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.