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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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How welfare cuts are destroying once proud communities

This feature is over 6 years old

As Universal Credit is increasingly rolled out across Scotland, TFN looks at the real stories behind the cuts and discovers people struggling in their daily lives to live off a system pitched against them

Most weeks Mick has heating for three days and electricity for four. After food his prepay meters are his biggest outlay. Last month it was particularly bad, going two weeks without heat or power. That was due to having his £83 Employment Support Allowance sanctioned for being late for an interview and then missing an appointment with a Jobcentre advisor.

After being sanctioned, he was told his benefits were being re-assessed, a move Mick said was fuelled by vindictiveness.

“That’s what is has come to,” he says. “Jobcentre advisors have become openly hostile. They’ve got targets to hit and they are constantly trying to find ways to stop your payments. Every two weeks I dread having to sign on. They always find some problem, some issue. At times I’m tempted to tell them to shove it. But I just can’t.”

Personal Independence Payments, known as PIPs, are supposed to help with extra costs because of long-term health problems or disabilities. They were brought in to replace Disability Living Allowances and apply to people aged between 16 and 64. The Tories decided to scrap the old system in 2012. The weekly rate is between £55.10 and £82.30. There are additional “mobility” payments.Claimants and charities say the assessments cause delays, unfair dismissal of claims and confusion of who is eligible.

Despite his benefits being reinstated on appeal, Mick says the £150 debt he accrued during the two-week sanction period will consign him into many more months of dark, cold nights, a situation from which he can’t escape.

For Mick this is the reality of living off benefits. Made redundant from a decently-paid job in the printing industry 15 years ago, Mick became ill and hasn’t worked since.

“The reality is I don’t ever think I’ll work again,” he tells me during a community drop-in session in Edinburgh’s Sighthill. “I suffer anxiety and the more debt I get into the worse it gets. I’m ashamed to say I depend on benefits to live.”

A quick glance around the dozen or so folk in the centre and you quickly realise living off benefits doesn’t afford a lifestyle, merely an existence. There’s a café serving steaming bowls of soup, toasted sandwiches, tea and coffee. But even the cost-effective £2.50 charged for soup and a sandwich is out of reach for many.

“They’ll nurse a tea or coffee all day but they don’t come here to eat,” says Gillian Hearle, who manages the café. “They come to talk and to let off steam about things. We speak about older people being isolated but the unemployed and the disabled can go weeks without speaking to anyone. That’s why we’re here: just so people can get out, to talk to others, to feel part of society.”

Mick says isolation and loneliness is now part of his world. “You try to be active,” he says. “On the whole, being out of work is a very confidence-sapping experience. It’s got worse since the new benefits came in. Hostility towards us – the disabled and the out-of-work – is getting worse. It makes you want to hide away.”

Food, says Mick, is a perennial problem. He is referred to foodbanks once a week and has come to rely on them. "It’s not fresh, mostly tinned and there’s rice and cereal and stuff. It keeps me going,” he says. “I might buy sausages or some meat every other Friday when I get my money but rarely do I eat fresh food these days. I need the cash for the meters.”

Our chat is overheard by Bill, a Sighthill community stalwart. “Eat more pulses as they're cheaper than meat and full of protein,” he tells Mick. “Add beans or lentils to mince when you cool it - the mince will go much further,” he insists.

There’s also advice on how to cook energy efficiently: “When you cook rice or pasta bring the pan to boil then after putting the lid on turn the heat off,” he says. “Leave it for 25 minutes and the rice will be cooked. Boil eggs the same way, leaving them for 15 minutes,” he says.

Judging by official estimates the situation for Mick won’t get better any time soon, and probably will become worse. Figures show welfare cuts are expected to reduce annual social security spending in Scotland by almost £4bn by 2020/21 and while Scotland’s new social security system will offer some respite from the Westminster regime, sanctions will continue and claimants won’t be financially better off.

Philip McKay, who runs the Sighthill Community Forum, tells me the cuts are “destroying” an area still trying desperately to grasp the green shoots of regeneration.

“They’ve given with one hand, then taken much, much more with the other,” he says. Mackay shows me some of the projects regenerated with European and central government cash – the canal, the new housing and student accommodation and funding for the Youth Olympics – that are being counteracted by the “hundreds” of families who are being driven to foodbanks by the cuts agenda.

“The best way to invest in this community is to invest in its people,” he says. “It’s not all about money. It’s far more about dignity, pride and respect. These are proud people being made to go begging to government and charities. It’s humiliating and undignified. It’s destroying these proud people. And it’s being allowed to happen.”

