Why we will be outside the Scottish Parliament on Thursday

idanielblake06

This is the day of the first phase budget debate. For over a year – since before the last budget – we have called on the Scottish Government to make more money available to mitigate the brutal welfare cuts. We presented a petition to the petitions committee, and we backed up our case with detailed arguments and evidence.

We have always been very clear that the cuts are the product of Westminster austerity, and we have acknowledged the significant help the Scottish Government already gives – but that doesn’t mean that they should not help further. If they abandon the poorest members of our society to destitution, they have no right to our respect.

We know that Scottish powers are limited, and we are ready to believe that if Scotland had control over welfare, the situation would be much improved; but Scotland does have the power to provide more help where it is most needed, and the power to raise money through more progressive taxation to pay for this without making cuts elsewhere. The Scottish Government has shown that they are prepared to set different tax rates from the rest of the UK, but so far, the differences have been very small, and earlier promises to replace Council tax with a fairer system have been left to gather dust.

(We can also see the hypocrisy of Scottish Labour now demanding that the Scottish Government pay a bit more to mitigate the cuts when it was Labour that ensured that welfare was not devolved; but this should not be a reason to reject further mitigation and play politics with people’s lives.)

We are far from alone in our call for further help. A coalition of third sector organisations has been campaigning hard for an increase in child benefit as the best way to reduce further child poverty. The Scottish Government’s own Social Security Committee recommended an increase in the Scottish Welfare fund as Universal Credit piles on the pressure, and desperate homeless families have demanded that the funding for Discretionary Housing Payments is increased to make up for the financial devastation brought on by the Benefit Cap. If the Scottish Government is serious in claiming to treat people with ‘dignity, fairness and respect’, it must respond to these calls.

Every time we raise these issues we are met with knee-jerk responses defending the SNP and suggesting that because the cuts originate in Westminster it is not the Scottish Government’s job to take action. Last time we even had someone tell us that we shouldn’t demand more off their 48,000 a year salary. If anyone – including MSPs – is tempted to make such arguments, perhaps they should first imagine themselves saying this to one of the 465 Scottish households a day who are only kept afloat thanks to a Trussel Trust food parcel.

Please join us outside the Parliament at 1.

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Please someone tell the jobcentre how job applications work…

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When a business wants to hire a security guard, they want someone ready and licenced. They don’t expect to be told that their prospective employee will now go and get the requisite paperwork. But that, it seems, is precisely what one of Glasgow’s jobcentres expects to happen.

We were contacted last week by someone who has worked as a security guard in the past, and wants to renew his licence, but can’t save the money for the fee as he is surviving on JSA. This is precisely the sort of thing that the elusive Flexible Support Fund is supposed to help with, but he was told that the jobcentre would only come up with the money when he got a job offer. Our friend tried to point out to them that this would be too late, but they weren’t prepared to listen – so we have advised him to ask again with the help of his MP.

The Flexible Support Fund is designed to be used for things like training courses, or travel and clothing for interviews, at the discretion of the jobcentre. However, the DWP’s resistance to using the fund to help people – or even admitting of its existence – is well known, and Turn2us has observed that ‘the budget set aside for FSF has been under-spent in every year since it was introduced.’

While Amber Rudd tinkers at the edges…

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Universal Credit has been in the news a lot this week. Amber Rudd made a big deal about changing very little; and four loan mothers, supported by CPAG, won their case against the DWP in the High Court. As the minister was claiming how UC was both simpler and fairer, the court found that the rigid, automated application of the rules calculating monthly payments could result in situations that were not only unfair, but also counter to the original regulations.  There are all sorts of other situations where the accident of when the assessment period falls can result in a minefield.

Meanwhile, all sorts of errors continue to be common, as this week’s cases demonstrate.

One of our activists had received half her ESA payment early. When she contacted the DWP she was informed that this was a glitch in the system that had affected a lot of people and she would get the rest of the payment on the expected day. To the DWP, such a glitch may seem nothing to worry about, but when you are budgeting on a very low income, something like this can catch you out badly. The Mirror published a collection of worried reactions, including from people who hadn’t realised what was happening until the money was spent, leaving them short for the following month.

For John his payment seemed to be too late rather than too early. He is supposed to be being paid twice monthly, but we met him on the 9th, and according to his online journal, he wasn’t going to be paid any money until the 28th. In addition, he was also due a large back payment, as a bank error had meant that his benefit was initially paid to the wrong person. Although the money had been repaid, the DWP seemed in no hurry to transfer it to him.

Richard had waited in for a scheduled phone call from the jobcentre that never came, but the jobcentre refused to accept the error was theirs, so now he is being disciplined by having to come in every week, despite being unfit. He has just got the form to apply for a work capability assessment, and we suggested he get professional help from the Shelter drop-in.

Susan told us that she had been getting Universal Credit for some time, but when her partner also signed on and they moved to a joint claim, she found the payments were automatically transferred to his bank account. Payments for a couple are only made to one account, but you are supposed to be able to choose which. Susan has taken her case up with her MP.

For Jan, the problem was not an error, but a suggestion from her advisor that had left her shaking her head in bewilderment. She told us that her advisor hadn’t said anything about benefits, but had talked about magnetic fields and given her a leaflet about free Reiki sessions for helping with anxiety. I am sure the advisor was trying to be helpful, but this is a strange place to be promoting alternative therapy. Jan’s comment: Is she on drugs?

