But then they cut my hours

 

catch22-1680-1050-wallpaper

In a world of precarious employment, many people who are getting by on minimum-wage agency work supplemented by Working Tax Credits can be thrown into a major crisis at the whim of their employer. When we met Phil outside the buroo he had been given only a few hours’ work in the last three weeks and was struggling to make ends meet. Another week with reduced hours and he faced losing his Tax Credits as well. Clearly this wasn’t sustainable. He had spoken to the DWP and been told that if he left the agency work and applied for Jobseekers Allowance he would be sanctioned for giving up his job! So his only option was to go on Universal Credit. The one advantage of Universal Credit is that you ‘only’ lose 63p of benefit for every pound you earn, instead of losing all bar £5 when you are on JSA. Otherwise rules are generally more intrusive and the sanctions system is much more punitive, so Phil had good reason not to want to sign up to the benefit.

This didn’t seem right to us. Phil had been working for some time and paying National Insurance, so he should have been eligible for 6 months contribution based JSA; and if you’re on JSA you can’t be forced to accept a just a few hours’ work a week. We gave Phil the details of the local Welfare Rights advice sessions so he could get this sorted out, but this seemed like a problem that is going to keep reappearing, so we thought we would get advice from CPAG for future reference. This is what we learnt:

If you have paid enough National Insurance to qualify for Contribution-based JSA, or if you are in one of the groups who is not currently eligible to apply for Universal Credit, then you can sign up for JSA. You could do this and keep on with the part time work so long as it wasn’t for more than 16 hours a week, but until you started earning more than the amount of the JSA you would effectively be working for nothing. The DWP Guidance (paras 534415-18) says clearly that you shouldn’t be sanctioned for giving up a zero-hour contract, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t try. You should win an appeal, but might risk some difficult money-less weeks first.

If you are entitled to contribution based JSA then you shouldn’t actually get Universal Credit; but this wouldn’t be the first time that someone has been erroneously signed up to the new benefit.  The DWP love getting people onto Universal Credit, and once there it is very difficult to leave. Next time you get a job then you stay on Universal Credit rather than Working Tax Credits.

All in all then, pretty much a Catch 22 arrangement.

23 Days to Build an Anti-Tory Alliance and Save the Welfare State – vote SNP in Scotland and Labour in England

jeremy-corbyn-launches-the-labour-party-election-manifesto-683622510-591ad0d407389

Now that we actually have the Labour manifesto, we can see a wide and unquestionable band of clear blue water between Labour and the Tories, but when it comes to social security there is nothing but the proverbial cigarette paper between Labour and the SNP.

However, Salmond’s suggestion that Labour has copied SNP policies is more rhetorical than serious. Both the SNP and Labour are essentially social democratic parties.

We do not, as a matter principle, support any one party, but have called for tactical votes for the SNP in both last General Election and this, as the best, indeed only, vehicle for advancing working class interests. Whilst the SNP Government is far from perfect, they have protected us in Scotland from some of the very worst excesses of the Tory Welfare cuts. They have already mitigated and promised to scrap the bedroom tax, mitigated housing benefit cuts for under 21s, and promised that the Scottish disability benefit that replaces PIP will take account of doctors’ reports of people’s needs and not depend on assessments carried out by private companies. They have promised that the training schemes that they will run will be voluntary and unsanctionable, and they have provided vital short-term help through the Scottish Welfare Fund. Only a small portion of the benefit system is being devolved, but the Scottish Government has promised that Scottish Social Security will have a completely different culture from the current punitive UK regime. At the same time, the SNP has consistently campaigned in parliament against sanctions and benefit cuts, including leading the campaign against the two children (rape clause) policy.

Of course there are some Labour plans that the SNP could do well to copy, especially a stronger focus on public ownership – but Labour’s continued commitment to Trident cannot be hidden behind the novelty of a Labour manifesto with some left-leaning policies.

bairns not bombs

And then there’s Independence, where the manifesto writers appear to have handed the pen to Kezia Dugdale’s Scottish Labour Party. Perhaps this is their return for backing a manifesto that is considerably further to the left than the Scottish leadership and most of the Scottish party is comfortable with. But since when did Unionism become the touchstone of Labour policy, and how can they justify not only campaigning actively against Independence, but even opposing letting us decide our own fate in a second referendum?

