Just doing a job…

 

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Yesterday I read an article from an American paper pointing out how the men and women working in the airports accommodated to Trumps immigration rules, even handcuffing children. Anyone familiar with the UK benefits system will find that unsurprising. The people behind the desks at the jobcentre are mostly normal men and women, yet every week they are doing things that make other people’s lives difficult, if not impossible.

Someone told me that her friends at church had been critical of the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’, and when I asked her why, she said that they worked in the jobcentre and thought the film unfair to jobcentre workers. Daniel Blake sees two jobcentre workers, one who is officious and one (pictured above) who is kind but harried by a system that doesn’t let her actually help. Research for the film included talking to people who had worked in the system. Are these church-going  jobcentre workers effectively blinkered to what is happening? People on benefits are put under constant pressure to do various tasks that take up their time and effort but often have little relevance to their chances of finding a job. With the threat of sanctions always there in the background, even soft pressure is stressful. But few jobcentre workers engage with the reality of what they are asking people to do. If they did, they would probably have to stop working for the DWP – as some have done. Rather, they limit themselves to acting as a human interface with their computer, and not thinking outside the system’s boxes. This bureaucratic mind-set can lead people to have to check with their manager whether someone on life-support in hospital can be excused a sanction for not coming to sign on – as actually happened when a friend’s mum reported his uncle’s illness to Govan Jobcentre.

On top of the systemic punishments and humiliation, a huge amount of extra stress and suffering is caused by errors. The amount of vital information that just gets lost is frightening. These are mistakes and not deliberate actions, but the extent of errors that can cause havoc to people’s lives demonstrates a systemic callousness towards the people that the system is ostensibly meant to help. If this was a system where errors caused havoc to rich men’s bank accounts rather than the lives of benefit recipients, the people in charge would be brought publicly to account. Recently, on a phone call to a DWP call-centre to sort out a string of such errors, I found myself talking to someone who was so genuinely solicitous that I was quite taken aback – as was the person whose case I was trying to sort. Kate didn’t usually work in that department, and she explained that it was difficult to piece together what was happening because information was on four different computer systems that didn’t talk to each other. Kate went beyond the call of duty that day, and yet her normal job is as a decision maker for Work Capability Assessments, where she will have to work within some of the most inhumane box-ticking rules of them all.

I wonder if any DWP workers saw parallels with their position and that of the US border control staff – and if it made them question their acceptance of their daily work. Many of them are members of the PCS union. They will remind you that trade union legislation doesn’t allow them to take industrial action over issues not directly related to their own employment conditions – but trade unions wouldn’t have won acceptance at all if they had not been prepared to go beyond the law in the past, and if we are to see an end to this punitive system, it has to be made unworkable. We are not calling for individual martyrs – we need organised united action.

Paul Laverty in Dundee – a video

Screenwriter, Paul Laverty, at the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network (SUWN) showing of I, Daniel Blake in Dundee: Paul describes the research he did for the film – with people affected by the attack on ‘welfare’, with activists (including the SUWN), and with jobcentre workers – and how this convinced him that the problems are systemic and deliberate. He calls on Scottish civil society to come together in defence of our most vulnerable,  first to put pressure on the Scottish Government to make the most of devolved benefits, and then to make the punitive core of the system that remains controlled by Westminster unworkable. Sarah and Tony from the SUWN describe our method of work, which combines grassroots mutual support with wider campaigning.

Universal Credit imposing punitive debt repayment

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Report from Dundee

When we met John at our stall outside Dundee buroo yesterday he was brimming with frustration. He had recently started a six week job, and had not un-naturally expected his finances to get a bit easier. But John is on Universal Credit. This is reduced by 65p for every pound he earns – which is better than if he were on JSA, though still an absurd effective tax rate – however that was only the beginning of his problems. Over the years John had built up quite a number of debts, as people surviving on precarious employment often do: things like rent and council tax arrears. The expectation has been that people repay these debts in small manageable increments. But Universal Credit seems to be changing all that. The rules are – of course – complicated, and vary with the type of debt, but people with multiple debts can find their Universal Credit completely gone in repayments. This had happened to John, so that all he was left with was his wages of less than £300 a month. To make this worse, he had not been made aware that this was going to happen – despite all the rhetoric about training people to plan their finances. (In fact the unpredictability of Universal Credit payments has been the source of numerous complaints.) He had already had to be given a bit of Emergency Grant money from the Scottish Welfare Fund last week, but was going to have to ask for more having been turned down by the buroo for a benefit advance. (A similar experience was reported in the East Lothian Courier last week.)

