Author: LONDON UNEMPLOYED STRATEGIES

Giving claimants a voice – the Commission on Social Security

Last month saw the launch of the Commission on Social Security (CSS).

There are various much-needed reviews and consultations going on at the moment – including that being done by the Labour Party – asking people what they think a radical alternative to the current social security system should look like.

The key distinguishing feature of the CSS however is that it is claimant-led: all the commissioners (numbering around 20) have current or recent experience as claimants within the social security system.

This is reflected in the underlying principles the Commission has developed, and the resulting questions they are asking people to respond to.

For example, one of the key principles is to “make sure everyone has enough money to live – and support extra costs, e.g. to do with disability and children.”

Another states that the system should be “involving people who have actual experience of the issues, including from all impairment groups, in creating and running the system as a whole.”

Stemming from the principles, the Commission asks questions around core issues such as “What should be done about benefit sanctions?” and “how should the system work out who should get sickness or disability benefits?”

There are disturbing echoes here of the first major attempt in Britain to give unemployed workers an organised voice.
The second conference of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) in November 1921 in Manchester set out some key aims including

• Full maintenance of the unemployed at trade-union rates
• The abolition of “test” or “task” work for those in receipt of relief through unemployment
• The free unconditional provision of halls to enable the unemployed to meet
• Representation of the unemployed organisation on all employment exchange committees

Closest possible links between the NUWM, the trades unions and the Labour Party, were encouraged, for example to ensure the unemployed were not used as a “reserve army of labour” to drive down wages.

We say “disturbing echoes” since, nearly a century later, many of the NUWM issues raised seem similar and as radical as those included in the Commission’s review (or Call for Solutions as we have called it). This suggests that the status and plight of unemployed, sick and disabled workers has improved little or not at all during that time.

It almost goes without saying – but still needs to be said – that actual rates of benefits for claimants remain woefully inadequate to meet their needs. Regarding the issue of “tests” or conditionality for claimants to get what they need, this has clearly got worse in recent years.

Sanctions rates, at a huge peak a few years ago, were driven down partly thanks to campaigning groups such as Unite Community, Disabled People Against Cuts and our own project London Unemployed Strategies (LUS). But they have started to rise again in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out. Meantime the dreaded Work Capability Assessments have served to make life a living hell for many sick and disabled claimants who previously would have had more sympathetic responses from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to their situations.

As for unemployed representation at Jobcentre Plus level upwards (the modern equivalent of the “employment exchange committees” referred to by the NUWM), this sticks out all the more as a pipe dream. While the NHS constitution provides some legal obligation for it to consult patients over service development and delivery, the DWP has no such obligation to consult claimants directly – just a vague remit to consult their “representatives” which are defined by the DWP not as claimants themselves but as professional agencies such as Citizens Advice, Law Centres and so on. The idea that claimants can and should represent themselves, and have their views fully taken into account by the DWP has been a strong and ongoing campaign of LUS, which has been built into the Commission’s principles.

We do not have time here to go in depth into the role that trade unions can or should play in organising the unemployed. Clearly the NUWM of the 1920s was of the view that they should be organised independently but with strong links to organised labour.

This principle was then reflected in the surge of TUC unemployed workers centres in the 1980s, which did provide albeit briefly the physical space for the unemployed to meet and organise – one of the NUWM demands, which has again become a barrier today, given the price of renting rooms even within community centres.

More recently Unite has made great strides in recruiting unemployed workers directly into its Community section – a move which has not as yet been reflected in the policies of other large trade unions. Whatever one’s point of view, champions of the claimants’ cause welcome any initiative that can help them to organise and get representation, which should advance to self-representation and peer group support.

LUS has been instrumental in developing Stand Up For Your Rights Groups around London to this end, similar to the Claimants Unions which sprang up alongside the TUC centres in the ’80s. LUS supports the groups in getting their concerns and complaints expressed directly to the DWP at local and national level.

LUS therefore welcomes the initiative of the Commission on Social Security and is one of its co-chairs (alongside Ellen Clifford of Disabled People Against Cuts and Inclusion London). We invite all claimants and their supporters to visit the website http://www.commissiononsocialsecurity.com and click on the link near the top of the first page to fill out the online Call for Solutions form. The deadline for submissions is July 31.

If you want more information and/or you are interested in setting up your own Stand Up For Your Rights group then contact LUS on nickplus007@gmail.com/ (020) 7467-1283/07530 001653. Support offered is mainly London-based due to the nature of our funding (principally from Trust for London and the TUC London East and South-East region), though Unite Community should be able to provide support in other regions.

