Now working part-time, volunteers part-time. Cares what happens to UK society full-time
I was going to write a much longer piece detailing what I thought was wrong with the system and what needed to be changed, but after speaking to the Committee assistant she advised that I stick to just detailing examples of sanction or referrals I had received, so this is what I have done. If you are reading this having experienced sanctions yourself, I found the process of writing about what I had been through a cleansing and therapeutic experience. At a couple of points I was close to tears, remembering the emotions I had experienced, but overall I felt it was worth doing.
I am writing as an individual in response to the Work and Pensions committee call for written submissions for their Benefit sanctions inquiry launched on 12 April 2018.
I am a 45 year-old former learning developer living in Somerset. Four months after my redundancy in 2013 I made an application for Jobseekers Allowance (JSA). Since then I have also claimed Employment & Support Allowance (ESA). During this time I have been sanctioned or referred for a sanction five times.
1.0 Jobseekers Allowance (JSA)
I was made redundant at the end of 2012. After that I did agency work until this dried up in 2013. I applied for JSA after that.
The first significant thing my adviser suggested I do while claiming JSA was to volunteer. By coincidence, my social landlord was looking for unemployed tenants to evaluate a new project they had set up called ‘Into Work’. I showed this to my adviser and she encouraged me to get involved. Initially they only needed me for a day but a telephone conversation with the ‘Into Work’ manager led me to believe it would lead to other opportunities.
After completing the volunteering I went back to the adviser and told her what I had done. She asked me to complete a form and asked various questions and she was very positive. I signed on as normal and went away feeling I had done the right thing. However, when I went to check my JSA payment it was not there. The man from the call centre said he wasn’t sure but he thought I had been referred for a sanction. I didn’t know what a sanction was at that point and he told me to speak to my adviser. The next day I went to the jobcentre and managed to speak to her briefly. She explained what a sanction was and that it was out of her control. In explanation she said, “The skills I required to do that volunteering too closely matched the skills I already possessed” and in her manager’s view thought I should have been paid so I was referred for a sanction.
With my benefit suspended I was unable to pay direct debits. Their fines put me overdrawn and eventually it cost me £120. It didn’t end there though, the companies I had direct debits with also fined me for late payment – another £40 or thereabouts.
Sixteen days later my benefit was reinstated. I did not receive a letter explaining why and my adviser did not seem to know the answers to any of my questions. I made a complaint to the manager but it was dismissed and I gave up.
I received a letter from DWP instructing me to attend a one-day training programme to improve my CV. The letter arrived 90 minutes before the training was due to start. The letter stated that if I did not attend I could be referred for a sanction. The letter was dated eight days before I received it, so as far as the jobcentre was concerned if I hadn’t turned up it would have been my fault. Letters arriving late and letters that never arrive at all are stories I hear very often from other claimants, with sanctions being dished out as a result. This has not changed in all the time I have claimed benefit.
1.3 Self-employment training led to a benefit sanction
In October 2013 an adviser asked if I had considered self-employment. She set up a meeting with someone who ran a self-employment scheme and they suggested I go on a two-week course being run by Weston College 30 miles away.
I did the training and really enjoyed it, although it was a long day and travel was expensive to someone on £70 a week. But, it was very worthwhile and I learnt a lot. A week after the course had finished I was scheduled to sign-on and I came in feeling optimistic. On arriving I was told my adviser had changed and the demeanour of the new one was completely different from the one I had seen before, which put me on edge.
The first indication of a problem was when I told her about the course. She went off and spoke to someone and came back saying this was not an officially recognised DWP training course, even though it had been set up in partnership with the jobcentre in Weston.
I was told by the previous adviser before the training course started that I didn’t need to jobsearch for the duration of the course and to put ‘training’ on the jobsearch forms, but this new adviser said I should have completed 35 hours a week jobsearch during the training period and because I hadn’t I would be referred to a decision-maker for a sanction. She handed me a photocopied sanction referral letter from a stack she had on her desk.
The meeting was a bit of a blur after that as I was upset and confused. She handed out some jobs to apply for and the appointment ended. Inevitably, the JSA payment was not in the bank when it was due.