Later we join a meeting between Scottish anti-cuts campaigners, anti-poverty campaigners and their English counterparts in neighbouring Niddrie, where the language is all about the “war against cuts”, “battling the Tory government” and there’s even talk of an uprising.

While there is no doubt the cuts are pushing communities to act, veteran bedroom tax campaigner Pat Chambers tells me the problem is that civil action is not being properly organised. Instead disabled campaigners are fighting their own cause while other disparate groups are fighting their separate battles, albeit against a common enemy.

“When it comes to rallies and protests we do join with other campaign groups. It’s just that it can be very difficult to reach out to all those being affected by the cuts. Many don’t want to protests or take to the streets. I can understand that. Disabled campaigners have been the most vocal, despite being the least physically mobile. I think that illustrates the strength of feeling the cuts have engendered.”

Phil McKay
Phil McKay

Pat introduces me to 33 year old Jocelyn, who was recently judged fit to work. She is one of the few who have actually failed to win their appeal. That means she now has to find a job or lose her benefits, a situation she says fills her full of dread. Despite having a mild learning disability, assessors working on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decreed she has no barriers to employment. But Jocelyn believes she has no hope of ever finding work because the support to help those with “issues” just doesn’t exist.

“Since leaving school at 16 I’ve never worked,” she tells me. “My mum supports me, always has. I’ve just been told to apply for jobs by the Jobcentre. They ask me what I want to do but I don’t want to do any job because I can’t get into work without some sort of help. It makes me anxious thinking I might be forced into a job or that I will get my money stopped.”

While there’s advice on applying for benefits and what to do when they get stopped, there’s scant support to help people transition into work says Pat.

“If you are in Jocelyn’s situation, you’re out on your own,” he says. “Her case isn’t an isolated one either. It’s pitiful to see people who need support struggle like this. Some make themselves known. But most don’t. I’ve no idea what happens to these people – maybe they take their own lives. Two people I knew in this area have committed suicide this year alone.”

As winter approaches Mick reckons dozens of people in his situation face serious problems as universal credit get s rolled out to more areas and the cuts bite deeper.

It is, he says, a situation that will only get worse and probably never get better.

“No government would ever dismantle this system,” he says. “We’re convenient victims for the government to target. The fact we’re getting our own social security system is welcome but it makes little difference. I lost hope years ago. It’s unlikely I’ll ever get it back.”

A place where people's lives are ruined

How welfare cuts are destroying once proud communities

Susan Lightbody describes to TFN what it is like to go through a fit-for-work assessment which everyone receiving disability benefits is required to undertake as part of the move to the new Personal Independent Payments (PIP)

We had been waiting for the letter for over a year. I say we because I look after my dad and any decision affecting my benefits affects him directly too.

I’ve been out of work for nearly 12 years. Diagnosed with COPD and arthritis, my medical condition has never been in doubt. That is until I was assessed for the new Personal Independent Payments (PIP). Suddenly I was having not only to defend myself against the suggestion I could work, but I also had to justify why I can’t.

You are assessed by a nurse in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) building in Cadogan Street, Glasgow. You press a bell and a security guard greets you. It doesn’t look like a medical centre – there’s a lot of security and you can feel the tension. It’s a place where people’s lives can be ruined.

Medical records and doctors’ letters have no bearing during the assessment; the assessors make up their own mind. The staff are pleasant but chat is limited. It seems they’ve been told not to converse with claimants as they just smile in response.

Even though I found the nurse pleasant, she asked a range of personal and invasive questions. She wanted to know my relationship status and whether or not being single had anything to do with my illness.

She then asked about my work history, constantly checking this against my records. There were also questions about my lifestyle which I objected to. They ask you to walk 10 metres back and forward. They get you to stand, sit and conduct a series of repetitive tasks many of which I wasn’t sure why Iwas being asked to undertake them.

You end up trying to second guess the examiner. You can’t be yourself as all along you’re worried that by telling the truth you could have your claim thrown out.

And they pick up on everything you say. I got told I was contradicting what I had said earlier when I’d told the nurse I couldn’t stand for long. She said that went against my account of walking for 30 minutes each day. But I meant I couldn’t stand still for long.

By the end of the process I was a nervous wreck. When I got home I burst into tears in front of my dad. It was possibly the most humiliating experience of my life.

Two weeks later I was told I lost my claim for PIP. I was devastated. I appealed and lost but then re-appealed and was “re-assessed.” I did however lose some of my benefits, cash I can ill afford to lose.

If I was told to go through the experience again I’d refuse. I’d genuinely rather go without benefits than get forced to endure that anxiety and stress.