If you are on Universal Credit you’d better not get ill

Panic attack icon design

A recent phone query revealed yet another serious problem with Universal Credit. Frank rang us on behalf of his daughter, Jen, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. Jen is on Universal Credit and was caught by the last throws of the Work Programme, so she can look forward to two years of being given useless things to do. However, going to the Work Programme provider was making her conditions worse – especially when they shut her in the computer room – so she has had to ask her doctor for help. When Frank contacted us Jen had just handed in her second six-week ‘fit note’, and was worried about being sanctioned if she didn’t go to her Work Programme appointment.

As we told Frank, what is supposed to happen when someone on Universal Credit gets ill for more than four weeks is that they automatically receive a UC35 form to apply for being treated as long-term unfit for work, and so eligible for the additional elements of Universal Credit that are the equivalent of ESA. However, as a bit of Google research showed, this automatic referral can’t be relied on, and getting the application form can prove a major hurdle. Jen had to go into the jobcentre the next week so she took the opportunity to ask for the form. In line with our Google research, she was told that she couldn’t expect it for a further few weeks as there was a major backlog. We know there are long delays in getting a date for a Work Capability Assessment, but this was an additional delay before Jen could even get into the queue. That means more time when she is expected to cope with a ‘jobsearch’ routine that makes her condition worse, and a longer wait before she receives any extra money she might qualify for.

When you apply for ESA, you are treated as unfit for work during the waiting period between putting in your application and getting the result of the Assessment. Under Universal Credit you are treated as fit for work and for sanctionable ‘jobsearch’ and ‘job preparation’ tasks.  Meanwhile, all you can do is argue, with the help of your GP, that there would be substantial risk to your mental health if you were found fit for work or made to do work-related activities, and it is not reasonable to expect you to do these.

After we had discussed the situation, Frank rang the Work Programme provider and explained that Jen wouldn’t be able to come and do their tasks. They told him – despite the ‘fit notes’! – that they were unaware of her situation and offered a phone appointment instead, which they promptly failed to keep. But Jen managed to ring them. We also suggested getting the MP involved to try and speed production of the form, but this has proved unnecessary as a copy actually arrived soon after Jen put in her request.

*          *          *

Another phone call that same week came from a man whose benefit money had been stolen by a friend. He was able to get a Scottish Welfare Fund grant (once he had a police crime number), but that was hardly going to last the month until his next payment, so we suggested he ask for a Short Term Benefit Advance. This he did, but was told firmly ‘no’; and so he is having to rely on the support of his mother. Which raises the question, if you don’t have friends or relations to help, or you live in part of the UK without the Scottish Welfare Fund or any Local Authority grants, what are you supposed to do in these circumstances?

Social Security in devolved Scotland

This is the second of three talks jointly organised by The Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network and Common Weal Dundee. It looks at what improvements we could make in Social Security for Scotland under devolution. Paul Spicker was Professor of Public Policy at Robert Gordon University from 2001-2015. Besides a huge number of academic books and papers he writes a regular blog and has contributed policy papers to Common Weal.

The first talk introduced our SUWN book, Righting Welfare Wrongs.

In the final talk, at 7pm on 27th July  in the Butterfly Cafe, Dundee, Annie Miller will discuss Universal Basic Income. Annie is a cofounder of the Basic Income Earth Network and of Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland. Her book, A Basic Income Handbook, has just been published by the Luath Press

A glimpse of a silver lining

social attitudes survey

We have always said that with the Tories getting increasingly trigger happy, bringing more and more people into their line of fire as they attacked welfare, so attitudes would change. The latest British Social Attitudes survey suggests this has started to happen. The rigours and hypocrisy of austerity have encouraged people to support an increase in tax and spend, with the percentage supporting more spending overtaking supporters of the status quo for the first time since the financial crash in 2007-8. And when it comes to benefits, the percentage of people who agree with the statement that ‘Many people who get social security don’t really deserve any help’ fell between 2014 and 2016 from 32% to 21%. There was a similarly big drop – from 35% to 22% – in the percentage of people who thought that ‘Most people on the dole are fiddling in one way or another’. Both figures are record lows.

