Why you can’t rely on getting a sympathetic DWP work coach

A few thoughts on now-legendary government plans to have jobcentre work coaches decide whether people are fit to work and how hard:

There are many problems with this hogwash, but the one we’ll talk about today is the pot luck element (already a problem). Sick and disabled people in such a system will have to rely on fair treatment from work coaches (already very much hit and miss). Put simply, people will have to hope that they get a work coach who isn’t a punitive twat.

Which isn’t always a sure thing. Some frontline officers are decent. Others, alas, really are out to lunch.

I’ve been thinking about this, because I recently had a long conversation with a frontline DWP officer who, just a few minutes in, struck me as totally gone.

This person was a universal credit case manager who, funnily enough, was on a Stockport PCS picket line, striking for better pay. I was interviewing strikers and talked with this case manager at length. Actually – this person talked to me at length. I mostly stood there wondering why I’d been born.

This caseworker couldn’t have channelled Mel Stride better if they’d actually been Mel Stride. The caseworker said it all: benefit claimants were lazy, their mental health problems were bogus, that anyone could be a millionaire if they tried (wasn’t sure about this, given that the strikers were out for a few measly percent) and – slight tangent – that social media turned people into turkeys (have to say I agreed with that one).


The red flags went up early on, but the one I’ll start with waved vigorously at me – when the caseworker said that benefit claimants should model themselves on Elon Musk.

“[When] Elon Musk started out people were saying, “electric cars, mate – that’s not going to take off.” He’s now outstripping Toyota, because he showed up. That’s all we ask claimants to do.”

Oh goody, I thought. Bet this plays well. As a caseworker, our comrade here had the power to start (or not start) benefit claims, to stop payments, to read about people’s health and their personal circumstances, and to make decisions about their incomes on the basis of that.

Knowing this and hearing the Musk thing, your hopes for a fair world tank. When you spend hours with claimants who have literacy problems, health problems, age problems and work-related injuries, etc, the last person you want to hear from is another frontline clown who believes that getting work – and getting Musk-rich for that matter – is entirely a matter of the right stuff and backbone. No matter if your backbone is crumbling, or full of arthritis, or whatever it is. No matter if you apply for job after job, but can’t buy an interview because of your age. Our caseworker didn’t really touch on the many and often complicated reasons why people don’t work, apart from suggesting that too many of them arse around on facebook.

“Anything is possible,” the caseworker said. “They talk about the American dream. The dream is all around you.”

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Why universal credit caseworkers strike

I recently went to one of the Stockport universal credit caseworker strike pickets. Not a bad morning, all told – picked up a few learnings re: the reasons why people still find the universal credit system a washout.

Certainly, a lot of things fell into place when 2 striking caseworkers told me that at any one time, caseworkers at the Stockport centre have 400+ universal credit cases each. Actually, they have about 1400 each, but estimated that generally, about 35% of them are live.

“WHAT?” I yelled, unsuitably. “You can’t keep on top of that.”

Obviously, the strikers knew that they couldn’t keep on top of that. That was why they were on strike. Too many cases, too few staff and every day on the job spent trying, and often failing, to keep on top of the sorts of numbers that you’d need half a morning just to count up to.

“We work too hard for too little money…they [the DWP] are not replacing any staff when people leave, retire, or when they move on.”

Sounded about right. It’ll be news to nobody who has been following nursing and paramedic strikes, and endless other walkouts, that this government does not invest in public sector workers, or their wages, or their health, for that matter. Think the cabinet is a bit short of members who know what it is like to work past the point of exhaustion.

The striking caseworkers described the average day to me. They fire up their PCs and open their case manager dashboards. They go through new claims – new applications for universal credit that have to be checked and started. They deal with the cases about payment problems – a big part of the day, I imagine, given the number of people I meet at jobcentres, or talk with on whatsapp who say they’ve been paid the wrong amount, or can’t pay their bills after the DWP has hoiked money out for debt repayments and so on. Then, there are the blocked cases – the applications, or investigations, that are on hold while missing paperwork, or medical notes, or responses from other authorities, or whatever it is, are sorted out.

“Then, if we’ve got time, we can get to our journal messages,” one of the strikers said.

“Invariably, we don’t get to the journal messages,” the other striker said.

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Sanctioned because you had covid… Great.

Another cracker from the the DWP’s We’ll Get You If Covid Hasn’t files:

We’re back at the Stockport jobcentre on Wellington Road and talking with Doug. Doug is in his late 50s and ready to rumble by the looks of things. Doug’s just had covid and had his benefits stopped for missing a meeting because of it. He’s here today to argue against the sanction with some work coach or other. Safe to say that we’ll know which adviser it was by the end of the week. It’ll be the one with covid.

