Sanctioned because you had covid… Great.

Another cracker from the the DWP’s We’ll Get You If Covid Hasn’t files:

We’re back at the Stockport jobcentre on Wellington Road and talking with Doug. Doug is in his late 50s and ready to rumble by the looks of things. Doug’s just had covid and had his benefits stopped for missing a meeting because of it. He’s here today to argue against the sanction with some work coach or other. Safe to say that we’ll know which adviser it was by the end of the week. It’ll be the one with covid.

“How are you?” I ask Doug about the covid.

“If they stopped sanctioning me, I’d be fine,” Doug observes. He says that he is okay to go into the jobcentre by himself: “I can argue with these people all day.” That at least is good to hear, not least because he’ll have to.

After that, Doug thinks he’ll probably need to clear the diary to root around for food. Doug says he’s got 2 tins of beans, a bit of mince and, from the sounds of things, an ageing berg of frozen chicken cemented to the back wall of the freezer which I guess he could try and make last until close of play Friday (It’s Tuesday morning).

The DWP, of course, will tell Doug to go to a foodbank, doubtless firm in the belief that joining the rest of sanctioned Stockport in this week’s race to whichever local foodbanks still have food is an excellent way to work off covid. Ditto for a rugged gnaw on a rock-hard bollock of snowed-in chook. Where you and I see hardship, the DWP sees a chance for people to grow, or at least to improve their fitness. The bin lorry will be out and about dribbling crap tomorrow, so maybe Doug could enter the spirit and trot after that with a plate.

Another possible plan, of course, would be for Doug to die – bit final maybe, but certainly one way to steal back his own narrative. Looks like Doug might ahead of the game on that one, too – he pulls his shirt aside to show me the scar under which his pacemaker resides. Which, now that I think about it, is probably not something to flash around these days. If Doug does keel over, the Tories will have that pacemaker out of his chest in under 5 and hosed off for takers on Marketplace. Although – what am I thinking. If they know Doug’s poor and claiming benefits, and getting older, they probably won’t even wait til he keels.

Austerity the sequel: how to rub out sick and disabled people who survived the first round

Another morning at Stockport jobcentre! – and straightaway, a reminder that energy companies have been trying to freeze some groups of people to death for a while – ie before this year, when energy companies decided to line up the rest of us.

I’m speaking to Chris, who is in her 50s. Chris has heart problems, diabetes and COPD. She has spent time in homeless hostels in the last few years.

Like many people at the jobcentre at the moment, somewhere in her mind, Chris lives on tenterhooks wondering who will finally rub her out: her energy company, or the DWP. Could be a dead heat, of course. They’re both putting a lot into it.

Chris’ energy company is currently hoovering money out of her paltry benefits for arrears repayments that she ran up when she had a place to live. Energy prices have long been out of Chris’s reach (I’ve written before about people in this situation) – upshot being that Chris is used to approaching winter in the crash position.

Which is exactly what she is doing now. “I’ve got no gas at the moment, because they’re taking £10 a week arrears off me, as well as it [prices] going up. So, I can’t afford gas.” Can’t say this bodes well for someone with a serious lung condition, but I can absolutely say that news of Chris’ situation will be music to Tory ears. This winter is their big chance to finish off a few of the poverty-stricken sick and disabled people who’ve somehow managed to cling on through Austerity One. Infamous leaky bumzit Jeremy Hunt knows perfectly well that these people are not going to survive Austerity Two and energy price rises, even if they’d really like to. But there we go. Such is austerity in the Tory mind. What’s a few more bodies on the pile.

For now, we can all surely agree that Chris and everyone at her end of late-capitalism’s great washout starts the new price cap era absolute miles behind. After that, I guess it’s just a matter of how long her lungs last.

Of course – the DWP is also busy lining Chris up for a hearse. She was getting sickness benefits, but then some wag in the department sent her for a work capability assessment and the DWP decided she was fit for work. Genius.

