An actual almost bog standard GMWRAG meeting. Oh no, hang on. Brexit and Benefits.

Some of us have forgotten what an actual ordinary GMWRAG meeting looks like. Between Neal Couling; Everyday Equality North; a new GM UC Forum; sell out rooms and new booking systems it’s been a busy 8 months.

The next GMWRAG meeting was originally scheduled for April 2019 and was to be hosted by Stockport Help With Benefit Appeals as a half day meeting along with a half day GMWRAG GM UC Forum. We had plans for 2 speakers and a broad agenda of Brexit and Benefits. Alas, as with the B word itself, matters were not straightforward. We delayed in empathy (honest :)!

“Events dear boy. Events!” as Macmillan once allegedly said.

We are please to announce that the next GMWRAG meeting will be hosted by Stockport Help With Benefits team on Friday the 17th of May 2019 in BS 1.22 (N Atrium) in the Business School at Manchester Metropolitan University. See https://venues.mmu.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/11764-Business-School_First-Floor.pdf and https://venues.mmu.ac.uk/venues/business-school/

GMWRAG is hugely indebted to Ngaryan Li of GM Law Centre for making this happen.

GMWRAG is especially taken with the MMU Business Centre strap line “It is a real hub of activity where great minds meet”. We’ve made a joke about this in the previous post. It’s still worth finding 🙂

This will be an p.m. only meeting following on from the a.m. GMWRAG GM UC Forum meeting which will conclude circa 12pm at the same venue.

Please note that the meeting will be open for refreshments/networking at 12:30pm and will start at 12:45pm. You have not misread this. The intent would be to finish at 4pm as per usual.

We are fully aware this is an unusual start time but would appreciate people arriving promptly as the timings have been arranged to accommodate the fact we have 2 excellent speakers giving freely of their own time (and who are travelling a long way to do so) as well as deal with some GMWRAG business which has not been addressed as part of an agenda since (we think) Bolton in April 2018. More details of our speakers will follow but we can confirm that we have

1pm – Professor Charlotte O’Brien from York Law School. You can read more about Charlotte here but we’re confident many GMWRAG members will recall her excellent contribution on the consequences of Brexit at PLP North in 2017. We certainly do. The phrase “administrative cataclysm” has resonated down the years.

2:30pm – Alexandra Sinclair from the Public Law Project. will be talking on ”

“Brexit, Statutory Instruments and Social Security: An early analysis”.

You can read all about the SIFT project here. and you’ll immediately see the link with the many recent social security Statutory Instruments and Brexit.

The exact subject matter/titles for the above will be detailed in due course but if you haven’t figured out it’s “Brexity” then you haven’t been clicking on those links have you! Tsk. EDIT: The title of Alexandra’s talk is now detailed above. Charlotte’s will follow.

We also hope to deal with some routine GMWRAG business such as the appointment of a new Treasurer; web site management; take-up work etc.

Please note that unlike our last 2 meetings there is no booking process for this meeting. It’s a GMWRAG meeting and you can just turn up. However, as per our last 2 meetings, we are expecting a full room so please arrive early if you want a seat.

If you’re unable to make the meeting we have tentative plans to live stream but again we’ll let you know about that in due course. In the meantime we look forward to seeing you all there.

Oh yeah, transport. Ahem, nearest railway station is Manchester Oxford Road and the venue is a small walk from there. We won’t talk about buses because if you can’t get a bus down Oxford Road then you’re really not trying. We strongly recommend cycling as Oxford Road has 2 cycle lanes. We strongly recommend insurance though as we’ve never been able to figure out which way the cyclists are supposed to be going.

See you all there.

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The Christmas 2018 meeting of the North West Mental Health Welfare Rights Advisers Group is here.

The next meeting of the North West Mental Health Welfare Rights Advisers Group will be on Friday the 30th of November 2018.

We meet at 9.30 for a 10am start.

Jane Hobson from Trafford Welfare Rights will be leading off a discussion on Universal Credit under full service fresh from talking to the Money Advice Group in Manchester on the same subject and refereeing a room full of GMWRAG members v Neil Couling.

