Fear and self-loathing on Universal Credit

fear and loathing

Being on the front line of welfare reforms, we are constantly made aware that the founding aims of the welfare state are being turned on their head. People pay taxes and National Insurance contributions towards a system that once protected them, but now turns on them when they need it most, and then reduces them even further rather than raising them up. Denis Curran, the inspirational founder of Loaves and Fishes, damningly observed that the most insidious aspect of the Tory welfare reforms was not sanctions, hellish as they are, but the way that the DWP were getting inside the heads and messing with the minds of the very people they had a duty to care for. We see evidence of this at almost every stall, and recent experiences strongly suggest that the problem will worsen as UC takes further root.

We are coming across too many people who blame themselves for the problems that commonly ensue when a person goes onto UC. Some folk beat themselves up because they don’t know how to use a computer; others describes themselves as ‘stupid’ when forgetting about an appointment, and accept responsibility for getting themselves sanctioned. But, should we be surprised? When folk who have next to nothing are relentlessly berated to stand on their own two feet and to take responsibility, when they are often at their wits end, it is little wonder that some give in to fear and loathing.

Ingrid, in her late twenties, perhaps early thirties, started to break down when recounting how her husband had died two years ago. She was completely bereft, and embarrassed that she has had to move back in with her mother, who is also on UC, but has no bed to sleep on. We advised her to approach Shelter or CAB and to ask to apply for a crisis grant through the Scottish Welfare Fund. At the same time as we were dealing with Ingrid, Robert introduced himself to us. Robert had been turned down for a Welfare Fund crisis grant and was without any money, gas or electric as he awaited a decision on his UC claim. We could, at least, arrange a food parcel for him, courtesy of Taught by Muhamad. Truth to tell, I did not get the full details of Robert’s case, as the stall was busy and we were juggling two or three cases at the time. I do, however, remember the look on his face, as it is one we are seeing a lot of: a mixture of puzzlement, resignation, fear and loathing – the look of someone on the verge of giving up.

Our message to people in this situation is simple – remember that you are not on your own. We will provide support and info on the help folk can access to improve their position, but the most important service we can provide is instilling confidence in folk to represent themselves, so that they can break out of the isolation that often follows in the wake of unemployment and disability.

Duncan, Katie, Jonathan and Tony were on this week’s stall.

Papers please!


There’s an old German joke: Three government bureaucrats are in a room, but only one is actually doing anything useful. Which is it? Answer: The desk fan. Dealing with the DWP’s bureaucracy is a constant theme in the cases we encounter, and this week’s stall was no exception.

Adam, who is on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), had attempted to hand in an indefinite sick line, but the Jobcentre hadn’t accepted it. The guidance for issuing ‘fit notes’ says that doctors cannot give a note for more than three months unless their patient has already had their condition over six months. Three months is also the maximum length of time that a person can be counted as unfit for work and remain on JSA. Adam’s doctor may not have looked up the rules, but that was hardly Adam’s fault. However, he wouldn’t have been given a ‘fit note’ if he didn’t need one, so there is no obvious reason why the jobcentre couldn’t have allowed the note to run for the three months. (If, after that time, Adam is still not well he will have to apply to be treated as unfit for work on a more long-term basis through the Universal Credit system.)

Rob was also having problems with paperwork. He needed to provide identification. If you don’t have the money to pay for a passport or driving licence, what do you use? This is an increasing problem, and one that we need to stay on top of. We advised Rob to approach the council, as anyone who is a council tenant or otherwise has dealings with their local council you should be able to get a National Entitlement Card.

Paperwork is not the only problem. More than one claimant has fallen foul of unintelligible regulations. Kevin claims Carer’s Allowance (CA). He approached us asking if we knew how many hours he could work without invalidating his claim. A call to CPAG provided confirmation that you are allowed to earn up to £120 per week, but there are, however, no specific restrictions on how many hours you can work. Kevin was over this £120 limit and had been called into the Jobcentre. Carers Allowance rules are complicated. If you earn over the limit you can lose your allowance for that week, but if you have irregular earnings it should be possible for these to be looked at over a period and averaged out. Faced with impenetrable regulations, Kevin had fallen foul of them. We wished him good luck as he headed upstairs.

Universal Credit (UC) has been widely criticised for its delayed first payment, which forces people to take a Benefit Advance – a loan that they have to repay from future UC instalments. Gordon is struggling to repay his loan as he now has £100 less a month than he would have otherwise. Jackie had to leave her job as a barmaid. She has had to put half of her £400 loan towards paying the rent.

