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.