More sanctions, longer sanctions – Universal Credit strikes again

Dundee foodbank

David Webster’s latest meticulous analysis of the sanctions statistics makes for grim reading. We had thought that sanctions were on the wane and that the DWP were mainly relying on the pernicious impact of the fear that they had induced – as well as turning their attacks onto the sick and disabled; but Universal Credit appears to opening the doors to a new and nasty return. Sanction numbers are not nearly as high as their peak in 2013-14, but they are rising. Worse, they are significantly higher for people on Universal Credit than those on JSA, so as Universal Credit is rolled out to more and more people in more and more areas, we can expect to see sanction numbers increasing. This difference is true for people of all age groups. As if that were not bad enough, the impact of a UC sanction can be much more prolonged than that of a JSA one. Under UC, hardship payments are loans that have to be repaid off future benefits, effectively stretching the period of reduced rations to two and a half times the nominal sanction length. And any further sanctions received during the sanction period no longer run concurrently but are added onto the end. UC also allows sanctions to be applied for the first time to low paid or part time workers earning less than the equivalent of 35 hours a week on the minimum wage. So far a much lower proportion of UC sanctions have been successfully challenged – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

ESA sanctions (overwhelmingly for not doing work related activities) are much less common, but there is a disproportionate number of long sanctions. While the most recent figures suggest that the DWP has learnt not to keep discriminating especially hard against people with mental health and behavioural problems, the proportion of sanctions for pregnant women is particularly worrying.

The statistics also show a significant fall in the proportion of eligible people applying for JSA, from an estimated 69% in 2009/10 to 56% in 2015/16. This is only to be expected, as people struggle to survive on next to nothing rather than face the worries and humiliations of the jobcentre. The problem is particularly bad among young people.

David Webster also points out that:

The UK Government response to the Public Accounts Committee Inquiry on benefit sanctions has still not been published, despite being due in April.

A new research paper has provided hard evidence that poor quality work can be worse for you than being unemployed. This was reported on by the Financial Times, which added that this would likely also worsen productivity [and thus the employers’ bottom lines!].

A recent study has exposed the huge decline in local welfare schemes in England. It includes the observation that this will not save money as the costs of the necessary later interventions will be much higher.

You can read David Webster’s full report here: 17-08 Sanctions Stats Briefing – D.Webster As he notes, the DWP’s statistics collection and publication still falls far short of the requirements of the United Kingdom Statistics Authority

The picture shows Dundee’s Trussel Trust Foodbank

If you thought you’d seen the last of these ’employability’ businesses…

A little mole has sent us the list of the organisations who have won the contracts for Scotland’s new training schemes that will start next April – and it’s horribly familiar. Not really a surprise because we knew who the Scottish Government have been talking to, but here it is in black and white. Of course the very fact that the Scottish Government continues to use the term ‘employability’, with its implication that people are unemployed not because of lack of jobs but because they are unemployable, is hardly encouraging. It is difficult to imagine that companies that moulded themselves to the box-ticking sanction-generating regime of the Tory Work Programme will have much useful to offer in the way of the genuine person-centred training we had been promised. The only – but very important – compensation is that this time these schemes won’t be mandatory or sanctionable. We must make sure that this is made clear to everyone involved so they know that they are free to leave if the training isn’t helping them.

The following is a direct quote from our anonymous mole’s email, as sent to us and other activists. The comments are theirs:

Full list of Fair Start Scotland providers is:

Edinburgh – Working Links (calling themselves Start Scotland and masquerading as a charity with the Lennox Partnership who have form for sanctioning)

Glasgow – People Plus (A4E)

Lanarkshire – Remploy (maximus)

Tayside – Remploy!!

Aberdeen – Momentum 

Reserved lot for ‘supported business’ – Wise Group who are NOT a supported business

South West – Working Links!!

Highlands Islands – People Plus!!

Forth Valley – Falkirk Council

[At least we’re spared our old friends at Triage! – SUWN]


Why didn’t they tell me there was a grant for that?

