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Monday, 24 April 2017

Terra firma benefits services closures leave the economically vulnerable more firmly in the lurch

Face-to-face benefits delivery service cuts have been going on for decades, Dude Swheatie of Kwug argues.

Jobcentre closures creates winners and losers, says Dude Swheatie
I would describe Honorary KUWG member Kate Belgrave as a 'benefits touring' blogger. Her latest blog post is DWP: "Closing jobcentres will improve the service."(1) Maybe those in the DWP and their allies in 'think tank' ReformUK who advocate 'digital jobcentres' (2) — and 'digital courts and tribunals and a lot else besides (3) — ought to go in for such 'benefits tourism' themselves, where they would meet users of terra firma [solid earth] jobcentres for themselves?

(Incidentally, Theresa May has described ReformUK as "the country's leading think tank on public service reform."(4) I am reminded of the saying, "With friends like that, who needs enemies?")

Clay Cross Jobcentre in Derbyshire that Kate writes about in her latest blog post (5) is by no means the only one facing closure and there are closer threatened jobcentres for Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group regulars. In January 2017 the Brent & Kilburn Times reported:
Jobcentres in Wembley, Kilburn and Neasden facing closure (6)
.... The sites in Olympic House in Wembley, Cambridge Avenue in Kilburn and Chancel house in Neasden, are facing the axe with workers facing redundancy or being relocated to other jobcentres.
The Department for Work and Pensions say the sites are being underused as four out of five claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance and 99 per cent of applicants for Universal Credit submit claims online.

Jobcentres and benefit centres are covered by old building contracts which are now coming up for renewal after 20 years.

Some smaller jobcentres will be merged with larger ones, and others will be co-located with local government premises.

The closures, which union officials say will affect one in 10 job centres in Great Britain, are predicted to save the DWP £180million over the next 10 years,
the Brent & Kilburn Times reported.

What's behind all this?

Let us have a look at that DWP assertion:
The Department for Work and Pensions say the sites are being underused as four out of five claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance and 99 per cent of applicants for Universal Credit submit claims online.
Is 'digital by default' online claiming a matter of 'service user choice'? In June 2014 Elizabeth Rust reported in The Guardian:

When the UK goes 'digital by default', who will be left behind?

UK government services are going digital, yet often the people who need them are not able to access them. [17% of service users are left behind.](8)
I had a decades long history of claiming Unemployment Benefit and later Jobseekers Allowance before I ever claimed the disability benefit Employment & Support Allowance (Support Group) status. So with hindsight I am able to see how this move toward 'service user not seen and regarded as fully human' has crept in over the decades. In the early 1990's while our news services were focused on Russian bread queues, Department of Social Security offices were done away with and replaced by remote control offices. Claims offices for LB Brent jobcentre users were transferred to Belfast, and those for LB Camden jobcentre users were transferred to Glasgow, and chaos happened as claim forms got lost in the post. My old DSS office at Archway is now being developed as a block of flats by 'Exclusive Living' under that incidental piece of privatising public land.

I remember the 'death throes' of that building as a DSS office in 1991 even while the remote control offices were being introduced. Upon making a new claim for Unemployment Benefit I was kept waiting 12 weeks even then while my claim form had reportedly 'got lost in the post'. When I did force myself to visit that building after several weeks of waiting, I was told by my peers that I was not the only one trapped in that system melt-down, and that the previous day the building had got so overheated that it was closed down for health and safety purposes. (The windows of that building as a DSS office were never opened, reportedly so that claimants did not get the temptation to throw themselves out of one.) And it took me more than one day's visit to secure an emergency hardship payment.

(While the second place country for viewings of Kwug Blog in the past month have been from Russia — with the USA in first place — it is ironic that at that time the UK's corporate news media were strongly focused on bread queues in Moscow to the exclusion of such problems closer to home.)

Jobcentre workers have been like the supermarket 'checkout' persons inducting service users into 'self-service' operations that threaten their own jobs

In July 2006, Hertfordshire County Council Head of Money Advice reported in a then-regular column in Community Care magazine:
Jobcentre Plus wrong to deny use of paper forms(9)
Currently the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) apparently insists all benefit claims should be made over the phone or internet.

