NO to Benefit Sanctions, YES to Independence

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30 March was called as a National Day of Action Against Sanctions by Unite the Union. As we fight sanctions outside the buroo every week, we thought this was an opportunity to do something different – so, we set up stall in Dundee City Centre to say loud and clear, with the help of the megaphone, ‘No to benefit sanctions, YES to Independence’ and the freedom to get rid of sanctions altogether.

We generated a good amount of interest (including with a big bunch of school kids), and if we didn’t get out as many leaflets as we had planned it was because people wanted to stop and discuss – to discuss Independence, and to discuss their personal experience with sanctions. We were able to give out advice on fighting sanctions too, including to two separate homeless guys.

I have pasted the wording of our leaflet below.

(Thanks to Chris, Duncan, Dave, Norma, Gordon and Jonathan)

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Today, across the UK, people are protesting against benefit sanctions. The UK Government is turning our welfare state into a system of control and punishment. If people on benefits don’t do everything they are told, then they can have their benefits stopped and be left destitute. Often this happens without them having done anything out of place. And just the fear of sanctions creates constant stress. The stories we hear from the people we help at our stalls outside Dundee Buroo would melt the hardest heart – and raise the gentlest person to indignant anger. Today’s protest says that this system is completely unacceptable.

Sanctions, like most of the benefit system, are reserved to Westminster; and the Tory government shows no signs of letting up on their attack on the welfare state. But we in Scotland have the opportunity to win the freedom to create a better system. With Independence we would no longer have to fight a rear-guard action against a continuous onslaught from the DWP. We could be looking at the end of sanctions and of computer-based disability assessments. We could be looking forward to the future introduction of a Universal Basic Income.

We want to make sure that welfare is at the centre of the Independence debate – to raise people’s expectations, so that when we win we can demand a real difference. We are campaigning for nothing less than a fairer Scotland, which would also provide a source of hope beyond our borders.

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9 days, over 14 phone calls, and a lot of Vivaldi later…

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When I finally got a phone call to tell me that the DWP was lifting John’s sanction we had almost given up on the idea that this was ever going to happen. John is in the ESA Work Related Activity Group – he should really be in the Support Group, but that is another story. He suffers from a whole range of problems including nerve damage in his leg, and some days can’t get out of the house at all.

John has to attend the Work Programme run by Triage in Dundee, but several times he has not been well enough to take part. When that happens he is careful to get a sick-line from his doctor, and he has then been given another appointment for when the sick-line has expired. Sometimes this has resulted in a letter from the DWP asking for ‘good cause’ for the missed appointment, but once that cause has been given, all has been well. When, at the end of October, serious back pain prevented him from going to his Triage session, he dosed himself up on extra high amounts of pain-killer in order to go out and get a doctor’s note (stating he was unfit for Triage or for his volunteer group) and to deliver it to the jobcentre before the session he was going to miss. The jobcentre said all was fine and they would pass the message on to Triage.

All did seem fine, until he received a letter from the DWP dated 6 December saying he was being sanctioned for missing the appointment. He went to the jobcentre to complain, and they said it was nothing to do with them and he must take the letter to Triage. He went to Triage and they said it was nothing to do with them and he should go to the jobcentre. He also rang the DWP, but never received the promised call-back. Triage did, however, acknowledge his ill health by arranging that his next three fortnightly appointments be by telephone, and they gave him a printout with precise appointment times when they would call him. The first two dates he heard nothing from them at all. The third date they rang about an hour early, and they told him that as far as they were concerned his sanction should have stopped. But it hadn’t – and that’s when he rang us. It was now 16 January, and since 6 December he had been surviving on just £25.35 a week. It would have been £29.05 but they were still taking deductions for Council Tax repayments!

When I rang the DWP I was told that they had no record of his doctor’s line, but they did have a note on his file from 13 December – the day after he had rung the DWP – saying that he had to contact Triage before the sanction could be lifted. This totally ignored the fact that, not only had he been in contact with Triage about the sanction, he had never stopped engaging with them.