From 25th November until the Saturday after Christmas I had £5 to live on. At the end of the week I ran out of electricity. Shortly after that I ran out of food. I had saved what I could from the fridge and freezer but most of it perished. I do not have gas for heating and cooking and rely on electricity for everything. For the next week I stole fruit from a bowl in the training centre where I went to jobsearch. But after a week they closed for Christmas so I just drank water.
During the suspension I found out about hardship payments, but Jobcentre staff told me I could not apply, although after a quite tense conversation one staff member gave me the form. They kept saying I could not apply until I was actually sanctioned, but nobody in the jobcentre or call centre would say if I had been sanctioned. It took so long to find out that when I did claim I was turned down because DWP said I was not in hardship because my benefit had been reinstated.
What you don’t read about with benefit sanctions is what happens to a person when they have nothing to eat for a couple of weeks. These days we hear about getting help from food banks but when I was sanctioned this option was not available over Christmas. Furthermore, I didn’t have family or friends living close by that I could turn to for help, so I was alone. Pride also got in the way. I consider myself to be a strong man but in just over two weeks I fell apart. It started with diarrhoea, I was also sick and became quite weak. I stopped going out as I could not control my bowel. I picked up an eye-infection and could hardly sleep. When the toilet roll ran out I had no choice but to use towels to keep myself clean. When they became dirty I had to use bed linen.
It reached a climax on Christmas day. I was sat there looking out of the window at the families walking together, happy and smiling, while I was sitting indoors, existing on nothing, feeling sick, cold and hungry while I sat silently waiting for it to get dark so I could go to bed to try and sleep. I had a mental health break down which I am still recovering from today. My sanction hell finished temporarily when I received a Christmas card from my aunt with £20 in it. Since I was knee high she has always sent money for my birthday and Christmas. I spent £12 to get the electric meter out of emergency and the rest I spent on food, some of which I ate too quickly which made me sick afterwards. In the New Year I received a letter confirming I was going to be sanctioned, two weeks after the sanction had officially ended.
Also in January I had to sign-on with the same adviser who had handed out the sanction. I had become irrational and feared going to the jobcentre. When I saw her again I could not control my shaking. It felt like I was sat opposite the person who had assaulted me and my brain was screaming to leave. However, the assault continued when she told me that the sanction was my fault and that it indicated to her that I needed to learn a ‘work ethic’ – something clearly not demonstrated during my 20-year work history. She put me on mandatory work activity – workfare – which meant working full-time for free for four weeks in order to continue receiving social security benefits. Effectively, I was being punished for being sanctioned. I didn’t argue with her. Instead I went home, emptied the bathroom cabinet of any pills and tablets I had stored away and tried to end my life. I had my stomach pumped and stayed in hospital for two days recovering.
In the weeks that followed I was monitored closely by a community mental health team and put on anti-depressant and anxiety medication. They also helped with an appointment to Citizens Advice and bought me some food. The doctor referred me to a counsellor which took 8 months before they rang to assess my need. Due to cuts I received 5 x 30 minute appointments. I then had to queue again for more appointments. I became scared of leaving the flat and started to over-eat. I am now 6 stone heavier than I was at the end of 2013 and lack of physical activity has contributed greatly to lack of fitness, which in turn has contributed to the physical health problems I am experiencing now. This includes back pain, shortness of breath and pain and numbness in my legs when I walk any distance. I also have problems often associated with an irritable bowel, although this has not been diagnosed. I had none of these problems before I claimed benefit.
1.4 Cuts to public transport
I was told to apply for a job in an office in Chard. The job was full-time from 2pm – 10:30pm Monday to Friday with one Saturday per month. Chard is a 30 minute bus ride away and initially I was happy to apply, but I discovered that the last bus home had been cut to 7:30pm. I don’t have a car and I could not guarantee that someone would give me a lift home.
The only way to get back without a bus after 10:30pm meant a trip to a local railway station via taxi, then down to Exeter St. David and then back up to where I live. Depending on the day this journey varied between 4 and 5 hours. Iain Duncan Smith had set a limit of 90 minutes journey time. Despite explaining this to the work coach he insisted I apply under threat of sanction.
