Universal credit has caused untold hardship. But the worst is yet to come

To a politician, bad policy may be an inconvenience. To someone like Mike, it feels like “sinking”. The 49-year-old is one of half a million people currently going through the universal credit system: the Conservatives’ ongoing flagship “welfare reform” that’s set to be radically extended this autumn.

Money is tight since he had to stop working and his wife’s wage as a teaching assistant has to stretch for them and their two teenage girls. But because they live in what’s already a universal credit area, Mike and his wife aren’t eligible for the family element of working tax credits – a bureaucratic reform that’s the difference between being able to pay the mortgage or not. If they were less than 30 miles down the road in Norwich, the family would be £550 a month better off. Instead, they’re maxing out the credit cards and reaching the bank’s overdraft.

Mike is frantic about finding money to pay for his multiple medications, but it’s buying presents for his daughters’ landmark birthdays – 13 and 18 this year – that’s playing on his mind. The important things, he says, feel all the more important now. He’s cancelled his gym membership he needs to ease his injury but it means the pain is worsening: nowadays the cycles last longer and come faster. The family’s washing machine is leaking but they can’t afford to fix it. “If this goes on much longer, we’ll have to choose between buying food or fuel.”

When welfare secretary David Gauke said this week that universal credit is “transforming lives”, it’s unlikely he meant through hunger and pain. It’s reflective of the scale of damage universal credit is causing that Gauke spoke out in response to fears from Labour MPs that – with many areas switching to universal credit in November and December and the infamous “six week” wait for a first payment still in place – families would be destitute in the run-up to Christmas. Hungry and cold children. Poor parents fearing an eviction notice. This is some incompetent 21st-century parody of Dickensian public policy.

Since it was launched in 2013, universal credit has been riddled with colossal design flaws, with delays announced seven times and a mounting price tag of £16bn. It’s the same “act first, think later” approach to so-called “welfare reform” that is seeing the Conservatives simultaneously order the mass retesting of every disabled person on out-of-work sickness benefits. On top of universal credit cuts, Mike has fallen victim to this, too.

This summer, he was told to undergo the infamous work capability assessment in order to get his benefits. Answering some questions off a screen – say, the fact Mike told the assessor he could lift an empty cardboard box – was enough to have him ruled “fit for work” and shut out of the “out-of-work sickness” component of universal credit. Talk to Mike on a day when he’s in so much pain he can’t get out of bed and he can’t understand how a benefits system could do this. “If I could work I wouldn’t have left a job I loved,” he says.

Logic, let alone decency, apparently has no place in any of this. The government’s own former welfare minister, Lord Freud, admits that the design failures in universal credit are causing one in four low-income tenants to run up rent arrears and risk eviction. Meanwhile, the link between universal credit and starvation is so clear that in areas where the full rollout has taken place, food bank referral rates are running at more than double the national average.

Consider, though, that this is happening before the universal credit system has had to deal with anything close to the pressure it soon will. Relatively speaking, the rollout of universal credit so far has been steady and simple: initially, only those with the most straightforward claims – standard jobseekers – were included and in highly limited areas. From May 2016, more complex cases – such as people with disabilities – were introduced but still, only at a tiny proportion of jobcentres. Yet in the next couple of months, 50 new areas of the country will all at once become universal credit territory. That’s hundreds of thousands of unemployed people and low earners at the mercy of a defective system: those citizens who, by definition of needing universal credit, are the most vulnerable to financial shocks.

In total, a staggering eight million households are due to be transferred to the new system by the end of its rollout. This is a recipe for, at best, bureaucratic chaos and at worst, widespread economic hardship. Party politics aside, any politician worth their salt would look at the damage already being caused by universal credit’s mix of flaws and cuts and hit the pause button. Instead, the government is pressing ahead regardless. Ministers may indeed want to look away. The biggest social policy disaster in modern British politics could be coming.

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Poundland ‘gets jobless to work for free under government scheme’

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Poundland has been criticised for employing jobseekers, without pay, for up to two months under a deal with the government.

Several of those who have worked on the scheme told the Guardian they had worked up to 30 hours a week for at least three weeks stacking shelves in Poundland. They were told that the work experience was voluntary but one said: “I had no say in it really.”

It’s not clear how many jobseekers have been used by Poundland under the scheme as the government said it did not collect information centrally and the work experience was managed locally by jobcentres across the country. However, one store in Bolton has taken on 21 placements since last August, according to information provided in response to a freedom of information request by the Boycott Workfare pressure group. more

“Considering it is supposed to be work experience you’d think they would teach you how to work the till. But we have just been stacking shelves all day,” one person on the scheme told the Guardian.

