“THIS is the story of Paul, believed to be the first person sanctioned for three years by the Department of Work and Pensions in Dundee. Paul has committed no crime but must endure deprivation beyond anything the average prisoner will ever face – with an even longer sentence. That should matter to everyone, because the average Scot without personal savings is just three months away from benefits if they lose their job. And thanks to the punitive sanctions regime, backed by David Cameron and Ruth Davidson, being on benefits these days brings the risk of losing everything.
I met 45-year-old Paul in Dundee Food Bank last week. He doesn’t want his surname used for fear of further penalties. And that’s understandable. He already faces three long years living on just £36 a week. That measly hardship allowance is available because even David Cameron’s welfare state cannot leave claimants completely stony broke. But it’s not the “full” £48 a week either because the DWP is deducting money for past, overpaid claims. The state pays housing benefit and most of Paul’s council tax, though only because support workers made Paul declare his position to Dundee council. Claimants who don’t know they must do that are still liable to pay. From his meagre £36 Paul must pay water and sewerage charges, electricity and gas. He hardly uses heating, preferring to spend the cash on hot water to stay clean and presentable. He has no phone. No computer. No way to replace anything that breaks. And no food. And he must survive like this until September, 2018.
So what on earth did he do to incur the wrath of the DWP?
Paul doesn’t really know.
The DWP sanctions regime doesn’t operate like an angry teacher announcing detention after a specific bit of bad behaviour. Usually claimants go to their bank and simply find no payment. Shortly after that a letter may arrive explaining the length but not the reason for the sanction. You must work that out for yourself.
When sanctions started in 2014, a variety of penalties were announced, ranging from two, four, 13 and 26 weeks to three years without benefits based on the very tough American welfare regime. But according to Dundee support staff, the length of sanctions escalated so quickly that 26-week sanctions are now commonplace.
Worse. According to Making Money Work – a Dundee financial inclusion project – every single sanctioned individual they have helped has mental health problems, depression or learning difficulties. Staff say: “Fly-by-nighters know how not to get sanctioned. The folk getting hit have all got problems managing everyday life let alone the complex systems of the DWP.” Unbelievably one Dundee woman with learning problems ended up with two concurrent 13-week sanctions after DWP staff commented she wasn’t filling in her “work commitment booklet” properly.
Paul, too, failed to show evidence of 10 job searches a week and was sanctioned – then sanctioned again after being 10 minutes late for an appointment and further sanctioned (perhaps) after pointing out that he was usually kept waiting half an hour. He also tried to explain how unrealistic it was to expect a man with no phone or computer to make 10 meaningful job searches a week in a city with the fourth worst employment rate in the UK last year. Who knows – that probably got him another two weeks without benefits.
It certainly put a big dent in the self-esteem of a skilled worker who paid tax and national insurance stamps all of his life until he was laid off as a chef at the Hilton Hotel (along with 250 other staff) when it was demolished in 2014 to make way for the new Waterfront development.
At the time, nothing daunted, Paul had applied for building work on the new V&A Design Museum citing experience on the refurbishment of Waverley Station, the construction of Uphall Station and five years in the construction industry around London when he was 18. But nae luck – even though Dundee council say 59 per cent of Waterfront jobs are earmarked for local people.
Still Paul was confident of landing a job – he had also worked as a ticket collector for C2C in Essex where he lived with his partner and two children – and later at an oil “cracker plant”: “Mair money but you’re basically working with a bomb.” When that unit closed he worked abroad for 10 months before separating from his partner and coming back to work in Scotland. After construction work in Edinburgh, Paul came home to Dundee, retrained as a chef at Dundee College and landed a position at the Hilton.
From a man with a reasonable job in 2014 who was confident he’d easily find re-employment, Paul has become a man utterly stressed by the aggressive attitude and implacable obstacles of the benefits system who must live on thin air for the foreseeable future – despite having so many workplace skills.
And this could happen to almost anyone. According to staff at Making Money Work: “Paul was capable and able when first sanctioned. Now he’s lost a lot of weight through stress and doesn’t want to appeal against any sanctions in case it antagonises them. He seems to have had the fight knocked out of him. It’s a common story.”
Let’s be clear. Paul’s confidence has been destroyed and his skills rendered useless by a sanctions system we finance to help tens of thousands of people find work.
Mercifully though, in Dundee, help is always at hand.
Paul is Dundee food bank’s most regular customer with 11 visits so far. That’s still unusual – 80 per cent of Trussell Fund food bank users in Scotland are one-off clients – but according to Scottish Development Officer Ewan Gurr, more sanctioned claimants are becoming long-term visitors. It’s thought that’s boosted the user total of eight thousand people in Dundee during 2015. The Scotland-wide figures will be announced by the Trussell Trust tomorrow.
The Scottish Unemployed Workers Network is another group of citizen advocates. Volunteers like Tony Cox stand outside the job centre and try to catch sanctioned claimants as they leave. “We tell people about their rights. The DWP tell claimants using the online Universal Job Match is mandatory, for example, but it’s not. If you have learning problems or can’t fathom a computer, you don’t have to. But you do have to argue with them. We are very successful with appeals. But without help claimants just give up when they get a letter saying their “mandatory reconsideration” has failed. We know that’s just the start of the appeals process – not the end of it. But claimants on their own usually give in.”
So why is Dundee still Sanctions City?
Cox says: “The worst cases we deal with are older working-class people with manual jobs – often men who’ve spent their lives working on the roads. Many are illiterate and, if their wife dies or they get divorced, they can’t cope. This sector is where employment has collapsed most. So maybe that’s why Dundee suffers.”
In short, after 40 years digging holes or 40 years cleaning halls, men and women who have contributed taxes and are often broken physically with painful arthritis are being hounded to fall into every one of the DWP’s Kafkaesque traps. They are, in the words of Tony Cox, “first-time sanction fodder”.
And the rollout of Universal Credit will make the situation even worse.
I wonder if Scottish politicians appreciate how much folk like Paul are waiting for some light at the end of the long, hopeless tunnel. For a commitment by every Holyrood leader that the Scottish welfare state will scrap sanctions as soon as it acquires the power, deal fairly with claimants … and demand that Westminster throws the book instead at those stashing their wealth in offshore tax havens.