Closed claims, lost housing benefit: how IDS contempt for sick or disabled claimants played

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.

Indeed.

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.

*name changed

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:

How the DWP actively humiliates sick and disabled benefit claimants

How disabled benefit claimants are set up for sanctions

Sick and disabled and can’t walk upstairs to JSA signon? Too bad. Expect contempt

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

21 thoughts on “Closed claims, lost housing benefit: how IDS contempt for sick or disabled claimants played

  1. Here is another story for you. My claim for JSA has been stopped. I only found out when the HB people told me that they had closed my housing benefit. Despite sending them a note on the 8th February to tell the Jobcentre that I would miss my next signing because I was going to do a course which the JC had ordered me to do. I attended the four days then the HB letter came.
    I finally got to speak with someone from the JC on the 21 Feb. He really tore into me, no mercy whatsoever. And the DWP ‘system’ NEVER makes mistakes. That last is a complete fantasy on their part.
    Prior to March of 2013 I was on ESA following a major Stroke, then ATOS made me ‘Fit for Work’. So been on JSA ever since. Until beginning February that was.
    I am now preparing to appeal but God knows where I am going to get any help to do this. I have no money left. I was told (ordered?) that I have to make a new claim for, wait for it, Universal Credit and that my reasons for not keeping appointments with the JC (what?) are because I am a liar. Which is why I am appealing.

    • I wonder whether the real purpose of closing claims is to force people onto Universal Credit. It could be the DWP’s unmentioned target.

      • Think that’s a good shout. The advisers said to Linda that there was now a rule of closed claims for two missed meetings. “We’re doing that for everyone now.” That sounded very much like an attempt to throw people off and make them reapply and of course get numbers down because some people wouldn’t reapply. In the past at this jobcentre, people have been sanctioned for missed meetings – not had their whole claims shut. It was a right faff to get a new claim started too. Nobody would help.

        • I am reminded of that Pastor Niemoller poem, ‘First they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew.’

          “…. The first claimants to Universal Credit are single jobseekers….”
          https://www.gov.uk/government/news/universal-credit-roll-out-progresses

          And as for claims that the most vulnerable would be protected, the London Underground tannoy’s regular announcements about ‘incidents’ that can be translated as what tube drivers refer sardonically to ‘one under’ would fuel a huge backlog in coroners’ courts.

          The way that Nygell Firminger of South Kilburn committed suicide did not involve a tube train, but was benefits sanctions and subsequent eviction-related. It also occurred within the week that the Welfare Reform Bill 2012 was passed.

          “Those who give the order seldom see the mess it makes.” They also seem to have vested interests in blocking evidence for informed debate. Yet as for whether it is a case of ‘conspiracy’ or ‘cock up’, it seems to me given the 2004/2005 systemic meltdown in the benefits system, that ‘conspiracy’ and ‘cock up’ debate matters are like the ‘chicken and the egg’ debate.
          Community Care mag November 2006 article: Jobcentre Plus: Poor service continues

          I suppose that the fundamental answer is that they just don’t fucking well give a shit!

          • Well said, sir. They don’t give a fucking shit at all. And IDS gives an even smaller shit than most. His crocodile tears don’t wash round here.

  2. I think there might be something to that. In Lewisham they rolled out Universal credit in February and I think that they may have realised that their would not be enough people going forward. So they might be closing claims. The numbty I spoke to told me that I couldn’t appeal the decision, they would not agree to any backdating anyway and he told me that only Universal Credit was available to me.

  3. Universal Credit has been stripped of the original Work Allowance in a number of cases. Dated from 1st April, the £111 Work Allowance is being reduced by £111 for single people without dependents. So for a single claimant going onto Universal Credit it means no more money than JSA. Your benefit will be reduced 65p for every pound you earn. But it does mean submitting to the 35 Hour a week Jobsearch, mandatory workfare, daily signings, plus any training that the Jobcentre feel like etc. A far stricter and worse version of the already strict JSA.
    A number of claimants have now realised this, as of course have the Jobcentre.
    Hence their determined efforts to trick people onto Universal Credit, as they know very few are going to volunteer for it.

    • Striclty speaking JSA is in no way anything like as strict as UC. I remember campaigning against the introduction of JSA way back in the mid 90s as it appeared to be much stricter than the previous Unemployment Benefit regulations. In effect it was a bit stricter, but more importantly it changed the semantics, no longer were people unemployed, but jobseekers. Though in theory those claiming JSA were subject to sanctions, in practice being sanctioned is pretty difficult, but that’s only the case where the JSA rules are strictly applied, which we know they aren’t, hence the huge numbers of unlawful sanctions.

      I would think that as it’s become more of a common knowledge that most sanctions applied to JSA claimants are unlawful, and therefore often pretty easily challenged and basically an administrative excercise predicated on the ‘two or more steps’ rule in the JSA regulations, despite what any JSAg/CC might indicate, the DWP has been trying to push people onto UC because it’s infinitely more difficult to challenge.

      I’m currently on JSA, and have been for longer than I’m happy with, but I have been assured by my (I feel sometimes that I live something of a charmed existence, as I have never even heard a murmur about a sanction, or been pressed to sign up for UJM or electronic signing*) advisor that it’s unlikely that I’ll be transferred onto UC for at least the next couple of years, (I hope and pray I find some decently paid work before that though!).

      I recently had some experience of the process involved with a new claimant, but not for UC, as the new claimant was someone who had recently become redundant and had had a substantial redundancy payment, which meant they were unsuitable for UC… Lucky them! The ‘advisor’ seemed somewhat unhappy with my presence as a ‘friend’ and became progressively less happy as I advised the person I was accompanying, often contradicting the advisor, who, to be fair, wasn’t the nastiest of the breed I’ve met, (e.g. only insisting on seven steps per week on the JSAg/CC). He did get a bit shirty when I pointed out that electronic signing wasn’t mandatory, to the extent that he asked my name, and then went in search of a manager for clarification – returning without comment and setting up a paper based sign-on. (Though smiling at me somewhat smugly when he persuaded the person I was accompanying to sign to confirm that they’d received the JSAg/CC, something which again is not a requirement. Such a petty victory.)

      Certainly UC presents a challenge as it does set up people to fail, as 35 hours of activity towards finding work in an economy that only really offers zero hour, minimum wage, (soon to be national living (sic) wage) insecure jobs. I’m sure there will be some imaginative ways of circumventing this, but it will no doubt have the desired effect for thousands who are sanctioned under this draconian system. It’s so bad that it would be farcical if it didn’t have such dire consequences, and now is the time that those of us who try to help out start to bombard our local politicians, particularly if they are Labour politicians, with questions that leave them in no doubt whatsoever that we expect them to abolish the harsh conditions.

      I’d go even further and suggest that our movement picks up the ball and starts to suggest the kind of system we want to see put in place, and I would suggest that we start off with a reconsideration of policies towards the unemployed/sick and disabled that existed in the mid 1970s when society was much more humanely focused.

      *There are possibly some very good reasons for this that I can’t post here as it would make it all too obvious who I am in reality, but I would be quite happy to divulge all to the blog owner should curiosity require, though I’m well known to Boycott Workfare for those same reasons!

  4. Also worth noting that from 1st April new Housing Benefit claims will be bought into line with the Universal Credit protocols that are set to eventually replace them: unless there are extreme extenuating circumstances – such as incapacity through hospitalisation – claims will only be allowed to be backdated for one month.

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