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Friday, 12 September 2014
Record 4.3m set to vote in Scottish referendum
Record numbers of people are expected to vote in the Scottish independence referendum after it was revealed nearly 4.3 million people are registered ahead of the historic poll on 18 September.
A last minute push to get all potential voters registered has proven successful with the Chief Counting Officer for the Scottish Independence Referendum revealing it will be the largest election of any kind in Scotland.
Some 4,285,323 people have registered including 789,024 people who have applied for a postal vote.
The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) joined forces with the STUC and the Daily Record for the Mission Million campaign to encourage the million people in Scotland who were unregistered to start using their vote.
John Downie, SCVO’s director of public affairs, said: “These figures show the push to get people registered has paid off.
“Whatever way the public votes, this referendum has gone against the grain and has captured the public’s imagination at a time when people are disillusioned with politics and politicians.
“That momentum has to continue to the polling station and we’d encourage everyone to exercise their democratic right, from first-time voters to those who aren’t party political, to turn out next Thursday to have their vote on Scotland’s future.”
With one week to go until polling day, chief counting officer Mary Pitcaithly is encouraging voters to think carefully and plan ahead to make sure their vote is counted.
She said: “I want everyone’s vote to count, whether they are voting by post or in person at a polling place on 18 September. It’s vital that everyone takes great care when completing their ballot paper. Mistakes mean that a ballot paper may not be counted.'
She added: “People who are voting at a polling place should think about what time they are going to vote. Polling places are busiest during the early morning and in the evening as people vote on their way to and from work.
'If you are able to avoid these times, I would encourage you to do so to ensure everyone can vote without having to queue for any length of time.”
Across Scotland, there will be 2,608 polling locations with a total of 5,579 polling stations.
In most areas, a maximum of 800 electors have been allocated to each polling station.
Voters can obtain more information about the referendum and how to vote at aboutmyvote.co.uk
Thursday, 11 September 2014
Claimants will be forced to visit job centres for 35 hours a week or face sanctions
This October will see the introduction of pilot job search schemes, where unemployed benefit claimants will be required to carry out 35 hours of supervised job searches every week. From next month, claimants will be expected to sign an attendance register at a local Job Centre provider at nine in the morning and search for jobs until 5pm, for five days a week, for three months. If they fail to do so, they will face sanctions, with the first sanction resulting in the loss of one month’s worth of benefits, and the second sanction culminating in the withdrawal of three months’ money.
The scheme will start being rolled out in early October in East Anglia, West Yorkshire, Surrey and Sussex, Mercia and the Black Country, and will run until March next year. However, if the programme is a success, the DWP say it may become nationwide. With a total of 6,000 claimants being selected to take part, these 'chosen ones' will be selected by two criteria: the first batch will be aged between 18-24 and have been claiming for 20-24 weeks, while the second group will be over 25 and have been claiming for 33-37 weeks. They will only be selected if their job adviser thinks they will benefit from the extra support to find work. A spokesperson from the DWP said: “It’s right that we ask claimants to do everything they can to look for work in return for their benefits, and this pilot is looking at how we provide that extra support to those whose lack of job-hunting skills is preventing them from finding a job”.
These unlucky few will pass their days writing CVs and cover letters, perfecting interview techniques, developing “transferable” job skills and, of course, searching for jobs. But what happens when these days turn into weeks and these weeks turn into months? Surely there are only so many times a person can rewrite their CV? While it is undoubtedly valuable for claimants to gain support with their job skills, do these skills really take a quarter of a year to perfect? One can’t help but wonder whether cooping people up indoors to redraft cover letter after cover letter is the most efficient use of time.
After the job skills are taken care of, the scheme turns into little more than a supervised job search, which not only feels patronising but also somewhat Orwellian. Job searching is stressful at the best of times, without being trapped behind a desk in the same room with the same people from nine to five. Treating unemployment as a full-time job feels more than counterproductive, it feels punitive.
Peter Robson, a former social worker who has been claiming Jobseeker's Allowance since he was laid off at the beginning of the year could be one of those who is affected by the scheme. Robson is appalled at the prospect: “First off, I can’t think how you’d be forced to sit in one of those centres all day long, apart from anything else it would be unbelievably boring and ineffective. Tension would no doubt rise too”. Like many people located in rural regions, Robson, who lives six miles out of Bradford, says he would struggle to travel to the daily sessions. “I can barely afford to run my car as it is, so I’d definitely have to break into my savings to afford the petrol to drive into Bradford. But what happens to the people who don’t have any savings, let alone a car? There are only two buses a day here. Some people simply won’t be able to get there and will be sanctioned as a result”.
