They heard us, but is the Scottish Government listening?

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We have received the Government’s response to our petition for more spending to mitigate welfare cuts. As we have observed in our formal reply, this could have been written without looking at what we said and wrote. The petition process is quite impressively thorough in the way everything is recorded, but that is only of any use if those with the power to do something actually engage with what is collected and recorded: else it becomes an elaborate democratic sham. Now we wait and see if the Petitions Committee will push to take things further.

Here is our full reply:

COMMENTS ON THE SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE TO OUR PETITION, FROM THE SCOTTISH UNEMPLOYED WORKERS NETWORK – 26 March 2018

Thank you for sending us the Scottish Government’s response to our petition.

It was useful to have the figure for the reduction in welfare spend confirmed as approximately £4 billion a year by 2020 to 2021, though we are still puzzled as to why the earlier document quoted in the briefing prepared for the committee gave a so much lower figure of £2.2 billion.

It was useful, too, to have a statement on the provisions being made for 18 to 21 year olds who no longer get housing support from the UK government.

However, the Government’s response is simply a reiteration of what they are already doing or have already announced. We already know about this. The argument that we made in our petition is that this is not enough, and that the Government has both opportunity and obligation to do more. This response could have been written without looking at our petition or accompanying evidence. Perhaps it was.

Our petition asked the Scottish Government to look at providing further extra funding for welfare to help mitigate the impact of the welfare cuts. In particular, we asked them to look at providing:

  • More money for Discretionary Housing Payments to compensate for losses due to the Benefit Cap and prevent evictions and homelessness.
  • Extra money for child benefits to address child poverty and meet child poverty reduction targets.
  • More money for the Scottish Welfare Fund to meet growing needs as a result of further cuts coming on line and the spread of Universal Credit. Also, to provide help for those suffering from cuts to disability benefits, including those who have lost help with mobility while we wait for the Scottish Government to take over PIP.
  • A living wage for carers.
  • Help for people whose benefits have been sanctioned (challenging the interpretation of UK legislation).
  • More help for welfare advice so people get what they are due from the DWP.

We argued that money could be made available for this through a more progressive use of the Income Tax powers, and – in the longer term – by replacing Council Tax with Land Value Tax. And that money could also be freed up by scrapping subsidies for first time house buyers, which are widely recognised as pushing up prices for all.

We further argued that failure to provide further mitigation of the impact of benefit cuts could prove the much more costly option in the long run – financially as well as socially. Mitigating benefit cuts is an investment in society. It puts money into the economy of the poorest areas, and it helps to prevent numerous negative (and expensive) social consequences, including the current epidemic of poor mental health.

We hope that the petitions committee will be able to take these issues further.

Dr Sarah Glynn for the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network

 

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Why so many Universal Credit sanctions?

David Webster

Recipients of UC make up over two thirds of those sanctioned although they comprise less than a third of those on sanctionable benefits. The high number of UC sanctions is still the most striking finding of David Webster’s quarterly analysis of sanctions statistics (which go up to the end of October 2017). This high number may be partially due to the fact that a person on JSA who misses an interview will normally have their claim closed and have to reclaim, while on UC they are sanctioned. Backlogs and mass catch-ups in the system mean the figures are very up and down, but although numbers are still very high, there does at least appear to be a significant improvement since 2015. One explanation for this is the extraordinarily high proportion of referrals that are cancelled before they turn into a sanction – over half in the most recent figures. Dr Webster suggests that ‘this may possibly be an effect of the DWP’s new “guidance to work coaches in UC to support them to make decisions not to sanction a customer in specific straight-forward cases if good reason is shown for not attending an interview”’, on which he observes ‘This is of course welcome, though it is extraordinary that guidance should ever have said anything different.’

Disappointingly, only 16% of UC sanctions have been challenged, suggesting a worrying level of resignation in face of the DWP machine. Mandatory Reconsiderations have had a poor success rate, but for the very small proportion of people who took their case all the way to tribunal, eight out of ten were successful. So don’t give up!

You can read David Webster’s full report here: 18-02 Sanctions Stats Briefing – D.Webster 20 Mar 2018. His photo is above.

While we do come across people who have been sanctioned, and many more who live in fear of sanctions, we more often find ourselves having to sort out DWP errors and omissions. At our last stall we met a frustrated couple whose benefits had got held up because she hadn’t proved her identity to the DWP’s satisfaction, and she hadn’t been told what she needed to supply to do this. They commented to us that they were wondering now about their decision to do everything by the book and report their change of circumstances as you are meant to do. We suggested she get a letter from her GP. (This is a common problem that we have written about in more detail before.)

More everyday problems at the jobcentre – a stall report

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Barry is recently out of prison and has anger management issues. He can’t cope with a computer and confessed that the resulting frustration made him likely to throw the machine across the room. But the jobcentre had made no allowances for this. We had to explain that they are actually required to take account of a person’s situation and what they are able to do.

Kate had been on ESA before but had decided to see if she could manage a job. When her epilepsy proved this impossible, she had had to sign onto Universal Credit, where she was expected to produce doctor’s notes explaining why she couldn’t work. When she read our leaflet she realised that she should have been given a UC35 form as the first stage for getting the UC equivalent of ESA. This form is meant to be given to you after you have been on doctor’s lines for more than four weeks, and she had been handing in notes for much longer than that. When she went into the jobcentre she asked about this and was simply told to request the form via her online account – but no one had mentioned anything about this before, and it is supposed to be automatic. Getting the disability element of UC would not only ensure that she was not under pressure to look for work, but also – if she is put in the support group as she was when on ESA – she will get more money.

