The Perils of Being a "Vulnerable" Benefit Claimant

Today, the Commons Public Accounts Committee published its report into some of the activities of JobCentre Plus (JCP), managed by the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP). Despite being snowed under with other work, I’ve read some of the report with interest, since I know very well that sick & disabled people who are dependent on benefits are often treated very badly indeed by the system that’s supposed to support them.

As an aside, I dislike the word “vulnerable”, as it tends to be used in relation to most or all sick & disabled people, and there’s no automatic reason why people have to be considered vulnerable just because they happen to be disabled. However, I do think  most sick or disabled people who are dependent on benefits are made vulnerable by the benefits system itself, which is steadily becoming less supportive and more punitive. Indeed, in a meeting I attended yesterday, we were reflecting that we really don’t believe punishing people and making their lives more and more stressful is going to “change their behaviour”, which in DWP-speak means “make them get a job”. Quite the reverse; the more punitive the measures taken against sick & disabled people and the more hardship they suffer, the more stressed they will become and the more their health will worsen. It’s not rocket science! If DWP doesn’t understand that, it’s because they don’t want to.

Anyway, back to the report. It doesn’t pull its punches, but it’s written dispassionately, of course, as befits a Parliamentary report. One of its principal concerns is that:
The Department [DWP] measures the performance of jobcentres by the number of people that stop claiming benefits.
As a disabled campaigner, this seems to me to encapsulate all that is wrong with the way DWP, JCP and their staff operate, at the behest of their ministerial team. The organisation is driven by the aim of removing support from claimants, rather than a more positive, humane and civilised aim of maximising their well-being – through work if that’s possible or through the support of benefits if it’s not.

I think the report strikes a good balance – it acknowledges that claimants need to do their bit to get a job if they can, but it points out that measuring how many people come off benefits is not the same as measuring how many get into work. Crucially, the Committee says:
The Department does not measure, however, how many people each jobcentre has helped into work or have a complete understanding of why claimants have left the benefit system.
Again, it’s not rocket science, and campaigners have long been especially concerned about what happens to people who are found “fit for work” at their Work Capability Assessment (WCA) but are unable to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) because they’re actually not well enough to work. In theory, they could end up with no money to live on; this is likely to be an even bigger problem when mandatory reconsideration before appeal is implemented for Employment & Support Allowance (ESA).

The report also points out that the principal performance indicator (how many people stop claiming benefits) increases the risk that sanctions may be used to force people off benefits; the committee says:
The focus on how many people stop claiming benefits… raises the risk that jobcentres may unfairly apply sanctions to encourage claimants off the register.
They report evidence from Citizens Advice, who say they’re supporting increasing numbers of “vulnerable” clients who have been sanctioned – some of whom have little or no understanding of why their benefits have been stopped.

The report also finds that Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) claimants generally receive a worse service than those on JSA – unsurprisingly it seems it’s not only Work Programme providers who “park” sick & disabled claimants. However, the reality behind this finding is that in the real world, regardless of the Equality Act, an employer who receives hundreds of applications for a vacancy is much more likely to give the job to someone who is not sick or disabled. JCP advisers aren’t daft; on the contrary, I imagine they’ll be even more aware of this obvious reality than the rest of us, and when they’re under pressure to perform, will naturally prioritise those claimants who are more attractive to potential employers. In this context, the Government doesn’t appear to understand the basics of supply and demand in the labour market, so perhaps I should spell it out:  when there are many more potential employees than there are positions available, employers can be choosy; in these circumstances, blaming the sick or disabled person for not succeeding in finding employment is, frankly, cruel.

Finally, for this blog at least, there’s another humane conclusion from the committee:
DWP has a responsibility to ensure that more vulnerable individuals are able to claim the benefits to which they are entitled.
DWP managers need to repeat this mantra to themselves every morning and every night, for as long as necessary, and apply it in the way they run their Department and manage Jobcentre Plus. Otherwise, sick & disabled claimants, especially those with mental health needs or learning difficulties, will continue to suffer appallingly in a system that appears to neither know nor care what happens to them and their families.

And before I upload, I’ve just seen that the Telegraph has noticed the effectiveness and influence of the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge. More power to her elbow!

