As the full extent of benefits cuts kick in, ROBERT ARMOUR discovers a surge of grassroots activists determined to fight back across Scotland with direct action
CAN direct action change government policy on welfare cuts? Blane McPherson believes so. Last week he protested alongside 15 others outside a Dundee Jobcentre after a disabled person, Martha Phelly, had her benefits sanctioned because, according to Jobcentre Plus staff, she refused to take work.
It means she goes without cash and housing benefit, leaving her in a very vulnerable situation. Despite walking with a stick due to rheumatoid arthritis, the 52 year old wants to work. She just doesn’t want to be forced into jobs she knows she can’t keep.
“Why should she?”
“They want her to take a job she’s knows she’ll struggle with. She finds standing upright for long periods difficult but they want her to apply for any job they feel she’s qualified to do ignoring her obvious disability. It just makes no sense.”
As a result of the protest Jobcentre staff have promised to review her case but in the meantime she’s still being sanctioned. That means no money whatsoever and clients who are sanctioned also can’t apply for crisis loans. With her rent not being paid, it also means she’ll enter into an interminable cycle of arrears which she won’t be able to escape from if and when her benefits are reinstated.
It was the direct action taken by her supporters that led the Jobcentre to announce a review of the case. But this case is just one of many. Since the latest phase of benefits cuts have been instigated, these kinds of protests have been happening up and down the country in support of individuals left with little to nothing to live on.
Backed by local groups, communities are taking direct action against the changes in a way not seen since the Poll Tax protests in the 80s. Protests are regularly taking place in all of Scotland’s cities with action fomented locally at the grass-roots level.
The Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty (ECAP) was another group mounting a Jobcentre protest last week. Over a dozen supporters assembled outside the Leith branch of JobCentre Plus after it was alleged the management were instigating sanctions targets.
It has long been suspected targets exist but it is something the Department and Work and Pension vigorously deny. Nonetheless, it didn’t deter about 40 protesters standing outside the Jobcentre from leafleting passers by.
Ethel MacDonal, one of the organisers, said the demonstrations were are a response to need rather than any ideological or political motivation. Desperation is forcing direct action she said.
“People are really suffering because of sanctions. Right now we are opposing sanctions imposed on a disabled claimant who is having to live on £26.05 per week because he was too ill to go to an appointment with the Ingeus workfare provider. What’s more, most claimants who are sanctioned have their money stopped completely, for anything from one month to three months.”
Her view, like many, is that the majority suffer because of the greed of a minority, bankers, for example, who presided over a chaotic profit-driven system that ultimately failed. Now it’s the most vulnerable that are being made to pay.
“It’s time for action to assert that people’s needs must be the priority, not money. We can’t rely on any of the political parties so we organise at the grass-roots, through people power.”
The group was created with the backing of doctors and GPs in response to the growing number of both physically and mentally ill people who were coming to their surgeries because they couldn’t cope with the way the government was targeting them.
The movement has shown that people from all classes and all professions are united in opposition to the cuts.
“It is not about vested interests, rather it is about social justice,”
“People from all walks of life, from all social backgrounds can relate to the injustices being perpetrated against those who need our help,”
said a spokesperson.
“Instead of getting help they are being vilified. As a doctor I see the effects and I’m telling the government that it is not working. People who are vulnerable are being stigmatised and abused further. They need support, not condemnation by an uncaring regime.”
The sanctions regime, however, is just the thin edge of the wedge. The bedroom tax has ignited the nation’s ire like nothing before and groups across the country are springing up to oppose it.
Even in rural areas, as far north as Banff to Galloway in the south, local communities are meeting to develop ways to oppose the tax.
The Scottish Socialist Party has been organising many of the meetings but disabled people’s organisations and welfare rights groups have also been setting up local meetings to oppose the tax.
Many local councils and housing associations now won’t evict if individuals accrue arrears through the tax. Those with an extra bedroom are losing on average £11 a week from their benefits but for campaigners the non-eviction policy is not enough.
Bob McKinnon, an organiser from the Scottish Socialist Part in Perth says people are still being downsized by councils and housing associations where they can’t pay the tax.
“Tenants are being told they won’t be evicted but at the same time moved to smaller homes,” he said.
“So basically they are saying we won’t evict you but only if you move house. It might be in a less preferable area and people might just not want to move. So while housing bodies have been quick to respond with the no eviction PR, there’s another story behind the headlines.”
McKinnon believes many concessions have been won through community protests and the government will only keep trying to see what it can push through. However if local groups rise up, they’ll back down.
“I think the analogy with the Poll Tax demos is accurate,”
“The demographic might be a bit different as the bedroom tax and the welfare cuts only affect those on benefits, but the wider public is reacting with outrage to policies they thought had disappeared with Margaret Thatcher.
“We expect opposition to grow. The more people learn of the injustices the more pressure will build. Some think these policies are here to stay. I don’t think so, certainly not in Scotland anyway.”
|Leith JobCentre the focus of sanctions demonstrations|
PROTESTERS outside Leith JobCentre last week said sanctions effectively removing benefits from claimants for not adhering to strict rules is a tactic being employed by JobCentre managers to meet quotas.
The police were guarding the JobCentre from hours before the demo and when protesters arrived police numbers grew to double figures. Some demonstrators entered the JobCentre but were stopped by police in the foyer and frogmarched out.
The policeman in charge declared the Public Order Act was in force and under its provisions ordered people to leave the approach ramp to the JobCentre. Despite this demonstrators crowded round the door, guarded by a row of police. A cacophony of whistles, spoons beating on pots and chants of “We will not be sanctioned!” and “We won’t be your 30%” informed staff inside the building of the presence of protesters.
The Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty says sanctions are being widely used to get the claimant count down instead of supporting them into work.JobCentre advisors are increasingly pushing claimants into jobs they neither want or are suitable to fill, according to the campaigners. Since many have just come off disability or incapacity benefit, many haven’t worked for years and find the transition into work impossible without support.
One demonstrator told how she herself had been sanctioned and was surviving on meagre hardship payments. Others claimed that staff at Leith JobCentre were trying to bully and threaten them into signing up to the Universal Jobmatch government job search account and give permission for their jobsearch to be electronically monitored.
The rumour that the manager had told staff that 30% of claimants were not meeting the conditions for receiving Job Seekers Allowance each week – and therefore should be sanctioned – is widely quoted and gives backing to claims of bullying.
A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson however said: “DWP policy is very clear – we do not set sanction targets.
“It’s only right that people should do everything they can to find work if they want to claim Jobseekers Allowance. We make it clear to people at the start of their claim what the rules are and that they risk losing their benefits if they don’t play by them. Sanctions are only used as a last resort and people who are in genuine need can apply for hardship payments. If someone disagrees with a decision made on their claim they can appeal.”
BLACK TRIANGLE NOTE
In case of any doubt, while we do enjoy widespread support from grassrooots members of the BMA who fully back our campaign in solidarity, Black Triangle is first and foremost a disabled people’s organisation set up and run by and for disabled folk, their families and carers.
Our lobbying efforts with regard to BMA’s leadership is currently running at full throttle. Dr. Stephen Carty is our campaign member and Medical Adviser. More on our progress in future posts. Hopefully soon!
Needless to say, we will never relent until the entire profession joins with us in the fight to protect all sick and/or disabled people from the evil of the government’s so-called ‘reforms’ that are killing disabled people!