Nick Phillips is coordinator, London Unemployed Strategies and co-chair, Commission on Social Security.

 

ALMOST THREE QUARTERS OF PIP AND ESA CLAIMANTS WIN THEIR APPEALS

The success rate for PIP and ESA claimants appealing to a tribunal has risen again in the latest statistics published by the Tribunals Service.

An extraordinary 74% of claimants of both benefits won their appeals in the three months to March 2019.

For DLA, the success rate is now 66% and for UC 63%.

The figures represents a 3% rise for PIP wins from the same period last year and a four % rise for ESA.

The advantages of going on to appeal if your mandatory reconsideration (MR) is turned down are clear.

And with PIP MR success rates at just 18%, there is definitely a very strong chance you will be turned down.

So, it’s regrettable that both PIP and ESA appeal numbers are falling even as success rates rise.

ESA appeals are down by 39% from a year ago, whilst PIP appeals are down by 9%.

If you come across anyone who thinks that appealing is a waste of time, please do put them straight.

From BENEFITS and WORK:  https://www.benefitsandwork.co.uk/about-us

 

Universal Credit and modern slavery

Universal Credit and modern slavery
By Bernadette Meaden
JULY 18, 2018
Could Universal Credit facilitate modern slavery? It seems almost inevitable that it will, and not unreasonable to believe that it is already doing so.

If Universal Credit works perfectly as designed, claimants must wait five weeks for payment, during which time some people will have no income whatsoever. In reality, the wait can be very much longer. People borrow to survive. They can borrow from the government, by getting an Advance Payment, but this is deducted from their benefit when it is eventually paid, making a low income even lower.

So, far from being a solution, Advance Payments, or the need for them, are a part of the problem, which is why in Universal Credit areas debt can become such a big issue. People are turning to payday loan companies and in some cases, they are turning to loan sharks – who are by definition, criminals. In a 2017 survey on Universal Credit, housing providers noted “The reported increase in the presence of loan sharks within our communities is alarming, but sadly not surprising.”

But you can’t get blood from a stone. People with a very low or non-existent income cannot indefinitely keep up with demands for extortionate interest payments. So, what is the next logical step for a ruthless criminal? They take payment in other ways, perhaps in the form of sexual abuse, perhaps in the form of labour.

The England Illegal Money Lending Team (IMLT), a national team that investigates and prosecutes loan sharks, recently explained how becoming indebted to a loan shark can lead to modern slavery. In a blog How loan sharks are menacing victims and forcing them into modern slavery, they wrote: “Loan sharks are criminals who charge extortionate interest rates and use callous methods to force people to pay the money back. The IMLT have encountered victims being forced into prostitution, drug dealing, and illegal money lending by the loan shark.

“Debt bondage, also known as bonded labour, is the world’s most widespread form of modern slavery according to Anti-Slavery International.

“Debt bondage occurs when people borrow money they cannot repay and are required to work to pay off the debt, resulting in them losing control over the conditions of both their employment and the debt.”

This explanation of debt bondage was a guest post for the website of theClewer Initiative which aims to enable the Church of England to detect modern slavery in communities and help provide support and care to victims. It is funded by the Clewer Sisters, an order of nuns founded in 1852 to help homeless women who were drawn into the sex trade.

So a religious Order which was set up in the absence of a welfare state to help the victims of poverty and exploitation may now find itself indirectly helping people forced into modern slavery by welfare ‘reforms’.

And it seems clear that this is a growing problem. In May this year, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority reported that the three most common nationalities referred to them for labour exploitation were Vietnamese, British and Albanian, and that “In 2017, the number of British potential victims increased substantially (362 per cent)”. The numbers are relatively small at the moment, but only 10 per cent of benefit claimants are yet affected by Universal Credit. The mass migration of millions of people still on legacy benefits has the potential to create havoc, particularly for people with physical and mental health problems.

And sadly, when a family is tipped into poverty and debt, it is not only the adults who become vulnerable to exploitation. There is increasing awareness of the ‘county lines’ system run by organised criminals. As the Children’s Society explains, “County lines – or ‘going country’ – is when gangs exploit children, some as young as 12, to sell drugs across county boundaries…Gangs deliberately target vulnerable children, such as those in care or living in poverty.”

It seems inevitable that as Universal Credit rolls out, more adults will be driven into the arms of loan sharks and potential abuse and exploitation, and more children will fall prey to the criminal gangs just waiting to exploit their vulnerability. A country with a properly functioning welfare state, with true social security, would not leave its citizens vulnerable in this way.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Universal credit delays a factor in sex work, government accepts

Minister apologises for DWP memo dismissing link between long waits and survival sex work

Patrick Butler – Guardian

The government has dropped its hardline refusal to accept that destitution caused by five-week waits for universal credit payments has been a major factor in forcing some women to turn to sex work.

