Computers and Washing Machines: A Stall Report

computer

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.

Advertisements

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.)

Liberty Equality Solidarity! – SUWN goes to Aberdeen

duncan

The Indy marches and rallies achieve three things. They rally campaigners with a shared, uplifting, and enjoyable day out; they ensure the Indy cause remains firmly and visibly on the map; and they provide an opportunity for the grassroots Indy movement to make clear that Indy must be more than a change of flag. Yesterday’s speakers all talked about the opportunity to create a better, fairer Scotland – including a powerful anti-establishment speech from Veterans for Scottish Independence. There were speakers from CND, Extinction Rebellion, and Catalonia. Sarah gave a message of international solidarity, and Duncan gave his first public speech for the SUWN, which you can watch below (introduced by Tony who was compering the rally).

We took through a minibus of marchers aged under 6 to over 60, and we handed out 500 leaflets with our message for radical change and solidarity. For those who didn’t get one, this is what they said:

The SUWN has supported independence since before the 2014 referendum. We have always argued for the need to look after our own affairs through a totally independent Scottish parliament; but this is only part of the story. We also have to make sure that our independent Scotland is run by and for ALL its people, and isn’t just a smaller echo of the elite politics that we are escaping from. We don’t want Edinburgh aspiring to compete with the City of London, while a whole section of the population is priced out of a decent life. We don’t want an economy that sacrifices the common good and the future of our planet for the sake of private profit.

We know that most people who support independence do want to see an independent Scotland that creates a fairer society, and we call on everyone to make this demand central to the independence campaign. It is no use claiming that we can think about what sort of Scotland we want later. History is full of examples of movements that have put aside demands for wider social change till after independence, only to find themselves dismissed and side-lined once independence was won.

We don’t just want a change of flag. We want to make a better society – where there is no need for an unemployed workers’ network.

We are also very aware that winning a majority for independence will only be part of the independence process. There are a lot of powerful institutions that don’t want this to succeed – we were only ‘allowed’ a referendum last time because they were sure we wouldn’t vote yes. We hope the Scottish solution is constitutional and peaceful, but we have seen how painful independence struggles can be.

As supporters of independence and the right to self determination we want to express our solidarity with others who have campaigned for the right to run their own lives and enjoy their own culture, only to be met with brutal suppression by bigger nations who deny them their separate identity and exploit their resources.

Palestinian flags have long been welcome on Indy marches. This last fortnight, the world became more aware of the situation of the people of Kashmir, as India formalised decades of violent repression by unilaterally ending Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy, arresting politicians and human rights activists, and cutting off all forms of communication. In the SUWN we have been active in supporting the Kurds, who have combined their struggle to express their cultural identity, with the struggle for a better form of society.

In Northern Syria, the Kurds used the political vacuum created by the civil war to establish an autonomous region based on a bottom-up democracy, which emphasises women’s rights and a multicultural society. Its grassroots politics and community values provide a model for everyone looking for an alternative to our greed-based system. Almost as soon as they had begun to get this established, they were attacked by ISIS. Now that they have successfully fought back, and liberated large areas of Syria at the expense of thousands of young lives, they are being threatened by the full force of the Turkish army, the second biggest army in NATO. Their fate depends on the political machinations of Turkey, the US, Russia and Iran – all of them in Syria for their own selfish interests.

By making more people aware of the Kurds’ position we can try and make it a little bit harder for these new imperialists to wipe the Kurds from the map.

You can check out what is happening on anfenglishmobile.com

Use www.writetothem.com to ask your MP to raise the issue of the Turkish threat in parliament, and to demand the Kurds be given a say in their own future.

And find out what is happening in Scotland on

www.sskonline.org.uk and www.facebook.com/ScottishSolidaritywithKurdistan

 

It’s a Dug’s life

Dugs

We make no apology if these blogs are often grim reading. We write this record of our experiences to inform both those in similar situations and a wider public, and to serve as an archive for the future. Reports from the stalls are a record of what is happening as a result of UK Government policy. At this week’s stall we were joined by Brandy and Trudy, two affiliate canine members of the group.

Connor has a mobility disability and is being shifted from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment. This is happening nationwide, and it seems to have struck our local area a lot recently. Connor is one of a number of people we have spoken to about their move from DLA to PIP. As ever, we gave the standard advice: get someone to help you fill in the form, and get someone to go into the assessment with you.

Alison is also moving onto PIP. She is being helped by Citizen’s Advice (CAB) to fill in her forms. Unfortunately, CAB is over-subscribed and her appointment with them falls two days after the form’s deadline. She will need to ask the DWP for an extension. (Unlike for Work Capability Assessment claims, two-week extensions can be given for PIP fairly routinely, but this is a worrying situation.) Alison took one of our leaflets, and may ask us to accompany her to the assessment, as CAB doesn’t do that bit.