The first person I spoke to told me that she was referring the case to the ESA maintenance section whose job it was to sort out the ending of the sanction, and that they would get back to me with a decision. When I had heard nothing further by the next afternoon, I rang the DWP again, and was again told they would call me back. They rang the following day and told me that in order for them to lift the sanction they needed a WP09 form from Triage to confirm John had ‘re-engaged’.  John then rang Triage, who told him they had sent this form to the DWP on 14 December. The next morning I passed this information on to the DWP, who promised to ring back within 24 hours. 24 hours came and went, and in the afternoon I rang the DWP again. They said I should be contacting the local jobcentre instead, and gave me another 0345 number. Whenever the automated response asked why I was calling and I said anything about a ‘sanction’ I got a recorded message saying I had to ring the original DWP number and the call automatically stopped. Eventually I got round this by saying the problem was a ‘letter’ and then choosing ‘all other enquiries’. This somehow got me through to Exeter Jobcentre, who were able to put me through to the local jobcentre in Dundee. They looked through John’s file and told me that the last record they had was for 12 December, when they had tried to contact him by phone but got no response. I asked them to check their record of his phone number, and found they had got two digits transposed. However, this didn’t solve the outstanding sanction problem, and they told me to ring the DWP again. This time the DWP said the only thing we could do was ask Triage to send them another copy of the WP09, asking for it to be backdated.  I also took the opportunity to ask the DWP to check what they had down for John’s phone number, and found they only had an old number for a phone he had lost – so it was hardly surprising they had failed to get back to him. This had all taken around an hour. It was now Friday evening, so John had to wait till Monday before ringing Triage again.

On Monday 23, John rang Triage, who said they would resend the WP09, and I delivered a letter to the jobcentre requesting a Mandatory Reconsideration of the initial decision to give a sanction at all. When I rang the DWP the next afternoon they still had no record of the WP09, so John rang Triage again the following day. And finally, that evening, I got the call to say the SANCTION HAD BEEN ENDED, and that he would get backdated payments so that he was only being sanctioned for a week. He has since told us that the Mandatory Reconsideration was accepted too, so even that week’s benefit has been reimbursed.

In case this treatment was not enough, I was shocked to discover that John had been living without mains electricity for six years. The problem began when his supplier accused him of tampering with the meter: he had been using very little electricity because he was often away from home. He was never taken to court, so he never had an opportunity to put his case and clear his name. But he was told that to retain his connection he would have to pay £2000. He said he would do without, and that is what he was doing, relying on an elaborate system of batteries. He had sought help in the past, but nothing had been resolved. We put him in touch with the council’s Dundee Energy Efficiency Advice Project – and he now has mains electricity again.

‘You’re better off in jail’

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Those were the words of one of the many unhappy people we met outside Dundee buroo this week. He had been sanctioned, and his observation was based on personal experience.

There were other sanction cases too. James had been sanctioned for 65 days for not coming to an appointment that clashed with his college course. He had informed the DWP, of course, but the relevant information had got lost. He wasn’t surprised at this because they had been consistently chaotic, even sending him appointments at a Manchester jobcentre, rather than Dundee. And now he was waiting for an overdue hardship payment. We asked him to contact us if the payment didn’t come through that day and he needed immediate support.

Alan had missed a Triage (Work Programme) appointment back in October because he was at a job interview. He had told them and they had also phoned on the day to say ‘where are you? They then demanded to see a letter from the prospective employer, but the arrangement had been word of mouth. We explained how a Universal Credit sanction will only be lifted once you have shown that you have done whatever was asked of you, and again ensured he had our details in case more help was needed.

Robert was rather less bothered about his sanction because he was starting a job in 2 weeks’ time – but we did have to warn him that if the job didn’t last long, the sanction would still be hanging over him, so it was worth appealing. Also, the DWP shouldn’t be allowed to get away with treating people in this way.

As usual, there were ESA problems too. Paul had been told that it didn’t matter that he was in pain. He had explained that he couldn’t sit and had problems getting around – and they had said he should use a wheelchair…  We gave him details of people who could help with an appeal.

Richard’s life began to unravel when his mother died ten years ago, and he is now in a homeless hostel. He had a break in his ESA claim due to a spell in prison and is only getting the basic £73.10 assessment phase rate – minus deductions for outstanding debts – until the DWP ‘decision makers’ look at his case and agree to reinstate his benefit. We gave him details of that week’s welfare rights drop-in sessions as they should be able to escalate this process, and we also helped him make a claim for PIP, which should provide him with further support and backup.

Kirstie had come up against the inflexibility of DWP bureaucracy, which doesn’t allow for people’s actual circumstances. Her ESA claim had been shut down because she was unable to provide the identification evidence demanded of her. It seems the DWP hasn’t worked out what to do when someone has no passport or driving license and lives with another family member and so doesn’t have their name on the utility bills – yet that can’t be a very rare occurrence.

There were also several new signers-on who were glad of our rights leaflet and the chance of an informed chat: two made redundant from the rigs and two from the Flint Group printing company, which has just closed its Dundee factory, with the loss of 110 jobs.

And finally, a bit of good news – or at least not-so-bad-in-the-circumstances news. Helen, who we have helped in the past, told us with huge relief that she would no longer have to face the jobcentre as she had just got herself a 20 hour a week retail job. She wants full-time work, but in these days of lowered expectations, she was just pleased that it wasn’t a zero-hour contract.

(The photo is from the previous week – we were too busy to get the camera out this time.)