We have had a chat about this with the helpful people at the Child Poverty Action Group, who have found that the DWP’s default position seems to be to deduct the maximum possible – in fact you could say that the change to Universal Credit is being used as an excuse to recalibrate and reset debt repayments at the highest level – but that there should still be scope to agree more realistic amounts. With Universal Credit, finding someone to talk with is never easy, but the first port of call would be your ‘jobcoach’ who could put your request to a ‘decision maker’. If that gets nowhere, there’s Welfare Rights, and of course the MP – which serves the double function of keeping the MP informed of the horrible realities of the system.

Yesterday we also met Hailey, who was on the verge of tears. She had been told that despite her doctor’s line she should be looking for work, but, as she explained to us, she has suffered serious depression since her early teens and doesn’t feel able to do a job. Because she had been found ‘fit for work’ at a Work Capability Assessment two years ago, the jobcentre said that ESA was impossible. But her condition has worsened significantly since that time, so we were able to tell her that she should be able to apply for ESA again. (Unless you have a new condition or are significantly worse, once you have been refused ESA they will not reconsider another application, which makes it important not to give up on an appeal that first time.) We gave Hailey details of the council’s welfare rights drop-in yesterday afternoon to get the process started straight away.

And we were able to give some advice about applying for a Warm Home Discount.

Thank you to Chris, Duncan, Gordon and Ruth (and CPAG)

Democracy and Right Wing Populism

 

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On Friday we witnessed a textbook example of right wing populism. Trump spoke direct to ‘you, the people’ even as he stuffed his administration with billionaire business-men whose success is built on self-interest. He further co-opted the language of resistance by referring to this oligarchy as a ‘movement’.

Trump’s updated Whitehouse website informs us that ‘President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule.’ And ‘The Trump Administration will embrace the shale oil and gas revolution.’ The world may be hastening towards oblivion, but that’s alright because this will ‘bring jobs and prosperity to millions of Americans’.

The importance he puts on his support from rust-belt America is evidenced again by the inclusion of ‘Bringing Back Jobs And Growth’ as one of his six listed issues. His solutions are the standard right-wing medicine of lower taxes (especially corporation tax) and cutting regulations. He may reject neoliberalism in turning his back on free-trade and replacing it with a new protectionism, but within the US, free-markets will rule more strongly than ever. Massive and growing inequality does not, of course, get a mention.

Other key issues include the standard right-wing obsessions with military power and law and order. Sections on ‘Making Our Military Strong Again’ and ‘Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community’ exploit people’s fears to boost support for military expansion and state control through patriotism and idolising of men and women in uniform.

Trump has succeeded in wrapping standard conservative ideas in a populist rhetoric, and enough people have swallowed this to have landed us (and I mean the whole world because it affects all of us) with a Trump presidency. When this is paired with a Republican Congress, this is very worrying indeed.

We can’t afford not to take action, so why are some people talking about the need to respect this ‘democratic’ choice? This council of despair has to be firmly rejected. As an example of democracy this election is seriously and fundamentally flawed; democracy doesn’t stop at the ballot box but means continued political engagement; if we don’t change political direction the future is frightening.

Real democracy has to be more than a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Even if the election had been decided on the basis of the popular vote and not the Electoral College system, and Clinton had become president, this would still be a far cry from democracy

As has been often pointed out, Trump didn’t win the election, the Democrats lost it. In bending their every rule to install Clinton as their candidate, they alienated enough of their own voters to let Trump get ahead. Like all the so-called ‘centre-left’ parties that have embraced neoliberalism, they have paid the price for turning their back on the working class, and have been so busy putting down any stirrings of organisation to their left, that they have failed to notice or understand the populist movements ready to move in and exploit this vacuum from the right. As has also been said many times, had the Democrats allowed Sanders a fair chance at becoming candidate, we could be looking at a very different United States of America, a USA where the abandoned working class might begin to be listened to.

