No winners in the game of welfare roulette

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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.

 

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Saying ‘No’ to Universal Chaos!

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Today the Universal Credit Full Service roll-out hit Dundee, and we made sure that we were outside the buroo to let the DWP and the wider public know what we thought about it.

Tony Cox for the SUWN called for Scottish civil society to come together in a mass movement of resistance to make Universal Credit May’s Poll Tax, and Mike Arnott of the Trades Council and Jimmy Black who chaired the Dundee Fairness Commission added their voices as a first small step towards that unity. And among the small crowd that gathered to show support were councillors from Labour and SNP, Rev Erik Cramb, and members of Unite. Here is the video of the speeches

And here are some photos and the text from our leaflet.

(We have been busy updating the Universal Credit page on this site and writing a new Know Your Rights leaflet. You can check out the page and we will get the leaflet up in the next day or two. There are a lot more rules and a lot fewer rights!)

MAKE UNIVERSAL CREDIT MAY’S POLLTAX!

Every week, at our stall outside the jobcentre, we meet people weighed down with problems.  We give all the support and help we can, but we know it is just  a drop in an ocean of suffering created by a Tory government that is determined to destroy the welfare state and turn it into a new penal system for the poor. The UK Government’s austerity cuts are a calculated attack on rights and concessions that have been won by decades of working-class campaigns. They weaken the structures that allow people control over their lives, and open up opportunities for private companies to make money, including from public funds. The claim that austerity is about saving money is a smoke screen. It is all about making it easier for business to make bigger profits. Universal Credit is the central plank of this Tory attack. It deprives us of our right to social security and increasingly of our rights as citizens.

Scottish civil society has to come together as a mass movement to defend our basic human rights. The UK government won’t shift, so we should demand the powers for Scotland to make a better system.

If not now when?  If not us who?

WHAT’S HAPPENING TODAY?

From 8 November, anyone in Dundee who makes a new claim for a means-tested working age benefit (currently JSA, ESA, Income Support, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and Housing Benefit) will have to apply for Universal Credit instead. Previously UC had only been brought in for people in certain categories, such as the single unemployed. (If you are on one of the above benefits and your other circumstances remain the same you will not be moved to UC for now.)

 

UNIVERSAL CREDIT’S DESTROYING LIVES & CREATING UNIVERSAL CHAOS

Evidence from pilot areas on the impact of the new benefit is devastating, but although the staged rollout was supposed to allow the system to learn and improve, the Government has refused to make any significant changes.

Further major benefit cuts have been deliberately built into the new system.

You have to demonstrate that you have spent a full 35 hours a week looking for work.

No money is paid for the first 5 to 6 weeks – often longer. Claimants can get an advance but this is a loan that has to be paid back off future benefits. This leaves people struggling on impossibly low rations for months. Over 80% of people on UC are in rent arrears and many are facing eviction. Private landlords are refusing to let to people on UC, and councils and housing associations are budgeting for major loses, which will impact on their ability to provide homes.

Anyone who is sanctioned under UC and needs to get a Hardship Payment will find that this is also now a loan that has to be paid back. This means that they will be struggling on less than minimal money for 2 ½ times the length of their actual sanction.

 

UC is calculated each month. This can lead to major problems if you are paid irregularly for any reason, e.g. if you are self-employed  and get a large payment one month and nothing the next.

This benefit is unique in that sanctioning will also apply to some people in work. If you are earning less than the equivalent of 35 hours a week on the minimum wage and relying on UC instead of Working Tax Credit you can be made to look for more or better paid work under similar conditions to someone who is unemployed (including no holidays).

Although the Government claims UC is designed to ‘make work pay’, claimants who get a bit of extra work will still lose 63p for every pound earned. (Compare with people on incomes over £150,000 who loose only 45p in the pound.) Most people in low-paid work will get much less than under Working Tax Credit.

Claimants will be expected to do everything on line, even if they don’t have a computer at home. You will need to provide a reason why you cannot use a computer in order to avoid this.

Whistleblowers have exposed a system that is chronically under staffed and under trained, so any problems can take an age to sort out, by which time people are often in serious difficulties.

 

‘Ahm arite, son, I aye dae whit ahm telt’ – SUWN stall report

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Despite his ‘glass half full’ attitude, it turned out that George, a 63 year old ex-trawlerman and HGV tyre fitter, is far from ‘arite’. After nearly fifty years of heavy labour, his body is starting to give up on him – the pain from the serious degeneration of his lower spine was etched on his face, and when he dropped our advice leaflet and attempted to bend down and pick it up, he did so in stages and almost fell over with the effort. Despite his obvious disability, George is on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) – the question of George moving onto Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) had never been raised by  his ‘work coach’ (sic), who, instead, only appeared interested in whether or not he had met his job search commitments. As he said himself, George is very much ‘auld school’ – he ‘disna like the idea oa being idle’, but he reluctantly admitted to being torn between missing work, and knowing within himself that he really couldn’t cope with the demands of tyre fitting. He was also worried that taking heavy labouring work – the only kind of work he has ever done – would only worsen his already serious and degenerating health; which begs the question, what is the role and duty of care of the DWP in a situation such as this?

Unfortunately, watching out for folk like George, who desperately want to work but are in no condition to do so, seems a distant second for the DWP who, instead, prioritise ticking boxes and meeting targets. After further discussion, George agreed, rather reluctantly, that he should really be on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and we provided him with details of local welfare organisations that would be able to guide him through the application process, along with our own contact details in case he has further problems. This is a man who had always worked and had never asked for anything from anyone, but who now realised that he was at the end of his working life. He does not and cannot not know what the future has in store for him. He was, though, aware that his optimism and openness was costing him in his dealings with a DWP that has become nothing more than a gigantic meat grinder.

