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

 

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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.

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.

Too ill to work? How the DWP assesses you

Blood_letting

At this week’s stall, three separate people approached us asking advice about claiming benefits when they are unfit for work. With this is mind, we thought it would be useful to restate the basic rules of engagement. (Most of this information is on our current leaflet.)

The general advice we give is:

ALWAYS get someone who knows the system to help you to fill in forms.

ALWAYS take someone with you to assessments as a witness and support.

ALWAYS remember that you are not alone. There are people out there to help you.

Under the ‘old’ system, you would apply for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). If you have recently stopped working, and have enough National Insurance contributions, you are entitled to apply for what they now call ‘New Style’ ESA, which is not means tested.

Otherwise, you will need to apply through Universal Credit. Once you have been on Doctor’s lines on UC for 4 weeks, the DWP should send you a UC35 form for being treated as unfit for work long term. If you don’t receive this, then ask for it. As for ESA, you will have to fill in the forms and attend a Work Capability Assessment. You may still be asked to look for work while waiting for an assessment, but you can argue – with the help of your GP – that there would be substantial risk to your health if you were made to look for work.

Work Capability Assessments are point based, so it is useful to have a copy of what scores what points when filling out the forms. You’ll need to relate these to your condition as much as possible, and not be tempted to downplay your problems. The scoring system – the Work Capability Assessment descriptors – can be found online, but we always advise getting help from a Welfare Advisor if you can. (There’s excellent detailed advice guides on the Benefits and Work website, but you do have to pay a membership fee to access these.)

If you don’t get enough points from the assessment, you can ask for a Mandatory Reconsideration. While this is looked at, you will need to sign on as though you were fit for work. You can ask your doctor for a note to say that the pressures from the Jobcentre are making your health worse and you are not able to work. If the Mandatory Reconsideration doesn’t work, you can appeal. Welfare advisors should help with this. Appeals have a good success rate.

PIP is a separate benefit that is replacing ‘Disability Living Allowance’. It is supposed to cover the extra costs associated with being sick or disabled, and is not means tested. Although the assessment process is similar to ESA, the focus of the questions is a bit different as they are meant to assess your need for help with daily living and with mobility, not whether you can work. You can be eligible for PIP even if you are in work, and if you are getting benefits as unfit for work it is often worth applying for PIP too. Both benefits don’t just cover physical disabilities, but also mental health issues such as severe anxiety and depression.

Good luck!

Sanctioned for grieving, DWP numptydom, and getting your job back: three sides of life and death on Universal Credit

joy_division_closer

Can you imagine waking up next to your partner only to find that they have died during the night? How would you feel, and how would you react? When we met John, he was caught between shock and anger. He was agitated, and his eyes darted to left and right as we spoke to him; he seemed to be a man on the edge, still computing the terrible loss that he had suffered. He was also angry, very angry, as he had just learned that he had been sanctioned for two weeks as a result of missing an appointment on the very day he had lost Joan, his partner. He had turned up at the buroo with a sicknote from his GP, but this appeared to make little difference to his ‘work coach’ and all she could suggest was to apply for a miserly DWP hardship payment.

We offered our sympathy, and an opportunity for John to express his frustration and grief without being judged or threatened with arrest because of the anger sparked by his still raw sense of loss. When he had calmed down a little we went through the appeal process with him, the financial help he might be able to access towards paying for Joan’s funeral costs, and information on bereavement allowances. John didn’t want to know. He was only relieved that the funeral had been paid for by Joan’s wider family; and he wasn’t eligible for a bereavement allowance, as, whilst he and Joan had been in a long-term relationship, they were not married, and had no children.

We provided John with contact details for welfare rights organisations that might be able to help him through the appeal process, and also suggested that he should claim a Welfare Fund grant. John feared that he had reached the limit of what the authorities were prepared to give, but we urged him to get the local council to clarify the situation; and, if, as he feared, no help was forthcoming, to get back in contact with us. We haven’t yet heard back from John, so it could be that he did receive some assistance, but, as experience has taught us, that is, perhaps, an assumption too far. After all, what kind of assistance would it take to relieve the heartbreak of grief? (For further details of help available to the bereaved, see here.)