The meeting is held in in the Community Room at Central Manchester Fire Station, Cassidy Close off Thompson Street, Manchester M4 5FP. It’s a short walk from Piccadilly and there is a car park on Thompson Street.

The Community room has its own entrance.  Please don’t enter the Fire Station by any other entrance.

From Cassidy Close you take the first left. Walk towards the building and then turn left again. You should now be at the back of the building. Walk towards a set of double doors under an overhang. The entrance to the Community Room is on the right just before you reach the double doors.

If you have any problems finding the room, you can call Helen Rogers on 07800 617 866.

As this will be our last meeting before Christmas, we’ll be going for lunch afterwards.

All are welcome to join us.

NB: The minutes of the last GMWRAG meeting remain in draft form as a number of very kind people have emailed in their own notes/recollections of the day (and indeed dodgy photographs) and we’re trying to incorporate these into the excellent minutes received from Trafford so we ensure we have covered all the bases. If anyone else has notes from the day which they’re happy to email in to gmwrag at Hotmail dot co dot uk this would be much appreciated.

Tidying up October. The housekeeping email and a short notice invite from PLP.

GMWRAG would like to thank all those involved in the organisation of the recent meeting in Trafford which can officially be designated the best attended in our history. On that basis we’d also like to thank those who attended and participated for the whole day. The minutes of the meeting have already been received and, as anyone who attended could imagine, there is a lot of detail to take in. GMWRAG is conscious that we may have missed some questions to Neil Couling and some answers so before publication of the final minutes we’re asking members to send in any notes you took on the day. So this doesn’t run on for too long please email us at GMWRAG at Hotmail dot co dot UK no later than Friday the 9th of November 2018.

Preparations for the January 2019 meeting in Tameside/central Manchester are at an advanced stage and we’ll publicise those as soon as we can. Rumours that Esther McVey will be in attendance can (largely) be discounted. We’re saving her for Stockport 🙂

In the meantime, could any GMWRAG members who attended the recent Manchester Tribunal User Group meeting please email any notes taken as regards who attended from HMCTS and details of any questions and answers.

This leads us on neatly to a short notice but really important invitation from the Public Law Project.

Previous GMWRAG speaker (and the first person to be streamed live from a GMWRAG meeting) Matthew Ahluwalia would like to invite a GMWRAG member to a presentation, debate and discussion on online courts and tribunals and HMCTS’ digitalisation programme. PLP is organising the event.

PLP will provide some reading material in advance and make a presentation to start the discussion. They will then invite questions, comments and concerns inviting those present to share their views, and discuss their own work that may involve or be affected by the digitalisation programme.

If there are particular issues about online courts and the reform programme you would like discussed, please let them know and we will try to allocate some time on the agenda.

Time, date and location: 2.30pm to 4.30pm, Friday 9th November, at Herbert Smith Freehills, Exchange House, Primrose Street, London EC2A 2EG.

This event will be free of charge. Please note however that there is the offer of just the one place for one GMWRAG member.

Please could you RSVP by 2nd November so that we can confirm numbers with the venue. In order to keep this manageable we suggest you email GMWRAG or DM us via @GMWRAGTweets and we’ll pass on the details of the first contact we have to Matt.

Final update on the GMWRAG meeting.

GMWRAG can now confirm that the Friday meeting in Trafford is now effectively a “sell out”. Everything attendees need to know about the meeting can still be found in our post at https://gmwrag.wordpress.com/2018/10/05/your-all-in-one-gmwrag-post-on-gmwrag-in-trafford

As an update on that post:

  • All attendees had to let GMWRAG know directly they wanted a place. The meeting is now at capacity so anyone thinking they can just turn up on the day as per previous GMWRAG meetings will be turned away. We’ve not done this before and, whilst it does feel rather extraordinary, there’s a first time for everything.
  • Anyone thinking of attending for only part of the day is actively encouraged to not do so.
    • It’s unfair on those people who would like to attend for the whole day.
    • In another first, a waiting list was created as soon as we hit capacity.
    • If you can’t attend for the day then please don’t attend and we can give your place to someone on the waiting list.
  • This is a business meeting with very clearly defined aims. If you’re not going to participate in any future GM UC forum then there’s little point in attending.
  • If you cannot attend at all please let us know ASAP as we can offer your place to people on the waiting list.

