Just another collection of problems

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Rona’s poor health meant that she missed too many college courses and lost her bursary. So she left college and signed on. But the DWP won’t give her any benefits because she hasn’t produced a letter from the college to say she is no longer a student. The jobcentre did ask her for a letter, but that was two days before she had an operation, and she had other things on her mind. So she was left to rely on her son for support. She will arrange for the letter, but she doesn’t feel strong enough to fight for any back payments. We suggested she ask the council for a Scottish Welfare Fund grant to help until her benefit is sorted.

John and Amy had had to get professional help to sort out another muddle due to the DWP using out of date information. They have been living separately for three years and had informed the jobcentre about this – but the records had them still living together and they were being treated as a couple.

Kirsty has multiple health problems and gets help from a support worker. She is on ESA but her boyfriend has moved in with her and wants to claim Universal Credit. We explained that they would have to make a joint claim, and that because that is a change of circumstances that affects her benefit it will mean a new claim in the Universal Credit system. It’s not easy stuff to explain out on the street, and we urged her to go to see a welfare advisor who can look at their situation as a whole.

Kirsty faced being moved to Universal Credit because of a change in her claim, but sometimes the Jobcentre’s eagerness to transfer people to Universal Credit causes them to overstep the mark. Bob and Gemma had been made to apply for Universal Credit without having had a change of circumstances. They were getting help from Welfare Rights in challenging this.

Outwith all these muddles, and despite the appalling system, we are aware that the Jobcentre is generally trying to treat people in a more civilised fashion than in the past. Often this is reflected in positive comments when we ask people coming out if they have had any problems. Today, though, one person responded cheerily ‘No problems – she’s a bitch though.’ While another remarked that the place should be blown up!

Thanks to Tony, Jonathan and Kat for help with the stall

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Unravelling more DWP muddles at this week’s stall

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Ann had had no payments since December. They had just stopped without explanation. When we met her coming out of the jobcentre she had finally discovered the likely source of the problem. Her records still contained an address she had not lived in for 12 years, as well as her current address. Any appointment letters sent to her former home would not have reached her. It looks as though she had missed an ‘appointment’ she had never known about, and her benefit had then been stopped. Despite this being another DWP mistake, they were adamant that she would not be able to get the money back. She seemed to be pretty determined not to let them get away with that.

In addition, as she had been unemployed for more than six months, Ann was having to move from contribution-based JSA to Universal Credit. She had brought all the various documents that the jobcentre had requested in order to process her claim, but she had just been told that since they had spent her allotted twenty minutes sorting out her previous problem, the processing of the documents would have to wait until her next appointment. Ann has some savings, so is now only signing on to get her National Insurance paid, but this sort of inefficiency can cause a delay in vital payments.

Drew and Katie were worried that they were going to be seriously short of money for their growing family. Katie is pregnant with her fourth child and they are about to move in together and make a joint claim. Drew is on ESA but had been told by the jobcentre that this change would mean a move to Universal Credit, where they would be hit by the two child policy, and not get any help for numbers three and four. We were pleased to be able to tell them that this rule is not coming into play until the end of October, and that until that time any benefit applications made by someone with three or more children will be done in the old system. They photographed the relevant page in the CPAG handbook to help them make their case to the jobcentre.

Craig and Haley had also been told that they had to move to Universal Credit. In their case the only change in their circumstances was a change of address. We told them that this should not require them to change benefit, and that there was an article about a court case that demonstrated this on the Universal Credit page on our website. And we advised them to get help arguing the point.

As so often, we also found ourselves talking with people who had been found ‘fit for work’ and no longer eligible for ESA. If you are on Universal Credit while waiting the result of a Mandatory Reconsideration or an Appeal, you are very much at the mercy of your ‘work coach’ when it comes to what you are expected to do by way of looking for work. But it also helps to have an understanding GP. In Universal Credit, you are only eligible for 2 periods of 2 weeks off for sickness in a year, but you can request your GP to write and ask that you be given only restricted activities, and to include medical evidence as to why you should not do more. How the ‘work coach’ responds to this is at their discretion, but they are (as always) supposed to be reasonable. If you think they are not being reasonable you can’t appeal, but you can (with help) take the issue to judicial review.