UC is adding to people’s mental health problems. Martin left teaching after struggling with work-related stress. If that weren’t enough, UC is also contributing to his anxiety. He is now in the ridiculous position of having to claim limited capacity for work, as a direct result of the added pressure of constantly being forced to look for non-existent jobs under UC.

While the SUWN’s work outside Dundee’s jobcentre continues, we also get enquiries from all over Scotland. Mhairi asked for our help with her case. Her description of her treatment by the staff in Paisley jobcentre was appalling. The SUWN can claim some credit for the changed attitude of staff in Dundee, but Mhairi’s case reminds us that overall the job of changing attitudes is far from done.

Tony, Norma, Ronnie, and Duncan were at this week’s stall.



‘Will I be sanctioned?’

SUWN stall - 13th March 2019

This is a question we are often asked, sometimes from folk who have been through the sanction mill before, but often from those who have not – a stark reflection of the climate of fear that surrounds the whole experience of being in need and seeking your legally entitled right to welfare. In this instance the question came from Maureen. She was on the verge of tears when we met, fearing a sanction for the heinous crime of applying for more jobs than was required for her UC online journal. We struggled to put her mind at rest by assuring her that she wouldn’t be sanctioned and by reminding her that she wasn’t on her own – that if she ever was sanctioned then we’d make sure the DWP would be publicly embarrassed and the sanction quashed. She was due to attend a meeting with her job coach but felt confident enough to go in without being accompanied by a SUWN volunteer. When she reappeared around half an hour later her broad smile confirmed that all had went well.

We have also met a few folk who have been recently made redundant following the closure of McGills, the Dundee based building firm. Andy had worked there for twenty nine years, and admitted to the shock of now having to manage on a £73.10 p.w. JSA payment. He also revealed that he and others had not yet received their pay in lieu of notice, which amounts to a statutory payment of three month’s wages, and that, thanks to a recent change in the law, he was now limited to twenty year’s state pension entitlement. The stormy weather at the buroo was a perfect mirror of Andy’s mood, whilst his views of the Tories are pretty much unprintable.

Gordon is on ESA, and is having issues with the DWP, which claims that he is living with his girlfriend, when he is actually sofa surfing as he doesn’t have a permanent address. He made a statement to the Job Centre, took one of our leaflets and admitted that he may well have to contact us if the DWP continues to pursue him. Needless to say, we hope that we don’t hear from him.

Jim has recently been made homeless, and now lives in a hostel and has no money of his own. He has asked for a payment from the Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF), but has been denied. As UC is being allowed to do its worst, this is becoming an increasingly common and alarming problem. Currently, individual claims for SWF grants are normally limited to three per year, and there are similar restrictions on entitlement to food parcels. But, this is proving totally inadequate for many folk, who, no fault of their own, find themselves struggling to subsist for sometimes months on end, as a result of having to pay back UC loans, being sanctioned, and the inevitable and far too common bureaucratic mistakes made in administering the unworkable UC system. More money and more flexibility for the Scottish Welfare Fund was one of the central demands of our petition to the Scottish Government, so it is more than frustrating to see the need for this proved again and again, especially as this particular demand was supported by the parliament’s own Social Security Committee. If folk who are left without the means to keep body and soul together are to be denied even the aid of food parcels and Crisis Grants then we refuse point blank to condemn them for having to steal to survive.

Duncan, John, Kait, Jonathan and Tony were at this week’s awfy blawy stall.


Thuds on the doormat

suwn letters pic

It is always difficult to tell how a PIP or Work Capability Assessment went. No matter how you feel when you come out of it, it all depends on the faceless decision maker buried somewhere in the DWP’s bureaucracy. Rather like a school exam, you go in, do what you have to do, and then try not to worry about it until the decision thuds onto your doormat. Certain clues on an envelope give an indication of the contents. A return address of “Mail Handling Site A, Wolverhampton”, or “DWP, BELFAST” has undoubtedly struck fear in many claimants.

The SUWN has come across many people who have been given “null-points” after an assessment, when they are clearly unfit for work. This seems particularly to be happening with claimants who are being reassessed while still on the old-style ESA. After such a decision, claimants are then forced onto the harsher regime of UC in order to survive. Even if an Appeal against the decision succeeds, they are then stuck with being on UC. (To paraphrase our current leaflet, if your application was under the old ESA system, consult a welfare advisor before applying for UC, as you could be worse off in the long run.)

Appeals have a good success rate. Around two thirds of appeals rule in favour of the claimant. This suggests that at least that number of initial decisions are wrong, which is deeply worrying.