NB: Anyone who chooses to attend for only part of the day will be given no priority for tickets for the free GMWRAG/GMSCG/NWMHWRAG EA 10 equalities and welfare benefits event being run in January 2019. That will also be limited to 50 and for the first time will be ticketed (free) via Eventbrite.

Your all in one GMWRAG post on GMWRAG in Trafford.

We’ve made our claims online. We’re in the middle of our assessment period and we’ll (perhaps) get the pay off in 2 weeks time only to watch it all subsequently fall apart 🙂 Yes, the Trafford GMWRAG approaches and it has correctly been pointed out that not all of the information about the meeting is contained in one place. So, here’s the one post where everything is collated (until the next time we need to add something).

The meeting is a full day meeting and takes place at the offices of Trafford Housing Trust, Sale Point, 126-150 Washway Road, Sale M33 6AG on Friday the 19th of October 2018. Doors will open at 9:30am for a 10am start and we aim to finish for 4ish.

The venue is (we are told) a very straight forward 14 minute walk from the Sale Metrolink stop (M33 2DG in case you were wondering) and is also on a main bus route. Drivers? You’ll figure it out 🙂. Parking? Use a a sat nav.

The minutes of the last meeting remain available here and the final agenda can be found over here. Please note that whilst the name of the latter includes the word “Draft” it is most definitely the final version of the agenda. A big thank you to all those people who threw stuff at us really quickly and in great detail by email when we asked for your top 5 issues to help shape the agenda. We’re (reasonably) confident that the final agenda reflects in general terms almost all of the issues raised but we’re also painfully aware that you can’t please all of the people all the time.

On that note we’re sure that attendees or potential attendees are aware that our key speaker is Neil Couling CBE, Director General of the Universal Credit Programme. and that the day is dedicated to looking at common UC issues in GM and putting together a plan to manage those going forward. This means we have rather more housekeeping rules than normal.

  • Anyone turning up spontaneously as per most GMWRAG meetings may find we cannot accommodate them. We appreciate this is unusual but the room holds a maximum of 50 people and we are reasonably confident we will fill it. It’s a way to travel only to find we don’t have room so please Contact GMWRAG.
  • This is a GM meeting. GMWRAG has always welcomed members from as far afield as Cumbria and North Wales but this one is a GM meeting about specific GM issues and solutions. Whilst we’re sure many members might want to turn up out of curiosity to see; listen to and debate with a national figure and three local partnership managers we have had to make the hard decision that our priority has to be to give space to active GM workers who are not only interested in devising processes to look at solutions but who will also be around to work on those in the immediate future. We are happy(ish) to apologise if this appears stern but we have a small waiting list for non-GM advice staff and if we do think there’s space then we will contact anyone on the list
  • Equally, please do not turn up just for our guest speaker. See the previous bullet point. This is a working day with very specific aims for the GM area and whilst we welcome all participants we need people to be there for the full day else it becomes a little pointless. If you wish to attend please contact GMWRAG via the usual routes.
  • The logistics of this meeting have taken considerable effort from a small group of people to whom GMWRAG would like to extend (pathetically) grateful thanks right now. However, our hosts organisational skills will be fully occupied on the day and so once again we really urge attendees to download and print both the agenda and minutes and bring them with you on the day. It will really aid the smooth running of the meeting.
  • For those who have not attended previously we provide tea, coffee, water and biscuits. No lunch is provided. Expect to go for a walk or by all means bring your own.

We’ll give you all maybe one more prod before the meeting but we look forward to seeing you on the day.

Final preparation for the GMWRAG meeting in Trafford. Final agenda now available.

Everything is now in place for the next GMWRAG meeting in Trafford on Friday the 19th of October 2018. As usual this is a full day. Most of the details you need to attend can be found in our previous post.

The minutes of the last meeting remain available in the usual place and, as ever, we would prefer that you print these off in advance and bring them with you to the meeting to minimise the work of the meeting hosts. The agenda for the day is also now available and can be downloaded from here. As with the minutes, please bring your own copy if you can.

