The post below – Linda’s story – is an excerpt from a story in a collection project I’m working on.
The project collects interviews I’ve made with people directly affected by benefit cuts.
It also collects covert recordings I made from 2014 when I accompanied people to jobcentre meetings, ESA and PIP assessments, and council homelessness meetings.
My aim is to show you how benefit and service cuts have ravaged the lives of people who’ve been among the most marginalised by welfare reform and austerity.
The videos and transcripts from the meetings that I recorded between people in need and frontline staff demonstrate how utterly dysfunctional frontline services have become.
The project also shows how people respond personally and politically to a brutal austerity state.
I’ll post more extracts from this project as I work on it this year.
This collection of interviews and transcripts is being made possible thanks to a Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust grant.
The rest of this post is an extract from a story about a Kilburn woman I call Linda.
I met Linda and her partner Eddie (name also changed) in 2014.
Linda and Eddie were in their 50s.
Both had learning and literacy difficulties, and worsening health problems.
Both received jobseekers’ allowance. I recorded their jobcentre meetings for about three years. They attended Kilburn jobcentre when we met.
The post focuses on a particularly difficult experience that Linda had at Kilburn jobcentre at the start of 2016: Kilburn jobcentre erroneously closed Linda’s JSA claim when she was ill and missed two signon meetings.
She was left without income or rent money for months.
The video and transcripts in this post show:
– the problems that people with learning difficulties had meeting the DWP’s strict signon criteria and the excessive punishments people faced if they did not meet DWP demands.
– jobcentre advisers admitting that people in Linda’s situation were vulnerable to sanctions and claim closures, because the DWP had removed the specialist disability staff who might have intervened when people with support needs were threatened with sanctions. Disability Employment Advisers were removed from jobcentres as part of austerity cost-cutting at that time.
– Linda’s distress at her illness and at not being able to to find a jobcentre staff member to help her restart her claim
– the DWP’s general institutional contempt for people who relied on benefits.
Let’s go in at the deep end.
This article starts with a description of that devastating time for Linda: the months in late 2015 and early 2016 when Kilburn jobcentre closed her JSA claim and left her without income or rent money.
Video: Linda at Kilburn jobcentre on February 26 2016.
I called Linda in Feburary 2016, because I hadn’t seen her for a while.
Linda told me she hadn’t received any money for weeks, because the jobcentre had terminated her JSA claim.
Jobcentre advisers said they’d closed Linda’s claim, because Linda had missed two JSA signon meetings.
Linda said she’d missed the meetings because she’d been too ill to attend (she found out later that she had thrombosis). She told me that she was still very unwell and couldn’t walk far.
Closing Linda’s claim was an obscene decision by any measure.
The jobcentre knew Linda well. Advisers knew her story. Linda had signed on at Kilburn for more than seven years. Hers was a familiar face at the jobcentre.
Advisers knew that she had learning difficulties and was in poor health. They knew Linda relied on her JSA. They knew that her age, learning difficulties and deteriorating health meant she wouldn’t find work – that she hadn’t suddenly stopped attending JSA signon meetings because she’d found a job.
They also knew that Linda would only miss a meeting at the jobcentre if she had good reason. Linda often said she hated the jobcentre, but she attended her appointments there religiously – possibly because the jobcentre was a place she knew and could go to.
Advisers knew all of this, but still they closed Linda’s JSA claim. Such were and are the times. Advisers told us that the rules said two strikes (two missed meetings) and you were out (your claim would be closed). Some staff were sticklers for the rules.
Finding someone at the jobcentre to take responsibility for restarting Linda’s JSA claim was a nightmare.
Linda kept saying that she’d missed the meetings because she’d been too sick to attend. That cut no ice. When we met in February, Linda’s JSA claim had still not been restarted. She still had no income.
Linda had also received a letter from Camden Council which said her housing benefit claim had been suspended (housing benefit claims were stopped by councils when JSA claims were closed). Linda’s rent had not been paid. She received warning letters about eviction.
Linda was not able to fix these problems herself.
She struggled to follow DWP and council instructions to fill in forms and send emails to restart her benefits. She would get very angry and say that jobcentres and councils were stupid.
She waited for someone at the jobcentre to help, or to explain. Nobody would take that initiative. Nobody wanted that responsibility. I attended several meetings where advisers simply told Linda to restart her claim herself using an online form.
After weeks without money, Linda, or someone (it may have been Eddie), made an appointment for Linda at the jobcentre.
By chance, that was the week I called.
I said that I’d attend Linda’s meeting with her to find out how to restart her JSA claim.