This post was written and reproduced courtesy of Jane Young (@theyoungjane)


Too Sick to Work? Attend the Work Programme or Face Sanctions!

On the 3rd December 2012 the DWP announced that people who had been through the exceptionally tough Atos work capability assessment and found to be not fit for work could be mandated indefinitely onto the work programme or have their income sanctioned. This new rule applied to people in the work related activity group. People, who according to the government, should be expected to recover within twelve months. This group includes the greatest proportion of sick and disabled people receiving ESA. The support group is so difficult to get into that it excludes many of those with degenerative and fluctuating illnesses, chronic conditions that have gone on for years and cases of terminal illness when they are expected to live longer than six months. Of course you'd want to spend your final months doing some work experience to improve your future job prospects wouldn't you?

It's plain to see that the work related activity group is fast becoming indistinguishable from job seekers allowance. Coalition politicians have stopped referring to it as a disability benefit and the media has frequently included the sick and disabled people in the group as people found fit to work. The benefit was also one of those capped at 1% and it will not increase in line with inflation. Dividing sick and disabled people up with a points scoring system into two groups, has always seemed to be flawed and unfair to me. If you're too sick to work, then you're too sick to work. How difficult can that fact be to understand?

I'll start by explaining a little about myself so that you might better understand the situation I am now facing because of this rule. Back in March I had a face-to-face assessment at my home with an Atos doctor. It was a tense and anxious wait for the brown envelope because the assessment is a lottery. No one can predict what their decision will be. When the dreaded letter finally arrived in the middle of May I didn't even realise it was the decision. Nowhere did it refer to a decision, or contain words such as, "we have made a decision" or "you have been placed in the work related activity group", or any reference to the assessment at all. What they did send was a leaflet about appealing a job seekers allowance decision. Confused? Yes! It took two phone calls and a week to find out what it was they were telling me.

In the meantime, I received a letter from my local job centre demanding that I attend a work related interview at a date in the near future or lose my benefits. I say local, but it's not the job centre in my own town, but a bigger one nearby in a busy shopping centre. My problem is that I have agoraphobia. I haven't been able to walk into that place in over a decade. I couldn't go there even if someone trusted went with me. I'm also terrified of telephone calls and speaking with people I don't know. I get worked up into an anxious panic, my mind becomes blank, I can't think, I feel unreal and floaty and words won't come. I also get panicked speaking to my own family and friends on the telephone, but that's another matter. The point is, I suffer from severe anxiety. I can't just have a nice meal out, take a trip or a pleasant walk down the street, go shopping on my own, get a haircut, meet new people, sit and socialise comfortably, attend family celebrations (and funerals) and sit with the family around the table at Christmas. I don't want sympathy, I just want to emphasise that if I can't do all of the ordinary and enjoyable things in life, then how can I be expected to suddenly overcome my agoraphobia and anxiety and jump through hoops for the job centre? All of this was explained in thorough detail in the assessment forms, and what a demoralising depressing experience describing it was too. There were lots and lots of letters and reports included from the multitude of mental health team workers who have tried, and failed to cure me over the last fifteen years as proof that I was genuinely diagnosed and struggling to cope with anxiety on a daily basis.

I really didn't feel able to speak to the job centre adviser when they called, but I had no choice. Not knowing what to expect I was brave and listened to what she had to tell me. She was referring me to the work programme and if I didn't attend I would be sanctioned. She asked if I had a mortgage or paid rent. "No". It has been suggested that the job centre have targets for sanctions and I have been set up.

All of this has happened so quickly that my claim was still within the four week time period to make an appeal for the support group. What troubles me most is that I am now receiving nonsensical and threatening letters from A4E and the job centre to arrange a work experience placement even though I still had time to make my mind up whether to appeal or not. I will tell you that I have now sent in an appeal form. This had to be requested and posted to me, and I will also tell you that it does not contain any advice or reference about how to appeal an employment and allowance decision or even where to post it. Are they making this difficult on purpose? You have to wonder?