SUWN stall, 19-09-17 003

What do you do if you have job interviews coming up for the kind of ‘front of house’ jobs where a neat appearance is absolutely essential, but you have no appropriate clothes or the money to purchase them? When Mark had posed this question to his so-called advisor, she casually replied, ‘just go like that’, before informing him that no clothing grants were now available for job seekers in his position. Needless to say, he was not best pleased with his advisor’s cavalier attitude, and, when we spoke to him, he was becoming worried that two forthcoming job interviews, on Friday and Sunday, would be compromised.

We offered to do a little research to see what help, if any, was still available for clothing needs, as this is a problem that unemployed people often face when searching for work. We contacted the local Welfare Rights office who informed us of two sources of help. The Dundee Clothing Project is based at Dundee House in North Lindsay Street. Those seeking help should approach the Dundee House reception where they can collect a voucher that allows them to select items of donated clothing from the project’s store at the Methodist Church, 20 Marketgait West, on Monday’s between 10-12pm and Thursday’s between 1-3pm. Help with clothing can also be sought through the Scottish Government funded Community Care Grant, for which you can apply by phoning the Scottish Welfare Fund on 01382 431188, but applicants are advised that there is a fifteen working day turn around for this grant.

In addition to our own researches, Mark made further inquiries at Dundee Jobcentre, and was informed by another, more helpful, staff member about the Flexible Support Fund. Guidelines for this fund are set locally. In Dundee it can provide jobseekers with a voucher for £64, comprising £30 for shoes, £20 for trousers and £14 for a shirt, which can be used in Matalan. We had also spoken to the CPAG advice line to draw on their expertise, but they didn’t initially find the Flexible Support Fund, despite a fairly extensive search of the internet, which underlines the considerable efforts that the DWP go to in order to conceal the full range of benefits that are available to those who are making every effort to get back into work. (An undercover report by Channel 4 actually exposed this as deliberate DWP policy) The Flexible Support Fund, as the name suggests, can be accessed for a wide range of requirements, including for things like travel expenses and training courses, as well as clothing for interviews. Here’s a link to some more information.

Mark’s was not the only major case we dealt with this week, although the stall was, thankfully, not as busy as the previous week. We also met Karen, a young woman in her twenties who is on Universal Credit, and who had just left her job because her working hours had been reduced from fifty to two hours per week – although there were also other issues relating to her treatment at the hands of a line manager who she believed was bullying her. Karen had just emerged from the Jobcentre where she had been told that they would not deal with her problem because she did not have appropriate identification. We advised Karen that she may well face problems as she will be viewed as having voluntarily left employment, and urged her to contact Welfare Rights asap so that they could take up her case. We would remind readers that whilst JSA claimants have the right to refuse jobs that offer zero hours contracts or very low working hours, those on UC are expected to accept such jobs and to continue to claim Universal Credit to make up their wages.

We also met John, a young man in his twenties who claims JSA, and who informed us that he has been paying the DWP back £18 per fortnight, from a £200 loan he had received from the DWP over two years ago. He strongly suspects that he has paid well over the odds, which, given the state of admin chaos in the DWP, would not be very surprising.  We advised him to approach Welfare Rights in order to investigate whether he DOES still owe the DWP money; and, if he is still in debt, to complete an income/expenditure form, which would detail his available income and thus enable Welfare Rights to re-negotiate the scale of re-payments – because £18 is far too much money to be paying back from the pittance of £73.10 that JSA claimants receive. We also advised John to request Welfare Rights conduct a benefit check on his behalf in order to ensure that he is receiving the full range of social security he is entitled to.

In addition to these cases, we dealt with a number of other less serious inquiries and problems on the stall, but we have also been kept busy with telephone and internet inquiries – including three on Monday, starting at 8.30 in the morning. These are not only from various parts of Scotland, but from as far afield as Nottingham.

Thanks to Norma, Jonathan, Davey, Gary and Duncan with helping out at this week’s stall.

