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…
Ok… round 2. I’ve now discarded the submissive attitude adopted for the initial interview and now its time to enter angry, cynical bastard mode (admittedly this seems to be pretty much my default state nowadays).
The adviser was allowed to play his hand in the first interview, and he proved himself to be one of those who would, if given the opportunity, steamroller the claiment into signing a Jobseeker’s Agreement (JSAg) designed to set them up for sanctions, presumably with no qualms about the ensuing hardship their actions would cause.
Remember this, and remember it well – it’s YOUR life they will be disrupting, possibly destroying. They will continue on their merry way, drawing their rather good wage and probably basking in the praise they get for hitting their sanction targets at your expense.
So what are YOU going to do about it ? Because its only YOU who can do anything about it.
Luckily its not so hard as you might think – or might be encouraged to think. Of course it helps if you’re a naturally stroppy person. Actually, I’m not, and once upon a time I’d have probably have allowed them to steamroller me too, but the passage of the long, hard years, etc – basically I’ve learnt how to play the part, studied how they play their parts, learnt the facts that they should know but so often seem ignorant of – pretty inexcusable when that knowledge should be central to the proper execution of their jobs, but there you go. It’s something you can use.
Knowledge is power, and can give you a little leverage – it’s up to YOU how you use it to best effect.
Archimedes said “Give me a firm place to stand, and I will move the Earth.” That’s a little ambitious perhaps – I’d settle for helping a few more cracks appear in the edifice – it may not be as dramatic as burning down the Jobcentre, but chipping away here and there has its effect.
Not much of one if it’s just me, but what if YOU join in, and YOU and YOU ? And all the other YOUs who accept having deadly JSAgs foisted on them without argument, then whinge about it afterwards ?
If everyone refused to sign sub-standard JSAgs at the initial appointment and took the adviser to a second session, that would instantly impose extra strain on the system – and probably on the advisers too. More cracks for you to insert your metaphorical crowbar into.
But its down to YOU to act in your own best interests. All I can do is record how I’ve gone about things – hopefully it may inspire YOU and give YOU a few ideas.
Anyhow, enough about YOU, how was I getting on back at the Jobcentre ?
Mr Submissive safely back in his box, Mr Bastard takes to the stage. As the adviser’s only previous experience of me is as the former, this apparant change of personality may throw him a bit.
Incidentally, I find it useful to take a few props along. Print out anything you think you might be able to quote at them, put them in a file, then add enough extra sheets (blank if you like) to give it a bit of weight so that it gives a satisfying thump when you dump it on their desk. If they query it, say “Just a few notes…I’ve been looking into the legal implications” or something on those lines. Leave it vague – let their imaginations fill in the blanks, however erroneously.
A reporter’s notepad is also useful. Put it on their desk to make sure they see it, but transfer it to your lap, out of their sight, to make notes. Actually, you dont even have to make notes – just appear to be doing so. doodle, scribble, whatever, it’s the fact that you appear to be making notes that is important. Once again, encourage their imagination to jump to conclusions. Oh, and dont forget a pen – you kind of lose points if you have to ask to borrow one of theirs.
The notepad can also be used to disrupt their flow, should you wish to. Just say “Sorry… could you repeat that ? I ought to make a note of that,” and then scribble something on your pad for a while.
Mr Bastard also attempts to take control. Mr Bastard is right in from the word go. He points out that the JSAg is a contract and that under English common law there are certain niceties that must be observed if it is to be considered valid, does Mr Adviser not agree ? Mr Adviser has obviously never given a moments thought to the subject, is caught on the back foot, and resorts to umming and ahhing.
“Well it is, and it does,” Mr Bastard informs him, and moves on to the next issue.
You might recall from Part 2 that this adviser changed one of my specified employment fields on the JSAg to “assembly”, despite me pointing out that not only did I have no experience in that field, I wasn’t even clear what “assembly” actually entails.
Mr Bastard points out again that he knows nothing of this field, and demands it is changed…but not back to the original job, instead he is willing to allow “Retail” to be inserted instead.
In actual fact, Mr. Bastard’s experience of retail is pretty much limited to working stalls at markets and festivals – still, that’s 100% more experience than he has of assembly. Mr. Bastard also knows that far too many retail jobs are part-time and zero hours, but he wont have to apply for those, as he specifies needing full-time work.