Chris didn’t appeal this decision, because she was worried that she wouldn’t have any money while she appealed. She didn’t know what to do, or who to ask, so “I just took it… I was in a homeless unit and if I wasn’t getting money, it wouldn’t be paid for, because they are large amounts, the rent.” So, now Chris spends her days coughing her way up the street to the Restart building for various useless back-to-work courses. Things are definitely going to end well for her.

BRING ME MY GUILLOTINE.

DWP: Are you poor and over 60? Get to work or drop dead. We’re here to help etc

Stockport has a second jobcentre now, so that’s where I’m taking you today.

We’ve been hearing about this second jobcentre for a while.

We’ve also been hearing that this second jobcentre is the one through which older universal credit claimants are now funnelled. I have wondered for a while what this second DWP location offers older benefit claimants that the first one doesn’t: probably a one-way door, a Dignitas popup and maybe a line of large freezers out the back. Sounds a bit bleak when you first think about it, but as the morning goes on and if you’re over 50 yourself, you kind of find you start to warm to it. Talk to a few oldies who must sign on and follow the DWP’s ridiculous fit-for-work and jobsearch rules, and you do begin to wonder if the fast track to an eternity in cold store is actually the better option.

For example: I’m speaking this morning with Norm, who tells me he is less than a year away from pension age.

Norm has problems with function and numbness in his arms and hands after years of technical work, and an accident which hurt his spine when he was young. He’s trying to get an appointment with one of the neurology departments round here, which is in itself proving a bigger challenge than Norm was looking for. He says that to start with, he has to get an appointment. If he does get an appointment, he has to wait at least a year for it. Lastly, he has to not croak before his appointment and/or pension age finally roll around – always an added pressure when your twilight years coincide with a Conservative government. I’m beginning to feel a bit of that pressure myself.

On the jobcentre and signing on for universal credit front – a little while back, Norm had a work capability assessment. This resulted in a report that turned out to be more a one-liner than a finding: Norm was told that he was fit to work as something, but nobody had any idea what.

“They’re saying that I’m fit enough to do some kind of work, but they don’t know what it is,” he says, rolling his eyes. We both know that nobody knows what it is, because it doesn’t exist. Norm knows and I know and everyone knows that nobody’s going to hire a man with health and mobility problems who is less than a year from retirement age. We can only imagine what kind of employment Liz Truss et al have in mind with rules that propose there’s work for older people who can’t move much: probably live organ donor, or a part-time gig to 3D print your own hearse. I’ll let you know, because I’m heading towards the time when I find out.

Until death or retirement then, Norm must regularly attend the job centre to talk about the “help” the jobcentre can give him to find work. I don’t believe that he should even have to do that, because he has a note from his doctor signing him off from work and, presumably, jobsearch. This means that Norm finds himself in a situation where he must attend the jobcentre to talk about the help the jobcentre can give him to find work that he won’t get, because a) he can’t do it and b) he’s already signed off sick from it. I’m sure this makes sense to someone.

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Does Boris Johnson have to wait 6 months and more for universal credit since he lost his job

Bet he bloody doesn’t.

Food for thought this week at Stockport jobcentre – how do you support yourself if you get sacked?

“You don’t”, looks like the answer to this one. Well – you can if you’re Boris Johnson and can repair to the family pile, unwind with a Gordon’s and soothe the hurt for the next decade by frittering your various slush funds, but we’re hearing today that the party is slower to start if you don’t have the pampered arse background, etc.

We’re talking this morning at the jobcentre with Gary, who tells us he lost his driving job at the start of April. April was also the last time that Gary got any money to speak of. He says that he’s been doing a bit of window cleaning here and there, but he generally gets a handful of change for that, rather than anything vaguely in the vicinity of a living wage. So – it can a while between cocktails for Gary, unlike Boris. Gary had to move in with his dad to stay housed, but even that fallback may not turn out as well as Boris Johnson’s various housing options, because Gary is facing eviction.

