Life and death in Bilbao by the Tay

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Dundee was long treated very much as the poor relation amongst Scottish cities, a place left in the slipstream of history, with a reputation for poverty and drug and drink induced violence – a place to avoid at all costs. In the last few years, however, Dundonians have been increasingly treated to headlines in the local, national and even international media telling them that, following the city’s ‘transformation from run-down industrial relic to vibrant creative hub’ (Sunday Times, April 14 2019), they now live in some kind of post-industrial arcadia. I’m only surprised that we haven’t yet heard from a local ‘high heid yin’ or design guru that ‘we’ve never had it so good’.

I have news for readers of this blog: this myth of ‘transformation’ is treated with widespread contempt and often anger by ordinary Dundonians who feel as though they’ve been barred fae a perty taking place in their ain hoose. Many Dundonians have experienced ‘transformation’ – there is a list of companies paying good wages for skilled work, such as NCR, Michelin and McGills, that have closed down or have laid off the majority of their workforce. We hear from many older skilled manual workers who have struggled to re-train for insecure and low paying jobs in the service sector. And, being used to a sense of pride in their abilities and skills, some have been horrified at the offhand and contemptuous attitudes they face from much younger managerial staff.

When we meet those who have suffered recent redundancy and who are forced to go into a job centre for the first time in decades, they often express their sense of shock at the ‘transformation’ in the impertinent way in which they are now treated (by ‘work coaches’ young enough to be their grandchildren) and how little help is open to them after a lifetime of working. This is ‘transformation’ of a sort, but not the kind that is often spoken about by those who talk up the notion of Dundee as a city crammed with young, go-ahead, mocha-slurping creative types. They may be, indeed, be found in the west end of the city, or, the ‘creative quarter’, as it has been renamed, but there’s not much sign of them in the schemes, where the vast majority of the population still live – despite the best efforts of city planners whose idea of ‘regeneration’ bore an uncanny resemblance to the Highland, and Lowland, clearances.

For all of that, I’m sure there will be some readers who will dismiss this view as talking down good news, or else as a prolier than thou attack on the shiny new middle-class reality that is emerging on the banks of the silvery Tay. There will be those who will see the victims of continuing de-industrialisation as regrettable but inevitable ‘collateral damage’ in pursuit of the ultimate goal – the creation of Bilbao by the Tay. Fair enough, but consider this – if we are to accept the claims that Dundee has now been transformed, or even that such sacrifices are necessary as Bilbao by the Tay emerges from its chrysalis, what of those pesky statistics that tell a very different and much darker story about the reality of life, and death, in Scotland’s ‘creative hub’?

Not only does Dundee have the highest rate of unemployment in Scotland, it also suffers from the highest suicide rate. As welfare activists, we have direct knowledge and experience of this developing epidemic, dealing, as we do, with folk who are sometimes at the end of their tether – a problem we encounter particularly, though not exclusively, amongst young men. We are also aware of the very real potential for the under-reporting of suicides with death being attributed to other causes – an issue that has been raised with us by visitors to our stalls. Even as the ‘concrete skip’ that is the V&A was unveiled to the international press corps, RNLI boats and rescue helicopters were seen scouring the Tay for signs of the latest suicide attempt from a Dundee bridge. The assembled press corps didn’t even have to budge from the conveniently placed viewing platform at the V&A to watch the grisly search unfold, as it is positioned midway between both bridges and faces the river.

tay bridge closed

Our much vaunted ‘city of many discoveries’ also boasts a rate of deaths from drug taking that has seen it earn the, disputed, title of ‘drugs death capital of Europe’. Although local anti-drugs campaigners point to the 2018 figures as a cause for optimism – a decline from the 51 fatalities suffered in 2017 – in the six months between April and September 2018 alone, 14 people lost their lives. According to the local press;

‘[O]f those deaths, 12 were male and two were female. The majority of people who died were in the 40-49 age group. The DD4 postcode – which covers areas including Whitfield, Craigie and Maryfield – suffered the highest number of losses, with five.’ (Evening Telegraph, January 1st, 2019)

To round off the litany of despair that lies behind the gleaming façade of the new Dundee, we would point to the reports we are regularly receiving of increasing food bank usage in the city from folk who are in work. Skilled manufacturing jobs have, in the main, been replaced with zero-hour labouring in the gig economy. ‘Unskilled’ and service jobs have not only become a burden, but also an act of forced charity on the part of those caught within their trap towards the rich corporations that employ them. And, heaven forbid that they should refuse a job that doesn’t pay enough to feed and clothe them. If the zero hour worker leaves the job, they can expect little in the way of sympathy from their DWP ‘work coach’, and nothing in the way of material help.

