I give you below an example of an older, sick and disabled JSA claimant being treated like trash by the DWP via her jobcentre.
This story is for anyone who has bought into Iain Duncan Smith’s very peculiar “I destroyed social security, because I care about sick and disabled people” logic. It should give you insight into two of Iain Duncan Smith’s key legacies for sick or disabled people who must use his ex-department’s services: 1) a breathtaking bureaucratic callousness which even decent DWP staff seem forced to affect and 2) utterly threadbare support and services for sick, disabled or at-risk people who are out of work. One measure of a minister’s “success” is surely his department’s behaviour towards people who need that department’s services the most (and who likely will always need those services in one form or another). You’d expect people in those situations to be treated with the least bureaucratic contempt, not the most:
From time to time, I attend one of the London jobcentres for JSA signon meetings with Linda,* 51. Linda has a learning difficulty and a list of health problems that has lengthened fast in recent times: shortness of breath (she stops a lot to rest when she walks), shakiness and a pallor so stark that one adviser remarked on it at meetings in February and March: “what’s happened to make you so pale?”
When you get down to it, though, nobody really gives a damn about Linda’s terrible paleness, or the reasons for it. There is certainly no system or support in place to make sure that people in Linda’s situation are protected from the cruellest excesses of the DWP’s punitive sanctions and benefits-stoppage regimes. Linda found that one out the hard way. In January, Linda’s jobcentre closed her JSA claim. Linda missed a couple of JSA signon meetings, because she got sick. She wasn’t able to walk to the jobcentre. The jobcentre took a “Two Strikes And You’re Out” approach to the missed meetings. They shut Linda’s claim down altogether. She went without money for several weeks. She had to borrow money from a family member who wasn’t happy about the loan.
“I couldn’t come in [to the jobcentre for the signon meetings]. I was too ill,” Linda kept weeping when we met at the jobcentre late in February to try and restart her JSA claim. She was certainly unwell that day. I was shocked at her pallor myself. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of months and was taken aback. I went very quickly from thinking that she needed to get her JSA claim back on to thinking that she should probably see a doctor as a priority. She was pale, shaky and weepy in the way people are when they’re too unwell to be out.
There didn’t appear to be any expertise in place to help people who fell sick at the jobcentre – that day at least. After some discussion, jobcentre advisers agreed to call in an ambulance crew to check Linda over. Linda wept through a lot of that, too. She had a difficult decision to make. She had to decide whether she should go home, or to the GP, or to the hospital because she was sick, or whether she should stay at the jobcentre and try to restart her JSA claim: “I got to go to the meeting. I got no money.” To cap all of this, her housing benefit claim was stopped, because her JSA claim was cancelled. She’d just received a letter about that and was worried she’d be evicted. It wasn’t much of a morning if I am honest. I videoed most of it. I think I will upload it when I get back to base (am offline a bit atm).
“[Jobcentre] work coaches are encouraged to be flexible when supporting claimants with health conditions,” the DWP told me last week. I thought about kicking a hole in my laptop when that statement flashed up on it. Let me tell you how that “flexibility” really rolls for some people on the ground. Linda missed her meeting to restart her JSA claim that Friday. The ambulance crew made an urgent GP appointment for Linda. She missed that appointment, because she couldn’t walk to it. Nobody at the jobcentre rushed forward to set another meeting to restart the JSA claim that I recall. Linda and I had to organise that (in the end, I made an online claim for her the following week. A jobcentre adviser directed us to one of the computers on the ground floor).
Nobody wanted to explain why Linda’s claim was shut. Advisers at subsequent meetings simply said that claims were closed if people missed meetings – the sort of They-Only-Learn-When-They-Hurt approach that had Iain Duncan Smith’s creepy zeal written all over it. The thing is – this jobcentre knew Linda and her circumstances. She’d signed on at this jobcentre for some years. Advisers would have known that she’d be back or on the phone as soon as her JSA wasn’t paid. Still, they closed her claim.
Linda said that she’d sent a medical certificate to cover the missed meetings to a DWP office address, but that the office never received it, or couldn’t find it, or that she sent it to the wrong place. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that there was nobody at the jobcentre with the time or the training to check, or to look at Linda’s whole situation.
At a subsequent meeting, an adviser agreed that Linda should probably make an Employment and Support Allowance claim and that she could bring in a sick note this week to excuse her from jobsearch activities because of her health problems. Point is – nobody really volunteered that information until recently. There really hasn’t seemed to have been anyone around in the last month or so to volunteer it. There certainly isn’t anyone to fill in an ESA form. It’s been made clear that Linda has to do that herself.
In the past few years, the government has cut the number of specialist Disability Employment Advisers – jobcentre advisers with training and time to support sick or disabled benefit claimants – by 60%. Last year, I sat with Linda as an adviser told her that the jobcentre’s Disability Employment Adviser – the officer with time to support sick, disabled and at-risk claimants and who knew Linda well – now worked across several offices and was too busy to see everyone who needed extra assistance. That adviser warned Linda to attend all meetings, or make sure to let the jobcentre know if she couldn’t. Without that Disability Employment Adviser to explain why a claimant missed a meeting or jobsearch requirements, claimants like Linda risked sanctions.
“Basically, if someone has got support needs now [at this jobcentre], there is a problem,” I said.
“Big problem,” the adviser said.
I know I’ve said this a thousand times before, but let’s make it 1001: I think that this sort of situation is very relevant to the government’s plans to cut the ESA WRAG rate and to force more sick or disabled people off disability benefits and into jobcentres to find work. A lot more transparency about the support that these people will absolutely not find in jobcentres is required.
The DWP continues to send me statements such as “our dedicated work coaches offer a range of support tailored to individual’s circumstances,” but I think that back-to-work support (or any support) for sick or disabled people in jobcentres is a travesty. I suspect that this is especially true for older sick or disabled people who the bureaucracy has largely written off. It’s easy to believe that Linda is one of the people who the DWP bureaucracy feels has neither rights nor relevance in the austerity age. Linda is older, unwell, often unkempt, poorly dressed and belligerent when patronised (she is patronised often). She is picked on in the street because of the way that she looks and speaks. She has been out of work for some years. Claimants’ groups are very good at backing people in Linda’s situation, but other defenders can be few and far between.
The DWP bureaucracy knows this. It knows that it can behave as badly towards people in Linda’s situation as it likes. And it does. I can only assume that it was given the go-ahead by Iain Duncan Smith.
Join Disabled People Against Cuts for a lobby against disability benefit and funding cuts tomorrow. Read more here.
More on the shambles that is disability support in jobcentres:
ANOTHER jobcentre says We Can’t Help or Support Disabled Benefit Claimants
54 and out of work: how the DWP hounds you to amuse itself
We know jobsearch and jobmatch are pointless, but do them anyway