The SUWN frequently accompanies people into PIP and Work Capability Assessments. We are currently awaiting on the outcome a few of these. A recent blog post highlighted Andy’s hour long wait for his appointment. Joyce, at the same assessment centre, was seen within minutes. Her appointment lasted less than half an hour, as the assessor seemed to think there was more than enough information. We will see, if this is a good sign. Incidentally, the toilet in that assessment centre still seems to be out of order, as it has been on the last three occasions at least.

Janet went into a PIP assessment a few days later. Janet’s experience was different again. She was in her appointment over an hour. The nurse seemed new to the job, and even helpful. We cannot fault the thoroughness of Janet’s assessment, however, the experience was incredibly tiring and gruelling for both her and her SUWN advocate. It would be tempting to suggest that it went well. Certainly, she is deserving of higher rate PIP, but as noted above, you can never tell until the DWP’s decision lands on the doormat.

Enough to make Sisyphus weep


One of the most common issues we come across at the stalls is the problems that folk experience after they fail their ESA re-assessment, and are forced into applying for UC. We have come across dozens of such cases since the introduction of UC, and the last stall proved to be no exception.

We met Linda, a 58 year old woman forced to give up her much cherished job as a lollipop woman after she was diagnosed with epilepsy, which added to problems she was already experiencing with her legs and stomach. Despite her obvious health problems, Linda, like countless others, was recently removed from ESA, placed on UC and deemed ‘fit for work’.  Since then she has battled mounting anxiety as the JC has increased pressure on her to find work, not least since many of the jobs they are asking her to apply for are clearly looking for younger and fitter folk. According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was forced to roll a rock up and down the same hill for eternity. And, it appears as though the DWP have now adapted and up-dated this tale of eternal punishment in their approach towards the disabled and those clearly unable to work.

The strain she is experiencing was readily apparent by her distressed state when we met her. She also informed us that her epileptic attacks are becoming more frequent, around once every week at the moment, and, very worryingly, they are also becoming more severe. Having been bumped from ESA, she now faces a further strain on her already frayed nerves in the shape of a forthcoming assessment to be classed as unfit for work within the UC system. We assured her that we would accompany her in to her assessment, and that we would take her case up with the JC, and also suggested that she contact Shelter so that she can get a full benefit check, as she now has much less money since being put onto UC. Needless to say, we will be taking a close interest in this case.

UPDATE – 6th March:

Linda has reported back with the good news that her case may well be moving towards an unexpectedly quick and successful conclusion. During a phone conversation with her ‘work coach’ earlier this week, she mentioned in passing that she had also sought help from the SUWN regarding her forthcoming Work Capability Assessment. A few minutes later the ‘work coach’ put Linda on hold to check something on the computer. When she returned, she promptly informed Linda that a mistake had been made, and she didn’t actually have to attend the Assessment as she had been declared ‘unfit for work’ on the basis of her completed claim form. Linda was understandably delighted with this surprising turn of events, but questions still remain to be answered: first, if she has qualified where is her award letter? Second, will she now be freed not just from looking for work but also from being forced to undertake ‘work related activities’ – and receive an extra £37 a week? We will keep readers informed of the progress of this case, but we are confident that it will be resolved in Linda’s favour.

We also met Bob who had just lost his father, and had put himself into serious financial difficulties paying off the funeral costs. Following a quick phone call to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), we confirmed that, despite having already paid out the money, Bob was still eligible for a grant towards funeral expenses. Indeed, those affected can apply up to six months after the death of their close relative, by completing a SS200 form. We also arranged a food parcel for Bob, and urged him to apply for a Scottish Welfare Fund grant, and accompanied him into the buroo for his scheduled meeting with his ‘work coach’, which he was very nervous about. As we expected, however, the JC staff we dealt with were pleasant and helpful; but, being pleasant (as welcome as it is after years of sometimes open conflict) is no alternative to actually paying claimants more than a pittance and subjecting them to lengthy sanctions for the slightest ‘misdemeanours’. Bob, who was still grieving the loss of his father, confided that he had not eaten a proper meal in two weeks, but all the JC could offer was a referral for the same food bank that we had already spoken to and information on the Scottish Welfare Fund, which we already had covered. It seems sickly and ironic that JC staff now refer people to food banks, when it is invariably the inhuman and unsustainable system they administer that is chiefly responsible for leaving folk in desperate circumstances in the first place.

Finally, we also met Gary, in his thirties, who had just been sanctioned. Gary had been homeless and had missed an appointment at the buroo, which he didn’t find out about as there was no way of contacting him. He had subsequently been informed that being homeless and having no phone was not deemed a ‘reasonable excuse’ for missing the appointment. And, despite the fact that he now has a flat, he admitted that he was still on his ‘dowp’: he had no electricity or gas at home, no money, and had already had his ‘annual quota’ of Scottish Welfare Fund grants and food parcels. In fact, Gary had barely anything apart from the clothes on his back. We urged him to approach Shelter, and offered to take him there, but he knew the way, and he departed with one of our leaflets and our best wishes.

