The Genius of DWP

Since becoming unemployed early September, I had been looking at various freelancing work as advertised on websites like Elance.  When I secured a contract, I decided that the correct thing to do was to declare my income, which was just under £100 paid to me over a three week period from November to December.

The DWP clearly didn’t know how to deal with such unexpected behaviour and their response was quite inspired: they wrote me a letter, which I received on 19 December, informing me that they could no longer pay me JSA.  They had suspended my benefits so I had received no income since 3rd December.  I should have been paid on 17th but now we had nothing to see us through Christmas.

The following is the letter I wrote to them.  They did eventually pay me for the period my claim was suspended, but not until late January 2015.  I never received any compensation for the bank charges I incurred as a result, which, for the nine months I was claiming JSA, amounted to over £400 and was directly attributable to their withholding my payments for no good reason.


To whom it may concern,

I have completed the form as requested and enclosed all of the available documentation in relation to payments received by me for any work (except for full time employment) done in the last 10 months.

The information contained in the form and documentation is no more than has already been provided to you at the Jobcentre. However, to ensure that there is no possibility of further confusion, I shall describe my recent employment status in my own words.

In an effort to secure an income for my family and myself, I devote considerable time to looking at and applying for appropriate employment opportunities. Not surprisingly, this also happens to be one of the necessary conditions for continued receipt of unemployment benefits. While thus engaged, I often find the most appropriate roles for me are among those advertised for freelancers as listed on websites dedicated to matching jobs that need doing with people who have the skills to do them. Such work is often temporary and the terms variable.  In some cases an hourly is paid rate for a specified duration, while in others a fixed sum is negotiated at the outset.

The work that I did recently was just such a contract. It ran from 31/10/2014 to 04/12/2014, although the duration was unknown at inception. As previously stated, the terms agreed were hours that varied from week to week, to be charged at a rate of USD27. For work done during this period, I received payments into my Paypal account totalling $160. This contract has ended for the Christmas period and I do not know if it will be renewed in the New Year. Meanwhile I continue to look for other work including that advertised on a freelance basis with variable hourly rates and terms.

When I informed my advisor of this work, he advised me to declare the hours worked and payment received on every Jobcentre visit and assured me that my Jobseekers allowance would be adjusted accordingly. He also informed me that should the hours worked or payment received increase substantially, then I may no longer be eligible for Jobseekers Allowance.  At current hours / payments however, my claim was valid. Since it is common for people in my position to work on a freelance basis, I assumed that a flexible system would exist to accommodate such work. Moreover, being a UK citizen I feel a certain need to have a degree of confidence in the operations in place for the provision of services that play such an important economic and social role as those for which the DWP is responsible.

While it may be unrealistic to expect to find optimised and efficient processes underlying all DWP functions at all times, I seem to have encountered in this instance, a worryingly conspicuous case of either wilful negligence or blind ignorance. If we can assume those responsible for the decision to suspend my benefit payments were not attempting to engender a collapse of the current government, then we are compelled to accept the only remaining plausible explanation.  That is, these individuals’ collective intelligence is no greater than that represented by the contents of a pot of live yoghurt. Assuming that it is indeed intelligence rather than integrity that is lacking, I shall attempt to explain my reasoning:

I understand that the current drive is to reduce costs across all departments in an attempt to shrink the deficit. Some provisions relating to healthcare and pensions have been ring-fenced, resulting in even greater pressure to cut costs of working age benefits among other things. Since the current nominal payment levels are frozen and thus declining in real terms, and with the implementation of the benefits cap along with tougher sanctions and a reluctance to acknowledge new claims for at least 8 weeks, the system now works best to provide supplementary income for the fraudulent, and/or long-term unemployed career claimant. For the skilled professional who finds him/herself in what should be a temporary spell of unemployment and in urgent need of short-term, effective support, the system as it stands is almost entirely irrelevant and often actually damages his or her career prospects. Clearly then, there is nothing to be gained from further cuts and/or tougher sanctions and this leaves benefit fraud as one of the few remaining politically acceptable areas where savings can be made. An unfortunate consequence of these reforms is that, with benefit levels declining in real terms, the decision to seek out or accept income with the intention of under or non-disclosure of earnings begins to look, from the claimant’s point of view, less like a risk-reward consideration and more like a necessity. The claimant considering the honest option of full disclosure of earnings must therefore overcome a disincentive in forfeiting the additional income whose value relative to the frozen benefit is increasing. On the other hand, the incentives for honest disclosure, namely, the preservation of personal integrity and the reassurance of acting with impunity are unchanged and remain so without a costly drive to catch benefit cheats and thus increase the perceived value of impunity.

