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Social security and welfare benefits

Briefing: The Department for Work and Pensions Sanctions Statistics Release – Part 2

commentaryYesterday we published Part 1 of this Briefing – an analysis of the latest DWP statistics on sanctions produced by David Webster of the University of Glasgow. Here we publish Part 2, a view on sanctions from a claimant’s perspective.

The JSA Regime – A Claimant’s View

The statement below was given to her Jobcentre adviser in May 2015 by a Scottish JSA claimant, a former local councillor with two degrees, a post-graduate certificate in IT and many years’ work experience. She was unemployed as a result of being made redundant in August 2011. She sent the statement to me following a BBC Radio Scotland programme ‘Good Morning Scotland’ on 25 August 2015 in which I pointed out that the job-seeking requirements of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) frequently obstruct claimants’ own efforts. Her experience bears out this point, and a number of others, perfectly. The statement is reproduced here with her kind permission.

Why I am signing off

After three years and nine months I still do not have a job but am signing off today. I hope this paper will be read by somebody senior as useful feedback from a client. Ideally it would go to the policymakers, but I don’t hold out much hope for that.

My reasons for signing off despite not having a job are as follows:

  • I now have 35 qualifying years for the full state pension
  • concerns for my health and mental state
  • to improve my chances of finding work.

Firstly, the state pension. Because of my husband’s income I do not qualify for means-tested benefits but have had to jump through all the same hoops simply to get my NI credits. Quite frankly, I have had enough. This is in no way to find fault with the regular staff at the Job Centre, who have been as helpful and sensitive as they can, having to administer a régime whose aim is all too obviously not to find suitable work for its clients but rather to get them off the register and reduce the number of claimants. This is evident from the fact that my signing off will be counted as positive an outcome as finding a job would have been, as would having gone to prison, emigrated, reached retirement age or died. I should say that I am grateful to (Jobcentre adviser) for encouraging me to pursue missing NI credits from 20 years ago, which has enabled me to reach 35 years and so prepare my escape from jobseeking.

Secondly, my health and mental state. Since becoming a jobseeker, I have suffered from 3 conditions associated with stress: eczema, which I never had before, shingles, for the second time, which is apparently unusual, and breast cancer, which fortunately was nipped in the bud by a mastectomy. Although I cannot prove it, I believe the stress incurred by having to keep making futile applications, and prove that I was running ragged trying to find work, was a factor in these illnesses; indeed I believe there is research in progress investigating this very phenomenon. Mentally, I may have seemed fine, cheerfully bouncing in to sign on every fortnight, but back home it was a different matter, where I had some very low periods, exacerbated by the knocks I was taking from each rejection, and the negative portrayals of the unemployed, such as the epithets of ‘scrounger’ and ‘shirker’, in the media and by certain politicians. And my confidence has plummeted; there is no way I could consider self-employment at this stage, for example.

Thirdly, to improve my chances of finding work. The sensible way to find work is to focus one’s efforts, concentrating on making one or two really good applications for posts in which one is particularly interested. However, that won’t do for the DWP. The emphasis is on activity, filling up time however ineffectively, such that a half a dozen mediocre applications are preferred to putting the same effort into one outstanding one. Clearly, this is not a recipe for success; it is not surprising that a recent study found that long-term unemployed people going through the Work Programme, as I have, actually reduced their chances of finding work.

I have found it very difficult to concentrate on applications, always having to think about the next application, and to bear in mind that I must keep checking Universal JobMatch (useless), and the various alerts, and other websites, and note them all down to prove I have been really trying to find work. It is almost as though this frantic, unproductive activity is especially to appease the Daily Mail readers, who are convinced that all jobseekers sit around watching TV and living the life of Riley. I have made 118 applications, 117 of which have been unsuccessful and I don’t hold out much hope for the 118th. One of the problems with making applications willy-nilly is that every rejection, even for a job one wasn’t that keen on, hurts and knocks one’s confidence. Mine is at rock bottom so escaping from job-seeking can only help raise it again and improve my chances.