Reality points, not to a city in the grip of a cycle of virtuous transformation, but one where working-class communities are suffering from deep social stress. Their aspirations have been dismissed and their plight ignored. Actually, it is much worse than this. The constant talking up of an already compromised form of top-down, corporate-led regeneration, is being used to mask the dark reality of a city that has for many years felt as though it is under siege. The current siege by ‘regeneration’ is only the latest in a long line stretching back forty years, courtesy of Tory voodoo economics, in its various blue and red varieties.

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Care workers tell yesterday’s May Day rally about their recent successful strike action and the constant pressures of working for a contracted-out service that only cares about the bottom line

 

 

 

 

When the DWP get their sums wrong

SUWN - April 26th 2019

A small mistake for the DWP is a big disaster for those affected. Sometimes, in recent weeks, the demand for our services has been lower than in the past. People are getting more savvy about the rules, and more confident about taking on the system by themselves. But this week’s stall proved exceptionally busy, and this report threatened to grow to epic proportions. And one key theme emerged from a selection of this week’s cases: the DWP seem unable to get basic calculations right.

Under the old system, Siobhan would have qualified for Working Tax Credits. Under the new system she has to claim Universal Credit. She’s been handing in her wage slips, but the DWP say she’s been earning more than that. The result of this is that the DWP are underpaying her. The stress of dealing with the DWP, on top of not getting her money, is making her suicidal.

While we were talking to Siobhan, Fiona emerged with a very similar problem. HMRC had calculated Fiona’s income over the previous two months, but the DWP had decided that same income was over one month, which took her over her allowed income. This cock-up meant she was short of money. The DWP weren’t budging. Fiona’s reaction was a different emotion. Instead of anxiety, she was justifiably apoplectic with rage.

Greg was having similar problems with the DWP refusing to listen. He was paying off a DWP loan at £170 per month. His debt advisor says the DWP shouldn’t be talking all that money off him, but they still are. We told him to get further advice.

In Steve’s case, his jobcentre Work Coach had actually told him he was owed £190, but to date the DWP have only paid him half of that. As a result, he is getting into arrears on energy bills. We directed him to Dundee Council’s Welfare Rights unit and the Dundee Energy Efficiency Advice Project (DEEAP).

Even when the system is getting it right, we have advice to give. Bill has recently been made redundant, and had gone into the jobcentre with his wife Julie. When they emerged, we were delighted to find that the jobcentre had, for once, given them the correct advice. We confirmed that Bill needed to apply for the six months contribution-based New JSA, and that Julie should qualify for Personal Independence Payment (PIP). And we sent them off with our standard warning about PIP: get a welfare advice worker to fill in the form with you; give them as much detail as possible, and take a witness into the assessment.

Just as we were about to pack up, a young man emerged. He said he’d had no bother with the jobcentre but asked, “Would you like some chocolate eggs?” With our faith in humanity restored, we packed up the stall, and headed off to our usual pub for a well-deserved coffee.

Tony, Duncan, Jonathan, Cait, Ronnie, and Norma were at this week’s stall.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get

rescaled

This week’s report involves a recent case that came to us via email, which raised issues that have become all too common since the introduction of Universal Credit (UC). We reproduce below the initial inquiry from Alan, which is not only well written, concise, but also a model of clarity;

‘I have been helping a friend by accompanying him to his Job Coach interviews. Unfortunately, during an interview I couldn’t attend, they got him to update and sign his job search commitment to include job coach recommendations. He has since been sanctioned for not going to an Open Day at XXX Hotel. He says that the updating of his commitments occurred after The Open Day.