What should be obvious to even the most intellectually challenged is that you do not, under any circumstances, add unnecessary disincentives for disclosure such as the prospect of interrupted or suspended benefit payments representing a far greater sum than the income declared. The system should not even allow for the possibility that choosing to declare an earned income leaves the claimant worse off overall than turning down the work altogether, even for a brief time. What sets this instance apart from the commonly encountered examples of everyday ignorance and marks it as truly extraordinary, is the fact for the claimant, the risk of non-disclosure was actually zero, leaving my own sense of propriety as the only incentive for me to declare the income. For the DWP to respond by suspending my only source of income just before Christmas, leaving my family facing hunger unless we can borrow money not only works as a disincentive for honest behaviour but also provides a morally sound justification for future non-disclosure that would likely be upheld at any appeal hearing.

That this point needs to be made is, to me, a very depressing indication of the complete lack of competence and leadership even at the highest levels within the DWP. That someone made the inspired judgement that the appropriate thing to do in my particular case was to suspend my benefit payments without warning a few days before Christmas, betrays a culture devoid of any underlying ethical principles upon which decisions can be based in the absence of such leadership. Was the likelihood of the Council’s discretionary fund being closed until the New Year and therefore unable even to provide me with food vouchers over Christmas taken into consideration? Is the fact that I have three young children (in a two bedroom flat) who were expecting a Christmas tree to decorate not relevant? Is it unreasonable for someone, who was paying over £1,500 per month in taxes until September and over £2,000 in my previous job where I had been for 15 years, to feel that they are entitled to more comprehensive cover administered with a at least a little professionalism from such an expensive national insurance policy?

These are questions that I now believe the DWP has neither the moral authority nor the intellectual capacity to answer and for this reason expect only an apology and the offer of some form of compensation for the significant distress unnecessarily caused to me and my family as a result of an honest attempt on my part to do the right thing.

Please also find enclosed a printout of my bank statement and charges incurred as a result of the DWP failing to make any payments to me from the date of my claim on 03/09/2014 until 24/10/2014. This in turn delayed my claim for housing benefit and council tax reduction causing my account to breach the allowed limits at the date of the direct debit payment of council tax in November triggering further charges. When my child benefit payment of £190 was received in early December, £140 was paid in charges as a result and a similar amount is due to be paid in charges for November on 01/01/2015. I am claiming that the DWP is responsible for £130 of these Charges and I have enclosed correspondence from my bank where it exists. If you have any questions relating to the period from early September to the end of October I advise you to have a look at my blog at www.dwpandme.net where I have described events and posted recordings of the most relevant phone conversations.

I look forward to your reply.


Cash Till Welfare – Excessive, Unfair Charges for Essential Banking Services – Santander reaches new Lows

An update on this post:  Santander refunded £110 of the £130 charges levied in June in respect of May.  They also have said they will no longer charge me the £10  non payment fee if I use my card when my account balance is not within the authorized limit.

The DWP withheld my benefits over Christmas into New Year because I declared £100 earnings from freelance work I had done.  You can read about it and the letter I sent in the posts from that time. (more…)

Budget 2015: Why it hits the working poor harder than you think

One thing often overlooked is that most of the jobs “created” since 2008 are due to a rise in the self-employed.  Here are some key labour market statistics from the ONS from Self Employed Workers in the UK August 2014:

  • Self-employment higher than at any point during the last 40 years
  • Rise in total employment since 2008 predominantly among the self-employed
  • Average income from self-employment fallen by 22% since 2008/9
  • Across the European Union, the UK has had the third largest percentage rise in self-employment since 2009

self-employment

Statistics for the same period from the ONS show that the number of people claiming working age unemployment benefits such as Job Seeker Allowance, Disability benefits like ESA and lone parent benefits like Income Support has fallen sharply.  The chart above uses data from the ONS for the period Q3 2008 – Q1 2015:

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Signing Off

At the end of April I signed off and became self-employed. The DWP, did pay me benefits for the period they were suspended over Christmas and New Year, the payment coming mid January long after I would have started digesting my organs had I not managed to borrow some money.  I finally had to ask my mother who is a pensioner and manages to put away £10 per week or so in case of such eventualities (bless!).

