The IDS Experience (Part 3)

In my first two blogs about my DWP experience I detailed what I had learned about Universal Credit, why that concerned me, and the contents of my first meeting at the Job Centre Plus and why some of that concerned me. Now I’m going to work through the paperwork that I was provided with, with particular focus on the Claimant Commitment that I was required to sign and that, it was claimed at the start of my meeting, would be “very similar” to the one I had to sign for Jobseekers’ Allowance.

As ever, there is a reminder of a few caveats regarding these posts before we begin. Find it after the jump.

Those caveats are:

  1. I will report the truth of my experiences, whether good or bad.
  2. I will provide evidence wherever possible, and where I have no evidence I will note that plainly. When evidence comes from elsewhere I shall link to the original source.
  3. I have no particular agenda beyond documenting my experience, but in the interests of full disclosure my politics are left-wing/liberal and I voted against the current UK government. These politics will show in my writing, and I make no apologies.
  4. I am claiming no benefit beyond jobseekers’ allowance.
  5. I’m not writing this to vent or moan. At time of writing I have nothing to moan about per ce. Again, I’m merely documenting.
  6. I have no recorded evidence of my initial meeting with the JCP. I can only ask you to trust me to report accurately what was said.

So, let’s talk paperwork.

Unfortunately I don’t have access to a working scanner at the moment, so I can only provide photographs of the documents that I was given. The first of these was a leaflet from the Money Advice Service, the self-professed “free and impartial money advice, set up by [the] government”.

This, my advisor Anna explained, was because I wouldn’t be receiving my first Universal Credit payment for six weeks, so I “might need help budgeting”. This is after asking about my job history and being told that I had been in work for precisely two weeks before my temp job ended, and therefore only received two weeks’ wages. Apparently1 the Money Advice Service has such elite financial skills at its disposal that it can teach me how to make two weeks’ wages last two months. I’ll be certain to give them a call, naturally2. To give the DWP their due, however, I was told that if I couldn’t hold out that long I could contact the Universal Credit helpline and ask for an advance, and request which would be judged on its own merits.

The next document I was given – printed fairly poorly on incredibly cheap paper reminiscent of the stuff they used to give you at primary school to scribble on – was my four-page Claimant Commitment.

 

  

  

 

We’re going to go through this is order, because it’s eye-opening.

My commitment

I’ll do everything I can to get paid work, and will receive Universal Credit payments to support me in this. The things I’ll do are set out in this Claimant Commitment.

Okay, fair enough.

 

Finding and taking work

I’ll look for and take any work I’m able to do, that:

  • Pays £6.70 an hour or more
  • Is within 90 minutes travel from my home

I’m available for work for 48 hours each week. I can work on any day and ay any time.

Let’s break this down. £6.70 per hour is current UK minimum wage. If you don’t understand how minimum wage works, the short version is that it is the lowest amount that an employer in this country can pay you for work. In other words, this bullet point is, frankly, a waste of ink, because if I were making less than that I’d probably be one of Iain Duncan-Smith’s controversial work schemes (which are accounted for in the Commitment, rest assured) or my employer would be breaking the law. So what I’m actually agreeing to by signing the Commitment is to accept the first job that comes along, no matter how poorly paid and no matter how unqualified I am for it, provided that it’s being offered.

And “within 90 minutes travel from my home”? To put things in perspective, I live in Crawley, and I don’t drive. My last job, in outer London, was about 90 minutes from Crawley, excluding the time take to travel to and from the railway station. In order to make all of the connecting trains on time I had to leave my house at 06:30 every morning, and I would get home at around 20:00 every night. For the privilege of this  14.5 hour working day I had to buy a rail season ticket which cost £338.00 per month and a bus season ticket (to get me from where I live to the nearest train station) which cost £56.00 per month.

So let’s look at a worst-case scenario here. Let’s say I’m offered a minimum wage job in Tolworth. Because I signed the Claimant Commitment I’m obliged to take that job. So, I’m making an average around £705.31 per month after tax4 which, after you deduct my travel costs, would leave me with £311.31 per month – around £30 less than the £340.00-ish per month that I have been told I can expect from Universal Credit.

You might wonder what the problem is. I mean, surely I want a job, don’t I? Well, yes. Yes I do. But under JSA I was permitted to reject job suggestions from my advisor or (most commonly) the eminently terrible and unfit-for-purpose3 Universal Jobmatch website because they didn’t pay enough, or they were too far away, or because I didn’t think it would be a good role, or I had ethical concerns about the company in question, etc. etc. I am not permitted to do any of these things any more. I have had a large degree of agency in my professional life removed.

