Getting out of Universal Credit

May

When Universal Credit was brought in it was described as a lobster-pot system: once you were in there was no way back onto the older benefits. BUT for people in areas that have not yet had the Universal Credit Full Service roll out, there is a possible escape route, especially following the changes brought in at the beginning of this year. In those areas, anyone making a new benefit application now makes it through the old system. If you are unemployed you apply for JSA, if you are unable to work you apply for ESA, if you don’t have to work due to caring responsibilities you apply for Income Support, and you apply for Housing Benefit separately from the local council. This should mean that if you are on UC in one of those areas and close down your current claim and make a new one, you would go back onto the old system. There doesn’t appear to be anything in the legislation to suggest that this wouldn’t work, though we don’t know of any examples of people who have tried it.

You would have to survive the initial unpaid week, and then there is always a risk of delays in any benefit application. Also, we would never suggest closing down an ESA claim and risking another assessment. But this might prove a useful route for some people – e.g. if you are on UC and have become unfit for work and would rather apply for ESA than UC for people who are sick or disabled; or if you want to escape the jobcentre altogether and just apply for Housing Benefit. Of course there are a few people for whom UC actually works better; and, if you are still needing benefits you will have to go on UC eventually, which will mean – assuming they haven’t improved the system – another long wait for the first payment. You would need to think what the advantages and disadvantages might be in your particular circumstances – and discuss your options with a welfare advisor if you can – but this could be a useful hole in the lobster pot for some. Please let us know if you’ve tried it!

You can find whether you are in a relevant area here. It will be described as Universal Credit Live Service (as distinct from Full Service). And you can find when the Full Service rollout is due to come to your area here.

[24 February 2018 – just discovered a much fuller examination of what is possible here.]

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Universal Credit problem number a million and one – or thereabouts

18-01-23

A few grassroots activists can only directly help a tiny proportion of those who need assistance, but we hope by writing about what we do we can reach a few more people with similar problems, and also make a wider public a bit more aware of the realities of life relying on the DWP. The following two cases came to us by phone and internet. (The number in the heading is just a wild guess, but with 660,000 people now on UC it could be an under-estimate.)

Leanne rang us because she was planning to set up her own small business and she wanted to know whether to follow the jobcentre’s advice and move from Income support onto Universal Credit. Of course individual priorities will vary and ultimately the decision is hers, but we could tell her to start with that the DWP likes to encourage people to sign up to Universal Credit, but that very rarely is it to their advantage.

Superficially, UC would seem to be helpful. You don’t lose almost all your benefit when you start earning some money, as Leanne would do if she stayed on Income Support; and you can get help with childcare. BUT, what the jobcentre didn’t tell her is that UC for the self-employed can cause some very serious problems, and although these have been pointed out for a long time, nothing has been done to rectify them. Firstly, UC, which is calculated monthly, is notoriously bad for people with irregular earnings. If you earn a lot in one month you will get little or no UC income; but even if you earn next to nothing the next month there is only a limited amount of benefit that you can receive, and there is no scope to average the earnings out. After the first year, the DWP will assume that you are always earning at least what you would get in a minimum wage job and working your full number of hours – normally thirty-five hours a week, unless, like Leanne, you have caring responsibilities. If you actually earn much less, your UC will still be calculated as if you were earning that full sum – and you can also be made to look for additional work and do other tasks, under threat of being sanctioned. Even before then the DWP can decide that you are not earning enough and must look for something else. And every month you are expected to submit your accounts.[1]

We sent Leanne a link to this powerful Channel 4 News report, and we also pointed out that at present she is relatively lucky. Her youngest child is three, and while she is on Income support, she will not have to look for work until he is five. However, under UC, single parents are expected to look for sixteen hours work a week straight after their youngest child’s third birthday; so, if she goes onto UC and her business doesn’t work out, she will be under pressure to work or search for jobs sixteen hours a week, or lose her benefit.

Not much incentive to set up on her own or go onto Universal Credit, then. What was that about ‘making work pay’?

Tina missed her Work Capability Assessment last September. Or rather, they missed her. Because of the extent of her problems she had asked for the assessment to be carried out at home. She couldn’t manage the first date that they sent, and they promised to send her another by post, but the assessor arrived without notice, and she was out – so the DWP closed her claim. (Failure to notify people about their assessment is not uncommon, and we have talked with people to whom it has happened more than once.) She put in a Mandatory Reconsideration and then an appeal – we had to help her with the appeal because the person she had been seeing at CAB had just left.