Big Joe greeted us with a beaming smile on his face – he’s a cheery kind of guy, anyway, but, today, there was an almost mischievous twinkle in his eye. He admitted that, whilst feeling he was almost unemployable, he still quite liked going into the buroo for an invigorating joust with the system. He had just had a ‘wee spat’ with his ‘work coach’, which, while quickly resolved, was only the latest in a long line of such encounters. He gleefully recounted a notable confrontation that had taken place 2-3 years ago, when Dundee buroo was in the eye of the sanction storm. He had run into problems with his ‘work coach’ who, as a result of his continuing lack of job search success, had suggested that he ‘wis daen something wrang’ and that he should be more ‘economical with the truth’ about his quite extensive qualifications. Jim had reacted to this suggestion by arching his eyebrows, leaning over the table and asking, ‘yir noa suggesting that I should lie, are yi?’ After lecturing the increasingly exasperated ‘work coach’ on the morality of asking him to tell porkies, big Joe found himself surrounded by a number of security guards. As they edged closer, he turned round in his chair and demanded to see their i.d. cards, which stopped them dead in their tracks. None of them had any i.d., which led to a rapid retreat by both the security staff and ‘work coach’. The job centre staff, perhaps not surprisingly, are now very wary of pulling up big Joe, who, whilst he is nearing retirement, still revels in his ‘little victories’ over DWP numptydom.

We also met Piotr, a Polish guy in his forties who has been living and working in Dundee for ten years. He likes Scotland and his daughter is now married to a local lad in Edinburgh, but Piotr admitted to us that he had started to suffer from quite serious depression, which was often so bad that he couldn’t manage it into work. As a result, he had been sacked from his job at a Dundee engineering firm, despite his line manager being fully aware of his mental health problems. He had turned towards the job centre for help, only to be informed that, due to being sacked, he was not eligible for anything. Not surprisingly, the prospect of absolute penury had done little to help with Piotr’s mounting mental health problems. The situation had, though, been quickly, and almost miraculously, resolved when his old line manager had been replaced. This led to a complete climb down on the part of his employers: he had received a full apology from management and he had just re-started his job, on a trial basis, for four hours per week. As he crossed the road from the buroo, Piotr left us with this parting shot, ‘I like Scottish people, but not bosses – they were not good to me.’

Duncan, Gary and Tony were on this weeks stall.

‘Welcome to hell’

SUWN - amazon cartoon2

Jim was far from happy when we met him. Rules governing UC claimants who are in irregular employment were making his life a misery, and making him question the whole point of working. Jim, however, is no ‘skiver’, that largely mythical creature, so beloved of Tory ministers and their willing little mouthpieces in the main stream media. As he himself put it, ‘I hae to work, it’s noa jist the money, but it’s getting harder and harder.’ In the last few months his UC claim has been repeatedly shut down.

In the past, someone who got short-term work could make a rapid reclaim when it ended to get back onto JSA, and any way there was no long initial wait to get payments. Now, with the supposedly simplified system of UC, which was meant to make it easier to go in and out of work, your claim can get shut down if even a short term job takes you over the monthly threshold, and how long it takes to start up again is a lottery, depending on when in your assessment cycle your job ends. As we explained in a previous blog, you may be plunged into deep economic insecurity for as long as nine weeks before getting back on UC payments.

In the last year alone, Jim has had five separate jobs, and has had his UC claim shut down on two occasions. As a manual worker who is employed on zero hour and short term contracts, he is keenly aware of the difference between Tory rhetoric regarding life on UC and the sometimes brutal reality of working at the front line of ‘the gig economy’ that neo-liberal ‘voodoo economics’ have brought into being.