UC rollout delayed – with yet another pilot scheme

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So, Amber Rudd has decided to delay the compulsory switch-over of people already on benefits to Universal Credit – but still plans to have this completed by the already-delayed deadline of 2023. And she claims that she will learn from yet another pilot – although there is little evidence of the government accepting useful lessons from anything they have done so far. Not so much really good news as ‘not so bad in the circumstances’ news:  too little too late – though it will be a huge temporary relief for many. Maybe the jobcentres could even stop trying to persuade people to change over to Universal Credit too…

Every time there is major concern about the impact of Universal Credit, the Tories try and do the minimum to make the problem move off the front pages. We need to keep up the pressure so that the serious and major issues with this disastrous system can’t be easily dismissed.

7 January: For clarification – as this announcement, like everything else to do with Universal Credit, has caused a certain amount of confusion.

Everywhere in Scotland, England and Wales is now on Universal Credit Full Service, meaning that all new claims for means-tested benefits, and all claims that involve a significant change of circumstances, must be made in the Universal Credit system. Amber Rudd’s announcement only affects people on the old system whose circumstances have not changed. We had previously been informed that this group would be moved over to Universal Credit (they call it ‘managed migration’ but what they mean is told by letter that they must re-apply within the new system) between July 2019 and 2023. What Amber Rudd has done is delay that start date, except for a guinea-pig group of 10,000 people. Anyone who has watched the history of Universal Credit will know that this is just the latest in a whole catalogue of delays; also that learning from pilots has always been supposed to be integral to the system, but the UK Government has refused to learn the increasingly obvious lessons.

Of course we mustn’t forget that the Government’s measure of success is very different from ours. If your aim is to discipline the working class through a punitive welfare system that makes everyone afraid to do anything that might risk annoying their boss, then Universal Credit will tick your boxes.

For the love of God…

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The bible is no substitute for drug counselling and proper medical care, but that is all you will get if you take up the offer of a rehab place promoted by one of Dundee’s welfare charities. Morag told me that she didn’t just experience extreme discomfort as she came down off heroin, but also ended up on an emergency ward in hospital, far away from her family. Meanwhile she had lost her ESA award as she had been in residential ‘care’. When she had recovered enough, she had applied for Universal Credit, and received an advance loan; but before she had got her first proper payment, drugs and their associated medical problems had resulted in another emergency admission. After three weeks (including Christmas) in hospital, her Universal Credit claim had been closed and she was at the jobcentre to make a new claim. She had made her application in the library, but her mobile was broken, and she had got cut off every time she tried to make her jobcentre appointment from the phone-box, so she had come to try and sort this out in person. She was visibly weak, and told us she had not eaten for three days. And, because she had left her house in an ambulance, no-one had turned the heating off and the gas metre had run down to nothing. Her rent payments had built up too. The first thing we did was arrange for her to have a food parcel, and before she left we bought her a sweet tea and a sausage roll. In between, I went with her into the jobcentre as she was worried about coping alone. When a claim is closed and restarted, the brutal five-plus weeks initial wait starts again too, and Morag had to accept another advance loan, and so double repayments off her benefits when she eventually receives them. The jobcentre staff couldn’t have been more helpful, sorting everything for her there and then, accepting her inability to work without question, and even requesting backdating of the benefit to the day she went into hospital, but there is nothing they can do about the punishing system itself.

Morag had got clean in hospital and hoped to stay that way. Ryan was more blazé about his drug habit, but was also a victim of inadequate drug addiction services and the Universal Credit wait. He told us that he was in and out of prison, and each time he came out he had had to sign on to Universal Credit afresh and take an advance loan. He had never stayed out of prison long enough to get any payments, but the loans were building up.

Getting good advice and good treatment at the jobcentre still seems to be a bit of a lucky dip. We came across yet another person who had been working for years, and had been put on Universal Credit and forced to take out an advance loan although his up-to-date National Insurance contributions made him eligible for ‘New Style’ JSA. He went back into the jobcentre after speaking to us, but it will take a while to sort this out.

Meanwhile, Robert, who had been laid off after 17 years in work, had been told that he couldn’t sign on until he got the right sort of mobile phone! We suggested he asked the welfare advisor at the Shelter drop-in to negotiate some sense into the jobcentre.

And Mark told us that he had had to take a break from work following severe mental health problems due to the stress of being self-employed, and that when he had previously sought help at the jobcentre he had found the jobcentre staff so difficult he had broken down during the interview.

Jim had been sanctioned after the DWP had ignored his response to their enquiries to his online journal; but he didn’t need our help as he had already put in for a Mandatory Reconsideration.

Ann, who was approaching 60 and palpably suffering from anxiety, was living in a homeless unit, which was taking almost all her benefit for board and lodging. She told us that she had had to leave her own home due to domestic abuse, and had been offered accommodation by a friend, but he had then changed his mind. We gave her details of Women’s Aid. She had worked in the jute and the box factory and was no stranger to hard and fiddly work, but she confessed that having to use the internet had left her totally confused.

Our cold two hours outside the jobcentre finished in time for a hot coffee at noon, but later that afternoon I got a call from a phonebox. It was Morag who had spent so long waiting for a doctor’s line she had missed her food parcel delivery. I was about to drive nearby her flat, so I dropped round an emergency tin or two.