We also advised Sean that he could be eligible for PIP. He’d left his driving job due to health problems. His former employers agreed that he couldn’t do his job. The DWP, however, had assessed him as ‘fit for work’. He took the case to a Mandatory Reconsideration, which failed. Sean is now getting help to appeal the decision. In the meantime, he has no savings, and will have to apply for Universal Credit. (You can only get contributions-based ‘New Style’ JSA for 6 months after you have left work) We also advised him to apply for PIP.

Michelle is on New-Style ESA. However, this does not cover her housing costs, and she had to apply for UC as well to pay her rent. Due to the delays in her UC, she had to get an initial loan. Repaying the loan has left her very little actually to live on. We suggested she apply to the Scottish Welfare Fund, as that might ease her financial situation.

It can get tedious giving out the same information again and again to different people. What is particularly frustrating is that this is often basic information that the Jobcentre/DWP is either not telling people, or getting wrong. It is gratifying therefore to hear the words of people like Harry. Harry is a new Universal Credit claimant. As he was going in, he took one of our leaflets and simply said, “It’s reassuring to know that there’s someone helping people.”

Mental illness, money, and survival

Mental health

We are constantly being told that mental illness is an epidemic. Indeed it is. Especially among men.

Last year the UK Government created the much-ridiculed position of ‘Minister for Suicide Prevention’. Since 2011 they have collected statistics on happiness and ‘wellbeing’. To those with real mental health issues these derisory public relations stunts are insulting and ultimately meaningless.

Back in the real world, we all know that economics is a major cause of the UK’s mental health crisis. The link between poverty and poor mental health is indisputable fact. We all know this link: money is survival. Money means shelter. Money means warmth. Money means food. Without these basic needs met, human beings cannot survive. If we cannot achieve these basic needs, we worry about them and we are anxious. Prolonged mental anguish leads to mental illness, chronic anxiety, depression and, if left unchecked, suicide.

This is why benefit sanctions are so scandalous. Sanctions take away the means of survival. People literally worry about where their next meal is coming from. In the deep past our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to contend with these worries on a daily basis. Eventually our species invented agriculture. Agriculture meant being able to store food so we had enough to eat during lean periods. In today’s world of plenty, it is appalling that anyone goes hungry. That it happens as a result of government policy in a rich country like the UK is nothing short of immoral.

The DWP accept that in certain circumstances poor mental health can mean you are unable to work or even that you are fully disabled. Actually proving this is incredibly hard work. It is stressful in itself, and they make the system even worse, to the point where it feels like torture.

Recovering from depression is a long and fragile process. Just about anything can trigger a relapse, including the DWP deciding to re-evaluate your case. One associate of the SUWN suffers chronic depression. His condition means that he is unable to work, and he claims Employment and Support Allowance. The DWP recently put his ESA case up for re-evaluation. The appointment letter for his assessment arrived, and he spent the following two weeks lying on the sofa unable to think about much else. He now has the agonising wait for the decision. If that decision goes against him, his income will disappear, and he will be unable to support himself. He will also face the stress of a Mandatory Reconsideration, and possibly an appeal. NONE of this is conducive to him recovering from a serious depressive illness, nor, indeed, will it help him get employed.

He’s far from the only one suffering from the stress of trying to survive. At this week’s SUWN stall another man picked up one of our leaflets and asked about renegotiating his Universal Credit loan repayment. Another asked about hardship payments. In the end both men were sent off in the direction of Dundee Council’s Welfare Rights team. Two separate women at the stall asked about the process of applying for PIP, both are getting help from other sources, so there was little more we could do to advise them. Away from the stalls, the SUWN helped another woman fill in her PIP form, as she is being transferred from DLA. It is always good to see that people are asking for help, and that they are not suffering alone.

But, these people should not have to suffer at all. The stress that people are under can only lead to a worsening of their mental and physical health, and add to the mental health crisis that the Government claims to be addressing. Take away someone’s money, and you take away their means of survival. Uncertainty about the next meal leads to anxiety. Chronic anxiety leads a mental health crisis. If the UK Government really wanted to address mental health, they could start with a serious look at the chaos they have created within the benefits system. It really is that simple.

If you are feeling down or stressed and need someone to talk to try:

Breathing Space (Scotland): 0800 83 85 87

Samaritans (UK): 08457 90 90 90 or from Mobiles: 116 123

Samaritans (Rep. Ireland): 1850 60 90 90

Sanctioned claimants not getting hardship payments

foodbank

UK Benefits are already notoriously low and barely enough to survive on: certainly not enough to build up any reserves for a rainy day. Yet, as David Webster’s recent analysis shows (19-05 UC Hardship Payments – D.Webster), the vast majority of those sanctioned don’t claim hardship payments. Hardship payments were claimed by 45% of people sanctioned from JSA, but only 17% of people sanctioned from UC.

