Excellent article on the work of Unite Community Branch(es) in the North East. Readers will know that Greater Manchester Law Centre has also been set up recently, by lawyers, advice workers, trade unionists (likewise Unite Community) and campaigners – and we are pleased to say that we are now able to do much the same as you reported in Newcastle. We have had our first appeal success (again, our volunteers are challenging ESA decisions) and the appellant himself will be one of those formally “opening” the centre at our “Launch” on Saturday 11th February in Moss Side, Manchester 14 (everyone supporting “I Daniel Blake” is welcome!)
We do want to go further. Access to proper advice is crucial – and all our combined volunteer strength is a tribute to the commitment to creating this high quality, face to face, legal advice, which has been cut over and over again. But we must demand more, an end to the vicious sanctions themselves.
Chair, Greater Manchester Law Centre
PETER LAZENBY reports on the pioneering work Unite Community is carrying out in the north-east
KEN LOACH’S film I, Daniel Blake was made in Byker in east Newcastle. It showed the brutal and unjust treatment of a victim of the government’s attack on Britain’s welfare system.
Today volunteers from Unite Community in Newcastle are assisting more than 50 real-life I, Daniel Blakes. The volunteers help claimants whose benefits have been suspended. They guide them through a process of appeal hearings, and, most importantly, represent them at the hearings.
The volunteers are based at Tyne and Wear TUC Centre Against Unemployment office in Newcastle, which covers the district of Byker.
John Kelly is one of six regular volunteers, who also include David Stead, Mieter Padowicz from Canada, Paul Dawson and Peter Glendenning who is from South Africa.
“Today the centre doubles up as the Unite Community office, giving advice and going right through to representing them at appeal tribunals,” said Kelly. “With representation a claimant has three times the chance of winning.”
The volunteers, all of whom have undergone training on benefit rights and advocacy through Unite, moved into the offices 12 months ago.
John said: “After we moved in, we were fairly slow to start. Then we did fliers and got referrals from Advocacy Centre North, another centre that provides advice but does not provide representation at tribunals.
“There are other organisations we get referrals from, like organisations that help people with mental health issues. There’s a centre for young people with autism and other mental health matters. Crisis is another organisation that centres around homeless people.
“Some come through word of mouth, and referrals from Unite.” He describes the people the project is helping.
“In terms of the people who come through, much of the mainstream media tell you it is about scroungers,” he told the Morning Star.
“But the people who come through our doors are genuinely in need, and some of them are desperate, some with mental health issues.
“There were 54 on the books before Christmas but it has gone up since then.”
The volunteers have so far taken 16 people through to the final appeal tribunal. “We won 14 of them,” he said.
Most of those needing help have lost Employment Support Allowance (ESA) or Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Both benefits are designed to help people unable to work either through disability or illness. They are the benefits under most determined attack by the government.
The first step in withdrawing an individual’s benefit is to call him or her in for an “assessment.” The assessments are carried out by the staff of a contracting firm hired by the government to implement its attack on benefits.
It used to be Asos. But they proved so incompetent that another contractor, US firm Maximus, was brought in.
The people carrying out the assessments are called “health professionals,” said John Kelly. “They do not have to be doctors. But they have the power to override anything from a General Practitioner.
“You might be a very well-qualified physiotherapist. But you are totally unable to assess someone with complex mental health issues.” Each assessment takes 40 minutes. He said: “They are making lifechanging decisions on the basis of a 40-minute medical assessment.”
The assessments are also humiliating, with claimants told to demonstrate if they can raise their hands high enough to put something in a top pocket, or place a hat on a head, or reach a shelf.
Each action adds or reduces “points” to a scoring system that determines whether or not a benefit will be withdrawn — a decision which can be life-changing for the victim, leaving him or her with no income and no means of survival.
“In the film, none of these tests apply to Daniel Blake because he’s had a heart attack,” said John. “I’m just raising it as an illustration.”
Added to the humiliating assessments is the punitive system whereby benefits are withdrawn for 13 weeks if a victim misses a scheduled assessment or other appointment.
There have been shocking cases elsewhere, such as a woman dying of cancer whose benefits were suspended when she missed an appointment because she was too ill to get out of bed.
John Kelly describes the work as a “front-line service.” But the project goes beyond providing vital help for people who have been left with no income. The group works with other organisations including credit unions across Tyneside helping people suffering debt, and combatting a rise in payday lenders cashing in on people’s difficulties.
John Coan, Unite Community coordinator for Yorkshire, Humberside and the North East, said: “The Tyneside For Positive Finance project is aimed at raising awareness about credit unions and warning people of the dangers of doorstep lending or loan sharks.
“It is ironic that part of the reason for the growth of this horrible practice is the proliferation of benefit sanctions, so not only are we fighting sanctions but their effects further down the line as well.”
The group said that growing poverty has led to a rise in far-right and fascist groups attempting to exploit the deprivation by blaming ethnic minorities. Kelly spoke at a recent rally opposing a demonstration by the extremist English Defence League.
But rather than just opposing the fascists at demonstrations, the Unite Community branch — which has risen from 140 members to more than 400 in the last 12 months — organises public meetings, visits to community centres and other events to counter the growth of the far-right.
Volunteer David Stead, a former Civil Service worker, said: “It is difficult getting the message across. People are very much informed by what they read, so it is about getting an alternative message across.”
Kelly said: “We are getting into the communities as a permanent presence, asking what are they (the far-right) doing for you?” But the work of the branch goes even further.
“The office is used as a base for political action — anti-fascist activities, Action for Rail, or whatever,” said Kelly.
Branch members took part in actions against Sports Direct, whose appalling treatment of its workers at its warehouse on the site of the former Shirebrook colliery in Derbyshire was exposed in the Morning Star.
Also there have been earlier achievements. Tyne and Wear Unite Community branch launched an initiative which resulted in erection of a city centre plaque honouring Newcastle volunteers who fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.
Unite Community has branches across Britain. In Yorkshire, the Humber and the north east, branches and community centres include Barnsley, at the headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers, Durham, where it is based in the offices of the Durham Miners’ Association, Middlesbrough, Leeds and Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees in West Yorkshire.
Unite Community was launched by Unite general secretary Len McCluskey in 2011. Its aim is to help and organise people not in a workplace, including students, pensioners and unemployed people. Membership is 50p a week.
For information contact gro.noinuehtetinu@ytinummoc.