In the past couple of years, both the pensions service and the Jobcentre Plus network have moved towards a system of teleclaiming. This is despite the evidence that many pensioners find making claims over the telephone difficult. Working-age claimants of benefits, such as income support, incapacity benefit and jobseekers allowance, have fared even worse, as at least pensioners had an alternative when claiming pension credit, because paper claim forms for that benefit are still reasonably widely available.

Jobcentre Plus staff at local level, however, were giving out a clear message that paper claim forms for the benefits they administer no longer existed – and even if claimants were determined enough to get hold of a copy, it wouldn’t do them any good because the local Jobcentre would refuse to accept it.

Thankfully, common sense (and a clearer understanding of the law relating to benefit claims) has prevailed. The DWP realised that Jobcentre Plus staff were acting unlawfully in refusing to allow benefit claims to be made on paper claim forms. As a result, guidance has been sent out to all Jobcentre Plus managers, in the May edition of its Managers Update. It is worth printing the Clerical Claims Process – Standard Operating Model guidance in full, in case you come across any problems with your local office.
“Customers should always be encouraged to make new and repeat claims via the contact centres where possible. However, regulations give the customer the choice on how they make their claim and this means we must not refuse clerical claim forms...."
What happened to the telephone application process? It became oversubscribed, as Gary Vaux had reported in Community Care in February 2006:(10)
Pick up that phone!
In early November 2005, the newly appointed chief executive of Jobcentre Plus, Lesley Strathie, admitted to a House of Commons select committee that Jobcentre Plus was “failing badly” and had  a “huge, huge journey to make” in relation to meeting customer service targets for its contact centres.

Yet, by mid-December, Strathie felt she was able to announce in the foreword to its annual report that Jobcentre Plus  delivered excellent progress against a challenging set of objectives.

Strathie said the department was expected to achieve or exceed five of its six performance targets for the year, despite staff reductions of 5,000 in the year to March 2005.

When two such apparently contradictory statements are made within just a few weeks of each other, it’s difficult to see where facts end and spin starts....

How do you solve a problem like benefits helpline meltdown?

In November 2006 Community Care magazine reported:
Jobcentre Plus: Poor service continues(11)
Earlier this month, MPs slammed Jobcentre Plus for leaving 21 million phone calls unanswered in 2004-5. Despite government claims of improvements, stories of poor service continue to mount, argues Neil Bateman
Jobcentre Plus (JCP) is the arm of the Department for Work and Pensions that administers benefits and job search activities  or people under 60. It was set up in 2001 as a key part of the government’s welfare-to-work reforms, the aim being that people could obtain advice and help on benefits and job-seeking under one roof.

Since the announcement in 2005 that DWP had to lose 30,000 staff over three years, on top of other spending cuts in the department, concern has been growing in the social care and welfare rights fields about the deteriorating standards of service provided by JCP. There has been concern about the effect on vulnerable customers, particularly care leavers, those with sensory impairments and people with mental health needs who have greatest difficulty with the JCP one-size-fits-all approach to customer service.

Welfare rights advisers and social care specialists identify problems with JCP, including:
  • Delays in processing claims and changes of circumstances – six weeks is common – leaving people destitute.
  • Communications between different parts of JCP “not being received”.
  • Huge difficulty accessing JCP by phone.
  • JCP staff insisting that all benefit claims are made by phone, when the law does not state this.
  • Frequent refusals to communicate with third parties (despite the DWP’s good new policy on this).
  • JCP staff making basic errors in advice to claimants and when assessing their claims.
  • Inflexibility in how people are dealt with caused by JCP’s use of scripts for telephone enquiries and deficiencies in the content of the scripts.
  • Resistance by local JCP managers to consultation and dialogue with stakeholders.
There are exceptions to this, but the feedback was generally negative with many examples cited....
What's 21 million calls in terms of the scale of the problem? Well, in 2004/05, it amounted to 44% of all incoming calls to the JCP call-centre system.(12) Quite a big problem, in other words. And as Neil Bateman pointed out in that November 2006 article:
Paying for JCP’s failures
It is not just benefit claimants who are affected. There is strong evidence that advice agencies and social care agencies are also picking up the cost of JCP’s failures. Citizens Advice said workloads had increased as a direct result of problems and there was evidence that social services departments were often baling out people with no money because of JCP’s failure to deliver benefits on time or to make interim payments – there were even cases of people sent by JCP to social services for money.

