With the DWP targeting the sick and disabled, we are constantly being approached by people who have been found ‘fit for work’ when they clearly are not. They have challenged the decision – always worth doing as the success rate is very high – but before they can put in a full appeal, they have to ask for it to be looked at again within the DWP (for a Mandatory Reconsideration), and while this is happening the only way they can get benefits is to sign up for Jobseeker’s Allowance. This means accepting the pretence that they are indeed ‘fit for work’ just long enough to get registered for the benefit; but once they are signed on they have the same rights to doctors notes as any other recipient of JSA. Most doctors are naturally concerned when their seriously ill patients are forced to look for work, and will readily ask for them to be excused job searching and other activities that make their condition worse. A doctor’s note for an extended period of sickness can last as long as 13 weeks. By that time, either the Mandatory Reconsideration will have reversed the decision (which is rare) or the person can move onto a full appeal, when they will be back on ‘assessment phase’ ESA.
Unsurprisingly, such a convoluted system, if it can be called that, puts people in the most absurd situations – situations that have serious impacts on their health. DWP workers have been conditioned into accepting the triple charade that the person in front of them is indeed ‘fit for work’, that the actions they are telling them to do will help them find work, and that work will be good for them. In reality, the actions people are told to do and the pressures of a system based on sanctions take them further away from recovery – and so, in fact, further away, too, from paid employment.
Both this week and last we have accompanied someone into the jobcentre to help them negotiate their way through this particular version of bureaucratic madness.
Katherine rang us after taking one of our leaflets. She has been refused ESA despite anxiety issues that make it difficult for her to interact with people. She has requested a Mandatory Reconsideration of the decision and has had to sign up to JSA meanwhile – but the pressures of being pushed back into searching for jobs she isn’t mentally ready for is sending her recovery into reverse. Her voice broke as she told me what was happening and I arranged to accompany her to her next jobcentre interview.
Some ‘job coaches’ are purposely cruel and controlling, but this was not the issue here. Katherine’s ‘job coach’ was encouraging. The problem seems to be that she actually believes that the system is designed in the interests of her ‘clients’. She kept emphasising how well Katherine was proceeding in her planned path back to work, while Katherine was visibly breaking down at the prospect of putting in for jobs she knew she was not ready to cope with. It can be harder to resist someone who thinks they are acting in your best interests than someone who is clearly antagonistic to you, but we were able to get the ‘coach’ to curb her enthusiasm by informing her that (on SUWN advice) Katherine was seeing her doctor the next week and would be asking for an Extended Period of Sickness note on the basis that putting her under pressure to look for work was having a negative effect on her recovery.
Jack contacted us a week later. He had got professional help with his Mandatory Reconsideration but he needed our help in negotiating the jobcentre as he was finding it all understandably confusing. After a long history of drug abuse, Jack had finally gone through rehab and ended his reliance on methadone a couple of years ago, but he is far from fully recovered and the pressures of the DWP system are driving him back into dependency. Visiting a potential employer can put him into a panic attack, and he told me that it was only heroin that enabled him to cope with his jobcentre interview. The discussion with his ‘job coach’ demonstrated the absurd double-think that the DWP expects of its employees. On the one hand, the ‘coach’ was very understanding of Jack’s situation and ready to accept that he would be bringing in an Extended Period of Sickness note as soon as he had seen his doctor. But at the same time he insisted that Jack went through the motions, as set out in his Claimant Commitment, of checking job sites and newspapers for jobs where he might not even be able to manage handing in a CV.
We hope that this blog will help others find their way through this two-faced bureaucracy, as well as alerting folk generally as to what is going on and why this system has to be stopped.