The reasons aren’t hard to guess. Hardship payments are now a loan, paid back off future benefits, which effectively increases the sanction period to 2 ½ times its nominal length. This comes on top of a system that seems calculated to push people into ever more distressing and unmanageable levels of debt, starting with the initial waiting period, for which many need an advance loan. Hardship payments are also harder to get under UC and have to be reapplied for every month.

The sanction rate may be down from the high percentages of five years ago, but the impact of getting sanctioned can be a lot worse. Of course the official statistics don’t examine how people who have been sanctioned actually survive, but anecdotal evidence tells us that many have to fall back on family and friends who are themselves struggling to make ends meet, while some will turn to less legal methods. They also don’t tell us what impact this has on mental and physical health and family relationships.

Restricting the Scottish Welfare Fund – a case of misused statistics

Progressive Taxation for Welfare Mitigation trimmed

Of the various suggestions in our petition calling on the Scottish Government to do more to mitigate the Tory welfare cuts, the simplest was to increase the discretionary help given to those most in need through the Scottish Welfare Fund, administered by the local councils. The case for increasing the fund was so strong that this was recommended by the Scottish Government’s own Social Security Committee. But it was ultimately refused on the grounds that the fund was being underspent. As we argued at the time, this is an indication of poor administration of the grant, not of lack of need. A new report by Menu for Change delves into the background of this underspend and shows that not only does spend vary hugely from council to council – some subsidise the fund with their own money, but this will not appear in Scottish Government statistics – but councils are also avoiding advertising the fund as they wouldn’t be able to cope with the increase in demand.

The latest official statistics on the fund can be seen here. They explain the background of the fund, which has not gone up since it was established in 2013, and admit to lack of any central recording of overspend by councils:

The Scottish Welfare Fund is a discretionary, budget-limited grant scheme that prioritises applications according to need. It provides grants that do not have to be repaid. It does not provide loans. The DWP transferred the funding spent in Scotland on its Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans for Living Expenses to the Scottish Government. For 2013/14 and 2014/15 this amounted to £23.8 million. The Scottish Government topped this amount up by a further £9.2 million, giving the Scottish Welfare Fund a total budget of £33 million for both these years. This level has been maintained at £33 million from 2015/16 to 2018/19 by the Scottish Government. Local Authorities have been able to top this up with their own funds, together with any underspends carried forward from previous years. There is no statutory limit on the amount of money which can be spent on the Scottish Welfare Fund.

In previous publications, we have included funds provided by Local Authorities in the available budget when calculating the proportion of budget spent. However, for this version of the publication this funding has been removed from calculations. Available budget therefore only represents the amounts allocated by Scottish Government plus any estimated underspend from previous years, and it is assumed that Local Authorities meet any overspend each year. However, some local authorities may also have committed to adding extra funds to their budgets.

The Menu for Change report can be seen here (emphasis added).

Increasing local authorities’ ability to advertise and administer the fund will undoubtedly impact how much money is available to give to applicants . In her letter answering the recommendation made by the Scottish Parliament’s Social Security Committee that programme funding should be increased (i .e . the pot each local authority receives to pay out), the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People, Shirley-Anne Somerville, pointed out that there was an overall underspend to the programme budget in 2017/18 . This could be interpreted as suggesting there is not a compelling reason to increase the programme budget . However, there are several possible reasons for the underspend . For example, the underspend could be explained by the persistent under resourcing of the administration budget . If councils feel it necessary to take from their own general funds to keep the fund running at current levels, it is understandable that they would not look to widen access to the fund in order to try to keep staff workload manageable . As outlined above, several local authorities also suggested they would not be able to cope with demand if they were to advertise the fund .  It should also be pointed out that 68% of the programme budget underspend in 2017/18 is attributed to only six councils . In fact, nine councils overspent, and two councils significantly overspent in the same time frame – one council overspent by £100,000 and another by over £300,000 .This suggests the underspend is not clearly attributable to a lack of need, and can be explained by differences in local authority practices and demographics . If the Scottish Government is going to make the Scottish Welfare Fund work to its full potential, ensuring people facing acute income crisis receive adequate cash based support, it must be prepared to properly fund the administration budget so local authorities can administer the fund to the highest standard . However, this must be accompanied by an increase in the programme budget to meet the increased demand which a rise in awareness of the fund, and enhanced practice in the delivery of it, is highly likely to create .

Of course, we fully recognise that the origin of the cuts is Westminster, and that Scotland provides more help than other places. But we also recognise that further help is desperately needed, and that it could and should be provided by the Scottish Government. While we don’t (yet) have the powers to make fundamental improvements to the system that Independence would bring, Scotland already has the ability to increase revenue through more progressive taxation, and to use this to repair the holes in the vital welfare safety net. Whatever the colour of the administration, politicians at all levels must be held to account.

Thank you to Ian Davidson for his persistence in going through government documents and for finding the above quotes.

The image is from our protest outside the Scottish Parliament budget debate in March

 

Universal Credit as a gateway to drug dealing

 

valium-addiction-overdose-signs

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.

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.