John was absolutely fizzing when we met him on a bitterly cold Monday morning outside Dundee buroo. He didn’t want to be there, would much rather have been at work, but is being forced into the hands of the DWP due to his failing health. Back in 2003, John, who is fifty one, had suffered three heart attacks in just two days. As a result, his life had been turned upside down. The necessity of letting his body recover meant that he had been remained away from work for over a year. And, whilst he had been able to return to paid employment, as a maintenance engineer, the effort required to get through a working week was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. He was eventually forced to bow to the inevitable and started signing on in March this year. Despite the fact that John was forced to stop work due to increasing health issues, and had a history of poor health, he was advised to claim JSA and not ESA, and was informed that he should expect a text inviting him to a meeting to discuss his claimant commitment. When the text did arrive, however, he was surprised, indeed horrified, to learn that the scheduled meeting, for which he had received two days advance notification, was due to take place in Southend-on-Sea.
John, who was now in a state of mounting panic, phoned the DWP and laid bare his dilemma. The adviser on the other end of the phone asked him, pointedly, ‘are you refusing to go?’ He confirmed that he was indeed refusing to attend and explained why, all over again. It appeared, however, that the geography of the (dis)United Kingdom was not the advisor’s strong point, and it took another four or five very long, expensive and often frustrating phone calls, before the situation was eventually resolved – John’s meeting was re-scheduled to take place at Dundee buroo and he was advised to apply for ESA.
When we met him, was palpably stressed out because his ESA payment was late and he was subsisting on his PIP money, of around £55pw. The serious stress that he had experienced back in March had returned with a vengeance, and he was also suffering a recurrence and worsening of a long-term problem with Carpal-Tunnel syndrome, a condition that is caused by constant pressure being exerted on the median nerve of the wrist, a legacy of a lifetime working with his hands.
This case, which is now being dealt with by a housing association welfare advisor, was, though, by no means the only administrative cock-up that we encountered. We also met Judith who had emerged from the buroo after unsuccessfully trying to sign on. She had earlier received a text asking her to attend a meeting at 11am, but when she turned up had been told by her ‘work coach’ that this was a mistake and that she had to return at 2.30pm. Needless to say, Judith was not best pleased to be messed about, and when she had enquired why this had occurred had been curtly informed that it was due to ‘problems with the system’.
At least the cock-up that Judith experienced did not affect her already pitiful JSA payments. Sye was not so lucky. Despite having been on ESA, due to serious depression, for six weeks he had still not received any money. He was desperate, and had come to the buroo to request a short term benefit advance (STBA), but because his ‘work coach’ was off on a course to train her in the even more devilish ways of Universal Credit, he was simply told to return next week when she would be back. We provided Sye with details of a welfare organisation that could help him, both with his case and with access to food parcels and a food bank, if necessary.
One of our final cases of the day was Gordon, who turned out to be in a similar position to Sye, as he had not received his latest JSA payment, but his work coach had phoned up Clydebank Escalation Dept, and the money had been deposited in his account before he even left the buroo.
This week’s cases underline the mounting problems that are being experienced by all those signing on in the wake of the roll out of Universal Credit (UC). Pressure is clearly mounting on a welfare system that is already sagging under the weight of its own internal contradictions, to the extent that it increasingly becoming a game of chance as to whether people have their claims properly dealt with and their already miserable ‘benefits’ (sic) paid on time. This infernal game of ‘welfare roulette’ provides no ‘fortunes’ for those lucky winners who may have an understanding ‘work coach’ who will actually intervene when admin problems do occur. For those that don’t have even that help, the cost is often heavy and long-lasting. It is measured in days without enough food or no food at all, of increasing mental health problems as frustration gives way to despair, and increasing physical ill health. This is not a welfare system, but a murderous misery-driven meat grinder. It is not good enough, however, just to ‘rage against the machine’ – we need to disable it and replace it with real social security.