How to mislead – DWP-stylie

post office account letter

Letters sent by the DWP to people with Post Office Accounts are not only economical with the truth, they are quite clearly designed to mislead people into thinking they have no alternative but to open a bank account instead. One of our activists got one of these letters this week. It read:

‘We are paying your benefits or tax credits into a Post Office card account. You are now expected to use a bank, building society or credit union account. Most people now use one of these accounts. Please call us now with your account details’

Of course is doesn’t actually quite say that you have to change from your Post Office account, but it is written in a way that suggests you have to. Our activist wasn’t so easily taken in, but she thought she should ring just to confirm: ‘She told me that at the moment it is an option but the letters will keep coming and that one day in the future it won’t be an option. I told her that I will keep the payments going into the PO and she said that’s fine.’

This is all part of the drive to make as many payments digital as possible. Even basic bank accounts allow direct debits, which Post Office accounts don’t. But people who can only just make ends meet often don’t want to set up direct debits because it is harder to keep track of every penny.

The pressure to move people to bank accounts has been there since the Post Office card account replaced paper based systems in 2003, when there were accusations that opening a card account was being made deliberately difficult. The demise of Post Office accounts has been reported regularly,  but the Coalition Government proudly announced in 2014 that they had made a new contract that would guarantee the accounts until 2021.

Helping disabled Scots now – some practical proposals for the Scottish Government

mobility

This week saw the publication of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill, but it will be 3 to 4 years until Scottish disability benefits begin to replace the deeply problematic Personal Independence Payment (PIP), and activists want to know what help disabled Scots will be given in the meantime. Scottish activists in Action Against Austerity have declared a week of action on PIP, and in support of this the SUWN has written to MSPs. We asked what they will be doing to ensure that the Scottish Parliament does all it can to look after Scotland’s most vulnerable citizens, and to prevent some of the worst travesties resulting from the current transfer from DLA to PIP. In the most blatant change, PIP awards the high mobility rate if you can’t move more than 20 metres; for Disability Living Allowance the distance was 50 metres. This change has resulted in people losing their mobility vehicles and so their freedom to get out of the house and live a fulfilling life. In response to this, we are calling for the mobility element of the benefit to be taken over by the Scottish Government early, and for extra help through the Scottish Welfare Fund.

When we wrote to the Social Security Minister, Jeane Freeman to ask for interim improvements before the new disability benefit was up and running – such as changing the mobility requirements or halting the shift from DLA to PIP – we were told that the Scottish Government was not taking over responsibility for the benefit until the whole new improved system was ready. So this time, after taking some expert advice, we have made these two very specific practical proposals. We have also visited Joe Fitzpatrick, MSP for Dundee West, who has promised to follow these up with the people working out the benefits. We will be talking to Shona Robison for Dundee East too, and making sure that we keep up the pressure and the questions. When the time it would take to change the system was made public last November, opposition politicians – Labour and Tory(!) – were quick to cry foul. PIP became just the latest political football in a debate that wasn’t interested in practical solutions. A semi-devolved system is a bureaucratic nightmare, full of potential traps, but we are sure that where there is a will there is a way – just as a way was found, eventually, to mitigate the bedroom tax. Our job is to point out possible openings and to make sure that the will to find a solution is strong enough – without forgetting that the ultimate source of the problem is Tory ‘welfare reform’.

Our letter to MSPs is reproduced in full below.

Transfer of Disability Benefit to the Scottish Government – AVOIDING THREE YEARS OF EXTRA SUFFERING

Along with many others who have experience of the current nightmares caused by PIP and the transfer to PIP from DLA, we were excited to learn of the Scottish Government’s plans for the new Scottish disability benefit – but then stunned to discover that these would not come into effect for three years, which translates as three years of extra suffering.

This crushing of hope, was greeted with horror in Third Force News and has prompted a group of activists from across Scotland, Action Against Austerity, to declare this week a week of action on PIP.

For our part, we in the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network are writing to every (non-Conservative) MSP to ask you to press for using all available powers to help disabled Scots over this interim period. We are fully aware of the magnitude of the task of transferring the benefit mechanisms and data base without risking disruption to anyone’s vital benefit income, but believe that even if the full transfer won’t take effect until all the structures are in place to deliver the new Scottish system, there are improvements that can be made in the interim. Indeed, with such a long waiting period, these must be made.