There are inherent structural problems in this electoral system, such as the huge power vested in a single person, and the way the voting system effectively excludes a third party challenger as people are scared to split the vote. And all elections suffer from the power of the mainstream media to tell a story that suits the establishment, never mind any possible interference (hardly a new phenomenon) from outside powers and other vested interests.

Voters always have a difficult time to sift the truth from the propaganda, but blatant lying to get elected, which Trump has openly admitted, sticks another dagger into the corpse of democracy, and throws another laugh in the face of the idea that he represents ‘democratic choice’.

The fight starts now – or rather it has already started – to challenge every regressive and dangerous decision – not just in the hope of a different election result in four years’ time, but to build a real movement, for positive change.

If such a movement is to succeed, then it has to be based on a real understanding of today’s power politics. We cannot afford to be so concerned about uniting in our shared horror of Trump, the racist, misogynist, narcissist, that we forget to criticise the liberal establishment whose destructive policies made way for his rise to power. Of course we must call out his racism, which is morally and ethically repulsive; but shouting out that we don’t like this sort of thing is not enough. We have to show how, like so many elites before him, he uses racism to divide the working class, to provide a scapegoat and a false sense of superiority in place of real help to poor communities, to distract from the growing class divide, and to justify increasing state control. Of course we must demonstrate that his attitude to women is unacceptable; but that doesn’t make opposition to Trump the preserve of women, nor imply that a woman president, such as Clinton, would be intrinsically preferable to a man. (Think Thatcher and May.) And of course we should criticise his serious character flaws, but not at the expense of concentrating so much on the man that we forget that he is part of a much bigger and growing right wing political force.

Liberal capitalism is in crisis, with its myth of trickle-down economics exposed as a ghastly con. If we don’t understand the extent of that crisis and start to take hold of the agenda ourselves, then the far right will be in there taking charge; and in their myopic self-interest they will steer the world to catastrophe. In the week when Oxfam has shown that just eight men own the same wealth as the combined poorest half of humanity, we need to stop obsessing on overall wealth and look instead at how that wealth is distributed. With power increasingly concentrated within a privileged elite, we need to take a new look at experiments in bottom-up democracy. And following the hottest year on record, we need to stop allowing short term greed to put at risk our long term survival, and stop adding to greenhouse gases. It’s not that we don’t know these things; but we have been told that thinking this way is not practical and we must return to the ‘real world’. What is really not practical is to pretend that we can go on the way we are. If we do, there will be no world as we know it, real or otherwise.

This is a wake-up call for the left. Educate, agitate, organise!

 

 

When perpetual spring becomes endless winter

 

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Anyone who has had to ring up the DWP – and often ring them repeatedly since few problems are resolved with one phone call – will start to curse THAT music! That particularly tinny version of the first section of Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ from the Four Seasons, played again and again and again… There was a Parliamentary petition in 2014, calling on the DWP to scrap it  – though it can’t have been very well advertised as it only got 43 signatures, and it also features in Daniel Blake’s protest graffiti.

In 2012, a Mr Savage was frustrated enough to put in a Freedom of Information Request specifically about the choice of on-hold music. This is the response from the DWP:

‘The current DWP telephony system was introduced in 2006 and the on-hold music was agreed by a group of staff representing different contact centre operational areas across DWP at that time.

‘Selection of the on-hold track was influenced by the desire to obtain a cost-effective solution. The DWP telephony provider has a group wide licence to use the Vivaldi music, which means that it is free for DWP to use. If we had chosen to use another piece of music outside of the group wide licence, they would have had to obtain the licence for it, which would have cost DWP, and, ultimately, the taxpayer.

‘DWP does not have any plans to change the ‘on hold’ music.’

Perhaps they would like to rethink – or employ more people so you aren’t kept waiting for so long, or get things right in the first place so you don’t have to ring and get them sorted, or get rid of the whole stupid system and bring in Universal Basic Income. Meanwhile, perhaps they could apologise to everyone who has to be subjected to this – and also to Vivaldi, who must be turning in his grave.

