Universal Credit as a gateway to drug dealing

 

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In addition to this week’s stall, we had a discussion with Davy in central Scotland that underlines the true extent of the damage that Universal Credit is causing. Davy had recently emerged from jail to find nothing waiting for him on the outside. As a result, he was forced to sign up to Universal Credit, and the interminable 5-plus week wait for his payments to come through, meaning that he was also forced to accept an advance payment loan. When he eventually received his first UC payment, he was shocked to find that he was now being forced to survive on £50 per week until his advance payment is paid back in full, which will take months. He admitted that he couldn’t possibly survive on such short rations, and contrasted the way he has been treated on the outside with his experience of prison, where he received three meals a day and where he didn’t constantly have to worry about his lights and heating shutting down because, as had often happened, he had no money for the meter in his bare flat.

When I asked Davy how he was surviving he admitted that he had been forced back into drug dealing, particularly since he had started taking heroin again, which has been part of his life, on and off, for over twenty years. He was now using his UC payments to buy Valium tablets, which he was then selling on. We have come across many similar stories over the years, of folk forced into the choice of going hungry or shoplifting and dealing, but, with over 50% of new UC claimants now applying for advance payments, the chances are that this problem will only increase. Nothing can underline just how broken and unfit for purpose Universal Credit is than the fact that it is now serving as a major prompt towards a life of crime for many folk, some of whom have little or no other option in order to survive.

When we met Valerie outside the buroo, she was not best pleased, to say the least. Her husband has incurable Leukemia, and because she is his main carer she had been called into the buroo on her sole day off to confirm that she is still working. She also revealed that she and her husband were very worried about the PIP application process that he is currently going through, and admitted that she was ‘just waiting for him to be declared fit for work’. We attempted to put her mind at rest, pointing out that it was very unlikely that, given the nature of his condition, her husband would fail the PIP assessment, and, that if he did we would make sure that all hell would break loose. (PIP isn’t, of course, actually about ability to work, that’s ESA, but the process and worries are very similar.) We also tried to calm Valerie’s nerves regarding her appointment by suggesting that her summons to appear at the buroo was in all likelihood an automatically generated letter from the DWP, which her ‘job coach’ was unaware of, and that there was probably nothing to worry about. We did, though, offer to send someone in with her, but after we had put her mind at rest she didn’t think it would be necessary. She was, though, still very angry, and we advised her to ‘keep a calm sooth’ when she went upstairs. When Valerie emerged twenty minutes or so later, her smile confirmed that there had been no problems. She reported that the job coach had been very sympathetic and had explained that the appointment letter was, as we had earlier suggested, an automatically generated letter from the DWP. Just the usual DWP disregard for the worries they cause.

Jim was also less than pleased. He is a weel kent face to us, and had stopped by to tell us that a friend of his had received no money for three months. When we asked why, Jim informed us that she had actually disengaged from UC altogether. She is sixty-one years old, has worked all her life, and had recently been made redundant. When she was going through the application process for UC, however, she had become so enraged by her work coach’s patronising and dismissive attitude that she had, in no uncertain manner, given him a piece of her mind, and stormed out of the buroo before security could be called. According to Jim, the work coach was around the same age as her son. (We don’t know the full details, but if her national insurance payments were up to date she shouldn’t have had to rely on UC straight away anyway, as she would be eligible for 6 months Jobseekers Allowance.)

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

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Sunshine, smiles and stolen tents – a quiet day at Dundee Buroo

The stall this week was drenched in sun, which was both very unusual and very welcome: six volunteers had turned up, expecting to be kept busy. It proved, however, to be a long two hours as active cases were thin on the ground – not that we are reading too much into this, as we have often experienced alternating weeks of relative calm and then frenetic activity, and fully expect next week’s stall to conform to that pattern.

Whilst cases were few and far between, this was no consolation to the folk who did have problems. Tim, who is homeless and had been camping in a local park until his tent and camping equipment had been stolen, was without any means of subsistence whatsoever and had emerged from the buroo very upset after being told that he could not be helped because he did not have a permanent address. The buroo had simply passed the problem onto the local council, and, as he was new to the town, one of our volunteers offered to chum him along to the council offices to get advice and help from the housing department. When the SUWN volunteer, Gary, returned he reported that Tim was in pieces and that he kept bursting into tears as they had walked towards the council offices. Gary left Tim at the housing department waiting to be seen, and we had provided him with our leaflet and contact details, just in case he required further help. So far, we have heard nothing, and we can only hope that this means Tim received the assistance he desperately needs – though if he can’t demonstrate a link with Dundee and has a link with somewhere else they could try and pass his case on, as Shelter explains here.