Unsympathetic public attitudes have been used by the UK Government as arguments to support their unsympathetic policies, but these attitudes don’t just happen. They are very deliberately cultivated by government propaganda. The latest survey shows that people have begun to see past all that ‘strivers and scroungers’ rhetoric and become more aware of what is really going on. And this was done before the major political shifts produced by the movement around Corbyn in the recent general election.

Further confirmation of more sympathetic attitudes is provided by the debates on Social Security that have taken place at Holyrood. Although the Tories stick to defending UK Government policy, other MSPs show a good understanding of the realities of the benefit system, which they will have had ample opportunity to get familiar with through casework for their constituents. Indeed SNP and Labour MSPs appear to be competing to demonstrate their empathy. We can only hope that this positive competition encourages maximum use of Scotland’s limited devolved powers.

When did working for nothing become a thing?

17-07-08 Courier

Yesterday’s Dundee Courier carried an article that amounted to little more than a free advertisement for ‘volunteer’ stewards at next month’s big music event in Camperdown Park. Not only are they expecting stewards TO WORK FOR NOTHING, ‘anyone interested will have to pay a £20 deposit and a £15 processing fee, with no guarantee they will actually be selected to volunteer.’ They are also expected to provide their own tent, food and toilet roll. Whatever happened to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work? This is run by a commercial organisation not a charity, and I’m sure plenty of people will be taking home a nice profit, so why won’t they pay the people who work for them? And does Dundee City Council consider this acceptable? What about all those people looking for and desperately needing a paid job? Some may even feel pressure to ‘volunteer’ for the sake of their CV?

We put this up on Facebook last night, where it was greeted by well-deserved horror. We also tagged one of the local councilors who has promised to speak to the organisers. If nothing changes, I can feel a picket coming on…

This is becoming a bit of a pattern. Remember all those cheerful helpers working for nothing at the Commonwealth Games (we complained about that too). And the zero-hours contract workers hired to clean up Glastonbury and sent away because volunteers had kept the site so tidy. People on zero-hours contracts also lost out in Glasgow when a major gig was cancelled at the last minute. Just because a company is involved in the entertainment business, that doesn’t give it the right to make profits on the back of other people’s goodwill or desperation. All these events involve licensing, if not the use of public spaces and – in the case of the Games – public sponsorship, so there is plenty of scope for local authorities to take action.


How to mislead – DWP-stylie

post office account letter

Letters sent by the DWP to people with Post Office Accounts are not only economical with the truth, they are quite clearly designed to mislead people into thinking they have no alternative but to open a bank account instead. One of our activists got one of these letters this week. It read:

‘We are paying your benefits or tax credits into a Post Office card account. You are now expected to use a bank, building society or credit union account. Most people now use one of these accounts. Please call us now with your account details’

Of course is doesn’t actually quite say that you have to change from your Post Office account, but it is written in a way that suggests you have to. Our activist wasn’t so easily taken in, but she thought she should ring just to confirm: ‘She told me that at the moment it is an option but the letters will keep coming and that one day in the future it won’t be an option. I told her that I will keep the payments going into the PO and she said that’s fine.’

This is all part of the drive to make as many payments digital as possible. Even basic bank accounts allow direct debits, which Post Office accounts don’t. But people who can only just make ends meet often don’t want to set up direct debits because it is harder to keep track of every penny.

The pressure to move people to bank accounts has been there since the Post Office card account replaced paper based systems in 2003, when there were accusations that opening a card account was being made deliberately difficult. The demise of Post Office accounts has been reported regularly,  but the Coalition Government proudly announced in 2014 that they had made a new contract that would guarantee the accounts until 2021.