Devolved issues

Housing benefit

As a full time student, Sarah receives tax credits and housing benefit, with her student loan being considered as income for these purposes. When we were conducting the interview we looked at Sarah's income over the summer months when she receives jobseekers allowance compared to the months when she is a student and receives a student loan. As a student loan is her only source of income during these months, this still keeps Sarah below the poverty line.

‘This is the thing, I get the same tax credits no matter what I'm doing’ (Sarah receives the maximum tax credits for her son whether she is a student on whether she is on JSA). ‘But the way it works at the moment, I lose out on housing benefit. Any advantage that I would get from having a little bit more money from my student loan (compared to JSA) I lose in housing benefit. The year before last I was getting £97 a week (when on JSA) and now I'm getting £47’. This is because they treat Sarah's student loan as an income and because it has been increased on an annual increment. She says that she will have to go and discuss this with the student advice centre as the amount of increment of student loan does not equate to a 50% reduction in housing benefit. ’It seems to be that any little advantage you get in one direction is just taken away in another anyway'.

‘I just, you know, I don't even care if I just get the same. I just don't want to lose out. Because I was just thinking, if they take more money away from me, I actually can't make ends meet. My church has paid my rent twice this summer. Because of the housing benefit knock-on through the year ... normally I can keep the balls in the air, just, but (this year) I've just not been able to do it’.

We went on to discuss how Sarah has managed on JSA this summer. She says she has just not managed. As a student she has a £2000 overdraft capacity which is operating at its limits. As noted above, Sarah is a member of a church that has paid her rent twice this summer for her. As previously noted, a 50% reduction in housing benefit this year has meant that she has struggled to pay her rent all year which has had a knock-on effect that has reached its peak in the summer months when she is transferred on to JSA.

‘My overdraft is so maxed out to start with because of the knock-on effect of housing benefit through the year. I'm not sure (what I could do differently to manage financially) ... I don't smoke. I don't drink. I go out very rarely. We have interests. We’re rock climbers. We have our sport that we do. But other than that, you know ... we go to the cinema on Orange Wednesdays and stuff like that. So I'm trying to work out where this money is going but I think it basically comes down to the loss in housing benefit.’

Sarah always has difficulties claiming JSA and housing benefit during the summer months. It has never gone smoothly or without problems, she says:

‘It causes me nothing but trouble. Last scholastic year I had to restart my housing benefit because they stopped it... it’s just stress, stress , stress, stress, stress, all the time. Are they going to do it properly? Every time, twice a year I have to change my circumstances with them. And it’s never once gone right, not once. I know what I’m doing, because I do it twice a year. Not once has it gone without a hitch. I’ve ended up at Christmas having to choose between paying my rent and having Christmas. That’s not on’.

‘In the summer I get full housing benefit which is £115 a week, and it’s supposed to be that your working tax credit isn’t considered when you are getting housing benefit, but for some reason my housing benefit has dropped to £24 a week. Last year I was getting £35 per week, or something, so I haven’t gone in and spoken to them yet… But I just haven’t dealt with them yet. I haven’t had the strength to go in and deal with them… I looked at it and I went “aw, for crying out loud, where are you coming up with these numbers? It’s like they’re pulling them out of a hat’.

Specific things that cause Sarah stress are: ‘feeling cheated by the housing benefit… feeling trampled on and knowing that the figures are wrong, I just know that the figures are wrong, but going into town to the main office to deal with it there is like, that’s, it’s just a big thing to go and do. So I need to go and do it’.

Discretionary housing payments

Because Janice has a three-bedroom council house and even though one of the bedrooms is used for her disability equipment she has been charged the bedroom tax. However, she recently received a letter to say that she was receiving the Scottish discretionary housing payment that would cover the full amount. Until October 2013 she had been paying six pounds per week bedroom tax, which reduced to 4 pounds per week from October 2013, and now she will pay nothing due to receiving the full amount from the discretionary housing payment scheme. She was told this would run out at the end of June 2014.

