The three matrons of Dundee – and other tales of our times

Three matrons, Rhineland

The sign of a good day on the stall is absolute boredom. Last week’s stall was busier than we would have liked it to have been. Indeed, we had our first case before we had even set up the advice stall, and it was the kind of case that is all too familiar to us.

Bruce had just been released from a short prison sentence and was worried and angry in equal measure. He had just been told by Job Centre staff that he could not receive UC payments due to his lack of a bank account or photographic identification. Job Centre staff were clearly being unnecessarily difficult.

Although a bank account is required to receive UC payments, the lack of one needn’t be any barrier to setting up a UC account. All that is required is for the claimant to fill in the sort code field in the UC claim form with the figures 1,2,3,4,5,6 and the Account number field with the required number of x’s, which allows the claim to be processed while the claimant looks into setting up a bank account. With regards to the issue of photographic identification all anyone recently released from prison should need to provide to the JC with is their bail letter. After we had discussed the situation with Bruce, he went back into the JC on his own, despite our offer to accompany him, and re-emerged some time later in a much happier frame of mind. The JC staff had seen sense and had helped him set up his UC account, and had offered him a, much-needed, advance payment.

At the same time that we were trying to help Bruce, yet another recently released ex-prisoner, John, came to our attention. He reported that he had been sanctioned last April for missing an appointment. Shortly afterwards, however, he started serving his prison sentence. He was shocked to find that the sanction had been carried over from last year, and that he should expect no payments in the foreseeable future, and was horrified when he learnt that, due to owing the DWP money, he had also been turned down for a Scottish Welfare Fund grant. On his first day free of prison he was now faced with surviving on his wits, as the welfare system could not be relied upon. As he ruefully remarked, ‘how dae they think ahm gaena survive, if they winna help me?’ ‘How’, indeed. John was in an understandably agitated state at his predicament, and his mood did not change when we pointed him in the direction of the Dundee Shelter office, which provides walk-in assistance for claimants. He admitted that he found it difficult dealing with officialdom of any kind and was suspicious of offices, a common problem amongst some of the folk we deal with. However, his relief and gratitude was obvious when one of our volunteers offered to chum him along to the Shelter offices.

We are also coming across regular cases of people being wrongly put on UC when, having only just left employment with fully paid up National Insurance, they should be on contribution based Job Seekers Allowance – now called New Style JSA. Two such cases came up at our last stall, involving an oil worker and a building worker, respectively. The frequency with which this issue crops up only leads us to the conclusion that JC staff are being deliberately directed towards getting as many people on to UC as possible, even when claimants clearly qualify for another benefit. This is no small matter for those affected, as it will make the difference between receiving financial help within a few days, compared with having to wait at least five weeks for a UC payment. As a fellow volunteer has written in bold capitals alongside this case note, ALWAYS ASK.

Another of our volunteers had to accompany Shona and her teenage daughter along to Shelter. Shona explained that she had failed her ESA work capability assessment (WCA) late last year and had been put on UC, but had received no payments since the middle of December last. As a result, she and her daughter had had to move in with her mother, who, however, is also on benefits and has now run out of gas and electricity. In addition, Shona is receiving no help with her housing costs and had found that her UC account had been inexplicably closed. The JC staff had been of no help whatsoever, and the poor woman’s distress was clearly apparent. We attempted to calm her down and set her mind at rest that she and her family would not be left longer in such a situation. This was not enough to prevent the poor woman from bursting into tears as she and her daughter were being accompanied to the Shelter office. At the birth of the post-war welfare state it was justifiably claimed that the citizen was protected from cradle to the grave. Eighty years on, welfare ‘reform’ now starves three different generations of women from the same family, at the same time. That, as they say is, progress, Tory style.

This week’s stall was manned by Tony, Duncan and Jonathan.

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I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff: a morning with Maximus

Wolf demon DWP

Mike has mobility issues. He’s not in a wheelchair, but he cannot walk far. He also cannot sit still for long periods. He is unable to get out of the house much and consequently suffers from depression and anxiety issues. He had an ESA assessment coming up, so one of our volunteers agreed to go with him.

The appointment was an early one. Despite this he still was forced to wait nearly an hour beyond his appointment time. When a complaint was made, it was explained that previous appointments had ‘obviously been difficult cases’ and ‘run on’. Mike’s disability means he cannot stand or sit in a chair for long periods, and he had to get up and down. The long wait actually meant that he was in danger of losing his seat, as the ‘customers’ for the next set of appointments were coming in.

