But then they cut my hours

 

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In a world of precarious employment, many people who are getting by on minimum-wage agency work supplemented by Working Tax Credits can be thrown into a major crisis at the whim of their employer. When we met Phil outside the buroo he had been given only a few hours’ work in the last three weeks and was struggling to make ends meet. Another week with reduced hours and he faced losing his Tax Credits as well. Clearly this wasn’t sustainable. He had spoken to the DWP and been told that if he left the agency work and applied for Jobseekers Allowance he would be sanctioned for giving up his job! So his only option was to go on Universal Credit. The one advantage of Universal Credit is that you ‘only’ lose 63p of benefit for every pound you earn, instead of losing all bar £5 when you are on JSA. Otherwise rules are generally more intrusive and the sanctions system is much more punitive, so Phil had good reason not to want to sign up to the benefit.

This didn’t seem right to us. Phil had been working for some time and paying National Insurance, so he should have been eligible for 6 months contribution based JSA; and if you’re on JSA you can’t be forced to accept a just a few hours’ work a week. We gave Phil the details of the local Welfare Rights advice sessions so he could get this sorted out, but this seemed like a problem that is going to keep reappearing, so we thought we would get advice from CPAG for future reference. This is what we learnt:

If you have paid enough National Insurance to qualify for Contribution-based JSA, or if you are in one of the groups who is not currently eligible to apply for Universal Credit, then you can sign up for JSA. You could do this and keep on with the part time work so long as it wasn’t for more than 16 hours a week, but until you started earning more than the amount of the JSA you would effectively be working for nothing. The DWP Guidance (paras 534415-18) says clearly that you shouldn’t be sanctioned for giving up a zero-hour contract, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t try. You should win an appeal, but might risk some difficult money-less weeks first.

If you are entitled to contribution based JSA then you shouldn’t actually get Universal Credit; but this wouldn’t be the first time that someone has been erroneously signed up to the new benefit.  The DWP love getting people onto Universal Credit, and once there it is very difficult to leave. Next time you get a job then you stay on Universal Credit rather than Working Tax Credits.

All in all then, pretty much a Catch 22 arrangement.

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23 Days to Build an Anti-Tory Alliance and Save the Welfare State – vote SNP in Scotland and Labour in England

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Now that we actually have the Labour manifesto, we can see a wide and unquestionable band of clear blue water between Labour and the Tories, but when it comes to social security there is nothing but the proverbial cigarette paper between Labour and the SNP.

However, Salmond’s suggestion that Labour has copied SNP policies is more rhetorical than serious. Both the SNP and Labour are essentially social democratic parties.

We do not, as a matter principle, support any one party, but have called for tactical votes for the SNP in both last General Election and this, as the best, indeed only, vehicle for advancing working class interests. Whilst the SNP Government is far from perfect, they have protected us in Scotland from some of the very worst excesses of the Tory Welfare cuts. They have already mitigated and promised to scrap the bedroom tax, mitigated housing benefit cuts for under 21s, and promised that the Scottish disability benefit that replaces PIP will take account of doctors’ reports of people’s needs and not depend on assessments carried out by private companies. They have promised that the training schemes that they will run will be voluntary and unsanctionable, and they have provided vital short-term help through the Scottish Welfare Fund. Only a small portion of the benefit system is being devolved, but the Scottish Government has promised that Scottish Social Security will have a completely different culture from the current punitive UK regime. At the same time, the SNP has consistently campaigned in parliament against sanctions and benefit cuts, including leading the campaign against the two children (rape clause) policy.

Of course there are some Labour plans that the SNP could do well to copy, especially a stronger focus on public ownership – but Labour’s continued commitment to Trident cannot be hidden behind the novelty of a Labour manifesto with some left-leaning policies.

bairns not bombs

And then there’s Independence, where the manifesto writers appear to have handed the pen to Kezia Dugdale’s Scottish Labour Party. Perhaps this is their return for backing a manifesto that is considerably further to the left than the Scottish leadership and most of the Scottish party is comfortable with. But since when did Unionism become the touchstone of Labour policy, and how can they justify not only campaigning actively against Independence, but even opposing letting us decide our own fate in a second referendum?

Blair McDougall

The Labour manifesto, despite its Trident-sized problems, has caused a flurry of interest among the Scottish left, but when it comes to choosing who to vote for, that shouldn’t cause us any problems. The only way that manifesto has a hope of becoming UK policy is by maximising the anti-Tory vote.