He suffers from Vestibular Disorder and, although his health has improved, he has problems with balance and also standing for a long time. He therefore has not been applying for jobs like bar or waiting work that he knows he could not do. In my opinion it is clear he has other mental issues though he does not see this himself. His doctor gave him a line recommending part-time work only. He has asked for a mandatory reconsideration of the sanction and a new job coach.

During a job coach interview that I attended Colin was told that if he did voluntary work, the hours he did would be taken off his job search hours commitment and that he could get travel time deducted as well. During the job coach interview before he was sanctioned, the job coach reneged on this and told him none of the hours would count.’

After a phone conversation with Alan, we arranged to phone Colin to discuss the case with him and our strategy, and also arranged to meet him fifteen minutes before his appointment with his new ‘job coach’. Colin is very keen to get off Universal Credit and back into the world of paid work, but, as he realises himself, he should really be treated as ‘having a limited capability for work’. Like countless others, however, he had failed his ESA Work Capability Assessment (WCA), and was now expected to meet the full job search demands. Our strategy, therefore, centred on renegotiating his ‘claimant commitment’ so that his job search hours would be reduced, his voluntary working hours deducted from his job search hours, and that he would not be expected to take work that meant long periods of standing – such as the bar jobs he was ‘recommended’ to apply for and which led to him being sanctioned.

With all the problems that Colin had experienced with his previous ‘job coach’, who appeared to view him as little more than sanction fodder, Colin was understandably nervous about going into the buroo. We attempted to put his mind at rest, assuring him that everything would be fine, and that he would probably notice a big change in the attitude of his new ‘job coach’. And, as we had predicted, the new job coach could not be more helpful, and all of the changes we proposed were agreed to in what was a very pleasant and productive half hour. Of course, it should be totally unnecessary, for Colin – or any other claimant – to be accompanied into meetings with their ‘job coach’ by a SUWN volunteer in order to have the issues and problems they raise to be taken seriously. The major lessons that claimants should take from this ‘wee victory’, however, is that if you are in a similar position to Colin and have recently failed a ESA WCA, this doesn’t mean you have to simply accept everything that your ‘job coach’ demands of you as a UC claimant. Most of all, remember the old adage – if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

The names of all people in this report have been changed to ensure their anonymity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Labour Farce Survey

call on at the docks

Waiting for casual work – before mobile phones

If you are so inclined, the Labour Force Survey statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) are always interesting reading. Even more interesting is how those statistics are collected and manipulated.

One recent rumour we heard was that if you work for an hour a week, you are officially classed as employed. The ONS recently confirmed to the BBC that this was indeed the case. However, the BBC go on to state that “The ONS data shows that the number of people usually working six hours or fewer a week is just 1.4% of the UK working population – or just over 400,000 people, which compares with a total of 32.4 million people in work.” (BBC NEWS, 21/11/2018).

Of course, the fact that a ‘mere’ 400,000 people are working less than 6 hours a week says nothing about those worker’s needs or intentions.  It says nothing about how many of those people would work more hours if they had the opportunity. There is also the wider issue of part time working in general. Even those working part time for 16 hours a week, may desire more hours, where none are available.

Another problem with the statistics is that they do not include those on disability benefits. These are classed as ‘Economically Inactive’. Such people are not included in the figure for the ‘unemployed’. To quote the ONS: “Economic inactivity measures people without a job but who are not classed as unemployed because they have not been actively seeking work within the last four weeks and/or they are unable to start work within the next two weeks.” Again, this says nothing about the reality of workers in this position.  We in the SUWN are completely against attempts to force the disabled and ill off meagre benefits and into work; but we have come across many people claiming sickness benefits who would love to be able to work if suitable jobs were available – and if trying out a return to work could be done without risking the loss of disability benefit.

The self-employed also present a similar problem. We know from personal experience that many who are freelancing, or self-employed, would love more work, or to be contracted by a formal employer. These formal jobs are not always available, or where they are available, are not located in the right areas.

Finally, another piece of food for thought: The March 2019 bulletin claims that there were 1.34 million unemployed between November 2018 and January 2019, (using the narrow definition of the ONS). There were 854,000 vacancies between December and February. Even if those vacancies were magically filled, that leaves a deficit of 465,000 jobless.