SUWN stall, 19-09-17 002

Sanctioned for signing off

graduation no background

Jamie came to the stall just as we were packing up. He had been told to find us because he had no money and didn’t know what to do. The problem began a year ago, just when he thought he was getting his life back together again – only he wasn’t aware of it at the time. The previous year he had had to drop out of uni (another story) and had signed on, but last autumn he was ready to go back to his studies. He phoned up the DWP to close his claim and was told all was OK. He thought nothing further of it until this June, after he had graduated, when he went to sign on again. He was then informed that he had been sanctioned for non-attendance after he had closed his claim. Actually, every advisor he spoke to seemed to have a different explanation of his situation – including one who told him he didn’t have an appointment when it was clearly on the screen in front of her – but the final consensus was that he is sanctioned for a further 160 days and it is too late to appeal. He was initially told that he wasn’t eligible for Hardship Payments either because he lives with his mother, but now that she has exhausted all her savings he has been allowed these. As he is on Universal Credit, Hardship Payments are actually a loan to be paid back out of future benefit payments, effectively leaving him on 60% of the already meagre benefit for 2 ½ times the length of the sanction. We are urging him to appeal this absurd but noxious sanction – including an explanation of why he couldn’t have appealed earlier – and to get support from his MP.



Mixing with politicians – what’s the point?


We spend a lot of time and effort responding to consultations, writing letters and meeting MSPs – so occasionally we need to take stock and ask ourselves why we are doing this and what we have achieved.

Politicians are the people who have the power to make and change laws, but they don’t do it just for the asking. Most politicians have pretty set outlooks and programmes, even if they have simply swallowed them whole from their party manifesto; and though they may be convinced that they are acting for the common good, that tends to coincide neatly with the party line. But outlooks and policies do change, and if politicians want to keep their job they have to respond, and be seen to respond, to the people who elect them.

Politicians are aware that most letters they receive represent the views of a much greater number of people; even more so when that letter comes from a group that engages with many others directly affected by their policies. But if they are to be convinced that this is the way the wider wind is blowing, then they will need more evidence of a change in public mood. That’s where all the other campaign activities come in. By raising awareness of current problems and political solutions, we can help change that public mood and build political pressure.

When we established the SUWN six years ago, it was a response to depressingly negative attitudes to the unemployed, led by the UK government and popular media. While the UK Government remains as callous as ever, there has been a noticeable upturn in public understanding and empathy. This is partly a consequence of increased exposure to the realities of benefit cuts and sanctions, but also of the actions of campaigning organisations such as ourselves. The Tories haven’t shifted, but developments in Scotland are more encouraging, and there have also been big shifts in the UK Labour Party.

The Scottish Government’s arrangement preventing their new training schemes to be made mandatory, and thus potential contributors to DWP sanctions, provides an example of a concrete and positive policy development that is a response to both campaigning pressures and more formal consultation processes.

At the moment the Scottish Government’s Social Security Bill is being put under scrutiny. We submitted a response to the initial consultation and also to the draft bill. Our views are based on our experiences with all the people we have worked with and helped. We don’t have the detailed political and legal knowledge, nor the resources, to go through the legislation with a fine tooth comb, but we can help publicise the findings of those who have: people such as Professor Paul Spicker, whose response we referred to in our own recent submission; and Justice Scotland, who have exposed the harsh rules proposed for people providing inaccurate information, which could end up criminalising people for making a mistake. (We had raised our concerns about this section, but had not appreciated that as written it was actually harsher than the current UK system.) We have even had constructive discussion with the Labour Party, who have raised important issues about enshrining the government’s much heralded statements, such as no use of private sector assessors, into law and ensuring mechanisms for continued scrutiny by parliament and users. (We say ‘even’ because if they had not campaigned against Independence we would not be in this mess, and if they had not gone against the promises of their own Vow and argued against the full transfer of benefits we would be able to make much more fundamental changes.) Clearly there is a lot of work still to be done to make the bill match up to the Scottish Government’s stated ambitions for it, and we will be following, publicising and criticising developments.

