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.