We also met Helen, in her fifties and suffering from severe depression as well as a number of other physical health conditions. However, she had recently failed an ESA Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and was now on JSA. She had not been able to attend a recent DWP appointment due to ill health and, despite having a sick note form her GP, had just learned that she had been sanctioned for 48 days.  Helen is receiving hardship payments, but explained that this latest sanction had followed earlier ones, leaving her in mounting debt and making her already serious depression even worse, thus highlighting the emptiness of the Tories’ apparently heartfelt pledge to treat those suffering from mental health problems with understanding and fairness. The reality is that the Tories’ so-called welfare reforms have created the conditions for the developing epidemic of mental health problems that we are witnessing.

We urged Helen to immediately appeal the sanction, but her response was ‘whit’s the point?’, a regular refrain from those who have been worn down by repeated sanctioning. We explained that if she didn’t appeal, it was highly likely that the DWP would come after her again. They are like bullies, who thrive on the fatalism of those who have been repeatedly forced through the DWP meat grinder – the only way to stop the cycle of sanctioning is to challenge the DWP, which will make them think twice before sanctioning again. And appeal is also likely to lead to a sanction being overturned.

Both Helen and George’s cases are of a kind that we are only too familiar with, and, whilst both underline the fundamentally heartless nature of the so-called welfare reforms, they also pose searching questions regarding the presumed ‘cost savings’ that these are supposed to deliver. It is becoming ever clearer that whilst the DWP’s often brutal approach may be saving pennies, they are also creating much larger long term costs – economic, as well as human – for society as a whole. It is the already struggling NHS that is expected to pick up the pieces as they fall from the DWP meat grinder. And, as sure as night follows day, the developing crisis within the NHS, which has been fuelled by swingeing budget cuts and the Tories’ own ‘welfare reforms’will be used to fuel demands for the further privatisation of English health services (with knock-on impacts in Scotland). Meanwhile, the meat grinder will continue, day after day, remorselessly grinding away. It’s up to all of us to work together to stop it.

Whilst these two cases were the most notable that we dealt with this week, we also dealt with others at the buroo, by phone, through facebook and via email, which we don’t have the space to deal with. Norma, Tony, Jonathan and Kat were involved with this week’s stall.

Taxes for Welfare – a petition to the Scottish Parliament

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Click HERE to sign

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to make more money available to mitigate the impact of UK Government welfare cuts through reassessing spending priorities and bringing in more progressive taxation.’

Tory austerity is turning the welfare system into a new penal system for the poor, with benefit cuts that are destroying livelihoods and lives. Smith ensured that all the major means-tested benefits remained with Westminster, but Scotland has gained powers to add new benefits, and to alter income tax bands and rates. Without powers over other taxes and economic levers, possibilities are limited, but it is still important to make maximum use of the powers we have, both for the sake of the people this will help, and if we are to demand the need for the full control that comes with Independence.

The Scottish Government already provides important help through mitigating some of the cuts (notably the bedroom tax) and giving emergency grants. But there are urgent calls for more help from so many different groups who have found themselves at the sharp end of Westminster cuts, as well as pressing demands for more spending on council services, public sector pay, and all the things that make a decent society. If these are not to be forced to compete with each other in some sort of competition in desperation, then the Scottish Government will have to find more money by bringing in more progressive taxation. Indeed they have a moral duty to do so.

To help put this case we have submitted a formal petition Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to make more money available to mitigate the impact of UK Government welfare cuts through reassessing spending priorities and bringing in more progressive taxation.’

We urge everyone to show their support by adding their name. There is also scope to add your own comments and experiences.

Here’s the LINK again

Background:

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, and there is also insufficient money for everyone hit by the Benefit Cap to get help via Discretionary Housing Payments. 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.

As welfare activists and campaigners, with a regular stall outside the jobcentre and further interaction with those at the sharp end of welfare ‘reform’ through phone and internet, we are only too aware of what is happening and the urgent need for more help. We also keep a vigilant watch on what is happening in other places and the fears that have been raised about future changes. We can see the urgency of the different calls that have been raised for more help in different areas – for children, for the disabled (including people in the ESA WRAG group and its Universal Credit equivalent who have lost £30 a week, and people who have lost out in the transfer from DLA to PIP.), for carers, for people waiting for Universal Credit, for people affected by the benefit cap, for people losing out on Universal Credit for their third child. We recognise the importance of all these needs and don’t want to see them being forced to compete against each other for the small sums currently available. We don’t believe this is necessary, nor even financially prudent. We have seen directly how the lack of relatively small sums of money at a crucial time can have major knock-on effects on individuals and families that, as well as being personally damaging, result in much greater demands on the public purse through social and health services. The huge growth of mental health problems linked to welfare ‘reform’ is a case in point. (See ‘Government welfare cuts blamed for 50% surge in mental health issues among unemployed’, Independent 16 July 2017.)

The sort of severe rationing that we are currently looking at is not necessary because we can access the money to do something about it. We can start by recognising welfare for the priority it is, but we know that with the cuts to the block grant that will not be enough. However the Scottish Government is now able to make changes to the tax system to raise more money from those with the highest incomes. And it could also introduce more progressive local taxation through introducing a Land Value Tax. There is growing recognition of the need for the Scottish Government to back up its caring social rhetoric with more progressive action. This has been demonstrated by the 38Degrees petition in response to the First Minister’s proposal for an ‘open conversation’ on tax increases, and has been repeatedly raised in the Scottish Parliament by the Scottish Greens. Even with the limited devolution that we have, and without full welfare powers or full tax powers, we do have the ability to make more of a difference, and we have the moral duty to use it.