Blair McDougall

The Labour manifesto, despite its Trident-sized problems, has caused a flurry of interest among the Scottish left, but when it comes to choosing who to vote for, that shouldn’t cause us any problems. The only way that manifesto has a hope of becoming UK policy is by maximising the anti-Tory vote.

Here in Scotland, especially if polls are correct about former Labour voters moving over to the Tories, any significant shift of votes from the SNP to Labour risks letting in Tory MPs. If you want to avoid letting the Tories in by the back door, you should vote SNP.  If the seemingly impossible occurs, and Labour support rallies and grows in England and Wales, the very possibility of a minority labour government might be jeopardised by voting for Scottish Labour. And, despite Labour’s pre-election protestations, we can be sure that if SNP support was needed for a minority Labour government, it would not be turned away. This would pave the way to negotiations for a second Independence referendum; and the process of any future separation would be more constructive. For such a development to occur, the zombie Scottish Labour Party, with their bitter Britnat stance, has to be seen to die conclusively and make room for new beginnings. They have fallen far, but they must be seen to fall even further on June 8th if we are to see any chance of a radical reformed Scottish Labour Party that can provide a socialist, pro-Indy force, and can, again, seek to represent Scottish working-class interests.

 

So you thought you could improve yourself!

La Boheme

The jobcentre regime is built around the myth that those who are unemployed just haven’t tried hard enough; so you might expect that they would help people to go to university and improve their qualifications. That might be logical, but it is not what happens. Most students have to support themselves with part-time work, but if you are not managing to find work, you generally can’t claim benefits – at least not if your course is considered to be full time. If it is part time (and there are strict rules about what counts) then you have to demonstrate that you are available for and looking for full-time work. You can specify on your claimant commitment which hours you will be available for work, but only up to a point as you also have to show that this doesn’t significantly reduce your chances of finding a job. For the DWP it is always the short-term prospects of getting a job – any job – that count.

At this week’s stall we came across two people who had been forced to give up their degrees in order to be able to claim the benefits they needed to survive. Anna had gone to the jobcentre hoping that she could sort something out, but emerged in tears having been surrounded by three jobcentre workers all shouting at her. John was less visibly upset, but his situation was more severely worrying. He had been aware of the problems with claiming benefits as a student and had discussed his particular situation with the DWP. They were not certain whether or not he qualified, but signed him up for Universal Credit anyway meanwhile. It was only after he had received benefits for several months that they told him that they had decided he was not actually eligible to receive anything – and that he would have to pay it all back. (Universal Credit overpayments have to be repaid regardless of who was at fault.) Now, not only has he had to give up being a student in order to get Universal Credit, he also has unmanageable debts. These have got so bad that he is facing imminent eviction for unpaid rent. We urged him to see a money advisor as soon as possible and gave him the list of the different welfare-rights sessions in his area.

CPAG has made it’s student welfare advice handbook freely available on line, and most universities can provide some help navigating the system, but this can’t alter the basic problems within the rules themselves – especially when the DWP doesn’t know its own rule book. Even with this government’s limited vision of education, regarding it merely as training for work, these rules are damaging to individuals, and put a hurdle in the way of any plans to develop a better trained workforce.

(The picture shows the student in Puccini’s opera, La Boheme, burning his manuscript to keep warm.)

Thanks for help at this week’s stall to Norma, Tony, Gary, Gordon, Chris and Duncan

So why is it called a jobcentre?

The pretence that jobcentres are organised to find people work – and not just to discipline them – seemed to be wearing particularly thin last week as we listened to accounts of the hurdles the DWP puts in the way of any serious job search.

Jim has been doing voluntary work for a housing association for a couple of years; just the sort of thing the DWP usually pushes people to do to improve their job prospects. But recently he got a new ‘job coach’ and she was not happy. She claimed that the housing association was not a charity (she managed to overlook the statement at the bottom of its website) and Jim should have been paid for the work he had done. These non-existent payments would therefore be deducted from his benefit. Jim had to prove that he was indeed an unpaid volunteer. If he had not managed to persuade the DWP he would, in effect, have been made to pay for volunteering.

