Getting the right bit of paper

cat on papers

A report from this weeks stall:

Jen had come to the jobcentre to find out what was happening with her Work Capability Assessment – but of course that is the last place that might be able to help. She has numerous health problems, including two sorts of epilepsy, but she is still waiting for her assessment, and having to organise regular doctor’s notes, because the day that she was due to be seen Maximus didn’t have enough assessors available. They told her that they would arrange another appointment, but that was April and she has heard nothing since.  We contacted Welfare Rights for her and they promised to chase Maximus on her behalf. However that only addressed a part of her problems. Although she gets PIP as well as her basic assessment phase ESA, she currently has nothing in her bank account as a (now former) friend had helped themselves to her card. This is the sort of emergency that can be helped by a Scottish Welfare Fund grant, but before asking for that she needed evidence of the theft in the form of a crime number. Jen also has anxiety problems so one of our activists accompanied her to the police station to get a crime report before going onto the council offices.

Meanwhile, beside the usual ESA queries (as discussed last week) we arranged a food parcel for a man with just £5 in his pocket to see him through the week, and we talked with John, a former oil worker who had had to give up his job for mental health reasons and was just out of hospital. We gave him the link to the Scottish Government’s fund for ex oil workers. We hope they can help, though it was set up for people who were made redundant rather than those with health problems.

We also met a frustrated young man who had been told to get a letter from his GP as proof of identity before his claim could be processed. With lack of accepted documentation proving a frequent cause of benefit delay, getting the right papers can be very important. But for the many people who don’t have a passport or a driving license because they have never needed or been able to afford them, there is very little guidance about what can count. We have discussed this with our friends at the Child Poverty Action Group, who explain that there is no official list and that you can use a range of different things such as a birth certificate, paid utility bills going back a period of time, a tenancy agreement, or the GP letter stating they have known you for so many years. The DWP can’t make you provide evidence that you don’t have or that would be difficult for you to get. It simply needs to be enough to establish your identity on the ‘balance of probability’ – and if they are being difficult you can appeal.

(So many problems, and the full Universal Credit roll-out hasn’t even hit us yet. D-Day for Universal Credit in Dundee is 8 November, so a further reminder for anyone local that we will be protesting outside the jobcentre that day from 12-2.)

Thanks for help on the stall to Jonathan, Tony, Norma, Dave and Gary

 

 

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Christopher Neill R.I.P.

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We are shocked to hear of the death of our friend and comrade Chris Neill. ‘Father Chris’ was a stalwart champion for justice, both on our stalls outside the buroo and when accompanying people into the dreaded health assessments. He joined our band of eccentrics after we met him assisting his son, Duncan, sign on, when he quickly told the troublesome ‘advisor’ what was what. Besides helping the SUWN he was an active advocate for Indy, describing himself as Scottish by Choice, and probably confusing a few onlookers by marching for Scottish Independence bearing a St George’s cross. But conformity never bothered Chris. As a Greek Orthodox priest he kept up his good humour in the face of a stream of banter from his atheist comrades, for whom he was a real friend as well as a co-campaigner. He died on his houseboat in Manchester, which he had been getting ready to move up to the Forth and Clyde Canal. In a short time he had become a loved and valued member of our group, and he will be badly missed. Our sympathies to Duncan (who was responsible for bringing Chris to us in Dundee).

‘Welcome to the wonderful world of the DWP, David’

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Whilst there is mounting trepidation at the prospect of the full roll out of Universal Credit (expected to hit us in Dundee on 8 November), we are already experiencing a rise in the number of cases and inquiries we are fielding at Dundee buroo, and this week was no exception. Many of the cases we dealt with at our stall or on the phone  – eight out of 14-15 – had a familiar ring to them, involving  people who had been refused entitlement to ESA, or who had ESA terminated a  following re-appraisal.

The case of Margaret, an older woman from Stonehaven, was one notable example. David, her nephew, had phoned us on her behalf, and, with no prior experience of the wonderful world of the DWP, was clearly shocked at the way she was being treated. Margaret, who recently lost her husband, suffers from mental health problems. She had been on ESA for seven months, but had very recently attended a work capability assessment  where she had been informed that she should expect to lose her ESA entitlement.  David was puzzled as to how privately employed ATOS assessors have the legal authority to over-ride GP’s when they decide that their patient  is unfit for work – to which our volunteer replied, ‘welcome to the wonderful world of the DWP, David.’

