The perils of being a “vulnerable” benefit claimant

JobCentre Plus logoToday, 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!

21 thoughts on “The perils of being a “vulnerable” benefit claimant

  1. I have a learning disability myself, it is more frustrating than lets say a seen disability. No one sees that we have issues and I am just about to come off the WP and the “help” I got was abysmal. I echo you in saying, as soon as they know I have a learning issue, (dyspraxia) I got nothing and I have a degree as well for crying out loud (not an honours degree sadly) and I was lumbered with people who were looking for shop jobs.

  2. Please don’t make sweeping statements about how your disability is more frustrating than a’seen’ disability.As you haven’t had a’seen disability’ puameliaclinic I would say that you are unqualified to make that remark,whether your degree is an honours one or not!I think we all find the way we’re treated as extremely frustrating and morally wrong.

    • Was I making a sweeping statement? People with Alzheimers, depression, mental health illnesses and that IN THE TERMS OF PEOPLE NOT SEEING WHAT IS THE MATTER. People who are deaf, blind, without limbs and that type. You don’t have to end up having to explain time and time again and to be met with a “you’re ok looking at you, there is nothing wrong” look.

      Society has to wise up to “unseen” disabilities, just because it is not seen to the naked eye, doesn’t mean we don’t have it!

      The main thing here is that ALL people with disabilities is being flung back to the end of the queue as people can’t be bothered with us! SEEN or UNSEEN!!

  3. You really shouldn’t be competing on who has the worst circumstances, divide and conquer guys! And this is what happens. The policies push us all to the belief that ours is the viable disability, and everyone else is taking advantage of the situation… realistically unless you are someone who is ‘faking’ a problem: one of the 0.7% of claimants, then we are all in this together – no, really, not Cameron-style… the other 99.3% need to stick together and defy this governments evil and oppressive, draconian measures

  4. WELL SAID STEVE CHAPMAN this is what is wrong with our country we dont stick together how can we change things that are wrong if we dont stick together, on another note you will never get the real truth from this goverment about anything let alone about if they have helped people back to work they dont care if people are working all they care about is taking there money away i remember my mum stopping my pocket money for being naughty maybe this is what these spoilt rich brats running our country are doing to the poor and disabled just because they can,

    • Sandie is right, they are picking on the disabled just because they can. We all know the real problem in this country is the benefits they pay to working and not working immigrants but they can’t do anything about that because of EU and Human Rights legislation so they take away money from the disabled instead because it’s easy and because they can. We’re sitting ducks!! If you are disabled then it seems you don’t have any Human Rights. Maybe we don’t qualify as human any more!

  5. The way we treat our sick and disabled in this country is becoming barbaric. Cameron will have us all in the workhouse out of the way if he has his way. We should be looking at taking a huge disability discrimination case against this government. It’s fine for all these people to judge when there’s no danger of them ever being in our situation.

    • As a disabled person myself, and the author of this blog, I’m surprised you feel I’m implying that all sick & disabled people are work-shy, because I don’t think that at all – quite the reverse in fact.

      My own view is that the vast majority of people, including sick & disabled people, want to work, but are realistic – that they’re not well enough to work, full stop, or not well enough to work sufficient hours to make it financially worth while to do so. As I said in the article, they certainly can’t be blamed if employers choose non-disabled, healthy people – because naturally they would prefer to employ people who don’t need extra support (either equipment or other types of support) and don’t have to take time off for medical appointments.

      I’m a bit baffled as to why you think I’m implying that sick & disabled people don’t want to work – that certainly wasn’t my intention because it isn’t my view. However, it’s also reasonable for the Public Accounts Committee to say that claimants should make an effort to get a job IF THEY CAN.

    • Have to say Andy, I really did not get that impression at all. You might be reading too deeply into something that is not there.

  6. eveyone who enters a job seekers office is vulnerable to the moods and behaviour of the staff employed there the government have tese proople thinking they can do what they like smacks to me ofcrimes against humanity

    • That’s kind of what I meant – you are rendered vulnerable by having to engage with JobCentre Plus/the benefits service because the system treats people so badly.

  7. disabilities are all different and every body is affected differently mine is arthritic spine and everywhere in body use walking stick a lot put you on work exp try finding job at 58 not been able to work for years so cv doesnt look great . emailed 100s jobs no response makes you more depressed you feel a failure and worthless

    • This is a big problem – like I said, most employers, understandably, would prefer to employ someone who isn’t sick or disabled. Unfortunately, they’d also prefer to employ someone who’s younger; age discrimination is rife in this country.

      My argument with Government policy is that it doesn’t take account of the reality, that sick & disabled people can apply for hundreds of jobs, but it’s not their fault if they don’t succeed in getting one, especially in an economic climate where there aren’t that many jobs around compared to the number of people looking for them. It’s cruel to blame sick & disabled people for failing to get a job, especially in these economic circumstances.

  8. I agree that con and the libdem have a brain between them they are just out for themselves I cant stand how the treet the vaunrable and disabled I wont stop till I get it sorted. Im 70 yrs old this year I will fight all the way.

  9. Pingback: Frontline Friday 21st June 2013: Our favourite frontline blogs this week

  10. Cynthia Bowen is Non Executive Director for a massive quango called SKILLS FOR HEALTH, have a look at their website, in particular the Case Studies, I have copied and pasted it onto my anti child abuse blog Zoompads Blog in case it dissapears. Have a look at that list, it is frightening what that quango is involved in. I am one of the Staffordshire Pindown child abuse survivors and have a history of mental health problems due to the origional abuse and the reabuse of them desperatly trying to cover it up. I struggle to cope with depression because of what they have done (and are still doing) but this quango, well, just read it for yourselves, go on the website. Also, did you know ATOS is the IT partner of the BBC – who have covered up the Pindown child abuse scandal?

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