References:

BBC NEWS, 21/11/2018. Reality Check: Can you be ’employed’ for one hour’s work? [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46264291]

Office for National Statistics. Labour Force Survey, March 2019. [https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/uklabourmarket/march2019]

The birdman of Dundee buroo (when boredom is good)

Last week’s stall passed almost completely without incident, which is such a rare occurrence we thought it merited a headline. The blustery spring weather undoubtedly contributed to keeping business to a minimum: the breeze was so bitter that a guy I spoke to complained it was ‘stripping the skin affa my puss’, and driving hailstones forced us, on a couple of occasions, to cover up the stall and seek out corners of the buroo that offered any kind of shelter, however minimal. It is little wonder that folk, rushing by with hoods up and heads down, were reluctant to stop and chat.

However, there are some who, irrespective of the weather, conspicuously ignore us when we ask them if they’re having any problems. They pass quickly by staring fixedly into the middle distance, often with a muffled tune emanating from their headphones. Whilst this annoys some of our activists, being ignored is actually a good sign, as the folk that are guilty of it are unlikely to have any pressing issues that need to be addressed. Others answer us with another question, ‘why should I hae problems when meh work coach is braw and ahm daen ahin ahm supposed tae’.

There has, indeed, been a marked improvement in the attitude of many Dundee Jobcentre staff towards welfare claimants – which we would claim some credit for – but, despite doing everything required of them, many claimants can still end up entangled in the UC spider web.

We also meet some folk who pointedly refuse to take the ‘Know Your Rights’ leaflet that we offer them when going into the buroo (including staff, who, as we often remind them, can also be sanctioned). On more than one occasion we have had guys (it’s always young guys) informing us, ‘I ken mah rights, pal, ahll well soart them if they gie me ony shite’, only to have them re-appear fifteen or twenty minutes later complaining bitterly and loudly that ‘ahv jist been bloody sanctioned’. Other folk tell us that they already have a leaflet pinned on their fridge, but take one to pass on to friends and/or relations. And, it is always gratifying to hear, as happens regularly, that the leaflets have helped folk sort out problems on their own, without our aid.

So, what do welfare activists do on the stalls when it is quiet? Firstly, few of our stalls can be described as ‘quiet’: familiar faces and freends and comrades often stop by for a bit of advice or simply for the craic and to pass the time. The stalls can often become a debating forum, sometimes involving dodgy conspiracy theories that passing ‘local worthies’ insist on regaling us with. Debates often develop amongst us activists as well, covering a wide diversity of subjects from Brexit to the mating habits of herring. And, of course there’s always the doos’ to feed, courtesy of the birdman of Dundee buroo.

Duncan, Jock, Norma, Tony, Gary, Jonathan and Katie were on this weeks stall.

Fear and self-loathing on Universal Credit

fear and loathing

Being on the front line of welfare reforms, we are constantly made aware that the founding aims of the welfare state are being turned on their head. People pay taxes and National Insurance contributions towards a system that once protected them, but now turns on them when they need it most, and then reduces them even further rather than raising them up. Denis Curran, the inspirational founder of Loaves and Fishes, damningly observed that the most insidious aspect of the Tory welfare reforms was not sanctions, hellish as they are, but the way that the DWP were getting inside the heads and messing with the minds of the very people they had a duty to care for. We see evidence of this at almost every stall, and recent experiences strongly suggest that the problem will worsen as UC takes further root.

We are coming across too many people who blame themselves for the problems that commonly ensue when a person goes onto UC. Some folk beat themselves up because they don’t know how to use a computer; others describes themselves as ‘stupid’ when forgetting about an appointment, and accept responsibility for getting themselves sanctioned. But, should we be surprised? When folk who have next to nothing are relentlessly berated to stand on their own two feet and to take responsibility, when they are often at their wits end, it is little wonder that some give in to fear and loathing.

Ingrid, in her late twenties, perhaps early thirties, started to break down when recounting how her husband had died two years ago. She was completely bereft, and embarrassed that she has had to move back in with her mother, who is also on UC, but has no bed to sleep on. We advised her to approach Shelter or CAB and to ask to apply for a crisis grant through the Scottish Welfare Fund. At the same time as we were dealing with Ingrid, Robert introduced himself to us. Robert had been turned down for a Welfare Fund crisis grant and was without any money, gas or electric as he awaited a decision on his UC claim. We could, at least, arrange a food parcel for him, courtesy of Taught by Muhamad. Truth to tell, I did not get the full details of Robert’s case, as the stall was busy and we were juggling two or three cases at the time. I do, however, remember the look on his face, as it is one we are seeing a lot of: a mixture of puzzlement, resignation, fear and loathing – the look of someone on the verge of giving up.

