> Part 93 of the ongoing Labour MPs Suddenly Discover Sanctions series….
THE cases of a Hartlepool benefits claimant whose money was cut because she missed an appointment due to roadworks and another who did not turn up for an appointment which had been cancelled have been raised in Parliament.
MP Iain Wright was speaking in a Commons debate on the effects of the DWP’s benefits clampdown on claimants across the North East, prompted by Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah.
Mr Wright said he accepted the need to tackle fraud, but the system had to take account of people who had genuine reasons for falling foul of the rules.
“Most people would accept the principle that if people flagrantly and persistently fail to adhere to mutually accepted requirements, they should face consequences,” he said.
“However, I have noticed a large increase in the number of sanctions imposed, often for a first or light transgression, and often with no regard to the context.”
Cases of people who had seen their benefits suspended unreasonably included:
– A man who realised he had missed an appointment, contacted the Jobcentre immediately and went in the next day, only to be informed by post that his benefits were being cut for a month;
– A woman sanctioned because she was late after her bus got delayed by roadworks in the centre of Hartlepool;
– A woman who was told her appointment for a work capability assessment had been cancelled who was then sanctioned for failing to attend;
– And a woman who was sanctioned for a month because she missed an appointment to attend her grandfather’s funeral.
“In all those cases, and in others, I have been able to get the sanctions overturned; but that itself raises some issues,” said Mr Wright.
“Is it an efficient use of taxpayer resources to apply a sanction, only for staff time to be employed in overturning it? How robust, efficient and effective is the process if that continues to be the case?”
The culture in JobCentres needed to change, he said:
“Front-line staff do not have any flexibility to determine whether a benefit claimant has failed to comply with a requirement. They have to see things in black and white and they cannot provide personalised support.
“The system is geared not to help individuals, but merely to process them.
“Claimants can suffer appallingly as a result of their treatment.”
The system was also failing to help workers whose traditional skills were not suited to the modern jobs market.
“The JobCentre is simply not interested in helping them secure a new job,” said Mr Wright.
“Through its indifference and latent hostility, it is consigning my constituents to the scrap heap long before their time.”
He highlighted the case of a former factory worker who had been told to apply for benefits on-line despite not owning a computer and never having used one.
“There are many people like my constituent in Hartlepool and the North East. The digital divide is creating social exclusion that is affecting the most vulnerable people,” said Mr Wright.
“My constituents deserve better, as do many others in the North East and elsewhere.
“They are treated shabbily and with contempt.”
Work minister Esther McVey defended the Government’s record and told the debate the sanction rate for Jobseeker’s Allowance was between five and six per cent a month and less than one per cent for Employment and Support Allowance.
> Presumably depending on what targets for sanctions Jobcentre managers have set their staff….
“In the past year, the number of people sanctioned actually decreased,” she said.
Source – Hartlepool Mail, 10 Jan 2015
Hello, I thought I would let you know about various issues we have been having with the benefit system.
I am a 48-year-old who is very unwell. I suffer from Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy. It’s a cross between M.E and M.S and causes terrible pain all over my body. My mobility is very poor and I have had several operations on [my] stomach due to severe problems. I also suffer from I.B.S and have seizures.
Things have become so bad that my husband has had to give up work to care for me, because I cannot be left on my own for any length of time. I need help in doing most things.
I was called in for a medical [assessment] three years ago, which was cancelled twice as they did not have the staff. Once we were not told it was cancelled until we had got there. I got my Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), but then about eighteen months ago I was called in for yet another assessment.
I went to the Luton office as instructed to do so. On arrival, I was then told I would have to go as I was in my wheelchair and that if there was a fire I would not be able to get out of the building. The medical [assessment] office was on the top floor. When I was asked what I should do, and could they put something in writing to say I had attended, I was ‘tutted’ at and told to wait.
In all I was kept waiting for twenty minutes, to which I pointed out [that] they could have done some of my assessment in that time. I was advised to go home [and that] it had been noted I had attended, even though they would not give me anything there and then in writing. I would be sent another appointment and advice on what to do next.
Three days later a letter arrived giving me another appointment, but again is was for the same place. I called and explained [what had happened previously] and was told this was an error and not to go – another appointment would be sent.
Another letter arrived, but again stating to go back to the Luton office. It was a nightmare and caused a lot of upset and stress. In the end, a month later, I was sent an appointment to go to another office twenty miles away. I am pleased to say my claim was upheld.
But, I am sorry to say, that was not the last issue we have had. Last year I got another form to fill in for my ESA. My husband and I eventually [completed] the form and sent it off by recorded post (I have learnt not to send anything that cannot be traced). After two months I had [still] not heard anything, so I called them to find out what was going on. I was told they had received all my paperwork on July 18th 2013 and [that] I would hear back within the next two months. Again I waited [but] by end of October [I had still not] heard anything, so I called [them] again to be told they could not find anything. I was very upset, and yes angry, about this and pointed out that I had already been told it had been received on July 18th, All of a sudden it was found. I was told should hear [something] by the new year. [To date] I have had nothing back from them and as I am still getting my ESA I have [decided] not to rock the boat. I just hope no news is good news and [that] I carry on getting my benefits.