In many of the places where the scheme is being rolled out, the problem lies in a lack of jobs rather than a lack of job seeking. For example, in Bradford, the unemployment rate is 4.5 per cent, virtually double the national figure. Despite the fact that claimants are busy searching for jobs, it is nearly twice as difficult to find a job in Bradford than the rest of Britain. While this work scheme might create extra applications, it cannot magically generate extra job vacancies. What is the point in perfecting your interview technique for three months, if there are no interviews out there to get? If the problem is a deficit of jobs, schemes like these can become a waste of human effort and public money.
Robson argues that these pilot schemes are “setting people up to fail because logistical factors will stop people from making every session”. The mandatory nature of the scheme means that it will fail to take being ill or problems with childcare or transport into account. In turn, increasing numbers of claimants are likely to be sanctioned and have their benefits removed. Claimants can have their benefits cut for a number of reasons, including arriving late or missing an interview, failure to participate in a work programme or leaving a job or programme without good reason. Nationally, the number of claimants being sanctioned has risen steadily since October 2012 when the DWP instituted a tougher policy on sanctions. The new rules increased the minimum duration of a sanction from a week to a month and the maximum sanction to three years. For example, in the last three months of 2013, 227,629 people were sanctioned - 69,600 more people than in the equivalent quarter in 2012. Job Centre staff have already begun handing out factsheets to claimants but we will have to wait until October to see how the programme pans out.
Government cuts leave disabled people facing six months wait for vital cash
Sick and disabled people will still be left waiting six months for vital cash despite a Government pledge to cut waiting times.
David Cameron’s new Minister for Disabled People Mark Harper admitted the system of health assessments for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) is “not in good shape”.
But Labour’s Debbie Abrahams slammed the Government for sacking 1,000 of its own workers - including 600 experienced assessors - to save cash.
She said: “1,000 DWP staff were made redundant - and this was the same time when there was a backlog of PIP assessments. PIP is a mess.'
The Coalition has promised to cut the huge backlog which means thousands of vulnerable people face long waits for money to pay bills and adapt their homes.
MPs have been inundated with complaints about constituents waiting months for their PIP to come through.
And despite their pledge to improve matters, Mr Harper admitted people will still wait four months for their assessments - and up to two months more before cash finally arrives.
“We’re actually looking at a six-month process,” fumed Work and Pensions committee chair Dame Anne Begg.
“Do you think that’s an acceptable length of time for someone who has developed a disability, and suddenly has a lot of associated costs?
The committee was told the average wait for Disability Living Allowance - which PIP is replacing - was just a month and a half.
Mr Harper refused to give the current average wait for PIP cash before a tranche of official figures are released next week.
But he made clear even his new four-month target for assessments would be an improvement on the current situation.
“I’d like it to be faster - but there’s no point getting ahead of ourselves,” he said. “It’s moving in the right direction.”
The Government has blamed its private contractors Atos and Capita for the delays.
Noel Shanahan, director-general of operations at the Department for Work and Pensions, insisted the sacked workers “would have been at the wrong grade.”
But he admitted the DWP is now bringing in large numbers of staff from other departments to try to deal with the backlog.
Mr Shanahan said: “My task is to run an operation that is as efficient as possible, and to meet the demand with the headcount we’ve got.”
Wednesday, 10 September 2014
David Clapson’s awful death was the result of grotesque government policies
The DWP brags about ending the ‘something for nothing’ culture, but benefit sanctions punish the unemployed, disabled and poor in ways that are utterly inhumane.
The coroner said that when David Clapson died he had no food in his stomach. Clapson’s benefits had been stopped as a result of missing one meeting at the jobcentre. He was diabetic, and without the £71.70 a week from his jobseeker’s allowance he couldn’t afford to eat or put credit on his electricity card to keep the fridge where he kept his insulin working. Three weeks later Clapson died from diabetic ketoacidosis, caused by a severe lack of insulin. A pile of CVs was found next to his body.
I’ll resist calling Clapson’s death a tragedy. Tragedy suggests a one-off incident, a rarity that couldn’t be prevented. What was done to Clapson – and it was done, not something that simply happened – is a particularly horrific example of what has, almost silently, turned into a widespread crisis. More than a million people in this country have had their benefits stopped over the past year. Sanctions against chronically ill and disabled people have risen by 580% in a year. This is a system out of control.
