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Saturday 10 October, 10am to 4pm, St Cuthberts, Berwick Upon Tweed. Public meeting - all welcome. £5 entrance fee includes lunch and coffee.

Challenging Myths About Benefits - looking for a future that works

10.00 - Registration

10.30 - 11.30 Pam Vassie on how blame has moved from government to the individual

11.30 - 11.45 - Coffee

11.45- 12.30 Rachael Roberts on the campaign for the national living wage campaign

12.30 - 13.30 - Lunch

13.30 - 14.45 Sarah Glynn & Tony Cox from the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network

14.45 - 15.00 - Coffee

15.00 - 16.00 Q & A session with our speakers

Public event open to all

About our speakers:

Pam Vassie:  Pam worked for Reading and Wokingham Citizens Advice Court Service prior to moving to Berwick. Pam volunteered with Berwick CAB as a General Advisor and has worked there for 10 years. Pam has a thorough knowledge of local benefit issues and is a regular speaker at our events.


Rachael Roberts: Rachael works at Newcastle University as a Careers Adviser and a manager of the Careers Adviser team, having worked in higher education careers services since 1997. She is an active member of the University and Colleges Union (UCU).

In 2011 she was elected as a Green Party Councillor onto Alnwick Town Council where she has chaired the Planning Committee for over 3 years. Earlier this year she was the Green Party parliamentary candidate for the Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency in the general election. Rachael is an active member of Alnwick Area Friends of the Earth and established the Bullfield Community Orchard in 2011, an organisation she currently chairs. She is the Town Council trustee for Alnwick Playhouse as well as being a regular volunteer steward there. She has also spent the last 4 years as a topic lead on the Alnwick and Denwick Neighbourhood Plan.

Sarah Glynn & Tony Cox  are activists with the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network, which combines campaigning work with practical advice. The network aims to draw attention to what is happening to the unemployed, to give solidarity and practical support to those on the sharp end of welfare cuts and to help build a movement for change. This has involved them in research as well as practical action and protest.


Book Stall by Pete  - www.sfbbooks.wordpress.com

Report on the day from Rose Kay

Pam Vassie (CAB)  10.30 -11.30.

Pam aims to identify myths about benefits saying they are largely fictional narratives. She refers to the famous poster “Labour isn’t Working” when the photo of the unemployment queue was doctored (originally intended to feature members of the Young Tories but not enough turned up).

The Tories succeeded in shifting blame for unemployment from the government to the individual.

Myth 1. The country is full of shirkers and idlers who want to live life on benefits.

The word “scrounger” was used 500 times in the press in 2012 and 3500 times in 2013.  DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) now think people are too choosy and don’t want (undisclosed) bad jobs.


Myth 2 There are thousands of households where generations don’t have a job.

Ian Duncan Smith suggested that 3 generations were commonly out of work. Chris Grayling in 2011 said there were cases of 4 generations out of work. In truth less than 1% have had  2 generations out of work i.e. 15,000 households.


Myth 3 Living on benefits is a lifestyle choice.

Welfare cuts have been so severe that many working young people have to live with their parents into their 30’s. Many people now are excluded from Housing Allowance and risk losing their homes due to unexpected illness of themselves or their children.


Myth 4 Most Welfare Benefit goes on unemployment benefit.

According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies the expenditure for 2015 -16 is £216billion not taking administration into account. The majority of this money goes in pensions, next is Disability Benefits and unemployment accounts for only £2.4billion.  Many people IN work need help with rent etc. Jeremy Hunt is urging the population to work harder to emulate the workers in the U.S.A. and China.


Myth 5  Money is wasted through benefit fraud.

Treasury loses £70 billion annually through tax evasion/avoidance.


Myth 6  Scroungers live in houses that working people could not afford.

Rents are fixed locally with higher ones in London.  The maximum help would be £21 thousand in London annually.


Myth 7 People on Benefits get forgotten.

On the contrary benefits are often short lived –only 3 months for Job Seekers Allowance.  The goal posts keep moving for “Employment and support allowance” and “Personal Independence allowance”.  Employers are dubious about employing people who are allegedly “fit to work”. One man with a laryngeal tracheotomy due to throat cancer was put to work but died. Sanctions applied seem arbitrary. Pam stresses that people with physical impairments suffer mental impairment and should not be described as malingerers. Mental illnesses include Bi-polar, OCD, paranoia ,psychosis etc.

Myth 8 Misuse of Food Banks

Cameron described them as “Big Society in Action”.  Users are assumed to be poor at managing their finances. In general it is said that poor people can’t cook. The number of food banks is growing rapidly. Use is triggered by crises caused by blips in benefits. Some may have a crisis such as a boiler breaking down or a large fuel bill. Many takers are on zero hours contracts.

