The first stall of 2020 took place against the backdrop of Baltic weather conditions and the recent disastrous re-election of the Tories, which means that groups like our own will find ourselves, yet again, back on the active front line of the ruthless and never ending class war being waged against the poor and disabled in the name of ‘welfare reforms’. Whilst this very real prospect did not exactly fill us full of joy, particularly when we started to lose the feelings in our fingers, we are also aware that the situation we face at Dundee buroo is not nearly so desperate as it is at many other job centres. After nearly six years of advice stalls and constant pressure we have succeeded in reducing the number of cases we deal with from a torrent to a trickle, as local DWP managers have introduced a whole series of measures in order to ‘dry the well’ of issues that we can take up and campaign on.
We now regularly hear unemployed folk remarking on the change for the better in the atmosphere at the buroo and in the way that they are dealt with by the job centre staff. Indeed, some of the recently unemployed now take this new less confrontational approach by Dundee DWP for granted and can’t seem to understand that it was not always thus, and that change only came about through, sometimes, bitter conflict with DWP management, staff and security personnel. Of course, despite these changes for the better, there are still issues and cases for us to take up, and we are also aware that the situation could change for the worst in the blink of an eye, if, or rather when, the Tories launch their new class war offensive.
Jim approached us even before we’d finished setting up the stall. In his mid-fifties and on UC, he had been on the wrong side of a DWP clerical error, which had resulted in a stoppage of his UC payments. He had been given a slip of paper with a phone number on it, but had been advised that it could take a good while for the situation to be sorted. In the meantime he had nothing, not a single penny, to his name, whilst his electricity and gas was running low and his rent and council tax was overdue. We quickly arranged for a food parcel delivery through Taught by Mohamed and put him in contact with DEEAAP, which gives advice and financial assistance to those who are struggling to afford heating and lighting in the Dundee area (for further details see here). We also urged him to visit the Shelter office to seek help and advice with the housing issues he has and to request a full benefit check in order to ensure that he is receiving what he is entitled to. He left us in a far better frame of mind than when we’d met him, which made the cauld and weet fade into the background, at least for a wee while.
We also met Davey, who is on UC and, as a result of paying back DWP loans etc, was now seriously struggling to keep body and soul together on the princely sum of £94 per month. He explained that he has been in constant employment for most of his working life, but had been suddenly hit by illness, which he hoped and believed he would recover from sooner rather than later, thus allowing him to return to work. He was dismayed and angry that, for the first time in his life, he now found himself penniless, and was appalled at the way that he was regularly being spoken to by his advisor – particularly given the fact that she was young enough to be his daughter. It quickly became clear to us that Davey was eligible for Contribution based (now called New Style) JSA, as his NI contributions were up-to-date, which begs the question as to why he was not made aware of this.
As with so much else concerning Universal Credit, the devil is in the detail. Many people whose NI contributions are up-to-date may benefit from going on UC as well as contribution-based JSA. The JSA payments don’t have the 5-plus weeks wait and are not means-tested, but you can no longer apply for housing benefit and child tax credits on top of JSA as these benefits are now part of the Universal Credit system, so if you would be eligible for help in these areas you’ll need to apply for UC too. (Don’t rely on the DWP systems to point you to the correct benefit – they often seem to assume that everyone should just apply for Universal Credit. Ask about JSA and get independent welfare advice if you can.)
It was clear that in Davey’s case, going onto UC had plunged him into a financial crisis, chiefly through the disastrous impact of the five to six week wait that all folk have to endure before receiving their first UC payment. This meant that he had to take out a loan, and is now subsisting on a pittance. The DWP can only deduct a maximum amount equivalent to 30% of the claimant’s Universal Credit standard allowance , so deductions should be no more than £95.35 a month for a single person over 25 (For further details see here). However, they can make an exception to this rule when a claimant owes back rent and is in arrears with gas, electricity and water bills, which was the situation that Davey found himself in. We advised Davey to raise this whole issue with a welfare rights organisation in order to get a full benefit check and to see what would have been the most appropriate benefit for him to apply for, and whether he is due any back payments. They should be able to negotiate a more manageable debt repayment programme too.
Shortly after Davey took leave of us, we packed up the stall and made our way to the Counting House to warm ourselves with a coffee and a crack. However, we had not even taken our seats when we were approached by a well turned out elderly gent, in his early sixties, who asked us if were the SUWN and then informed us that he had just been sanctioned for two weeks for failing to attend a scheduled interview. He explained that his phone is not the best, that it had a cracked screen, and that, as a result, he had missed the text message. He also informed us that he was a volunteer with a cancer charity, which appeared to be frowned upon by his advisor who was of the opinion that he should be spending more time being out in all weathers looking for work that was not there. We advised him about the procedure for appealing, and explained that he should first contact the DWP on line with a mandatory reconsideration. We explained that whilst the mandatory reconsideration was likely to fail, as it is judged by an internal DWP ‘referee’, it is necessary to go through with it in order to get to the appeal tribunal stage, which is made up of public figures who are not connected with the DWP. We also provided him with our advice leaflet and phone numbers so that he could contact us when his mandatory reconsideration is, inevitably, rejected. The elderly gent, whose name we did not catch, took his leave of us with a smile on his face, and with our best wishes for a speedy and successful resolution of his case – whilst we returned to our very welcome cups of coffee.
Duncan, Norma, Gary and Tony were at this week’s stall.