A week in the life of welfare activists



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)

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