The meeting should have been straightforward – but it was not. That morning at the jobcentre was dreadful.
It was dreadful, because Linda was still ill.
I thought she might even have been dangerously ill. I was shocked when I saw her. She’d lost weight and her face had an unnatural grey tone to it (her pallor was so alarming that jobcentre staff commented on it. “I can see that,” an adviser said when I told her Linda was ill). Linda couldn’t breathe properly. She cried. I felt a bit frightened when I saw her. I thought she should go to hospital.
The trouble was that Linda had to make a difficult decision that morning. She had to decide whether to prioritise her health, or her benefit problems. She needed to see a doctor, but she also needed to go into the jobcentre and find someone to help to restart her JSA claim.
She still had no income and still couldn’t pay her rent.
You can see the distress that decision caused her in the video above
You can see from the transcript below that Linda ended that trip to the jobcentre with nothing.
She did not get medical treatment.
Her benefits were not restarted.
Linda finished the morning where she started it: outside the jobcentre in tears.
Transcript: Kilburn jobcentre 26 February 2016 [this transcript has been edited. There are extracts from this transcript in the video above].
I went into the jobcentre with Linda that morning in February and recorded events covertly.
Two jobcentre security guards headed towards us the moment we entered the jobcentre. Jobcentre security was and is heavy. The jobcentre manager came over as well.
Linda was weeping. I got to the point:
Me: Linda here is supposed to do a rapid reclaim [a process to restart recent JSA claims], because she’s been ill, but she’s very unwell…Her claim was stopped about a month ago, because she was…[sick]… She’s very unwell as you can see.
Jobcentre manager: She wants to make a rapid reclaim…?
Me: There’s an appointment now [with a jobcentre adviser] to do it, but look at the state of her. I thinking we should get to the hospital.
Linda: [Cried] I can’t…[go to the hospital] I have to try and do it… [restart the JSA claim]. I can’t breathe. [Linda wept].
Jobcentre manager: What is the name?
Linda: [Gave her name] I have to sit down quickly.
Jobcentre manager: You can sit down. The appointment will be on the first floor.
Linda: I need to sit down.
Me: She’s had no money for a month.
Jobcentre manager: If she can attend the appointment…I don’t know what…if you want to have a seat now, have a seat.
[They left us].
Me: This is appalling
Linda: [Cried] I don’t know even what it is.
Me: I’m actually thinking that we should get an ambulance here. Do you want to go to the hospital?
Linda: They stopped my housing benefit as well [cried]. I dunno if I can even get to the first floor.
Me: I’m thinking that we should get you to the hospital.
Linda: Yeah [Linda looked over at one of the advisers]. It’s that woman that stopped my payment. She didn’t give me the phone number [a phone number that Linda could call directly to inform advisers if she was not able to attend a compulsory jobcentre meeting].
Me: This is not very good at all. We’ll give it a minute and then we will get you to the hospital.
Linda: [cried] I got no energy. They don’t give a shit, these people. They stopped my housing benefit and everything.
It’s that woman over there – she didn’t give me the phone number… When I was ill, I couldn’t get hold of her. They don’t give a shit. Oh. I thought I was going to pass out in the bus… if I leave it any more [if Linda didn’t fill in the forms to restart her JSA claim], I won’t get any money, will I? What’s bad is that if you’re ill, you can’t help being ill. But they don’t give a damn [Linda wept]. I’m shaking.
[Linda stared at the jobcentre adviser who had closed her claim].
That one over there is evil.
We had to do something. It was clear that Linda could not walk to her GPs’ surgery. I asked the jobcentre manager to call an ambulance crew in to check Linda over at least.
While we waited for the ambulance, I tried to find someone at the jobcentre who could restart Linda’s JSA claim and put her mind at rest about that.
I thought I could start the claim if someone told me how to.
I couldn’t find anyone to help. Advisers said they couldn’t restart the claim if Linda left to see a doctor. Nobody would take control of the situation. Jobcentres were and are often like that. Advisers didn’t want to be drawn into problems. They wouldn’t meet your eye when someone needed attention.
They weren’t all cruel, necessarily. Some were. The rest were detached. Malaise was the notable feature of these places. The generous view would be that by that point in austerity, there were a great many people in Linda’s situation and not enough time, resource, or energy for staff to easily volunteer to spend hours with people who needed help to get their JSA and housing benefit claims back. Everything everywhere was and is always at a kind of standstill.
Which didn’t help Linda.