When, after two months with no income as she waited for the result of the Mandatory Reconsideration, she learnt that she could apply for Universal Credit, she applied for that too. And she asked for it to be backdated. The letter she got back from the Universal Credit people was quite bizarre. UC doesn’t really do backdating except for a month if you fit a set list of criteria. The ‘Decision Maker’ explained that Tina’s reasons for applying late for UC were ‘not unreasonable’, but couldn’t count as they didn’t fit the list. One of the listed reasons is having a disability, and Tina had previously been in the ESA Support Group with mental health problems. However the letter went on to explain that if Tina had done her Mandatory Reconsideration herself, then she was not too disabled – and if she had got help then her helper should have told her to apply for UC. On that logic, it is difficult to see how this criteria could ever come into play.

Tina can continue to try and get an extra month’s UC by appealing against this backdating decision, but she also wanted to know what would happen to her missing money if her main appeal is successful and she is eventually recognised again as not fit for work. Although CAB had told her that her money would then be backdated to cover the gap, this was not the impression she was getting from the jobcentre. We were glad to be able to confirm that, unsurprisingly, it was the jobcentre that was confused (or confusing). She is currently on basic UC. If she wins her appeal and is eventually found unfit for work she will stay on UC but not be forced to apply for jobs. And if she is also found unfit to do ‘work related activities’ then she will get an additional ‘limited capability for work-related activity’ element in her UC. If she gets found unfit for work then she should also get awarded backdated ESA for the gap before she applied for UC. (Thank you CPAG for clarifying this!)

For now, though, she is coping with the legacy of the gap in her benefits, plus reduced payments because of deductions for the advance that she had to take to cover the initial UC waiting period. We have suggested she ask for help from the Scottish Welfare Fund.

Meanwhile, back at last week’s stint outside the jobcentre (see above) we met yet another person who appears to have been wrongly made to apply for Universal Credit (complete with nine week wait) when she had just lost a job and should have been on contribution-based Jobseeker’s Allowance. (And we have just been contacted by someone who has had her PIP stopped because the DWP has claimed erroneously – for the third time in a row – that she had not sent in her renewal form.)

(Thanks for the last two stalls to Norma, Gary, Tony, Gordon, Duncan and Dave)

[1] From April 2018 new (and complicated) rules will mean that extra money earned one month will be carried over to reduce the UC received the following months. You will be able to carry over actual losses too, but not low pay; and previous earnings won’t be taken into account when considering whether to make you look for more work – so this will solve none of the problems identified above, while adding an extra complication – 29/1/18.

 

 

 

 

 

‘This place needs blown up’ – a stall report

Wellgate steps

The verdict of one jobcentre ‘customer’ left us in no doubt of his opinion of the ‘service’ he had just received. (In these days of ‘terrorists’ under the bed I feel I should point out that this statement was rhetorical – we know of someone who was banned from the jobcentre for a similar comment.)

A look back at recent blogs demonstrates the huge amount of distress caused by jobcentre errors – what in any other organisation would be deemed culpable levels of negligence. That the DWP presides over a system so poorly structured and badly trained, demonstrates the official contempt for the people they are supposed to serve. Fran is another victim of the DWP’s bureaucratic incompetence, and when she first burst out of the jobcentre she was far too upset to talk to us. It was only after a long sit down with her daughter on the cold brick steps round the corner that she was clam enough to explain what had happened. She had been getting help from Welfare Rights, so we didn’t feel the need to go into the details of her case, but the DWP had been sending her from pillar to post, always demanding more paperwork. Meanwhile, she had no support for her teenage sons, who are at college, so that they were threatening to give up their courses and futures and join the scrabble for unskilled jobs; and the DWP were accusing her, without evidence, of a two week gap in her records. The last straw was the jobcentre’s refusal to sign a crucial document she had been given by Welfare rights. While there was no risk of anyone blowing up the jobcentre, I was more seriously concerned about her comments that life was no longer worth living.

When she had calmed down sufficiently, we rang her Welfare Rights officer who was able to see her again that afternoon and ring through to the jobcentre, insisting on the need for a signature. This time Fran emerged fro the jobcentre with a smile and a signed document. She told us that the man who had signed it observed, ‘I could have signed that an hour ago’.

Even when people are already getting professional help – and in our experience in Dundee increasing numbers are – it can still be important that when they are at their lowest after being processed by the jobcentre machine they can find people who recognise them as a fellow human being.

Tam should have been in hospital, but had checked himself out of his bed to sort his benefits. He is on JSA and we told him he should be able to get a thirteen week Extended Period of Sickness. He is returning to a further five to six weeks hospital care, where he hopes the social work team will help sort out the doctor’s line. Sean had also been in hospital, and in consequence had found his case closed for failure to attend, and was having to sign on again.

Arun has been homeless since April. A friend has offered him a flat in a few days’ time, but meanwhile the Council has decided that he has outstayed his welcome in their emergency accommodation. We went with him to the Salvation Army hostel and helped him fill in the paperwork to ensure he has a roof over his head.