It’s odd that, given that those seeking work are somewhat vulnerable, things are made more difficult for us as time goes on. Having successfully negotiated the first lot of hoops, keeping records, extending one’s search area, doing the Work Programme, a few more hurdles are then added, with more and more activity being demanded. It’s called ‘support’ but is more like harassment, and almost seems designed to trip one up. I’ve been scared that I would somehow fall foul of the rules, and be sanctioned (i.e. lose my NI credits), or else be forced to carry out unpaid and humiliating ‘community work’, indistinguishable from the tasks meted out as a ‘community payback’ sentence to offenders. The conclusion is, one is punished for failing to find a job, reinforced by the negative messages in the media I have already mentioned, disgracefully encouraged, and in some cases instigated by, MPs and even Ministers. The fact that Iain Duncan Smith has been reappointed DWP Minister confirms my fears that things will not improve and that I am better signing off.

The problem is the ‘one size fits all’ approach. The theory appears to be: if you make an application and are unsuccessful, you must have done something wrong, so the fault has to be identified and you’d better not do it again. In other words the onus is placed fairly and squarely upon the shoulders of the job-seeker. No account at all is paid to the large numbers of applications for most jobs, nor to the preferences of the employer, which in some cases are illogical, unfair and even capricious; however, that is their right. You cannot force an employer to hire any particular individual, no matter how well-suited they seem to be. One asks for feedback almost as a matter of course, but even should one receive any, it is often bland and unhelpful, and one cannot be certain it is even true. In many cases, there is already a preferred candidate lined up, but that won’t be admitted. Employers are in any case annoyed at their time being wasted by receiving masses of applications from unsuitable people who have been ‘invited’ to apply for the vacancies by their advisors. On some occasions it was ‘suggested’ that I apply for posts where I didn’t even have all the essential qualifications, resulting in everyone’s time being wasted but no doubt it ticked a box somewhere on a DWP form. And when the rejection comes, rather than playing a guessing-game, I suggest that employers should be more directly involved, especially in the case of long-term unemployed, where they should be invited to give frank ‘without prejudice’ feedback. This should be mandatory in the case of the public sector; why on earth should the Scottish Parliament and VisitScotland, to name but 2, be allowed to state categorically that they ‘cannot’ provide feedback to unsuccessful applicants? I would also suggest that the numbers of applicants for jobs should be recorded and monitored, as it might surprise some of the powers-that-be just how much competition there is.

I was told on more than one occasion that people like me, with qualifications and years of work experience, were not supposed to be unemployed for long, and that the Work Programme really only dealt ‘with entry level jobs’. One could ask, then, why I was forced to jump through the hoops, which wasted my time, cost the taxpayer my fares to Kirkcaldy, and despite the ‘exit statement’ really did not teach me anything I did not already know. I was certainly ‘work-ready’ as I had been from the start, but was probably less employable.

Which brings me to my age; I am 58. It has been admitted that I would be falling foul of age discrimination, even though that is illegal. Just before Christmas, the Government announced plans to bring in ‘help’ for unemployed people over 50. It is good that it has been recognised that our age group has particular problems, but from what I have heard, the ‘seven champions of Fifties-dom’ are to concentrate on unskilled older workers, offering help with basics such as CVs and identifying transferrable skills from previous work, though surely any unemployed jobseeker should receive this advice as a matter of course? I didn’t hear any proposals to investigate possible age discrimination, or even counselling to boost confidence rather than heaping more blame on claimants’ shoulders, so do not expect much of this initiative. It would be a start, though, if the requirement to look for work 90 minutes public transport travel away were relaxed; for most journeys that means a bus, and the further one gets from age 50, the more problems a 90 minute bus journey presents, as, unlike trains, buses tend not to have toilets.

It’s ironic that the old name for job centres was the Labour Exchange, where the emphasis was on finding work. Now it is clearly on getting the numbers down, almost by any means. I need a job, as I’ve used up most of my savings, but I’m afraid the system has failed me.

About the author

Dr David Webster is Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Urban Studies, in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow. This briefing is part of a research project: A Critical Analysis of the Use of Disallowances and Sanctions in the UK Unemployment Benefit System since 1911.

Webpages:

http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/socialpolitical/staff/davidwebster/

http://www.cpag.org.uk/david-webster

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