A petition for an inquiry into benefit sanctions, started by Clapson’s sister, Gill Thompson, is now on the verge of its 200,000th signature. This Thursday there will be a day of action against benefit sanctions across the country. If inspiration is required, you need look no further than the latest Department for Work and Pensions pilot scheme launched last week. The unemployed are set to have their benefits stopped if they don’t sign in at a jobcentre in the morning and spend the whole day there, every day. Breach the rules once and you’ll lose four weeks’ worth of benefits; twice and you won’t be able to feed your kids for three months.
Yes, some reasons for sanctions are almost laughable: going to a job interview rather than a meeting at the jobcentre that it clashes with; not completing an assessment because you had a heart attack during it. But let’s not convince ourselves the rest are credible – punishment sensibly bestowed on the scrounging unemployed. A government that deems it a success to stop the money someone needs to eat is a government of the grotesque.
Sanctions are a product of an attitude towards benefit claimants that says they are not people struggling to find work but suspects: lazy, stupid and in need of a DWP-kick to get them out of bed. The lazy are going hungry. Eight in 10 Trussell Trust food banks report that benefit sanctions are causing more people to need emergency food parcels. This, I suppose, is what Conservatives call motivation.
It doesn’t matter that sanctions are disproportionately hitting the most vulnerable. Nor that the DWP’s own commissioned report says that they are being imposed in such a way that vulnerable people often don’t understand what is happening to them, and are left uninformed of the hardship payments to which they are entitled. Six out of 10 employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants who have had their benefits stopped have a mental-health condition or learning difficulty. Are these the chosen victims of austerity now? By definition of being in receipt of ESA, many will struggle to do things such as be punctual for meetings or complete work placements with strangers in environments they don’t know. It is setting people up to fail and then punishing them for it.
Sanctions are not an anomaly. Rather, they are emblematic of the wider Tory record on welfare: one of incompetence and, at best, indifference. The work programme fails to find work for 95% of disabled people, but enforced, unpaid labour or loss of benefits is the DWP’s answer. More than a quarter of a million people are still waiting for PIP, the benefit needed to help cover the extra costs of disability. Seven hundred thousand people have been left waiting for an ESA assessment. Locking people out of their rightful benefits is becoming a theme for this government. The consequences are human; the response from the government is inhumane.
Clapson had only left his last job to care for his elderly mum, and before that had worked for 29 years. On the day he died he had £3.44 to his name and six tea bags, a tin of soup and an out-of-date can of sardines in his kitchen cupboards. Benefit sanctions are aimed at ending the “something for nothing” culture, as the DWP’s press release brags. I vote for ending the demonisation of the unemployed, disabled and poor.
Obituary: Donald Stirling 21 June 1954-31 August 2014
Tributes have been paid to Donald Stirling MBE, a disability rights campaigner who has died aged 60.
As well as holding a seat on Enable Scotland's Scottish Council, he helped to set up the organisation’s ACE group – a national network entirely comprising adults who have learning disabilities and was chair of the network for a decade.
Donald also became a trustee of Inclusion Europe and travelled the world, speaking up for people who have a learning disability.
Despite having a learning disability, epilepsy and spending much of his early life in hospital, Donald was determined not to let it break him.
After 15 years in Craig Phadrig Hospital in Inverness, an assessment by Dr Ted Becker concluded Donald’s detention within the unit was wholly inappropriate and he was discharged. He is documented as saying: “That man saved my life. I punched the air and said: Yes!”
Donald was offered a job with local firm, Haven, where he worked for 30 years. His move to supported accommodation afforded him more freedom of movement, the ability to manage his own finances and the opportunity to form many friendships.
Paying tribute to Enable Scotland’s chief executive Peter Scott said: “News of Donald’s death has been greeted with great sadness.
“He was a genuine inspiration to many of us, teaching us how to grasp life with both hands. Despite years of life in an institution, Donald moved on to live a life filled with love and friendship.
“He never stopped doing what he could to ensure other people who have learning disabilities could have this kind of life as well. We are grateful that we had the opportunity to spend time with Donald this year, and that he was able to help us celebrate our 60th anniversary amongst friends, old and new. We will miss him immensely.
His outstanding achievements – which earned him the MBE in 2009 – inspired many disabled people around him.
In his own words, those people deserve the same chances in life as everyone else.
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