More DWP psy-torture of the vulnerable

Three of the most-read articles I’ve written since I began this blog were posted over the last 3 days:

  • an article about ‘Maggie‘, a 29 year-old unemployed, semi-literate woman in my home town and the psychological torture inflicted on her and others like her by Jobcentre Plus (JCP) on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP)
  • the fact that the test she is ordered to do on pain of losing her benefits is a meaningless sham that gives a ‘personality profile’ even if you click right through the 48 questions without answering any of them
  • the fact that the DWP document that was in the root directory about psychological manipulation has now been blocked so that the public can no longer access it (but I’ve made it available on Dropbox)

Unfortunately, all that isn’t the limit of what amounts to the DWP’s psychological torture of benefit claimants. ‘Maggie’ received another letter from JCP ordering her to complete another online exercise or else face ‘sanction’ (loss of benefits) – and just like last week’s letter, this one contains a serious problem. Here is the (anonymised) letter (all red highlights in the following scans are mine):


Once again, the tone of the letter is designed to intimidate. ‘Failure to comply with this direction will result in loss of benefit’ – bear in mind, ‘Maggie’ has not been told to do this previously and failed to do it. This is the first time she’s heard of this ‘My Skills assessment’ – but immediately she’s threatened with loss of her only income: her benefits.

There is also confusion over the dates. The exercise has to be completed, and the results emailed to the JCP advisor, by 26 April – but an appointment has been unilaterally made for her on the morning of 24 April – 2 full days before the deadline for completing the task. For a barely-literate claimant like Maggie, this kind of confusion could be fatal on its own to her chances of complying – and could therefore result in her being sanctioned.

But that’s not the biggest problem. Here’s the sheet that accompanied the letter:


My friend, who’s trying to help ‘Maggie’ and who knows I wrote about the last letter, brought it to me to check whether the test is legitimate. But when I tried to enter the provided URL, this is what I saw:


According to the page that the URL links to, my system policy is preventing the page from opening – I have a problem. Confused, I tried it from my mobile phone and tablet – same result. Perhaps it’s my IP address or internet connection? So I got my friend to try it. Same result. Double-check I’ve entered the URL correctly – yep. Phone the ‘0845’ DWP helpline – at considerable cost (since unemployed people are unlikely to be able to afford to pay a premium to their phone provider to get free calls to ’08’ numbers) and generating a nice profit for the government? Well no, in this instance – but only because we found out ourselves what the problem was.

In the end, my friend googled ‘national careers service’ – and found that the ‘National Careers Service’ does exist – but under a different URL: https://nationalcareersservice,direct.gov.uk – a secure site, ‘https’ instead of ‘http’, and no ‘www’.

My friend and I are reasonably tech-savvy people – but we were stymied and frustrated, assuming there was a problem with the site, until it occurred to us to google the name of the service. Now imagine yourself not tech-savvy, barely literate, perhaps unable to afford the not insubstantial cost of phoning the helpline – and under the threat of losing your benefits if you don’t complete the assessment that just will not open when you enter the URL.

But the problems are not yet finished. The webpage opens well enough – if you have the right URL – in Firefox or Internet Explorer. But in my default browser, Chrome, this is how it looks:


Text disappears behind images and banners that refuse to move and that you can’t close, blocking the necessary links. Again because I’m reasonably savvy, I knew to try it in a different browser and it worked fine – but someone less technologically aware would find this obstacle, on top of all the others, extremely stressful, especially when their benefits depend on being able to get it to work.

This link is extremely unlikely to be new. But JCP hasn’t bothered to update its letters to show the correct address and continues to give out the wrong address to claimants who would find the whole process highly stressing even in ideal circumstances – and continues to threaten them with sanction if they don’t ‘comply’. To fail to design the site to work with one of the world’s premier browsers demonstrates – at best – a complete ignorance (or disregard) of the difficulty that completing complex online assessments would represent to some people, even if they weren’t facing the loss of their benefit if they fail.

And in a context where people are killing themselves because of the fear of losing their benefits, to put additional stress on people who have just been threatened with sanction by failing to do even something so simple as give them the right URL is unconscionable recklessness, especially when a higher percentage of unemployed people are likely to be suffering from mental illness.

That this whole situation amounts to psychological torture of the vulnerable is really not in doubt. Whether it’s deliberate and callous or simply ignorant, incompetent and uncaring is debatable – in this instance.

But, as someone said to me on Twitter the other day when we were discussing the fake questionnaire, with the DWP the safest bet is probably: both.


    1. Exactly my husband is slightly computer literate, having had me to do it all for him, he would have trouble with all this and he has a degree in pharmacy. We are retired so too old to have grown up with pcs, had to learn as we went along so he learnt enough to get by to do prescriptions, I do all the computer stuff

  1. Just as a minor technical point the protocol signifier http: or https: is usually optional the browser negotiates the correct protocol
    The term www. in the given address is extra so the DNS lookup fails. Sorry if this is a bit technical, but it explains the problem. However, it does not explain the cause which as you say is complacency in the DWP JCP et al to provide accurate up to date information.
    My interests are more on the technical side of things, but I suspect there is a legal point, in that the letters mention the disclaimer of: if you had a good reason for not doing so. This would need support from someone who understood what this meant. For someone without such support this of course would be useless.
    This brings me to my other point: that the later is written in some sort of pseudo legalese, and not in Plain English. I’m not certain but I believe there was a government direction that all Forms and communication had to be written to a certain standard of comprehensibility. I would argue that this fails simply by the use of Direction as a synonym for instruction, which would be a Plain English equivalent and even less ambiguous.
    Trying to keep up a little bit of levity, however sinister, when I hear the term ‘sanction’ I can’t help but think of the word Eiger and consider its euphemistic meaning in that film 😮

    1. Good points – I was aware of the basic distinction, but the end result is a link that won’t work. Sadly, the (Eiger) sanction isn’t too far off for some people. 🙁

      1. I suspect it says Direction because this then makes the letter a written Jobseeker’s Direction as opposed to a neutral ‘how-to’ instruction. You ignore these at your peril, they’re official and if you break them then you’re liable to a penalty.

