The shocking story of Jobcentre abuse recently published on Disabled People Against Cuts’ (DPAC) website will be all too familiar to many claimants.
The post tells the story of a claimant who was called on their mobile phone by a Jobcentre advisor in the middle of a blood transfusion for a life threatening condition. Instead of simply offering to call back, the advisor then began demanding that they immediately attend the Jobcentre for a back to work assessment, despite the claimant having lost six pints of blood due to kidney failure.
It is difficult to call for unity between claimants and low paid (and themselves harassed) Jobcentre staff when claimants face open abuse like this. But every job has its share of contemptible bastards and part time Jobcentre staff themselves will soon be facing this brutal regime when Universal Credit is introduced. We will all be benefit scroungers then and this unites Jobcentre staff and claimants with a common cause. This is an opportunity to amplify and escalate the fight against Iain Duncan Smith’s bodged social security reforms and it should be taken by those in and out of work alike.
The treatment doled out to the above claimant reveals a dangerous time-bomb at the heart of welfare reform. Without excusing at all the behaviour reported by DPAC, there is really no reason why Jobcentre staff would have any understanding of complex health problems.
Jobcentre staff are not health care professionals. Neither are they social workers, mental health specialists, probation officers, substance misuse counsellors or housing officers. Yet Jobcentre staff have been granted unprecedented powers over the lives of so called ‘vulnerable people’. With a stroke of a pen, Jobcentre decision makers can sentence claimants to four weeks unpaid work, or stop vital benefits, whatever their circumstances.
In fact there is no reason why Jobcentre staff would ever even know that someone has a drug problem, a mental health condition, a serious health problem or is street homeless. And if they do know, they aren’t trained to deal with it.
The situation is even worse on the privatised Work Programme where the ‘black box’ style of provision means welfare to work companies can mandate claimants to almost any activity they see fit with no scrutiny whatsoever.
As Jobcentre staff themselves could well testify, even before the huge re-assessment of people on sickness and disability benefits, then many of the small number of long term unemployed people often face complex problems in their lives. It may surprise people to know that if someone hasn’t had job for twenty years, it is usually not because they are lazy. Jobcentres have always dealt with large of numbers unemployed people who were sleeping on the streets, had diagnosed, or undiagnosed mental health conditions, serious problems with drugs or alcohol or a range of factors that meant full time work was a long way away*.
Now those people have been joined by hundreds of thousands of claimants formerly on sickness and disability benefits and everyone of whom has been signed off work by their own GP. If a GP can order someone to bed rest only to be over-ridden by a DWP clerk or welfare to work advisor ordering them back to workfare, then what chance do social workers, mental health nurses or probation officers have.
From December 3rd last year the DWP gave powers to Work Programme companies and Jobcentres to mandate sick or disabled claimants to workfare for an unspecified period. Workfare sharks like the inaptly named The Conservation Volunteers (@TCVtweets) have said they will provide their own assessment of a claimants ability to carry out the very physical workfare programmes they run**. A conservation charity worker can now force someone to work unpaid even against the advice of the claimant’s doctor.
The potential consequences of this are horrific and not just for claimants. With no CRB checks, risk or health and safety assessments on the Mandatory Work Activity scheme – or any interaction with other agencies – then the possible dangers are endless. An alcoholic could be sent to work in a licenced premises for example. Or someone with a history of violence in stressful situations could be sent on workfare to work in a stressful situation. This is something workfare using charity shop managers might like to consider before being tempted by the lure of free labour.
It is only a matter of time before this situation leads to a tragedy. And when it does, it will quite likely be a Jobcentre worker who faces the blame. This should be a pressing matter for the PCS Union whose members cannot be expected to have a specialist understanding of the vast array of problems that claimants face.
And they should be supported by social workers, probation officers, mental health teams and other social care professionals. As Universal Credit is introduced and benefit conditionality vastly expanded then care plans, child protection measures, resettlement and treatment programmes will be torn up as vulnerable people are subject to the nasty and ever changing whims of ministers at the DWP.
*Homelessness, substance misuse and mental health charities also know this incidentally. They have just chosen to remain silent as the magical belief has flourished that if only someone got a job in Tesco then all their other problems would disappear. Some people will sadly never make it in this cruelly competitive capitalist world where people are solely judged by how much they profit they can generate for the rich.
** TCV have changed their statement and there is now no reference to them saying they assess a claimant’s health before they begin a period of workfare. Presumably they now leave it to poverty pimps like A4e to decide. They have said they will not use people on sickness benefits as workfare staff – if they are fibbing and anyone knows of anyone on ESA forced to work at TCV then contact Boycott Workfare: http://www.boycottworkfare.org/?page_id=1703
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