Enough to make Sisyphus weep

Sisyphus

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.

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4 thoughts on “Enough to make Sisyphus weep

  1. Re: Linda (58). One of the issues I am pursuing at present with some politicians is the potential economic/social “timebomb” of “pensioner poverty”. Relative to “working age” claimants, “pensioners” have had a much better benefits deal since Pension Credit was introduced in 2003 plus Scottish benefits like free bus travel etc. Consequently “pensioner poverty” has been in decline albeit still a problem. However, just as the decline in child poverty has been reversed by UK welfare reform, we now risk the return of pensioner poverty due to: Increase in state pension age (now 65 and rising to 66, then 67) which has hit women particularly hard; the consequential increase in pension credit qualifying age (now 65 rising to 66..); lack of progress on equal pay; folks on zero hour contract etc. So whilst many folks may be looking forward to a reasonably health and “wealthy” retirement (if they choose to give up paid work) perhaps with a good occupational pension, a significant minority will be facing a bleaker future. I have met many folks, often women, like Linda who have had physically and/or mentally demanding jobs, paid their taxes and NI etc but in their 50s and 60s things start to go wrong health wise. The punitive benefits regime makes no allowance for such folks who are now expected to work/be available for work up to 65/66 whereas in the past DWP tended to pay out incapacity or unemployment benefit and “leave them alone”. The latest cut, to force “mixed age couples” (if one of couple is below 65/66) to claim UC rather than PC (as now based on the older partner’s age above 65/66) is the first major cut to PC entitlement since 2003. “Pensioners” of today are more likely to have long term health problems including mental health, addiction etc than might have been the case 30-40 years ago. Government policy seems to be based on the pipe dream that most folks will be healthy, still able to work full time and have generous occupational pensions living in a “nice” house with the mortgage paid off. I foresee a more complex scenario which will require government intervention and spending (health, social services) which could be avoided if we stop making the wrong policy decisions now.

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