Margaret is now struggling to cope, both financially and mentally, to the extent that she is finding it difficult to function. David is clearly very worried about her, and our volunteer advised that Margaret’s worsening condition should be assessed by her doctor, that a mandatory reconsideration (MR) should be phoned in asap, and that Margaret should then make a claim for JSA. Our volunteer explained that, for those living in an area where Universal Credit full service is yet to be rolled out, it was important that the MR is phoned in BEFORE the claim for JSA is made, because making an immediate claim could result in Margaret, as a single person, being signed up to Universal Credit instead. It is also the case that a decision on ESA entitlement will take much longer to be made if the MR is posted, and that the vast majority of ESA MR’s fail because they are dealt with by an ‘in-house’ ‘decision maker’ with a 80% fail quota. By phoning, rather than writing, folk can proceed more quickly to the tribunal, the second stage of the appeal process. Once you are on the appeal stage you can go back on basic rate ESA again. Because the tribunal is made up of independent representatives, claimants have a better chance of their appeal being properly considered, with almost 70% of ESA appeals being successful.

Many folk who have been bumped from ESA cannot figure out how they are expected to claim for JSA. They quite reasonably point out, they are not ‘fit for work’, leaving some feeling like frauds for claiming JSA, to which we invariably reply, ‘welcome to the wonderful world of the DWP’.

The only way in which those affected can receive social security payments whilst waiting on the Mandatory Reconsideration process to conclude is by applying for JSA, despite not being fit for work. Once folk are signed up to JSA and receiving payments, then they can ask for an ‘extended period of sickness’ note from their GP, which lasts thirteen weeks, and which should take them through the period required before the appeal stage. This may not take the pressure off completely, but the GP can explain that the stresses of the jobcentre routine are affecting your health. It is also the case that because many Job Centres (JC’s) are being inundated with such cases, JC ‘work coaches’, or whatever their title is this week, are increasingly aware that many claimants, despite being on JSA, are not really capable of work. For this reason, some ‘work coaches’ take quite a sympathetic approach to such claimants. Where they do not, and where the claimant is vulnerable, as is the case with Margaret, we would advise that they are accompanied in to the JC by a family member or friend or welfare rights worker, to discuss and negotiate their claimant commitment with the ‘work coach’, and to ensure that any special needs or problems that the claimant has are taken into account.  Family members and friends should be aware that they have the right both to attend meetings with the claimant and to speak on their behalf, with the claimant’s consent  – do not allow bolshy ‘work coaches’ to tell you otherwise.

We also met Peter, who had gone five months without any payment, and we went into the jobcentre with him to ensure this was sorted out. He had been on ESA and had been informed by the jobcentre that if he came off this he would go back on JSA. His health proved better than he feared, so he came off ESA, and waited – but no JSA payments. He assumed this was par for the course because when he had been made redundant and claimed JSA last year, it took the DWP five months to sort his payments out. This time, as he waited, he lost his car and his TV and was threatened with eviction. He got assistance to fight the eviction and arrange Housing Benefit, but no-one seems to have mentioned the need to put in an application for JSA. Unsurprisingly, his health deteriorated and he is now back on ESA, but he had talked with Citizens Advice and been told to put in a claim for JSA for the missing period. I have to say that the advisor was helpful, and he was given a form to explain in detail what had happened. Now he must wait for the ‘decision maker’. We made sure that he asked for a photocopy of his completed form – a point he appreciated as he observed that, of the four doctor’s notes he had had to hand in for his ESA, the jobcentre had lost two, requiring him to get duplicates.

Mark had received no money since his ESA claim had been closed down for failure to come to a Work Capability Assessment. The problem was that he had never received a letter telling him about the appointment. He told us that he had been five minutes late for a previous appointment and been told to go away and wait to be given another time, but had not heard from them after that. He also told us that he had been earlier informed that he would not need to go to an assessment as his medical evidence would be sufficient. His list of health (and other) issues included PTSD following multiple stab wounds – he insisted on showing us the scars, accompanied by graphic description – and he was currently homeless and staying on a friend’s sofa. We made an appointment for him with Welfare Rights, and left him hurrying to the council to put in for a Scottish Welfare Fund emergency grant before they closed for the day.

George was fuming when we met him. He explained that he had recently underwent an assessment for PIP, and had received full PIP, for both mobility and daily living, but two days after receiving the letter confirming the decision he had attended a ESA appeal tribunal where he was stunned into furious silence when his appeal was rejected – he had failed his Work Capability Assessment by one point. Welcome to DWP world, George.

