Notes and queries from our stall outside Dundee Buroo – 15 August

gull

What happens to help with the Bedroom Tax when you move onto Universal Credit? That was a new question and we had to look up the answer, but we are pleased to report that Shelter Scotland makes it clear that, just as with Housing Benefit, you can apply for help from the council via a Discretionary Housing Payment. We hope the man who asked the question will now get his full benefit again.

John’s situation is more difficult. He told us that he had missed his Work Capability Assessment after the date had been rearranged, and had then had his ESA claim closed down. We helped him arrange an appointment with Dundee North Law Centre, and after he gave me back my phone I asked him the details so we could write them down for him, but he had already forgotten them and we had to ring back; proof both of his need for ESA and the difficulties of someone in his situation actually managing to get through the process of qualifying for it.

There was little we could do to help Callum, but his predicament demonstrates yet again how disconnected the system is from anything that might genuinely help people improve their job prospects. He is starting a college course, and because he has changed direction too many times he isn’t eligible for a bursary. But because the course provides full time training he isn’t eligible for any buroo money either.

An additional unreachable problem was provided by the seagull who chose to place itself high up on the building above us with its rear end protruding over the edge…

Jumping through hoops for the DWP

whisky

Frankie told me that it had taken two whiskies for him to be able to leave the house in order to get to the jobcentre. His mental health problems include severe anxiety and agoraphobia, and, although he has been off drugs and clean for three years, he was worried that the stress of compulsory appointments was going to push him back to relying on the drugs again. This was not helped by the likelihood of running into old friends from his drug-taking days at the buroo. But Frankie had been moved from the ESA Support Group to the Work Related Activity Group after his recent Work Capability Assessment, and he had to go to the jobcentre to be given Work Related Activities.

We met him just as we were setting up our stall, and I went in to the jobcentre with him. His advisor was nice enough, but yet again we encountered the absurdity of a system whose bureaucratic rules seem to be ever further divorced from what they are purportedly supposed to be for. She listened as Frankie explained his particular difficulties – there is never any acknowledgment that expecting people to spell out their problems in an open plan office is inappropriate – and she then suggested that he could go to his local peer-supported job club, where they would help identify his needs and improve his skills. She was suggesting this, she explained, because she thought he would find it helpful, but since it was entirely voluntary it couldn’t count as official ‘steps’ on his ‘journey back to work’. So – although no-one on ESA can be made to apply for jobs, and Frankie is a long way from being able to work – she was requiring him to prepare a CV and sign onto Universal Jobmatch, the DWP’s jobsearch website. This, she told him, was compulsory, though not sanctionable, but we wouldn’t suggest he put that to the test.

We urged Frankie to get in contact with Welfare Rights and put in a Mandatory Reconsideration asking to be moved back to the Support Group, but meanwhile he will have to go through this box-ticking rigmarole. We also emphasised to his jobcentre advisor that he should be contacted by phone whenever possible, and he was told that he doesn’t have to go back to the jobcentre for another three months. And we made sure that the advisor crossed out the email address that she had asked him to give her, so Frankie can, at least, open his email without fear of being chased by the jobcentre checking up to see if he has completed tasks that no-one seriously engaged with his future would consider remotely helpful.

Welfare cuts go way beyond money – a report from this week’s stall

dog sitting

We can’t stress too strongly that the damage of Westminster’s attack on the benefit system goes much further than  its immediate impacts, and that was sadly evident at this weeks’ stall. If our last two weeks’ stalls were relatively quiet, this one made up for them.

Almost the first person we met had been bumped off ESA, and the subsequent stresses were making his condition worse. This was not helped by the jobcentre having lost a crucial letter so he was waiting for a week’s back payment. We spend a lot of time advising people how to proceed through the minefield of Mandatory Reconsideration, JSA application, doctor’s notes and appeals (see the back of our Know Your Rights Leaflet), but – what is almost as important – we also listen to people and take them seriously, in sharp contrast to how they can be treated inside the buroo.

A woman described the worries and stress, as well as financial difficulties, of losing her sickness benefit after twenty years; and yet another person passed ‘fit for work’– who we advised to see Welfare Rights for debt advice as well as for help with an appeal – told us that the stress of it all was destroying his marriage.

Another woman was receiving ESA, but was suffering major fears over pressure from the jobcentre to look for work that she felt quite unable to cope with. We were able to tell her, to her great relief, that the jobcentre cannot make anyone on ESA apply for a job; but the stress of her situation was causing her to stammer noticeably when she spoke to people outwith her friends and family, although this was not a problem she had had before.

And then there was the young woman with two boys with special needs, and health problems of her own. As a result of bad decisions at medical reassessments, her household income had just dropped by £300 a week. She had taken out a mortgage previously when she had been in work, and now she was at risk of losing her home. Worse, her social worker had observed that her children looked underfed. Meanwhile, she was attempting to help her teenage friend who had grown up in care, but whose aftercare support seemed to leave a lot to be desired. The friend was pregnant and had been left with nothing to live on as a result of an eight- week sanction. Her treatment under this system will already be affecting the next generation. These two women were getting help from a dedicated volunteer, but the so-called welfare system was letting them down so badly in so many ways that we suggested that they take their cases to their MP or MSP.

All these knock on effects will have major financial as well as human costs, as they put extra stresses on health and social services. It can sound callous to put it that way, but the point needs to be made because it undermines the argument that governments can’t afford to put more money into benefits. In fact, even before looking at the ethical case, they can’t afford not to invest in decent social security.

As the picture shows, we also provide an occasional dog-sitting service. Thanks to Gary, Tony, Norma, Chris, Duncan and Jonathan for help with recent stalls – and especially Dave, SUWN stalwart, who is currently in hospital after succumbing to a heart attack, but who we expect to welcome back at his post as soon as he is well again.

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Yesterday I gave a talk about our SUWN book as part of Edinburgh Book Fringe. Here is the window of the Lighthouse Bookshop (formerly Word Power) ready for the event. – Sarah

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