  2. Steve your posts are deeply disturbing. This one is beyond belief, I ask my self can it really be true or are you being set up to discredit your campaigns? Do you know if there are other people out there who could verify similar treatment? I think you need more cases to strengthen your position. I am not doubting for one moment your sincerity.
    But the rubbish questionnaire, the rubbish website do stretch credibility. I answered the questionnaire and got a meaningless result and I took copies of all the cabinet Office documents as well should you ever need them. I thought future access would be denied asap.
    The question is what to do do next. An FOI might be one avenue to go down, or ask your MP to investigate or circumvent the lot and write to the DWP Select Committee and ask them to investigate. But I think you need more examples under your belt before doing this. Is there anyone one out there that can provide additional evidence for Steve, this is a supremely important issue.
    This link will give you the Select Committee Member details.

    1. Although I am not in a similar position to this case under discussion, I can confirm that errors in official letters seem to be non unique, as I have just received a letter today stating that I am in receipt of JSA when in fact I am in receipt of ESA. Merely a typo, maybe, (It’s not) but if not corrected will certainly propagate through the system and leave me in a similar position to this case.
      I too am deeply anxious to see the correct outcome. I agree also the crassness of the websites and paperwork involved is almost unbelievable to a sane, reasonable and rational person. But I suspect the people involved in this, what amounts to a, terror campaign against the most vulnerable may not be.

    2. A man after my own heart! I kept copies of a couple of the key ones, but will let you know if I need the others. The letters were brought to me by a close friend who knew I’d be interested, so if it’s a set-up it’s an extremely sophisticated one to get the letters sent to someone who they wouldn’t know would take it to him and he’d take it to me!

      I’ve written to our local MP since it’s one of his constituents and will meet him in the next week or so to discuss further how to address it. The fact that the ‘system’ was being trialled in 3 areas is on the record – the news is that the test is bogus, which is now well-attested! I’ve also emailed the blog links to the chairs of the WP committee and HSC. Thanks for your support!

  3. The trick where they give you contradictory dates seems to be either a well-established operating practice (I remember coming across it back in the 1970s) or extreme incompetence. Either way the claimant is put in a bad position. A classic example is a letter demanding that the claimant must attend an appointment on a particular day and date, e.g. Wednesday 17th, but when you check the calendar the day/date combo doesn’t match up. This inevitably leads to penalties for those people who, for any number of reasons, can’t cope with checking/phoning/sorting out the ‘mix-up’, and end up missing their appointment as a result.

    Thanks for your work Steve and good luck pursuing this. The information you’re putting out in these posts is heartbreaking and I hope it can be publicised as widely as possible.

  4. The quote at the top is incorrect. May is not will. Also, maybe the interview is two days before the deadline to give two days to iron out any problems – like not being able to access the website – before the deadline

    1. If you read the second to last paragraph, you’ll see that the claimant is required to complete the Jobseeker’s Direction before attending the interview (unless there is a good reason for not doing so). So, the actual deadline for completing the direction is prior to 10am on 24 April. Not 26 April as the letter initially states.

      It’s fairly typical for government letters to have cock-ups and errors like this, although I tend to subscribe to incompetence and indifference being the reason rather than conspiracy. The main reason being that most of the apparatchiks drafting, designing and filling in these forms (and the policies behind them) are incapable of organising a decent conspiracy. All the apparatchiks do is play join the dots—with a rough idea of the picture the government of the day wants but with half the dots missing and the numbers scrambled.

  5. Whether it’s a deliberate attempt to erect further obstacles for vulnerable people, or just utter incompetence it is totally unacceptable. The letter is threatening in tone, not at all supportive and as an ex welfare rights officer I have seen many claimants baffled and upset by
    letters like this, even without the errors and problems you highlight.

    1. I agree.

      This chap Jobseeker’s Direction was prepared before he sat down! The complaint is with ICE, as he was not sanctioned.

      15 April 2013

      Dear Department for Work and Pensions,

      For the complete years from 2005:

      1. How may Jobseekers Directions were been issued?
      2. How many Sanctions were imposed for failure to follow a
      Jobseekers Direction?
      3. For each Jobseekers Direction identified in answer to my
      question 1, how many of them were printed prior to start of the
      Personal Adviser interview with the claimant? IE, they were
      pre-planned actions?

      To clarify Question 3:

      – Personal Adviser “Arnold” drafts and prints a Jobseekers
      Direction at 1005 ready for Carol’s appointment at 1015, At 1020 he
      gives it to Carol, This is “pre-planned”.

      – In contrast. Advisor Mary has an appointment with Norman at 1030.
      She discusses Norman’s situation with him and suggests a particular
      course of action. He doesn’t want to do it. After following
      appropriate procedures, she prints and issues Norman a Jobseekers
      Direction. The computer record shows this happened at 1045. This is
      not “pre-planned”.

      Yours faithfully,

      Mr Harris

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