SUWN responds to the Scottish Social Security Bill

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This is our official response to the Scottish Government’s proposed bill. While their overall aims remain positive, there are several areas of concern. We have highlighted these and will continue to campaign on them. We are also very aware that campaigns on specific issues can easily be set in competition with each other for limited funds. They have to be part of a bigger campaign for a refocusing of priorities and redistribution of resources, with greater emphasis on investment in real social security. As we wrote in our leaflet for last weekend’s Indy rally, ‘The Scottish Government has recognised social security as a human right, but it could and should be much bolder in its redistribution of the few resources we have and in challenging Westminster’s power to leave Scottish citizens destitute… [we must] do all we can to “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” – and then push to be able to do more.’

The picture shows Jeane Freeman, the Minister for Social Security

Social Security (Scotland) Bill – a response from the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network

1/ There are a lot of good things in the Bill, as well as a lot of things that have been phrased to leave options open. We hope that there will be plenty of opportunity for consultation and political oversight on the development of these crucial outstanding practical details. Meanwhile, we would like to highlight a few concerns that we have over the Bill in its current form.

2/ We are pleased to see social security classified as a human right and hope that this has implications beyond the devolved benefits and also implies additional assistance to people suffering under the administration of reserved benefits. Besides assistance to formal advice services, this should include more help to informal support, such as friends and family and mutual support or other volunteer groups. It should also include instructing Police Scotland to take more account of the unequal dynamics operating in Jobcentres and other DWP facilities, and to prioritise diffusing angry situations and avoiding criminalising people who have been put under strain by severe and often arbitrary regulations. It should also include help for people who have been sanctioned – and clause 46 3) opens up possibilities for doing this.

3/ The provision of short-term benefit assistance to help people appealing decisions is welcome, but this could be much more beneficial if extended to include people appealing reserved benefits. This could be especially important for people who have put in a Mandatory Reconsideration after being found ‘fit for work’ and then find themselves having to sign up for JSA or Universal Credit and comply with stringent jobsearch rules.

4/ Clause 30 2) would appear to suggest that failure to provide further information when requested could result in a failure to meet eligibility rules. This could prove problematic for the significant number of people with chaotic lifestyles. However, the accompanying discussion paper appears to suggest that decisions would be made on the basis of the limited information, which would generally prove a better option.

5/ The liability to repay an overpayment due to official error is highly problematic, even with the presumption that this will not generally be pursued. Uncertainty, and the consequent inability to make financial plans and benefit from financial security, has a major impact on wellbeing all round. This could cause major hardship, punishing people who have done nothing wrong, and runs counter to the supportive role that discussions about the Scottish Social Security system have led us to expect.

6/ We are also concerned that the requirement to notify changes be administered with discretion, so that small delays and inefficiencies and the omissions resulting from difficult and chaotic lives do not result in criminalisation.

7/ We are glad to see the inclusion of a Carer’s Supplement and hope that this will prove a step towards a genuine Carer’s wage.

8/ We would like to see the future Scottish Disability Benefit providing mobility help for everyone over 65 who needs it.

9/ Familiarity with the experience of people made to go through a Mandatory Reconsideration before accessing an independent appeal demonstrates that the main function and result of such a system is to severely discourage access to appeals. It is therefore very disappointing to see this replicated in this Bill. We hope, of course, that a more sensitive Scottish system will result in fewer errors, but those that remain should be able to be addressed independently without delay.

10/ We remain very concerned about the situation of people having to apply for PIP before the new Scottish benefit comes on line, and the impact this has for people who have fallen foul of the tick-box application system and especially of its mobility ‘test’. We would like to see much greater use made of the Scottish Welfare Fund to provide discretionary help to this group, backed by more Scottish Government funding.

11/ We are also concerned about failures of Discretionary Housing Payments to meet current and future needs. People can get into major problems and risk becoming homeless due to lack of awareness of the availability of DHP and also to poor administration. (E.g. because Edinburgh City Council provided too little too late, several families in North Edinburgh have faced eviction.) This situation is set to get much worse when the housing benefit cap is extended to social housing next April. The Scottish Government needs to make more provision for this.

12/ We would also like to express our support for the points made in the submission by Professor Paul Spicker, both those we have also included above and those we have not mentioned because we have not experience of our own to add.