Helen is also on UC and having to produce doctor’s lines to say that she is not fit for work, but she was understandably confused by the DWP’s abuse of the English language. She couldn’t understand why, when she was clearly unable to work, she had to produce ‘fit notes’. We had to explain that this is DWP-speak for a sick note.

John told us that he was in the middle of a prolonged dispute with the DWP over his Claimant Commitment. This required him to take five jobsearch steps each week, but one of these steps had been altered from applying for three jobs to applying for five. He had argued that this was not reasonable as some weeks there wouldn’t be the jobs to apply for, but the DWP had refused to retreat and he had ended up having his claim closed. He was determined to fight this all the way, and to do so himself without any help.

We were also able to tell a man who was waiting for his first UC payment that he could get a benefit advance (it didn’t seem to have been mentioned), and we gave two others details of the Welfare Rights drop-in sessions, including one man whose partner is on ESA, so – as we made clear to him – he is eligible to be part of a joint claim.

All in all, it was still a relatively quiet two hours at the stall – but even so we have to wonder what happens to folk on all those other times when we’re not there.

Thanks to Tony and Gary – and thinking always of our friend Norma, who lost her son on Mother’s Day.

PS – Disgusting, but no longer surprising, news that Glasgow South MP, Stewart McDonald’s, private member’s bill to end unpaid work trials was talked out by a Government minister who had promised that they would not do this and would allow it to be discussed.

You wouldn’t Universal Credit it – a stall report

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In preparation for the demo that got snowed off, I looked through our blogs since the full UC roll-out hit Dundee, and found case after case of DWP mistakes. So I suppose we shouldn’t really have been surprised to meet yet another person who had been wrongly told to apply for universal credit when he had just lost his job and had been paying National Insurance. We explained that he was entitled to 6 months contribution-based JSA and gave him the JSA New Claims number.

Brian was also having problems with UC, having received only one payment since he applied in October. Again the nature of his problem was not unusual. Like for so many others, his claim was being delayed because the DWP required some further paperwork. In Brian’s case, the delay had been prolonged by the jobcentre’s inability to specify clearly what it was they needed. He told us that he had been instructed to provide a letter from his landlord, but this had taken three attempts before the DWP agreed that the letter he had given them was of the correct form. Since UC has combined everything into a single benefit, any delay leaves you with no income at all. Brian had exhausted his allowance of Scottish Welfare Fund grants, but the foodbank was recognising his continued needs and not applying limits, and his landlord was showing a rare patience. He hoped that his paperwork was now acceptable and that the money would soon come through, but we pressed him to get professional help if it didn’t!

Otherwise the stall was remarkably quiet – and sunny! Quite a contrast from the previous week, when the Courier reported people panicking that they would be sanctioned after they had turned up to find the Jobcentre closed due to the snow. Some people were told about the closure, but we are not surprised to find that others weren’t!

Thanks for help on the stall to Jonathan, Kat, Gary and Tony

Defending the right to be accompanied – again!

18-03-04 Livingston Jobcentre

We have just sent the letter below to the manager of Livingston Jobcentre. Please let us know if your jobcentre is also depriving people of this basic right.

Dear Sir/Madam

We have been very concerned to learn that people attending your jobcentre are being made to leave friends and relations outside and go to their interview alone. Many people need some support in what can be a stressful and confusing situation, and reducing the stress can only be to the benefit of all concerned, including jobcentre workers. I have observed, from my own experience in accompanying people to interviews, both the huge relief and help this can give to interviewees, and how it can clarify complicated situations. Depriving people of this support is upsetting, unreasonable and unnecessary; it is also contrary to DWP guidance.

The DWP’s Working with Representatives guidance, clearly states:

‘Customers have the right to ask a representative to help them conduct their business with DWP’, and that ‘It is important that we have good working relationships with representatives, whether they are from the advice organisations or are simply family members or friends so that we can give our customers the best possible service’.

While the JSA Interviewing Good Practice guidance, explains:

  1. Some customers will ask for a third party to be present at their
    interview, for example, if they:
  • need an interpreter due to language or hearing difficulties;
  • lack confidence and need someone there for support;
  • prefer to have a parent present; or
  • wish to have a witness there.
  1. In such circumstances, explain the purpose and confidentiality of the
    interview in a reassuring and helpful way.  If the customer feels they cannot
    cope alone, do not object to a third party being present.  Refusing to agree to
    a third party could provoke hostility and be counter productive.
    164. Remember, however, that it is the customer who should receive and
    respond to advice given, direct questions at them, not the third party.  Treat
    the third party with respect and courtesy, but do not let them control the
    interview.’

Matthew Nicholas, Employers and Stakeholders Director Jobcentre Plus, writing on behalf of the Chief Executive of Jobcentre Plus, Darra Singh, in a letter copied to Edinburgh claimants, dated 15 February 2010, wrote:

‘We accept that there will always be times when customers attending our premises feel the need to be accompanied by a friend or advice worker and we will always try to accommodate this where possible.’

And in response to a FOI request, dated 24 February 2014, the DWP wrote:

‘Claimants accessing Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) benefits and services can have someone to accompany them to act on their behalf’ – which clearly implies that the person accompanying can (if the claimant wishes) speak to their case.

Please can you ensure that your staff are made fully aware of this situation and that no-one else will be deprived of their right to be accompanied to their jobcentre interview?

Yours Sincerely

Dr Sarah Glynn

for the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network