Julie had recently been sent for an interview at the chicken factory in Coupar Angus. It was only after she had got to the factory that she discovered there was no longer any transport that would make it possible for her to get to and from the work, so her time and bus fare had been wasted. This is a large employer so the jobcentre should have been aware of the problem, nevertheless, one of our activists recently had a similar experience. Luckily he asked his ‘job coach’ how he was supposed to get there before agreeing to the interview. The ‘coach’ noted that there was no public transport at the relevant hours, but suggested that he might be able to find a fellow worker who was driving to and from Dundee. What, our comrade asked, would happen if he couldn’t find such a person?

coupar-angus-chicken-factory

Coupar Angus Chicken Factory – not where you’d want to be stranded

Mike also told us that he had been offered a job interview that was at some distance. He was struggling to survive on his benefits and had no money left for the fare to get to the interview. He had asked the jobcentre to help him, but they had refused, claiming there was not time to do the necessary paperwork.

All these difficulties don’t mean that the DWP doesn’t want people to find jobs. It’s just that the limited jobs available get filled without the jobcentre’s help, leaving them free to concentrate on the disciplining bit.

Thank you to Gary, Norma, Tony and Duncan for helping at the stall.

Universal Credit is nothing to celebrate

birthday-cake-chalice-toffee-candle-light

We recently heard that on the anniversary of the introduction of Universal Credit the Dundee DWP office dressed in blue and had celebratory cake. The thought of celebrating something that has caused so many people so much misery ought to be enough to make any cake stick in the throat, but this sort of corporate bonding event is designed to instil everyone involved with the organisation’s values, and to break down the barriers that separate their private life from their work life and protect their moral compass.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Universal Credit continues to provide further nasty surprises. A few weeks back we were talking to someone who is on Universal Credit and waiting for a Work Capability Assessment to see if he is eligible for the Limited Capability for Work component – the equivalent of ESA for people who are in the Universal Credit system. He told us that he is having to sign monthly at the jobcentre. This didn’t seem right, as people in that position who have applied for ESA are left alone and simply have to supply regular doctor’s notes. However, when we checked with the nice people at the Child Poverty Action Group they explained that, under Universal Credit, someone waiting for their assessment can be given all sorts of things to do, including job search. It is the DWP that decides what is reasonable to expect in their circumstances, and they are subject to the full sanction regime if they don’t comply. (In this particular case the jobcentre weren’t demanding more than the regular signing – but that was just as well as our friend had already waited 15 months for his assessment and had still not been given a date.)

SUWN on Google maps

SUWN on Google maps

I’ve just noticed that the Google maps picture of Dundee Jobcentre has the SUWN stall outside.

And here are the accompanying reviews (of the jobcentre not us) sorted by ‘most helpful’:

Michelle M, 8 months ago, ★

poor service by poorly qualified staff, they don’t really care about you or the work you do and espacially do not give a monkeys if you have a health condition which limits your capabilities to work, they treat the public like scum and think everyone is a drug addict who only wants a quick fix i am fed up of public service workers being so vile towards people who try their best to find jobs we are all not lazy time wasters who dont want to work some of us have had well over 200 interviews in addition to this the mandatory work fare slave labour is rubbish and don’t forget the sanctions for not filling in your diary the way they want you too sorry but the diaries are lame and are no real help especially when you find out you are always applying for the same jobs again and again, also the out of date vacancies are pathetic on their job points or the non existent ones too

5  Share

 

John Thow, 7 months ago, ★

Horrible people who care nothing about you or the situation you find yourself in all they care about is there numbers and getting there own pay check at the end of the day if you ask me they are the scum of the earth they actually look for ways to mess you about its ridiculous

4  Share

 

Darren Pennie, 10 months ago, ★

Only got one star cuz couldn’t give none there the most unhelpful people around don’t care ab9ut you the only care about their targets!