The solitary toilet was out of order. It was out of order in December as well. Clearly the budget does not stretch to a decent plumber! On a more serious note, this meant that disabled claimants had to do the long walk back to the lobby to use the communal toilets for the building.

There was also a bit of dark comedy.

A claimant came in with her daughter and pre-school aged granddaughter. The granddaughter dutifully played with the box of rather sad looking toys in the corner. This contained a storybook that she presented to her mother to read. An over-crowded waiting room of claimants, support workers, and friends was treated to the story of ‘The Three Little Pigs’ having their homes taken away from them by the big bad wolf. How apt a description of the modern benefits system.

After the assessment, and as soon as we left the building, Mike lit up a cigarette. He’s clearly not the only one. There is now a large build-up of cigarette ends. How many of these are the last cigarettes of the condemned, or the ‘Thank God that’s over’ cigarettes of the relieved we leave our readers to guess.

(Maximus is the private company subcontracted to administer the DWP’s Work Capability Assessments that are used to decide whether someone qualifies for Employment and Support allowance or has to look for work.)

Cuts stop here!

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Today we took part in what has become the annual Dundee anti-cuts rally. Of course, with every year, there is even less to cut from. We distributed leaflets (see below) and talked to the reporter from STV, and I spoke from the platform. I began my speech by recounting an incident that happened yesterday, when a group of us were campaigning for freedom for the imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan.  We were in the city centre, and a young man approached us full of anger: why were we doing this rather than support people here in Dundee suffering under Universal Credit? Tony was able to tell him that we do that too – and invite him to join us at our stall outside the buroo on Monday morning – and to try and explain that these things are different aspects of the same bigger struggle against right-wing reaction and for a better world.

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Here is the text from our leaflet:

Marching against cuts has become a regular event in the Dundee calendar. Of course, we all know that the source of those cuts is Westminster ‘Austerity’ – or Westminster ‘let’s use the crisis caused by the bankers as an excuse to reduce public spending and demolish the welfare state’. The Tory government is the main focus of our anger, but that doesn’t mean that other levels of government should just pass the cuts on.

That is why, two weeks ago, we were outside the Scottish Parliament when they discussed the Scottish budget. We were there to say, take note of our petition (and all its supporting evidence) and use progressive taxation to support more welfare mitigation. The Scottish government has had its block grant badly cut, and it should never stop protesting about this, but it is also barely using the powers it has to raise more tax from those who should be able to afford it. Which means it is very limited in what it can do for those least able to survive without help, and money for local government has been cut yet again.

Despite the last-minute deal with the Greens (did Derek Mackay deliberately hold some money back so he could be seen to be making a concession?) councils have suffered another hit. Council administrations of all political colours will be attempting to cover their multiple services with ever skimpier resources.  Opposition councillors will express outrage, while privately acknowledging that if they were in charge it would be them axing services. And, the same people who we meet at our weekly advice stalls outside the jobcentre, will be hit over again by cuts to council services. But councils don’t have to accept the role of simply choosing what to axe. They don’t have to accept the political hand they have been dealt as though it were a natural phenomenon that nothing could shift.  As well as protesting to the Scottish Government, they have the option of coming together to refuse to cut back – of organising and resisting. 

It’s time our politicians at all levels learnt to stand up and say no to this deliberate destruction of social systems and public assets that have been built up over generations. We are here to help them do that. Perhaps they could start by learning a bit of resistance from our schoolchildren.

 

 

The DWP oils prison’s revolving door

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If the ‘benefits’ system had been designed so as to ensure that someone released from prison was likely to be back there very soon, then it probably wouldn’t be very different from this.

Mike told us he had just signed onto Universal Credit after coming out of prison, and that he had been told he would get no advance to cover the 5-6 week wait before he received any payments. The reason given was that he had not informed the DWP when he went to prison, and so had gone on receiving benefits he wasn’t entitled to. But whatever he received has now gone, and he has nothing – not even a place to stay. He told us he was sleeping rough and would have to steal to survive. We directed him to the Shelter advice drop-in.