Needless to say, the DWP has mostly jilted Gary. Haven’t quite got round to googling this yet, but I imagine that getting the sack when you’re a pleb is a hanging offence, so they’re probably teeing that up. Certainly, the DWP is being furtive in its relationship with Gary. Gary says he applied for universal credit in April, but that that was his last meaningful interface with the department. He hasn’t heard anything useful from them since, despite messaging them and messaging them and messaging them, etc.

He certainly hasn’t seen any money. He’s still waiting for a DWP decision maker somewhere to actually make a decision about his sacking and whether or when he can get any universal credit and what the rules are and so forth. Had a poke around online and I think people who are sacked have to wait some random length of time to start getting universal credit – 13 weeks, or 91 days or somesuch, depending on the reasons why you lost your job – misconduct, etc. Couldn’t quite tell which officious twat decided that was the figure to pull out of the privy – doubtless some diehard policy nut who decided that sacked members of the lower orders needed to repent for at least 3 months and more, and sleep in and eat out of a skip during that time to really feel it, etc. Such is the vengeful DWP and our vindictive political class. Never thought I’d write this line, but you’d probably get more mercy from the Church. Anyway – whatever the rules, nobody’s telling Gary.

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Sanctions for people who need them least and struggle the most. Let’s hear it for the DWP!

Actually – let’s not.

We’re back at Stockport jobcentre:

First thing that happens – a security guard who over summer has made a keen, if hopeless, effort to befriend our protest group hurries out the front to pass on a dire and utterly vague warning. He’s done this a couple of times over the months – trotted out to alert us to some potential drama or other which I’ve never had enough coffee to get my head around.

“If you see the doors shut, it would mean something is going on,” the guard says, pointing meaningfully at the jobcentre doors. “It would be a good idea to move your protest… it’s your safety I’m worried about.”

My first thought is Sanctions – as in the jobcentre is planning to sanction someone who will (rightly) take it so badly that the jobcentre is planning to restrict the audience*.

Could be a repeat sanction for someone who didn’t respond too well to earlier ones. Jobcentres have long had an intriguing habit of laying repeat sanctions on people who are most likely to struggle to manage, or even remember, jobsearch commitments – which is, of course, why they keep getting sanctioned. These are people with addiction problems, mental health problems, prison histories and/or chaotic lives after years in care and in prison. The DWP seems to have this idea that even if you sleep in a ditch half the week, you should be up at dawn to log your commitments in Trello. Less mention is made of the fact that people haven’t got much support for learning ways to keep to the DWP’s meaningless routines, because the Tories have spent 12 years binning support. A lot of the people I speak with can barely read.

Let’s face it, too – even when you’ve done the right thing, the assumption will be that you haven’t. For instance: I’ve been talking in recent times with Barry, who has been in and out of prison for about 13 years, and totally at sea since he last left jail 4 years back. Barry says his most recent sanction (there have been a few) came about because the DWP said he’d failed to attend a work course that he was actually at.

“They said I hadn’t turned up, but I was there. I got the guy [who was running the course] on the phone to the jobcentre and he said “Barry’s been here.” There followed the usual one-way conversation where you try to explain and explain and explain, and begin to half-feel you’re on mute. I’ve done this with people more often that I care to recall – sat in a jobcentre office trying to get the DWP to see sense about a sanction, or even a wrongful claim closure. You talk on and on, and the DWP stares at you in silence like it is measuring you for a coffin. It’s like spending a morning trying to justify a new food to your cat.

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Disabled? Your council has decided you’re not any more. Praise the lord! and find your own housing.

Today we’re taking a brief break from DWP ballsups to talk about council ones.

Readers of this site may remember a story I posted earlier this year about N.

N is disabled, homeless and a mother to 2 very young children. She’s another domestic violence alumni – domestic violence being a problem that the world probably needs to get round to addressing with something closer to urgency. Bet plenty more more women get smacked over as massive energy bills land. Problems like that inevitably end up being our fault.

On with the story. Several years ago, N’s London council placed her in one of its notoriously bad homelessness hostels and there N has languished. She has one shabby room where she and her kids live (“live” is the romantic word for it), eat and sleep. These single rooms in this hostel are the sort of cramped, airless and often baking hot places that you’d be fined for leaving a dog in, but are entirely acceptable for poor families for years on end.

