Pregnant? – then you can wait for Universal Credit

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When Jan was 32 weeks pregnant she was told to move from ESA to Universal Credit. As a result, due to the delayed first payment, for her final weeks of pregnancy and early weeks of motherhood she will be on short rations. When Jan told us this we thought we should find out what was going on, and how many other new mothers might be affected. This is what we have learnt.

If you live in a Universal Credit Full Service area, as here in Dundee, then every new claim for a means-tested working-age benefit will be in the Universal Credit system.

If you are pregnant and on JSA, then you will have no choice but to change benefit. When you start getting maternity pay you are no longer looking for work, so no longer entitled to JSA. In the past you could apply for Income support; now, if you live in a Full Service area, it has to be Universal Credit, complete with delays.

If you are on ESA when you get pregnant, you can remain on ESA. Problems should only arise if you need to claim a new benefit – for example if this is your first child and you have to make a new claim for Child Tax Credit. Of course this doesn’t mean that the DWP won’t try and make you apply for Universal Credit when you don’t have to – so, before you change system, get professional advice if you can. (If you’ve been given incorrect instructions from the DWP, there is still scope for complaints and claims for compensation.)

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When the chaos and devastation being caused by Universal Credit briefly hit the headlines in the Autumn, the UK Government responded with some minor concessions, but the great majority of the problems still remain. As a reminder of this, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) has called a national day of action on Thursday 1st March. Actions will include protests outside Dundee Jobcentre from 12 till 2 (called by the SUWN) and outside Leith Jobcentre from 1 till 2.30 (called by ECAP). So long as there are problems there will be protests!

(Thanks – again – to CPAG for clarifying things for us.)

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‘We own your son’ – another stall report

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The Work Programme may be winding down, but Triage seem determined to continue to toy with and torment those still completing their two-year stints. When we met Jane and her son at this week’s stall, she told us that Triage employees had even come and chapped on her door to inform her that until his time on the programme came to an end they ‘owned’ her son. She was actually less concerned by this dangerously warped thinking and intrusive behaviour than by the fact that, while he was stuck in the useless clutches of Triage, he was not allowed to go to other organisations that might be able to provide him with some real help in his search for work.

John informed us that he had been sanctioned for missing an appointment due to being at a job interview. He had even gone to the jobcentre to warn them, but been told they were too busy to see him. He was no longer that bothered as he was about to start a job, but we tried to persuade him of the importance of still appealing the sanction decision. Not only should he get the money that he is due, but he also should avoid the risk that if his job doesn’t work out and he is back unemployed again, his sanction could continue. Ed, on the other hand, was determined to appeal his sanction. He had been late for an appointment as the road had been closed due to a traffic accident. He had brought the clipping about the accident from the local paper as evidence.

Demands to prove ID seem to be a growing problem and a source of major benefit delays. (See our earlier blog for examples of what counts.) James was full of well-focussed indignation at a system that had forced his severely disabled wife to come to the jobcentre to prove who she was so that his claim could be processed.

We haven’t put up a stall report for a bit, but looking back at notes from the last couple of weeks, I find that we seem to have encountered a clutch of problems from people who were carers. George had been receiving Carer’s Allowance for looking after his father, but since his father’s death he had put in for this to be changed to looking after his mother instead. When the person you are caring for dies, Carer’s Allowance should continue for a further eight weeks, but his payments had stopped after three weeks, and the transfer to being a carer for his mother had still not been processed. We suggested he ask for a Scottish Welfare Fund grant to cover the gap while everything got sorted. Andy was receiving Carer’s Allowance but was being put under pressure to apply for Universal Credit instead. There may be particular reasons why in his case this makes sense, but we advised him not to do anything without getting welfare advice and a benefit check, as the jobcentre are only too keen to get everyone signed onto UC. For Mark there was no choice.  He had been getting Carer’s Allowance to look after his father, but his father had had to move into a care home. Mark had no option but to move onto UC, and was now struggling to pay back the advance he had had to take out to see himself through the initial delay, as well as paying the bus fares to visit his father. He had already received two Welfare Fund grants but we suggested he might also be able to get some help with his heating and electricity from Dundee Energy Efficiency Advice Project. The low value put on carers and care work is a real indictment of our society.