“How are you?” I ask Doug about the covid.

“If they stopped sanctioning me, I’d be fine,” Doug observes. He says that he is okay to go into the jobcentre by himself: “I can argue with these people all day.” That at least is good to hear, not least because he’ll have to.

After that, Doug thinks he’ll probably need to clear the diary to root around for food. Doug says he’s got 2 tins of beans, a bit of mince and, from the sounds of things, an ageing berg of frozen chicken cemented to the back wall of the freezer which I guess he could try and make last until close of play Friday (It’s Tuesday morning).

The DWP, of course, will tell Doug to go to a foodbank, doubtless firm in the belief that joining the rest of sanctioned Stockport in this week’s race to whichever local foodbanks still have food is an excellent way to work off covid. Ditto for a rugged gnaw on a rock-hard bollock of snowed-in chook. Where you and I see hardship, the DWP sees a chance for people to grow, or at least to improve their fitness. The bin lorry will be out and about dribbling crap tomorrow, so maybe Doug could enter the spirit and trot after that with a plate.

Another possible plan, of course, would be for Doug to die – bit final maybe, but certainly one way to steal back his own narrative. Looks like Doug might ahead of the game on that one, too – he pulls his shirt aside to show me the scar under which his pacemaker resides. Which, now that I think about it, is probably not something to flash around these days. If Doug does keel over, the Tories will have that pacemaker out of his chest in under 5 and hosed off for takers on Marketplace. Although – what am I thinking. If they know Doug’s poor and claiming benefits, and getting older, they probably won’t even wait til he keels.

Austerity the sequel: how to rub out sick and disabled people who survived the first round

Another morning at Stockport jobcentre! – and straightaway, a reminder that energy companies have been trying to freeze some groups of people to death for a while – ie before this year, when energy companies decided to line up the rest of us.

I’m speaking to Chris, who is in her 50s. Chris has heart problems, diabetes and COPD. She has spent time in homeless hostels in the last few years.

Like many people at the jobcentre at the moment, somewhere in her mind, Chris lives on tenterhooks wondering who will finally rub her out: her energy company, or the DWP. Could be a dead heat, of course. They’re both putting a lot into it.

Chris’ energy company is currently hoovering money out of her paltry benefits for arrears repayments that she ran up when she had a place to live. Energy prices have long been out of Chris’s reach (I’ve written before about people in this situation) – upshot being that Chris is used to approaching winter in the crash position.

Which is exactly what she is doing now. “I’ve got no gas at the moment, because they’re taking £10 a week arrears off me, as well as it [prices] going up. So, I can’t afford gas.” Can’t say this bodes well for someone with a serious lung condition, but I can absolutely say that news of Chris’ situation will be music to Tory ears. This winter is their big chance to finish off a few of the poverty-stricken sick and disabled people who’ve somehow managed to cling on through Austerity One. Infamous leaky bumzit Jeremy Hunt knows perfectly well that these people are not going to survive Austerity Two and energy price rises, even if they’d really like to. But there we go. Such is austerity in the Tory mind. What’s a few more bodies on the pile.

For now, we can all surely agree that Chris and everyone at her end of late-capitalism’s great washout starts the new price cap era absolute miles behind. After that, I guess it’s just a matter of how long her lungs last.

Of course – the DWP is also busy lining Chris up for a hearse. She was getting sickness benefits, but then some wag in the department sent her for a work capability assessment and the DWP decided she was fit for work. Genius.

Chris didn’t appeal this decision, because she was worried that she wouldn’t have any money while she appealed. She didn’t know what to do, or who to ask, so “I just took it… I was in a homeless unit and if I wasn’t getting money, it wouldn’t be paid for, because they are large amounts, the rent.” So, now Chris spends her days coughing her way up the street to the Restart building for various useless back-to-work courses. Things are definitely going to end well for her.


DWP: Are you poor and over 60? Get to work or drop dead. We’re here to help etc

Stockport has a second jobcentre now, so that’s where I’m taking you today.

We’ve been hearing about this second jobcentre for a while.

We’ve also been hearing that this second jobcentre is the one through which older universal credit claimants are now funnelled. I have wondered for a while what this second DWP location offers older benefit claimants that the first one doesn’t: probably a one-way door, a Dignitas popup and maybe a line of large freezers out the back. Sounds a bit bleak when you first think about it, but as the morning goes on and if you’re over 50 yourself, you kind of find you start to warm to it. Talk to a few oldies who must sign on and follow the DWP’s ridiculous fit-for-work and jobsearch rules, and you do begin to wonder if the fast track to an eternity in cold store is actually the better option.