I was advised whilst all this was ongoing, that my husband was entitled to a little bit of Income Support. We applied, received a letter saying he would get about £8 a week paid monthly and advised to check to see if he was entitled to any back-pay. We did this and wish we had not. It led to a number of phone calls from the manager of Luton Jobcentre asking why we had passed things on to my MP. I told her I had done this as I was not getting anywhere in getting the money paid to my husband, which we had been told he was entitled too.
After a couple of days Alan [received] a payment but was told that there was no back pay. Again, I questioned this. Another very nasty call from Luton Job Centre, the manager again told us that we had caused a problem, to which I asked why, and got no proper answer.
She then said she was going to stop the income support that was going to Alan. I asked why and could she do that? To which she said she could, and would do it, and if we wanted to do anything about it we would have to stop our ESA claim and put in a joint claim for Income support, but it could take up to sixteen weeks and whilst it was being looked in to we would get no money. Well,.. of course we cannot do that, so we are losing out on the small amount of income support we should and did get for a short time. This seems very unfair. If we are entitled then we should get it, surely?
I dread a brown envelope coming through the door and am desperate and very worried about the changeover from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payments (PIP). It’s already causing worry, stress and sleepless nights.
I do not know what we will do if it is stopped for any reason as I cannot go to work. I did not choose this, the [medical[ conditions chose me. I had a good job in a company I loved working for and I did not want to go on benefits.
Like many people, I am made to feel unworthy and nothing but a scrounger.
Sorry this is all a bit long-winded, but I feel [like] I wanted to get as much information down as possible. I know there are plenty [of] others that are in a worse situation because of benefits being withdrawn. My heart really goes out to them.
If, like us, you are deemed to have a spare room, that is another worry, upset and obstacle to cope with.
This government will not be happy until we have all starved, frozen to death or back in the workhouses of the Victorian era.
We have also had to go cap in hand twice to a food bank, and I often just have soup and 2 slices of toast in a day. I try to do my best, but things are so expensive and it is very hard. I feel terrible that my illness has such a negative knock-on effect on my husband and son, as many others do. I wonder if my family would be better off with out me?
Thank you very much for taking the time to read all of this.
Source – Welfare News Service, 17 May 2014
> From the letters page of the Sunderland Echo.
People I know who sign on at the Southwick Jobcentre tell me that the following is about par for the course. Although I suppose you could say that they’re just conforming to current DWP policy towards the unemployed….
Jobless deserve to be treated better
I RECENTLY attended an appointment at Southwick Jobcentre, having been unemployed since January 11 of this year.
I had tried, with the Jobcentre’s help, to enrol on an IT course and I was given the time of 9.30am to attend the course centre.
I arrived at the centre at 9.15am and by 11am I was still sitting in the waiting room. I was then told by a lady that my appointment was actually 2.30pm and that they would rearrange an appointment for me. They never contacted me again.
At my next appointment at the Jobcentre I was given a form to fill out to explain why I did not attend the course.
I was treated like it was all my fault. I wrote on the form that I believed that it was due to someone else’s incompetence and why was I being punished.
The lady from the Jobcentre phoned the course and the woman that she spoke to agreed with my story and also said the reason that I had not been contacted was because their funding had fallen through and the course was no longer available.
The lady from the Jobcentre then signed me up for a forklift truck course, even though I already have my forklift licence, and told me that it was mandatory. She reeminded me that if I did not go I would have my benefits stopped for three months. I will not be given bus fare and this will cost me a fortune.
These people haven’t a clue what they are doing. They are not helping us in any way.
Maybe these people should be the ones sent on courses and people like me given their jobs.
I would treat others like human beings and not like the scum that they think we are.
Steven, Red House, Sunderland
Source – Sunderland Echo, 13 March 2013
With a little time to wait before my next appointment, it was time to stir the pot a little and write a letter to the Jobcentre’s manager. Not a complaint or anything, you understand, just a request for information, a defining of terms…
Anyone can do this, or a variation of it. Part of the reason is to find out how much they know, part is to give them the impression that you know more than them and that you may be planning something.
Always request that they reply in writing, so that you have something that may be used in evidence at a future time. If you don’t, they may phone you instead. Get everything in writing !
Dear Sir / Madam,
I am currently negotiating a new Jobseekers Agreement at your Jobcentre, having recently finished Work Programme.
There are one or two points I don’t quite understand, so I would be grateful if you could supply answers – in writing – to the following questions at your earliest convenience.
1 – The status of the Jobseekers Agreement. It seems to me that the Jobseekers Agreement is a legal contract, and as such will be bound by the conditions of English common law pertaining to such contracts.
Could you confirm this, or, should you believe this not to be the case, supply details of the legislation which removes a Jobseekers Agreement from the constraints of contract common law.
2 – Role of Jobcentre advisers. I would suggest that the role of an adviser is to advise, the title seems self-evident.
Bearing this in mind, if, hypothetically, during the negotiation of a new Jobseekers Agreement, I was to consider the views of an adviser but then to reject them and decide on a different course of action, his/her role would be at an end – they advised, I considered and decided otherwise.