We also came across John who had emerged from twenty-four hours on remand only to find that his ESA claim had been shut down. We advised him to contact Welfare Rights immediately in order to get this ridiculous decision overturned, asap.

These cases proved to be exceptions, and we were greeting many of the folk emerging from the buroo with the observation that, ‘I can tell yir noa hivin problems by the smile oan yir coupon’. It was Friday, it was sunny, and these folk had got through another appointment without any problems, something remarked upon by a guy who stopped to have a crack. He shook his head, smiling, when asked if he was having any problems, and informed us that whilst he did not have any issues with his work coach, who was, he felt, pretty reasonable, this didn’t stop him from feeling nervous when going into appointments and from feeling relieved when the meeting had ended without difficulties – hence his smile.

And, although cases were thin on the ground, we did have a regular flow of folk approaching the stall asking for more general pieces of advice, picking up advice leaflets, and sharing their experiences. One woman sparked a fair amount of discussion and debate over problems that a friend of hers had encountered who had started to experience severe seizures, but who had found help difficult to come by as, following a whole battery of tests, she still had not had a firm diagnosis, although the woman feared that her friend may well be suffering from grand mal epilepsy.

As we have mentioned in previous blogs, we also field online and telephone inquiries, and one piece of good news was received from Nottingham concerning a PIP case that we had been dealing with for some months. Gerald describes himself as ‘a rather large black lad’ who has not had the best of luck with the DWP and local welfare services. He suffers from depression, but recently failed a PIP assessment. We advised him to appeal the decision, despite his local welfare officer advising against it, and he had just received word that he had qualified for the Daily Living component of PIP after gaining extra points at the appeal tribunal. He was delighted with the result, and grateful that we had taken his case up, remarking, ‘I wish you guys were down here, as if it’d been left to the local welfare organisations I wouldn’t even have bothered applying for PIP.’ The plight of Gerald and the other benefit claimants in England (and Wales) we deal with only underlines the fact that, as bad as things are up here, it is nothing compared with the situation down south, where there is very often little or no help and advice available – not even the limited Welfare Fund and advice services provided by the Scottish government – for English folk who get caught in the clutches of DWP numptydom.

Duncan, Jonathan, Katy, Gary, Norma and Tony were at this week’s stall.

The importance of good advice

But who’s going to pay for it? Of the various proposals that we made in our petition to the Scottish Government, more support for benefit advice was perhaps the one that could have been most easily met. Instead, we were given a £600,000 cut in funding from the legal aid board, which hit the Citizens Advice Service hard, and continued squeezing of council budgets, which is transmitted down into pressure on advice budgets (especially as welfare advice is not a ‘protected service’). So the recent discussion of advice services by the Scottish Social Security Committee was doubly interesting.

The part of the discussion that hit the headlines concerned the DWP’s slight of hand when they transferred the administration of support for people signing onto Universal Credit from the local authorities to the Citizens Advice Service. When this was done through the councils, they were empowered to log a new claim as beginning from the date of first contact. A legal quibble means that CAB doesn’t have that power, so if – as is often the case – there is a delay in the claim getting submitted, the claimant will only get paid benefits for the period of the delay if they also log their claim with the jobcentre. Glasgow City Council has suggested that a great many people will loose out on vital benefits. They have also pointed out that the CAB contract, unlike the previous contract with the local authorities, does not provide for ongoing help after the first 6 weeks.

The CAB rep was given quite a grilling by the Committee for CAB’s failure to negotiate a better deal for benefit claimants – but third sector organisations are always compromised when they rely on bidding for contracts from government. I am reminded of the problems Shelter got into a decade back when they tightened up on their costs so much in order to win a government contract that their employees went on strike because they couldn’t afford their own housing costs.

The Social Security Committee also discussed the provision of advice services more generally, and it was good to see a general recognition of the growing need for them, and also for the wider benefits that can be gained from timely help before people’s lives unravel. Several speakers talked about the returns, both social and financial, from investment in welfare services. BUT, with the exception of Alison Johnstone for the Greens, no one talked about getting any more money to put into this potential investment. The right to ‘advocacy’ is mentioned in the Scottish Social Security Act, but it is not clear what this means – and there was concern that the Scottish Government is focused on help for people applying for the new Scottish-administered benefits and not  the whole picture. There was plenty of valuable discussion about better coordination and the importance of being able to look at someone’s position in the round and not just one benefit problem at a time, but lack of resources seems to be generally accepted as a lamentable fact of existence. That needn’t be, and shouldn’t be, the case.