For example: I’m speaking this morning with Norm, who tells me he is less than a year away from pension age.

Norm has problems with function and numbness in his arms and hands after years of technical work, and an accident which hurt his spine when he was young. He’s trying to get an appointment with one of the neurology departments round here, which is in itself proving a bigger challenge than Norm was looking for. He says that to start with, he has to get an appointment. If he does get an appointment, he has to wait at least a year for it. Lastly, he has to not croak before his appointment and/or pension age finally roll around – always an added pressure when your twilight years coincide with a Conservative government. I’m beginning to feel a bit of that pressure myself.

On the jobcentre and signing on for universal credit front – a little while back, Norm had a work capability assessment. This resulted in a report that turned out to be more a one-liner than a finding: Norm was told that he was fit to work as something, but nobody had any idea what.

“They’re saying that I’m fit enough to do some kind of work, but they don’t know what it is,” he says, rolling his eyes. We both know that nobody knows what it is, because it doesn’t exist. Norm knows and I know and everyone knows that nobody’s going to hire a man with health and mobility problems who is less than a year from retirement age. We can only imagine what kind of employment Liz Truss et al have in mind with rules that propose there’s work for older people who can’t move much: probably live organ donor, or a part-time gig to 3D print your own hearse. I’ll let you know, because I’m heading towards the time when I find out.

Until death or retirement then, Norm must regularly attend the job centre to talk about the “help” the jobcentre can give him to find work. I don’t believe that he should even have to do that, because he has a note from his doctor signing him off from work and, presumably, jobsearch. This means that Norm finds himself in a situation where he must attend the jobcentre to talk about the help the jobcentre can give him to find work that he won’t get, because a) he can’t do it and b) he’s already signed off sick from it. I’m sure this makes sense to someone.

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Does Boris Johnson have to wait 6 months and more for universal credit since he lost his job

Bet he bloody doesn’t.

Food for thought this week at Stockport jobcentre – how do you support yourself if you get sacked?

“You don’t”, looks like the answer to this one. Well – you can if you’re Boris Johnson and can repair to the family pile, unwind with a Gordon’s and soothe the hurt for the next decade by frittering your various slush funds, but we’re hearing today that the party is slower to start if you don’t have the pampered arse background, etc.

We’re talking this morning at the jobcentre with Gary, who tells us he lost his driving job at the start of April. April was also the last time that Gary got any money to speak of. He says that he’s been doing a bit of window cleaning here and there, but he generally gets a handful of change for that, rather than anything vaguely in the vicinity of a living wage. So – it can a while between cocktails for Gary, unlike Boris. Gary had to move in with his dad to stay housed, but even that fallback may not turn out as well as Boris Johnson’s various housing options, because Gary is facing eviction.

Needless to say, the DWP has mostly jilted Gary. Haven’t quite got round to googling this yet, but I imagine that getting the sack when you’re a pleb is a hanging offence, so they’re probably teeing that up. Certainly, the DWP is being furtive in its relationship with Gary. Gary says he applied for universal credit in April, but that that was his last meaningful interface with the department. He hasn’t heard anything useful from them since, despite messaging them and messaging them and messaging them, etc.

He certainly hasn’t seen any money. He’s still waiting for a DWP decision maker somewhere to actually make a decision about his sacking and whether or when he can get any universal credit and what the rules are and so forth. Had a poke around online and I think people who are sacked have to wait some random length of time to start getting universal credit – 13 weeks, or 91 days or somesuch, depending on the reasons why you lost your job – misconduct, etc. Couldn’t quite tell which officious twat decided that was the figure to pull out of the privy – doubtless some diehard policy nut who decided that sacked members of the lower orders needed to repent for at least 3 months and more, and sleep in and eat out of a skip during that time to really feel it, etc. Such is the vengeful DWP and our vindictive political class. Never thought I’d write this line, but you’d probably get more mercy from the Church. Anyway – whatever the rules, nobody’s telling Gary.

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Sanctions for people who need them least and struggle the most. Let’s hear it for the DWP!

Actually – let’s not.

We’re back at Stockport jobcentre:

First thing that happens – a security guard who over summer has made a keen, if hopeless, effort to befriend our protest group hurries out the front to pass on a dire and utterly vague warning. He’s done this a couple of times over the months – trotted out to alert us to some potential drama or other which I’ve never had enough coffee to get my head around.

“If you see the doors shut, it would mean something is going on,” the guard says, pointing meaningfully at the jobcentre doors. “It would be a good idea to move your protest… it’s your safety I’m worried about.”