Much time is also being spent arguing with JCP staff that they can indeed allow people to make paper benefit claims rather than having to phone a call centre – even in cases involving people in hospital receiving chemotherapy, those with serious mental health problems, people whose first language is not English or those who are deaf....(13)
I asked in this section heading, 'How do you solve a problem like benefits helpline meltdown?' The DWP's covert agenda answer is that you don't solve that problem, you demonise the claimants by way of 'public information campaigns' such as 'Targeting benefit thieves' that were prevalent at the time.

A later, telephone oriented twist on demonising claimants was the introduction of the sceptre of 'Voice Risk Analysis' screening of claimants. Gary Vaux reported in Community Care in May 2008:

Voice risk analysis makes claiming benefits more stressful(14)

The Department for Work and Pensions has announced that it is pushing ahead with the introduction of voice risk analysis (VRA) in another 15 local authority housing benefit teams. But VRA is not a lie detector it’s simply a machine that measures changes in a person’s voice patterns, indicating “stress”. That in turn alerts the benefit official to probe deeper into the claim.

When used on President Clinton’s famous “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” statement, a VRA machine recorded a “high risk” reading.
It’s already used by some insurance companies (Esure, Halifax and Provident among others) and no one condones benefit fraud so it must therefore be a good thing, right? Well – maybe not.

The advice sector is concerned that VRA is being trialled despite there being little evidence so far as to its effectiveness in comparison with more traditional methods of fraud detection. The research into its impact in the first seven local authorities to use it isn’t even due to be finished until August.

We also don’t know what effect it will have on genuine claimants – the “if they’re honest, they’ve nothing to worry about” line of argument misses the point. The fact that every call and every claimant may ultimately have to be screened in this way, with the assumption that you might be accused of being fraudulent on the say-so of suspect technology is enough to deter many genuine claimants. This is especially true of those who find claiming benefits stressful enough already....
Back in 2006 while I was regularly ringing the so-called Jobseekers Allowance 'helpline' I was under a great deal of stress. Working more than 16 hours in just one week over the Christmas 2005/New Year 2006 period as a part time care worker doing 'cover duties' for regular staff on vacation while submitting part-time earnings forms at my fortnightly signing on sessions at the jobcentre, I got screwed as Jobseekers Allowance wrongly claimed that I no longer qualified for the JSA benefit. (15)

Even in those days I would have long pauses while the helpline level bureucrat I spoke to referred to their line manager or supervisor and I was somewhat fortunate to be a landline user rather than on pay-as-you-go mobile phone tariff to a Universal Credit helpline. I would have longed for the comparative comforts of face-to-face help at the Archway 'Goulag'!

Now, as a Camden Council report has revealed, Universal Credit claimants are suffering not only long waits for benefits, but also rip-off pay-as-you-go mobile phone tariffs:
Universal Credit: Claimants 'stealing food' to cope with benefit delays (16)

.... The Department for Work and Pensions’ Universal Credit helpline set up to advise claimants on the progress of their claim is providing an unacceptable service. Telephone calls can cost up to 55p a minute [£33 per hour!] from pay-as-you-go mobile phones, which are commonly used by people with lower incomes. Wait times to speak with an adviser can be very long – one claimant in Camden has reported that their phone bill for a month was over £140, used almost entirely on calls to the DWP.
Now consider this: is not the telecomms industry complicit in this theft from economically vulnerable benefit claimants? There is enormous potential for industry to benefit from the real 'benefit theft' which is denying benefit claimants their entitlements and making life harder for workers as there is a fine line between what this Government calls 'incentivising' work but is really making people so desperate that they will settle for anything.

Might plummeting 'takeup' of benefit entitlements be one of Jobcentre Plus' real goals?