Still, hanging on even to this hovel has been a challenge for N – an unfair one, needless to say. At the end of last year, the council informed a then-pregnant N that she’d be evicted from the hostel, because she’d turned down a temporary flat the council had offered. N had good reason to turn the flat down – it was a ground floor place with a flimsy front door and an overgrown yard in which a pissed-off ex could lie in wait for the woman who’d dared to get a non-molestation order against him. N was too scared of her ex to tell the council any of this. So, she was still facing eviction when she gave birth. She was also whatsapping me and another housing activist about it from the delivery suite. Seemed a new low to me, but I can be slow to move with the times.

Anyway, we can probably put that unpleasantness behind us, because the council has since moved into a new field – miracle healing. Until now, as a lifelong atheist, I have tended to take the long view of this corner of the action, but maybe this will be the time when things finally take off.

Last week, an officer rang N (who is still languishing in the hostel) to say that N would have to accept a 2nd-storey flat with no lift if nothing else was available – this is even though N can’t climb stairs. Continue reading

DWP: we can send you on a useless course or on hopeless “work experience.” Let’s do both.

How’s another ride in the DWP clowncar:

It’s a nice sunny morning and we’re back at Stockport jobcentre.

This morning, we’re shooting the breeze with Steve*, who is telling us the one about the time when he was sent on an outdoor workfare-type experience in Levenshulme.

Somebody at Restart or wherever (can’t remember exactly – one or other of the usual welfare-to-work companies that have smelted into a single pile in my mind) decided a little while back that Steve and a few other unemployed blokes would make good (not to mention free) gardeners.

Steve and these others were instructed to turn up to some site where an impressive assortment of gardening kit awaited:

“They’ve got all the gardening tools, petrol strimmer and a motormower…” You got the feeling that somewhere in his mind, Steve had been looking forward to going large with some of these appliances.

It was also possible to see why this particular unpaid work experience (“you get paid nothing for it”) could be felt to beat other workfare “opportunities” that those of us on the circuit have seen over recent years – opportunities such spending the day as a sandwich board, helping test people for the clap (true story), and standing in the rain with a charity collection bucket, etc. When you recall George Osborne’s smug face as he rolled out his workfare programme, the chance to wield a strimmer strikes you as an opportunity in itself.

On with the story. Steve and the others had a look at the tools and things built up to the big moment. They went to their workfare gardening sites – not raring to start the unpaid work exactly, but possibly keen to see who did what with which tool…? okay – that’s probably more what I would have thought. Anyway – they were all set to fire up the strimmers and mowers, and the rest of the arsenal… so they yanked up the starter cords and… nothing. Nothing happened. Total silence. The strimmers and mowers wouldn’t start.

A cursory probe revealed that there was no fuel in any of the tanks. Nobody in charge had quite got around to getting petrol for the tools. A phone call to the work placement company that was in charge of the shambles revealed that nobody there was interested in paying for any, either.

Steve says: “I phoned the guy at the [work placement] place and he said, “we can’t afford the fuel… might as well go home, lads.”

Says Steve: “I got sent round to this woman’s house to mow the lawn, but the petrol was empty. She had an empty petrol can. I said I’ve come to sort your lawns out.”” That seems to have been the end of that – Steve on a lawn on his phone trying score some petrol with an impotent strimmer lying in some old love’s petunias. I can’t help feeling that there’s a metaphor for life in 2022 in there somewhere. I suppose the good news is that it ended up being an environmentally sound experience, in that the grass was left to grow and a litre or so of fossil fuel stayed in the earth, or was bought by someone else and thrown over their bonfire, or whatever. Anyway. Big start – small finish. That’s the DWP all over.

“It’s a joke what they’re doing,” Steve says.

It does sound like it.

Luckily for Steve, the DWP has plenty of other bad ideas up its sleeve. He says that last week, someone at Restart told him that he had to take up a cleaning job in Bolton. Continue reading

DWP: we are clawing back £6k you don’t owe and can’t pay. We rule.