 

Ah, you might say, but surely I don’t have to tell the DWP that I was offered that job in the first place? Actually, you’re wrong – but we’ll get to that.

 

I will:

  • Apply for vacancies I’m told to apply for by my adviser including any saved by my adviser in the ‘Saved Jobs’ section of my Universal Jobmatch account
  • Attend and take part fully in job interviews I’m offered
  • Take up offers of paid work that I’m able to do

If, without good reasons, I don’t do all these things, my Universal Credit payments will be cut by £10.40 a day for up to 3 years.

Okay, this is where things escalate. For a start, my advisor now has access to my Universal Jobmatch account. Before that was optional (at least, on paper – in fact it was very heavily suggested whilst I was on JSA that I allow my advisor full access, but that’s beside the point). Now it’s compulsory. Not only is it compulsory, but my advisor can pick jobs for me to apply for without my consent, and I have to apply for them. If I don’t? Sanction.

“But,” I hear you say, “The sanction disclaimer says ‘if, without good reason…’. Surely a poor job match is a reason?” Well, you’d be forgetting the previous paragraph, then.

I’ll look for and take any work I’m able to do, that:

  • Pays £6.70 an hour or more
  • Is within 90 minutes travel from my home

There’s no such thing as a poor job match any more. If it’s a job, you take it.

Now let’s talk about that threat of sanction. “If, without good reasons, I don’t do all these things, my Universal Credit payments will be cut by £10.40 a day for up to 3 years.” Right. Well, if you recall, Universal Credit replaces six existing types of benefit: housing benefit, income support (IS), jobseekers allowance (JSA), employment and support allowance (ESA), child tax credit/working tax credit and budgeting loans/crisis loans.

So here’s a scenario for you: let’s say I’m out of work and claiming both JSA and housing benefit under Universal Credit. I get myself sanctioned for failing to apply for a job suggested by my advisor, because it’s too far out of town and pays a pittance. That advisor – who has full discretion on how long I’m sanctioned for – decides to sanction me for two years. Losing £10.40 per day effectively negates my JSA, but I struggle on somehow and find a part-time job. So now I no longer qualify for JSA but I still need housing benefit… and I’m still being sanctioned, because Universal Credit is, well, universal. So now, despite finding a job, I am losing £10.40 per day from my housing benefit.

 

My actions for getting into work

My work search and preparation plan lists the things I’ll do to give me the best chance of finding work quickly. This means I will normally spend 35 hours each week look and preparing for work.

I will:

  • Complete all the activities in my work search and preparation plan
  • Provide evidence that I’ve done my regular work search activities when required

If, without good reason, I don’t do all these things, my Universal Credit payments will be cut by £10.40 a day for up to 91 days.

I will also attend and take part in appointments with my adviser when required.

If, without good reason, I don’t do all of these things, my Universal Credit payments will be cut by £10.40 for each day until I arrange a new appointment.

Once I’ve done thing, my payments will be cut by £10.40 a day for a further period of up to 28 days.

The first part of this section isn’t so worrying. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect me to document my work search and, since I’m being forced to use Universal Jobmatch, the easiest thing to do is to record it on there – which counts as “providing evidence” and requires no extra effort on my part. No, what’s concerning is the last part.

Scenario: I fail to attend my appointment because I have a job interview. I called in ahead of time, but the message was not passed on to my advisor so this is not considered a “good reason” (Yes, this has happened). I don’t call to rearrange an appointment because I’m told by the helpline to simply attend the next one (when I’ve had to rearrange the odd appointment in the past this is far and away the most common response). When I attend two weeks later I’m informed that I’m being sanctioned. I argue. The advisor refuses to budge, and because I argued I receive another 28 days’ sanction on top, making a total of four full weeks where I won’t be receiving any benefit as punishment for doing exactly what I agreed to be doing in exchange for my benefit.

 

I understand that my Coach may require me to take part in certain schemes to help improve my chances of finding work. I will search for ‘Universal Credit Back to Work Schemes’ on gov.uk and consider this guide. If I have any questions about it I will ask my Coach.

The “certain schemes” part is the red flag here. These schemes include the Tories’ controversial Workfare, in which claimants are placed in low-skill jobs provided by national companies like Tesco5 in order to continue receiving their benefits. So… a job, then? But one which pays below minimum wage. Isn’t that illegal? Well, apparently not when the government is doing it and labelling it “a scheme”. And what about the companies providing the jobs? If they have positions available why the hell aren’t they paying people to do them?

And whilst we’re on the subject, why is the onus on me to Google and read up on back to work schemes in the first place? Why isn’t this information being provided by my advisor/Coach (the Claimant Commitment cannot seem to settle on a particular term).