We were also able to inform people about the possibility of getting a Short Term Benefit Advance, and other useful bits of information, and we could see the visible signs of relief on the faces of two women when we told them that we could accompany them to future jobcentre appointments if wanted. One told us that she felt ill before every visit.

Lastly, three bits of good news.

First, Westgap is going to be organising stalls outside Govan jobcentre from next week. If you are in the Glasgow area and would like to help, please get in touch with them: info@westgap.co.uk

Second, a recent Upper Tribunal ruling should make it much easier to defeat the sort of bureaucratic incompetence that Fran is suffering from. The tribunal decided that if the DWP fails to provide proof that they have done what they claim (such as send out a letter), then they won’t have a case to answer.  Of course most people would hope not to have to pursue their cause as far as an Upper Tribunal, but if you can demonstrate knowledge of this case, the DWP should be wary of insisting on making unsubstantiated claims.

And finally, the UK government has backed off from appealing against the high court ruling that changes to PIP rules made last March were ‘blatantly discriminatory’ against people with mental health conditions. Psychological distress must again be taken into account when looking at mobility, and the government will be making back-payments to everyone (up to 164,000 people across the UK) who was deprived of benefits because of the rule change.

 

But we DO have that right already…

18-01-19 Holyrood Magazine

We have just sent the following letter to the Scottish Secretary of State for Social Security:

Dear Jeanne

I was surprised and concerned to see you quoted as saying that people are not allowed companions with them at assessments under the current system. Although assessors can sometimes be difficult about this, the DWP’s own guidelines clearly state that companions are allowed. See page 30: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/655611/pip-assessment-guide-part-1-assessment-process.pdf

It is important that people are aware of the few rights they do still have so that they can insist on them being respected.

We would also hope that you are planning to make greater use of doctors’ reports so that face to face assessments can often be avoided altogether.

Regards

Sarah Glynn

for the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network

HERE IS THE RELEVANT SECTION FROM THE ABOVE GUIDANCE DOCUMENT

‘Companions at consultations

‘Claimants have a right to be accompanied to a face-to-face
consultation if they so wish. Claimants should be encouraged to
bring another person with them to consultations where they would
find this helpful – for example, to reassure them or to help them
during the consultation. The person chosen is at the discretion of the
claimant and might be, but is not limited to, a parent, family member,
friend, carer or advocate.

‘Consultations should predominantly be between the HP and the
claimant. However, the companions may play an active role in
helping claimants answer questions where the claimant or HP
wishes them to do so. HPs should allow a companion to contribute
and should record any evidence they provide. This may be
particularly important where the claimant has a mental, cognitive or
intellectual impairment. In such cases the claimant may not be able
to give an accurate account of their health condition or impairment,
through a lack of insight or unrealistic expectations of their own
ability. In such cases it will be essential to get an accurate account
from the companion.

‘However, the involvement of companions should be handled
appropriately by the HP. It is essential that the HP’s advice
considers the details given by the claimant and the companion and
whether one or both are understating or overstating the needs. If the
presence of a companion becomes disruptive to the consultation, the
HP may ask them to leave. However, this should be avoided
wherever possible.

‘HPs should use their judgement about the presence of companions
during any examination. A companion should be in the room for an
examination only if both the claimant and the HP agree. Companions
should take no part in examinations.

‘The presence and involvement of any companion at a consultation
should be recorded in the assessment report.’

Standing together against cuts

18-01-09 Tully

Last Monday Dundee City Council were expected to be the first Scottish council to decide how the latest round of cuts would impact on their spending. Instead councillors from all parties decided to make another call on the Scottish Government for more money. SUWN activists took part in the demonstration called by Dundee Against Cuts outside the council chamber, alongside public sector trade unionists. No-one is under any illusions that the source of all the cuts and ‘austerity’ is the Tory government in Westminster, but, besides protesting this, the Scottish Government does have some limited powers to mitigate the worst impacts. In reiterating the argument that the Scottish budget needs to go further in using progressive taxation to raise the money needed to keep public services and help the least well off, we stressed the importance of all campaigners working together so that funding for one issue is not used as an excuse for not funding something else. Money has to be found for council services and public sector workers and for welfare; for welfare and for council budgets.

The problem is that both the SNP and Labour have not fully recovered from the neoliberal disease. They are afraid to call for more substantial progressive changes and risk being called out as irresponsible by a largely neoliberal media. And although the Greens are in a strong bargaining position, as the SNP may need their votes, more money for welfare doesn’t seem to have been stated as a Green red-line. This is especially disappointing as the Greens have themselves raised most of the issues that we made in our own pre-budget petition – and we have written to their Social Security spokesperson to ask what they are doing to ensure that the Scottish Government doesn’t fail the poor and disabled.