By chance, I had the mobile number of Kel [name changed], the woman who’d previously worked as Kilburn’s Disability Employment Adviser [the jobcentre had cut and changed that job, so Kel wasn’t on site each day. In October 2015, an adviser told me and Linda that there was a months-long wait for an appointment with Kel and that Linda could try and join the queue, but shouldn’t get her hopes up].
Kel knew Linda well. She’d been helpful in the past. I called her. I thought Kel might be able to tell me how to restart Linda’s JSA claim, so that Linda could receive even a small amount of money soon:
Me: [to Kel on the phone] I’m here with Linda. She had her claim stopped about a month ago. She hasn’t had any money since. [The jobcentre] said she had to come in today – but she is so ill. Everyone here is shocked [at Linda’s pallor]. She is really worried that if she doesn’t do this rapid reclaim today, there is no money. Her housing benefit has been stopped as well. Is there anyone you could call at Kilburn? Is there anyone we could approach to get this claim underway, so I can get her some medical attention? She is going to drop on the floor here.
Kel asked me which advisers were at the jobcentre that day. She described a jobcentre adviser who she knew. She told me to approach that adviser and give her the phone so that Kel could talk to her.
That adviser was extremely unhelpful. She was short with Kel on the phone. She dismissed the idea that we could restart Linda’s JSA claim that day.
I held the phone out to the adviser and said:
Me: I’ve got Kel [on the phone] who is [sic] the DEA. Can you talk to her? I’m going to have to get an ambulance for this woman over here.
Jobcentre adviser: Which lady is it?
Me: [I pointed to Linda]. Sitting there with her hair tied back. She’s having problems breathing and her colour is awful.
Jobcentre adviser: I can see that.
[The adviser spoke into the phone]. Hi Kel. It’s May [name changed]. Yes, this lady is not well. [No] There’s no point in doing [a rapid reclaim to restart Linda’s JSA claim]. There’s no point in going through any claims at the moment. The lady’s unwell…Bye.
[The jobcentre adviser turned to me].
Jobcentre adviser: In terms of her claim, there’s no point in actually discussing that until her health is met [sic].
I was taken aback by this. Linda had no money to live on. She was in rent arrears. Couldn’t someone at the jobcentre restart Linda’s claim?
I rang Kel again.
Me [to Kel on the phone]: The ambulance is going to come for Linda. She’s very concerned about this claim. Could you tell me what to do [to restart the claim] and we’ll do it? We can start it online.
She hasn’t got any money in the interim. She had a sick note and sent it in [to the DWP], because she’s obviously been really ill. They didn’t receive it, so they actually stopped her claim. They didn’t sanction it. They stopped it. She’s been trying to get the claim restarted. That hasn’t worked, so the jobcentre made an appointment today. She’s not in a state at the moment to [fill in forms to restart the claim].
I just want to reassure her.
Everyone on the ground floor of the jobcentre must have been aware of Linda’s problem by then. Nobody offered to help restart Linda’s JSA claim.
In the end, Kel agreed to meet me the following Monday, so that we could fix Linda’s claim and make sure she received some money.
Me [to Kel on the phone]: If she’s in hospital, is a home visit possible? I’m happy to make whatever adjustments myself…
That was the last discussion Linda and I had with jobcentre staff that day.
The ambulance crew arrived.
I thought the crew was a little offhand with Linda – not cruel, or unprofessional, but a bit distant. The crew mentioned stress at the jobcentre as a reason for Linda’s ill-health. They said her vital signs were okay.
I was thinking about the personal touch. I had some experience of ambulance crews at that time, because my husband was unwell and needed several ambulance trips to hospital. The ambulance crews were fabulous each time: concerned, talkative and witty. Things weren’t quite the same with the crew at the jobcentre. Luck of the draw, perhaps.
Here are some recording excerpts from that part of the day:
Ambulance crew member [to the two other crew members when they arrived]: There’s some ongoing stresses [at the jobcentre for Linda].
Linda’s partner Eddie had arrived at the jobcentre.
He sat with Linda as the crew checked her. He kept saying that Linda had been ill for some time.
Ambulance crew member: [Read out Linda’s heart and blood pressure stats]: She’s also complaining of chronic weakness… some vomiting three weeks ago. Her left leg is swollen and tender… normal to touch… no medication…blood pressure fine. Probably give a GP referral…We just do emergency… if it’s a long term thing, weakness, it would probably be best to see the GP.
How long have you been weak for, Linda?
Linda: A few months.
Eddie: And your leg is swollen.
Ambulance crew member: How long has your leg been swollen?
Linda: A couple of months.
Ambulance crew member: Is it just one side compared to the other?