However, the important thing is that Mr. Bastard is seen as willing to compromise and allow the Mr. Adviser to change one of his designated jobs (albeit one that he did not himself designate to start with). Mr. Bastard makes sure Mr Adviser knows that he’s making compromises, that he’s willing to do business. All bullshit really, but this perceived willingness to negotiate will look good should you need to take your case to independent appeal.
Still pushing the illusion of being Mr Compromise, Mr Bastard also states that he’s going to allow the total of 6 compulsory job applications per week to stand – a 100% increase on the existing JSAg. Mr. Adviser upped it from 3 to 6 at the initial appointment.
Six applications a week may not seem much, but taken in the context of the North East’s job opportunities… some weeks it’ll probably mean applying for 5 jobs I know I’m not going to get. The one bright spot is that email means I dont have to waste money on stamps and stationary anymore.
Mr Adviser did attempt to rally behind his assembly fixation – what the hell is is with him and assembly work ? If its so great, why isn’t he doing it ? And, being Mr Bastard, I asked him that very question. He didn’t answer, but stated that assembly was where all the work is locally.
Aha ! said Mr Bastard, who had spent a profitable and instructive 15 minutes prior to the interview printing off jobs from the Jobcentre’s jobpoints.
“Funny you should say that,” says Mr Bastard, “I’ve just been working my way through the top 100 local jobs, and guess how many assembly jobs I found ?”
Mr Adviser is not up to guessing games, but Mr Bastard tells him anyway – “Two !” He dumps the job slips in front of Mr Adviser and goes on to point out that both require previous experience and arcane qualifications, neither of which Mr Bastard – as he has repeatedly pointed out – possesses.
Mr Adviser shrugs. But there’s more – Mr Bastard dips into his other pocket and extracts a far larger wad of job slips. “By way of comparison, in the top 100 jobs on your job points I found no less than nineteen vacancies for self-employed leaflet distributors.”
And that’s the way of it folks – 2% assembly jobs, 19% leaflet distributors. In fact its probably worse than that – had I counted several other door-to-door, catalogue selling, commision based non-jobs in with the leaflet non-jobs, they’d have accounted for at least 25% of work available on the Jobcentre’s (and thus the government’s) own job points.
Its the unpalatable fact that they wont acknowledge – last August the Financial Times highlighted a survey of vacancies by Adzuna.co.uk, described as “a search engine that collects every online job vacancy.”
According to this survey, London and the southeast accounted for 46 per cent of UK vacancies… compared with just 3.3 per cent in the North East.
Anyone having to live on benefits in the North East knows this. Anyone looking for full-time work knows it’s even worse than that – once you’ve weeded out the part-time jobs, the zero hour contracts, and the 25% of “self-employed” scam non-jobs – what’s left ?
We know it , they must know it too, but refuse to acknowledge it, and insist we continue to chase vacancies in which we have neither the specified experience or qualifications, which we know before we even send the application that we wont be considered for.
If you wanted to design a system that seems guaranteed to destroy self-confidence and morale, look no further.
Mr Bastard makes these points, but Mr Adviser is obviously not interested. After all, he has his job, his little bit of power over the plebs, and is fulfilling the the trust invested in him by Iain Duncan Smith admirably.
The session petered out around now, with Mr Adviser saying that he will have to book a double-session for next time, as Mr Bastard has to agree to the revised JSAg or it will be refered to a decision maker.
“WE have to mutually agree on a contract, subject to English common law” Mr Bastard reminds him, and exits, feeling he’s probably come out on top – and still hasn’t signed the JSAg.
To be continued …
Ah yes… the Jobseeker’s Agreement (JSAg). What exactly is it ?
The JSAg form itself informs us that : “This agreement sets out my availability for work and the things I will do each week to actively seek work”, which all sounds reasonable enough, and indeed would be if that was all it was.
Unfortunately, since the Jobcentre’s role has shifted from “helping you to find work” to “stopping your benefits by any means”, it has become another instrument of sanction, with advisers pushing claiments into signing JSAgs which effectively set them up for sanctions.
YOU SHOULD BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN SIGNING A JSAg.
If you dont agree with what they present you with, don’t sign it. Your Jobcentre adviser may give you the impression (or even tell you outright) that you must sign it or face a sanction. This is not true. With a little determination you can negotiate something you feel you can live with.
Have you considered what the JSAg is on a legal level ? I was wondering about that and have been trying to work out exactly it’s standing is, and how that might affect us, the potential sanctionees.