Next up was Louise, a vulnerable young woman with a number of conditions who, due to lack of money, was back living with her mother. She had been bumped from ESA, and placed on JSA. However, weeks after making her application, she had still not received any money, and we urged her to contact Welfare Rights asap for an appointment so they can take up this case of administrative failure on the part of the DWP, and also to apply for a Scottish Welfare Fund grant. Although Louise’s situation is quite desperate, the fact that she is living with her mother may well affect her entitlement to a grant, and we asked her mother to keep in contact with us so that we might offer further assistance, if required.  This may well not be the last time we hear from Louise and her mother.

It is important to remember that claimants who are facing delayed benefit payments are expected to apply for and have exhausted a Short Term Benefit Advance (STBA) before they can apply for the Welfare Fund Grant. Giving loans to folk with next to nothing and then expecting them to pay such loans back from the miserable pittance of JSA or Universal Credit only serves to further underline the warped reality created by the so-called ‘welfare reforms’ – where the disabled are forced into seeking work that may well harm them because employment is actually seen by the DWP as a ‘clinical outcome’.

In addition to the heavy workload on the issue of ESA, we also met John. He had just been sanctioned for failing to complete his job search, due to having to make arrangements following the death of a family member; and, in addition, he had been refused hardship payments. We strongly urged him to apply for a Welfare Fund Grant, and to ensure that he gets his Mandatory Reconsideration appealing his sanction in as quickly as possible.

Mark, a young man, had, in his own words, ‘bailed fae the buroo, cis it wisna worth the bother.’ This is a refrain we are hearing fairly regularly, particularly from younger folk, who, like Mark, are staying with parents. We are sure that the DWP would approve of Mark’s decision, as their entire strategy seems designed to make the experience of unemployment as unpleasant as possible. But, what of those young folk, as well as their older counterparts, who don’t have understanding and relatively well-off parents to rely on?

[For folk in Dundee – we will be marking the arrival of Universal Credit full service with a protest outside Dundee buroo, alongside our usual advice stall, from 12-2 Wednesday 8 November.]

Thanks to Norma, Davey, Gary, Sarah and Tony for their help at this week’s stall.

 

 

If you designed a system specifically to inflict pain, you couldn’t do much better than this: a report from last week’s stall

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Frank used to work as a driver, but since having a major operation seven years ago he has to get to the toilet at least once an hour, so driving, and many other jobs, are off the agenda. He does want to work, but not to be forced to apply for any job however unsuitable, as his ‘job coach’ is pressing him to do. He is in constant pain too, and the stress of the pressure from the jobcentre is making this worse. As if this was not bad enough, he has been deprived of any effective painkiller. He had been prescribed opiates, but these were knocking him sideways, so he decided to self-medicate with home-grown cannabis. However a neighbour reported him to the police, and although he only had a couple of plants, they took these away along with his growing tent and other equipment. So now he has no pain relief and is having trouble sleeping, even before the pressures from the jobcentre that are making it all worse. We advised him to go to his doctor and get a note for an Extended Period of Sickness, in order to lift the pressure and give him time to get a bit better. We also offered to go into the jobcentre with him if he needed help persuading them to treat him more reasonably and with more understanding.

Arun had just started in work, but was concerned that he was in line for a second sanction from his work programmer provider, Triage. He was already challenging an earlier sanction and had been warned he could be sanctioned again for missing an appointment, even though he had previously told them why he wouldn’t be able to come. We had to warn him that if he was sanctioned again he should still challenge it even though he now has a job, because if the job fell through the sanction would be held over to when he was on benefits again.

We also met with an older man who we had helped in the past and who was now having problems with his benefits being stopped when he had only been given a few hours’ work. His situation is very complicated and we pressed him to go back to the welfare advisor who had helped him before. And a man who was personally delivering proof of his wife’s student bursary because, although he had sent this twice before, the DWP claimed not to have received it, and without it they couldn’t pay him. And another man who had been told he was being made redundant from a job he had been in over two years, only to see his old job advertised two weeks later – which doesn’t sound like redundancy to us. (If you have similar problems you can contact ACAS for advice.)

There has been a post going round social media about a person who was deemed not to have mobility problems because they could manage to struggle to the foodbank and didn’t just stay at home and starve. In a similar vein, we were told about someone who has been informed that she doesn’t have problems going out and meeting people because she manages to get to her AA meetings. Surely that must be enough social life for anyone…

As we head into the big Universal Credit rollout, it has been amazing to watch the media, and even a few Tory MPs, wake up to the scale of the crisis this will cause. Whether this is enough to make Teresa May blink, we don’t yet know, but the appalling extent of the culpable mismanagement of this benefit has been exposed by a DWP whistle-blower in the Independent. The theory behind the staged rollout was that the DWP would learn from the experiences of their first poor guineapigs, but they seem quite determined not to do so. The stories recounted in online support groups are absolutely terrifying, but even worse are the comments by some other group members that demonstrate an acceptance of the idea that you should have to sell off your possessions and live off the cheapest foods and expect no quality of life. No wonder many posters question the point of living at all. We need to ensure that the media don’t forget these issues as quickly as they have taken them up, and that this helps generate the outraged resistance required to bring about change.