As per previous posts, this is going to be a busy meeting with a very tight agenda in a limited space. Anyone who turns up on the day assuming they can roll up spontaneously as per most GMWRAG meetings may find that we cannot accommodate them. We appreciate this is unusual but the room holds a maximum of 50 people and we are confident we already have 45 plus people attending including our 4 guests.

Equally, please do not turn up just for our guest speaker. This is a working day with very specific aims for the GM area and whilst we welcome all participants we need people to be there for the full day else it becomes unmanageable. If you wish to attend please contact GMWRAG via the usual routes.

Rumours that we’ve ordered a take out from the food hall at the Trafford Centre at lunch time are wholly unfounded, although if anyone wants to offer…

GMWRAG attempts to bend time and space. 2019 here we come with another big announcement.

GMWRAG is busy compiling a list of the many UC issues you have kindly sent us in order to put together a draft agenda for our October meeting in Trafford to agree with the office of our special guest, Neil Couling, the Director General of the Universal Credit Programme.

In the meantime, we are pleased to announce initial details of the January 2019 GWMRAG meeting and we hope GMWRAG members will be as excited by this as we are.

GMWRAG, Tameside WRS, NWMHWRAG and GMSCG presents

“Everyday Equality: challenging discrimination in the welfare benefits system” featuring Jo Chimes and a whole lot more.

The meeting is hosted by Tameside. It is a full day event and will take place at the LGBT Foundation, 5 Richmond Street, Manchester, M1 3HF on Friday the 18th of January 2019 We’ll be open for refreshments, networking and juicy gossip for 9:30am with a planned running time of 10am to 4pm.

This will be the northern version of the excellent event run for those grim southerners by Jo in May 2018. You can read more about that here and we recommend all potential attendees download a copy of the absolutely invaluable “Practical Equality Rights in Welfare Benefits Advice” in advance of attending.

As we’re limited to 50 attendees we’ll be using a GMWRAG Eventbrite account and asking people to book through that for the first time. There is no cost attached to this. It’s just a practical way of managing numbers. As NWMHWRAG members attempted to book Jo first we’re going to attempt to put out some early bird tickets exclusively for them but no promises on that. We’re still figuring it out. Registration is not yet available. We will post when it goes live.

An agenda for the day plus details of any additional speakers will be posted as soon as finalised but you can realistically expect this to be post the Trafford meeting in October as that is currently fully occupying the GMWRAG hive mind.

The sorry tale of how GMWRAG received a response to our first ever Freedom Of Information request; missed a chance to do some DWP wide research and learnt more than we possibly intended.

On the 13th of August 2018 GMWRAG made a Freedom of Information request to DWP via our new WhatDoTheyKnow account. You can read all about the context for that first request in our post of that date but it’s worth reiterating the basics here.

On the 3rd of August 2018 @neilcouling posted the following tweet.

“Nice end to the week. UC claimant on work experience in jobcentre tells whole of DWP, UC is better than JSA, feels more customer-friendly, giving people responsibility for their money means work less of a culture-shock, that change is inevitable but this one is welcome.”

@GMWRAGtweets has enjoyed “bants” with Mr. Couling previously and we’re well aware of an infamous occasion claims were made of being inundated with thank you cards from claimants who had been sanctioned. The final number could be described as something less than “inundated” unless DWP are now using a dolls house sized letter box as the front end for mail handling.

We have no idea whether the above account is controlled by Mr. Couling (or perhaps a “UC claimant on work experience”) but the above tweet provokes more questions than answers and Mr. Couling wasn’t very forthcoming.

We probably don’t need to comment further on the phrase “UC claimant on work experience in jobcentre”… but we will! We think the very concept of “work experience in jobcentre” begs a question as to what on earth JCP think they’re doing? Why would you place anyone on work experience in a jobcentre? If you can do it for one why can’t you do it in all (recognising the problematic nature of doing it in even one JCP)? What safeguards are in place if the work experience doesn’t work out? Is the work coach the supervisor? And so on… ad nauseam.