And so we return to the DWP! – which seems to be holding Kick An Immigrant week. Again, that is. Why I am acting as though this week is special.

I’m at Stockport jobcentre and talking with M, an immigrant who has actually had British citizenship for a while. Possibly, this citizenship was one of those things that looked better on the brochure. So far, M’s UK experience has included the loss of his job during covid, homelessness and now a letter from the DWP which says he owes them £6000 in overpaid universal credit – a large and random sum that the DWP likely arrived at via incompetence and shit maths. Welcome to the West, my friend. This is the superior zone.

M is pretty sure that he doesn’t owe the DWP £6000. He is very sure that he can’t afford to repay it and still occasionally have money for food and clothing, etc. Nonetheless, the DWP is keen on the idea, so they’ve started taking money out of M’s now-miniscule universal credit payment each month to recover this “debt.” So here M is in a format that this government can’t get enough of – a bullied man with an accent, no home, no money and no hope. Talk about about a Tory hole in one.

Here’s the story. I can’t say it sounds a great ride. The DWP says M wasn’t living in his flat in 2020. M says he was. He knows he was living there, because he was living there. He woke up every morning and there he was. Still, the DWP says he wasn’t. M says he was. The DWP says he wasn’t. Round and round it goes.

It can be hard to get the DWP off these trips. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to convince the DWP that someone doesn’t owe a debt, or paid it back long ago, or, on really asinine calls, both. You can send paperwork, make calls and leave screenshots of bank statements in your universal credit journal which support and even prove your case, but your chances of a sensible interface generally settle around zero.

Still, M is trying. He says: “They [the DWP] said you left the house 2020. No – I left the house in 2021. I’m still there in 2021.” M has evidence that he was living at the address for which he was claiming universal credit. He has council tax and payment notices, and evidence from his landlord – “everything. I took in proof. [Now] I do not know what is coming tomorrow or the next day…I had family [in the home] before, I am still living there alone in the house, because of corona.”

M has managed to find an adviser at Stockport jobcentre who is helping him. He said that jobcentre staff were being decent to him. A number of people who come in and out of Stockport jobcentre say that today.

The problem that claimants and staff have got is the DWP’s benefits compliance and debt squads – faceless rows of We’re Shit Sherlocks who dream and doubtless wank over visions of themselves ambushing claimants. Hunting down and then slapping the poorest people with massive bills that they can’t pay isn’t my idea of a calling, but DWP compliance is hooked. They paw through benefit claims, truffling for inconsistencies, then fire off letters which accuse people of fraud, and then drink to that by walloping guys like M with clawback deductions.

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Do letting agents discriminate against benefit claimants up north or are they as shite as in London

Well.

A month or so ago, I rang some East London letting agents to ask if they would let flats to N, a single mother who’d pay her rent with universal credit. I explained that N was homeless, living in an emergency hostel with her 2 very young children, and in need of a 2-bedroom flat in the local area.

Readers of this site will know that I had high hopes which were met a bit lower. It is illegal now for letting agents to refuse to take benefit claimants onto their books, but letting agents also know very well that their landlords would rather bulldoze a flat than see a benefit claimant in it. When a benefit claimant calls, they must achieve a delicate straddle.

Gives them a good stretch anyway. The London agents I called were enthusiastic – one almost bodily from the sounds of it – about tenants who claim benefits. They said that N absolutely could register at their agencies.

Things peaked about there, though. The feeling among these agents was that after N registered with them, her best option was absolutely to give up. Hand on heart, these agents said – they would never reject N themselves, but as for asking their landlords… well, probably not worth it even for the laugh, really. Landlords demanded rich guarantors and upscale tenants, and would generally only let a single mother into one of their flats to mop it. What could you do, etc, etc.