Most of the Universal Credit problems we have helped with have involved sorting DWP muddles, but even when everything runs as it is supposed to, many people are left in serious difficulties. Recent UK statistics show a 50% rise in foodbank use in areas that have gone over to Universal Credit, and ¾ of all housing association tenants on Universal Credit are in rent arrears.

Thank you for helping on the stall to Tony, Norma, Gary, Dave and Taylor.

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On Saturday we took part in our seventh Dundee May Day march. As we observed in our leaflet:

The good news is that more people are waking up to what is happening. The bad news is that, even so, there have been no mass protests. If you think that no-one should need to rely on a foodbank in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, come and join us.

It may be the DWP’s mistake, but it’s YOUR problem

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Even as we did our bit for the national protest against Universal Credit on Wednesday, we encountered yet more problems with the ‘benefit’. Kylie, who has a young child, had just discovered that she had been wrongly moved onto Universal Credit. People on Income Support have to start looking for work when their youngest child is 5. In Universal Credit this has been lowered to 3, so what benefit you are on makes a big difference. But Kylie had been told that although the mistake was made by the DWP, it could not now be undone and she had to live with it. We urged her to go to the Shelter community Hub drop-in or see her MP to get the decision appealed.

People on existing benefits should not be moved to Universal Credit until at least July 2019 unless they have a change in circumstances that affects their benefits, but the Jobcentre seems extraordinarily keen to encourage people to make that change. We talked with a couple of folk now on JSA who had been told to apply to be classed as too ill for work. This now has to be done as part of Universal Credit, so people may want to think twice about making such an application, unless they feel reasonably confident of actually being found unfit to work at a Work Capability Assessment. Once you are in the Universal Credit system in a Universal Credit Full Service area there is no going back. (As we observed earlier, there are still possibilities for escaping in other areas.)

Rachel was already classed as unfit for work and had been receiving ESA. She had also been homeless, and when she had found somewhere to live and needed to get help with the rent she had been forced to apply for Universal Credit instead. She is now having to wait the five plus weeks until her first payment, and she has also been asked to supply a doctor’s line, which seems unnecessary since nothing has changed with her disability. Although Rachel cannot read or write, she is still having to manage her Universal Credit claim on the computer, and her partner has been told to help her check this weekly. Of course she would need help with any form of written communication, but having to be accompanied to a computer adds a further layer of complication.

Thanks to all who came to the protest. We got a fair number of leaflets handed out while Tony gave it laldy on the loud hailer. This was a national day of action called by DPAC, who made their presence felt down in Westminster.

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In the Courier and Evening Telegraph

Sending McVey homeward to think again

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As the Minister for Work and Pensions, Esther McVey, rushes back to Westminster to be in time to vote for war, will she pause to ask herself why her session with the Scottish Parliament Social Services Committee got interrupted four times by angry interventions from the public? As she clearly inhabits a different reality to the rest of us, the reasons may yet elude her, but media reports of this morning show that most observers have no problem recognising the cause of our anger.

First up and thrown out was David from Class War, who called out “you can’t get into work if you’re dead”, before asking about a woman who had committed suicide after being refused ESA. Video

Regardless of the questions she was asked and the evidence that MSPs quoted about the cruel impacts of the benefit changes, McVey insisted that the results of Tory policy had only been positive, presenting a picture of a system finely tuned to meet the personal needs of those who used it. Even when questioned about the ‘rape clause’, she tried to twist this into a positive light, claiming that having to say what had happened to them ‘could give [women] an opportunity to talk about, maybe, something that has happened that they never had before so it is potentially double support.’ This was the point where I walked out – claiming to see a flying pig out of the window. Video

We were soon joined outside by Marion from DPAC, who had told McVey just what she thought of her, and then Sarah Scott, who also asked her about benefit claimants attempting suicide.

The MSP’s kept up a veneer of politeness, but were clearly unimpressed by McVey’s propaganda, and we appreciated that the two SNP members who spoke came out to talk with us afterwards.

Glad to have been an ‘angry outburst’ (BBC).