One of the biggest groups who have suffered in the shift from DLA to PIP has been people who have lost out on the higher rate mobility payment due to extra stringent rules on the distance you can move. Often this has left them without transport, and virtual prisoners in their own homes. One way to prevent this happening to many more people would be to take over the mobility element much earlier as a first stage of transfer. People who have already lost out could be given discretionary help through the Scottish Welfare Fund before applying again under the new Scottish system.

In calling for this intervention at a time of cuts to the block grant, we don’t want to be accused of robbing Peter to pay Paul, or being part of a competition for which cuts most need mitigating. We would like to see serious and transparent discussion (not political point scoring) on how the Scottish Government can use its powers to make changes and to top up benefits without running foul of a DWP ready to claw back money; and how it can use tax powers, including Land Value Tax, to fund welfare properly. Whether you argue that devolution is enough or that real change is not possible without full Independence, you will want the Scottish Government to make the biggest impact it can; and that must begin by looking after Scotland’s most vulnerable citizens.

Please let us know what you will be doing to help!

 

Unemployment is not entertainment

 

watching-tv

Recently we got another message from a television company. We are always wary about television. Generally, when media people contact us it’s to ask us to source people for them who are facing a particular problem situation. This isn’t easy as even when we know people who fit the bill, they probably won’t want to talk on camera. And we have learnt through experience that after we have worked hard to find someone and they have given their, often very personal, story, the chances are it won’t be used. Now we need to be convinced that media people are committed to a serious bit of reporting; otherwise we tell them to go to a jobcentre themselves and talk to the folk coming out.

But this message was about a different sort of programme. This was for reality TV, and the plan is to combine two tried and tested favourites: people on the dole, and the personal makeover. Unemployed people will be invited into their ‘salon’ and be given a makeover by ‘top stylists’ in order to prepare them for a job interview, or simply to give them confidence after long term unemployment. It would all be well and fine, were it not being screened for public entertainment. For fifteen minutes of fame and a haircut, participants will expose their lives to be picked over by strangers. Added to which, the naïve simplicity of the programme’s premise feeds into the idea that there are no structural problems affecting people’s life and work chances – in fact nothing that can’t be solved by a good stylist. We know of examples in the real world of hairdressers offering free haircuts to unemployed people, and these are a fine example of community support, but they are private arrangements – and no-one expects them to be life-changing.

We thanked the company for contacting us and told them that we don’t consider unemployment a suitable subject for reality TV. In fact it is hard to think of any subject that would not be damaged by this sort of exposure. Humiliation served up as entertainment seems to be the twenty-first century version of the Victorian fairground freak show.

Would it be too much to hope for that we might one day see TV programmes that actually examined the structural causes of unemployment and questioned the political imperative of austerity?

Beware ‘disaster capitalism’

grenfell-tower-fire

When a building collapses somewhere like Bangladesh, we have no hesitation in looking for lax regulation and corrupt practices. Now the searchlight is being shone on the UK, and we didn’t have to look far to find a shelved parliamentary report and gagged and disregarded local residents. Of course it’s political. This is what happens when you think only of financial profit and avoid regulations that might get in its way – especially regulations designed to protect less wealthy members of society. Capitalism cuts corners. The Tory government regards safety legislation (such as for the introduction of sprinklers) as constrictive red tape, and is antagonistic to the whole idea of social housing. In the Kensington case, we also have a Conservative local authority housing convenor straight out of central casting with major aggressive property interests, plus management hived off to an arms-length organisation that regarded concerned tenants as trouble makers.

gosford_house_near_longniddry_east_lothian

Gosford House, East Lothian, one of the family homes of Cllr Rock Feilding-Mellen, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s Cabinet Member for Housing, Property and Regeneration

The rapid spread of the Grenfell fire is increasingly being attributed to the cladding. Insulated cladding has been promoted by government since the days of New Labour as part of a series of measures to counteract some of the neglect of the Tory decades and bring social housing up to better standards, including modern levels of insulation. This was a step in the right direction, but there was never enough funding to do a really good job, and – of course – all the work was contracted out to private companies, and often managed in an increasingly market-like manner. The fire risks of badly designed cladding have already been disastrously demonstrated several times and should be well known. Examples of past fires range from English social housing to Dubai sky scrapers.  The risks are huge and these building practices should have been both stopped and remedied. But that would have required regulation that would impinge on the right to make maximum profit. A friend made the following facebook observation ‘Having worked in property, I know just what contractors, developers and planning cook up in the name of cost cutting at the high end spec of the market, so at the ‘low priority’ end it’ll be far, far worse with Govt cuts limiting best practice delivery.’ I expect that such a prominent catastrophe will now make the use of flammable cladding a financial risk to profit too, but we can’t wait for similar disasters to prevent other dangerous practices.