Independence can’t come too soon -Westminster ‘austerity’ is killing people

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As last time, the SUWN will be campaigning hard for our right to run our own country AND for the policies that will bring in a fairer system when we have won that right. The change of flag needs to symbolise a complete change of outlook. This is an opportunity to redefine what makes a good society, and we will aim to ensure that social security is central to the Independence debate. An independent Scotland would open a wealth of possibilities. Instead of fighting a rear-guard action against a continuous onslaught from the DWP, we could be looking at the end of sanctions and computer-based assessments, and the future introduction of a Universal Basic Income. But we can’t take any of this for granted. If we want to see real change, we need to demonstrate what is possible now. We need to raise people’s hopes and expectations, so that when we win Independence we can’t be told to go back in the box and be satisfied with minor reforms. We must demand a real difference in Scotland that can also provide a source of hope beyond our borders.

The SNP has chosen to use Brexit as the trigger for a second referendum. We have argued that there was already ample cause  for another vote in the UK Government’s failure to implement the ‘Vow’, and that the Scottish Government’s inability to protect our most vulnerable citizens from the depredations of UK ‘austerity’ should have been a red line issue. But whatever your view on the EU – and we have activists who voted on either side of that referendum for a variety of reasons – we now have an opportunity to make real change here in Scotland.

In 2014, YES won massively in the schemes, but we were beaten by the higher turnout among more prosperous voters who feared that change might impact their comfortable existence. This time we need to ensure that the working-class vote is big enough to win us the freedom to create a better system.

Another busy day at Dundee buroo

Th National 2More ESA problems and benefit delays kept us busy outside the jobcentre yesterday – and if everyone we spoke with followed our advice, the welfare rights drop-in in the afternoon will have been busy too.

Worryingly we learnt of another example of the jobcentre claiming that someone couldn’t submit a sick note from their doctor when they were on JSA while putting in a Mandatory Reconsideration for an ESA Work Capability Assessment. This is not what the law says –as we have written about before. Anyone in that situation has to be treated the same as anyone else on JSA. In this instance we didn’t have to take it further though, as the man concerned was told by the jobcentre that his mandatory Reconsideration had just been rejected, so he can now go on to put in a full appeal and be eligible for basic rate ESA again while that goes through.

All this focus on making it hard for people applying for ESA has probably taken some of the pressure off people on JSA, and we should admit that many emerge from the jobcentre without problems; however years of cuts and crackdowns have undoubtedly resulted in pretty low expectations. The meanness of our benefit system was emphasised by a German woman who was shocked to find she was expected to live on only £73.10 a week. She told us that in Germany if you lose your job after a year you get 60% of your salary. Of course some of the systems that reward long-term employed in that way can be very harsh on those with more precarious work histories, but UK benefits are brutally low by any standards. The least talked about cut, but one of the biggest, has been the freeze on benefit levels. This was implemented last April and followed three years with a rise of just 1% and three decades when benefit increases lagged behind wage rises.

The inbuilt callousness of the system is demonstrated by the increasing number and length of benefit delays. The prevalence of precarious and low-paid jobs makes every delay a potential disaster, and yesterday we had to arrange two food parcels for people waiting for their benefits – one for a young homeless couple and one for a man who had lost his job after being injured in a road accident.

Our stall was visited by the National Road Show, which spent the day in Dundee (see photo by Norma Drummond). They made a wee live video, but we don’t seem to have made it to the paper edition, where the upbeat vision of our city will seem unrecognisable to many of the people we meet with.

PS Hammond’s uninspiring budget showed no deviation from austerity and an extraordinary blindness to the Brexit elephant in the room. It was, received by the usual baying of MPs, especially at every jibe he made at Jeremy Corbyn. The phrase ‘ordinary working families’ appeared four times (a fifth if you also include ‘ordinary working people’) but he had nothing positive to offer most workers, let alone people without jobs who’s future of decreasing benefits and increasing policing has already been mapped out. And with reference to that last point, in February the government announced that the ‘DWP will work with an external data provider to better identify fraud and error caused by undeclared partners’. After the disaster resulting from using a private company to chase supposed overpayments of tax credits, are we to see a repeat with benefits?

Thanks to Tony, Norma, Gordon, Susan Dave and Gary

Making life harder one step at a time

 

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As the full Universal Credit ‘service’ gets rolled out to more areas, growing numbers of people are finding a new hurdle in the way of them getting the help and advice they need. In these areas (listed below) anyone who is helping a claimant and needs to contact the DWP on their behalf can no longer just provide their basic data, they will need the person being helped to give their consent themselves – either verbally over the telephone or through their online journal (we’d all just be numbers on a computer if the DWP had their way) or in person at the jobcentre. Getting through to the DWP by phone is rarely quick and easy (cue lots of tiny Vivaldi), and what if someone has learning difficulties or is in hospital…? Furthermore, this consent only covers the particular question being asked. If you need another separate piece of information you will need to start the process all over again. These restrictions apply to everyone who is trying to help, including MPs. Frank Field, who is Chairman of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, and hardly a friend of the benefit system, has described that as ‘a major barrier to justice’.