Thanks for help at the stall to Tony, Norma, Gary, Dave and Jonathan

More sanctions, longer sanctions – Universal Credit strikes again

Dundee foodbank

David Webster’s latest meticulous analysis of the sanctions statistics makes for grim reading. We had thought that sanctions were on the wane and that the DWP were mainly relying on the pernicious impact of the fear that they had induced – as well as turning their attacks onto the sick and disabled; but Universal Credit appears to opening the doors to a new and nasty return. Sanction numbers are not nearly as high as their peak in 2013-14, but they are rising. Worse, they are significantly higher for people on Universal Credit than those on JSA, so as Universal Credit is rolled out to more and more people in more and more areas, we can expect to see sanction numbers increasing. This difference is true for people of all age groups. As if that were not bad enough, the impact of a UC sanction can be much more prolonged than that of a JSA one. Under UC, hardship payments are loans that have to be repaid off future benefits, effectively stretching the period of reduced rations to two and a half times the nominal sanction length. And any further sanctions received during the sanction period no longer run concurrently but are added onto the end. UC also allows sanctions to be applied for the first time to low paid or part time workers earning less than the equivalent of 35 hours a week on the minimum wage. So far a much lower proportion of UC sanctions have been successfully challenged – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

ESA sanctions (overwhelmingly for not doing work related activities) are much less common, but there is a disproportionate number of long sanctions. While the most recent figures suggest that the DWP has learnt not to keep discriminating especially hard against people with mental health and behavioural problems, the proportion of sanctions for pregnant women is particularly worrying.

The statistics also show a significant fall in the proportion of eligible people applying for JSA, from an estimated 69% in 2009/10 to 56% in 2015/16. This is only to be expected, as people struggle to survive on next to nothing rather than face the worries and humiliations of the jobcentre. The problem is particularly bad among young people.

David Webster also points out that:

The UK Government response to the Public Accounts Committee Inquiry on benefit sanctions has still not been published, despite being due in April.

A new research paper has provided hard evidence that poor quality work can be worse for you than being unemployed. This was reported on by the Financial Times, which added that this would likely also worsen productivity [and thus the employers’ bottom lines!].

A recent study has exposed the huge decline in local welfare schemes in England. It includes the observation that this will not save money as the costs of the necessary later interventions will be much higher.

You can read David Webster’s full report here: 17-08 Sanctions Stats Briefing – D.Webster As he notes, the DWP’s statistics collection and publication still falls far short of the requirements of the United Kingdom Statistics Authority

The picture shows Dundee’s Trussel Trust Foodbank

If you thought you’d seen the last of these ’employability’ businesses…

A little mole has sent us the list of the organisations who have won the contracts for Scotland’s new training schemes that will start next April – and it’s horribly familiar. Not really a surprise because we knew who the Scottish Government have been talking to, but here it is in black and white. Of course the very fact that the Scottish Government continues to use the term ‘employability’, with its implication that people are unemployed not because of lack of jobs but because they are unemployable, is hardly encouraging. It is difficult to imagine that companies that moulded themselves to the box-ticking sanction-generating regime of the Tory Work Programme will have much useful to offer in the way of the genuine person-centred training we had been promised. The only – but very important – compensation is that this time these schemes won’t be mandatory or sanctionable. We must make sure that this is made clear to everyone involved so they know that they are free to leave if the training isn’t helping them.

The following is a direct quote from our anonymous mole’s email, as sent to us and other activists. The comments are theirs:

Full list of Fair Start Scotland providers is:

Edinburgh – Working Links (calling themselves Start Scotland and masquerading as a charity with the Lennox Partnership who have form for sanctioning)

Glasgow – People Plus (A4E)

Lanarkshire – Remploy (maximus)

Tayside – Remploy!!

Aberdeen – Momentum 

Reserved lot for ‘supported business’ – Wise Group who are NOT a supported business

South West – Working Links!!

Highlands Islands – People Plus!!

Forth Valley – Falkirk Council

[At least we’re spared our old friends at Triage! – SUWN]

 

Why didn’t they tell me there was a grant for that?