Which is not to say these London letting agents were totally out of helpful suggestions. Far from it. Sure, London and London landlords might be a stretch, but the dream didn’t have to end there. Wouldn’t N be perfectly suited to a gumtree landlord and a flat in one of those out-of-London, up-North hellholes where the standards and hope are as meagre as the gene pool? – one of those timeworn places where everyone’s still paid in salt or buttons.

As luck would have it, I live in a such a place myself and I am always buoyed by a London endorsement, so I sat down straight away to ring up some Stockport and Manchester letting agents.

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Thoughts on the violence with which Tories punish benefit claimants who break rules. Don’t think many claimants even get a party out of it

I don’t usually give Tory politicians much thought, except to generally hope they all die. Partygate has roused me though, in what I feel is a very healthy BRING ME MY GUILLOTINE way.

There are 2 allegations I’d like to level at Johnson and Sunak and other party spares today.

The first one I think we can probably describe as murder. This could be hard to forgive.

I think it is possible – let’s call it a dead cert for accuracy’s sake – that Johnson and Sunak et al killed people by holding their parties and mixing with other people at them.

The lockdown concept was straightforward. You didn’t need training to grasp it. The idea was that we distanced ourselves from each other as well as we could so that we didn’t blow this killer virus around. It absolutely followed that if you met up with other people and as a bonus got pissed, you’d pick up the virus and breathe it onto whichever poor bastards had the misfortune to stray into your lethal cloud.

I know this was the idea, because I paid close attention to it. This was partly because I thought it was important for everyone’s health and partly because it was important to my chances of a lasting marriage. My (still) immunosupressed husband was on the extremely clinically vulnerable list. He got regular Stay Inside Or Die emails signed by Matt Hancock, who I now assume was penning these instructions from a dancefloor. Suffice to say that No 10’s lockdowns sounded more fun than ours.

Which takes us back to the parties.

It doesn’t take great imagination to know who’d have been at greatest risk from these parties. Inevitably, the people who take the real hits from these things are the usual disposables: people who clean toilets for and during flash parties, or people who prepare food, or people who worked in nearby shops that sold crisps and party booze, or carers and keyworkers who, during the party months, had to use public transport and/or tend to the sick and who had no choice but to breath in fumes guffed out by roaming Tory swingers and people they’d spread covid to.

There would also have been the family members of all these people – family members who shared the overcrowded and unventilated homes that low-paid people could not self-isolate in. And of course, of course – I realise that some people in these jobs might be migrant workers, so who would really be bothered counting, but still. You could kill people by holding parties and you could make a lot of other people very, very sick. A shit show even for Tory grandees.

I rant on.

Let’s move my second point/allegation – that the Tories let themselves off the hook for rule-breaking, but viciously punish people in poverty who break rules. Hypocrisy is the theme here.

To get a feel for this, let’s go to the DWP – the government department which for as long as I remember has jointly held first prize (with the Home Office, which may be edging ahead today with the Rwanda refugee-dumping idea) for the job of thrashing poor people on behalf of government.

I’ve spent over a decade going to jobcentre meetings with people at the absolute arse-end of poverty – jobcentres being places which deliver an absolute smorgasbord of opportunities for anyone who is looking to watch the state smash people in need.

The state does this by catching people out for “breaking” ridiculous rules – rules that have considerably less point to them than the Don’t Have Parties During Covid ones did.

Here, for example, is Linda – an older woman with learning and literacy difficulties, bawling her eyes out at Kilburn jobcentre. Why was Linda upset? A jobcentre adviser had closed Linda’s benefit claim, because Linda had broken the “missed meetings” rule that the DWP held sacrosanct for the very simple reason that it could trip heaps of people up on it. Linda missed 2 meetings, because she’d been very sick and had had thrombosis.

It was amazingly hard to find anyone who gave a shit about that, though. I searched for quite a while. Jobcentre advisers knew Linda well. The knew she had learning difficulties and was ill. They knew she needed on her benefits to buy food and pay rent (her housing benefit was stopped when her JSA claim was closed, which meant that the eviction threats had started piling up). Advisers knew there’d be a reason for Linda not showing up to meetings. They’d have known for sure she wasn’t at a party. Continue reading