The main area in which the Scottish Government will take over the reins is disability benefit, what is now DLA and PIP. They have agreed that this should continue to be run by the DWP until their new system is ready to take over in two or three years’ time.  Whether the changeover could have been done differently is now only a matter for academic conjecture. We did try asking if at least the mobility bit could be taken over sooner, but were told that that was not possible. However, that doesn’t mean the Scottish Government can just abandon all those people who have lost out from the move from DLA to PIP, with its absurdly high bar to getting mobility payments. We asked about more help via the Scottish Welfare Fund but have just been told that there are no plans to raise the amount of money given to this.

Of course the attack on our welfare system comes from Westminster, and we fully acknowledge the contribution that the Scottish Government makes in mitigating some of the worst impacts of Tory austerity. We also acknowledge their plans for small extra payments to carers and small grants to families; but they can and must do more. The legislation allows them to top up benefits or add new ones; however, they have also resisted widely-supported calls for an additional £5 on child benefit. So long as finances remain constrained to existing levels, any gain in one area will be at the expense of another, so real substantial improvements will require a refocusing of priorities and a commitment to more – and more progressive – taxation. Although the Scottish Government’s tax powers are limited, it can make changes to income tax and it could introduce a Land Value Tax.

As campaigners we take every opportunity to look at the bigger picture and stress the need for a radical approach to a properly funded system based on progressive taxation. This doesn’t mean Scottish Labour’s scattergun approach of £1 on all income tax, but a proper progressive system that takes most from those who have most – and we are glad to see the Scottish Greens providing a constant reminder of this.

It has been heartening to see the SNP publicly acknowledging the need for a more radical programme. This is clearly a response to the public mood – and the disillusionment caused by their over-cautious approach, as demonstrated in the general election results. Many of their proposals are only at the level of discussion at this stage, but we would echo Patrick Harvey’s point of the need to push the SNP beyond their comfort zone. As more progressive ideas become normalised, we will push the Greens beyond their comfort zone too.

And finally (and apologies for such a long post) this afternoon, we have submitted the following petition to the Scottish Government Public Petitions Committee. We will let everyone know once it’s been passed as complying with petition rules and gone live:


We have seen the huge difference made by existing mitigation policies such as the payment of Bedroom Tax and the help provided by the Scottish Welfare Fund. The situation is much worse south of the border. But that is not enough. Thousands of people are still struggling, and unless funding is increased any improvement in one area becomes a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. The Scottish Government have dismissed widely-supported calls for an extra £5 on Child Benefit, and they have turned down our call for additional support through the Scottish Welfare Fund for people who have lost out in the transfer from DLA to PIP as they wait for the new Scottish disability benefit to be brought in. Even without this, demands on the Scottish Welfare Fund are set to increase considerably as Universal Credit is rolled out to more and more areas. In addition, there is already insufficient money for everyone hit by the Benefit Cap to get help via Discretionary Housing Payments, and this will get much worse when Housing Benefit limits are extended to social housing in April. These are all crucial areas and the focus of vital campaigns, and underlying all is the need for more money.

 Our government has a political and moral duty to help the poorest in our society, and it can do this by taking more taxes from those with the biggest incomes and land-holdings. As if the human case were not enough, spending more on social security also makes sound financial sense as failure to provide help at this stage has major financial as well as human consequences. 


The Older Manual Worker and the DWP: SUWN Stall Report, 11 September  

dignity of labour

After the drama and excitement of Sunday’s anti-fash protest in Perth, it was back to the bread and butter on Monday morning. In sharp contrast to our experience last week, business was worryingly brisk. We were fielding questions and queries even before we had set up the stall, and were still answering queries whilst packing up the stall two very busy hours later.

Almost every case we dealt with involved older male manual workers, a group that has been particularly badly affected by the increase to the qualifying age for pension entitlement. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that the DWP are overseeing a system that amounts to a form of in-built discrimination against older manual workers with health problems. By the time that they are entering their fifties, many older workers are affected by serious and degenerative conditions, particularly, though not exclusively, arthritis, which are directly related to the stresses of long-term physical and often repetitive work. However, this group have also been disproportionately affected by the on-going DWP cull of ESA claimants, which means that many then face the twin tortures of Universal Credit (UC) and Universal JobMatch (UJM). This not only provides further opportunities for the DWP to sanction them for the crime of not being computer literate and/or au-fait with designing CV’s, but, by compelling them to work, it also effectively undermines their health with every passing day.