Maybe you ought to raise these points with candidates in the forthcoming 8 June General Election if you are a UK voter?

Link references

  1. http://www.katebelgrave.com/2017/04/dwp-closing-your-jobcentre-will-improve-the-service-people-who-use-the-jobcentre-no-it-wont/
  2. http://www.reform.uk/publication/the-future-of-public-services-digital-jobcentres/
  3. http://www.reform.uk/publication/the-future-of-public-services/
  4. http://www.reform.uk/
  5. http://www.katebelgrave.com/2017/04/dwp-closing-your-jobcentre-will-improve-the-service-people-who-use-the-jobcentre-no-it-wont/
  6. http://www.kilburntimes.co.uk/news/jobcentres-in-wembley-kilburn-and-neasden-facing-closure-1-4864912
  7. ibid.
  8. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/23/when-the-uk-goes-digital-by-default-who-will-be-left-behind 
  9. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2006/07/20/jobcentre-plus-wrong-to-deny-use-of-paper-forms/
  10. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2006/02/16/pick-up-that-phone/  
  11. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2006/11/16/jobcentre-plus-poor-service-continues/ 
  12. https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmpubacc/1034/1034.pdf See p7 of 64 on the online viewing, p3 of the printed copy
  13. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2006/11/16/jobcentre-plus-poor-service-continues/
  14. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2008/05/22/voice-risk-analysis-makes-claiming-benefits-more-stressful/
  15. For more on the background to this case, see http://kilburnunemployed.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/benefit-claimants-require-firmer-safegards-not-tougher-sanctions.html 
  16. http://camdennewjournal.com/article/universal-credit-claimants-stealing-food-to-eat-due-to-benefit-delays


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Let us not help Theresa May bury the bad news about Universal Credit rollout, suicides and homelessness under a Brexit General Election

Yesterday's Kwug Blog carried a 'guest blog post' from Revd Paul Nicolson of Taxpayers Against Poverty.(1) Even in his mid-80's, Revd Paul is extremely prolific with his offerings and far quicker to respond than this disabled person. The best I can do to 'catch up with him' is generally to forward e-mail notifications of the Taxpayers Against Poverty (TAP) website on to the Kilburn Unemployed e-list, but even then be selective so as not to give vulnerable list members a sense of melt-down and information overload.(2)

The Kwug Blog 'guest contribution' posted yesterday, — A Universal Credit case study — however, included tabulated data that proved difficult to transmit by e-mail and provided valuable information about Universal Credit that the general public are largely ignorant about, and corporate mass media generally keeps buried while Universal Credit-related rent arrears can catapult the number of evictions from social housing.(3) It can take up to 12 weeks for a Universal Credit claim to be processed and thus for the claimant to get any Universal Credit income; yet under English Law, eviction proceedings can begin after just eight weeks or rent arrears.(4)

Revd Paul Nicolson does not keep his incisive light buried under a bushel, and though his latest offering by e-mail has not yet made it to the TAP website, I can help here to get the message out as soon as possible even while I was hoping to prioritise other things just now.

Referenda and General Elections are too often based not on real knowledge of issues, and the results are mangled in an unrepresentative 'first past the post' electoral system that is too influenced by the wealthy. Whatever the result of an 8 June General Election, it will not really be a mandate for what the people have heard too litlle of. I should add that while the KUWG focus is mainly on the benefits system while housing law is too complex for us to handle, TAP has a more extensive overview of things, and more specific to LB Haringey where Revd Paul lives.

With that, I shall just bring in Revd Paul's latest offering.

During election TAP will do what we do



--
HARINGEY COUNCIL TAXES BENEFIT INCOMES OF ITS POOREST RESIDENTS OF UK'S MOST DEPRIVED WARDS WITH 
LOW LIFE EXPECTANCY AND HIGH RISK OF LOW BIRTH-WEIGHT.

from the Reverend Paul Nicolson
Taxpayers Against Poverty
No citizen without an affordable home and an 
adequate income in work or unemployment. 

