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.