Eddie: It’s too much. Then you have to come here [to the jobcentre] and they’re shouting and fighting with each other… coming here makes you ill. It makes you ill…For months she has been ill.
Ambulance crew member: I’m just going to do a wipe [Linda was resisting a skin blood test]. This is just a wipe… Oh, you are a nervous person, aren’t you, my dear. Just a little prick…
Linda: No, no, no, no…
Ambulance crew member: Just keep your hands still. Keep your hands still.
Eddie: …These places [jobcentres] just make you more ill…[you are] so stressed out the day before and having panic attacks. They should give her money today. Why can’t they just do that? It’s ridiculous.
Linda: I haven’t had any money for four weeks, because I’ve been ill.
Eddie: Surprised we’re still here…some days you feel so fed up, you feel like disappearing and never coming back.
Me: If they [Kilburn jobcentre] still had the Disability Adviser, it wouldn’t have got to this stage.
Eddie: It’s wrong that they stopped her housing benefit. They should give her some money now and not wait until Monday or Tuesday. People have problems now and then they mess you up. They should have done it today…
The ambulance crew called Linda’s GP and explained Linda’s situation.
The crew left.
Linda, Eddie and I left the jobcentre as well.
There didn’t seem to be much else we could do.
Linda had missed her meeting. She had to wait until Monday to fix her claim.
We stood outside the jobcentre for a time.
It was obvious that Linda couldn’t walk to the GPs’ surgery. She could only take a few steps before she had to stop to catch her breath. Her colour was still bad.
And she still had nothing. Linda, as I said, ended the morning exactly as she started it. Her JSA claim had not been restarted. Her housing benefit claim was still suspended. She could not get to the doctor. She was in the same position she’d been in when she left her flat hours earlier.
This sort of “nothing’s been fixed” experience was and is so common for people who relied on these services.
So many people I accompanied to jobcentre or housing meetings over the years ended a stressful morning at the jobcentre, or the council, with this sort of non-outcome.
We’d attend a meeting to try and fix a housing benefit problem, or a benefit sanction, or even a homelessness issue and leave several hours later no further ahead.
We’d be told to come back another time with another piece of paper – another medical certificate, say, or another bank statement. We’d be told to queue at another council department in another part of the borough. We’d be told to come back another day when a certain staff member was in. The DWP would tell us to go to the council. One council would tell us to go to another council (councils were particularly keen to send people away if those people had been housed in their area by another borough).
The queues were long and the waiting-times often seemed eternal. The subtext was always clear. Staff wanted people in need to leave the building – and not to come back.
Sometimes, staff would concede that they’d given up trying to fix problems.
They said that they knew people with support needs were sinking – they could see that happening in front of them – but that nothing could be done without the resources that had been removed.
About a month after the morning the ambulance crew visited, Linda and I attended a meeting at Kilburn jobcentre where an adviser told us straight out that people in Linda’s situation had no protection from sanctions and claim closures.
This adviser said there was no doubt that people with support needs were falling through the net now that Disability Employment Advisers had gone.
We had that conversation at a meeting in April 2016. Linda’s JSA and housing benefit claims had still not been restarted.
I recorded that conversation:
I said to the adviser:
Me: Is there any sort of replacement for that disability adviser?
Jobcentre adviser: Unfortunately, no… it is quite an issue, because the most vulnerable can’t cope with the complexity of the system.
Me: Those people are being left behind.
Jobcentre adviser: For sure. You can’t deny that…people who are ill…It’s a serious issue. But until eventually it gets to the top…what they do need again is a Disability Employment…a DEA. As you can see, they have cut the role and the more we need it… it doesn’t make sense. This [situations such as the erroneous closure of Linda’s JSA claim] is where they come into their own…
They [people with support needs] haven’t disappeared. The need is still there, but…
Me: The service isn’t.
Jobcentre adviser: Until people from up high decide to reinstate them [Disability Employment Advisers], we’re going to have a lot of people falling through the net.
The DWP, meanwhile, insisted that people with support needs were well catered-for at jobcentres.
This claim was so blatantly false that I stopped asking the DWP for comment on the topic after a while. I really did have better things to do and I didn’t see why I should use my site to promote the DWP’s fabrications.
I couldn’t take the lies. I knew that services for people in Linda and Eddie’s situations at jobcentres had been decimated. I witnessed that destruction myself.
Here’s an example of the sort of line that the DWP emailed me. The department would say that disabled people and people with support needs:
“have access to dedicated Work Coaches, who are trained to provide tailored support specific to their individual needs.”
I wondered how often the DWP press office went to Kilburn jobcentre.