Peter had also had trouble with the law. He had been remanded in custody overnight, but was subsequently told that his benefits had been stopped because he had been in prison, which was not the case. He had been told to reapply, and was concerned that this meant another 5-6 weeks wait. In fact, he should get paid on the same day of the month as before, but there is still the problem of payment for the time he wasn’t signed on, and there may be a long wait till his next payment date. We directed him to Shelter, too, to get this sorted out and put in a complaint.

Richard had been thrown out of the Salvation Army hostel and had no place to stay or food to eat. Another one for Shelter.

Of course the vast majority of people were not caught up with the law, just the heartless mess of the benefit system, with its troubled computer system and inadequate training.

Ruth is yet another person who has been having problems getting the New-Style JSA she is entitled to on the basis of her National Insurance payments, rather than being put on Universal Credit. She had lost money, too, as she has a small pension that had been set against the Universal Credit payments but wouldn’t affect the contribution-based JSA. Her problems had started when she signed on online and was automatically redirected from JSA to UC, but she had been given a lot of wrong advice from the DWP since.

John had gone into the jobcentre to find his National Insurance number, which had got lost when he moved house. He needed to give it to a job-agency, but the jobcentre told him that now everything was computerised he had to request it online, and they were unable to give it him.

Joanne told us that her expected UC payment hadn’t come, and she had been told that she would get nothing till next week. But, as sometimes happens when people feel totally let down by the whole process, she refused our offer of help.

There were other cases too, in this busy, rainy two hours. And it was worrying to be told by two separate people that they had just been made redundant from construction jobs that were quite separate from the collapse of McGills last week.

 

 

‘If you want to avoid debt, take out a loan’ – DWP

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When we asked John if his Jobcentre ‘Work Coach’ was trying to persuade him to move from JSA to Universal Credit, he laughed. ‘She’s like an insurance salesman’, he told us. ‘She never stops. I told her that I didn’t want to change over because you have to wait for the money and I could go into debt, and maybe lose my house – and she said I didn’t have to worry about going into debt because they would give me a loan!’. Perhaps failure to understand the link between loans and debt makes it easier for a jobcentre worker to sleep at night.

It was a busy – as well as frosty – morning outside the jobcentre on Friday.

Craig is a self-employed construction worker, but is currently unable to work due to a leg injury. He was carrying a big file of papers supporting his ongoing attempt to get some Universal Credit payments, which had become an absurd nightmare, with different government departments failing to communicate with each other. He had just been told by the jobcentre that he had to close down various arrangements to do with his business, and we urged him to check first with an independent money advisor. In another demonstration of DWP disconnection with the real world, his ‘Work Coach’ had commented that he should have put money aside for a rainy day.

Jim had been referred to a ‘Decision Maker’ for a possible sanction. He had been due to do a work experience placement, but it was cancelled at the last minute. He had let the jobcentre know what had happened, but this didn’t seem to have been enough. We stressed the importance of appealing if he is sanctioned – not just to get that sanction lifted, but to make them think twice about sanctioning him again, and because if you have been sanctioned once any further sanction can be longer.

Dave was visibly hassled. His payments were late and he had no food nor electricity. He was about to pick up his daughter from school, according to his court order, and was worried that bringing her back to a cold, foodless home could cause him to lose custody. He had been offered referral to a food bank, but had to hurry to the school. As he observed, ‘They’ve not got a clue!’ We asked him to contact us if he needed help later, but we’ve not heard any more.

Ronnie has £800 in shares that are being transferred from one company to another, and although he will receive no benefit from the transfer, somehow this has got classified as income, causing a reduction in his Universal Credit. The Council’s Connect team are already looking into this for him.

Steve told us that he had worked for a call centre for three weeks, but the company had upped and moved to Glasgow leaving 20 workers unpaid. We suggested he contact Unite the Union, who are fighting a similar case for Brassica Restaurant Workers.

And, yet again, there was someone who had been put on Universal Credit when he had been paying National Insurance and should have been on contribution-based – now called New Style – JSA.

In the bigger picture, too, it has been a bad week for Dundee, with the collapse of McGill construction. 200 Dundee workers, and over 200 more in Glasgow and Edinburgh, will be forced to sign on and discover the nightmare of the current benefit system. I hope someone makes sure that those who have up to date National Insurance get put on New Style JSA, not Universal Credit, and that those others who have to sign onto Universal credit are advised to sign on after they have received any final payment, so that this is not included in the first Universal Credit assessment.