctor, but still no-one had arranged for her to get the basic aids that would make life easier. She mentioned that she would like a zimmer frame but couldn’t afford one – and was surprised to discover that the NHS can supply walking aids.

John had just been refused ESA and asked us what to do next. We advised him to phone in his Mandatory Reconsideration for the ESA decision first before applying for JSA, as that way they wouldn’t make him apply for Universal Credit instead.

Most of the other people we talked with seemed to be training in security – which must say something about our society. There don’t seem to be any jobs making things any more – just guarding places. Generally the jobcentre will help with the costs of training, but one guy had been given the training and not the necessary certificate. He had a potential job though, so we were able to tell him that the DWP should also pay for the certificate if he asked for it.

Just doing a job…

 

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Yesterday I read an article from an American paper pointing out how the men and women working in the airports accommodated to Trumps immigration rules, even handcuffing children. Anyone familiar with the UK benefits system will find that unsurprising. The people behind the desks at the jobcentre are mostly normal men and women, yet every week they are doing things that make other people’s lives difficult, if not impossible.

Someone told me that her friends at church had been critical of the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’, and when I asked her why, she said that they worked in the jobcentre and thought the film unfair to jobcentre workers. Daniel Blake sees two jobcentre workers, one who is officious and one (pictured above) who is kind but harried by a system that doesn’t let her actually help. Research for the film included talking to people who had worked in the system. Are these church-going  jobcentre workers effectively blinkered to what is happening? People on benefits are put under constant pressure to do various tasks that take up their time and effort but often have little relevance to their chances of finding a job. With the threat of sanctions always there in the background, even soft pressure is stressful. But few jobcentre workers engage with the reality of what they are asking people to do. If they did, they would probably have to stop working for the DWP – as some have done. Rather, they limit themselves to acting as a human interface with their computer, and not thinking outside the system’s boxes. This bureaucratic mind-set can lead people to have to check with their manager whether someone on life-support in hospital can be excused a sanction for not coming to sign on – as actually happened when a friend’s mum reported his uncle’s illness to Govan Jobcentre.

On top of the systemic punishments and humiliation, a huge amount of extra stress and suffering is caused by errors. The amount of vital information that just gets lost is frightening. These are mistakes and not deliberate actions, but the extent of errors that can cause havoc to people’s lives demonstrates a systemic callousness towards the people that the system is ostensibly meant to help. If this was a system where errors caused havoc to rich men’s bank accounts rather than the lives of benefit recipients, the people in charge would be brought publicly to account. Recently, on a phone call to a DWP call-centre to sort out a string of such errors, I found myself talking to someone who was so genuinely solicitous that I was quite taken aback – as was the person whose case I was trying to sort. Kate didn’t usually work in that department, and she explained that it was difficult to piece together what was happening because information was on four different computer systems that didn’t talk to each other. Kate went beyond the call of duty that day, and yet her normal job is as a decision maker for Work Capability Assessments, where she will have to work within some of the most inhumane box-ticking rules of them all.

I wonder if any DWP workers saw parallels with their position and that of the US border control staff – and if it made them question their acceptance of their daily work. Many of them are members of the PCS union. They will remind you that trade union legislation doesn’t allow them to take industrial action over issues not directly related to their own employment conditions – but trade unions wouldn’t have won acceptance at all if they had not been prepared to go beyond the law in the past, and if we are to see an end to this punitive system, it has to be made unworkable. We are not calling for individual martyrs – we need organised united action.

Paul Laverty in Dundee – a video

Screenwriter, Paul Laverty, at the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network (SUWN) showing of I, Daniel Blake in Dundee: Paul describes the research he did for the film – with people affected by the attack on ‘welfare’, with activists (including the SUWN), and with jobcentre workers – and how this convinced him that the problems are systemic and deliberate. He calls on Scottish civil society to come together in defence of our most vulnerable,  first to put pressure on the Scottish Government to make the most of devolved benefits, and then to make the punitive core of the system that remains controlled by Westminster unworkable. Sarah and Tony from the SUWN describe our method of work, which combines grassroots mutual support with wider campaigning.