 

I understand that when I’ve been told to apply for a job, Universal Credit may ask the employer for feedback on:

  • My application
  • Any interviews I’m invited to

Yes, THIS is why I can’t withholdt details of an unsuitable job offer. Because if it’s a job that my advisor has forced me to apply for they will also reserve the right to contact that employer and obtain feedback, including whether or not I was offered the job and what my response was. So, we’re back to the government having more agency over my life than I do, simply because I fell on hard times and asked for the help that I’m entitled to as a tax-payer.

And finally for this post… this one’s a doozy.

 

If, without good reason, I don’t tell Universal Credit within 5 working days that I’ve left a job, my Universal credit payments will be cut by £10.40 for each further day that I don’t tell Universal Credit that I’ve left that job. Once I’ve done this, my payments will be cut by £10.40 a day for further period of 28 days.

So I’m in work. I’m not claiming JSA.  I am still getting my housing benefit, or child tax credit, or whatever. Then, for whatever reason, I quit that job, or I’m made redundant (my advisor confirmed that “leaving a job” in this context means that job ending, for whatever reason. That includes being fired.). I’m upset, and I don’t immediately think to call the DWP. Perhaps I have enough money in the bank to last a couple of months. Perhaps I’m hoping to appeal and get my job back. Either way, I’ve made the decision NOT TO REQUEST EXTRA MONEY FROM THE DWP. The DWP’s response to this is to sanction my other benefits for up to 28 days after I inform them? I’m being punished for NOT REQUESTING MONEY? And if I’m not asking for money what business is it of the DWP, exactly, whether I’m in work or not?

And this goes hand in hand with the next statement, nestled just before my signed declaration:

 

If, without good reason, I leave paid work or lose pay, either by choice or because of misconduct, my Universal Credit payments could be cut by £10.40 a day for up to 3 years.

Scenario: I have my part-time job, I’m still receiving housing benefit to make ends meet. One day at work a colleague takes a swing at me. I don’t know why; maybe there was no hot food. To defend myself, I swing back. We’re spotted and pulled apart, but because there were no witnesses to the initial attack there’s no evidence as to who started it so we are both suspended without pay until the whole thing is straightened out. All of a sudden I’m not being paid; but worse than that, the DWP gets wind of this and sanctions my housing benefit, and I have no income at all.

And how, exactly, will the DWP learn of this? That’s a worrying thought right there. Will they be keeping in contact with my employer? Will they be spying on my Facebook posts? And what business is it of the DWP what happens to me at work IF I AM NOT CLAIMING WORK-RELATED BENEFIT?

 

Universal Credit terrifies me. In my opinion it’s a textbook scattershot approach from the privileged and the wealthy to control the bogeyman of “benefit fraud”, using a system akin to throwing a hand grenade into your bathroom to kill a spider. Yeah, you’re probably going to kill that spider, but you’ve also destroyed the bathroom. I am genuinely afraid from the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us. Yes, the examples and scenarios that I’ve given on this blog are extremes, but the point is they are possible.

I’ll keep this blog updated with my experiences with Universal Credit for as long as they last. One thing’s for certain, however; I’ll be cancelling my claim the second I find work, because despite all of the chirpy claims from the DWP that it’s “also an in-work benefit” I’d rather not have the government keeping tabs on my personal life when I don’t actually need the help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. My sarcastic inference, not anything Anna actually said. This needs to be clear.
  2. Of course I won’t.
  3. In my opinion. And apparently in the opinion of most people who have used it.
  4. This is based on the tax rate I was paying at my last job a few weeks ago.
  5. As the link shows, Tesco withdrew their participation after negative press.

2 thoughts on “The IDS Experience (Part 3)

  1. Paul Brewer

    This has been a terrifying read My fingers are crossed that you land a terrific permanent job really really quickly so you can leave this horror behind.

  2. Murray Christison

    intersting stuff and thanks for reporting on it. Also sounds horrible. Good to hear the staff are nice though.

    This is a problem with so much policy these days ( and I am willing to lump a lot of labour in there too) it is about how the policy will play to “hard working taxpayers” rather than what will be either practical or effective. It shows how low my expectations have dropped that I would settle for one of these. I am fortunate to have spent very little time unemployed, and then in circumstances where loosing my benefits would not have left me homeless and without support. Yet I’m sure many useful idiots, many who will earn little over minimum wage will still happily lump all of their spite on those who have less because they work hard and never ask anyone for anything and why should I pay etc. govts are all too happy to pander to this ignorance as, sadly the unemployed are an easy target.

    I hope the search goes well even if it will rob us of an insider view of universal credit.

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