93 Campbell Road, Tottenham, London N17 0BF, 0208 3765455, 07961 177889, 


Link references

http://kilburnunemployed.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/a-universal-credit-case-study-by-revd-paul-nicolson.html
http://taxpayersagainstpoverty.org.uk/
http://kilburnunemployed.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/a-universal-credit-case-study-by-revd-paul-nicolson.html 
https://scottishunemployedworkers.net/2016/07/15/sharing-knowledge-in-the-face-of-further-attacks/

Polls close 5pm on Weds 19 April in Unite the Union General Secretary 2017 election

Today is Tuesday 18 April. Polls close 5pm tomorrow in Unite the Union General Secretary Election 2017.

Some members of Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group are members of Unite the Union's Community Section. If you are a Unite the Union member you are likely to have had your ballot paper through the post with reply envelope for sending off your vote with 2nd class postage prepaid. I sent mine off last Thursday, adding 10p stamp to bring the postage up to 1st class.

For something of my personal views on this election, see my previous posting
Unite Community General Secretary Elections 2017.(1) That posting gives links to the three candidates' campaign websites.

Link reference

  1. http://kilburnunemployed.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/unite-community-general-secretary-elections-2017.html

Monday, 17 April 2017

A Universal Credit case study by Revd Paul Nicolson

Guest blog post by Revd Paul Nicolson of Taxpayers Against Poverty

Universal Calamity 

Struggling to survive in Tottenham, with a history of depression.

Paid one penny to last next month because he earned £1109 last month. The Universal Credit is a nightmare for zero hours contract workers.

£317 a month UC standard allowance is the equivalent of £73.10 a week IS/JSA/ESA

The council charges him council tax at £3.40 a week or £14.75 a month

He has rent and council tax arrears due to a three month benefit sanction and irregular work. 

He is threatened with eviction when he inevitably gets behind.

We know that £73.10 a week IS/JSA/ESA has reduced in value since 1979, the increase was frozen at 1% in 2011 and it has not been increased since April 2015.




Link reference

--
HARINGEY COUNCIL TAXES BENEFIT INCOMES OF ITS POOREST RESIDENTS 
OF UK'S MOST DEPRIVED WARDS WITH 
LOW LIFE EXPECTANCY AND HIGH RISK OF LOW BIRTH-WEIGHT.

from the Reverend Paul Nicolson
Taxpayers Against Poverty
No citizen without an affordable home and an 
adequate income in work or unemployment. 

93 Campbell Road, Tottenham, London N17 0BF, 0208 3765455, 07961 177889, 

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The colonisation of 'lifestyle choices' in the name of 'welfare reform'

All too frequently in matters of 'welfare reform' that are really about the privatisation of the welfare state, we hear that poor people are poor because they/we have made 'poor lifestyle choices'.(1) The reality is more that the 'key decision makers' are completely ignorant at best, calous liars with their own agendas -- leading to huge lobbyist salaries for likeminded global corporations -- at worst.

An example of this is given in the false promises of Disability Minister Penny Mordaunt in persuading fellow-Conservative MPs to back new legislation that cuts to Jobseekers Allowance levels the amount of money people in the [sickness and disability benefit] Employment & Support Allowance Work-Related Activity Group have to live on each week.(2) These are people who are so disadvantaged by sickness or disability that they require more financial support to compensate for reduced chances of getting waged employment, while those advocating this cut in benefit level claim that the real problem is this group's lack of 'incentive' to do paid work.

As Disability News Service reports:(3)
... Penny Mordaunt had ... promised fellow MPs on the work and pensions select committee in November (pictured) that she was working on a package of measures to “mitigate the £30”, which she said would be in place “before April”.(4)

Facing fierce criticism over the cut, Mordaunt told the MPs that she was working at “ensuring that someone’s outgoings can be managed”, and at reducing their “non-work-related costs”, such as energy, broadband and phone bills.(5)

She told them: “I know what I need to do and I have put a large amount of resource in the department behind it, and I can only repeat that the more reassurance I can give on this the better.

“I am not in a position to outline chapter and verse, but I hope to be soon, and I very much understand what I need to do.”

