On Monday 3rd October (2016) demonstrators will be descending on High Riggs jobcentre at Tollcross in Edinburgh. From noon till 2pm protestors will be insisting that “Advocacy is not a crime” and that the DWP must recognise the right of all claimants to be accompanied at all benefits interviews. What’s this all about?
On 1st September staff at High Riggs Jobcentre not only refused to allow an Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty volunteer to accompany an ill and vulnerable young person to an appointment, but also turned away the claimant’s own father. The result was a stand-off with Jobcentre staff who refused to acknowledge the right to be accompanied, the use of the police yet again to enforce their bad management, and the claimant being forced to complete an important hour-long interview by himself.
It began with ECAP’s latest front-line advocacy stall at High Riggs. While we were outside the Jobcentre handing out leaflets and talking to claimants, we got chatting to a man and his son who were on their way in. The son had recently had his Employment and Support Allowance application refused following a work capability assessment, and had been called in to open a claim for Job Seekers Allowance. He was clearly worried and apprehensive about the appointment. He told us that the work capability assessment had ignored a lot of what he had reported, he knew he wasn’t well enough to deal with the Jobcentre and was worried he would end up sanctioned and losing his benefits.
One of us in ECAP offered to accompany him and his father to the interview. When we entered the jobcentre, not only did we get the usual response that we had to provide proof of identity for ‘safety’ reasons (this appears to be a local policy applied only at High Riggs), but we were told that the claimant was only allowed one accompanier so one of us would have to leave. The claimant said he would go to the interview with his father, and while the ECAP advocate requested a meeting with the manager to challenge this spurious new ‘rule’.
However it was then alleged that the father had been ‘abusive’ and would not be allowed to accompany his son either. Both the father and the ECAP advocate were ordered to leave the building and surrounded by G4S security while the claimant was led upstairs to his interview. We both stood our ground and demanded the right for the claimant to be accompanied, at which point the Jobcentre staff summoned the Police. We remained calm and simply said we would stay until we were allowed to join the claimant.
BASIC HUMAN RIGHT DENIED
At this stage two ECAP activists who had been leafleting outside realised something was wrong and came into the jobcentre to find out what was going on. On learning that a claimant was being denied his right to be accompanied, the activists joined me and the claimant’s father in insisting the DWP follow their own rule and recognise this basic human right. We insisted on a meeting with the manager. Eventually, following more bluster from the G4S guards unsuccessfully ordering us to leave, a woman claiming to be the acting manager arrived.
This manager, Hazel Wright, eventually offered to discuss the issues with my colleague in the screened area of the jobcentre. He writes: “My hopes that the manager would see sense were quickly dashed. She asked why I was in the jobcentre and I replied that we were from a welfare rights group affiliated to ECAP and a vulnerable claimant had asked us to accompany him – this explanation was ignored. The manager was very agitated, continually interrupted and just wouldn’t listen. She soon got up and stormed out. I then discovered that I had been locked in the screened area, unable to return to the main jobcentre floor! Presumably they intended to keep me imprisoned there till the police arrived. Fortunately I managed to escape outside to the street….This duplicity and bad faith by the DWP will backfire on them – the lesson is that in such situations any future negotiations will be carried out in public on the jobcentre floor…”
Meanwhile, despite the fact that we were not attempting to disrupt their business, the staff insisted on locking the main jobcentre entrance and redirected people going in and out to a side entrance (it was just as well for the staff that they were not actually in any kind of danger as the police took about 40 minutes for two officers to arrive). The police then proceeded to physically push us out of the building, simply repeating the Jobcentre view that we had no right to be there. When we pointed out to the police that they were helping the DWP deny the claimant’s legal right to be accompanied, they claimed that the jobcentre was “private property”!
It was at this point that the claimant himself emerged somewhat shaken, having completed his interview alone. We assured him that we would continue to support him, accompany him if he wished. and we were able to advise him on what to do next.
This latest denial of rights follows the recent conviction of Scottish Unemployed Workers Network activist Tony Cox following his arrest for accompanying a vulnerable woman to a Maximus disability benefits assessment centre in Dundee, and G4S guards assaulting an ECAP accompanier at High Riggs in February – the High Riggs bosses subsequently backed down and allowed the same ECAP advocate access when over 50 demonstrators from all round Scotland besieged the jobcentre a fortnight later
At the consultation on the Scottish Social Security Bill on 19th August, organised by the Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform, Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities Angela Constance MSP declared – in response to questions from ECAP and SUWN activists – that all claimants had the right to be accompanied by the advocate of their choice. “Dignity and respect is at the heart of what we do… It is up to an individual to decide who supports them…”, the Cabinet Secretary stated.
Will Angela Constance now do something to back up these fine words? Will the Scottish government now act to end the culture of intimidation and bullying in jobcentres and disability benefits assessment centres? Will the Scottish government stop the use of Police Scotland to uphold breaches of claimants’ human rights? If not, then the SNP’s anti-austerity rhetoric will be exposed as mere hollow words.
ECAP knows that in the end winning rights is achieved by action from below. To challenge the power of the state bullies and lackeys we need to build our own counter-power.
ECAP and our sister groups round Scotland in the Action Against Austerity network have called for solidarity action for Monday the 3rd of October, 12pm to 2pm outside High Riggs jobcentre to ensure that the basic human right to be accompanied to any benefits interview by the person of your choice, is respected. An official complaint is a given, but experience shows that direct action speaks louder than words.
This is a fight for all claimants, for all who care about human rights and for all working class people. The assault on benefits is central to the whole austerity attack – the ruling class want to make life on benefits intolerable so workers will accept any old crap wages and conditions. But the bosses forget – we are many and they are few.
Join us on 3rd October!
Solidarity action will beat the bullies!
ADVOCACY IS NOT A CRIME
“Customers have the right to ask a representative to help them conduct their business with DWP and it is important that DWP balances this with our duty to protect the personal information we hold. This is particularly important for customers with any disabilities or conditions that make it difficult for them to express themselves adequately. Representatives can also be helpful to DWP in helping us to obtain the information that we need. It is important that we have good working relationships with representatives, whether they are from the advice organisations or are simply family members or friends so that we can give our customers the best possible service.”