Originally published as ‘Revealed: Inhumane Treatment Of Disabled And Poor By UK’s Department For Work And Pension’ on Mint Press News on 9/10/14.
Photo credit: Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty / Flickr
The Department for Work and Pension’s unfair treatment of disabled claimants has been widely reported. There was the ex-RAF serviceman who was found fit to work even though he has to carry around a machine attached to his heart, or die in 15 seconds. There was the blind woman who was asked “How many fingers am I holding up?” by an Atos assessor before her Employment and Support Allowance benefits were stopped and she was put on Jobseeker’s Allowance. Most recently, a man with brain damage and uncontrollable epilepsy killed himself after being ordered to take part in mandatory work activities.
But the DWP’s treatment of disabled people on Job Seeker’s Allowance is hardly better than its treatment of those on Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance. And even those without disabilities are still victims of DWP harassment.
Julia is a student with autism. The Jobcentre demanded that she attend full-time workfare as well as studying full-time. Julia had already been on workfare before, and become ill as a result because the Jobcentre negligently did not provide any support for her. Shockingly, they demanded that she go on workfare again- without providing any support this time, either.
“To continue benefits I had to be looking for work on a full time basis, Mandatory Work Activity scheme (aka workfare). They wouldn’t allow it to be looking for part time work, which is what I would have accepted. I somehow think they thought I was using full time education as an excuse to avoid looking for work. However I really wanted to do a full time degree course, and their insistence on my doing full time job search [workfare] was something I could not comply with. I was simply worried I could not manage both a full time course and [workfare]. Some people could do that, however my disability requires so much extra time on things.”
The Jobcentre were quick to put her on workfare — it was only the first meeting of her new claim that they brought it up. And at the second meeting, they insisted. When Julia refused her benefits were stopped. The DWP just left her with no financial or other support. With no way to pay the rent, it was left up to a care worker to find her flatmates.
“Sharing the flat is not something I want to do because I have autism and I don’t enjoy others company,” she says.
She now lives on very little as her benefits were stopped.
“I am not surprised people want to kill themselves. People are now being given sanctions for the most minor things. They make you feel worthless, I felt unworthy being a student and thought I should be working like other non-disabled students can manage.”
Cecilia, then a university graduate in rural Scotland, is dyslexic. She struggled to fill out her job search form and was accused of not looking for work — a sanctionable offence. Cecilia told them she was dyslexic. But the Jobcentre didn’t believe her — not even when she showed them a psychologist’s report. They said the psychologist’s report would make no difference to their decision, and demanded that Cecilia have a meeting with a psychologist contracted by the DWP. It took months, but finally the DWP psychologist met with Cecilia and concluded that she was dyslexic. But Cecilia’s problems were far from over. Though they now had to accept she wasn’t faking her dyslexia, Jobcentre staff found new ways to give her a hard time.
“They made me feel I was stupid. They were so rude, they left me in tears for a whole weekend,” she recalls.
It got so bad that her father phoned the Jobcentre on the Monday, but no formal complaint was ever made against any of the staff. Cecilia also had to spend an entire day in the town where the Jobcentre was located every time she had to sign on or see her advisor, as there are only 2 buses per day between the town and the village where she lived with her parents.
Cecilia returned to university to pursue a master’s degree, and when she graduated and started a fresh claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance, the Jobcentre began a new campaign of harassment against her.
“They made me feel bad about myself, like I was stupid, like I was lazy. I dreaded having to go into meetings and after the meetings I would feel really demoralised, worthless, useless.”
Jobcentre staff also blamed her for applying for administrative but not retail jobs. She explained that she wasn’t suited to retail, but they insisted that she wasn’t allowed any freedom to choose her job, and that to continue to receive Jobseeker’s Allowance she had to apply for any job that she could do.
“If you say you’re backed on a job choice by your parents, they don’t believe your parents know what’s best for you, but that they would,” she says. “When I came back after doing my second degree, I said ‘This is what I am going to do. This is what I have trained. This is my choice. And you can tell me it’s not mine to choose but in actual fact it is.’”
“Young people really get it in the neck. They don’t know what to expect.”
This blog appears to show that, after blogger Jules Clarke contacted his MP, Iain Duncan Smith admitted in writing to the MP that the DWP sanctions people with “learning difficulties or mental health problems.” Both disabled and non-disabled benefits claimants are most at risk of having their rights eroded if they’re on Jobseeker’s Allowance, and especially if they’re coming off the Work Programme.