Here in Scotland, especially if polls are correct about former Labour voters moving over to the Tories, any significant shift of votes from the SNP to Labour risks letting in Tory MPs. If you want to avoid letting the Tories in by the back door, you should vote SNP.  If the seemingly impossible occurs, and Labour support rallies and grows in England and Wales, the very possibility of a minority labour government might be jeopardised by voting for Scottish Labour. And, despite Labour’s pre-election protestations, we can be sure that if SNP support was needed for a minority Labour government, it would not be turned away. This would pave the way to negotiations for a second Independence referendum; and the process of any future separation would be more constructive. For such a development to occur, the zombie Scottish Labour Party, with their bitter Britnat stance, has to be seen to die conclusively and make room for new beginnings. They have fallen far, but they must be seen to fall even further on June 8th if we are to see any chance of a radical reformed Scottish Labour Party that can provide a socialist, pro-Indy force, and can, again, seek to represent Scottish working-class interests.

 

So you thought you could improve yourself!

La Boheme

The jobcentre regime is built around the myth that those who are unemployed just haven’t tried hard enough; so you might expect that they would help people to go to university and improve their qualifications. That might be logical, but it is not what happens. Most students have to support themselves with part-time work, but if you are not managing to find work, you generally can’t claim benefits – at least not if your course is considered to be full time. If it is part time (and there are strict rules about what counts) then you have to demonstrate that you are available for and looking for full-time work. You can specify on your claimant commitment which hours you will be available for work, but only up to a point as you also have to show that this doesn’t significantly reduce your chances of finding a job. For the DWP it is always the short-term prospects of getting a job – any job – that count.

At this week’s stall we came across two people who had been forced to give up their degrees in order to be able to claim the benefits they needed to survive. Anna had gone to the jobcentre hoping that she could sort something out, but emerged in tears having been surrounded by three jobcentre workers all shouting at her. John was less visibly upset, but his situation was more severely worrying. He had been aware of the problems with claiming benefits as a student and had discussed his particular situation with the DWP. They were not certain whether or not he qualified, but signed him up for Universal Credit anyway meanwhile. It was only after he had received benefits for several months that they told him that they had decided he was not actually eligible to receive anything – and that he would have to pay it all back. (Universal Credit overpayments have to be repaid regardless of who was at fault.) Now, not only has he had to give up being a student in order to get Universal Credit, he also has unmanageable debts. These have got so bad that he is facing imminent eviction for unpaid rent. We urged him to see a money advisor as soon as possible and gave him the list of the different welfare-rights sessions in his area.

CPAG has made it’s student welfare advice handbook freely available on line, and most universities can provide some help navigating the system, but this can’t alter the basic problems within the rules themselves – especially when the DWP doesn’t know its own rule book. Even with this government’s limited vision of education, regarding it merely as training for work, these rules are damaging to individuals, and put a hurdle in the way of any plans to develop a better trained workforce.

(The picture shows the student in Puccini’s opera, La Boheme, burning his manuscript to keep warm.)

Thanks for help at this week’s stall to Norma, Tony, Gary, Gordon, Chris and Duncan

So why is it called a jobcentre?

The pretence that jobcentres are organised to find people work – and not just to discipline them – seemed to be wearing particularly thin last week as we listened to accounts of the hurdles the DWP puts in the way of any serious job search.

Jim has been doing voluntary work for a housing association for a couple of years; just the sort of thing the DWP usually pushes people to do to improve their job prospects. But recently he got a new ‘job coach’ and she was not happy. She claimed that the housing association was not a charity (she managed to overlook the statement at the bottom of its website) and Jim should have been paid for the work he had done. These non-existent payments would therefore be deducted from his benefit. Jim had to prove that he was indeed an unpaid volunteer. If he had not managed to persuade the DWP he would, in effect, have been made to pay for volunteering.

Julie had recently been sent for an interview at the chicken factory in Coupar Angus. It was only after she had got to the factory that she discovered there was no longer any transport that would make it possible for her to get to and from the work, so her time and bus fare had been wasted. This is a large employer so the jobcentre should have been aware of the problem, nevertheless, one of our activists recently had a similar experience. Luckily he asked his ‘job coach’ how he was supposed to get there before agreeing to the interview. The ‘coach’ noted that there was no public transport at the relevant hours, but suggested that he might be able to find a fellow worker who was driving to and from Dundee. What, our comrade asked, would happen if he couldn’t find such a person?

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Coupar Angus Chicken Factory – not where you’d want to be stranded

Mike also told us that he had been offered a job interview that was at some distance. He was struggling to survive on his benefits and had no money left for the fare to get to the interview. He had asked the jobcentre to help him, but they had refused, claiming there was not time to do the necessary paperwork.

All these difficulties don’t mean that the DWP doesn’t want people to find jobs. It’s just that the limited jobs available get filled without the jobcentre’s help, leaving them free to concentrate on the disciplining bit.

Thank you to Gary, Norma, Tony and Duncan for helping at the stall.