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A Sisyphean Struggle

On the 24th October I received the suspended benefit payments that I should have started getting about six weeks earlier.  Meanwhile the monthly direct debits for gas, electricity, tv license, contact lenses, council tax etc. had been unpaid as my account had breached the allowed limit in mid October and each non payment had added another unaffordable chunk onto my charges to be paid early December.

Bank charges weren’t the most pressing problem though; Since my claim for JSA hadn’t been approved until 24th October, all the other contingent benefit claims such as free school meals and prescriptions and of course the most important of all, housing benefit had not been paid.  In the case of housing benefit I was now told I would need to make an entirely fresh claim and hope it would be backdated.  Meanwhile I had been sent a final notice before action by the landlord and incurred a £50 administration charge for the trouble which was added to my rental arrears.

“Apologies again for the delay” – (So that’s all right then) – 24 Oct

Well after speaking to the DWP on 17 October I really wasn’t expecting much over the week that followed.  I held out a little bit of  hope that a letter would miraculously drop through my letterbox but sure enough the next Friday rolled around and even though I wasn’t due to sign I figured it might be a good idea to remind them that I existed just in case they’d lost all records of my application.  So on the morning of Friday 24th October I gave them a call which you can listen to here.

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The Semantics of Signing

20141117_134557When you apply for JSA and are required to go for your first interview with the advisor to whom you have been allocated, you are required to sign a claimant commitment.  This sets out the deal in terms of what is required of the claimant in return for his or her £72.40 per week (£57.35 if under 25).   This is a three page form, the last half page of which is dedicated to “My Claimant Statement” which is a 10 bullet point list of things you are required to have understood and accepted or be committed to.

In case the claimant didn’t 20141117_140529understand the first time, and just to emphasize the contractual asymmetry in the obligations and responsibilities of the 2 parties, the same points are repeated over 4 pages of the “My Work Plan” booklet that must accompany every visit to the Jobcentre.

Now if we can see past the glaring omission of the responsibilities of the Jobcentre to the claimant and the lack of any effective process available to the claimant by which they can be held to account, there are a couple of things that can be said regarding the precise language used and what it reveals about the attitudes at the DWP.

It is as if these documents are the result of merging two distinct contributions: one the work of a balanced and mature individual, respectful of others and aware of the existence of alternative viewpoints, and the other the officious and preconceived invective you might expect from Alan Partridge if you took him out and bought him 5 pints of Stella.  For example, from the “My Claimant Statement” we have:

  • I understand I must attend the Jobcentre when required to do so.
  • I understand my coach may require me to take other specific actions to improve my chances of finding work.
  • I understand my coach may require me to take part in certain schemes to help me improve my chances of finding work.

Then a few lines lower:

  • I understand Jobcentre Plus may seek feedback from employers about any jobs they have told me to apply for.

Similarly from the “My Work Plan booklet we have on the first page:20141117_140820

  • I understand I must attend the Jobcentre when required to do so.

and later in the booklet under “Your responsibilities” it is explained that benefit will be lost for 13 weeks, 26 weeks or 156 weeks if you:

  • refuse or fail to apply for or accept a job which your Coach has notified to you without good reason.

Then on the next page under “Attending the Jobcentre”:

Remember – to get Jobseeker’s Allowance you must come to the Jobcentre each time we tell you to.

and on the next to last page under “My appointments”:

I will attend appointments with my Coach when I am told to.

20141117_140653

The italics above have been added by me.  What seems to require an explanation is the departure from the polite language of requests that would be expected when addressing an adult and the apparently random adoption of an imperious tone which might better suit a Victorian classroom or the pages of the Slavery Code applicable to a 19th century cotton plantation.

Such considerations as these should not be dismissed as unimportant or without consequence.  They play an active role in the psychological decline of the claimant, aiding in the process of undermining his or her self image and aligning their expectations in order that they be commensurate with the treatment they are likely to receive by the DWP.

When I returned home after signing on the 17th October someone from the benefits centre did indeed call me.  Unfortunately they again called my mobile phone so I was unable to record the call.  However, I can remember fairly clearly what they said.  Apparently now the passport document had been acknowledged but this document having been missing from the initial application had now meant that it had been passed on to new claims so there would be a two week processing time from the time they decided to acknowledge the document.  We were now looking at a mere week to 10 days and I could expect a letter telling me of my entitlement and perhaps shortly after that a payment.  Yippee.