She also said that she was “talking to energy suppliers, mobile phone companies and broadband suppliers”.

But when Disability News Service (DNS) asked this week what Mordaunt had managed to achieve in the four months since November, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) suggested that her only success was ensuring that new WRAG claimants would be told by their jobcentre work coaches how to secure the cheapest BT telephone tariff....
[A Department for Work & Pensions Spokesperson] declined to comment when asked if working with businesses “to harness the power of technology to ensure disabled consumers are better informed about the accessibility and inclusivity of products and services available” was another way of saying that Mordaunt was helping businesses to market their products to disabled people.
So, essentially, such bad government can be regarded as colonising disadvantaged groups for the benefit of global capitalism.

Understand 'the benefits jungle'

By contrast, London Green Party is hosting an event on Sunday 23 April toward helping caring people better understand 'the benefits jungle':(6)

Description

An information, casework and campaigning base about Universal Credit, the bedroom tax, benefit caps and cuts for disabled people. You can book your free place any time now.

The main speaker will be Barb Jacobson, who is a benefits adviser and coordinator of Basic Income UK and member of the board of Unconditional Basic Income Europe.

Background docs are on https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Mueihb7UdXJfgH91zjGYR7Cr-NWOzmghKGXPkkpfyHQ/edit?usp=sharing

Date and Time

Sun, April 23, 2017
2:30 PM – 5:00 PM BST

Location

Chadswell Healthy Living Centre
Lower ground floor, Chadswell Flats
Harrison St (off Grays Inn Rd)
London
WC1H 8LD
View Map


Though hosted by London Green Party, the event is open to non-Green Party members and members of other politicall parties who want to help people get what they require from the benefits system and to make the benefits system serve vulnerable people more than global corporations.

Even if we do not ourselves do casework as such, for whatever reason, we can gain insights that help us campaign better for social and economic justice.

Link references

  1. https://uk.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?p=%22welfare%20reform%22%20%22lifestyle%20choices%22&hspart=mozilla&hsimp=yhs-100&type=newtab
  2. http://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/exposed-mordaunts-false-promises-on-wrag-cut-mitigation/ 
  3. ibid.
  4. http://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/mordaunt-working-on-urgent-plans-to-reduce-living-costs-ahead-of-wrag-cuts/ 
  5. http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/work-and-pensions-committee/disability-employment-gap/oral/44058.html 
  6. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/london-green-parties-understanding-the-benefits-jungle-tickets-33261650492



Thursday, 13 April 2017

Unite Community General Secretary Elections 2017

By Alan Wheatley as Kwug Blog Editor expressing personal preference that does not necessarily represent the views of KUWG members as a whole


At least a few Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group members are also members of Unite the Union's Community section, and Unite the Union currently has a General Secretary election for which the postal polls end on 19 April at 5pm.

The Islington branch at least has supported retention of Len McCluskey as General Secretary, and I seem to get official e-mail from Unite the Union backing Len McCluskey for my vote, and that does not really give much encouragement to find out about the other candidates.

So I post below a youtube video of candidate Ian Allinson from Manchester speaking about his candidacy, that is in favour of strengthening Unite Community and opposing reliance of jobs on wasteful nuclear industries and weapons production.

Moreover, he regards such 'welfare reforms' as benefit sanctions and repeated summonses of disability benefit claimants to reassessment interviews as part of a broader attack on the working class. Such attacks aim a making the workplace more oppressive, as people too ill to work are forced to apply for any kind of work.



The full list of candidates and their websites


Ian Allinson http://www.ian4unite.org
Gerard Coyne http://www.votegerardcoyne.co.uk/
Len McCluskey http://www.unite4len.co.uk/



Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq stands with Kwuggies against government-driven-suicides

Tulip Siddiq joined Kwuggies outside Kilburn Jobcentre on Monday 3 April 2017, on our demo against austerity-driven suicides.
Tulip outlined her voting record against nasty right wing 'welfare reforms' that are driving more and more people to suicide.

Discussion and explaining around the role call of austerity-related suicides



More at

Kilburn Job Centre protest 3/4/17 ' Demonstrate and Commemorate'