2  Share

 

Paul Bryson, 6 months ago, ★

Possibly one of the worst experiences ever,treated as if i was a disobedient child,who should not talk back,look at my Gym bag or have my mobile phone in my hand and this was myself signing on after being made redundant.I suggest anyone who is treated in the same manner to report their so-called work coach.

2  Share

 

Tony Nycz, 3 years ago, ★

The worst experience in my life because I couldnt get hrough on the phone but if you have internet tickety boo oh yes bugger them all

1  Share

 

Gail Jack, a year ago, ★★★★★

Very helpful and very efficient.

 

Raymond Paterson, a year ago, ★★★★

Nice staff

 

Craig Mcphee, 6 months ago, ★★★

 

hal mckay, 7 months ago, ★

 

 

No wonder she was angry

Swear-Words

Jen emerged from the jobcentre shouting and accompanied by a security guard. At first she was too angry to engage with us at all, convinced that, as with everyone else she had encountered, our offers of help were hollow. But something persuaded her to turn around and come back. Over a cup of tea in the café opposite, she explained that she had been on JSA but had taken a job for two weeks in a Glasgow club.  When she signed on again she was put onto Universal Credit. She had asked for a Rapid Reclaim, but the DWP treated her like a new claimant and she was undergoing the long wait for her first payment. To make it worse, they initially failed to put through the claim at all and she had had to start again. It was now nine weeks since she had applied, and she was yet to receive any payments other than a £350 advance loan, which had almost all been swallowed up in rent, as she had to keep a roof over her head. Now she had no money and just £9 on the electricity meter. She had gone into the jobcentre because she had hoped that they would be able to find out the cause of the delay and ensure she got her benefit payments; but she had been told there was nothing they could do and been fobbed of with the usual assurance – in which she had little faith – that the money would come through that evening.

We rang the Scottish Welfare Fund from the café, and they took details of her situation so that they could decide whether to give her an emergency grant. It was too late to contact the foodbank, but we told her to ring us if she needed to do this the following day. That evening she was going over to her mother who had just rung to tell her she had borrowed more money off a friend to see her daughter through.

To make matters worse, Jen’s private landlady clearly had a cavalier attitude to health and safety and her boiler had recently exploded. No-one was hurt, but Jen had been relying on expensive electric heating for two weeks and her only source of hot water was the shower. We discussed taking this and her other housing problems to Shelter.

When she left the café her intense anger had evaporated. She has not got back to us so we hope this means that some money has finally got through.

Our last blog looked at a couple of the people we have helped after they were found ‘fit-for-work’ and bumped off ESA. This one looks at some of the other problems we have come across in our last two stalls outside Dundee buroo.

Richard lost his job on the Riggs two years ago and has only had bits and pieces of work since. He told us that employers in other areas of work aren’t interested in him because they assume that he will leave as soon as better-paid oil work comes along. There had been a prospect of a good oil job recently, but a vital license had expired and he didn’t have the money needed to renew it. He had asked the jobcentre for help, but they had said there was nothing they could do. It was already too late for that job when he discovered himself, through friends, that the Scottish Government has set up a fund to help people in his exact predicament: something – as he pointed out – that the jobcentre should have been aware of. He gave us the link for anyone else who might need it.

The problems of finding work when you are older are well known, but last week we learnt about an additional hurdle from a woman looking for care work. She told us that younger people get their SVQ costs paid for them, but others have to pay these back out of their wages. And despite all the homage paid to the idea of building people’s confidence, another frustrated woman complained that she had just been told by her ‘work coach’ that although she had had three job interviews that week she ‘shouldn’t get her hopes up’. She had been living on just £23 a week after rent and overdue deductions, so we suggested she see a money advisor to get her repayments rescheduled.

Allan was also waiting for his benefit money to come through. He had no money and had not had a proper meal in two days. We tried to get him a food parcel, but it was (again) too late that evening. He, too, had been given the usual promise that the money would be in his account by the end of the day, but previous experience led us to ring him to check the next morning – when we found ourselves having to give him details of the day’s soup kitchens, before getting back on the phone to our friends at Taught by Muhammad to arrange a food parcel. We also advised him to take his case to the Welfare Rights drop-in when he was at the soup kitchen.