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What do you do if you have job interviews coming up for the kind of ‘front of house’ jobs where a neat appearance is absolutely essential, but you have no appropriate clothes or the money to purchase them? When Mark had posed this question to his so-called advisor, she casually replied, ‘just go like that’, before informing him that no clothing grants were now available for job seekers in his position. Needless to say, he was not best pleased with his advisor’s cavalier attitude, and, when we spoke to him, he was becoming worried that two forthcoming job interviews, on Friday and Sunday, would be compromised.

We offered to do a little research to see what help, if any, was still available for clothing needs, as this is a problem that unemployed people often face when searching for work. We contacted the local Welfare Rights office who informed us of two sources of help. The Dundee Clothing Project is based at Dundee House in North Lindsay Street. Those seeking help should approach the Dundee House reception where they can collect a voucher that allows them to select items of donated clothing from the project’s store at the Methodist Church, 20 Marketgait West, on Monday’s between 10-12pm and Thursday’s between 1-3pm. Help with clothing can also be sought through the Scottish Government funded Community Care Grant, for which you can apply by phoning the Scottish Welfare Fund on 01382 431188, but applicants are advised that there is a fifteen working day turn around for this grant.

In addition to our own researches, Mark made further inquiries at Dundee Jobcentre, and was informed by another, more helpful, staff member about the Flexible Support Fund. Guidelines for this fund are set locally. In Dundee it can provide jobseekers with a voucher for £64, comprising £30 for shoes, £20 for trousers and £14 for a shirt, which can be used in Matalan. We had also spoken to the CPAG advice line to draw on their expertise, but they didn’t initially find the Flexible Support Fund, despite a fairly extensive search of the internet, which underlines the considerable efforts that the DWP go to in order to conceal the full range of benefits that are available to those who are making every effort to get back into work. (An undercover report by Channel 4 actually exposed this as deliberate DWP policy) The Flexible Support Fund, as the name suggests, can be accessed for a wide range of requirements, including for things like travel expenses and training courses, as well as clothing for interviews. Here’s a link to some more information.

Mark’s was not the only major case we dealt with this week, although the stall was, thankfully, not as busy as the previous week. We also met Karen, a young woman in her twenties who is on Universal Credit, and who had just left her job because her working hours had been reduced from fifty to two hours per week – although there were also other issues relating to her treatment at the hands of a line manager who she believed was bullying her. Karen had just emerged from the Jobcentre where she had been told that they would not deal with her problem because she did not have appropriate identification. We advised Karen that she may well face problems as she will be viewed as having voluntarily left employment, and urged her to contact Welfare Rights asap so that they could take up her case. We would remind readers that whilst JSA claimants have the right to refuse jobs that offer zero hours contracts or very low working hours, those on UC are expected to accept such jobs and to continue to claim Universal Credit to make up their wages.

We also met John, a young man in his twenties who claims JSA, and who informed us that he has been paying the DWP back £18 per fortnight, from a £200 loan he had received from the DWP over two years ago. He strongly suspects that he has paid well over the odds, which, given the state of admin chaos in the DWP, would not be very surprising.  We advised him to approach Welfare Rights in order to investigate whether he DOES still owe the DWP money; and, if he is still in debt, to complete an income/expenditure form, which would detail his available income and thus enable Welfare Rights to re-negotiate the scale of re-payments – because £18 is far too much money to be paying back from the pittance of £73.10 that JSA claimants receive. We also advised John to request Welfare Rights conduct a benefit check on his behalf in order to ensure that he is receiving the full range of social security he is entitled to.

In addition to these cases, we dealt with a number of other less serious inquiries and problems on the stall, but we have also been kept busy with telephone and internet inquiries – including three on Monday, starting at 8.30 in the morning. These are not only from various parts of Scotland, but from as far afield as Nottingham.

Thanks to Norma, Jonathan, Davey, Gary and Duncan with helping out at this week’s stall.

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Sanctioned for signing off

graduation no background

Jamie came to the stall just as we were packing up. He had been told to find us because he had no money and didn’t know what to do. The problem began a year ago, just when he thought he was getting his life back together again – only he wasn’t aware of it at the time. The previous year he had had to drop out of uni (another story) and had signed on, but last autumn he was ready to go back to his studies. He phoned up the DWP to close his claim and was told all was OK. He thought nothing further of it until this June, after he had graduated, when he went to sign on again. He was then informed that he had been sanctioned for non-attendance after he had closed his claim. Actually, every advisor he spoke to seemed to have a different explanation of his situation – including one who told him he didn’t have an appointment when it was clearly on the screen in front of her – but the final consensus was that he is sanctioned for a further 160 days and it is too late to appeal. He was initially told that he wasn’t eligible for Hardship Payments either because he lives with his mother, but now that she has exhausted all her savings he has been allowed these. As he is on Universal Credit, Hardship Payments are actually a loan to be paid back out of future benefit payments, effectively leaving him on 60% of the already meagre benefit for 2 ½ times the length of the sanction. We are urging him to appeal this absurd but noxious sanction – including an explanation of why he couldn’t have appealed earlier – and to get support from his MP.