A few weeks later they stopped my benefit because they said I had intentionally jeopardised my chance of getting the job when I spoke to the interviewer. What I had asked is whether they could put me in touch with anyone to arrange a lift home. The sanction didn’t go through but they stopped my benefit for just under 2 weeks before reinstating it.
1.5 Completing jobsearch forms
Each work coach has a different way they like claimants to complete jobsearch forms. This made the process more stressful as it increased the chance of sanctions. On two occasions I was told to redo the forms. At one point I was given a printout of how the form should be completed, only to be told a completely different way when the work coach changed. On one occasion I showed the new work coach the printout, but we ended up in a situation where I was warned for ‘threatening’ behaviour. I have found it very difficult to put across any opinion as this can lead to tense conversations, so towards the end of my claim I said as little as possible. You might think that this has changed with Universal Credit (UC) but people I meet who claim UC complain about exactly the same problems as those on JSA. The process may have changed, but the demands from work coaches have not.
1.6 Tickets to get to interview
I was invited to an interview at a University in London. The cost of the ticket would be reimbursed following the interview. However, I could not afford to buy a return ticket to London in advance. The job club said there was a scheme at the jobcentre to help claimants go to interviews. I went to the jobcentre and was told I could not apply because my adviser was not available. I had been told anyone in the jobcentre could process this request but the jobcentre receptionist said that was incorrect. In the end I had to cancel the interview. When the adviser returned from holiday I explained what had happened but she was sceptical. She spoke to the receptionist who said I had misunderstood. I was referred for a sanction for not going to the interview but again after a couple of weeks they decided not to sanction. However, again I went without money for almost two weeks while awaiting the decision.
2.0 Employment & Support Allowance (ESA)
Shortly after this latest referral it all became too much. I just couldn’t cope with the demands being placed on me. A former colleague had asked if I would proofread and index a book and the money I got from that meant I could briefly stop claiming benefit for about six weeks. Later, I was advised to claim ESA. With support from the GP I made an application and was assessed 14 months later. The length of time between application and assessment made the whole process very stressful, which obviously hampers recovery. Some of the assessment questions seemed inappropriate and I worried I would be unsuccessful. However, I was eventually put on ESA Wrag and instructed to meet a work coach once a month.
The difference in attitude was surprising. The work coach was understanding and patient. After a few difficult meetings we started to get on quite well. When the doctor suggested I buy a bike she gave £50 towards it. It was a complete contrast to how I was treated on JSA. She recognised that I was not capable of doing 9-5 work and that I had been through trauma. We discussed volunteering and she encouraged me to join local community groups. She also encouraged ‘permitted work’ which I have done. Throughout our meetings this ESA work coach was supportive and kind. Unfortunately, she left her post for a new job away from DWP.
I have seen a few ESA work coaches now and they tend to be more helpful and supportive, but it does depend very much on the individual and I accept that I have been lucky, as many people I have spoken to have not had the same positive experience.
2.1 Missed appointments
At the end of October 2017 my payments stopped. I rang the call centre and after two days they said I had missed two appointments. However, there was nothing on their system to show letters had been sent, just a note from someone saying they had contacted me. I contacted my work coach who did some checking. She was apologetic, but said that the appointments had been made by a colleague and it was out of her control. She could not find any record of letters being sent so assumed I must have been texted. She later said she would write to the decision-maker on my behalf to support my appeal.
I was told at first I had missed two appointments but following more phone calls this was changed to one appointment. I was sanctioned and I applied for a reconsideration. Someone representing the decision-maker called a few days later and asked if I had further evidence so I told them about the conversation with the work coach and that I had not received any letters or texts. Since then I have heard nothing. The jobcentre has not scheduled any new appointments and I have received no confirmation letter about the sanction or the outcome of the reconsideration. This time I was in a better position to cope and I got a referral to the food bank from Citizens Advice. I have used them 3 times now, once for food and twice for a fuel voucher.
The rest of the written evidence can be found here:
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