Last month, I revealed that the DWP was forcing jobseekers to take a fake psychometric ‘test’ – under threat of losing their benefits – as part of a sinister ‘behavioural control’ experiment on behalf of David Cameron’s ‘Behavioural Insights Team’ (BIT) or ‘nudge unit’.
This story was picked up by the Guardian (and was one of its most-read items) as well as by other newpapers and even by BBC Radio 4. The letter given by the DWP’s Jobcentre Plus (JCP) stated clearly that non-compliance with the instruction to take the test could result in sanction, or loss of benefits.
However, the DWP has since tried to weasel out of responsibility for its actions by claiming that the letter instructed ‘Maggie’ to take a ‘My Skills’ test, while the sinister fake test was called a ‘My Strengths’ test.
The DWP continues to make this claim. Last month I sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request to the DWP, asking for details of how many people had been made to take the fake ‘test’, and whether anyone had been sanctioned for failing to do so. The response insists that the ‘My Skills‘ test that ‘Maggie’ was ordered to take on pain of losing her benefits is a completely separate test – so that the ‘My Strengths‘ test linked in the form that accompanied the ‘Jobseeker’s Direction‘ was not actually mandatory.
But this is clearly untrue. The original instruction to Maggie to complete the fake test was sent on 11 April 2013. On 17 April, the same day on which she met the JCP advisor to discuss the first test, she received a further letter instructing her to take a different skills assessment with a completely different web address for an even more confusing and complex test.
But my story revealing the first test was a fake did not break until 18 April – a day after she was ordered to take the 2nd test after completing the first one. The same JCP advisor instructed Maggie to take both tests, on separate occasions, before the fake nature of the first test was made public.
The 2nd skills test was therefore not given as a correction to an incorrectly-mandated ‘strengths test’ once the ‘mistake’ became public. It was given as a further instruction once the first one was completed.
The ‘my skills‘ test in the first letter was therefore definitely the ‘my strengths‘ test that accompanied the letter – because a separate instruction was given for the separate ‘my skills‘ test on the day that ‘Maggie’ met her advisor to confirm that she had taken the ‘my strengths‘ test.
And as the accompanying letters made plain, both tests were given as mandatory instructions with the threat of sanction for failure to comply.
This isn’t all. The DWP’s FOI response confirms that jobseekers were ‘directed‘ to take the test – at the same time as claiming that it was voluntary!
Here’s what the DWP’s response says:
In answer to your request the ‘My Strengths’ exercise is not a mandatory one. The promotion of the use of the tool was intended to compliment a customer’s jobsearch activity. This has always been voluntary and although a very small number of customers were directed to use the tool this did not result in any sanctions nor was it considered mandatory. This pilot is not being run in any other part of the country. The ‘My Skills’ test is a separate activity.
The DWP claims that the test was always ‘voluntary’ and was not ‘mandatory’ – but then admits that jobseekers were ‘directed‘ to take it.
A ‘direction’ in this setting is a very specific thing and is always accompanied by the threat of sanction. No matter how much the DWP might claim that it didn’t consider the ‘test’ mandatory, it is admitting that it was presented as mandatory – with a financial penalty for non-compliance – to jobseekers.
So, in the space of just a few lines, the DWP insists that jobseekers were not forced to take the ‘test’ – and admits that they were. If this were a criminal investigation (and it should be), this inability to get the story straight would be taken as a powerful indicator of guilt.
Oh what a tangled web we weave..
Important update: I’ve emailed this information to the Work and Pensions Committee with a request to include it in their grillings of IDS due to take place over the next month or so.