The lessons should be obvious: we need proper regulation and investment – beginning with remedial work to other buildings with similar construction. But we cannot take that for granted.  Capitalism has a nasty way of turning the disasters it makes to its own advantage, and there will be no shortage of property developers who will see this as a golden opportunity to get rid of social housing and replace it with private profit-making opportunities. As someone who has campaigned against the demolition and reduction of council homes I speak from bitter experience.  Potentially dangerous blocks – and many others that are not dangerous at all – will be targeted, and no effort will be spared to portray them as unsafe and unwanted, and to portray replacement private development as salvation. We will need to be constantly wary to ensure that all hazards are properly investigated and put right so that people can feel confident and secure in their homes, and that any demolition of social housing is replaced by at least equal amounts of new social housing.

What exactly is the jobcentre for?

17-04-27

It’s been a long time since jobs were advertised in jobcentres and you went there to look for work, but a jobcentre actively intervening to stop people’s own efforts to find a job places it firmly in the category of worse than useless. It’s not just that they’re making people waste time with pointless exercises. People are telling us about ‘work coaches’ making them stop doing things that would be genuinely helpful.

Frank has been trying to find bits of work through advertising his services locally – and was amazed as well as angry to be told to stop. Susan has recently completed a science degree as a mature student. We know that after three months on unemployment benefit you can be made to apply for all sorts of jobs even if they don’t match your skill level, but Susan had been specifically told that she was not to apply for graduate level jobs, and that the time she was taking putting together these more testing applications was being misspent. We reassured both Frank and Susan that they were quite correct to feel that the jobcentre was acting unreasonably and outwith the rules, and that they should insist on continuing with what they were doing.

Donna’s situation was very different, but her ‘work coach’ was equally unhelpful. We accompanied her to her interview because she was worried about being sanctioned for missing an appointment. She is six months pregnant with multiple health problems, and new medication had made her so ill she had just forgotten the date. As it turned out, she had informed the jobcentre as soon as she realised what had happened and her excuse had been accepted, so she suffered nothing more than a few days unnecessary worry, but her work coach is known for her thoroughness, and the interview was doubly uncomfortable. First, the work coach was keen to make sure that all the details they had about Donna’s situation were up to date, which sounds fine until you realise that meant Donna being asked lots of intensely personal questions by a stranger in an open plan office. The second part of the interview was frankly bizarre. Having ascertained that Donna was not only on ESA – so currently not fit for work – and due to give birth in three months, but also a recovering drug addict who needed a support worker, the work coach proceeded to ask her to sign up to Universal Jobmatch, the DWP’s notoriously useless job website. Donna protested that her main concern at present is proving that she is fit to keep her baby, and I made sure that it was clear that Donna would not actually have to do anything towards preparing for work until the baby was one, and wouldn’t have to look for work until she was three. The work coach accepted this, and that it wasn’t actually compulsory for her to sign up to Universal Jobmatch – but insisted that it would, nevertheless, be helpful for her to get into practice!

From the ballot box to the street

election results

Labour’s result with Corbyn at the helm has demonstrated the hunger that exists for a more progressive politics. We saw this same hunger here in Scotland in 2014. On both occasions it was not quite enough to overcome the massive bias produced by an elite-dominated media (and in 2014 by the broken promise of The Vow). It is a nasty irony that the Tories look to be able to keep hold of the reins of government  thanks to their gains in Scotland. Ruth Davidson is oozing even more smugness than usual, but her party only got a 29% share of the Scottish vote. The rest was divided between two leftish parties, so the result was always going to be messy. For the Scottish Tories this was a single issue campaign, and they undoubtedly succeeded in capturing unionist votes from Labour in the competition to unseat the SNP. At the same time, and despite the myopic narrow-mindedness of their local leadership, Scottish Labour benefited from Indy supporting socialists who wanted to back Corbyn and are not at all pleased that their vote is being interpreted as a turn away from Independence and a boost for Kezia Dugdale. The SNP, who still have 35 of the 59 Scottish seats, has many progressive policies, but they are not good at shouting about them, and – just as in the early stages of the Yes campaign – their generally guarded and careful approach can’t stimulate mass involvement. As a result we have lost some good left SNP MPs, notably George Kerevan and Ann McLaughlin. The SNP will also have lost support from those who don’t share its prioritising of EU membership. We have always argued that the crucial redline issue to trigger a break from the UK should not have been Europe, but welfare, and the need to have the power to protect our most vulnerable and poorest citizens. If the Tories pull together another government with the help of the DUP, then we will need those powers more than ever.