Duncan, Norma and Tony were on this week’s stall.

The Last Post for our petition


This photo was taken at our protest outside the Scottish Parliament budget debate, where we called for ‘progressive taxation 4 welfare mitigation’ and pointed out that every day in Scotland 465 households are only kept afloat thanks to a Trussel Trust food parcel.

On 21st February, 15 months since we submitted it, the Scottish Social Security Committee agreed to close our petition ‘calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to make more money available to mitigate the impact of UK Government welfare cuts through reassessing spending priorities and bringing in more progressive taxation’. When we first wrote it, we had hoped to influence the Scottish budget for 2018-19. Now another year’s budget has as good as passed, with us unable to make any impression.

At one point it looked as though the Scottish Government might raise the amount of money available for the Scottish Welfare Fund, which was one of our requests. This fund has remained at the same value since 2013/14, and the Social Security Committee recommended to the Government that it be increased. But their call fell on deaf ears.

As the Green’s Social Security Spokesperson, Alison Johnstone put it at the Social Security Committee meeting, ‘we are closing the petition after we have been unsuccessful. The Parliament has not been able to convince the Government… We have urged the Scottish Government, as the petitioner has requested, to make more money available and it has said no or, certainly, not at the moment.’ And Mark Griffin for Labour also commented that the Committee had ‘effectively agreed with the petitioner’.

However, last year there was, overall, an underspend from the fund, allowing the Scottish Government to argue that no more money is needed. Actual figures vary very much from council to council, but the trend for Scottish Welfare Fund applications is generally upwards (see graph below), and a total underspend at a time when the number of households resorting to foodbanks has continued to go up dramatically should raise questions about the delivery of the fund, not about the need for it. I suspect that there are a lot of people who need help but don’t know about the fund, or don’t think they will get anything as they have had help before. And, as we pointed out in our petition, an enlarged Scottish Welfare fund could be used as a vehicle for helping a range of people who are not currently eligible but have been exceptionally badly affected by benefit cuts, including cuts to disability benefits.

SWF applications graph

This graph shows applications for the Scottish Welfare Fund by month from 2013 to 2018. Community Care Grants are in green, Crisis Grants are in blue and the total combined is shown in black.

On top of this, our petition didn’t just ask for more money for the Scottish Welfare Fund. We also backed the widely-supported campaign for an extra £5 on child benefit, and called for more money for Discretionary Housing Payments to meet the needs of people affected by the Benefit Cap. We supplied a document full of evidence for why all these were needed, and we made the case for funding it all through more progressive taxation. So it is particularly galling to realise, from comments made by committee members, that most have not engaged with any of this.

Michelle Ballantyne, one of the two Conservatives, dismissed our petition as ‘not particularly evidence based and quite emotive’. But then she also said that ‘there is no such thing as bedroom tax.’ What was more frustrating was the general implication, especially from Pauline McNeill (Labour) the Deputy Convenor of the committee, that we were asking for mitigation of all welfare cuts, which we had never done as the amount of money involved would ensure such a request was instantly dismissed. Much of the committee’s discussion was taken up by Keith Brown (SNP)’s valid, but tangential, concern that there should be no reduction in the mitigation of the bedroom tax. He admitted that he was new to the committee and hadn’t heard the petition, but he had clearly not read it either.

And so we find ourselves asking, what was the point of all this? How has it contributed to our wider campaign? Putting together our demands and evidence has helped us to clarify issues and make a clear, evidenced argument to back our demands – for anyone who takes the time to look at it. And going through the process of presenting the petition has demonstrated the failures of the existing system, making the case for more fundamental political change that can shake up the current complacency.

The SUWN has not only been very active in the Indy movement, but has also, in the past, called for a tactical SNP vote as most likely to bring progressive change. Ofcourse the SNP has always tended to try and appeal to people across a wide political and social spectrum, but, like New Labour before them, they seem to be increasingly following a mainstream business agenda, and taking the support of the mass of working-class Yes voters for granted. They may think they are being cautious, but this reluctance to depart from dominant neoliberal economics is being proved everywhere to be a very dangerous position.  We know that many Indy supporters are unhappy with any criticism of the SNP this side of Independence, but we prefer the inspiring injunction, made popular by Alisdair Gray, to ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’. We call on our Scottish Government to raise their aspirations and leave behind the dog days of neoliberalism.