Sources from within the Jobcentre claim that daily sign-ons are already in effect and that job seekers coming off the Work Programme also face mandatory resume and job searching courses at venues outside the Jobcentre known as ‘learning centres.’ Jobseekers will also have to attend extra sessions at separate ‘drop in centres.’ No courses which include actual skills training or qualifications are offered. They will also be required to apply for jobs every day, even if their Job Search Agreement only binds them to apply for two or three jobs per week. The sources also confirm that freedom to choose one’s occupation is not recognised or allowed by DWP policy.
The Work Programme providers may appear independent, and indeed they are private companies contracted by the DWP. But their autonomy is being eroded.
This covert Jobcentre recording which was sent to me a few weeks ago proves that the DWP maintains strict control over Work Programme companies and is now forcing them to see benefits claimants up to twice per week. Oddly enough, it’s those closest to employment who are being targeted, not those most in need of support. The DWP has not been transparent about its puppeteering of private companies.
To complicate things further, the Work Programme company Ingeus also appears to be controlling other work programme providers. Ingeus provides on-premises training and resources to other companies such as Working Links and its subsidiaries. As Ingeus is one of the biggest Work Programme companies – with one of the worst reputations — this is a concerning development. It could have the effect of increasing or creating harassment of jobseekers in the more benign companies which it provides training to.
Blogger Johnny Void, a benefits claimant who writes about the DWP, says
Unemployed claimants now face endless ‘work related activity,’ such as workfare, bogus training run by welfare-to-work companies or being warehoused in Jobcentres for 35 hours a week repeatedly job-searching the same handful of local vacancies on offer. Those who are sick and disabled or have children are not spared, with lone parents now facing Jobcentre harassment from the first birthday of their child whilst disabled people are endlessly assessed and forced onto the Work Programme.
“None of these measures are helping people find jobs, and there is barely any pretence that this is the purpose of these reforms. Instead the aim is to make life on benefits as difficult as possible by filling people’s lives with irksome and pointless tasks. Under Iain Duncan Smith the social security system has become as brutal as it is bizarre. This is the principle of the workhouse re-invented for the modern world and carried out on the cheap.
A jobseeker who goes by the Twitter handle I’m A JSA Claimant had his benefits stopped for not applying for a job- even though there was no bus back. He’s now on the Work Programme and his provider emailed him maths homework about taking buses to work — a very degrading primary school level exercise and a waste of his time — but if he doesn’t do it, he could face sanctions. This incident shows how little privacy those on the Work Programme have: not only are their contact details known by the companies, but they must be contactable at all times and leave their evenings free for homework. Because quantity is valued over quality, the programme isn’t even helping him find a job.
“I have to find between 12-20 jobs per week,” he says. “In reality what happens is I find a bunch of crap jobs to fill the quota and concentrate on the good jobs I do want.”
Not only is DWP policy useless, harmful to those on benefits and a huge waste of taxpayer money, it might actually be increasing crime. This bizarre story was told to me by someone I’m going to call Rob. (You’ll get it if you read on). It was the middle of the night, and over a secure HTTPS connection (and a not-so-secure messaging service) Rob revealed his tale in painstaking little message-boxes.
He had worked for 15 years, paying into the system, only to be “conned out of what I put in.” According to him, he signed the declaration on the Job Search agreement without knowing that his advisor had secretly put in that the agreement was to look for 60 jobs per week. Because he’d signed, he was sanctioned for four weeks for failing to comply with the agreement. It would’ve taken another four weeks to get his money back — an effective eight-week sanction.
But Rob never got that far. He was sanctioned again for having a bad attitude. Rob suffers from angina. When he was sanctioned, his free medication stopped as well — but he still had to pay the bedroom tax. So he found a solution to his problems- in his own words:
I NOW ROB I’M ME OWN BOSS DO ME OWN HOURS MONEYS GOOD GET CAUGHT NO BEDROOMTAX NO POLLTAX IN FACT GOV PICK UP TAB I NEVER SIGN AGAIN EVER.
Do I believe this story? Well, I once interviewed a Job Centre whistleblower who said that changing claimants’ answers is completely possible. And in 2013 I was threatened with sanctions for being late even though lateness isn’t sanctionable by DWP policy. Later I was told I must apply to jobs every day (ie. at least 7 per week) even though my Job Search Agreement was only to apply for 2 jobs per week, and I was far exceeding that. So it appears that the altering of agreements and policies does happen.
Just as we’ve seen happen with other issues in other countries, no doubt this period of time will go down in the history books as a dark and disgraceful episode of British modern history.