My first thought is Sanctions – as in the jobcentre is planning to sanction someone who will (rightly) take it so badly that the jobcentre is planning to restrict the audience*.

Could be a repeat sanction for someone who didn’t respond too well to earlier ones. Jobcentres have long had an intriguing habit of laying repeat sanctions on people who are most likely to struggle to manage, or even remember, jobsearch commitments – which is, of course, why they keep getting sanctioned. These are people with addiction problems, mental health problems, prison histories and/or chaotic lives after years in care and in prison. The DWP seems to have this idea that even if you sleep in a ditch half the week, you should be up at dawn to log your commitments in Trello. Less mention is made of the fact that people haven’t got much support for learning ways to keep to the DWP’s meaningless routines, because the Tories have spent 12 years binning support. A lot of the people I speak with can barely read.

Let’s face it, too – even when you’ve done the right thing, the assumption will be that you haven’t. For instance: I’ve been talking in recent times with Barry, who has been in and out of prison for about 13 years, and totally at sea since he last left jail 4 years back. Barry says his most recent sanction (there have been a few) came about because the DWP said he’d failed to attend a work course that he was actually at.

“They said I hadn’t turned up, but I was there. I got the guy [who was running the course] on the phone to the jobcentre and he said “Barry’s been here.” There followed the usual one-way conversation where you try to explain and explain and explain, and begin to half-feel you’re on mute. I’ve done this with people more often that I care to recall – sat in a jobcentre office trying to get the DWP to see sense about a sanction, or even a wrongful claim closure. You talk on and on, and the DWP stares at you in silence like it is measuring you for a coffin. It’s like spending a morning trying to justify a new food to your cat.

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DWP: we can send you on a useless course or on hopeless “work experience.” Let’s do both.

How’s another ride in the DWP clowncar:

It’s a nice sunny morning and we’re back at Stockport jobcentre.

This morning, we’re shooting the breeze with Steve*, who is telling us the one about the time when he was sent on an outdoor workfare-type experience in Levenshulme.

Somebody at Restart or wherever (can’t remember exactly – one or other of the usual welfare-to-work companies that have smelted into a single pile in my mind) decided a little while back that Steve and a few other unemployed blokes would make good (not to mention free) gardeners.

Steve and these others were instructed to turn up to some site where an impressive assortment of gardening kit awaited:

“They’ve got all the gardening tools, petrol strimmer and a motormower…” You got the feeling that somewhere in his mind, Steve had been looking forward to going large with some of these appliances.

It was also possible to see why this particular unpaid work experience (“you get paid nothing for it”) could be felt to beat other workfare “opportunities” that those of us on the circuit have seen over recent years – opportunities such spending the day as a sandwich board, helping test people for the clap (true story), and standing in the rain with a charity collection bucket, etc. When you recall George Osborne’s smug face as he rolled out his workfare programme, the chance to wield a strimmer strikes you as an opportunity in itself.

On with the story. Steve and the others had a look at the tools and things built up to the big moment. They went to their workfare gardening sites – not raring to start the unpaid work exactly, but possibly keen to see who did what with which tool…? okay – that’s probably more what I would have thought. Anyway – they were all set to fire up the strimmers and mowers, and the rest of the arsenal… so they yanked up the starter cords and… nothing. Nothing happened. Total silence. The strimmers and mowers wouldn’t start.

A cursory probe revealed that there was no fuel in any of the tanks. Nobody in charge had quite got around to getting petrol for the tools. A phone call to the work placement company that was in charge of the shambles revealed that nobody there was interested in paying for any, either.

Steve says: “I phoned the guy at the [work placement] place and he said, “we can’t afford the fuel… might as well go home, lads.”

Says Steve: “I got sent round to this woman’s house to mow the lawn, but the petrol was empty. She had an empty petrol can. I said I’ve come to sort your lawns out.”” That seems to have been the end of that – Steve on a lawn on his phone trying score some petrol with an impotent strimmer lying in some old love’s petunias. I can’t help feeling that there’s a metaphor for life in 2022 in there somewhere. I suppose the good news is that it ended up being an environmentally sound experience, in that the grass was left to grow and a litre or so of fossil fuel stayed in the earth, or was bought by someone else and thrown over their bonfire, or whatever. Anyway. Big start – small finish. That’s the DWP all over.

“It’s a joke what they’re doing,” Steve says.

It does sound like it.

Luckily for Steve, the DWP has plenty of other bad ideas up its sleeve. He says that last week, someone at Restart told him that he had to take up a cleaning job in Bolton. Continue reading

Apologies for being a Remainer – more stories from the jobcentre

Back to Stockport jobcentre for more leafleting with Stockport United Against Austerity:

I spoke with Stephen*, a man in his 50s who was signing on for Universal Credit some months after a job redundancy.