Myth 9 Feckless parents are having children in order to get benefits.

Ian Duncan Smith began this extensive compulsion in 2012 – a type of eugenics. Do we want to go down this path? George Osborne uses “living wage” as an excuse. Bedroom tax has affected many.


Pam asks how do we counter all these myths.  We are a dysfunctional society with a very severe housing crisis at present and high rents. Worry seeps into every area of life for the less well off. An emergency can sink you.  Benefits do not make people dependent but the cuts are making them feel defeated and people regularly “fall over the cliff”.


Jim (Edinburgh)Tory propaganda is ingrained.

Pam replies that asking questions is more productive e.g. people are shocked by the maximum benefit being £74.30 per week.

Sue Richardson: Even a junior doctor (single parent) she knows needs housing benefit. Pam says that pseudo psychology in job centres blames individuals. System now is punitive.

Gerry: Struggle with system that is very complex. It is a sitting duck for myths. Tory media is monolithic. He praises the campaign against the Bedroom Tax in Scotland and anti-austerity campaigns nationally. 

Berwick is much poorer since cuts in housing benefits. There is a rise in food banks.

David Byrne: Our own experience is important. What has happened to Nat Ins charge. Thatcher used mass unemployment to her advantage.

Auriol: How are jobs created? Assets are needed to create businesses.  Pam replies that we are suffering from short termism. There is little investment in longterm strategy.


Rachel Roberts (Green Party Candidate and Careers Adviser manager at Newcastle University).11.45-12.30.

She describes the Campaign for a Living Wage and dislikes the large income ratios between the top of an organization and the lower strata.  (E.g. 10:1 in Hove Council). At Newcastle University she helps people consider what they want to do not just having to work. The new system she describes gets rid of the stigma of claiming benefits.

She goes on to the Greens plan for a Basic Income.  Each person has a clear entitlement (right) which is unconditional and has no sanctions. Children are included.

This works out as below. 

Under 18’s get £50 per week.

Worker gets £80 per week

Single parent gets £80 X 2 per week

Pensioner (single) gets £155 + 25 per week

Pensioner (couple) get £310 per week.


These payments require residency of one year. Need no contributions. Last from birth to death. Payable abroad for up to 3 months. Payable to anyone eligible for pensions. Foreign students here are not eligible. UK students abroad are eligible. Asylum seekers are a special case.

Many people want flexibility to work part time. They will pay tax and Nat. Ins. quite separately from the benefits.
Housing and Disability benefits will be kept.
Child benefits and tax benefits would go.
Get rid of Income Tax personal allowance and sliding scale of Nat.Ins.
This would give people less worry about money deductions and most tax payers would be better off.
This would produce a fairer society with more security.



Elaine: This system would suit her as she could do more voluntary work. Time is precious

Sue R: What is the cost of the scheme?  Answer: £331billion.  It does mean getting rid of various allowances and spending less on administration. There would be a higher pension threshold and lower Nat.Ins threshould.

Derek Goodliffe: Is opposed to the scheme as flawed.  It would lead to a more divided society, not less. The £40,000 threshold is too high.

David Byrne: Pensions are almost universal. The big change is that looking after children is no longer accepted as work. Many people have to have two incomes to afford child care.  The idea of a household has changed.

Joan:  Anyone can be paid to look after a child except a mother.

Moira: The child benefits should stop at 16 not 18. The system suggested would encourage larger families.

Sarah Glynn: Universal benefit would put pressure on high earners and remove the stigma of benefits. Work is something you get paid for but should include voluntary work. If money is spread better this improves the economy.  Try finding the Facebook on “Basic Income” with Richard Murphy is the author.  Suggestions include work sharing and working fewer hours.

Jim: Similar system in Canada leading to higher productivity and fewer absences.


Sarah Glynn Welfare Reform 13,30- 14.15

Sarah and the next speaker, Tony Cox belong to the SUWN (Scottish Unemployed Workers Network)set up in response to welfare cuts and unemployment.  The movement is focused on stalls set up outside “Brews” (jobcentres) where they act as welfare workers and now their work includes advocacy all at grassroot level helping people at the sharp end of welfare reform. People who are struggling. They are mostly working in Dundee and Arbroath.