Selling possessions to survive – another stall report

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John had been signing on fortnightly, but when he went into the jobcentre on 29th March he was told he couldn’t sign or get his payment because he had missed an appointment on 21st. Not only was this date outside his regular pattern of interviews, he had never received any information about it. When we met him, John had just succeeded in demonstrating, with the aid of his phone message records and written appointment book, and with the help of a welfare rights worker, that he had never been told about the ‘missed’ appointment. This was just another DWP error – but he had already had to resort to selling possessions on Gumtree in order to live.

Frankie had been sanctioned twice. He had had no benefits since November, when he missed an appointment, and he had been sanctioned again in February for not completing a form to say that his circumstances hadn’t changed (unsurprisingly, he had not thought this necessary). He still had another 5 weeks of the second sanction to go. He had survived up to now with help from his family, as so many people are forced to do, but they couldn’t afford to give him any more, and he had just applied for hardship payments. As he is on Universal Credit these will be a loan paid back off future benefits, so he will be expected to survive on reduced payments for many weeks to come. That’s a lot of belt tightening for both him and his relations.

David was furious to discover that when he went back onto benefits after a short time in work, and had to shift from JSA to Universal Credit, he effectively lost nearly two weeks payments, as well as having to wait to receive his money in arrears. This is actually one of the few things that the DWP has been forced into making a little bit better: there is now no longer an unpaid week at the beginning of a claim, but that change happened too late for David.

Jayne had so many problems and debts that we pressed her to go straight to the Shelter Community Hub drop-in to get things sorted out; but Tom’s difficulties were a result of the way the Universal Credit system has been set up. This systemic problem has long been pointed out, but has been left unaddressed. Tom was self-employed and running his own small business, but the change to Universal Credit had made that no longer viable. The Tories may claim to champion entrepreneurs, but their Universal Credit system presents would be entrepreneurs with an impossible hurdle.

This WEDNESDAY 18th April has been called as a national protest day against Universal Credit – the protest that had to be postponed due to the snow. We will be protesting outside Dundee jobcentre from 12 to 2. Please come and join us!

Thanks to Tony, Alison and Gary for this week’s stall

Small Mercies

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With the launch of the Scottish Government’s voluntary training scheme last week, it would be nice to think that workfare was a thing of the past, but, as usual, the DWP has another trick up its sleeve – and the Scottish reform isn’t as different as it could be either.

Of course it is a big and very welcome thing that the Scottish Training scheme, branded as Fair Start, is entirely voluntary, and non-sanctionable – and we played our part in arguing for this; but, while people will be free to come and go as they will, we can’t be too optimistic about the nature of the help they will receive. As we reported some time back, the people doing the training are generally from those very same companies who ran the DWP’s workfare contracts. Of course they may act differently if their clients are free to vote with their feet and walk out – we may yet be pleasantly surprised – but we can’t be too optimistic. Further, as the Herald has reported, contrary to earlier rhetoric, there is only limited involvement of charities specialising in helping those with disabilities.

And what about the DWP? Well, the Youth Obligation, which came in last April, stipulates that if you are between 18 and 21 and have been on Universal Credit for over 6 months you can be made to do training or work placements that could last up to 18 months! And if you refuse, that’s sanctionable.

A False Alarm – from the people who don’t know their own rules

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Kat is a carer for her brother and she was worried. When we met her at our stall outside the jobcentre she told us that she had been informed that she would be moved onto Universal Credit before the end of the year. This didn’t seem right to her or to us, and we have now confirmed with CPAG that the earliest date that the DWP will begin moving people on existing benefits onto Universal Credit is currently predicted to be July 2019. Of course this could be postponed further, as it has been many times already. CPAG pointed out that moving people this year was actually in Iain Duncan Smith’s original plan, but that timetable was abandoned long ago – as jobcentre workers should know.

We also came across yet another person told to apply for UC when his National Insurance payments make him eligible for contribution-based (now called new style) JSA. Otherwise, we are pleased to report that our stall was pretty uneventful, though one reason for this may be that increasing numbers of people on UC are being told they don’t have to sign on as often as before, now that the DWP can check up on their online diaries without seeing them. While it is good that people are being spared the pressure of fortnightly appointments, it makes it harder for people such as ourselves to meet them and offer support.