2 (a) Would I be correct in this summise ?
2 (b) If the adviser decided not to accept my decision and then to actually try to reverse it against my will, what would be an acceptable course of action for me to take ?
3 – Independent advisers. Should I feel it necessery, I assume there would be no objection to my having an independent legal adviser accompany me to any Jobseekers Agreement negotiations. I would be grateful if you could confirm this.
This third one was actually added as an afterthought, but it’s not a bad idea to put it in as a bit of misdirection – and anyway, it’s a valid question.
So the above was handed in to the reception at my local Jobcentre, around midday. Now get this – I got a reply THE VERY NEXT DAY !
Anyone who has ever tried to get information out of the DWP will suspect me of stretching credibility here, but true it is. Usually it takes weeks, often you have to resubmit your request, sometimes several times.
Not that the reply was particularly enlightening –
Thank you for your letter of [date] regarding your Jobseekers Agreement and the role of Jobcentre Adviser.
I am unable to provide you with a full response at present as I need to make further enquiries.
Well that doesn’t tell us much… or does it ? It does actually seem to imply that the Jobcentre manager knows neither the legal status of a contract his workers try to enforce or, even more worrying, the role of the advisers he employs.
That was the end of the rapid response episode. It took about 3 weeks for a proper reply to arrive (all punctuation, spelling, etc, as received) –
To respond to your concerns;
Firstly, the Jobseekers Agreement (JSAG) is a document to be agreed between the claimant and their personal adviser. It is purely a tool to set out the claimant’s availability for work and the jobsearch activities they intend to take that is hoped to offer the best prospects of securing employment.
Secondly you are quite right the role of the adviser is to offer advice and support to claimants but it is also their remit to ensure that the JSAG is realistic taking into account both the claimants skills, experience, capabilities etc as well as using their knowledge of the local labour market.
If however an agreement cannot be made about your JSAG your case would be refered to an independent decision maker for consideration. This could result in loss of Jobseekers Allowance at some stage.. If however, you are not satisfied with any decision made regarding your claim to Jobseekers Allowance you can ask for it to be explained or reconsidered or you can appeal to an independent appeal tribunal.
Lastly, Jobcentre interview are discussions between the claimant and their Personal Adviser. The interviews are usually completed unaccompanied and legal advisers would not normally be present a these negotiations. However, please note if you have any concerns during you interviews that you can suspend the interview if you wish to seek independent legal advice and we will make another appointment to continue the review at a later date.
I hope this reply is helpful and that it adresses the issues you have raised. Should you wish to take the matter further please raise your additional concerns in writing which we will forward on your behalf to our District Complaints Resolutions Manager.
p.p. Another Name.
What do we gather from this ? Well firstly, and worryingly, the squiggle who signed the letter appears to be my adviser ! Also, the Another Name p.p.’d is NOT the Jobcentre manager, but some other unknown person. Did the Jobcentre manager ever see this reply ?
– the Jobseekers Agreement (JSAG) is a document to be agreed between the claimant and their personal adviser.
Well, yes, I knew that, but that wasn’t what I asked.
– It is purely a tool to set out the claimant’s availability for work and the jobsearch activities they intend to take that is hoped to offer the best prospects of securing employment.
That wasn’t what I asked either.
– Secondly you are quite right the role of the adviser is to offer advice and support to claimants but it is also their remit to ensure that the JSAG is realistic taking into account both the claimants skills, experience, capabilities etc as well as using their knowledge of the local labour market.
Well, that’s my point – the adviser is trying to make me include on the Jobseekers Agreement jobs which I have never done, do not have the skills or experience for – my point is that that is NOT “realistic taking into account both the claimants skills, experience, capabilities etc”.
It is, however, a set-up for a sanction.
– If however an agreement cannot be made about your JSAG your case would be refered to an independent decision maker for consideration. This could result in loss of Jobseekers Allowance at some stage.
Ah, the stick. Complain and we will make life difficult. I might add that the “independent decision maker “ is NOT independent, it’s the DWP’s decision maker.
– If however, you are not satisfied with any decision made regarding your claim to Jobseekers Allowance you can ask for it to be explained or reconsidered or you can appeal to an independent appeal tribunal.
Why are we suddenly talking about Jobseekers ALLOWANCE ? We’re supposed to be discussing the Jobseekers AGREEMENT.
– Jobcentre interview are discussions between the claimant and their Personal Adviser. The interviews are usually completed unaccompanied and legal advisers would not normally be present a these negotiations
Just because that’s what usually happens, is there anything to stop a person being accompanied if they so desire ?
– if you have any concerns during you interviews that you can suspend the interview if you wish to seek independent legal advice and we will make another appointment to continue the review at a later date.
Can you ? That’s interesting. I may have to try that at some stage, just to see if it really works.
– Should you wish to take the matter further please raise your additional concerns in writing which we will forward on your behalf to our District Complaints Resolutions Manager.
After having read your complaint, probably copied it, and initiated any cover-up they feel necessery. Paranoid ? Me ?
So – no real answers to direct questions, but this exchange may prove useful at a future time insomuch as it proves I tried to get answers to definite questions and they failed to provide them.
To be continued…