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.