Written by Dr Sarah Glynn

for the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network

22 August 2017

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Atos acknowledges the right to take notes

Notepad and pen

We have received this prompt and positive response to our complaint about people being refused permission to take notes in PIP assessments. We hope that the assessors also respond as positively. If anyone suffers similar problems, please let us know.

From PIP Customer Service Support at Independent Assessment Services (the new name for Atos Healthcare):

I am sorry to hear that you have encountered two occasions where the Health Professional has not allowed the accompanying individual to take notes.

This is something, that as an organisation, we allow and not something that should be refused.

I will certainly speak to the assessment centre involved to prevent this from happening in the future.

 

ATOS, please observe DWP guidelines!

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The guidelines for PIP assessors make it quite clear that anyone going to an assessment, or any person accompanying them, can take their own private written notes of the meeting. The same is true for Work Capability Assessments for ESA. These notes can be doubly important. They can help keep track of the questions asked so that you can make sure that the crucial issues are covered, and they can provide a vital reminder if/when the case goes to appeal. But when our friend accompanied someone to a PIP assessment at the ATOS-run centre in Dundee, she was told firmly that note taking was not allowed. I had been given the same message some months back – and informed them that this was incorrect – so we can assume that this has happened to others too. Our friend was told that she would have to tell the assessment centre first and get the notes copied by them afterwards, which suggests the assessor may have been getting confused with the rules about sound recordings, but, whatever the cause, the result was unreasonable and unacceptable. We are writing to ATOS to ask them to ensure that their assessors are aware of the DWP’s own guidelines.

You can find the guidance document for PIP assessors here.  Clause 2.7.12 reads:

Claimants and companions attending a consultation with the claimant are entitled to take notes for their own purposes. The claimant or companion may keep the notes and does not have to provide a copy to the HP, although the HP may record that notes were taken. The notes are for the claimant or companion’s own purposes and are not an official record of the process.

Notes and queries from our stall outside Dundee Buroo – 15 August

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What happens to help with the Bedroom Tax when you move onto Universal Credit? That was a new question and we had to look up the answer, but we are pleased to report that Shelter Scotland makes it clear that, just as with Housing Benefit, you can apply for help from the council via a Discretionary Housing Payment. We hope the man who asked the question will now get his full benefit again.

John’s situation is more difficult. He told us that he had missed his Work Capability Assessment after the date had been rearranged, and had then had his ESA claim closed down. We helped him arrange an appointment with Dundee North Law Centre, and after he gave me back my phone I asked him the details so we could write them down for him, but he had already forgotten them and we had to ring back; proof both of his need for ESA and the difficulties of someone in his situation actually managing to get through the process of qualifying for it.

There was little we could do to help Callum, but his predicament demonstrates yet again how disconnected the system is from anything that might genuinely help people improve their job prospects. He is starting a college course, and because he has changed direction too many times he isn’t eligible for a bursary. But because the course provides full time training he isn’t eligible for any buroo money either.

An additional unreachable problem was provided by the seagull who chose to place itself high up on the building above us with its rear end protruding over the edge…

Jumping through hoops for the DWP

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Frankie told me that it had taken two whiskies for him to be able to leave the house in order to get to the jobcentre. His mental health problems include severe anxiety and agoraphobia, and, although he has been off drugs and clean for three years, he was worried that the stress of compulsory appointments was going to push him back to relying on the drugs again. This was not helped by the likelihood of running into old friends from his drug-taking days at the buroo. But Frankie had been moved from the ESA Support Group to the Work Related Activity Group after his recent Work Capability Assessment, and he had to go to the jobcentre to be given Work Related Activities.

We met him just as we were setting up our stall, and I went in to the jobcentre with him. His advisor was nice enough, but yet again we encountered the absurdity of a system whose bureaucratic rules seem to be ever further divorced from what they are purportedly supposed to be for. She listened as Frankie explained his particular difficulties – there is never any acknowledgment that expecting people to spell out their problems in an open plan office is inappropriate – and she then suggested that he could go to his local peer-supported job club, where they would help identify his needs and improve his skills. She was suggesting this, she explained, because she thought he would find it helpful, but since it was entirely voluntary it couldn’t count as official ‘steps’ on his ‘journey back to work’. So – although no-one on ESA can be made to apply for jobs, and Frankie is a long way from being able to work – she was requiring him to prepare a CV and sign onto Universal Jobmatch, the DWP’s jobsearch website. This, she told him, was compulsory, though not sanctionable, but we wouldn’t suggest he put that to the test.