Studying

Sarah is a single parent with one son aged 12 years old. She lives in privately rented accommodation. Since her son was born Sarah did not work until she did an access course in 2011 and went on to university to study physics. Her finances as a lone parent student are very up and down, not least because during the university summer holidays she has to go on to jobseekers allowance (JSA) even though her son is not at school and she has no access to childcare. This means that for those few months she is subject to the job hunting criteria of the benefits system and the conditionality that goes along with this, even though she is not able to take up work because she will be returning to university in September. This makes her finances unpredictable and causes her financial problems. She says:

‘Because I'm a single parent with a child under 12 and a full-time student I sign on JSA over the summer, which is the most pointless exercise. Anyway, I have to be available for work and looking for work and all that stuff and it's like, I'm not going to get a job but I'll jump through the hoops that you want me to jump through because I need to do this for the summer’.

‘So when I went and signed on this summer and you go for the initial signing on meeting where they wag their finger at you for an hour, what they said was, “there's been a change in the law, there is a change in how things work. We are going to tell you up front how these changes affect you and will affect your benefits and we want you to know that this in no way reflects the opinions of the people that work in (this) job centre”. And then they gave us the whole rundown of “if you miss one signing on or don't go to a job interview you will lose a month’s money, housing benefit and benefit”. And then it's 13 weeks and then it’s whatever it is, a year or six months or...’

‘If you miss a signing, if you don't go to a job interview, for whatever reason, they can take your benefit away for a year! What are you meant to do?’

‘This is the thing, I get the same tax credits no matter what I'm doing’ (Sarah receives the maximum tax credits for her son whether she is a student on whether she is on JSA). ‘But the way it works at the moment, I lose out on housing benefit. Any advantage that I would get from having a little bit more money from my student loan (compared to JSA) I lose in housing benefit. The year before last I was getting £97 a week (when on JSA) and now I'm getting £47’. This is because they treat Sarah's student loan as an income and because it has been increased on an annual increment. She says that she will have to go and discuss this with the student advice centre as the amount of increment of student loan does not equate to a 50% reduction in housing benefit. ’It seems to be that any little advantage you get in one direction is just taken away in another anyway'.

Sarah has been experiencing anxiety which is exacerbated through the negative and stressful experiences she has during her university summer holidays:

‘The problem with dealing with this stuff is the emotional energy that it takes and that's what I'm out of right now. It's really difficult. This is the stuff that I find it most difficult to deal with. I can deal with just about anything else but when it comes to the benefits agency (huge sigh) it’s just so hard to deal with’.

Sarah says that the stress from all this makes her really ill. The reason she had resits in August was that she was suffering from exhaustion in April and May brought on by the stress of her ever-changing income. Sarah explains how stressful she finds the benefits system. She feels it has a power and the control over her because it upsets her so much. She says that affects family life too because she gets so stressed out and feels that she takes this out on her son, and there's only the two of them so he bears the brunt of her stress.

‘It’s just dealing with the greater monster of the DWP that I don’t like. And I suppose it makes me feel poor, because I am, because I’m depending on benefits, you know?’

‘I’m a lot better this year, because I’ve been really ill, I’ve had really bad depression and anxiety and stuff over the last two years really, two years ago it started really badly’.

Sarah says that the situation with the job centre of the last few years has really a negative impact on her well-being.

‘I was waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning, bolt upright, heart pounding, worrying about something, and going “what is I’m actually worrying about here?” And I would have to talk myself down to go back to sleep. And it was things that are out with my control… And it always comes down to money. It’s always about money. That’s always the root of it. I don’t worry about other things’.

‘Because it’s that transition period between end of semester and benefits kicking in. It can take six weeks before the rent gets paid. And I don’t like my rent not being paid. I don’t care about anything else, I’ve got food storage, we’ll manage, but the rent’s got to be paid, that’s not something you want to find you’ve got suddenly to pay £1200 out, because you need your rent paid you know? The church are very good about that actually. But that’s a real stress as well, having to go cap in hand and explain yourself when you’re 46 years old, you know? “Yes I’m still not making ends meet. I’m really sorry can you help me?” And of course they say yes and they’re very good. I’ve got to do better. I feel that, you know? Even though it’s actually stuff that’s completely out of my hands’.

Sarah doesn’t access services as she says she is too busy. For example, when she went to her doctor suffering from stress and exhaustion she was given the contact details of a talking therapy group. She hasn’t contacted them yet, even though she really likes the idea of the group, as she is too busy and she says it is time management issues that contribute to her stress. She says it would just be another thing to do which is what she does not need.