Of course people in rural areas distant from a jobcentre have always been exempt from having to come in very often. However we were recently contacted by someone who had been told that he now had to come in for an interview, even though the round trip would take him over 4 1/2 hours. CPAG provided us and him with this link to a response to a parliamentary question about postal signings.

And finally, this week we witnessed a welcome U-Turn by the UK Government, who appear finally to have noticed that by removing housing support from people on UC aged 18 to 21 they were causing homelessness. Here in Scotland, our Scottish Government has been committed to mitigating this cut, so we have added a paragraph to our latest response on our petition, calling on them to spend the money now saved on mitigating other welfare cuts:

Now that the DWP has reversed their earlier policy and will be paying housing subsidy to 18-21 year olds on Universal Credit, the Scottish Government will no longer need to provide extra help to this group, and the money budgeted for this can be used for other welfare cut mitigation. Can the Scottish Government confirm that they will be keeping this money for welfare, and can they tell us what other help they plan to give?

Thanks to Jonathan, Dave and Duncan for helping at the stall

They heard us, but is the Scottish Government listening?

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We have received the Government’s response to our petition for more spending to mitigate welfare cuts. As we have observed in our formal reply, this could have been written without looking at what we said and wrote. The petition process is quite impressively thorough in the way everything is recorded, but that is only of any use if those with the power to do something actually engage with what is collected and recorded: else it becomes an elaborate democratic sham. Now we wait and see if the Petitions Committee will push to take things further.

Here is our full reply:

COMMENTS ON THE SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE TO OUR PETITION, FROM THE SCOTTISH UNEMPLOYED WORKERS NETWORK – 26 March 2018

Thank you for sending us the Scottish Government’s response to our petition.

It was useful to have the figure for the reduction in welfare spend confirmed as approximately £4 billion a year by 2020 to 2021, though we are still puzzled as to why the earlier document quoted in the briefing prepared for the committee gave a so much lower figure of £2.2 billion.

It was useful, too, to have a statement on the provisions being made for 18 to 21 year olds who no longer get housing support from the UK government.

However, the Government’s response is simply a reiteration of what they are already doing or have already announced. We already know about this. The argument that we made in our petition is that this is not enough, and that the Government has both opportunity and obligation to do more. This response could have been written without looking at our petition or accompanying evidence. Perhaps it was.

Our petition asked the Scottish Government to look at providing further extra funding for welfare to help mitigate the impact of the welfare cuts. In particular, we asked them to look at providing:

  • More money for Discretionary Housing Payments to compensate for losses due to the Benefit Cap and prevent evictions and homelessness.
  • Extra money for child benefits to address child poverty and meet child poverty reduction targets.
  • More money for the Scottish Welfare Fund to meet growing needs as a result of further cuts coming on line and the spread of Universal Credit. Also, to provide help for those suffering from cuts to disability benefits, including those who have lost help with mobility while we wait for the Scottish Government to take over PIP.
  • A living wage for carers.
  • Help for people whose benefits have been sanctioned (challenging the interpretation of UK legislation).
  • More help for welfare advice so people get what they are due from the DWP.

We argued that money could be made available for this through a more progressive use of the Income Tax powers, and – in the longer term – by replacing Council Tax with Land Value Tax. And that money could also be freed up by scrapping subsidies for first time house buyers, which are widely recognised as pushing up prices for all.

We further argued that failure to provide further mitigation of the impact of benefit cuts could prove the much more costly option in the long run – financially as well as socially. Mitigating benefit cuts is an investment in society. It puts money into the economy of the poorest areas, and it helps to prevent numerous negative (and expensive) social consequences, including the current epidemic of poor mental health.

We hope that the petitions committee will be able to take these issues further.

Dr Sarah Glynn for the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network

 

Why so many Universal Credit sanctions?

