Now working part-time, volunteers part-time. Cares what happens to UK society full-time
This article shared below was originally published in the Big Issue of the North and written by Gary Ryan. I am only sharing it here because it is not online and I was interviewed for it and thought some of you who follow me on Twitter might find it interesting. I have kept it the same as the original apart from adding hyperlinks. In case you are wondering I was named Tom for this piece.
Campaigners say Jobcentre workers are imposing unfair conditions on jobseekers and even stopping their benefits without telling them, leaving them vulnerable, penniless and desperate. Gary Ryan investigates…
David Clapson died trying to find work. His body was found surrounded by printouts of his CV and application forms. The diabetic ex-soldier’s £71.50 a week Jobseeker’s Allowance had been stopped because he missed an appointment with a Jobcentre Plus adviser. He couldn’t afford food or electricity to power the fridge where he stored his medication. The cause of his death was an acute lack of insulin; the coroner found that his stomach was empty. At 59, he had spent his final days penniless, starving and alone.
This summer, Clapson’s younger sister Gill Thompson launched an online petition calling for an independent inquiry into his death. “Like many others, I believe that benefit sanctions – penalties by the government for things like missing Jobcentre meetings – are completely out of control and putting the most in need at risk,” she says. “I don’t want anybody else to die like this.”
In Britain today, 2.4 million people are unemployed, competing for 503,000 vacancies – one in four will not find a job, no matter what they do. Every jobseeker agrees to a set of conditions they must fulfill in order to claim support; if they fail one of these, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will stop some or all of their benefits for a minimum of four weeks, rising to three years. Sanctions are nothing new, but were toughened up in 2012 by the coalition government, who claim they positively motivate people to step up their search for work – and are continuing to make them tougher.
Some 860,000 people were sanctioned in the year to June 2013, many for spurious or arbitrary reasons. Every two minutes, a young person has their benefits stopped. Meanwhile, whistleblowers have claimed Jobcentre staff’s own jobs are under threat if they fail to apply sanctions. The question is being asked: does the Jobcentre exist to find people work, or simply to get them off benefits by any means?
Having lost his job in a university, Tom* signed on in 2013. “When I met with my adviser, the first thing she suggested I do was volunteering – so I volunteered through my local housing association,” he says. “I told the Jobcentre and they suspended my claim, leaving me without money. When I enquired further, they said the skills I required to do that volunteering too closely matched the skills I already had.”
Like a lot of claimants, Tom says he wasn’t told about the suspension – meaning he couldn’t cancel direct debits at the bank, which landed him in £120 worth of debt from bank charges and late fees. “That was in August and was my first taste of what they could do,” he says.
In November 2013, the housing association offered him a training course as part of a drive to encourage people to pursue self-employment. His adviser said: “Go for it, and while you’re there, don’t worry about looking for work – just put ‘training’ on your form.” When he returned to the Jobcentre, he found his adviser had changed. At his first meeting with the new one, he was sanctioned for not looking for work while training and his payments were suspended for four weeks. He had five pounds in his pocket to survive on from 25 November to the week after Christmas.
“At the end of that week, I ran out of electricity,” he says. “Very shortly after that, I ran out of food – a lot of it perished because it was in the fridge or freezer. It took them two weeks to make a decision to sanction me. Until a decision is made, you can’t apply for hardship payments. That was two weeks of going every day, desperately begging them for information. It wasn’t until I received £20 in a Christmas card from a relative that I had any money.
“I started getting diarrhoea because if you don’t eat, you become dehydrated and you lose control of your bodily functions. Since then, I’ve been on anti-depressant medication. I’m absolutely fearful of going to the Jobcentre.”
The government says emergency hardship payments (usually about half of Jobseeker’s Allowance) are there to cushion the blow of sanctions, but because of bureaucracy, they can take up to four weeks to process. In addition, according to one independent review, only 23 per cent of claimants are being told of their availability. Indeed, a mere 40 per cent were even aware they could appeal a sanction ruling.
It’s often left to food banks to provide a safety net. According to the Trussell Trust more than half of referrals to food banks in 2013/14 were a result of cuts or sanctions to benefits. But as Tom notes, many are closed over the festive period. “It felt like a double sanction. On Christmas Day, I was looking out of the window at the families walking together and happy and I was sitting there, existing on nothing, waiting for it to get dark so I could go to bed.”
According to the most recent British Social Attitudes survey, the UK has witnessed a long-term decline in support for benefits. Fuelled by George Osborne’s ‘striver v skiver’ rhetoric, there’s a dehumanising perception of claimants as feckless Frank Gallagher from Shameless types who loathe work as much as they love their 57-inch TVs. But Tom has worked since he was 16.
He has a 2:1 university degree – a combined honours in Sports Management & Business Law. “I’m surprised this happened to me,” he says. “I didn’t think I was one of those people.” In January, he returned to the Jobcentre and was sent on Workfare – a month of unpaid labour – “because it was obvious to her [his new adviser] that I hadn’t been looking for work while I was on a sanction. Effectively, I was being punished for being sanctioned. She said the sanction clearly showed that I needed to learn to get into a routine. Clearly, working for 20 years before unemployment did not show I could do that.”
In June, three former civil servants based in the North East set up the free online advice service jobseekersanctionadvice.com. One of its founders, Jean*, who left her job as an adviser in 2011, says she became disillusioned by the treatment of claimants in her final years at the Jobcentre and alleges that staff were pressurised to apply sanctions for the smallest of errors.