The picture is from the Evening Telegraph

Negotiating the bureaucratic jungle – 2018, week 1

rain

When we are asked about benefit appeals we usually tell people to contact the welfare rights professionals, but when, as last week, the appeal is the next day there isn’t time for that. Instead we passed on a video explaining what to expect and the list of what disabilities score points. This proved enough for the person who had contacted us to prepare her case and win the appeal – so I thought we should share the links here: Video advice about appeals, what scores points for PIP, what scores points for ESA Support Group, what scores points for ESA Work Related Activity Group.

Our first (very wet) stall of 2018 proved relatively quiet. The most seasonable case we came across was the man who had had an extra wages payment before Christmas and so lost out on Universal Credit for that month. It had been predicted that irregular pre-Christmas payments would cause havoc with people’s benefits, but the DWP had just shrugged this off, along with all the other problems UC causes. Our friend had been told there was nothing the jobcentre could do, and was off to get help from the Scottish Welfare Fund.

A lot of people tell us that their advisor is fine – but of course it is the system that is the real problem, as the previous example demonstrates. We were also told by a young woman of the difficulties she had had managing on UC when unemployed and in temporary accommodation. Regardless of the ownership or actual costs of temporary accommodation, UC only contributes the Local Housing Allowance, which for a single person under 35 is based on the cost of a single room in a cheap private-rented shared house. This has actually been acknowledged as a problem, but plans to bring back Housing Benefit for people in temporary accommodation are not scheduled to start until April.

And, as we have found time and time again, advisors often make mistakes or fail to give people crucial bits of information. We were able to tell another man that on income based JSA he should be entitled to help with his mortgage. And we were told about the jobcentre’s refusal to provide essential training help and help with travel costs – which should both have been eligible for help through the Flexible Support Fund. It seems they find it easier to provide bureaucratic reasons why this can’t be done than honour the ‘flexible’ bit.

Our first Work Capability Assessment of the year found Maximus challenging Ryan Air for good management and customer relations. They were short staffed because one of their nurses was still on holiday and no-one seemed to have planned for this. The receptionist, who clearly regarded herself as the principal martyr to this incompetence, was phoning people to inform them that their assessment had been postponed, and then complaining when they vented their natural frustration. She even sent someone away who had come into the centre, but he just accepted the situation without complaint – as so many benefit claimants are conditioned to do.

Thanks to Tony, Norma, Duncan, Gary, Dave and Gordon,

 

 

Hopes for 2018

18-01-06 BellaBella Caledonia asked me to describe my hopes for 2018. This is what I wrote:

‘For a welfare campaigner, 2018 would seem to provide few grounds for optimism. The Tories’ narrowed majority has only given added urgency to their determination to transform the welfare state from a system of social security to a mechanism for social control. But defence of the poorest and most vulnerable, and of the very notion of social security, can act as a rallying cry for building a progressive force.

‘Support for foodbanks and charities demonstrates that people care. A plethora of articles and blogs demonstrate that the government has failed in its attempt to stigmatise people on benefits. Austerity is increasingly being acknowledged as a political choice rather than a necessity. And interest in Universal Basic Income trials shows people are prepared to look forward to an alternative where we are no longer defined by our paid labour. Put all these things together, and we have the potential for a mass movement that combines practical action with political awareness and demands for radical change – and that addresses problems well beyond welfare.

‘For this to become a hope, and not just a dream, requires a conscious and constant building of connections; connections between practical actions and theoretical politics, and also connections between all the different campaigns – on issues ranging from equal rights to climate change – that ultimately demand the reversal of neoliberal capitalism. Before neoliberalism became accepted as the natural order of things it was regarded as a marginal idea – proving that understandings can change and raising hopes that neoliberalism itself can be sent back to the margins.

Sarah Glynn

Organiser with the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network’

 

Farewell to 2017

suwn new year

Now is that time of the year again

Turning, we look back from here, and then

Think about all that is gone:

Standing in front of the buroo again

Helping folk know what to do, and then

Passing the info on.

 

Helping as folk are assessed again

Seeing their record’s not messed, and then

Making sure benefit’s won.

Put right DWP again

Again and again and again and then

Blogging on what we’ve done.

 

More baseless charges in court again

Helping ensure they are fought and then

Defendant’s still sane and strong.

Meetings and marches and rallies again

Sharing of knowledge with allies, and then

Proving the system is wrong.

 

Fighting ’gainst sanctions and workfare again,

Show working for nothing is unfair and then

Most so-called training’s a con.

Sending our MSPs mail again

‘Do all you can without fail, and then

Ask for the powers to go on!’

 

Responding to news with a letter again

Journalists now should know better, and then

Checking the story will run

Banter and coffee-warmed hands again

Beach picnic, drinks and live bands, and then

Activists too can have fun

 

Now is that time of the year again

Turning, we look back from here, and then

Think about all that is gone –

Two friends who won’t see New Year again

Hazel and Chris are not here – but then

Memories always go on