When the DWP get their sums wrong

SUWN - April 26th 2019

A small mistake for the DWP is a big disaster for those affected. Sometimes, in recent weeks, the demand for our services has been lower than in the past. People are getting more savvy about the rules, and more confident about taking on the system by themselves. But this week’s stall proved exceptionally busy, and this report threatened to grow to epic proportions. And one key theme emerged from a selection of this week’s cases: the DWP seem unable to get basic calculations right.

Under the old system, Siobhan would have qualified for Working Tax Credits. Under the new system she has to claim Universal Credit. She’s been handing in her wage slips, but the DWP say she’s been earning more than that. The result of this is that the DWP are underpaying her. The stress of dealing with the DWP, on top of not getting her money, is making her suicidal.

While we were talking to Siobhan, Fiona emerged with a very similar problem. HMRC had calculated Fiona’s income over the previous two months, but the DWP had decided that same income was over one month, which took her over her allowed income. This cock-up meant she was short of money. The DWP weren’t budging. Fiona’s reaction was a different emotion. Instead of anxiety, she was justifiably apoplectic with rage.

Greg was having similar problems with the DWP refusing to listen. He was paying off a DWP loan at £170 per month. His debt advisor says the DWP shouldn’t be talking all that money off him, but they still are. We told him to get further advice.

In Steve’s case, his jobcentre Work Coach had actually told him he was owed £190, but to date the DWP have only paid him half of that. As a result, he is getting into arrears on energy bills. We directed him to Dundee Council’s Welfare Rights unit and the Dundee Energy Efficiency Advice Project (DEEAP).

Even when the system is getting it right, we have advice to give. Bill has recently been made redundant, and had gone into the jobcentre with his wife Julie. When they emerged, we were delighted to find that the jobcentre had, for once, given them the correct advice. We confirmed that Bill needed to apply for the six months contribution-based New JSA, and that Julie should qualify for Personal Independence Payment (PIP). And we sent them off with our standard warning about PIP: get a welfare advice worker to fill in the form with you; give them as much detail as possible, and take a witness into the assessment.

Just as we were about to pack up, a young man emerged. He said he’d had no bother with the jobcentre but asked, “Would you like some chocolate eggs?” With our faith in humanity restored, we packed up the stall, and headed off to our usual pub for a well-deserved coffee.

Tony, Duncan, Jonathan, Cait, Ronnie, and Norma were at this week’s stall.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get


This week’s report involves a recent case that came to us via email, which raised issues that have become all too common since the introduction of Universal Credit (UC). We reproduce below the initial inquiry from Alan, which is not only well written, concise, but also a model of clarity;

‘I have been helping a friend by accompanying him to his Job Coach interviews. Unfortunately, during an interview I couldn’t attend, they got him to update and sign his job search commitment to include job coach recommendations. He has since been sanctioned for not going to an Open Day at XXX Hotel. He says that the updating of his commitments occurred after The Open Day.

He suffers from Vestibular Disorder and, although his health has improved, he has problems with balance and also standing for a long time. He therefore has not been applying for jobs like bar or waiting work that he knows he could not do. In my opinion it is clear he has other mental issues though he does not see this himself. His doctor gave him a line recommending part-time work only. He has asked for a mandatory reconsideration of the sanction and a new job coach.

During a job coach interview that I attended Colin was told that if he did voluntary work, the hours he did would be taken off his job search hours commitment and that he could get travel time deducted as well. During the job coach interview before he was sanctioned, the job coach reneged on this and told him none of the hours would count.’

After a phone conversation with Alan, we arranged to phone Colin to discuss the case with him and our strategy, and also arranged to meet him fifteen minutes before his appointment with his new ‘job coach’. Colin is very keen to get off Universal Credit and back into the world of paid work, but, as he realises himself, he should really be treated as ‘having a limited capability for work’. Like countless others, however, he had failed his ESA Work Capability Assessment (WCA), and was now expected to meet the full job search demands. Our strategy, therefore, centred on renegotiating his ‘claimant commitment’ so that his job search hours would be reduced, his voluntary working hours deducted from his job search hours, and that he would not be expected to take work that meant long periods of standing – such as the bar jobs he was ‘recommended’ to apply for and which led to him being sanctioned.

With all the problems that Colin had experienced with his previous ‘job coach’, who appeared to view him as little more than sanction fodder, Colin was understandably nervous about going into the buroo. We attempted to put his mind at rest, assuring him that everything would be fine, and that he would probably notice a big change in the attitude of his new ‘job coach’. And, as we had predicted, the new job coach could not be more helpful, and all of the changes we proposed were agreed to in what was a very pleasant and productive half hour. Of course, it should be totally unnecessary, for Colin – or any other claimant – to be accompanied into meetings with their ‘job coach’ by a SUWN volunteer in order to have the issues and problems they raise to be taken seriously. The major lessons that claimants should take from this ‘wee victory’, however, is that if you are in a similar position to Colin and have recently failed a ESA WCA, this doesn’t mean you have to simply accept everything that your ‘job coach’ demands of you as a UC claimant. Most of all, remember the old adage – if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

The names of all people in this report have been changed to ensure their anonymity.







