This article appeared in the Daily Record: 18/08/2018 [Online], Available: https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/peoples-dignity-must-prioritised-scotland-13098281 [Accessed: 2018, Aug 18]
“Applying for benefits is like voluntarily admitting yourself to a torture chamber,” said one young man who came to the foodbank I was running in Dundee a few years ago. His benefits had been sanctioned because he had not bought the local newspaper on a Friday to look at the employment section, despite arguing that he didn’t have the 70p required. Having worked in foodbanks for more than the last decade of my life, I have heard some stories that would make your skin crawl.
Whether it’s a middle-class mum fallen on hard times who was so malnourished she had to give up breastfeeding after six weeks, a father who attempted to take his own life after losing 14 per cent of his Housing Benefit for having a spare bedroom, or a young woman who refused sanitary items at the foodbank because, according to her GP, she hadn’t had a period for several months because she wasn’t getting enough calories, these stories get under your skin.
This year marked 14 years since I last applied for Jobseeker’s Allowance. Having moved on from my previous employer some months ago, I decided it was time to venture back into a Jobcentre but, on this occasion, as the jobseeker. I questioned if it would be as bad as the horror stories I had heard or that Ken Loach depicted in I, Daniel Blake? I set foot, one chilly morning, over the threshold of the entrance at my local Jobcentre.
With no indication of where to go, I had to rely on a fellow jobseeker who pointed to an automatic door that forcefully opened itself outward as if intent on preventing me from getting in. I took the lift to the fourth floor surrounded by a handful of my new colleagues, all of whom looked fairly subdued. As the lift opened, I was confronted by two sturdy security guards with walkie-talkies who asked me to set down the portable cup of tea made by my wife as I was leaving the house. Perhaps they feared I would throw it over a staff member if I didn’t like the outcome of my claim.
Though the advisers were unexpectedly helpful, I found the arcane language unsettling. A claim for Universal Credit can lead to a wait of up to five weeks for a payment, which is made in “arrears”, as if you have done something wrong before you even start. You then sign up to a claimant commitment and are assigned a work coach to ward off the wobbly waistline of worklessness and, if you fail to comply, you’ll be sanctioned.
Fourteen years spent in foodbanks has taught me that poverty, and the unemployment that underpins it, is isolating and depressing. Many just need to vent and who better to than someone willing to listen and empathise? But many employed in our current system seem under-equipped to communicate effectively with people experiencing poverty and, worse still, they have a panic button under their desk which screeches for security if a claimant gets too anxious or above their station.
What is clear is that this system works for the articulate, educated and intelligent. When my work coach saw my CV at my first appointment, he said: “You won’t be around here for long”. But, in the open plan offices, I overheard young men share stories of mental ill health, single mums concerned about empty cupboards at home and older men worried they might be consigned to the scrapheap following a redundancy after working their entire lives.
Following the referendum in 2014, it was agreed under the Scotland Act 2016 that there would be further devolution in areas of welfare and the Scottish Parliament would assume responsibility of about a dozen benefits including Disability Living Allowance and Carer’s Allowance. I have family members who are, or have been, in receipt of both at some point. It is for these reasons I have been following the progress of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill through the Scottish Parliament.
The new system embodies a belief that social security is a human right and espouses the principles of dignity, fairness and respect. Its chief architect and former minister for social security, Jeane Freeman, ensured the system would include the experiences of benefit claimants in its design as well as its delivery. She has said these principles must be more than “just warm words. They need to be made real for people.”
But some frontline charities have privately expressed concern that senior staff members have transitioned from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to the new Social Security Scotland (SSS). They worry this could undermine the opportunity to do things differently.
I believe the current system is ideologically removed from the motivation of its late founder, William Beveridge, who once said: “Adventure comes not from the half-starved but those who were well-fed enough to feel ambition.” Last week, I met the newly-appointed SSS chief executive, David Wallace, and was very impressed. He has an opportunity to rediscover those guiding principles but we must defend that opportunity for the sake of those whose dignity will depend upon it.