Our message to people in this situation is simple – remember that you are not on your own. We will provide support and info on the help folk can access to improve their position, but the most important service we can provide is instilling confidence in folk to represent themselves, so that they can break out of the isolation that often follows in the wake of unemployment and disability.

Duncan, Katie, Jonathan and Tony were on this week’s stall.

Papers please!

19-03-20

There’s an old German joke: Three government bureaucrats are in a room, but only one is actually doing anything useful. Which is it? Answer: The desk fan. Dealing with the DWP’s bureaucracy is a constant theme in the cases we encounter, and this week’s stall was no exception.

Adam, who is on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), had attempted to hand in an indefinite sick line, but the Jobcentre hadn’t accepted it. The guidance for issuing ‘fit notes’ says that doctors cannot give a note for more than three months unless their patient has already had their condition over six months. Three months is also the maximum length of time that a person can be counted as unfit for work and remain on JSA. Adam’s doctor may not have looked up the rules, but that was hardly Adam’s fault. However, he wouldn’t have been given a ‘fit note’ if he didn’t need one, so there is no obvious reason why the jobcentre couldn’t have allowed the note to run for the three months. (If, after that time, Adam is still not well he will have to apply to be treated as unfit for work on a more long-term basis through the Universal Credit system.)

Rob was also having problems with paperwork. He needed to provide identification. If you don’t have the money to pay for a passport or driving licence, what do you use? This is an increasing problem, and one that we need to stay on top of. We advised Rob to approach the council, as anyone who is a council tenant or otherwise has dealings with their local council you should be able to get a National Entitlement Card.

Paperwork is not the only problem. More than one claimant has fallen foul of unintelligible regulations. Kevin claims Carer’s Allowance (CA). He approached us asking if we knew how many hours he could work without invalidating his claim. A call to CPAG provided confirmation that you are allowed to earn up to £120 per week, but there are, however, no specific restrictions on how many hours you can work. Kevin was over this £120 limit and had been called into the Jobcentre. Carers Allowance rules are complicated. If you earn over the limit you can lose your allowance for that week, but if you have irregular earnings it should be possible for these to be looked at over a period and averaged out. Faced with impenetrable regulations, Kevin had fallen foul of them. We wished him good luck as he headed upstairs.

Universal Credit (UC) has been widely criticised for its delayed first payment, which forces people to take a Benefit Advance – a loan that they have to repay from future UC instalments. Gordon is struggling to repay his loan as he now has £100 less a month than he would have otherwise. Jackie had to leave her job as a barmaid. She has had to put half of her £400 loan towards paying the rent.

UC is adding to people’s mental health problems. Martin left teaching after struggling with work-related stress. If that weren’t enough, UC is also contributing to his anxiety. He is now in the ridiculous position of having to claim limited capacity for work, as a direct result of the added pressure of constantly being forced to look for non-existent jobs under UC.

While the SUWN’s work outside Dundee’s jobcentre continues, we also get enquiries from all over Scotland. Mhairi asked for our help with her case. Her description of her treatment by the staff in Paisley jobcentre was appalling. The SUWN can claim some credit for the changed attitude of staff in Dundee, but Mhairi’s case reminds us that overall the job of changing attitudes is far from done.

Tony, Norma, Ronnie, and Duncan were at this week’s stall.

 

 

‘Will I be sanctioned?’

SUWN stall - 13th March 2019

This is a question we are often asked, sometimes from folk who have been through the sanction mill before, but often from those who have not – a stark reflection of the climate of fear that surrounds the whole experience of being in need and seeking your legally entitled right to welfare. In this instance the question came from Maureen. She was on the verge of tears when we met, fearing a sanction for the heinous crime of applying for more jobs than was required for her UC online journal. We struggled to put her mind at rest by assuring her that she wouldn’t be sanctioned and by reminding her that she wasn’t on her own – that if she ever was sanctioned then we’d make sure the DWP would be publicly embarrassed and the sanction quashed. She was due to attend a meeting with her job coach but felt confident enough to go in without being accompanied by a SUWN volunteer. When she reappeared around half an hour later her broad smile confirmed that all had went well.