The Labour Farce Survey

call on at the docks

Waiting for casual work – before mobile phones

If you are so inclined, the Labour Force Survey statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) are always interesting reading. Even more interesting is how those statistics are collected and manipulated.

One recent rumour we heard was that if you work for an hour a week, you are officially classed as employed. The ONS recently confirmed to the BBC that this was indeed the case. However, the BBC go on to state that “The ONS data shows that the number of people usually working six hours or fewer a week is just 1.4% of the UK working population – or just over 400,000 people, which compares with a total of 32.4 million people in work.” (BBC NEWS, 21/11/2018).

Of course, the fact that a ‘mere’ 400,000 people are working less than 6 hours a week says nothing about those worker’s needs or intentions.  It says nothing about how many of those people would work more hours if they had the opportunity. There is also the wider issue of part time working in general. Even those working part time for 16 hours a week, may desire more hours, where none are available.

Another problem with the statistics is that they do not include those on disability benefits. These are classed as ‘Economically Inactive’. Such people are not included in the figure for the ‘unemployed’. To quote the ONS: “Economic inactivity measures people without a job but who are not classed as unemployed because they have not been actively seeking work within the last four weeks and/or they are unable to start work within the next two weeks.” Again, this says nothing about the reality of workers in this position.  We in the SUWN are completely against attempts to force the disabled and ill off meagre benefits and into work; but we have come across many people claiming sickness benefits who would love to be able to work if suitable jobs were available – and if trying out a return to work could be done without risking the loss of disability benefit.

The self-employed also present a similar problem. We know from personal experience that many who are freelancing, or self-employed, would love more work, or to be contracted by a formal employer. These formal jobs are not always available, or where they are available, are not located in the right areas.

Finally, another piece of food for thought: The March 2019 bulletin claims that there were 1.34 million unemployed between November 2018 and January 2019, (using the narrow definition of the ONS). There were 854,000 vacancies between December and February. Even if those vacancies were magically filled, that leaves a deficit of 465,000 jobless.


BBC NEWS, 21/11/2018. Reality Check: Can you be ’employed’ for one hour’s work? [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46264291]

Office for National Statistics. Labour Force Survey, March 2019. [https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/uklabourmarket/march2019]

The birdman of Dundee buroo (when boredom is good)

Last week’s stall passed almost completely without incident, which is such a rare occurrence we thought it merited a headline. The blustery spring weather undoubtedly contributed to keeping business to a minimum: the breeze was so bitter that a guy I spoke to complained it was ‘stripping the skin affa my puss’, and driving hailstones forced us, on a couple of occasions, to cover up the stall and seek out corners of the buroo that offered any kind of shelter, however minimal. It is little wonder that folk, rushing by with hoods up and heads down, were reluctant to stop and chat.

However, there are some who, irrespective of the weather, conspicuously ignore us when we ask them if they’re having any problems. They pass quickly by staring fixedly into the middle distance, often with a muffled tune emanating from their headphones. Whilst this annoys some of our activists, being ignored is actually a good sign, as the folk that are guilty of it are unlikely to have any pressing issues that need to be addressed. Others answer us with another question, ‘why should I hae problems when meh work coach is braw and ahm daen ahin ahm supposed tae’.

There has, indeed, been a marked improvement in the attitude of many Dundee Jobcentre staff towards welfare claimants – which we would claim some credit for – but, despite doing everything required of them, many claimants can still end up entangled in the UC spider web.

We also meet some folk who pointedly refuse to take the ‘Know Your Rights’ leaflet that we offer them when going into the buroo (including staff, who, as we often remind them, can also be sanctioned). On more than one occasion we have had guys (it’s always young guys) informing us, ‘I ken mah rights, pal, ahll well soart them if they gie me ony shite’, only to have them re-appear fifteen or twenty minutes later complaining bitterly and loudly that ‘ahv jist been bloody sanctioned’. Other folk tell us that they already have a leaflet pinned on their fridge, but take one to pass on to friends and/or relations. And, it is always gratifying to hear, as happens regularly, that the leaflets have helped folk sort out problems on their own, without our aid.

So, what do welfare activists do on the stalls when it is quiet? Firstly, few of our stalls can be described as ‘quiet’: familiar faces and freends and comrades often stop by for a bit of advice or simply for the craic and to pass the time. The stalls can often become a debating forum, sometimes involving dodgy conspiracy theories that passing ‘local worthies’ insist on regaling us with. Debates often develop amongst us activists as well, covering a wide diversity of subjects from Brexit to the mating habits of herring. And, of course there’s always the doos’ to feed, courtesy of the birdman of Dundee buroo.

Duncan, Jock, Norma, Tony, Gary, Jonathan and Katie were on this weeks stall.