And, having worked for a wide range of employers, Jim is also well aware of the ‘tricks’ employers use to deceive and pressurise workers: of employers who take you on but then ‘punt you when their order is completed’; of managers at the Amazon warehouse in Dunfermline who take on new workers and then ‘beast them until they go faster, or get rid of them altogether’; of workers who receive verbal warnings (‘three strikes and you’re out’) for spending five minutes in the toilet rather than the two minutes they are allowed. As we talked, he turned to the buroo, and, pointing to its entrance, exclaimed, ‘There should be sign up ower that door, saying “Welcome to Hell”’.

Life and death in Bilbao by the Tay

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Dundee was long treated very much as the poor relation amongst Scottish cities, a place left in the slipstream of history, with a reputation for poverty and drug and drink induced violence – a place to avoid at all costs. In the last few years, however, Dundonians have been increasingly treated to headlines in the local, national and even international media telling them that, following the city’s ‘transformation from run-down industrial relic to vibrant creative hub’ (Sunday Times, April 14 2019), they now live in some kind of post-industrial arcadia. I’m only surprised that we haven’t yet heard from a local ‘high heid yin’ or design guru that ‘we’ve never had it so good’.

I have news for readers of this blog: this myth of ‘transformation’ is treated with widespread contempt and often anger by ordinary Dundonians who feel as though they’ve been barred fae a perty taking place in their ain hoose. Many Dundonians have experienced ‘transformation’ – there is a list of companies paying good wages for skilled work, such as NCR, Michelin and McGills, that have closed down or have laid off the majority of their workforce. We hear from many older skilled manual workers who have struggled to re-train for insecure and low paying jobs in the service sector. And, being used to a sense of pride in their abilities and skills, some have been horrified at the offhand and contemptuous attitudes they face from much younger managerial staff.

When we meet those who have suffered recent redundancy and who are forced to go into a job centre for the first time in decades, they often express their sense of shock at the ‘transformation’ in the impertinent way in which they are now treated (by ‘work coaches’ young enough to be their grandchildren) and how little help is open to them after a lifetime of working. This is ‘transformation’ of a sort, but not the kind that is often spoken about by those who talk up the notion of Dundee as a city crammed with young, go-ahead, mocha-slurping creative types. They may be, indeed, be found in the west end of the city, or, the ‘creative quarter’, as it has been renamed, but there’s not much sign of them in the schemes, where the vast majority of the population still live – despite the best efforts of city planners whose idea of ‘regeneration’ bore an uncanny resemblance to the Highland, and Lowland, clearances.

For all of that, I’m sure there will be some readers who will dismiss this view as talking down good news, or else as a prolier than thou attack on the shiny new middle-class reality that is emerging on the banks of the silvery Tay. There will be those who will see the victims of continuing de-industrialisation as regrettable but inevitable ‘collateral damage’ in pursuit of the ultimate goal – the creation of Bilbao by the Tay. Fair enough, but consider this – if we are to accept the claims that Dundee has now been transformed, or even that such sacrifices are necessary as Bilbao by the Tay emerges from its chrysalis, what of those pesky statistics that tell a very different and much darker story about the reality of life, and death, in Scotland’s ‘creative hub’?

Not only does Dundee have the highest rate of unemployment in Scotland, it also suffers from the highest suicide rate. As welfare activists, we have direct knowledge and experience of this developing epidemic, dealing, as we do, with folk who are sometimes at the end of their tether – a problem we encounter particularly, though not exclusively, amongst young men. We are also aware of the very real potential for the under-reporting of suicides with death being attributed to other causes – an issue that has been raised with us by visitors to our stalls. Even as the ‘concrete skip’ that is the V&A was unveiled to the international press corps, RNLI boats and rescue helicopters were seen scouring the Tay for signs of the latest suicide attempt from a Dundee bridge. The assembled press corps didn’t even have to budge from the conveniently placed viewing platform at the V&A to watch the grisly search unfold, as it is positioned midway between both bridges and faces the river.

tay bridge closed

Our much vaunted ‘city of many discoveries’ also boasts a rate of deaths from drug taking that has seen it earn the, disputed, title of ‘drugs death capital of Europe’. Although local anti-drugs campaigners point to the 2018 figures as a cause for optimism – a decline from the 51 fatalities suffered in 2017 – in the six months between April and September 2018 alone, 14 people lost their lives. According to the local press;