The first case we dealt with involved this very scenario, but with a nasty twist. When he was removed from ESA and forced to go onto Jobseeker’s Allowance while the DWP looked at his Mandatory Reconsideration request, Jim, who is in his late fifties, put in a thirteen week sick notice known as an Extended Period of Sickness (EPS). This is standard practice and something we advise as it removes the pressure to search for work whilst you wait for the Mandatory Reconsideration to be dealt with. On this occasion, however, his advisor informed Jim that if he handed the sick note in he would lose all of his benefits. This is contrary to the DWP’s own rules, which make it clear that someone who has signed onto JSA after being found ‘fit for work’ has to be treated like anyone else on JSA, including for sick notes. Jim, who struggles with a number of conditions including COPD and serious arthritis, was being forced to look for three jobs per week, whilst the stress attendant on the pressure he was being put through had exacerbated his ill-health. We have intervened successfully in cases of this kind before, and we offered to accompany him back into the buroo to sort out the issue with his advisor, however he has just put in for an appeal as his Mandatory Reconsideration has been turned down, so will be back on ESA as soon as that is registered.  It is very disappointing to see the buroo going back to this trick. Here are the rules for anyone else facing a similar situation.

As Monday’s stall graphically demonstrated, the roll out of Universal Credit still continues to cause mayhem for those caught in its web, with many folk expressing their concern at the possible impact of being forced onto UC. However, we would like to reassure folk that when areas come under the full UC roll out (it hits Dundee mid-November) it will not affect existing claims, only new claims and people whose circumstances change.

Bert, a fifty-five year old manual worker, had already been waiting six weeks on his first UC payment – we have come across folk who have had to wait much longer. He is now in serious debt, but had foregone the offer to take out a Short Term Benefit Advance (STBA) on his UC payments because he had reasoned – quite correctly – that this would only leave him short of money when he does eventually receive his payments. Despite his being totally reliant on friends and family to help him, the DWP have failed to inform him about the Scottish Welfare Fund grant scheme. In a situation such as his, we advise people to take out a STBA, and when that has run out to apply for a Scottish Welfare Fund grant. These grants are only given if you have been refused or already exhausted a STBA. They are non-re-payable and can prove vital in getting through the long wait before UC payments kick in. Whilst Bert was told that he should expect to be paid shortly, the current serious admin problems surrounding UC mean it could still be weeks before his payments start, and we advised him to follow our advice if the waiting game continues. In the meantime, however, he was experiencing real problems with using the computerised UJM system, a regular refrain we hear from many men and women of a similar age and working background.

UJM was also posing a problem for Geoff, an oil worker in his fifties, who had just started signing on for JSA following his redundancy. Work on the rigs is the only employment he has ever known, and, whilst he is keen to return to his trade as quickly as possible, he was already being put under pressure to apply for all kinds of inappropriate work through his claimant commitment and UJM. He told us that his best chance of getting work was through word of mouth from friends and ex-workmates who were alerting him to vacancies. We explained to him that word of mouth – e.g. through face to face conversation or via phone or social media – is a legitimate means of searching for work, according to the DWP’s own guidelines, but he had not been informed of this by his advisor who was, instead, determined that he fulfil his heavy job search commitments to the letter. We advised him to re-negotiate his job search commitment with his advisor, by underlining the inappropriate nature of the jobs he was currently being forced to apply for and signposted him to the SUWN website, which details the DWP wide criteria for acceptable forms of job searching. Someone who has previously done a skilled occupation should also be able to agree a ‘permitted period’ (from 1 to 13 weeks) during which they can restrict their search to jobs in their usual occupation and/or at their usual rate of pay.