(And yes – I have spent a large part of today, being sent from pillar to post on various DWP phone lines…)

Welcoming Paul Laverty back to Dundee

 

Paul Laverty I Daniel Blake in Dundee

Paul is the screenwriter for I Daniel Blake, and lots of other award-winning films. Here he is taking part in a Q and A following a screening of I Daniel Blake hosted by the SUWN at Dundee University. His research for the film included a day spent with our group talking to people at our stall outside Dundee jobcentre and afterwards in the pub, which he recalled with heartrending detail in the preface to our book. As he described yesterday, as well as talking to the casualties of the system and the people who are working with them and fighting for change, he was able to discuss with whistle-blowers from within the DWP. And, like us, he stresses that the system’s cruelties are not just bureaucratic incompetence but the result of a deliberate policy to make it harder to have a decent life, or even survive, on benefits.

Councillor Jimmy Black, who chaired the Q and A, was chair of Dundee’s Fairness Commission. We were glad to hear him tell people again that it was our stalls that prompted the Council to bring their own welfare rights workers into the jobcentre.

For us it was an opportunity not just to re-watch a powerful film that accurately depicts the cruelties of the ‘welfare’ bureaucracy with both humour and genuine humanity, but also a chance to suggest a positive direction for people’s anger at the system it depicts. There were well over 200 people there, including people with their own horrific tales from the DWP, and a lot of students. Even if only a few of them join us in our advocacy and campaigns, that could make a real difference.

(We have a follow up meeting to discuss the advocacy work for anyone interested from 7-9pm at Dundee’s new Butterfly Café in Commercial Street, opposite Waterstones, on Monday 30th January.)

Thank you to Chris Scott Photography for the pictures

Courier Business Awards 2016, Apex Hotel, City Quay, Dundee, 29/10/2016

After the meeting

A big round of applause for Universal Basic Income – thoughts from the Scottish Independence Convention

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There was a range of political approaches at Saturday’s Scottish Independence Convention, but one thing united everyone in enthusiasm – besides the important desire for a more progressive independent Scotland. Whenever UBI was mentioned, and that happened quite often, it received wholehearted applause; especially so when Dr Philippa Whitford, SNP MP for Central Ayrshire, supported the call by pointing out that the very active involvement of pensioners in our communities demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that giving people money makes them lazy. (In fact it frees them to do all those things that don’t bring financial reward or for which – as with learning new skills – the financial reward may be in the future. See our article on UBI for more details.)

The room held 800, and we were told that the tickets could have sold three times over.While some speakers, such as the SNP’s Jim Mather, restricted their ambitions to calling for a more cuddly capitalism, others showed more awareness of the fundamental contradictions within this so-called pragmatic view and called for a more radical approach. The clearest example of this was from Commonweal’s Ben Wray, who has conveniently published a version of his speech in the National. Green co-convenor Maggie Chapman called for a decentralisation of power to local communities and stressed – as we do in the SUWN – the importance of making the best use of the powers we already have; and Richard Walker, who founded the National, emphasised the importance of holding the SNP to account – supporting them when their actions are positive but also allowing criticism when needed (an approach we are demonstrating here, I think).

I would like to be able to report back on Angela Constance’s speech, since she is Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, but she didn’t really say very much. In fact it was left up to John and Tony from Yes2 to make an impassioned response to the brutality of UK Welfare ‘Reform’. John McHarg told us that the event that spurred him into political action was hearing about a teacher who had asked a child why he was eating all the sauce packets only to discover that he had had nothing to eat for two days because his mother had been sanctioned when she couldn’t afford the bus fare to the jobcentre ten miles from their home. Grassroots groups often seem to have a much clearer understanding of the urgency of taking on the UK government over their attack on welfare than is shown by more established political campaigners. We were able to point out to the gathering that many people on benefits cannot afford to wait. We have also argued  in our book that the inability of our government to protect its most vulnerable citizens should itself be enough to make them reject a devolution settlement that makes a mockery of the pre-referendum ‘vow’.