However, our more immediate concern was that this was someone giving out a message which offers a perspective on UC which flies in the face of all the evidence accepted by the Public Accounts Committee, the Work and Pensions Committee and the National Audit Office and in the context of doing work experience in, of all places, a JCP. So, this would be someone who not only seemed unlikely to have had any issue with the fluctuations inherent in UC in other situations and is therefore potentially largely uniformed by the wider issues but also who looks from the outside to have said something which at worst looks potentially coerced given that the language used, to most reasonable people, does not appear to be the language of a claimant. Indeed it bore remarkable similarities to those leaflets the DWP had to concede contained case studies of claimants who weren’t exactly real!

So, GMWRAG elected to ask a simple question? Which jobcentre? When we didn’t get an answer we decided to just keep asking. Every day!

At first we couldn’t any response at all but then, after 5 days Mr. Couling denied we’d asked him anything.

“Think you need to check back on your twitter history. I don’t recall you asking me anything. This tweet suggests you have asked a local jobcentre? But if I missed a tweet from you apologies”.

By this time we had, of course, on the 4th of August 2018 asked every JCP on Twitter in the UK whether this inspirational claimant had been at their office. We didn’t think this was unreasonable. Weren’t these the same JCPs who had claimed to be so responsive on social media that they had once prevented a claimant setting out to sign on in those notorious “adverse weather conditions” less then 10 minutes after they’d been asked if they were open! Yes, they were.

At the time of writing, a mere 40 days later, not a single one of those JCPs has shown enough social media manners to offer us a polite response. Not a “Sorry, not us”. Not a peep. Were there to be a storm of biblical proportions it seems most unlikely any JCP would be able to offer up a response in 9 minutes.

On the 8th of August 2018 Mr. Couling finally responded that this “… wasn’t from a jobcentre, which perhaps explains why jobcentres haven’t responded.”

Well, on one level, we had achieved a little more clarity, albeit only in the sense that we had established that blood wasn’t likely to leak from a stone any time soon. On the other hand, are we truly alone in thinking that an organisation which gets asked a questions and fails to acknowledge that even if only to confirm that they couldn’t help is best described not as “customer friendly” (to hark back to our original concern) but simply unprofessional? If GMWRAG members received a query from a client or another government department or indeed just about anyone, and simply failed to answer does “unprofessional” not leap out as the obvious adjective?

GMWRAG then asked, not unreasonably, if not in a JCP, then where. Mr. Couling was on fire now. He came back with the brilliant phrase “Sure, social media.”. We then asked which account and… silence.

ON the same day GMWRAG then found the account of one @AfrikKwame who quite remarkably had tweeted (on the 29th of March 2018 mind you) the words

“@JTomlinsonMP @ MMorley_JCP @Director_LHC I’m Deaf and loving my work experience at Barnsbury JC, coaching non-Deaf UC claimants into work.”

Putting aside that this means that work experience in a JCP is actually “a thing” we didn’t think this was our man (more on this later) but Mr. Couling then tweeted the astonishing

“This exchange reminds me of the bit from the Life of Brian where a follower says “only the true messiah denies his own divinity”. Brian replies “well what chance does that give me?”. Noted you never accept anyone might be happy with UC. I’m listening why not reciprocate?”

Two days earlier Mr. Couling had accepted an invitation to the October GMWRAG meeting! He then clearly set about doing some serious listening as his Twitter account fell mysteriously silent…

You can read the full text of the DWP response here. Like us you may wonder at how the DWP intranet translates into “social media”. Despite encouragement from elsewhere we think it would be futile to pursue this angle. Whilst most of us think of social media as specific platforms like Flaccidbook or Witter, it can be defined sufficiently loosely for Mr. Couling to be able to get away with the use of the phrase in connection with a post or broadcast on an intranet. See here for an example.

We do now have the full text of the voluntarily provided feedback, which reads

“I’m doing work experience at the job centre and I’m on UC. In my opinion UC is
much easier for customers than the old JSA system, it feels much more customer
friendly. Also, giving the customers full responsibility for their money is less of a
culture shock when we enter into full or even part time employment. I do
understand that some of the staff are concerned about the possibility of a heavy
workload due to the change of procedure, however, I think that once the change is
implemented, it will make the whole process smoother for all. In every system
change is inevitable, but I can tell you now, to me this is a very welcome one.”

