A September Afternoon


Scottish weather can be unpredictable. Sometimes it feels as though all four seasons have passed in just a single two hour stall. As it happens, this week’s stall took place on a quite pleasant September afternoon. We were joined this week by a comrade from Glasgow who has moved into the area to do a postgraduate degree. It was good to see him again and have his help on the stall. We were also graced with the presence of Brandy, the King Charles Spaniel, who got huge amounts of attention.

It was reasonably busy again, and we spoke to a number of people. These cases were all standard questions about Universal Credit, which we have covered in previous SUWN blogs ad nauseam. That said, a few quick observations can be made.

If you are struggling to make ends meet, it is always worth checking to see what help is available. Eddie provides case in point. He works part time, and has disabilities. Until he was told otherwise, he was unaware he was eligible for benefits such as PIP. He is now better off, and, importantly, less stressed about money. Eddie’s case illustrates two things. 1. If you are struggling, it can be useful to get a benefits check from a qualified welfare advisor. 2. If you are eligible for a benefit, apply for it.

Roddy told us he was coming to the end of a four month sanction. His original ‘misdemeanour’ was missing a Jobcentre appointment for medical reasons. He had also been refused a Scottish Welfare Fund Crisis Grant, despite not having had one before. We’ve taken up his case, and won’t say much more, as it is still live. But it does underline our advice that if you have been sanctioned, you should put in a Mandatory Reconsideration as soon as possible, and then appeal the decision if this fails.

As its name suggests, the Scottish Welfare Fund Crisis Grant is only available in Scotland, though some English councils have similar Welfare Schemes. To apply for a Crisis Grant you must go through your local council, who make the decisions. If you are refused, you can challenge the decision. You should do so in writing to your local council within 20 working days of the decision, explaining clearly why you think it was unfair. They will arrange for someone new to look at it again. Shelter Scotland’s website has some useful information about Crisis Grants here. They can provide a vital lifeline – and could be even more important if the Scottish Government increased the money available, as we and others have repeatedly called for.

Picture Credit: September Afternoon, Eastern Townships. John Arthur Fraser, (1838 – 1898). National Gallery of Canada

Computers and Washing Machines: A Stall Report


It’s impossible to know how busy an SUWN stall will be. Recently they have been either very quiet or very busy. There has been no middle ground.

This week we debated holding the stall somewhere else in the city. In the end we chose to set up shop outside the Jobcentre once again. This is, after all, where people expect us to be. They know that we will be there, come rain, shine, hail or heat. This week’s stall was busy. As well as speaking to a number of people, we also got through about twice the usual number of leaflets. Thanks to Jock and Gary for lending a hand this week.

As well as the stalls, we also continue to accompany people into Work Capability Assessments, PIP assessments, and Compliance hearings. (One of each this week). These are coming thick and fast at the moment. We are glad to say that we have a good success rate.

We often refer claimants onwards to other organisations. This way they can talk to someone who is best placed to help them. For example, we send people to the council’s Welfare Rights team for benefits advice. We also send them to Shelter if they have specific housing issues. Sometimes, we tell people to go to their elected representatives.

This week, Lucy told us the saga of her washing machine. She is a council tenant, and her washing machine broke down over a month ago. Consequently, she had to do her and her children’s washing by hand. Repeated calls to the Housing Department have proved fruitless. We advised her to see an elected councillor, who would have the authority to investigate. This useful link from Shelter Scotland makes clear what Scottish council and housing association tenants should be able expect their landlord to repair.

Flora also had a saga to tell us. She has been on Universal Credit, and has been left without money. Her case is being dealt with by a local law firm, and so there was little extra we could do for her. We offered to get her a referral to a food bank. She said she was “OK for this week”, but that she may need to use them soon.

Some people just want reassurance. We are always happy to give a listening ear. After taking one of our leaflets, one girl let off steam about being unable to find suitable work. One man was worried about the constant threat of sanctions. Another man had just started signing on, and had a rant about the wait for his first payment. For these people it can actually be a help just knowing they are not alone in thinking the situation is awful. They also know there are people out there who they can turn to if needed.

One complaint we hear at nearly every stall is the requirement under Universal Credit to complete job searching activities online. This week’s complaint on the subject came from Jack. Jack is a smart guy, but he simply cannot use a computer. Jack comes from a generation where computers were simply not used. UC claimants are expected to search for jobs online, and log their activities in their online journal. Communication between claimants and the DWP is also supposed to be through the UC online journal. This is fine for claimants who are digitally literate, but many find using even a basic desktop computer can be nigh on impossible.

When UC was set up, anywhere with public computers was overwhelmed. Then local councils were given money to provide assistance for those struggling with computers. In Dundee there are a number of Job Shops run by the City Council, and Dundee Central Library relies on a number of enthusiastic volunteers to provide computing help. We keep a stack of information leaflets on our stall which outline the services available in Dundee. We frequently need to replenish these, which demonstrates these services continue to be in high demand.  These leaflets are provided by the council, but the Jobcentre do not seem to give them out. (An online version of the leaflet is available here. )

Claimants like Jack, who are inexperienced, have to rely on others to guide them thorough the process of logging on, searching job sites, and using their Universal Credit account. As it happens, this author is a weekly patron of a local job club and has seen numerous new computer users get frustrated, as a patient member of staff assists them. This help is often of the level of “move the mouse, click here, and type there”. It takes time to learn any new life skill, and people need to go at their own pace.

It is an inescapable fact of life these days that most job adverts are posted online, even for jobs that themselves require no computing knowledge. It must be quite frightening to be suddenly expected to be competent in something with which you have little experience. It adds another layer of difficulty to the search for work. This is the root of Jack’s complaint, and what causes him stress. It’s not just that he has had to learn how to use a computer, but that he is expected to be proficient from the start in order to receive his benefits.

A wasted opportunity – with big knock-on costs

wheelchair man on beach

Our simplest and most basic demand of the Scottish Government has been for more help for people to get the benefits they are due, but by focusing their efforts on the promotion of devolved benefits, they are missing the opportunity to help vulnerable lives both now and in the future.

Most at risk – as so often – are the sick and disabled. The DWP makes no attempt to estimate the take up rate of DLA and PIP. Of course it is not easy to estimate how many people who have not applied for these would be eligible, but it is a crucial part of providing a social security service.  Although the Scottish Social Security Committee is discussing these issues, this is happening too late – and not just for those missing out now. When Scotland takes over the running of disability benefits in 2020/21, the funds they will have to do this will depend to a large extent on the money claimed in Scotland for DLA and PIP this year. A big drive to encourage and help people to apply is needed NOW.

(Thanks to Ian Davidson for drawing our attention to this.)