Mark had no money and no home. He was staying on his friend’s sofa and had been sanctioned because his jobcentre appointment had clashed with his Gran’s funeral, which wasn’t deemed sufficient excuse to change the date. But he didn’t want help because he was getting away from it all and joining the army. Maybe that was what he had always wanted to do, but it is easy to see how jobcentres make dangerously easy recruiting grounds.

Thanks to: Gordon, Dave, Gary, Susan, Sarah, Alison, Grant and Tony

When you’re ‘fit for work’, but not fit for work: negotiating DWP logic

 

DWP hangman

With the DWP targeting the sick and disabled, we are constantly being approached by people who have been found ‘fit for work’ when they clearly are not. They have challenged the decision – always worth doing as the success rate is very high – but before they can put in a full appeal, they have to ask for it to be looked at again within the DWP (for a Mandatory Reconsideration), and while this is happening the only way they can get benefits is to sign up for Jobseeker’s Allowance. This means accepting the pretence that they are indeed ‘fit for work’ just long enough to get registered for the benefit; but once they are signed on they have the same rights to doctors notes as any other recipient of JSA. Most doctors are naturally concerned when their seriously ill patients are forced to look for work, and will readily ask for them to be excused job searching and other activities that make their condition worse. A doctor’s note for an extended period of sickness can last as long as 13 weeks. By that time, either the Mandatory Reconsideration will have reversed the decision (which is rare) or the person can move onto a full appeal, when they will be back on ‘assessment phase’ ESA.

Unsurprisingly, such a convoluted system, if it can be called that, puts people in the most absurd situations – situations that have serious impacts on their health. DWP workers have been conditioned into accepting the triple charade that the person in front of them is indeed ‘fit for work’, that the actions they are telling them to do will help them find work, and that work will be good for them. In reality, the actions people are told to do and the pressures of a system based on sanctions take them further away from recovery – and so, in fact,  further away, too, from paid employment.

Both this week and last we have accompanied someone into the jobcentre to help them  negotiate their way through this particular version of bureaucratic madness.

Katherine rang us after taking one of our leaflets. She has been refused ESA despite anxiety issues that make it difficult for her to interact with people. She has requested a Mandatory Reconsideration of the decision and has had to sign up to JSA meanwhile – but the pressures of being pushed back into searching for jobs she isn’t mentally ready for is sending her recovery into reverse. Her voice broke as she told me what was happening and I arranged to accompany her to her next jobcentre interview.

Some ‘job coaches’ are purposely cruel and controlling, but this was not the issue here. Katherine’s ‘job coach’ was encouraging. The problem seems to be that she actually believes that the system is designed in the interests of her ‘clients’. She kept emphasising how well Katherine was proceeding in her planned path back to work, while Katherine was visibly breaking down at the prospect of putting in for jobs she knew she was not ready to cope with. It can be harder to resist someone who thinks they are acting in your best interests than someone who is clearly antagonistic to you, but we were able to get the ‘coach’ to curb her enthusiasm by informing her that (on SUWN advice) Katherine was seeing her doctor the next week and would be asking for an Extended Period of Sickness note on the basis that putting her under pressure to look for work was having a negative effect on her recovery.

Jack contacted us a week later. He had got professional help with his Mandatory Reconsideration but he needed our help in negotiating the jobcentre as he was finding it all understandably confusing. After a long history of drug abuse, Jack had finally gone through rehab and ended his reliance on methadone a couple of years ago, but he is far from fully recovered and the pressures of the DWP system are driving him back into dependency. Visiting a potential employer can put him into a panic attack, and he told me that it was only heroin that enabled him to cope with his jobcentre interview. The discussion with his ‘job coach’ demonstrated the absurd double-think that the DWP expects of its employees. On the one hand, the ‘coach’ was very understanding of Jack’s situation and ready to accept that he would be bringing in an Extended Period of Sickness note as soon as he had seen his doctor. But at the same time he insisted that Jack went through the motions, as set out in his Claimant Commitment, of checking job sites and newspapers for jobs where he might not even be able to manage handing in a CV.

We hope that this blog will help others find their way through this two-faced bureaucracy, as well as alerting folk generally as to what is going on and why this system has to be stopped.