And finally, a more pleasant surprise. Robert emerged from the jobcentre unusually happy. He had just been informed that, since they could see from his UC online account that he was doing what was requested to look for work, he only needed to come in monthly.

Thanks for this week’s stall to Norma, Gary and Dave.

 

The SUWN goes to Holyrood

18-02-01 Holyrood

The timing wasn’t great. We were invited to present our petition to the Scottish Government Petitions Committee the day after the 1st stage budget debate. The petition calls for the Scottish Government to spend more money mitigating UK welfare cuts, and to raise this through more progressive taxation. But nothing is set in stone yet, and the issues go well beyond this parliament, so we were determined to use the opportunity to make the case as strongly as we could.

The process is impressively thorough – which may account for why it took so long to reach this stage. The clerks provided a useful briefing paper for the committee members and everything has been fully recorded and written up. Like all parliamentary business, it was filmed, so you can watch me (Sarah) in my best frock and John McArdle looking rather hot because they insisted he kept his jumper on to cover his Black Triangle T-shirt. (No logos allowed, it seems, even if they are for the organisation you are representing.) The committee is made up of five MSPs. Johann Lamont, the former Scottish Labour leader is convenor, with Angus MacDonald from the SNP as her deputy. The other members are Michelle Ballantyre and Brian Whittle from the Conservatives, and Rona Mackay from the SNP. (I had efficiently made a note of their parties but it got buried under other documents.)

I had about five minutes to set out our arguments before the committee asked us questions. At the end they agreed to get a response from the Scottish Government and also flag the petition up to the Social Security Committee. And we have emailed them a bundle of supporting evidence. Now we wait and see what happens. But so long as welfare help is needed we will pursue this every way we can.

You can watch the whole session here.

And read the official write-up here.

My initial speech is reproduced in full below, and here is the supporting evidence: 18-02-08 EVIDENCE FOR PETITIONS COMMITTEE.

OUR PETITION is a response to an immediate and severe need. Put simply, if our Parliament can’t protect Scotland’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, then of what use is it?

Here today you have representatives from the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network and Black Triangle. We have also discussed this petition with people in Westgap in Glasgow, Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, and Inclusion Scotland. We are all of us only too aware, from the people we work with and help, of the devastation that so-called ‘Welfare Reform’ is causing.

 As a nation, we have become accustomed to newspaper stories of benefit decisions that have left families in fear and destitution. These aren’t the result of glitches or bad apples. They are examples – and not always the worst examples – of what happens when a system that was established to provide a measure of social security is transformed into a form of social control. Some indication of the scale of suffering this is causing is given by the rising demand for food-banks – a form of charity that should have died out with the establishment of the Welfare State.

What the UK government has called ‘Welfare Reform’, is often described simply as welfare cuts. The cuts are huge – and that is primarily what we are here to talk about – but we are also seeing a very deliberate qualitative change: a return to the Victorian belief that individuals are to blame for their own misfortune.

We have been pleased to see the Scottish Government publically rejecting this approach. There is much talk about ‘dignity’, but this is of no help if folk are still left to struggle for survival.

Last week, the European Committee of Social Rights produced yet another report pulling up the UK Government for the meanness of their benefit system. In the post-war years, benefit rates rose in line with earnings or prices, whichever was greater. Then, in 1980, they were tied to prices, and while incomes and living standards rose, benefits were left far behind. And now we have had almost two decades of cuts and freezes. People on benefits are excluded from more and more activities that others take for-granted: school trips, everyday socialising with friends, a good varied diet, decent heating, a home computer. And that’s when the system is working smoothly.

As the papers prepared for this committee note, the Social Security Committee has commissioned research that gives figures for the benefits lost to people in Scotland since 2010 as a result of Welfare cuts. By 2020-21 these will add up to over £2 Billion a year. You can also see the losses resulting from different benefit cuts, both to individuals and altogether. Some are very large, and some households are suffering from several of these cuts simultaneously. In addition, vast amounts of distress and on-going complications result from what we can only describe as a criminal level of negligence in the workings of the various DWP bureaucracies. Benefit delays are the cause of many requests for extra help from the Scottish Welfare fund or from food-banks.