I must say outright that I have no legal background, and everything herein is just how things appear to be to me, having researched the subject to the best of my ability – if you have experience that counteracts anything here please add it to the commments. However, I am in the process of testing the theory right now in my own JSAg negotiations (I’ve stretched them out to 3 sessions so far !) so I am at least putting my money where my mouth is.
That said, it seems to me that the JSAg is a contract, a legal document, and therefore subject to English common law. This is important, because it gives you certain protections. Your adviser is not above the law (although they may seem to think they are) but they probably have little or no understanding of what they are actually doing legally. This gives you at least a little leverage.
In order for a contract to be formed, the parties must reach mutual assent – that means you have to agree to it. If you dont, refuse to sign and attempt to negotiate the points you dont like.
Basically, it seems to boil down to this –
A party must have capacity to contract –
The purpose of the contract must be lawful
The form of the contract must be legal
The parties must intend to create a legal relationship
The parties must consent
I think we have to assume that you (and your adviser) are mentally competent, and that the form of the contract is legal. The purpose of the JSAg and whether both parties intend it to be legal are grey areas.
The last one is the most important here – the parties (plural) must consent. So if you dont, for whatever reason, do not sign.
There are what are described as a “ variety of affirmative defenses that a party may assert to avoid his obligation”. These are –
Incapacity, including mental incompetence and infancy/minority
Misrepresentation or fraud
Frustration of purpose
Duress, Undue Influence and Misrepresentation seem the most likely reasons for refusing to sign a JSAg in my experience. Indeed, the adviser I’m currently negotiating mine with has attempted all three !
Some people will suggest that you write “signed under duress” on any JSAg you sign but dont agree with. Better by far NOT TO SIGN AT ALL, but I realise people react differently and you may not feel able to stand up to a bullying adviser. Hopefully this may help give you some confidence, knowledge is power.
Remember – it’s down to you. No-one else can do this for you.
Duress in the context of contract law is a common law defense, and if one is successful in proving that the contract is vitiated by duress, the contract may be rescinded, since it is then voidable.
Helpfully duress can be divided into Physical duress and Economic duress. Assuming your adviser hasn’t actually threatened you with a thumping if you dont sign, economic duress is most likely to be your friend –
A contract is voidable if the innocent party can prove that it had no other practical choice (as opposed to legal choice) but to agree to the contract.
The elements of economic duress
Wrongful or improper threat: No precise definition of what is wrongful or improper. Examples include: morally wrong, criminal, or tortious conduct; one that is a threat to breach a contract “in bad faith” or threaten to withhold an admitted debt “in bad faith”.
No reasonable alternative (but to accept the other party’s terms). If there is an available legal remedy, an available market substitute (in the form of funds, goods, or services), or any other sources of funds this element is not met.
They might argue that an alternative income is available by getting work. However, you might counter that you wouldn’t be claiming if you could find any, and would be left without an income without benefits. If the adviser infered your benefits would be stopped if you didn’t sign, then I’d say that was exconomic duress. But of course I’m not a lawyer.
The threat actually induces the making of the contract. This is a subjective standard, and takes into account the victim’s age, their background (especially their education), relationship of the parties, and the ability to receive advice.
This might be a viable reason for some, and advisers are known to target the more vulnerable.
The other party caused the financial distress. The majority opinion is that the other party must have caused the distress, while the minority opinion allows them to merely take advantage of the distress.
Misrepresentation has some potential too –
Misrepresentation is a concept in contract law referring to a false statement of fact made by one party to another party, which has the effect of inducing that party into the contract.
So if they say you must sign there and then – that’s misrepresentation.
Generally, statements of opinion or intention are not statements of fact in the context of misrepresentation. If one party claims specialist knowledge on the topic discussed, then it is more likely for the courts to hold a statement of opinion by that party as a statement of fact.
An adviser, I would think, certainly claims specialist knowledge – its inherent in the term adviser.
Well, there’s some points there for you to consider. I repeat that I have no legal training, but I think the above is correct so far as it goes. At least it gives you a slight advantage (as your adviser probably knows none of this) and a slight leverage. It would hopefully give you an advantage if you go as far as an independent appeal (as I intend to do if necessery).
Remember – the aim is not to take the DWP to court – it’s to negotiate a JSAg that you can live with and one that’s not going to set you up for a sanction.
I’ll be publishing my on-going JSAg negotiation experiences over the next week or so, check back to see how the theory fares in reality.