More than one work experience participant in Bolton said that their local jobcentre had provided a bus pass to cover travel expenses and suitable clothing – of black trousers and a polo shirt. Poundland paid no wages and made no other contribution. Participants said they were not provided with any paperwork to record the time they had spent in a store.

All the participants contacted by the Guardian said they had been told they needed to do work experience by a “work coach” at their local jobcentre. The coach selected Poundland from a list of potential employers.

Poundland said it had signed a deal in January with the Department for Work and Pensions, which oversees the Jobcentre Plus work experience programme, to take jobseekers on work experience on condition that this was voluntary and not part of any benefit assessment.

It said the programme was designed to “help provide a taste of the world of work” largely for 18- to 24-year-olds with placements lasting between two and eight weeks and for between 25 to 30 hours a week. Those taking part continue to receive their benefits and store managers had been explicitly briefed that volunteers could not replace any paid employment.

“This is not work experience, this is work – and Poundland should pay for it,” said Tanya de Grunwald of the Graduate Fog website, which first revealed the existence of the Poundland work experience scheme.

A spokesman for the retailer said Poundland did not participate in work programmes such as workfare that could lead to benefits being withheld from participants. It said a number of work experience workers had been given a permanent job, but could not say exactly how many.

In 2013, the chain was at the centre of a legal action against the government by Cait Reilly, a geology graduate, who won a case arguing that it was unlawful to force her to work for free at the budget chain as a condition of her claiming jobseeker’s allowance.

A spokesman for Poundland said: “We’re sorry some of the people you spoke to felt their time with us wasn’t worthwhile. Our stores try hard to make it a positive experience and we know it has been for many. We’re always open to being told directly how to make it better.”

 

  • A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “It’s important that all opportunities – including those in the retail sector – are made available to jobseekers to help them move towards permanent work. Work experience is entirely voluntary and gives people the chance to increase their skills and gain vital on-the-job experience, something that businesses really value.”
  • It said that, ideally, claimants should complete only one work experience opportunity, although it is not clear whether this happens in practice.

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The Tories’ vindictive and expensive fight to deprive disabled people of benefits is a national disgrace

One multiple sclerosis sufferer lost her amazingly generous personal independence payment of £87 per month because she was able to squeeze someone’s thumb.

If a genie popped out of a lamp one night while I was setting about it with the Brasso and offered one wish in the field of political reform, it would be this. “Henceforth, the government must explain itself to a bright seven-year-old. If after 15 minutes the kid is scratching her head muttering, “But that’s just silly” or “Why are you being so horrid?” the policy is instantly revoked.

How would the Prime Minster explain to that kid why last year the Government wasted a bare minimum, though probably much more, of £39m in legal costs fighting challenges to benefit reductions or denials from the sick and disabled?

What would she tell the little moppet when asked why she wants to take more money from people who have very little and are not well enough to earn more? How would she justify the Government having already paid some £600m to two private firms, Atos and Capita, to do the dirty work for it?

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If that strikes you as childishly simplistic, so it should. Since David Cameron came to power in 2010, the abuse of the disabled and ill has been a filthy, indelible stain on not only the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat enablers, but an apathetic country.

Far from channelling the power of public opinion to correct a hateful aberration, the passage of time has normalised it. Weary familiarity has anaesthetised us to toxic immorality.

We have all read many accounts which straddled the borderline between outlandish auto-satire and vicious cruelty: the letters reassuring rejected applicants of their fitness for work which arrived a tantalising few days after their death; the incapacitatingly depressed effectively told, sometimes apparently by a physiotherapist, that they are fine. Those who can hobble for 20 yards, but not a marathon 50, having mobility vehicles confiscated. Families with an extra bedroom used to store life-preserving medical equipment forced to move; and so on, and on, and on.

One multiplesclerosis sufferer lost her amazingly generous personal independence payment (PIP) of £87 per month because she was able to squeeze someone’s thumb.

Neither the incumbent nor previous PM can use ignorance or lack of imagination as a defence. Just as Cameron knew the ravages of grave disability from caring for his late son, Ivan, May knows the horror of MS. It killed her mother.

