Whilst there is mounting trepidation at the prospect of the full roll out of Universal Credit (expected to hit us in Dundee on 8 November), we are already experiencing a rise in the number of cases and inquiries we are fielding at Dundee buroo, and this week was no exception. Many of the cases we dealt with at our stall or on the phone – eight out of 14-15 – had a familiar ring to them, involving people who had been refused entitlement to ESA, or who had ESA terminated a following re-appraisal.
The case of Margaret, an older woman from Stonehaven, was one notable example. David, her nephew, had phoned us on her behalf, and, with no prior experience of the wonderful world of the DWP, was clearly shocked at the way she was being treated. Margaret, who recently lost her husband, suffers from mental health problems. She had been on ESA for seven months, but had very recently attended a work capability assessment where she had been informed that she should expect to lose her ESA entitlement. David was puzzled as to how privately employed ATOS assessors have the legal authority to over-ride GP’s when they decide that their patient is unfit for work – to which our volunteer replied, ‘welcome to the wonderful world of the DWP, David.’
Margaret is now struggling to cope, both financially and mentally, to the extent that she is finding it difficult to function. David is clearly very worried about her, and our volunteer advised that Margaret’s worsening condition should be assessed by her doctor, that a mandatory reconsideration (MR) should be phoned in asap, and that Margaret should then make a claim for JSA. Our volunteer explained that, for those living in an area where Universal Credit full service is yet to be rolled out, it was important that the MR is phoned in BEFORE the claim for JSA is made, because making an immediate claim could result in Margaret, as a single person, being signed up to Universal Credit instead. It is also the case that a decision on ESA entitlement will take much longer to be made if the MR is posted, and that the vast majority of ESA MR’s fail because they are dealt with by an ‘in-house’ ‘decision maker’ with a 80% fail quota. By phoning, rather than writing, folk can proceed more quickly to the tribunal, the second stage of the appeal process. Once you are on the appeal stage you can go back on basic rate ESA again. Because the tribunal is made up of independent representatives, claimants have a better chance of their appeal being properly considered, with almost 70% of ESA appeals being successful.
Many folk who have been bumped from ESA cannot figure out how they are expected to claim for JSA. They quite reasonably point out, they are not ‘fit for work’, leaving some feeling like frauds for claiming JSA, to which we invariably reply, ‘welcome to the wonderful world of the DWP’.
The only way in which those affected can receive social security payments whilst waiting on the Mandatory Reconsideration process to conclude is by applying for JSA, despite not being fit for work. Once folk are signed up to JSA and receiving payments, then they can ask for an ‘extended period of sickness’ note from their GP, which lasts thirteen weeks, and which should take them through the period required before the appeal stage. This may not take the pressure off completely, but the GP can explain that the stresses of the jobcentre routine are affecting your health. It is also the case that because many Job Centres (JC’s) are being inundated with such cases, JC ‘work coaches’, or whatever their title is this week, are increasingly aware that many claimants, despite being on JSA, are not really capable of work. For this reason, some ‘work coaches’ take quite a sympathetic approach to such claimants. Where they do not, and where the claimant is vulnerable, as is the case with Margaret, we would advise that they are accompanied in to the JC by a family member or friend or welfare rights worker, to discuss and negotiate their claimant commitment with the ‘work coach’, and to ensure that any special needs or problems that the claimant has are taken into account. Family members and friends should be aware that they have the right both to attend meetings with the claimant and to speak on their behalf, with the claimant’s consent – do not allow bolshy ‘work coaches’ to tell you otherwise.
We also met Peter, who had gone five months without any payment, and we went into the jobcentre with him to ensure this was sorted out. He had been on ESA and had been informed by the jobcentre that if he came off this he would go back on JSA. His health proved better than he feared, so he came off ESA, and waited – but no JSA payments. He assumed this was par for the course because when he had been made redundant and claimed JSA last year, it took the DWP five months to sort his payments out. This time, as he waited, he lost his car and his TV and was threatened with eviction. He got assistance to fight the eviction and arrange Housing Benefit, but no-one seems to have mentioned the need to put in an application for JSA. Unsurprisingly, his health deteriorated and he is now back on ESA, but he had talked with Citizens Advice and been told to put in a claim for JSA for the missing period. I have to say that the advisor was helpful, and he was given a form to explain in detail what had happened. Now he must wait for the ‘decision maker’. We made sure that he asked for a photocopy of his completed form – a point he appreciated as he observed that, of the four doctor’s notes he had had to hand in for his ESA, the jobcentre had lost two, requiring him to get duplicates.
Mark had received no money since his ESA claim had been closed down for failure to come to a Work Capability Assessment. The problem was that he had never received a letter telling him about the appointment. He told us that he had been five minutes late for a previous appointment and been told to go away and wait to be given another time, but had not heard from them after that. He also told us that he had been earlier informed that he would not need to go to an assessment as his medical evidence would be sufficient. His list of health (and other) issues included PTSD following multiple stab wounds – he insisted on showing us the scars, accompanied by graphic description – and he was currently homeless and staying on a friend’s sofa. We made an appointment for him with Welfare Rights, and left him hurrying to the council to put in for a Scottish Welfare Fund emergency grant before they closed for the day.
George was fuming when we met him. He explained that he had recently underwent an assessment for PIP, and had received full PIP, for both mobility and daily living, but two days after receiving the letter confirming the decision he had attended a ESA appeal tribunal where he was stunned into furious silence when his appeal was rejected – he had failed his Work Capability Assessment by one point. Welcome to DWP world, George.
Next up was Louise, a vulnerable young woman with a number of conditions who, due to lack of money, was back living with her mother. She had been bumped from ESA, and placed on JSA. However, weeks after making her application, she had still not received any money, and we urged her to contact Welfare Rights asap for an appointment so they can take up this case of administrative failure on the part of the DWP, and also to apply for a Scottish Welfare Fund grant. Although Louise’s situation is quite desperate, the fact that she is living with her mother may well affect her entitlement to a grant, and we asked her mother to keep in contact with us so that we might offer further assistance, if required. This may well not be the last time we hear from Louise and her mother.
It is important to remember that claimants who are facing delayed benefit payments are expected to apply for and have exhausted a Short Term Benefit Advance (STBA) before they can apply for the Welfare Fund Grant. Giving loans to folk with next to nothing and then expecting them to pay such loans back from the miserable pittance of JSA or Universal Credit only serves to further underline the warped reality created by the so-called ‘welfare reforms’ – where the disabled are forced into seeking work that may well harm them because employment is actually seen by the DWP as a ‘clinical outcome’.
In addition to the heavy workload on the issue of ESA, we also met John. He had just been sanctioned for failing to complete his job search, due to having to make arrangements following the death of a family member; and, in addition, he had been refused hardship payments. We strongly urged him to apply for a Welfare Fund Grant, and to ensure that he gets his Mandatory Reconsideration appealing his sanction in as quickly as possible.
Mark, a young man, had, in his own words, ‘bailed fae the buroo, cis it wisna worth the bother.’ This is a refrain we are hearing fairly regularly, particularly from younger folk, who, like Mark, are staying with parents. We are sure that the DWP would approve of Mark’s decision, as their entire strategy seems designed to make the experience of unemployment as unpleasant as possible. But, what of those young folk, as well as their older counterparts, who don’t have understanding and relatively well-off parents to rely on?
[For folk in Dundee – we will be marking the arrival of Universal Credit full service with a protest outside Dundee buroo, alongside our usual advice stall, from 12-2 Wednesday 8 November.]
Thanks to Norma, Davey, Gary, Sarah and Tony for their help at this week’s stall.