(picture from Commonspace)

Nursing oor wrath tae keep it warm

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The phoaties dinna really gie an indiciation oa just how Baltic it wis yisterday at the SUWN advice and leafleting stall in Dundee, to prepare for the free screening oa ‘I, Daniel Blake’ on Wednesday nicht. We wir able to noise the street up a wee bitty, courtesy oa Ailsa, Chris and Duncan geen it a bit oa laldy oan the megaphone. Despite the streets being pretty quiet, we still dealt with a couple oa cases, including Bella, a 56 year auld wummin wha’s recent marital separation meant she has ended up living in a homeless shelter, and trying tae get by oan aroond £80 a week, fifty odd oa which she hands ower to the homeless shelter. She is suffering fae a number of medical conditions, including epilepsy, high blood pressure and Sciatica, but when she contacted DWP help line, she was very unhelpfully informed by the advisor that applying for ESA wid be a waste oa time – not only is this advice wrang, we believe it is culpably wrang, and that advisors are being directed towards a course oa action aimed at limiting the number of successful social security applications. If you intend applying for PIP or ESA we would advise that when you phone the respective helplines, on 0800 917 2222/0800 055 6688, to request that a application form is sent to you, you should avoid completing the form on the phone – tell the advisor that you have problems using the phone and that you need face to face help with filling it in, otherwise your’e likely tae get the same treatment as Bella.

The top phoaty shows Ailsa checking her lines, and Gary trying tae levitate the SUWN stall using the skills he’s gleaned fae the Paul Daniels big book oa magic he goat fir Crimbo, whilst the ither phoaty shows Gary, Jock, Sarah and Ronnie indulging in a bit oa synchronised shivering. Thanks to Norma, Duncan, Chris, Gary, Ailsa, Jock, Ronnie and Tony for braving the cauld.

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Resisting the new normal

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I am worried that people are getting so used to be treated like mushrooms that they have forgotten to demand anything else. You know, the kept in the dark and thrown handfuls of shit thing. A lot of people come out of the jobcentre and tell us everything is OK, and then you meet someone who has been struggling through six weeks with no money waiting for his Universal Credit to come through because no-one told him he could get an advance and get help from the Scottish Welfare Fund, and you wonder how many more people are in the same situation but have just accepted it as the new normal. Or you meet people wasting hours and days on the DWP’s next-to-useless Universal Jobmatch, because they hadn’t known that it was not compulsory to agree to this unless specifically directed. Or you meet someone who wants to confirm that the unpaid ‘work experience’ that they have been offered is not actually compulsory, and you realise that many people don’t dare ask questions. but just do what they are told and go where they are sent. Or you talk to someone who is concerned about what they are being made to sign as a Claimant Commitment, and think how many people just sign what they are given without comment. As we have observed before, although sanctions are – thankfully – much less common than they were, the fear of sanctions is as potent as ever, so they are still performing their disciplinary role. Newspapers highlight the worst cases of DWP abuse, but this constant erasure of expectation and hope can slip under the radar. We can’t let that happen.

2016 – a year with the SUWN

Hogmanay, the beach and firelight

Comrades, sparklers, soup and beer

First new blog in brand new website

Starting off the brand new year

January

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Make us work but pay no wages –

local  centre, big rich store –

Name and shame on public pages

Activists outside the door

February

Range 1

Range boss boasts of making profit

Work for nothing and he may

Give a job – we say ‘come off it!

Fair day’s work for fair day’s pay!’

March

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Few days early, march for May Day

Folk in jobs and unemployed

‘Spite the differences on payday

All exploited, all annoyed.

April

At the Range to protest workfare

Joined by Dundee TUC

Outside centre where the day care’s

Done by unemployed for free

May

advocacy-is-not-a-crime

Tried to help an ESA-test case

Staff ganged up and said ‘get out!’

Judge decreed ‘they have the best case’

Status gives no room for doubt

June

boycott-workfare-logo

Down to Manchester to meet with

Others fighting Thatcher’s curse

Folk to fight beside and greet with

Scotland’s bad, but England’s worse!

July

Maximus hanging figures

Triage still a sanctions factory

No note of meeting – ‘no excuse!’

Maximus not satisfactory –

Disability abuse!

August [Triage are a Work Programme provider subcontracted to the DWP, Maximus administers the Work Capability Assessments]

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Two years on and we’re still fighting

To escape from UK rot

Plus petitioning in writing:

‘Make the best of what we’ve got’

September

Triage worst in all the nation

For its callous attitude

We decide an occupation

Demonstrates our gratitude

October

i-daniel-blake

People ’cross the land are crying

For the fate of Daniel Blake

Tory’s protest, ‘it’s all lying,

He’s not real’ – He’s no fake!

November

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If you’ve not had in your stocking

Our new book on why and how

British ‘welfare’ state’s so shocking

Not too late to order now!

December

 

Paperback £10 or download for FREE

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!