I don’t get angry all that often; or maybe come to think of it, I’m just quite good at hiding it most of the time!
I’ve been angry this summer though, and no hiding it. I am angry and despairing at the way people get treated by the UK welfare system – that is, badly. We all know that there have been harmful welfare cuts, often to the most vulnerable. We are aware of court judgements that have deemed the UK Government’s actions discriminatory to those with disabilities. We all know that the Scottish Government has spent hundreds of millions of pounds mitigating the worst excesses of the so-called ‘welfare reforms’, despite budget cuts passed on to Holyrood.
For a long time now my constituency office in the Town Centre has been dealing with a rising number of enquiries from constituents who feel that errors have been made, or wrong decisions applied, by the UK Department of Work and Pensions. Generally, front-line staff at the DWP have been helpful, recognising errors, willing to help; usually through a phone call from my office to the ‘resolution helpline’, a hotline to officers who respond to queries from members of parliament. There are times too where constituents have been able to come to my office and speak on the phone with the ‘resolution helpline’ so that a situation could be fixed with minimum fuss and stress for the client involved.
At the start of July, this all stopped. All of a sudden, with no notice, we were informed that no longer would this service be available to members of the Scottish Parliament – now we are told queries must be in writing, that signed Mandates are required, that they don’t know when responses will be given. Note that I say ‘told’ – there has been nothing in writing, either to members of the Scottish Parliament or indeed to those local DWP officers who work on the front line.
No wonder I’m angry! We are talking here about cases where mistakes have been made, where agreed payments have not been received; cases of people with physical and mental bad health; people who cannot pay their bills, people who cannot afford to heat their homes; people who are hungry and have no food in the house.
I wrote to the UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions at the beginning of July, and then again in August, about this change in practice. I highlighted how difficult this new process is for constituents. I highlighted her own department’s guidance which clearly states how queries through Members of the Scottish Parliament should be dealt with. The only response I’ve had is to say that the response is delayed because of the Westminster Parliamentary recess! Well, blow me – how dare stressed or hungry residents of East Kilbride interfere with the Minister’s holidays!
Today, as this column is printed in the EK News, marks 20 working days since my last letter to the Westminster Government. If no response, indeed if no change in procedure, I’ll be writing again. This time I’ll be highlighting some of the cases that we’ve been dealing with in my office in Strathmore House:
- Claims suspended because paperwork not sent in – well, it had – twice in one case!
- Registered disabled applicants having to make additional journeys to sort out errors not of their making
- Agreed benefits not being transferred to bank accounts
- Sanctions wrongly applied
The stress that all of this causes to people is immeasurable, and avoidable if common sense, compassion and care is applied. Surely that’s not too much to ask.