Yet while she has done zero for her cherished “just about managing”, she has been busy doing minus for the “not managing at all”. Her government is spending almost twice as much vindictively fighting Employment and Support Allowance applications this year as last. In the first quarter of 2017, judges found that claimants were too ill to work in seven out of 10 cases – an even higher proportion than in the equivalent period of 2016.

Anecdotally, the blithe callousness of Atos and Capita assessors seem undimmed. These sad, ignorant, barely trained drones must disregard blatant incapacity to meet targets, and so maximise profits for private firms whose respect for human dignity would grace the management of one of Alabama’s less genteel penitentiaries.

Even if the purpose is solely financial, the effect of the maltreatment radiates beyond robbing the wheelchair-bound to help fund (entirely legal) tax avoidance from the likes of Atos, a French firm which with a sprawling history of paying £0.00 in corporation tax despite its massive UK turnover.

Stigmatising the disabled as crooks, who fake or exaggerate symptoms to defraud the state of almost enough weekly income to buy May and that Arthur Askey husband a Wiener-schnietzel-and-gluwein supper after a merry day’s hiking over an Alp, has encouraged the surge of verbal and physical violence against them.

God willing, in a century or two people will read about this with the stupefaction slavery incites in us now. Even today, it would take some explaining to the smart six-year-old interviewer. “Why don’t you believe them, Auntie Theresa, when they say they can’t work? Why do you think they are lying?”

As for her father, he was a hospital chaplain before becoming a vicar, so let’s hope he had more empathy than his daughter. If not, he’ll have been charging round intensive care banging a metal tray, yelling at the old boy flatlining in bed 4 to stop malingering and put in a shift as a porter over on orthopaedics.

I had come to assume that the young Theresa paid no attention to her dad’s work, being too enraptured by fantasies about girlhood hero Geoff Boycott playing the forward defensive to hear a word the Rev Hubert Brasier recited from his Oxfordshire pulpit.

But perhaps that wasn’t it at all. Perhaps she was listening intently, but he used a different version of the Bible to the King James. The Thatcher Bible, presumably, with its celebrated passage about Christ halting his mule during the journey to sneer at the Ephesian lepers.

“And Jesus did come upon a cripple begging beside the road. And lo, He did kick away his staff, saying unto him: ‘Weep not for hunger, and cease thy begging. For though you lay claim to be lame, verily I believe you have lain here contorted and sobbing these days and nights in the hope of cadging a weevil and a crust of bread. Besides, there is a food bank in Jericho but 4,000 cubits hence’” (Book of Tebbit, 2:14-15).

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One woman’s experience on a London bus shows the damage the Tories have done to disabled people

One woman’s experience on a London bus shows the damage the Tories have done to disabled people

A woman’s experience on a packed London bus serves as a case-in-point for the reality of life for a disabled person in the UK. And the story, in which a bus driver allegedly said “fucking disabled people shouldn’t be allowed on any bus”, is a testament to just how Conservative-led governments have pushed disabled people’s rights backwards.

A prominent campaigner

Paula Peters is a prominent campaigner and member of the Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) Steer Group. She is well known for her activism and fighting for disabled people’s rights. But on 16 August, she was subject to what she calls “abuse” and discrimination on the R3 bus to Orpington in Bromley, Greater London. And she took to Facebook to tell the story.

Peters lives with Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS), Postural tachycardia syndrome (PoTS), Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. She has to walk with a tri-rollator, on her doctor’s advice, due to the discomfort, pain, and balance issues caused by her conditions. But on the morning of 16 August, neither the bus driver for private operator Metrobus nor the passengers in question took any of this into account.

“Fucking” disabled people

The incident arose because, Peters says, the bus driver did not want her to use the disabled passenger space provided. As she wrote in a Facebook post:

There was plenty of room for me, but [I] could see the driver was not happy about me boarding the bus and tutted loudly when I did so. As I went past her to access the space I got [told] ‘fucking disabled people should not be allowed on any bus’. I ignored it, not the first time I have had that to be honest…

She is clear that most bus drivers are really kind. But she says this driver then askedher “aggressively” to fold up her tri-rollator and take a seat, because “the space is for wheelchairs”. However, she says there were no seats available where she could sit and fold up her tri-rollator. So she didn’t move. And it was at this point that the situation escalated.

Abuse and discrimination

She claims the driver turned off the engine, and told her she had to move. But when she explained to the driver that there was no room, they allegedly threatened to throw her off the bus. She wrote:

I told her she was discriminating against me and not taking my access requirements into account and putting my safety at risk. [She then] screamed at [me] which triggers my anxiety and has me on the verge of tears. I get out my notebook to make a note of the date and the time and get the bus driver’s number located at door… then [I] get abuse from the passengers and accused of being rude to the driver… The driver screamed at me and I got sworn at by three passengers.