 

 

Mixing with politicians – what’s the point?

Holyrood

We spend a lot of time and effort responding to consultations, writing letters and meeting MSPs – so occasionally we need to take stock and ask ourselves why we are doing this and what we have achieved.

Politicians are the people who have the power to make and change laws, but they don’t do it just for the asking. Most politicians have pretty set outlooks and programmes, even if they have simply swallowed them whole from their party manifesto; and though they may be convinced that they are acting for the common good, that tends to coincide neatly with the party line. But outlooks and policies do change, and if politicians want to keep their job they have to respond, and be seen to respond, to the people who elect them.

Politicians are aware that most letters they receive represent the views of a much greater number of people; even more so when that letter comes from a group that engages with many others directly affected by their policies. But if they are to be convinced that this is the way the wider wind is blowing, then they will need more evidence of a change in public mood. That’s where all the other campaign activities come in. By raising awareness of current problems and political solutions, we can help change that public mood and build political pressure.

When we established the SUWN six years ago, it was a response to depressingly negative attitudes to the unemployed, led by the UK government and popular media. While the UK Government remains as callous as ever, there has been a noticeable upturn in public understanding and empathy. This is partly a consequence of increased exposure to the realities of benefit cuts and sanctions, but also of the actions of campaigning organisations such as ourselves. The Tories haven’t shifted, but developments in Scotland are more encouraging, and there have also been big shifts in the UK Labour Party.

The Scottish Government’s arrangement preventing their new training schemes to be made mandatory, and thus potential contributors to DWP sanctions, provides an example of a concrete and positive policy development that is a response to both campaigning pressures and more formal consultation processes.

At the moment the Scottish Government’s Social Security Bill is being put under scrutiny. We submitted a response to the initial consultation and also to the draft bill. Our views are based on our experiences with all the people we have worked with and helped. We don’t have the detailed political and legal knowledge, nor the resources, to go through the legislation with a fine tooth comb, but we can help publicise the findings of those who have: people such as Professor Paul Spicker, whose response we referred to in our own recent submission; and Justice Scotland, who have exposed the harsh rules proposed for people providing inaccurate information, which could end up criminalising people for making a mistake. (We had raised our concerns about this section, but had not appreciated that as written it was actually harsher than the current UK system.) We have even had constructive discussion with the Labour Party, who have raised important issues about enshrining the government’s much heralded statements, such as no use of private sector assessors, into law and ensuring mechanisms for continued scrutiny by parliament and users. (We say ‘even’ because if they had not campaigned against Independence we would not be in this mess, and if they had not gone against the promises of their own Vow and argued against the full transfer of benefits we would be able to make much more fundamental changes.) Clearly there is a lot of work still to be done to make the bill match up to the Scottish Government’s stated ambitions for it, and we will be following, publicising and criticising developments.

The main area in which the Scottish Government will take over the reins is disability benefit, what is now DLA and PIP. They have agreed that this should continue to be run by the DWP until their new system is ready to take over in two or three years’ time.  Whether the changeover could have been done differently is now only a matter for academic conjecture. We did try asking if at least the mobility bit could be taken over sooner, but were told that that was not possible. However, that doesn’t mean the Scottish Government can just abandon all those people who have lost out from the move from DLA to PIP, with its absurdly high bar to getting mobility payments. We asked about more help via the Scottish Welfare Fund but have just been told that there are no plans to raise the amount of money given to this.

Of course the attack on our welfare system comes from Westminster, and we fully acknowledge the contribution that the Scottish Government makes in mitigating some of the worst impacts of Tory austerity. We also acknowledge their plans for small extra payments to carers and small grants to families; but they can and must do more. The legislation allows them to top up benefits or add new ones; however, they have also resisted widely-supported calls for an additional £5 on child benefit. So long as finances remain constrained to existing levels, any gain in one area will be at the expense of another, so real substantial improvements will require a refocusing of priorities and a commitment to more – and more progressive – taxation. Although the Scottish Government’s tax powers are limited, it can make changes to income tax and it could introduce a Land Value Tax.