People are astonishingly resilient, and generally that’s a good thing. But it is frightening to see how people’s expectations adjust to surviving in a world where options are always constricting. And this has its own consequences, feeding into an epidemic of mental health problems, physical health problems and isolation.

 This petition is deliberately not prescriptive about how best to mitigate this misery. What we are calling for is an acknowledgement of the need to put more money into the system to help those affected, and for this to be done in a holistic way. Every cut translates into personal and social disasters, and each has generated a call for the Scottish Government to mitigate it. These need to be looked at together or it will be too easy for all these different desperate needs to be set in competition with each other.

We would, though, be happy to answer questions about some of the areas where more spending could make a real difference, and we’ve got a lot of evidence on that: more help with discretionary housing payments, extra money for child benefit, more for the Scottish Welfare Fund, more for advice, more help for sick and disabled people, more help for people who’ve been sanctioned.

It is a pity that this session is taking place so far into the debates on the Scottish budget, because the other side of the coin is the need to raise more money. Now that the draft budget has opened the door to more progressive taxation, and people have got used to the idea, let’s make it really progressive and raise enough money to make a significant difference.

We also noted the potential for replacing Council Tax with a Land Value Tax. That would need a session of its own, but we would refer you to the work already done on this by Andy Wightman for the Scottish Greens. Andy’s report was written in 2010 and anticipated that the system could be up and running in five years.

We appreciate that there is an understandable reluctance by the Scottish Government to spend money on things that should be being looked after by Westminster. It is galling when there is so much more to do. But when it comes to welfare it is very very necessary: even a matter of life and death. What more important role does parliament have than to protect a country’s most vulnerable citizens, and help create and preserve sustainable communities?

For those who believe Scotland’s future lies in devolution, then that devolved parliament must be put to full use. For those who believe that devolution is not enough, then it is important to use all the powers we have in order to demonstrate the need for more. And for those who can’t see beyond the bottom line –well, when it comes to benefits, the phrase a stitch in time couldn’t be more true. Help now can prevent family and social breakdown, which brings much greater financial costs, as well as personal tragedies. And it can put money into deprived areas where it can have the greatest positive impact on the economy.

The approach currently being followed by the Scottish government may seem to be cautious and pragmatic, but unless it does more to help those at the sharp end of Welfare reform, we will be left with poor people and poor economics.

 

 

ATOS doesn’t do irony – but…

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PIP award rates vary significantly between different areas, and Dundee again loses out in this postcode lottery (as shown in this Scottish Government report, see tables 6 and 7). This should be prompting further investigation and action by the UK Government, but we’re not holding our breaths. Meanwhile, reality can’t be allowed to get in the way of corporate image.

The basic reception space in Dundee’s tin shed Assessment Centre has acquired a sugar coating of signs that should make you feel nauseous even if you weren’t already. Ahead, as you enter, is a photograph of a beach with a big heart drawn in the sand. So far so kitsch, but your eyes are then drawn to the inspiring message painted on the wall to the left of the passage that leads to the assessment rooms. It reads ‘Hundreds of Languages around the world but a Smile speaks them all’. Of course few people entering this place have much to smile about, but if, out of instinctive politeness, you do force a smile, you can be pretty sure that it will be interpreted as an indication that you are not as ill or disabled as you claim to be. To the right of the passage a poster reads ‘RESPECT DIGNITY COMPASSION’. The only nod to reality is provided by the yellow danger sign, coincidentally fixed to the wall beyond.

When ATOS Healthcare changed their name to Independent Assessment Services, it was widely assumed that this was a response to the toxicity of the ATOS brand after running the brutal tick-box Work Capability Assessments. But now they seem so caught up in their own corporate spin that this has been forgotten. Another poster on the wall by the entrance seeks to reassure those waiting with the message ‘all that’s changed is our name’.