A regular occurrence

But sadly, this is not the first time Peters has experienced such abuse and discrimination. As she told The Canary:

It’s a huge problem in London and across the UK. Just on Tuesday, I was denied access to two buses in my local area because of prams in the wheelchair space. You can’t get to priority seating to sit down even though notices are clearly marked. And not a day goes by where I do not have issues on public transport. It’s making me feel really anxious to use the transport network due to abuse, discrimination, and poor access.

Accessibility is still a huge problem on the UK’s transport network. Just 493 stationsin the UK (less than 20%) have step-free access. And on London’s tube network, the situation is even worse, with only 13% of stations being accessible from platform to train. But most concerning is perhaps the discrimination Peters witnessed. Because hate crime against disabled people has risen by more than 40% since 2015.

Tory propaganda

Peters told The Canary that the incident had left her “dreadfully distressed and anxious”:

I have struggled travelling on London buses generally, as was subjected to a hate crime incident three years ago. It left me unable to travel for several weeks as I was too anxious to do so. I don’t feel safe travelling on buses or any public transport for fear of abuse, discrimination, and hate.

And she is clear where she thinks part of the blame for the increase in disabled hate crime lies:

In large part? Due to the government propaganda and rhetoric they spread in the right-wing media about disabled people. The public tend to believe this, which then can result in incidents such as what happened to me on the bus. I told my GP I am scared to leave the house for fear of physical or verbal abuse from the public because I have a disability. Yet I am an activist and need to get to events and meetings…

The bus company’s response?

The Canary approached Go-Ahead, Metrobus’s parent company, for comment. Executive Support Officer Eugene Clarke said:

In the light of the recent Doug Paulley/Supreme Court case, drivers have been advised by Transport for London and ourselves that asking someone to move from the wheelchair* priority area is not enough if they initially refuse. If a fellow passenger refuses to move or share, the driver should politely explain that they are required to make space for the wheelchair user. Colleagues must do their best to encourage others to make space for the wheelchair user. If, after several attempts, they cannot, the driver should advise the wheelchair user (and controller) of their efforts and arrange for the driver of the following bus to be made aware of the situation.

Come and visit us!

Clarke continued:

The London iBus system (detailing next stops, amongst other things) allows drivers to make the following pre-recorded announcements:

(1) “A customer needs the wheelchair priority area. Please make space”.

This can then be followed up with:

(2) “Customers are required to make space for a wheelchair user. The bus will wait while this happens”.

All colleagues receive initial training and regular updates on a range of issues, including wheelchair access. Please be assured the company takes any such complaint very seriously and is happy to investigate further. I can also offer a ‘behind the scenes’ visit to Orpington Garage for Paula to see how we manage these matters.

* I appreciate Paula refers to her “tri rollerator walker”, not a wheelchair.

Despite being given details of Peters’ accusations, Clarke’s response shows that Go-Ahead and Metrobus still do not understand the importance of tri-rollators, and their implications, for disabled people. Because Clarke apparently did not see Peters’ situation as being as important as that of a wheelchair user. Also, Clarke’s response shows the lack of awareness of PoTS – which, as NHS Choices states, is: “an abnormal increase in heart rate that occurs after sitting up or standing. It typically causes dizziness, fainting and other symptoms.” Sadly, Go-Ahead’s response is endemic of a broader lack of understanding of so-called ‘invisible illnesses’.

Disability rights violations

All of this comes amid the UN saying that the Tories have created a “human catastrophe” for disabled people in the UK. It has now reported three times in the space of a year on human rights violations by the Conservative-led government. And in one report, it (like Peters) said the Tories had helped to create a public perception where disabled people:

have been… negatively portrayed as being dependent or making a living out of benefits; committing fraud as benefit claimants; being lazy and putting a burden on taxpayers, who are paying ‘money for nothing’. Persons with disabilities continue to experience increasing hostility, aggressive behaviour and sometimes attacks to their personal integrity.

Peters’ story is one of many. But it is a damning indictment of Britain in 2017 for disabled people. One where other people abuse and discriminate against them, and deny them services on an almost daily basis. And they have, in part, seven years of Conservative-led governments to thank for this.

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Are food banks now the UK’s ONLY growth industry?