Giving evidence to the work and pensions select committee, the minister for family support, Will Quince, apologised for a memo his department sent to the committee last month and said it “did not very well reflect my views on this issue”.

The memo dismissed evidence that universal credit was a cause of increased numbers of women turning to sex work as anecdotal. It said the phenomenon was influenced by a range of factors, from drug addiction and the rise of AirBnB to EU immigration.

Quince told the committee he had changed his views after hearing accounts from four women who gave evidence of how impoverishment related to universal credit issues had led them to take up escort and brothel work.

“Those very brave testimonies of the young women who have gone through the most horrific of experiences gave me a better understanding through their lived experiences. What it showed me more than anything is we need to better understand this area,” he said.

A transcript of the private committee hearing in May included a testimony from M, a brothel worker. She said the fact that drug and alcohol drove people into survival sex work did not mean that universal credit had not caused “a really big influx”. She said: “It is particularly bad with universal credit because we have seen these huge waits, but the whole welfare system is stacked against us and it is pushing people into survival sex work.

“It is the long wait, it is the payments in particular that I think are really dangerous because when we apply for things like this we are in crisis already, like we don’t have the ability to wait, and sex work is the only real job you can go out and earn money that night.”

T, a care worker, who went into escort work after using food banks during a six-week wait for her first universal credit payment, said: “It is horrible to say, but it is the easiest thing to keep us girls alive.”

Another witness, K, said she had worked out she would be £200 a month worse off on universal credit. “I will sell my body. I want to tell this committee that there are a lot of girls out there just like me,” she said.

The committee also heard an unexpectedly positive, if qualified, endorsement of the recent report by the UN rapporteur Philip Alston, who last month called austerity cuts the “systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population”.

Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, responded at the time by saying the report was politically biased. She alleged that Alston did not do enough research, having only visiting the UK for 11 days, and said the government would complain to the UN.

Donna Ward, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) senior civil servant responsible for children, families and disadvantage, told the committee chair, Frank Field, that it had fact-checked Alston’s report, which had in passing referred to a rise in survival sex.

“He made a lot of good points. It was factually correct,” she said. “I think where the secretary of state took issue with it, and where I as a civil servant can’t be involved, was the political interpretation of a lot of what’s happened.

“But in terms of the facts, in terms of austerity, cuts to local government, in terms of the reliance that we have on the labour market and the risks we face if there is a recession – all of those things were really good points that we have taken on board, and we should take on board.”

Suicide note blamed Bromley Jobcentre

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BY TOBY PORTER – SOUTH LONDON PRESS (toby@slpmedia.co.uk)

The suicide note of a man on benefits who took his own life blamed a DWP official for allegedly putting the idea in his head. Martin John Counter, then 60, of Cotton Hill, Bromley, was being investigated over whether it was legal for him to claim sickness allowance while having a tax-saving account – an ISA.

He died on September 5, 2018 in his bed – his family believe after taking pills – and left a suicide note which named the official who mentioned suicide in a meeting with him.

He had been unable to work because of ME, psoriasis, and then in 2015 a perforated colon, because of which he had to be put in a coma for four weeks. He also had arthritis, for which doctors regularly prescribe methotrexate.

His suicide note said: “Thank you, [named individual] for putting suicide in my head. “I know I did not answer that question in my ISA but that was probably due to my post virol syndrome and that Dr G methatremte causing fatigue, exhaustion, lack of concentration.

“There was a breakdown at the face-to-face meeting when I did inform you of the ISA but I thought might be tied to the house. “I lose concentration when on the phone and work somewhat better face-to-face.

“I never have had a suicidal thought till you for some reason brought it up. Was it a twist of the knife? “If the ISA had been mentioned I would have stopped the claim, sold the house and moved to probably Eastbourne and invested the £1,500.00 and be on more money the ESA. I would have had to sort the house out in ill health to do it.
M Counter.

“So sorry to family and friends.”

Mr Counter had attended a meeting, under caution, on June 19, 2018 after Bromley’s Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) office found out he had an ISA.

He made a payment to the DWP of £24,000 in August – virtually all the funds in his ISA.

Mr Counter’s brother Alan has asked to know if he made contact with the DWP in August/early September, and the content of any emails or discussions, which he believes holds the key to his suicide.