We urged Frankie to get in contact with Welfare Rights and put in a Mandatory Reconsideration asking to be moved back to the Support Group, but meanwhile he will have to go through this box-ticking rigmarole. We also emphasised to his jobcentre advisor that he should be contacted by phone whenever possible, and he was told that he doesn’t have to go back to the jobcentre for another three months. And we made sure that the advisor crossed out the email address that she had asked him to give her, so Frankie can, at least, open his email without fear of being chased by the jobcentre checking up to see if he has completed tasks that no-one seriously engaged with his future would consider remotely helpful.

Welfare cuts go way beyond money – a report from this week’s stall

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We can’t stress too strongly that the damage of Westminster’s attack on the benefit system goes much further than  its immediate impacts, and that was sadly evident at this weeks’ stall. If our last two weeks’ stalls were relatively quiet, this one made up for them.

Almost the first person we met had been bumped off ESA, and the subsequent stresses were making his condition worse. This was not helped by the jobcentre having lost a crucial letter so he was waiting for a week’s back payment. We spend a lot of time advising people how to proceed through the minefield of Mandatory Reconsideration, JSA application, doctor’s notes and appeals (see the back of our Know Your Rights Leaflet), but – what is almost as important – we also listen to people and take them seriously, in sharp contrast to how they can be treated inside the buroo.

A woman described the worries and stress, as well as financial difficulties, of losing her sickness benefit after twenty years; and yet another person passed ‘fit for work’– who we advised to see Welfare Rights for debt advice as well as for help with an appeal – told us that the stress of it all was destroying his marriage.

Another woman was receiving ESA, but was suffering major fears over pressure from the jobcentre to look for work that she felt quite unable to cope with. We were able to tell her, to her great relief, that the jobcentre cannot make anyone on ESA apply for a job; but the stress of her situation was causing her to stammer noticeably when she spoke to people outwith her friends and family, although this was not a problem she had had before.

And then there was the young woman with two boys with special needs, and health problems of her own. As a result of bad decisions at medical reassessments, her household income had just dropped by £300 a week. She had taken out a mortgage previously when she had been in work, and now she was at risk of losing her home. Worse, her social worker had observed that her children looked underfed. Meanwhile, she was attempting to help her teenage friend who had grown up in care, but whose aftercare support seemed to leave a lot to be desired. The friend was pregnant and had been left with nothing to live on as a result of an eight- week sanction. Her treatment under this system will already be affecting the next generation. These two women were getting help from a dedicated volunteer, but the so-called welfare system was letting them down so badly in so many ways that we suggested that they take their cases to their MP or MSP.

All these knock on effects will have major financial as well as human costs, as they put extra stresses on health and social services. It can sound callous to put it that way, but the point needs to be made because it undermines the argument that governments can’t afford to put more money into benefits. In fact, even before looking at the ethical case, they can’t afford not to invest in decent social security.

As the picture shows, we also provide an occasional dog-sitting service. Thanks to Gary, Tony, Norma, Chris, Duncan and Jonathan for help with recent stalls – and especially Dave, SUWN stalwart, who is currently in hospital after succumbing to a heart attack, but who we expect to welcome back at his post as soon as he is well again.

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Yesterday I gave a talk about our SUWN book as part of Edinburgh Book Fringe. Here is the window of the Lighthouse Bookshop (formerly Word Power) ready for the event. – Sarah

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Has the Benefit Cap cut your housing benefit?

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Benefits are supposed to reflect actual living costs. Of course they are pretty mean – you are not expected to be able to enjoy yourself or even maintain a decent standard of living – but if a household gets large amounts in benefits, this is because there are extra expenses, like lots of children or high local rents. Imposing a cap on the maximum benefit a household can receive doesn’t make sense by any normal logic; but the cap has been imposed by a Tory government intent on turning the welfare system into a punitive mechanism for working-class control.

The benefit cap means that thousands of households across the UK are not getting enough to cover their rent. This is one of the many areas where the Scottish Government has supplied extra money to help fill the gap, but despite this families in North Edinburgh have faced eviction and appalling temporary housing conditions, as the council has provided too little too late. Fearful of seeing this replicated here in Dundee, we wrote to our local housing convenor to find out the situation in the city. Although they don’t have the resources to make the cap go away, it is clear that there is quite a lot of help available. We reproduce the council’s response below so that anyone affected can make use of it.