As campaigners we take every opportunity to look at the bigger picture and stress the need for a radical approach to a properly funded system based on progressive taxation. This doesn’t mean Scottish Labour’s scattergun approach of £1 on all income tax, but a proper progressive system that takes most from those who have most – and we are glad to see the Scottish Greens providing a constant reminder of this.

It has been heartening to see the SNP publicly acknowledging the need for a more radical programme. This is clearly a response to the public mood – and the disillusionment caused by their over-cautious approach, as demonstrated in the general election results. Many of their proposals are only at the level of discussion at this stage, but we would echo Patrick Harvey’s point of the need to push the SNP beyond their comfort zone. As more progressive ideas become normalised, we will push the Greens beyond their comfort zone too.

And finally (and apologies for such a long post) this afternoon, we have submitted the following petition to the Scottish Government Public Petitions Committee. We will let everyone know once it’s been passed as complying with petition rules and gone live:

CALLING ON THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT TO URGE THE SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT TO MAKE MORE MONEY AVAILABLE TO MITIGATE THE IMPACT OF TORY WELFARE CUTS THROUGH REASSESSING SPENDING PRIORITIES AND BRINGING IN MORE PROGRESSIVE TAXATION.

We have seen the huge difference made by existing mitigation policies such as the payment of Bedroom Tax and the help provided by the Scottish Welfare Fund. The situation is much worse south of the border. But that is not enough. Thousands of people are still struggling, and unless funding is increased any improvement in one area becomes a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. The Scottish Government have dismissed widely-supported calls for an extra £5 on Child Benefit, and they have turned down our call for additional support through the Scottish Welfare Fund for people who have lost out in the transfer from DLA to PIP as they wait for the new Scottish disability benefit to be brought in. Even without this, demands on the Scottish Welfare Fund are set to increase considerably as Universal Credit is rolled out to more and more areas. In addition, there is already insufficient money for everyone hit by the Benefit Cap to get help via Discretionary Housing Payments, and this will get much worse when Housing Benefit limits are extended to social housing in April. These are all crucial areas and the focus of vital campaigns, and underlying all is the need for more money.

 Our government has a political and moral duty to help the poorest in our society, and it can do this by taking more taxes from those with the biggest incomes and land-holdings. As if the human case were not enough, spending more on social security also makes sound financial sense as failure to provide help at this stage has major financial as well as human consequences. 

 

The Older Manual Worker and the DWP: SUWN Stall Report, 11 September  

dignity of labour

After the drama and excitement of Sunday’s anti-fash protest in Perth, it was back to the bread and butter on Monday morning. In sharp contrast to our experience last week, business was worryingly brisk. We were fielding questions and queries even before we had set up the stall, and were still answering queries whilst packing up the stall two very busy hours later.

Almost every case we dealt with involved older male manual workers, a group that has been particularly badly affected by the increase to the qualifying age for pension entitlement. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that the DWP are overseeing a system that amounts to a form of in-built discrimination against older manual workers with health problems. By the time that they are entering their fifties, many older workers are affected by serious and degenerative conditions, particularly, though not exclusively, arthritis, which are directly related to the stresses of long-term physical and often repetitive work. However, this group have also been disproportionately affected by the on-going DWP cull of ESA claimants, which means that many then face the twin tortures of Universal Credit (UC) and Universal JobMatch (UJM). This not only provides further opportunities for the DWP to sanction them for the crime of not being computer literate and/or au-fait with designing CV’s, but, by compelling them to work, it also effectively undermines their health with every passing day.

The first case we dealt with involved this very scenario, but with a nasty twist. When he was removed from ESA and forced to go onto Jobseeker’s Allowance while the DWP looked at his Mandatory Reconsideration request, Jim, who is in his late fifties, put in a thirteen week sick notice known as an Extended Period of Sickness (EPS). This is standard practice and something we advise as it removes the pressure to search for work whilst you wait for the Mandatory Reconsideration to be dealt with. On this occasion, however, his advisor informed Jim that if he handed the sick note in he would lose all of his benefits. This is contrary to the DWP’s own rules, which make it clear that someone who has signed onto JSA after being found ‘fit for work’ has to be treated like anyone else on JSA, including for sick notes. Jim, who struggles with a number of conditions including COPD and serious arthritis, was being forced to look for three jobs per week, whilst the stress attendant on the pressure he was being put through had exacerbated his ill-health. We have intervened successfully in cases of this kind before, and we offered to accompany him back into the buroo to sort out the issue with his advisor, however he has just put in for an appeal as his Mandatory Reconsideration has been turned down, so will be back on ESA as soon as that is registered.  It is very disappointing to see the buroo going back to this trick. Here are the rules for anyone else facing a similar situation.