We have also met a few folk who have been recently made redundant following the closure of McGills, the Dundee based building firm. Andy had worked there for twenty nine years, and admitted to the shock of now having to manage on a £73.10 p.w. JSA payment. He also revealed that he and others had not yet received their pay in lieu of notice, which amounts to a statutory payment of three month’s wages, and that, thanks to a recent change in the law, he was now limited to twenty year’s state pension entitlement. The stormy weather at the buroo was a perfect mirror of Andy’s mood, whilst his views of the Tories are pretty much unprintable.

Gordon is on ESA, and is having issues with the DWP, which claims that he is living with his girlfriend, when he is actually sofa surfing as he doesn’t have a permanent address. He made a statement to the Job Centre, took one of our leaflets and admitted that he may well have to contact us if the DWP continues to pursue him. Needless to say, we hope that we don’t hear from him.

Jim has recently been made homeless, and now lives in a hostel and has no money of his own. He has asked for a payment from the Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF), but has been denied. As UC is being allowed to do its worst, this is becoming an increasingly common and alarming problem. Currently, individual claims for SWF grants are normally limited to three per year, and there are similar restrictions on entitlement to food parcels. But, this is proving totally inadequate for many folk, who, no fault of their own, find themselves struggling to subsist for sometimes months on end, as a result of having to pay back UC loans, being sanctioned, and the inevitable and far too common bureaucratic mistakes made in administering the unworkable UC system. More money and more flexibility for the Scottish Welfare Fund was one of the central demands of our petition to the Scottish Government, so it is more than frustrating to see the need for this proved again and again, especially as this particular demand was supported by the parliament’s own Social Security Committee. If folk who are left without the means to keep body and soul together are to be denied even the aid of food parcels and Crisis Grants then we refuse point blank to condemn them for having to steal to survive.

Duncan, John, Kait, Jonathan and Tony were at this week’s awfy blawy stall.

 

Thuds on the doormat

suwn letters pic

It is always difficult to tell how a PIP or Work Capability Assessment went. No matter how you feel when you come out of it, it all depends on the faceless decision maker buried somewhere in the DWP’s bureaucracy. Rather like a school exam, you go in, do what you have to do, and then try not to worry about it until the decision thuds onto your doormat. Certain clues on an envelope give an indication of the contents. A return address of “Mail Handling Site A, Wolverhampton”, or “DWP, BELFAST” has undoubtedly struck fear in many claimants.

The SUWN has come across many people who have been given “null-points” after an assessment, when they are clearly unfit for work. This seems particularly to be happening with claimants who are being reassessed while still on the old-style ESA. After such a decision, claimants are then forced onto the harsher regime of UC in order to survive. Even if an Appeal against the decision succeeds, they are then stuck with being on UC. (To paraphrase our current leaflet, if your application was under the old ESA system, consult a welfare advisor before applying for UC, as you could be worse off in the long run.)

Appeals have a good success rate. Around two thirds of appeals rule in favour of the claimant. This suggests that at least that number of initial decisions are wrong, which is deeply worrying.

The SUWN frequently accompanies people into PIP and Work Capability Assessments. We are currently awaiting on the outcome a few of these. A recent blog post highlighted Andy’s hour long wait for his appointment. Joyce, at the same assessment centre, was seen within minutes. Her appointment lasted less than half an hour, as the assessor seemed to think there was more than enough information. We will see, if this is a good sign. Incidentally, the toilet in that assessment centre still seems to be out of order, as it has been on the last three occasions at least.

Janet went into a PIP assessment a few days later. Janet’s experience was different again. She was in her appointment over an hour. The nurse seemed new to the job, and even helpful. We cannot fault the thoroughness of Janet’s assessment, however, the experience was incredibly tiring and gruelling for both her and her SUWN advocate. It would be tempting to suggest that it went well. Certainly, she is deserving of higher rate PIP, but as noted above, you can never tell until the DWP’s decision lands on the doormat.