According to a report by the Policy Exchange think-tank, 68,000 people a year are found to have been wrongly sanctioned. Jean says this is a result of a disparity between the official guidelines and what advisers are actually encouraged to do. “Decision-makers don’t seem to be applying the law – they seem to have made up a law of their own,” she says. For example, claimants have to draw up a ‘Jobseeker’s Agreement’ promising to take steps to find work. “Any jobseeker who can demonstrate they have taken at least three steps a week to find work has complied with the law,” says Jean. “But I’ve seen Jobseeker’s Agreements with 100 steps. I’ve seen agreements for people with disabilities or lone parents that have 50 steps, whereas one person I helped in Scotland – who was sanctioned – only had 10 steps and had no health issues and an excellent track record of work. There’s no consistency.”
There is a developing culture within the Jobcentre, she says, of “bullying” claimants. “The plan is to frustrate people into submission so they’ll accept any job or leave the system. If you make one little mistake or are five minutes late for an appointment, you’re sanctioned. And people are brainwashed into believing they have no choice. They often don’t even approach the Citizens Advice Bureau for help – because they feel they deserve it.
”As part of the service provided by Jobseekersanctionadvice.com, Jean accompanies people locally to the Jobcentre to negotiate revised Jobseeker’s Agreements. “When I walk through the door, even I feel frightened, because you know you’re going to have to challenge everything they’re doing,” she says. “It’s transformed completely from when I used to work there. Now, if you complain, the answer is to ignore you for as long as possible.”
She says common forms of harassment include forcing people to give access to their Universal Jobmatch accounts, despite it being illegal under the Data Protection Act; and asking people to attend Jobcentres daily, seeing a different adviser each time.
Like Tom, she reiterates that people are frequently not informed that their money is being stopped. Through a Freedom of Information request, she discovered that a decision was made on 5 February to stop one claimant’s money, but a letter was not sent to inform them until 6 February.
“The letter was sent out the day after they made the decision,” she points out. “And he never received the letter anyway. That’s common. Jobcentre staff, if they’ve got any conscience at all, can’t face telling customers they’ve no money in the bank, so simply don’t.”
Jean denies that punitive sanctions incentivise people to find work. She says they are counter-productive, particularly among the most vulnerable members of society. “I’ve got homeless clients who don’t need the additional pressure of being told to do X, Y, or Z, especially when provisions are in place that aren’t being applied.”
James*, from Bradford, is one such homeless person. The teenager had his money stopped because he did not attend an interview, yet the Jobcentre failed to update his address, so he didn’t receive the letter. “I do intend to work again in the future but at this moment I just cannot physically face it,” he says.
“It’s hard enough working out where I will sleep, eat and keep warm at night. Thirty-five hours a week searching for jobs, along with weekly interviews with that bullying and intimidating Jobcentre adviser, is too much to bear.”
Andy Shawcross, a 30-year-old former security guard, has been unemployed for three years and has received several sanctions. His benefits were docked for four weeks when he failed to attend a back-to-work scheme meeting on the day of his uncle’s funeral, despite the fact that he had notified the provider in advance. “When it comes to job searches, they want a total of 18 a week,” he says. “I’m lucky in my area if I can find eight a week.”
Ironically, he also says he’s been sanctioned for actually applying for jobs. “I’ve got the qualifications but not necessarily the experience that some companies want, so they’re not willing to look at me,” he says. “When I applied for some jobs, the Jobcentre turned around and said: ‘You’ve not got the experience so there’s no point applying for them; you’re just doing it to fill in the numbers – sanction.’ I’m sanctioned if I don’t apply for jobs; I’m sanctioned if I do. How can I win?”
Debbie Abrahams, Labour MP for Oldham and East Saddleworth and a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, feels that “sanctions are being used to create the illusion that the government is bringing down unemployment”. Since April 2011, the Jobcentre’s primary performance measure has been ‘benefit off-flow’. Abrahams says there is evidence that sanctions increase benefit off-flow “because people who are not receiving any money do not turn up to sign on, so they drop off the unemployment register.”
Abrahams has met with an anonymous whistleblower – a former Jobcentre worker employed for more than 20 years in the Greater Manchester region – who disclosed to her the pressures to sanction claimants. “He told me interviews were being set up without clients’ knowledge, so they couldn’t attend and would be sanctioned. Advisers are performance managed by the number of people they get off the statistics. If they do not get enough people off the register, they’re subject to an internal disciplinary assessment – a personal improvement plan.”
At the Maundy Relief drop-in centre in Accrington, Lancashire, where volunteers provide help, food and support to the town’s neediest residents, manager Lucy Hardwick sees daily the human cost of these alleged ‘targets’. She estimates that 80 per cent of the food parcels the centre provides are for people driven to destitution by a sanction.
“We see a lot of people with mental health problems, who are insecurely housed or homeless, who might have substance abuse problems. They’re sometimes given Jobseeker’s Agreements that are hard to fulfill. Some are computer-illiterate or actually illiterate. In Accrington, there are few job opportunities for low-skilled workers. In many ways, it’s easier to sanction them than get them into work. You can appeal, but by then it’s too late. People are existing hand to mouth and have nothing in gaps between payments.
“People’s mental health deteriorates because it can be a desperate situation. In the winter, you can’t heat yourself or feed yourself, and you’re worried you might lose your property because your rent’s not going to get paid. People become less work-ready – they’re less able to look for a job because they’re suffering all this stress and just trying to get by.”
The DWP denies that it gives Jobcentres targets for applying sanctions or discontinuing benefits. A spokesperson said: “It’s only right that people claiming benefits should do everything they can to find work if they are able, but there are no targets for sanctions and they are only used as a last resort. Every month the vast majority of claimants – around 95 per cent – do not receive a sanction.”
But this will provide no comfort for the family of David Clapson. “If we don’t act now,” says Abrahams, “he won’t be the last to die under this appalling regime.”
*Names have been changed
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