I think it's cruel to harass someone who isn't fit to work and who can't get out of the house without a great deal of support to attend a work placement when it's simply impossible. I have barely slept and I'm experiencing a lot of horrible anxiety symptoms. Rather than helping me they are making my condition much worse. I don't want to imagine the horrors of having a massive panic attack in a public place with strangers around. Last time that happened in a work environment, I spent the afternoon in A&E.

You also have to wonder if the government is simply denying that sickness and mental illness exists, unless you're so ill or disabled that you're bed bound or in a hospital. If time limiting ESA to 365 days doesn't get you, because you have a partner who will not only be expected to care for you if you haven't recovered quickly enough, but they'll be 100% responsible for supporting you too and you won't have this marvellous tailored support to get you back to work (a blessing). You will find yourself sick and with no independent income or state support whatsoever. If you don't have a partner, or your household has been means tested and found to be dirt poor, the constant harassment and never ending stress might force you to attempt to live off thin air, kindly relatives or just simply throw in the towel for good.

The work programme claims to support sick and disabled people into work. Politicians like to boast that it helps to find lots of jobs for this difficult group of people who face massive barriers to getting into the work place. It is failing miserably. Out of the 80,720 people on employment and support allowance who were attached to a work placement, 1,290 actually ended up with a 'job outcome'.*

There is no way that I can mentally or physically attend this work programme placement whatever they have planned for me. If I can't function in a supermarket or shop or any place unless my mother is with me at all times, how can I be expected to work there? At the moment I am ignoring the letters because I can't cope with them. I am now waiting for the one that tells me my benefit has been stopped.



Thursday 6th June WOW Petition Mass Tweet

We are hoping to get the hashtag #wowpetition trending on twitter by tweeting it on Thursday 6th June, at specific times - 10am, 1pm and 9pm - including our own short messages about welfare reform, benefit cuts, what WOWpetition is (Resist the War On Welfare), the 3 phases of action and how to help.

The overall aim of the tweetathon will be to raise both awareness of what we're doing, as well as signatures for the petition. Ultimately this is to save lives.

The best way to achieve these goals will be getting the #WOWpetition hashtag to trend nationwide - preferably more than once! To do this, we're going to need as much help as possible - from as many people as possible. we'd be so grateful for any help you could offer over the next few days with advertising the event, as well as (especially!) taking part on Thursday itself.

Pragmatically, all this needs to involve right now is for all of us to start promoting the tweetathon on our twitter timelines, as well as getting in touch with any of our friends (via twitter/email/facebook) we think would be interested in supporting the event. You don't need to worry about getting in touch with popular allies/tweeps/charities etc. as we'll be doing that over the next couple of days.

If you're a bit stuck for how to phrase your tweet, do feel free to use a pre-prepared example:

Coming this Thursday - group tweeting in support of #WOWpetition at 10am, 1pm & 9pm. Help fight back against #welfarereform - all welcome! 

6th June Thursday - Mass Tweet in support of #WOWpetition at 10am, 1pm & 9pm. Resist the War On Welfare, Stop ATOs/DWP Human Rights Abuses

One optional thing you could also do at this stage is start to think about the kind of tweets you may want to send on Thursday. In case anyone wants to cite facts and figures we'll be sending a list of resources (charity reports, blogs etc.) you can use to find some. However, this isn't essential at all - in fact people tweeting their own thoughts on, or experiences of, welfare reform under the #WOWpetition tag will likely be more powerful to those reading than than if we were all just to reel out statistics!

The volume of tweets is the most important thing, so send as many as you can - advertising #wowpetition talking about Resisting the War On Warfare and linking to wowpetition.com Taking part in one or more of the time slots (10am, 1pm & 9pm), copying in friends and family and lobbying celebrities to retweet in order to show support. Every little helps!

Remember, in every tweet don't forget to include #wowpetition and at least one of:

 - WOW Petition itself: http://wowpetition.com

 - Any other relevant or nationwide trending hashtag if it's one of our 'mass tweeting' times.

 - Finally, please remember that retweets DO NOT COUNT towards #hashtag trends! So if you want to RT anything, it would be so helpful if you could copy the text into a new tweet and add 'RT' to the front. Thank you so much for your support.

 ------- P.S. Any comments, ideas etc. can be sent to epipsychidion86@gmail.com, or tweeted to @Epipsychidion86 on twitter.