‘[O]f those deaths, 12 were male and two were female. The majority of people who died were in the 40-49 age group. The DD4 postcode – which covers areas including Whitfield, Craigie and Maryfield – suffered the highest number of losses, with five.’ (Evening Telegraph, January 1st, 2019)

To round off the litany of despair that lies behind the gleaming façade of the new Dundee, we would point to the reports we are regularly receiving of increasing food bank usage in the city from folk who are in work. Skilled manufacturing jobs have, in the main, been replaced with zero-hour labouring in the gig economy. ‘Unskilled’ and service jobs have not only become a burden, but also an act of forced charity on the part of those caught within their trap towards the rich corporations that employ them. And, heaven forbid that they should refuse a job that doesn’t pay enough to feed and clothe them. If the zero hour worker leaves the job, they can expect little in the way of sympathy from their DWP ‘work coach’, and nothing in the way of material help.

Reality points, not to a city in the grip of a cycle of virtuous transformation, but one where working-class communities are suffering from deep social stress. Their aspirations have been dismissed and their plight ignored. Actually, it is much worse than this. The constant talking up of an already compromised form of top-down, corporate-led regeneration, is being used to mask the dark reality of a city that has for many years felt as though it is under siege. The current siege by ‘regeneration’ is only the latest in a long line stretching back forty years, courtesy of Tory voodoo economics, in its various blue and red varieties.

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Care workers tell yesterday’s May Day rally about their recent successful strike action and the constant pressures of working for a contracted-out service that only cares about the bottom line

 

 

 

 

When the DWP get their sums wrong

SUWN - April 26th 2019

A small mistake for the DWP is a big disaster for those affected. Sometimes, in recent weeks, the demand for our services has been lower than in the past. People are getting more savvy about the rules, and more confident about taking on the system by themselves. But this week’s stall proved exceptionally busy, and this report threatened to grow to epic proportions. And one key theme emerged from a selection of this week’s cases: the DWP seem unable to get basic calculations right.

Under the old system, Siobhan would have qualified for Working Tax Credits. Under the new system she has to claim Universal Credit. She’s been handing in her wage slips, but the DWP say she’s been earning more than that. The result of this is that the DWP are underpaying her. The stress of dealing with the DWP, on top of not getting her money, is making her suicidal.

While we were talking to Siobhan, Fiona emerged with a very similar problem. HMRC had calculated Fiona’s income over the previous two months, but the DWP had decided that same income was over one month, which took her over her allowed income. This cock-up meant she was short of money. The DWP weren’t budging. Fiona’s reaction was a different emotion. Instead of anxiety, she was justifiably apoplectic with rage.

Greg was having similar problems with the DWP refusing to listen. He was paying off a DWP loan at £170 per month. His debt advisor says the DWP shouldn’t be talking all that money off him, but they still are. We told him to get further advice.

In Steve’s case, his jobcentre Work Coach had actually told him he was owed £190, but to date the DWP have only paid him half of that. As a result, he is getting into arrears on energy bills. We directed him to Dundee Council’s Welfare Rights unit and the Dundee Energy Efficiency Advice Project (DEEAP).

Even when the system is getting it right, we have advice to give. Bill has recently been made redundant, and had gone into the jobcentre with his wife Julie. When they emerged, we were delighted to find that the jobcentre had, for once, given them the correct advice. We confirmed that Bill needed to apply for the six months contribution-based New JSA, and that Julie should qualify for Personal Independence Payment (PIP). And we sent them off with our standard warning about PIP: get a welfare advice worker to fill in the form with you; give them as much detail as possible, and take a witness into the assessment.

Just as we were about to pack up, a young man emerged. He said he’d had no bother with the jobcentre but asked, “Would you like some chocolate eggs?” With our faith in humanity restored, we packed up the stall, and headed off to our usual pub for a well-deserved coffee.

Tony, Duncan, Jonathan, Cait, Ronnie, and Norma were at this week’s stall.