Mental Health

When it became necessary to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance this time after becoming unemployed I made a conscious decision to adopt a blasé attitude which in practice probably means assuming that “it’ll all work out in the end”.  Consequently, my manner is probably taken to indicate a deep apathy and a lack of ambition and this in turn, I believe,  causes people to treat any task involving my affairs less urgently than they otherwise would.

The motivation for this apparently self defeating move stems from a strong determination to avoid at all costs the state of extreme exasperation, a kind of impotent rage that consumed me and dominated my mental state during my previous experience with the DWP.  I have a strong suspicion that episodes in life that affect the balance of the mind in this way have devastating, long-term effects on psychological health.  Although relatively short periods in a lifetime, precious mental resources are depleted at an unsustainable rate, ravaging the finely balanced ecology of the mind.

Reminiscent of the silent scream during a troubled dream, this is the feeling of power and control over your life being confiscated.   This is the realization of  grotesque imbalances in the relationship that exists between individual and State; it’s institutionalized thuggery as practised by the dull and staggering incumbent who has been gifted the results of a fixed fight because that’s how those with the power want it to be.

October 17th came which was the day I was due to sign.  I made my advisor aware of the fact that I hadn’t received any payment yet and he gave me the use of a phone to call the benefits centre.  Again it appeared that there was no record of documents received so I was told someone would investigate and call me back at home.

Wishful Thinking – The art of being deceived – 14th Oct

At the end of the phone call made on the 13th, the nice representative at the DWP promised I would receive a call by 9:22 am the next morning.  At 9:20 am on the 14th I did indeed take a call, but as it was on my mobile phone I wasn’t able to record it.

I don’t remember the exact words that were said but I do remember that he had a very reassuring voice and for some reason I was left the notion that this time the documents had been acknowledged, or salvaged from the emergency toilet paper pile onto which they’d been tossed.  Foolishly I allowed myself to believe that a direct transfer might well be made to my bank account within a few days.  Whether or not this was justified given the language used I will never know; after all lying is supposed to be an activity in which the deceived party to some extent participates and therefore must accept commensurable responsibility.

In any case I’m pretty sure that I remember the guy indicating that I should get a payment in a few days.  This was certainly what I needed to hear as.my bank account had negatively exceeded the overdraft limit prompting a flurry of “direct debit instruction returned unpaid” notices from my bank along with the gut-punching realization of the inevitable charges incurred.

Contracts & Norms

20141023_142702If you had made an arrangement to meet someone and you knew that they were the type who always arrived 10 minutes early for any arrangement and didn’t like waiting around, then if you turned up half an hour late you would expect them to have been waiting and become annoyed and and you wouldn’t be surprised if they gave you a hard time.

Similarly, if you had arranged to meet someone who was less regimental in their timekeeping you might feel that being 10 minutes late is acceptable, and if you turned up any earlier, you might be the one waiting around getting annoyed at the casual regard they were showing towards your time.

Now imagine you had arranged to meet someone and were say 4 minutes late but as they hadn’t shown up yet you weren’t too worried.  However when they still hadn’t shown 15 minutes later you’re the one who’s getting a bit pissed off.  So you give it another 15 minutes  and by now they’re well over half an hour late so you decide to give them a call to see if they’re on their way.

Now how exactly should you respond when you remind them you had arranged to meet them 34 minutes ago and you’ve been waiting now for half an hour and they say, “hold on, you were 4 minutes late.  That is wholly unacceptable.  Consider today’s appointment cancelled.  Next time please arrive 10 minutes early or don’t expect me to agree even speaking to you again”?

This is the position that the DWP seems to think is completely reasonable.  Two years ago when I found myself without employment for the first time in about 20 years and having been paying around £2,000 each month in tax and NI for a good number of them I was sanctioned and lost my benefit, not only for me, but my whole family and not because I hadn’t been looking for work but because I had failed to bring evidence of the fact with me when I went to sign on.  I had mistakenly picked up the wrong printouts from my desk on the way out and when I had offered to go back and get them (I live only a few minutes walk from the jobcentre) I was ignored.  This was after a very similar experience to the current eye-wateringly frustrating one I am having just trying to get them to do anything.

Anyway, resigning myself to the possibility that the instructions given to the guys at the benefit centre are simply not to pay any new claims for at least 3 months, and then only if they are receiving daily phone calls from the claimant, at which point they should contact the claimant’s local jobcentre to see if anything can be done to sanction the claimant first, I waited until 13 October before once again calling to see how things were coming along.  See how I got on this time by clicking on the link here.