In the long run we would like to see more investment in council housing and the introduction of rent controls. It has been appalling to witness the growth of private landlordism, which serves as a mechanism for transferring wealth from the poor to the rich, and also – via housing benefit – of subsidising the rich from the public purse. And we will need much greater investment in funding social security – especially after next April, when the Benefit Cap will be extended to include people in social housing, so we will be needing a lot more help from the Scottish Government to mitigate the damage. This is investment in people’s futures, and also in the prevention of social breakdown.

Meanwhile, though, we would urge anyone affected by the Benefit Cap to investigate what help is available from your local council – and if you are not getting what you need, to enlist welfare advisors, MSPs, local press and activists to help you kick up a stink about it.

Here is the Council’s summary of the current situation in Dundee:

Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) are administered by Dundee City Council’s Benefit Delivery Team. In the first instance the team will always look to maximise the individual’s housing benefit before awarding a DHP. The funding for the financial year 2017/18 has come direct from the Scottish Government and in Dundee we received a higher allocation than in previous years. DCC have added £250K to this allocation to help those affected by the UK Government’s Welfare Reforms, including the benefit cap. 

In Dundee we currently have around 150 families affected by the cap. At the time of being notified of the cap the Council’s Benefit Delivery Team will always try to make contact with the customer either by telephone, text or letter to complete a DHP application with them.

Information is also shared with the Council’s Advice Services Team to work with these families and assist with an application for Personal Independence Payments where required.  

We will always look to assist and work together with those families affected by the cap. To date all those who have applied have had an award made to them and in the majority of cases this has been for the full shortfall.

The council has a limited budget to help these families and we will always try to keep them in their home, however, if their accommodation is over large or overly expensive we would work with them to find more suitable accommodation.

A Universal Basic Income for Scotland – a talk by Annie Miller

A Universal Basic Income, or Citizens Income, is increasingly being put forward as the answer to failed benefits systems and the automation of jobs, but how could it work?
Annie Miller is a cofounder of the Basic Income Earth Network and of Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland. Her book, A Basic Income Handbook, is published this summer by the Luath Press.

This is the third of three talks jointly organised by the SUWN and Common Weal Dundee. The first introduced the SUWN’s book, Righting Welfare Wrongs, which can be downloaded here.
In the second, Prof Paul Spicker discussed what could be done to improve social security under devolution. You can watch it here.
You can also find a brief introduction to Universal Basic Income here.
(Thanks to Glen and David for filming this.)

A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work – an open letter to Dundee City Councillors

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An open letter to all Dundee Councillors from the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network and Better than Zero

We are deeply concerned about the use of unpaid labour for stewarding the forthcoming music festival, Carnival 56, in Camperdown Park. We are aware that this has become a standard practice, but that does not make it acceptable; and as this is public land, the City Council must take some responsibility. Major music festivals are large commercial enterprises from which businesses expect to make a good profit. Like other commercial enterprises, they should be expected to pay their staff. There are many people in Dundee looking for and desperately needing paid work. Some of these may even feel pressure to ‘volunteer’ and allow themselves to be exploited for the sake of their CV.

When we shared information about this on the SUWN blog it met with almost universal condemnation. One or two people argued that it was OK because the work was enjoyable, but this is not an argument applied to paid jobs! Others recalled less than enjoyable experiences from similar events, but that is not really the point. A fair day’s work should be rewarded with a fair day’s pay, and a major commercial event such as this should provide an opportunity for people to earn some much needed income.

Volunteers are effectively undercutting and destroying potential paid jobs. They are also getting a dreadfully bad bargain. A weekend ticket with booking fee costs £112.90. Volunteer stewards will have to put in two 8 hour shifts plus training – say 18 hours in total. They will also have to pay a £15 processing fee, and provide their own camping equipment including all food – even toilet paper. If you are over 25, 18 hours on the minimum wage plus the fee makes £150, which is considerably more than the ticket price, and most of the time you are stuck at your post stewarding. Even if you are 18 the equivalent wages plus fee would be £115.80. Plus you need to have cash for the deposit. In a society with properly paid work, people who want to go to a festival should be able to pay for it out of their wages and enjoy it to the full.