Alan told the inquest on May 13 he believed the criminal investigation into Martin is what drove him to kill himself. He has asked on September 12, through the estate’s executor Angie Albrow, for a copy of the June 19 recorded interview.

The DWP has since denied receiving the request or Ms Albrow’s September 20 letter providing proof of her being the executor.

The coroner at Mr Counter’s inquest, Xavier Mooyaart, has now taken the highly unusual step of intervening on Alan’s behalf.

He has written to the Bromley job centre in Elmfield Road, saying: “While the reasons for Mr Counter’s decision to take his own life are outside my jurisdiction, I am concerned that his family’s requests for information have not only been addressed but apparently ignored. “I would be most grateful if you could provide them with all assistance and explanation possible.”

Alan said: “The Metropolitan Police had previously stated to me that without firm evidence they were unable to investigate further.

“The coroner said from the outset the purpose of the inquest was to determine the who, when and how but the why but not the cause of why Martin took his life.

“So I am very grateful for his intervention. I did not expect it. The police have also offered to raise the matter. I was very impressed with the reaction of everyone who heard what had happened.

But the DWP has been sitting on the matter for nine months now. If they have done this to me, how many others have they done it to.”

Martin’s MP, Janet Daby, has also written to the DWP following up Alan’s request for departmental date; and had a reply, dated April 10, 2019, from correspondence manager Mary Marshall.

We contacted the DWP on May 8 and were told on May 10 that a Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “Our deepest sympathies are with Mr Counter’s family. We cannot comment further ahead of the inquest.”

The day after the May 13 inquest we again contacted the DWP. There had been no reply by Tuesday so we called to pursue the query giving a deadline of 12.30 pm yesterday.

The response then was as follows: A DWP spokeswoman said: “Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Mr Counter at this difficult time.”

Concerning the documents Alan Counter had requested by recorded delivery but not been given, she later added: “As we haven’t got explicit consent, we can’t give you any more details re Mr Counter’s case.”

Unions and Claimants Demonstrate against Universal Credit

Trades unions, claimants groups and their supporters demonstrated outside Peckham Jobcentre last week (Friday) against Universal Credit.

The BBC are doing a series of  TV ‘specials’ in league with the DWP on the UC rollout. Peckham JCP is one of the few in the country (others in Liverpool and Manchester) that are being featured.

Nick Phillips, coordinator of London Unemployed Strategies, said: ‘It is important that the BBC does not do a whitewash job and ignores the voice of claimants. Trades unions, the voluntary sector and critically claimants themselves are here today in unison to say that Universal Credit is not fit for purpose. It needs to be scrapped or at the very least radically reformed to stop claimants further suffering.’

Benefits officials’ apology after mum’s suicide

Jodey Whiting
Jodey Whiting suffered multiple physical and mental health issues

The mother of a disabled woman who took her own life after some benefits were stopped has been given a personal apology by government officials.

Jodey Whiting, 42, from Stockton, had some payments halted after she missed a capability assessment because she was in hospital with pneumonia.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) later admitted mistakes were made and paid the family compensation.

Senior officials travelled to Teesside to explain what changes have been made.

Ms Whiting, a mother of nine, suffered multiple physical and mental health issues including curvature of the spine and a brain cyst, and took 23 tablets each day.

Following her death in 2017, an independent inquiry found that the DWP did not follow procedures, such as telephoning and visiting Ms Whiting after she missed the appointment.

Her mother, Joy Dove, who has been campaigning for justice, said the officials told her they felt they had to apologise in person.

She said they “seemed sincere”, but “apologies mean nothing, they won’t bring Jodey back”.

Joy DoveJoy Dove said she will carry on fighting for “justice for Jodey”

Mrs Dove said: “They said ‘we really want to tell you how for each of those failings, changes have been made’.

“They said they are going to make it so you can phone up and get every consideration over the phone, instead of having to go in.

“They are going to employ people from [mental health charity] Mind, they are going to get consultants, going to train staff, they mentioned 26,000 staff.

“They kept saying sorry for that, sorry for that, but in the end I said, ‘OK are you going to put it into writing?’ and they said ‘yes’.

“I said to them, if you’re putting it in writing, please put it in Jodey’s name so our daughter didn’t die in vain.”

The Department of Work and Pensions said in a statement: “Senior officials have met with Mrs Dove to apologise again for the failings in handling her daughter’s case and discuss the lessons learnt.

“We fully accepted the Independent Case Examiner’s findings earlier this year and have since reviewed and strengthened our procedures to ensure all vulnerable claimants are safeguarded.”

(from BBC News)