Ronnie, another older worker, was involved in a complex and long-standing dispute with the DWP over an appeal on an unsuccessful ESA Work Capability Assessment (WCA) in July, which had followed an earlier WCA that had finally been resolved  in January. On that earlier occasion, he had received nine points, but was awarded ESA following a successful Mandatory Reconsideration (MR). He was rightly puzzled and vexed as to why he had failed to meet the criteria in July when he had done so in January, despite the fact that, if anything, his health problems had worsened over that time. His mood had improved, however, when he noticed that the award letter he received in July did not have the signature of the assessor, a clear breach of DWP operating procedures. He was now embroiled in a fresh appeal and was determined to take his case all the way, beyond the tribunal stage, if necessary.

Whilst we were chatting to Ronnie, he received a call from his pal, John, and the phone was quickly handed over to us. John had also been bumped from ESA, and had received no money for two months as he waited on the result of his MR. He had not applied for JSA, as he did not feel this was appropriate, due to his inability to work. This view is commonly expressed by many people in a similar position, and is undoubtedly the cause of much anxiety and hardship for those affected, whilst also saving the DWP a bit of money through people not claiming JSA – but at what cost?

We explained to John, that he would receive nothing whilst he waited on the MR and he SHOULD apply for JSA and submit an EPS, as with the first case detailed above. It is important for people in a similar position to understand that they should FIRST put in the MR, and only then make the claim for JSA, because if you don’t you are liable to end up on UC. We would also strongly advise people to phone their MR in rather than submitting it by letter. The vast majority of MR’s fail, as they are judged internally by the DWP themselves, and phoning your MR in means that it is likely to be dealt with much quicker, so you can proceed to the appeal tribunal stage in quicker time as well. There you are much more likely to succeed, as the tribunal is independent of the DWP.

In addition to the above cases, we also dealt with other less serious queries, but also a particularly complex case, which will be the subject of a separate report.

SUWN at Perth anti-fash protest

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Phoaties fae today’s very large demo in Perth, which must have numbered upwards oa a thousand, including many fowk fae Perth, and a very healthy turnoot fae the Dundee left, which was both pleasing and encouraging. Oor squad oa five fae the SUWN was augmented by the weighty presence oa wee Annie, wha can be seen in een oa the phoaties, alang wi Sarah Glynn, geen it laldy when a bus oa fash passed the protest . Following the march tae the High Street, the polis attempted to corral the demo in Scott Street,which connects with South Street, whaur the fash were due to assemble. Oor wee squad decided tae forego the temptation oa the polis paddocks and worked oor way roond tae South Street, so that we could at least get within spitting distance oa the ‘master race’ when they arrived.

When we emerged intae South Street we were greeted wi the ‘black bloc’ being chased aw ower the place by the polis, before they were eventually kettled ootside a cafe. There was an extremely large and sometimes provocative polis presence, which at points actually became dangerous. It was clear that the right to protest was being curbed, both by the utterly unreasonable demands being made by the polis to clear the pavements of protestors, giving rise to a scrum between polis and anti-fash with Jenny and the twa Sarahs’ oa the SUWN very much to the fore, no giving an inch tae polis threats and their use oa disproportionate force in attempting to push them back and push them aroond. At its height, the battle for the pavement got a wee bit tasty wi the polis snatching front line protestors, but these attempts were aw foiled by comrades, including Jock and Tony, prising them back fae the clutches oa the polis.

The massive polis presence meant that the fash remained barely within earshot, and it was clear that, if nothing else, the whole exercise had proven useful to the polis in deploying and testing their crowd control techniques – to the extent that the right of the anti-fascists to protest was seriously curtailed. Lessons hae tae be learnt fae the day’s events. In particular, the anti-fascist movement will hae to gie careful consideration as to how they can mare effectively STOP the fash, and noa allow themsels tae be dictated to regarding HOW they protest.

It is clear, though, that we have the strength in numbers. The turnoot the day was well impressive, as was the sense oa solidarity. The Scottish left is at its maist effective when it is united, something we’d aw dae well tae remember. Such was the impact oa the Perth demo, that.coming back in the train tae the RED YES CITY some oa the SUWN squad expressed their fervent wish that the bastard seed oa Britnationalism wid caw in oan us sooner rather than later. We’re sure their presence wid gie the local anti-fash and indy movement a right guid boost. However, we canna promise that their visit wid be as incident free for them as their wee jaunt the day was.