We talked about the coming election and Brexit. Stephen was shy: “normally, I’m not political.” Stephen was a Remainer. He seemed to feel he had to apologise for it – that his answer was the wrong one.

Stephen said he wanted England to stay in Europe, because his daughter and her children lived in France:

“…I’ve got different circumstances… I’ve got a daughter [who] is actually French and grandchildren who are French. She’s born and bred in France…I’ve got slightly different circumstances. My opinion revolves around my circumstances. If I didn’t have my family abroad, I might have another opinion…”

The day’s strong opinions were reserved, as they always are, for the wrecked public sector that people must rely on while Westminster frenzies over Brexit elections and drones the long route round its graveyard spiral.

There was Pam*, in her 60s, who’d made about 6 trips to the jobcentre and Fred Perry house, Stockport council’s nerve centre, to try and sort out her disabled son’s Universal Credit claim.

She said her son, who had learning difficulties, had moved into a flat several months back, but had only received about £300 in benefits, “with no housing benefit included.” Pam couldn’t use a computer, so couldn’t manage her son’s claim online:

“…I’ve been about flipping 6 times…it just started [her son’s Universal Credit claim] last week… he’s moved into a flat and he has learning difficulties, so that’s how he went onto Universal Credit… he works 16 hours…He only got £317 last week and no housing benefit included. I spoke to his work coach. He said you only get paid from when you apply – but my daughter went into Fred Perry house and they said I should come here [to the jobcentre].”

Pam also wanted to fill in an appointee form – to sign up as her son’s formal representative so that she could manage his benefit claim on his behalf. This had been no hayride. The application form that she’d filled had gone missing. Another copy had been sent electronically – not much use for someone who didn’t use a computer.

Pam was at the jobcentre, because an adviser had left a paper copy for her to collect:

“..they’ve left it for me. Everything is on the computer, but some people can’t read, or write. How can they use a computer? I’m not computer literate. They sent me an [appointee] form to fill in, so that I can speak for him. I did that. I signed it. They’ve said they can’t find it.”

Then – of course – there was the parking ticket Pam had found on her car windscreen when she’d parked in the lot next door to Stockport jobcentre. As per standard, the pay and display machine had been broken that day. Needless to say, Pam found herself paying for that:

“…the machine was out. I took a photograph of it and I went into [the jobcentre]. There was loads of people took a photograph of [the broken pay and display machine]. They still sent me a parking fine. My daughter wrote saying it was broken. They said you should go to another parking meter. I said there’s only one there. They’ve said you shouldn’t have parked there if there wasn’t a meter…”

We didn’t quite get round to talking elections. Maybe next time. I’m sure there’ll be one.


*names changed

Blogging will be light until the end of the year as am finishing a transcription project of interviews, and homelessness and jobcentre meeting recordings. Still available for contact here.

Save up for rent before you’re switched to Universal Credit, coz you won’t get money for 6 weeks

Courtesy of Stockport United Against Austerity:

Telling, if useless, advice on the Stockport Homes website which instructs people who claim legacy benefits how to prepare for their claims being migrated to Universal Credit.

The most extraordinary bit of advice on the page? – telling people who have no money, or savings, to start saving so that they can cover a six-week delay to their rent money when they’re switched from legacy benefits to Universal Credit:

Get ahead with your rent – Unlike Housing Benefit, under Universal Credit you become responsible for paying your rent and after switching you will face a six-week delay before receiving your first payment. You should still pay your rent during this time. It’s important that you are prepared so you don’t get into debt. Putting an extra few pounds on to your rent account each week to build a credit balance will mean you can still pay your rent when you switch.”

This is extraordinary. Hope Therese Coffey reads it. Not that she’ll give a stuff.

This “advice” is an admission by the largest landlord in Stockport that built-in Universal Credit delays cause serious hardship to the worst off people in Stockport and threaten their tenancies.

It’s an instruction to people who have no money to save money to protect themselves against Universal Credit’s serious flaws. This is garbage. Those of us who leaflet at Stockport jobcentre know people can’t save enough to build a rent buffer. We keep meeting Universal Credit claimants who are in serious rent arrears and either facing homelessness, or are actually homeless.

You could also say that the above advice is an attempt by a big landlord that also manages properties for other landlords to threaten claimants to save money so that landlords aren’t inconvenienced by Universal Credit’s built-in rent-delay arrears generator. We can’t have property owners being put out by all of this.

Blogging will be light-ish until the end of the year as am finishing up a transcription project of interviews, and homelessness and jobcentre meeting recordings. Still available for contact here.