Enough to make Sisyphus weep

Sisyphus

One of the most common issues we come across at the stalls is the problems that folk experience after they fail their ESA re-assessment, and are forced into applying for UC. We have come across dozens of such cases since the introduction of UC, and the last stall proved to be no exception.

We met Linda, a 58 year old woman forced to give up her much cherished job as a lollipop woman after she was diagnosed with epilepsy, which added to problems she was already experiencing with her legs and stomach. Despite her obvious health problems, Linda, like countless others, was recently removed from ESA, placed on UC and deemed ‘fit for work’.  Since then she has battled mounting anxiety as the JC has increased pressure on her to find work, not least since many of the jobs they are asking her to apply for are clearly looking for younger and fitter folk. According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was forced to roll a rock up and down the same hill for eternity. And, it appears as though the DWP have now adapted and up-dated this tale of eternal punishment in their approach towards the disabled and those clearly unable to work.

The strain she is experiencing was readily apparent by her distressed state when we met her. She also informed us that her epileptic attacks are becoming more frequent, around once every week at the moment, and, very worryingly, they are also becoming more severe. Having been bumped from ESA, she now faces a further strain on her already frayed nerves in the shape of a forthcoming assessment to be classed as unfit for work within the UC system. We assured her that we would accompany her in to her assessment, and that we would take her case up with the JC, and also suggested that she contact Shelter so that she can get a full benefit check, as she now has much less money since being put onto UC. Needless to say, we will be taking a close interest in this case.

UPDATE – 6th March:

Linda has reported back with the good news that her case may well be moving towards an unexpectedly quick and successful conclusion. During a phone conversation with her ‘work coach’ earlier this week, she mentioned in passing that she had also sought help from the SUWN regarding her forthcoming Work Capability Assessment. A few minutes later the ‘work coach’ put Linda on hold to check something on the computer. When she returned, she promptly informed Linda that a mistake had been made, and she didn’t actually have to attend the Assessment as she had been declared ‘unfit for work’ on the basis of her completed claim form. Linda was understandably delighted with this surprising turn of events, but questions still remain to be answered: first, if she has qualified where is her award letter? Second, will she now be freed not just from looking for work but also from being forced to undertake ‘work related activities’ – and receive an extra £37 a week? We will keep readers informed of the progress of this case, but we are confident that it will be resolved in Linda’s favour.

We also met Bob who had just lost his father, and had put himself into serious financial difficulties paying off the funeral costs. Following a quick phone call to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), we confirmed that, despite having already paid out the money, Bob was still eligible for a grant towards funeral expenses. Indeed, those affected can apply up to six months after the death of their close relative, by completing a SS200 form. We also arranged a food parcel for Bob, and urged him to apply for a Scottish Welfare Fund grant, and accompanied him into the buroo for his scheduled meeting with his ‘work coach’, which he was very nervous about. As we expected, however, the JC staff we dealt with were pleasant and helpful; but, being pleasant (as welcome as it is after years of sometimes open conflict) is no alternative to actually paying claimants more than a pittance and subjecting them to lengthy sanctions for the slightest ‘misdemeanours’. Bob, who was still grieving the loss of his father, confided that he had not eaten a proper meal in two weeks, but all the JC could offer was a referral for the same food bank that we had already spoken to and information on the Scottish Welfare Fund, which we already had covered. It seems sickly and ironic that JC staff now refer people to food banks, when it is invariably the inhuman and unsustainable system they administer that is chiefly responsible for leaving folk in desperate circumstances in the first place.

Finally, we also met Gary, in his thirties, who had just been sanctioned. Gary had been homeless and had missed an appointment at the buroo, which he didn’t find out about as there was no way of contacting him. He had subsequently been informed that being homeless and having no phone was not deemed a ‘reasonable excuse’ for missing the appointment. And, despite the fact that he now has a flat, he admitted that he was still on his ‘dowp’: he had no electricity or gas at home, no money, and had already had his ‘annual quota’ of Scottish Welfare Fund grants and food parcels. In fact, Gary had barely anything apart from the clothes on his back. We urged him to approach Shelter, and offered to take him there, but he knew the way, and he departed with one of our leaflets and our best wishes.

Duncan, Norma and Tony were on this week’s stall.