So far, the areas affected in Scotland are: Greenock, Inverness, Kirkintilloch, Musselburgh and Port Glasgow. (For the full UK list click here and look for the asterisks.)

More sanctions, and that difficult second ESA application

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Perhaps we were getting too complacent about the decline in sanctions. At last week’s much-too-busy stall we encountered three people who had been sanctioned – including one who had contacted their Work Programme Provider, Triage, to tell them that they couldn’t come to an appointment because they were going to be at college; and another who was on Universal Credit and doing part time work and whose job had clashed with his Jobcentre interview. As always, we advised them to appeal, and that it was worth doing this even after the statutory month if the DWP had clearly broken their own rules.

When the Scottish Government takes over the training schemes that replace the Work Programme these will be voluntary, but jobcentre sanctions will still continue, and David Webster’s most recent report gives considerable cause for concern. Also, the Scottish Government has just let us know – in response to an enquiry we sent them – that although no new people will be sent to the Work Programme from April, the existing contracts stipulate that people already on the scheme will have to serve their full two years.

David Webster’s latest analysis of the DWP’s sanctions statistics also draws on the reports published by the National Audit Office in November and the Public Accounts Committee last month. He informs as that, although the sanction rate for people on JSA is the lowest it has been since February 2010, around a third of unemployed people in the UK are now on Universal Credit rather than JSA, and the sanction rate here appears to be much greater. The DWP haven’t got round to producing statistics yet, but the National Audit Office reports that you are almost twice (1.8 times) as likely to be referred for a sanction if you are on Universal Credit than if you are on JSA. With more people moving to Universal Credit all the time, as well as its much harsher hardship rules, this is very worrying. There has also been a small increase in the proportion of sanctions for people on ESA and pushed into mandatory work related activities, and a Government Green Paper produced in October put forward the idea of extending the sanctions regime to the ESA Support Group.

The statistics suggest that far from being used as a last resort for the more recalcitrant cases, as the DWP claims, JSA sanctions are just as likely to be given to someone only recently out of work as to someone who has been unemployed for a long time.  People who are long-time unemployed tend to have been sanctioned more often, but only in line with their longer time on JSA.

The National Audit Office report confirms that the rise and fall in JSA sanctions reflects changes in management pressure on Jobcentre staff to refer people for sanctions. It also reveals that since 2013 some sanctions decisions have been made by jobcentre staff and not a remote and unapproachable ‘decision maker’ – and that the official guidance note insist that claimants are not made aware of this.

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The other major issue that we keep coming across is people having problems with ESA. Last week’s stall was no exception, and a couple of folk had an additional problem. Because they had applied and been refused ESA in the past, they had not been awarded the usual ‘Assessment Phase’ ESA of £73.10 a week while they waited for their Work Capability Assessment. We have checked with the Child Poverty Action Group, and what you need to do in these circumstances is apply for JSA, just as you would while you wait for a Mandatory Reconsideration to be looked at. The DWP have effectively said that you are fit for work, so although you have put in an ESA claim and are waiting for a Work Capability Assessment, you can apply for an out-of-work benefit and this is the only way you will get any money. Once your JSA claim has been accepted you can then get a doctor’s note for an extended period of sickness, like anyone else on JSA. Also, as in other cases when you are in difficult circumstances, you can always try contacting the Assessors and making the argument for an early assessment. (We should just add that a second ESA claim will only be considered at all if it is for a different condition to the one that was refused or your condition has got significantly worse.)

Luckily, our stall coincided with a Welfare Rights drop-in session in the shopping centre nearby, so we were able to send them a steady stream of people with problems. Other issues included a man who had recently come out of prison to find that not only was he homeless but his DLA and ESA had both been stopped leaving him with no money. He had been refused a Scottish Welfare Fund emergency grant on the grounds that he was staying in a hostel that provided a daily meal, but he told us that for other things he was shoplifting.

We were also able to let someone know that the jobcentre was being incorrect in signing him onto Universal Credit when he should still be eligible for contribution based JSA; to inform someone else that if her sister had indeed been refused Universal Credit because she was pregnant this was not right and she should get help; and to commiserate with someone who had been sent over from Arbroath in search of a job that turned out to have been completely misrepresented by the Arbroath Jobcentre. We also went in with the man we had helped the previous week to ensure that his sick note was indeed accepted OK.

Among the people going in and out of the buroo were some soldiers carrying out a bit of economic conscription among the unemployed. We were told they’ve been in there quite a bit lately.

Thanks to Gordon, Tony and Ailsa.