I have to point this out:
Last week, the DWP issued a press release for Universal Credit claimants that made me wonder if I was dreaming, still high, or even dead.
Instead of the usual vile, threatening and judgmental dross, this statement went somewhere new. The tone of the release was vaguely respectful and the content – this lightning surely won’t strike twice – a shade better than useless. Talk about novelty value. Who thought we’d see the day?
In this release, it appeared that the DWP was attempting to reassure Universal Credit’s million-plus new covid-era claimants that the department was working to make its famously useless and nine-tenths moribund Universal Credit claims process easier to use. People would no longer have to phone-queue for hours on the ironically-named Helpline to speak to a Universal Credit adviser. The DWP even said that it was putting on more staff to help people get their claims going and their benefit money paid. I’d put my last fiver on this proving to be the usual bollocks in reality – but who knew the department even had the words? The DWP actually used the phrase “you can rest assured” in this dispatch. There was no way that head honcho minister/front-of-house sociopath Therese Coffey had previous acquaintance with these words. She must have had help finding them.
It was the tone of this statement that really got me. I’ve been attending jobcentre meetings and benefit assessments with people in need for nigh on 10 years. I can confirm that before last week, “Fuck Off, Scrounger” was the DWP’s one and only message for sick, disabled or unemployed people. You do get slight variations on that theme, such as Computer Says No (a Universal Credit greatest hit), or We’ve Lost Your Sick Note/Don’t Believe You Had One, or We Didn’t Get Your Message About Your Hospital Appointment, So We’re Sanctioning You For A Month, or (my personal favourite) Tough Shit – There’s The Foodbank.
It’s been quite a decade, really. Such a time we’ve had. I’ve seen jobcentres close benefit claims for people with learning difficulties because they missed a couple of meetings when they were seriously ill (here’s a video from that event if you can stand it). I watched government close the all-important Independent Living Fund that disabled people who required 24-7 care relied on to live. I sat with people in jobcentres as advisers searched for – and found, as they do – weird excuses not to pay out Universal Credit housing costs and to leave people without rent. How I could go on. I really could go on, and on. I’ve seen little else for years.
Like many (ie everyone) in the field, I could hardly imagine the seismic event that might put the brakes on the DWP’s contempt for its clientele. It seemed pointless to set time aside to try. Still – get this. We’ve arrived. All we needed to force the DWP to realise that it was feeding real people through the grinder was a planet-wide killer virus and thousands of people – probably millions – dead, or thrown out of work. I own to some surprise that even these disasters have given the DWP pause and I wouldn’t bank on that pause lasting, but we take what we can where it falls.
Nobody would deny people who’ve just lost their jobs either money or half-decent treatment by public sector bureaucracies. A member of my own family is now out of work. I’m just trying to say that a lot of us have already seen people die, or crash into poverty while being driven mad by a torturous and unnavigable benefits system. That all went down because of the DWP, not the coronavirus. I wonder if the DWP is working up a press release for them.