Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Dundee Fairness Commission met last night at the East Housing Office in Pitkerro Road to look at Welfare Reform.  With a compelling mixture of statistics and stories, Mary Kinninmonth of the Citizen's Advice Bureau and Ginny Lawson of the Brooksbank Centre laid bare the fear and bewilderment and powerlessness inflicted by the system on the most vulnerable of people.  Ginny described it as 'a maze without a map' and Mary said, "It cannot be right that people are left desperate."
Responding to the welter of evidence of the incomprehensible nature of the application of so many sanctions and their devastating consequences on people's lives, Alan Kane and Kirsty Marr of the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) asserted that sanctions are a key component of the contract: the Claimant Commitment which is a legally binding contract.  "There are no targets (for the application of sanctions)" they stated categorically, despite what may appear in the press.
They talked about 'work coaches' whose task is to create a personal work programme for each individual claimant that is feasible, yet so much of the evidence before us points to people running out of jobs to apply for and being sent for jobs they have no hope of getting.  So-called 'workfare' is presented as an opportunity to gain experience, but seems to many just another form of exploitation.  All this is both demoralising and demeaning, a far cry from the incentivising that is the claim of their political masters.  The fact that 30% of sanctions are cancelled illumines a disastrous catalogue of waste, anxiety, agony and disruption of claimants' lives as money is withheld for weeks, and sometimes months.  It cannot be described as anything other than intolerable!
Greg Colgan of Dundee City Council informed the Commission of a range of services and projects that the Council has to try to break the cycle of debt.  Believing that support is best when community based, he described amongst other things the GP surgery project which has welfare rights advisors based in the surgery.  It has had massive results in benefits maximisation.  But all the time it seems that in the face of the Government's reforms it is like trying to push a huge boulder uphill all the time.  It was a member of the public, (who were again present, a very welcome feature of the Commission's meetings) who put her finger on it when she declared passionately, "The reason behind Welfare Reform is cuts, it's not about helping people!"  It is already well publicised that the current reforms will cost Dundee £56 million annually.
As we process our aim of seeking to create a 'living wage city', we will be looking specifically at the terms and conditions being offered to prospective employees of the new Sports Direct shop and gym.  An outcome of last night's meeting has been that we have been asked if the 'living wage city' could be coupled with the pursuit of a 'workfare-free city'.  The challenges mount.

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