As Monday’s stall graphically demonstrated, the roll out of Universal Credit still continues to cause mayhem for those caught in its web, with many folk expressing their concern at the possible impact of being forced onto UC. However, we would like to reassure folk that when areas come under the full UC roll out (it hits Dundee mid-November) it will not affect existing claims, only new claims and people whose circumstances change.

Bert, a fifty-five year old manual worker, had already been waiting six weeks on his first UC payment – we have come across folk who have had to wait much longer. He is now in serious debt, but had foregone the offer to take out a Short Term Benefit Advance (STBA) on his UC payments because he had reasoned – quite correctly – that this would only leave him short of money when he does eventually receive his payments. Despite his being totally reliant on friends and family to help him, the DWP have failed to inform him about the Scottish Welfare Fund grant scheme. In a situation such as his, we advise people to take out a STBA, and when that has run out to apply for a Scottish Welfare Fund grant. These grants are only given if you have been refused or already exhausted a STBA. They are non-re-payable and can prove vital in getting through the long wait before UC payments kick in. Whilst Bert was told that he should expect to be paid shortly, the current serious admin problems surrounding UC mean it could still be weeks before his payments start, and we advised him to follow our advice if the waiting game continues. In the meantime, however, he was experiencing real problems with using the computerised UJM system, a regular refrain we hear from many men and women of a similar age and working background.

UJM was also posing a problem for Geoff, an oil worker in his fifties, who had just started signing on for JSA following his redundancy. Work on the rigs is the only employment he has ever known, and, whilst he is keen to return to his trade as quickly as possible, he was already being put under pressure to apply for all kinds of inappropriate work through his claimant commitment and UJM. He told us that his best chance of getting work was through word of mouth from friends and ex-workmates who were alerting him to vacancies. We explained to him that word of mouth – e.g. through face to face conversation or via phone or social media – is a legitimate means of searching for work, according to the DWP’s own guidelines, but he had not been informed of this by his advisor who was, instead, determined that he fulfil his heavy job search commitments to the letter. We advised him to re-negotiate his job search commitment with his advisor, by underlining the inappropriate nature of the jobs he was currently being forced to apply for and signposted him to the SUWN website, which details the DWP wide criteria for acceptable forms of job searching. Someone who has previously done a skilled occupation should also be able to agree a ‘permitted period’ (from 1 to 13 weeks) during which they can restrict their search to jobs in their usual occupation and/or at their usual rate of pay.

Ronnie, another older worker, was involved in a complex and long-standing dispute with the DWP over an appeal on an unsuccessful ESA Work Capability Assessment (WCA) in July, which had followed an earlier WCA that had finally been resolved  in January. On that earlier occasion, he had received nine points, but was awarded ESA following a successful Mandatory Reconsideration (MR). He was rightly puzzled and vexed as to why he had failed to meet the criteria in July when he had done so in January, despite the fact that, if anything, his health problems had worsened over that time. His mood had improved, however, when he noticed that the award letter he received in July did not have the signature of the assessor, a clear breach of DWP operating procedures. He was now embroiled in a fresh appeal and was determined to take his case all the way, beyond the tribunal stage, if necessary.

Whilst we were chatting to Ronnie, he received a call from his pal, John, and the phone was quickly handed over to us. John had also been bumped from ESA, and had received no money for two months as he waited on the result of his MR. He had not applied for JSA, as he did not feel this was appropriate, due to his inability to work. This view is commonly expressed by many people in a similar position, and is undoubtedly the cause of much anxiety and hardship for those affected, whilst also saving the DWP a bit of money through people not claiming JSA – but at what cost?

We explained to John, that he would receive nothing whilst he waited on the MR and he SHOULD apply for JSA and submit an EPS, as with the first case detailed above. It is important for people in a similar position to understand that they should FIRST put in the MR, and only then make the claim for JSA, because if you don’t you are liable to end up on UC. We would also strongly advise people to phone their MR in rather than submitting it by letter. The vast majority of MR’s fail, as they are judged internally by the DWP themselves, and phoning your MR in means that it is likely to be dealt with much quicker, so you can proceed to the appeal tribunal stage in quicker time as well. There you are much more likely to succeed, as the tribunal is independent of the DWP.

In addition to the above cases, we also dealt with other less serious queries, but also a particularly complex case, which will be the subject of a separate report.