Keeping Welfare at the Centre of the Fight for Indy


On 26 August SUWN marched with other Indy supporters through Dunfermline.

This video shows Tony’s speech at the Dunfermline rally. He will be speaking for the SUWN again at the rally in George Square on the 16 September.

We have always found huge support for welfare issues from Indy campaigners, and our Dunfermline leaflet explained

Why WELFARE is at the CENTRE of the FIGHT for INDY

We are fighting for a fairer Scotland – not just for a change of flag but for the opportunity to create a better society, with decent social security for everyone.

To make sure this happens, our demand for that better society has to be an integral part of our demand for Independence. At the same time, our campaign for decent social security exposes the brutality of the current Westminster system and the limits of devolved powers.

The Scottish government has recognised social security as a human right, but it could and should be much bolder in its redistribution of the few resources we have and in challenging Westminster’s power to leave Scottish citizens destitute. We will only achieve that better Scotland if we do all we can to ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’ – and then push to be able to do more.

Corbyn was also in Fife that day, so our leaflet ended: P.S. If you bump into Jeremy Corbyn, please tell him that British unionism has no place in the labour movement.

When is voluntary training not voluntary?

directions-letter trimmed

When the Scottish Government announced that the newly devolved training schemes they will be running in place of the dreaded Work Programme will not be mandatory, all of us familiar with the impact of sanctions heaved a collective sigh of relief. So it was with an added sense of frustration that we received an email from someone on benefits in the Highlands telling us that he had been mandated to go on a training course run by Highland Council. If the Scottish Government could rightly refuse to be implicated in anything that could facilitate the DWP operating its oppressive sanctions regime, then shouldn’t Scottish councils follow the same logic; and if the Scottish Government recognise that training schemes actually run better when people are there because they want to be, shouldn’t our Scottish colleges be similarly concerned?

We wrote to the Scottish Minister for Employability and Training, but his reply didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t know: Highland Council do not mandate attendance, but they do accept referrals from the DWP. So we wrote to Highland Council, who were concerned about the possible implications and promised to investigate further. So far, we have got an assurance from the DWP that no-one will be sanctioned for not attending, but this is not enough. Our original informant had been told to go on the course via a Jobseeker’s Direction, which generally means that failure to comply could result in a sanction. If attendance is not sanctionable, then the council and college need to insist that the jobcentre makes this absolutely clear to everyone they inform about the courses. Sanctions have been triggered so readily, and the fear of sanctions is now so entrenched, that people will always assume instructions are mandatory and sanctionable rather than run the risk of losing their benefits and being left destitute. (This is clear from the number of people who suffer unpaid work-experience placements not because they think they will be useful but because they didn’t realise that they weren’t compulsory, as noted in this recent report from the Guardian.) We are following up the Highland case further with the council, and are also meeting with officials from the minister’s office. We will let people know of any further developments.

This issue will become increasingly important as Universal Credit rolls out to more areas. Yet another sting in the tail of this new benefit is provided by the rules for people aged 18 to 21, who, after six months on the buroo, are mandated onto unpaid work experience or training schemes. Our colleges will have to make a stand against getting involved in this programme. They may feel tempted to argue that if people are being made to go on courses anyway, there is no harm in being the providers, but there are two good reasons for resisting this. Any connection with compulsion and sanctions would have a seriously detrimental impact on the course; and, even more importantly, anyone providing courses under these circumstances is facilitating the sanction regime.

Experience has taught us that under the current UK Government the welfare system has been transformed into a method of discipline and control, especially through sanctions, which Dr David Webster has described as a ‘secret penal system’. That is why we argue that there has to be a firm division between the DWP and any organisations that aim to provide genuine assistance to the unemployed. People using those organisations have to be confident that they are not being spied on by a system that could put their very livelihood at risk.