Glasgow Service Cuts: Abandoned to the DWP

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Dozens of front-line legal aid and advice centres and refuges are at threat in Glasgow this Thursday. A law centre advisor who did not want to be named says that the cuts threaten to leave hundreds of thousands to the mercy of the DWP, and undermine social security reform plans.

Glasgow City Council (GCC) is set to vote on Thursday (4 August) to cut over £35 million from vital advice service agencies across Glasgow. If this vote is allowed to pass it will wreak untold damage to some of the poorest communities across the city, leaving hundreds of thousands of Glaswegians without the necessary agencies to access legal advice on areas such as employment, benefits, welfare and housing. Further, it will impact upon survivors of domestic violence and sexual violence as well as refugees and migrants. Together, these proposed cuts undermine the few remaining vestiges of the SNP’s social democratic credentials.

I began working in this sector as a volunteer and advisor and now currently as a solicitor. At the beginning I predominantly dealt with welfare and benefits claims and was horrified by the system which people were being asked to navigate. The disorientating, illogical and complex benefits process is constructed in such a way that it takes time and training to understand how to correctly put through claims. I came across people who were suffering from severe physical and psychological health problems who without assistance would not be able to access key benefits that would allow them to survive.

Many of the clients that came through the door were victims of abuse, suffered from addiction problems and had limited literacy. I have experienced clients breaking down, visibly distraught and articulating suicidal thoughts. This process puts a tremendous strain on individuals which deepens already pre-existing problems. The advice networks in place are already underfunded and must deal with the consequences of a decade of austerity where people have become so beleaguered that they struggle to find any sense of hope.

This is exacerbated when going through the arduous process of the current welfare system. In going through a benefits claim applicants must send in the appropriate paperwork within a certain timescale. If they fail as a new applicant they will be denied, or if they are an existing applicant they can be taken off their current benefit. On many occasions clients fail to realise this or they are in no fit condition to deal with the process.

When looking at those seeking basic benefits, who are out of work or unfit to work it is clear just how important advice services are. To apply for disability and sickness benefits, applicants are provided with long questionnaires which are then assessed against what are known as descriptors. A horrifying points system is used to decide whether people are worthy of receiving sometimes very low amounts. The UK currently lags behind many other EU countries such as Germany, France, Poland, Greece, Spain, Norway, Austria Denmark, Finland, Belgium and Italy in the proportion of national income it spends on welfare.

These descriptors allocate higher points depending on the severity of health condition/s. After this the applicants are invited to a medical where they are assessed by a (not necessarily medically trained) practitioner who will decide if an applicant is awarded and how much they will be awarded.

In my own experience I have seen many people have their claims rejected and the evidence of specialist medical practitioners ignored. At this stage applicants can appeal the outcome of their decision which can lead to a review and change. However the vast majority of the time an applicant will have to go to a tribunal and argue their case. Applicants who are already in a position of next to no power are then expected to argue their case against the state. Without advice services this would be even more malicious and cruel than the current system already is. The success rate of benefits appeal in Glasgow highlight the important work carried out by advice centres. Recent statistics put success rates for Personal Independence Payment at 62%, Employment Support Allowance at 71% and Jobseeker Allowance at 63%. This clearly demonstrates the drive under austerity to strip people of their rights and benefits.

This is but one facet of the work we do, and when you look at housing and employment you will find many more examples of a clear need to have free legal advice to combat unjust systems of governance. The bedroom tax which penalised and reduced housing benefit on the basis of “under-occupancy” – an extra bedroom – illustrates this. Only through grass roots community activism and lobbying from the third sector was this mitigated by the Scottish Government.

The rise of zero-hours contracts has continued the undermining of workers’ rights and it is precisely those workers who will need local advice centres to fight back and use what little rights they have left. I have assisted clients who work in low-income roles that have been bullied and made to feel like they have no chance to rightfully claim that they have been mistreated. Welfare and housing require great understanding of the law but employment matters are even more intricate, complex and muddied. Just look to the private sector and you will find that there are many corporate firms who have large and profitable departments which help entrench the rights for employers over employees. To not have advice services would be a blow for deprived workers and renters.

This begs the question as to why the council have proposed such savage cuts to what is a vital and already underfunded sector. It has been suggested that the system has been constructed to resemble the Victorian workhouse, a machine to punish the poor and most vulnerable members of society. This has been given further credence with the introduction of Universal Credit which has and will continue to deepen poverty and destitution: an aspect of the welfare system the Scottish government did not stop the UK government imposing on the people of Scotland. I have assisted countless clients in this new draconian benefit and can say that it drives up food poverty, has no concept of the damage effects of digitising benefits and increases mental health problems among those who use it.

The Scottish government Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 was passed to provide the framework for a new system. The government claimed it would discourage private sector assessors and set up a social security commission of experts to scrutinise legislation. The Scottish government are now in the process of writing up the main rules under this act which will eventually replace some of the main DWP disability benefits (PIP, DLA and Attendance Allowance) in Scotland. These welcome reforms are in danger of being undermined by the cuts to advice services that are being proposed.

There is a right to advocacy contained in section 10 of the 2018 act, what will happen to that when the advocacy services are cut? How will people be able to navigate a new, and alas still complex system, when they are perhaps vulnerable or have disabilities? How will the decisions of the new social security agency be held to account without the types of organisations that are now, in some of Scotland’s most deprived areas, proposed for the bonfire (along with many others)? All this at a moment when there is considerably more pressure on the social safety nets we already have. I think it could really mean that the new Scottish social security system would be dead on arrival.

After decades of neoliberal reform and austerity, advice services fill just some of the gaps designed to let people fall through. The third sector system was brought in as an underfunded replacement for what has been lost, only to have its component parts forced to bid against each other in an obscene and chaotic mirror of market dynamics.

As someone who works within this sector and cares deeply about the people and communities we provide assistance to, I humbly urge you to support our efforts to ensure that these cuts do not take place. Your actions will show Glasgow City Council that these cuts are unwelcome and unwarranted, and can help orientate our society on a more empathetic and altruistic path, which does not cheaply trade the rights and needs of its most vulnerable for short term economic gain.

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