What a difference a day makes. These are certainly ‘interesting times’ and we can expect a lot more political surprises, but we have to be more than onlookers and occasional voters. Progressive politics needs to be built on practical action and campaigning, and with the Tories in power there will be no shortage of people who require support, or issues to campaign on – especially around welfare. We will be back out with our stall in Dundee City Centre on Saturday (2-4pm).

Looking forwards to Indy – and remembering Davie Fraser, victim of DWP sanctions

 

Yesterday began with the 25,000-strong long march for Independence, and ended with a memorial gig for Davie Fraser, whose death last year can be laid at the foot of the DWP.

Indy marches and rallies are inspiring because, unlike the politics served to us by the telly, they focus on the need to end Austerity and the possibilities of a more equal nuclear-free Scotland. Yesterday’s speeches were unapologetically socialist, and the most frequent chant on the march was Tories out! Our leaflet (reproduced below) called for a tactical SNP vote to maximise the chances of beating off the Tories – and Tony put the point forcefully from the platform – you can see his speech here.

The gig, headlined by the Wakes was organised by Davie’s friends, and entrance went towards SUWN funds. We included part of Sean Cudden’s obituary of his friend in our book, but you can find the full piece here. Davie Fraser’s death is a very personal reminder of the urgency of ending Tory rule. You can get a taste of the gig here.

And here is our leaflet from the All Under One Banner march and rally:

NO TO THE TORIES! – YES TO INDY!

Decisions about Scotland should be made in Scotland, by a government that is readily accessible. But we don’t want simply to replace a British elite with a Scottish one. We want a Scottish Government for all Scotland’s people. A central purpose of Independence has to be to make Scotland a more equal society. We have always been glad to see defence of the welfare state and demands for better social security at the heart of the Indy movement, and we will make sure they stay there.

People who are unable to find work or unable to work are facing a regime of cuts and stigmatisation that is forcing hundreds of thousands to turn to foodbanks. ‘Welfare’ has become a new penal system that is causing widespread breakdown of people’s mental health, and even suicides. This is not primarily about cost saving – in fact all those private subcontractors cost a lot of public money – this is a deliberate attack on the welfare state, and it affects people in work too. It is much harder to protest about poor pay and conditions when the prospect of being made unemployed is truly frightening. The Tories are turning Britain into a low-regulation, low-wage economy.

The SUWN campaigns for a better deal for the unemployed at all levels.  We support people directly through our stalls outside the jobcentre, we publicise what is happening, we protest each new restriction and try and push for all we can under the present devolved system. And we fight for the freedom to create a new and fairer alternative.

If we want to see a more equal Scotland, the demand for that equality must be central to our movement. That means not waiting until after independence.   We need to demonstrate that social security is important, and by doing all we can under current circumstances, we prove the need for Independence.

May at jobcentre 001

At next week’s election it is vital that we maximise the anti-Tory vote. In Scotland that means voting SNP. Even a small shift from SNP to Labour could let in Tory MPs. That could make the difference in enabling May to form the next government. It would also let loose a Tory unionist triumphalism that would try and throw everything in the way of a second referendum. We would love to see a Corbyn Labour government, supported – as it would be – by the SNP MPs, but a vote for Labour in Scotland can make this less likely. A Labour vote would also give a lifeline to a Scottish Labour party that thinks the most important issue is unionism, and the main enemy is not the Tories but the SNP. Both UK Labour and the SNP are social democratic parties. Both are cautiously centre-left, and far from radical (Labour may now be a bit more progressive on taxation – but then there’s Trident…) They look their worst when they are arguing against each other because they share much more than divides them. But in this crucial election the choice should be easy. A vote for the SNP is the surest way to keep out the Tories, and a vote for the SNP maintains the pressure for Independence.

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.