Reminder that in 1947 was a National Assistance Bill set up under Arthur Woodburn (Scottish Secretary of State to House of Commons) to allow people to claim assistance without humiliation or abuse.
There have been 35 years of attacks since Thatcher and New Labour and Tory propaganda is causing a reversal of the Bill. Power is returning to neo-liberalism
The Tories are blaming the individuals for being poor
They ensure unemployment is as unpleasant as possible
Deliberate emphasis on the cost of benefits (many figures are fictitious)
There is still a shortage of secure jobs.
Many jobs do not provide training so are not helping the economy in the long run.
We look at a graph plotting unemployment benefit and consumption over  about forty years and this shows that a single person today has only 2/5 of minimum needed for a socially acceptable standard of living. Nowadays one needs to have a mobile phone etc.
The new work programmes have longer hours than community work by offenders.
The jobs provided are notoriously pointless.
The jobcentres expect people to spend 35 hours a week job searching so depriving people of time as well as money.
Apprenticeships provide less than the minimum wage.
Sanctions are given for trivial misdemeanours, often not the client’s fault.
Benefits can be stopped for up to 3 years.
Any crises can cause catastrophic debt spiraling out of control.
Stress causes mental and physical deterioration.
Hardship loans have to be paid back.
DWP employees have to become bullies. 
There are distorted figures about unemployment benefits: e.g. in 2012 TUC found that people thought 41% of welfare spending went on benefits. The actual figure is 4%.
On average people thought that 27% of the welfare budget was claimed fraudulently, the actual figure being 0.7%.

A different approach is needed and a Basic Income avoids all the needs for means-testing and recognises the contribution made to society from unpaid activities.  We should be PROUD of spending money on welfare.


Tony Cox activist with SUWN 14.15-14.45

The Government is trying to bury the Bill and return us to the 19th century. He visited the Fressinghall workhouse in Norfolk and looked at the records. Punishments ranged from 48 hours in a cell to 4 hours in a cell with bread and water provided (18545). These workhouses were pioneered by Thomas Chalmers in Glasgow when the Poor Law wasn’t working.  Engels called them “Bastilles for the Poor” but they did not starve to death as do some of our poor people. He knows a Dundee 59 year old Merchant seaman who was sanctioned and died after starving for three days and collapsing.

Nowadays the Welfare State is used as a weapon to exploit people in job placements or force them to do unpaid community work.


We have to have a political change. Corbyn is welcomed. Salmond promised to stop sanctions in Dundee after the Referendum but 55% voted against. The lower social classes voted YES.

What is being done?  After the Referendum new activitists are seeking alternate issues like the SUWN. Before his group of activists moved to Dundee it had the highest sanction rates in Scotland. These dropped 40% after they helped. They used shouting outside the centres  and made centres unworkable. They gave applicants valuable advice on their rights and got them to invoke legislation if necessary. Every person got a leaflet* and was asked about their problem. They were referred to Food Banks/ the Mohammed organization which delivers curries. The Jobcentre staff threaten applicants with arrest and Tony himself narrowly escaped arrest thanks to the intervention of a passer-by.


*Now applicants know they only need to apply for two jobs per week.


Comments and Questions:

Pam: What the Government has done includes scrapping legal aid and charging fees up to £1,000 for tribunals. Around now new legislation against unions is being debated in Parliament.

Elaine: Immigrants not mentioned so far. She thinks they give more contributions locally (Farne Salmon and Drysdales vegs) and are not a problem.

Rachel: Employers need high level skills often provided by immigrants at universities. They have to have work permits (difficult to obtain)

Sarah: Our economy is run using low paid labour, long hours and horrible conditions. We must get people into unions. We don’t want cheap labour as such.

Tony comes from Arbroath where fish processing still takes place. There is a lot of foreign labour resented by the locals.  The jute mills famously changed to paper and specialist cardboard e.g. whisky boxes. There is a lot of contract labour on the rigs. Little unionization there. He remembers the time when Arbroath was a “Berry town” but now there are migrants led by Gangmasters under dreadful conditions.

Rachel: In the EU residency counts.

David Byrne: Poles have a strong unions. Need to modify the problem.  E.g. at Farne Salmon not all locals are capable of 12 hour shifts. Do we want a Europe where foreigners are chasing all the work. Employers are using the situation to their advantage.

Pete from SF Books: Unionisation should come from grassroots.

Tony: Strike action such as the Match Strike in the 1880s  was a tremendous success but we need to find more ways of organizing.

Derek: Problem is persuading the Left to work together and get young people involved in Trade Unions. Youngsters aren’t at all interested. They need the carrot of an “insurance policy”

Tony :Have to be there day to day to make a difference to youngsters.

Dave B: Reality of everyday lives and wages squeezed. We are in crisis and the bankers are still in trouble. He thinks we are in trouble for the next 20 -30 years.


? More support is need for the Anti-Trident campaign.


Summing up by the speakers:

Pam: Challenge the myths. Union is important. The C.A.B. has leaflets similar to the SUWN.

Rachel: We need to be empowered. Voting is essential.

Sarah: Basic income must be raised. Grass roots must be connected with day to day reforms.

Tony:  Corbyn’s popularity shows left principles are possible.  The masses must be involved with left wing politics.

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