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Recipients of UC make up over two thirds of those sanctioned although they comprise less than a third of those on sanctionable benefits. The high number of UC sanctions is still the most striking finding of David Webster’s quarterly analysis of sanctions statistics (which go up to the end of October 2017). This high number may be partially due to the fact that a person on JSA who misses an interview will normally have their claim closed and have to reclaim, while on UC they are sanctioned. Backlogs and mass catch-ups in the system mean the figures are very up and down, but although numbers are still very high, there does at least appear to be a significant improvement since 2015. One explanation for this is the extraordinarily high proportion of referrals that are cancelled before they turn into a sanction – over half in the most recent figures. Dr Webster suggests that ‘this may possibly be an effect of the DWP’s new “guidance to work coaches in UC to support them to make decisions not to sanction a customer in specific straight-forward cases if good reason is shown for not attending an interview”’, on which he observes ‘This is of course welcome, though it is extraordinary that guidance should ever have said anything different.’

Disappointingly, only 16% of UC sanctions have been challenged, suggesting a worrying level of resignation in face of the DWP machine. Mandatory Reconsiderations have had a poor success rate, but for the very small proportion of people who took their case all the way to tribunal, eight out of ten were successful. So don’t give up!

You can read David Webster’s full report here: 18-02 Sanctions Stats Briefing – D.Webster 20 Mar 2018. His photo is above.

While we do come across people who have been sanctioned, and many more who live in fear of sanctions, we more often find ourselves having to sort out DWP errors and omissions. At our last stall we met a frustrated couple whose benefits had got held up because she hadn’t proved her identity to the DWP’s satisfaction, and she hadn’t been told what she needed to supply to do this. They commented to us that they were wondering now about their decision to do everything by the book and report their change of circumstances as you are meant to do. We suggested she get a letter from her GP. (This is a common problem that we have written about in more detail before.)

More everyday problems at the jobcentre – a stall report

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Barry is recently out of prison and has anger management issues. He can’t cope with a computer and confessed that the resulting frustration made him likely to throw the machine across the room. But the jobcentre had made no allowances for this. We had to explain that they are actually required to take account of a person’s situation and what they are able to do.

Kate had been on ESA before but had decided to see if she could manage a job. When her epilepsy proved this impossible, she had had to sign onto Universal Credit, where she was expected to produce doctor’s notes explaining why she couldn’t work. When she read our leaflet she realised that she should have been given a UC35 form as the first stage for getting the UC equivalent of ESA. This form is meant to be given to you after you have been on doctor’s lines for more than four weeks, and she had been handing in notes for much longer than that. When she went into the jobcentre she asked about this and was simply told to request the form via her online account – but no one had mentioned anything about this before, and it is supposed to be automatic. Getting the disability element of UC would not only ensure that she was not under pressure to look for work, but also – if she is put in the support group as she was when on ESA – she will get more money.

Helen is also on UC and having to produce doctor’s lines to say that she is not fit for work, but she was understandably confused by the DWP’s abuse of the English language. She couldn’t understand why, when she was clearly unable to work, she had to produce ‘fit notes’. We had to explain that this is DWP-speak for a sick note.

John told us that he was in the middle of a prolonged dispute with the DWP over his Claimant Commitment. This required him to take five jobsearch steps each week, but one of these steps had been altered from applying for three jobs to applying for five. He had argued that this was not reasonable as some weeks there wouldn’t be the jobs to apply for, but the DWP had refused to retreat and he had ended up having his claim closed. He was determined to fight this all the way, and to do so himself without any help.

We were also able to tell a man who was waiting for his first UC payment that he could get a benefit advance (it didn’t seem to have been mentioned), and we gave two others details of the Welfare Rights drop-in sessions, including one man whose partner is on ESA, so – as we made clear to him – he is eligible to be part of a joint claim.

All in all, it was still a relatively quiet two hours at the stall – but even so we have to wonder what happens to folk on all those other times when we’re not there.

Thanks to Tony and Gary – and thinking always of our friend Norma, who lost her son on Mother’s Day.

PS – Disgusting, but no longer surprising, news that Glasgow South MP, Stewart McDonald’s, private member’s bill to end unpaid work trials was talked out by a Government minister who had promised that they would not do this and would allow it to be discussed.