Something for the Tories to be proud of!


If you want to know why food banks have proliferated, look to the United States.

That’s where the Conservative Party adopted the policies that lead to food banks; that’s why they have become the UK’s only growth industry.

The policy, adopted by former President George W Bush, was known as ‘starving the beast’, and involved tax breaks for the very rich, creating a deficit in the US Treasury, which made it possible for him to claim public services were costing too much – and then cut public services.

Result: Instant destitution for people who relied on those public services – and the rise of foodbanks.

As in the US, so has it been in the UK.

I warned you about this, years ago.

When austerity was in its infancy in the UK a few years ago and I made my first visit to food banks around the country, the people queueing for help expressed a common anxiety: that this might become the “new normal”. Everyone hoped it wouldn’t yet here we are, in the summer of 2017, and food banks are now ubiquitous. Legions of citizens, including tens of thousands of children, now rely on these stopgap facilities to meet basic nutritional needs. And a recent report alarmingly predicts that their use is likely to rise with the impact of policies such as benefit freezes and the roll out of universal credit. To see how this has happened we need only to look across the Atlantic.

The UK’s journey down the road of dismantling its welfare state and blaming the needy follows closely in the footsteps of the American system and the narrative that has shaped it. While the richest are awarded lavish tax cuts, millions of people are rendered desperate and destitute, and inequality is cemented. This is indeed the “new normal”.

Source: Food poverty is the ‘new normal’ in the UK. We adopted it from the States | Society | The Guardian

DWP slammed over £39m bill for challenging sick and disabled

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The SNP’s Social Justice spokesperson has condemned the UK government’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), after Freedom of Information requests revealed that the department spent almost £40m actively fighting appeals made by sick and disabled people challenging the loss of their benefits – despite the majority of appeals being successful.

Neil Gray MP said that the appeal success rate shows that the current system is failing and needs to be urgently reviewed to prevent people being forced through a stressful time.

He added that the current system saw them lose much needed financial support, and called on the government to spend this money on services not legal battles.
According to The Independent’s FoI findings, the DWP in 2016 spent £22m processing claimants’ initial appeals, and a further £17m taking cases to courts that were not settled during the earlier stages in order to remove benefits crucial to those who are sick and who have disabilities.

Within this period the UK government lost 62% of tribunal cases when challenging those on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – benefits which supports people who are sick or have disabilities that hinders their ability to work.
The figure stands at 65% for tribunal cases against people on the Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

The findings come a week after the Chair of the influential UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities warned that the Tory government’s welfare cuts have created a “human catastrophe” for disabled people across the UK.
Neil Gray MP, the SNP’s Westminster Social Justice spokesperson, said: “The figures revealed by The Independent are almost too staggering to believe.

“Put simply it shines the light on a callous Tory government that will attempt to stop people from receiving benefits at any cost, but will scrimp and save on providing support to those who need it most. We have seen this in particular with the shameful cut to ESA work-related activity group of £30 a week.

“Rather than supporting those that are sick and disabled, the UK government instead saw it fit to use almost £40m of taxpayers’ money to needlessly bring claimants to courts to strip away financial support that is vital for their day to day needs. This is money that should be spent supporting our ill and disabled people not legal battles.

“The DWP seem to want to put further stress and anxiety on people. They must immediately end its cruel long-standing approach to those that are struggling in our society and instead adopt a policy that seeks to help those in positions of need, rather than pushing them closer to the brink.”

His comments were echoed by Labour MP, Frank Field, who also chairs the Commons Work and Pensions Committee. “What’s appalling is that the [Government] is prepared to spend £39m of taxpayers’ money against people who are desperately fighting off destitution”, he said. Mr Field added: “We clearly need a new compact between the [Government] and claimants, otherwise this injustice will continue to act as a recruiting agent for food banks.”

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive at the MS Society, said: “These exorbitant costs point to a welfare system that clearly doesn’t make sense. We know that many people with MS aren’t getting accurate decisions the first time around.
“Being forced to go through the lengthy and stressful appeals process is a waste of time and money, and also harms people’s health.”

Chief executive of Citizens Advice Gillian Guy said: “Last year Citizens Advice helped people with almost 400,000 PIP issues, up 37 per cent on the previous 12 months.
“Many come to us concerned that the outcome of their PIP assessment doesn’t accurately reflect the support needs they have because of their health issues.
“The next steps can be time-consuming, distressing and even costly if people have to pay to gather additional evidence.”

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