So there I am with an invitation to attend an interview with a Jobcentre personal adviser as part Post Work Programme Support (PWPS).
“Now you have completed your time on the Work Programme” I am informed, “your personal adviser will assess the support you will need, based on your needs and skills, to help you find work and stay in suitable work.”
Readers may wonder what the hell the point of the previous two years of Work Programme (WP) had been, if not to “assess the support you will need, based on your needs and skills, to help you find work and stay in suitable work.” Apart, obviously, from making money for a bunch of private companies (Ingeus in my case) who couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery.
Anyhow, off I trot to the Jobcentre. I always think it’s a good idea to play it cool on these initial interviews, let them take the lead. There are good reasons for keeping your powder dry during these early encounters. For one thing, you might be lucky enough to have drawn a decent human being as your adviser – it can happen.
My previous Jobseeker’s Agreement (JSAg) had been drawn up prior to my starting WP by one such decent adviser, who listened to my points, agreed they were fair enough and we quickly put together a JSAg we could both live with. Everyone was happy, no conflict or stress.
Thinking about it, I realised that I hadn’t seen him around the jobcentre for some considerable time, so perhaps he was sacked for not sanctioning enough people, or perhaps quit in disgust at the way things were going. He was a gentleman, and there are all too few of them in the DWP.
So, as I say – hold back at first, see which way the cookie crumbles. If your adviser is a wrong ‘un, they’ll think you’re another subservient sanction-fodder and will start to take liberties. Give them enough rope now and later you’ll be able to, if not exactly lynch them, at least give them some severe rope-burns to remember you by.
So I sat and watched him instantly tear into my existing JSAg, took notes and laid my plans accordingly.
He didn’t like anything about it, starting with the three “types of job I am looking for”. Now this bit always annoys me – we’re constantly being told that we must be flexible, willing to consider all types of jobs, etc… then they demand that you limit yourself to three ! Where’s the logic ? I always point this out to the adviser, then put three jobs I have done and feel confident that, if I should get an interview for one tomorrow, I could go along, walk the walk, talk the talk and generally appear to actually know something about the job.
Not good enough for this guy, though. He immediately erased one of my choices and replaced it with ‘Assembly’. I pointed out (meekly, still playing that role) that I had no prior experience of assembly work and indeed wasn’t even quite sure what it entails. Not important, apparently. He wanted Assembly on there, and that was that.
At this point it might be useful to refer back to an article in the Guardian a couple of years ago in which a DWP whistleblower lifted the lid on some of the tricks advisers use to sanction people. In particular –
He said staff had different ways to ensure they could stop benefits for a set amount of people. “So, for example, if you want someone to diversify – they’re an electrician or a plumber, they may not want to go into call centres or something. What you do is keep promoting such and such a job, and you pressure them into taking it off you, the piece of paper. Then in two weeks you look at the system, you ask them if they applied for it … they say no – you stop their money for six months.”
I think that was what this adviser was up to. (Read whole Guardian article here – http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2011/apr/01/jobcentres-tricking-people-benefit-sanctions )
Of course, the joke is that my CV is probably one of the most diverse you’ll find anywhere. Starting with A for Archaeology and working through the alphabet to W for Warehouse (my dream job would be in a zoo, so I could really claim an A-Z of job titles) – although it should be pointed out that at no time did this adviser enquire about previous experience or ask to see my CV. I might well be able to work in assembly (whatever it is) for all I know, and I’m not ruling it out you understand – but replacing a job I have a track record record in with one I know nothing about, well it just doesn’t seem to make any sense, does it ?
Except, of course, as an instrument of sanction.
And so it continued – he went his merry way, changing just about everything, ticking boxes, all with no discussion with me. I sat back and watched him have his fun.
Then it was my turn. He printed off two copies of the revised JSAg signed them, then gave them to me to sign. I took a minute or two to read through it, then said:
“No, sorry, I can’t sign these.”
Wonderful ! You’d have thought I’d just punched him in the face (something I had admittedly been thinking about while watching him deconstruct my JSAg). I think these bullying individuals have become so used to pushing through these dodgy JSAgs that it comes as something as a shock when somebody tells them “no”. Playing the meek role encourages them to over-reach themselves, as they feel there’s nothing to stop them.
The interview time was just about up by now and his next victim was waiting, and so, after a bit of huffing and puffing he said we’d have to continue this at our next meeting.
“Fine,” I said, “Look forward to it”. He looked less than enthralled at the prospect.
As I was walking away I remembered something, so turned back.
“I assume that my original JSAg is still in force ?”
He didn’t seem sure, but then decided “No, as you haven’t signed the new one, you have no JSAg at the moment.”
Hah ! Caught you in a lie !
In fact, until such a time as a new JSAg is signed by both parties, the old one remains in operation. It’s worth remembering that, and asking them the same question. If they tell you no, then that’s something to note down for use in a future appeal.
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.