GMWRAG is willing to listen to arguments that the above is real. The extent to which it was voluntary is open to discussion and ditto the extent to which the above is couched in the language of a claimant as opposed to a broadcast by DWP. However, the matter is not at an end. Indeed we have just tweeted @AfrikKwame to ask if they were in fact the person in question. Watch this space.

Brilliantly, it appears that when DWP posted the above responses they managed to not only fail to fully redact the name of the relevant claimant (too late folks, it’s apparently been sorted) but also managed to post a link which enabled a user to message the whole of the DWP! Yes, you read that right. GMWRAG of course missed the boat on this once in a lifetime opportunity to do some research in partnership with the DWP and that has been taken down also. Bearing in mind that UC is intended to be wholly digital and DWP is currently looking to migrate UC to a cloud computing platform. Let’s not even start on online ID verification. GMWRAG is both mildly amused and simultaneously horrified that such basic errors and data breaches continue to occur. It appears one little question can open up a whole can of worms.

Mysteriously, @NeilCouling is back on Twitter as of today! Perhaps someone lost the password and just found it in a journal!

A big announcement for the next GMWRAG meeting.

Some two months after we first announced the next GMWRAG meeting would be in Trafford on Friday the 19th of October 2018 we are pleased to be able to put a little flesh on the bones of the agenda and we’re confident that we have a day which will pique the interest of even the most diehard Principal Officers stayaways .

Our original plan was to have our traditional 2 speakers and a full day. Only the latter of these ideas remains in play. At the request of several GMWRAG members the whole day will understandably be dedicated to Universal Credit Full Service. However, instead of 2 speakers we will be playing host all day to Neil Couling CBE, Director General of the Universal Credit Programme and working with him and DWP to put together an agenda agreeable to all.

Mr. Couling will be bringing with him 3 partnership managers, although GMWRAG had already started the process of inviting every GM partnership manager before he graciously accepted our invitation, so whether we end up with the former or the latter is currently up in the air.

The focus of the meeting will be on identifying common UCFS issues across the GM area and looking to identify consistent cross GM solutions in order to move away from having different problem solving processes for each of the 10 GM areas.

The intent is to leave the meeting with a clear plan for a cross GM UCFS forum to meet on a regular basis to build on the work we plan to get through in Trafford over a longer period.

In deference to Mr. Couling we are likely to have specific agenda items about what is going well with UCFS and also a discussion on the evidence base for the suggestion that UC campaigning is causing anxiety amongst claimants which will make managed migration difficult to move people over safely to UC from 2020 onwards. There may be further requests for specific agenda items from the DWP side which we will also try to accommodate.

GMWRAG members can now help make this a successful day by contacting GMWRAG and letting us know your top 5 UCFS issues or concerns. Where common issues are identified across GM we’ll put these as specific agenda items and will try to give them 30 to 60 minutes each. These need to be strictly defined as anything broad is likely to go nowhere fast.

GMWRAG already has some ideas around this from members posts in forums and social media e.g. issues around terminal illness; unspecified/unjustified deductions; corporate appointeeships and many more but we want members to lead in defining your concerns not ours. We will be contacting some GMWRAG members in existing UCFS areas in GM for their specific thoughts.

We may ask 1 person per item to set the scene on the day by spending 5 minutes outlining the issue in depth (and perhaps giving a quick case study) before we set about co-operatively agreeing solutions which work for the majority.

This is likely to be the most focused and stimulating GMWRAG meeting (since the last one); a PowerPoint free zone (unless absolutely unavoidable) and we anticipate numbers may be high. Bearing this in mind, we’ll be posting separately in due course to ask GMWRAG members to indicate whether they will be attending so we can get a quick idea of numbers.

All of this does of course mean that a final agenda may be produced only at a very late stage so please keep an eye on this site and Twitter for further information. The minutes of the Bolton meeting remain available for download now.