There is, rightly, growing concern about exploitation at the bottom of the labour market and the increasing use of unpaid labour. Volunteering should be for community organisations and charities, not businesses. Large music festivals should not be treated as though they were village fetes. We are asking Dundee City Council to request that the organisers reconsider their use of volunteers, and, most importantly, that agreements for any future such event in the City stipulate that all work must be paid for, preferably with a genuine living wage.

We hope, of course, that you will want to bring an end to this exploitation, but as activist organisations, we will continue to campaign on the issue as needed.

POSTSCRIPT

We have already had this almost instant response from SNP Councillor Ken Lynn, who wrote:

‘I’m supportive of everything you say in your email and agree that for future events the council should stipulate the use of properly trained and remunerated staff as a condition. The concept of “volunteering ” to assist with a commercial enterprise is not one which fits with my view of what volunteering should be.
‘I feel it’s a bit late in the day for this particular event but would certainly have no problem with the council making a request as you state.

Regards

Cllr Ken Lynn
Maryfield Ward’

Lets see if we can turn this into council policy, and not just in Dundee!

PPS

Ken Lynn’s comments were quickly seconded by Fraser Macpherson of the Libdems, and our letter and Councillor Lynn’s response were reported in the Dundee Courier. They spoke to the festival organiser who protested that he had paid a ‘considerable fee’ to the company that recruits and organises the volunteer labour – money which would clearly have been better spent paying people for their work – and that our letter  was ‘very misleading’ , although it was entirely based on details from that company’s own website. We shall be keeping up the pressure to make sure that all those who work at future commercial events get properly paid!

 

If you are on Universal Credit you’d better not get ill

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A recent phone query revealed yet another serious problem with Universal Credit. Frank rang us on behalf of his daughter, Jen, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. Jen is on Universal Credit and was caught by the last throws of the Work Programme, so she can look forward to two years of being given useless things to do. However, going to the Work Programme provider was making her conditions worse – especially when they shut her in the computer room – so she has had to ask her doctor for help. When Frank contacted us Jen had just handed in her second six-week ‘fit note’, and was worried about being sanctioned if she didn’t go to her Work Programme appointment.

As we told Frank, what is supposed to happen when someone on Universal Credit gets ill for more than four weeks is that they automatically receive a UC35 form to apply for being treated as long-term unfit for work, and so eligible for the additional elements of Universal Credit that are the equivalent of ESA. However, as a bit of Google research showed, this automatic referral can’t be relied on, and getting the application form can prove a major hurdle. Jen had to go into the jobcentre the next week so she took the opportunity to ask for the form. In line with our Google research, she was told that she couldn’t expect it for a further few weeks as there was a major backlog. We know there are long delays in getting a date for a Work Capability Assessment, but this was an additional delay before Jen could even get into the queue. That means more time when she is expected to cope with a ‘jobsearch’ routine that makes her condition worse, and a longer wait before she receives any extra money she might qualify for.

When you apply for ESA, you are treated as unfit for work during the waiting period between putting in your application and getting the result of the Assessment. Under Universal Credit you are treated as fit for work and for sanctionable ‘jobsearch’ and ‘job preparation’ tasks.  Meanwhile, all you can do is argue, with the help of your GP, that there would be substantial risk to your mental health if you were found fit for work or made to do work-related activities, and it is not reasonable to expect you to do these.

After we had discussed the situation, Frank rang the Work Programme provider and explained that Jen wouldn’t be able to come and do their tasks. They told him – despite the ‘fit notes’! – that they were unaware of her situation and offered a phone appointment instead, which they promptly failed to keep. But Jen managed to ring them. We also suggested getting the MP involved to try and speed production of the form, but this has proved unnecessary as a copy actually arrived soon after Jen put in her request.

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Another phone call that same week came from a man whose benefit money had been stolen by a friend. He was able to get a Scottish Welfare Fund grant (once he had a police crime number), but that was hardly going to last the month until his next payment, so we suggested he ask for a Short Term Benefit Advance. This he did, but was told firmly ‘no’; and so he is having to rely on the support of his mother. Which raises the question, if you don’t have friends or relations to help, or you live in part of the UK without the Scottish Welfare Fund or any Local Authority grants, what are you supposed to do in these circumstances?