‘It causes me nothing but trouble. Last scholastic year I had to restart my housing benefit because they stopped it... it’s just stress, stress , stress, stress, stress, all the time. Are they going to do it properly? Every time, twice a year I have to change my circumstances with them. And it’s never once gone right, not once. I know what I’m doing, because I do it twice a year. Not once has it gone without a hitch. I’ve ended up at Christmas having to choose between paying my rent and having Christmas. That’s not on’.

Sarah says that her financial situation and the stress it causes has led to negative health consequences. Last year she was not able to do her exams at the first sitting due to stress and anxiety. ‘last year I was so ill, just everything piling up, piling up, piling up’. For this past year while doing her HNC, Jennifer has lived on her student loan, child tax credits, child benefit, student grant, and lone parent student bursary. Fortunately, in Scotland, college fees are free and there are still grants for people on low incomes and supplementary bursaries for single parents.

‘I just hate the whole going into the job centre thing, I hate it, I absolutely hate it. But I need my rent paid and my council tax, help with that. So for the next eight weeks things are really tight. Although the college isn't a massive amount of money coming in, it's more than Jobseekers Allowance. I'm so much better off being a student... if I do my HND for two years I would only take a (further) year and a half to get my degree ’.

Having applied for JSA, Jennifer was told that it may take up to 14 days for them to get back to her with a decision on her claim. This means she won’t get housing benefit or council tax benefit until this claim is through. She says she will receive letters from the housing association in the interim, wondering what is happening with her rent.

Scottish Welfare Fund

When asked, very few interviewees had ever heard of the Scottish Welfare Fund. This is not good news for the accessibility of the fund.

Mary has a 17 year old son with extensive disabilities including learning disabilities and mental health issues. Until August 2014 Mary’s son had been at school and was then undertaking a supported place at college. However, after this time he was no longer able to manage going to college due to his disabilities and withdrew. This meant that Mary’s money changed overnight with a huge reduction in her income as she lost child benefit, child tax credits and disabled child tax credits. Mary says:

‘It’s a lot less. I’ve lost my child tax credit, I’ve lost my child benefit. So, I’m rapidly getting in debt’.

When asked how she was managing after the removal of all monies she received for her disabled son, Mary says:

‘I just dinnae eat. I had to phone… What do you call them? When you get emergency help? I can’t remember the name of it. It was through the council. (Was that the Scottish Welfare Fund?) That’s it! I phoned them and I explained to them what had happened (that her son had left college). But the way it happened, obviously I never knew that my money was going to stop there and then. I thought maybe, oh, there will be a week backdated or something. But nothing… They stopped it that week and I was left with 4 pounds in my purse.’

Mary was told all her benefits would stop from that day forward and that she should go to the Scottish Welfare Fund as she had a disabled son.

Mary described accessing the Scottish Welfare Fund as excruciating and explains that she had to answer many questions on why she had not money left, with the person on the other end of the phone making comments about how she should better manage her money. Mary says: ‘And I thought, “who are they to judge?” You don’t know what comes up in somebody’s life. Somebody phoned me back the day later and said “we’re going to entitle you to £18.63. You must buy food with it and that will have to do you until you get your income support on the Wednesday”’.

So Mary was awarded £18.63 from the Scottish Welfare Fund. She had been humiliated by the process, put through the wringer when she was already extremely fragile, and awarded a paltry amount to feed herself and her 17 year old son. When asked how she felt about this, Mary said: ‘I think I cried for about two days. I wasn’t expecting that’.

However, Mary’s humiliation was not complete. In order to receive the £18.63 she had to go to a local shop with a ‘Paypoint’, with a code given to her by the SWF, which the young girl behind the counter didn’t know how to use. Mary lives in a very small town where everyone knows each other. There were people behind her in the queue and she was deeply embarrassed when the young girl shouted to the manager to say she didn’t know what the code was for and the manager replied in full voice ‘this is a crisis fund’. Mary was embarrassed and wished she had not applied for the fund in the first place. Mary saya: ‘I was desperate… I was so embarrassed… I was so embarrassed. I wish I had just left it. It was so degrading. I know we all need help in life now and again, and you have to hit the bottom before you come up again, but it was so degrading… I’m not caring if I’ve got half a slice of bread I’ll never do it again, never ever’.

Janice hasn’t applied to the SWF, although she has heard about it, because she thinks it will be just as bad as trying to get community care grant, which she found humiliating.