A reader of my blog has written to me with an update about a case that I referred to her for her expert help some time ago. The appeal against draconian sanctions that she helped our mutual contact to conduct was successful, with the judge ruling that the ‘conditionality’ imposed on a jobseeker was unreasonable – and that the benefit sanction (immediate stoppage) used to punish the supposed miscreant was therefore unlawful.
But the Tory-led government is so single-minded in its determination to penalise benefit claimants for failing to find jobs that don’t exist that it is knowingly ignoring the judicial ruling and the precedent it sets, in order to continue what can only rightly be called persecution of the disadvantaged and vulnerable.
Here’s what she wrote to me:
I am a keen follower of your blog and thought you may be interested in this story…
I have recently helped a Jobseeker (I’ll call him John) to win an appeal at the First Tier Tribunal after his benefit was stopped for allegedly failing to ‘actively seek’ work.
I am a semi-retired business woman and I initially got involved in helping benefit claimants due to the significant and negative impacts of the new Welfare reforms on some of my family and friends. My deep concern led to offering my services as a volunteer at the CAB and now as a ‘Welfare Champion’ on a part-time basis. I do this work mainly on a private basis and receive referrals from various sources. I could not cope with lots of readers contacting me (I am easily traceable), so for this reason I will refer to myself as ‘Mary’.
John has worked from the age of 15 and for over 24 years with a few short breaks, so no-one could ever describe him as a “skiver” or a “shirker”. However, due to the economic downturn he found himself unemployed for longer than expected and could no longer afford to run his car; regretfully he has had to turn down a number of job offers due to the lack of transport.
At the beginning of 2013 a new Jobseeker Agreement was imposed on John; it required him to take at least 14 steps to look for work – it previously stated 3 as per the current legislation. It also required him to seek work on-line 7 days per week and to register with the DWP Universal Jobmatch site, which incidentally is not mandatory, nor is it a condition for receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance despite what Jobcentre Advisers might tell claimants.
Jobcentre errors in law and procedure!
John took 10 strong steps, which included applying for 4-5 jobs to help him secure employment each week during the period in doubt, but the Jobcentre thought this was not good enough and his benefit was stopped for 4 weeks! From my experience unless a claimant fulfils every detail of their agreement the majority will be sanctioned. This is wrong, both legally as well as procedurally! In this particular case I uncovered numerous procedural, policy as well as legal mistakes.
The impact of Jobcentre mistakes!
John was completely stunned and bewildered by the sanction; the impact was immediate and significant. He had no money and was unable to source a food parcel or any assistance from Social Services, so he was completely destitute for 2 weeks.
The regulations do not allow access to an immediate hardship payment if you are not in a vulnerable group I.e., you are sick or, have dependent children. The hardship payment he received after 2 weeks was £43.02pw (his usual payment is £71.70pw) for the remainder of the sanction period. He was already struggling financially and feeling low due to being unemployed for over a year and Christmas was on the horizon. Those feelings darkened and he felt suicidal at times, due to his mistreatment by Jobcentre Plus. He could not pay his bills or afford to eat properly and he certainly could not afford to buy his children any Christmas gifts.
And, to this day he has still not recovered from the loss of his benefits (his arrears are pending). The sanction has not made him any more motivated than he was previously; it has just made him very angry and mistrustful of Jobcentre Staff, hence the reason he was keen to help others by sharing this story.
Sanctions are only used as a last resort!
The government keeps claiming sanctions are only applied as last resort and if a Jobseeker wilfully does not to keep to their side of the bargain (the Jobseeker’s Agreement). This certainly is not true in John’s case, so what is the real reason for the sanction….performance expectations (targets to you or I), reducing the unemployment count, saving money or all 3?
Jobseekers are being set up to fail by Jobcentre Plus!
An ex DWP employee has confirmed:
“But the truth is that benefit claimants are being deliberately set up to fail in order to achieve sanction quotas without regard for natural justice or their welfare. Staff are being asked to behave in a manner that is against the department’s values of integrity and honesty.”
Suspected criminals are treated more fairly in this country than the sick and the unemployed; they are innocent until found guilty, receive swift and free legal assistance, a bed, food, water and a roof over their heads.
A speeding ticket is £60 to people who can generally afford to run a car and the offender is given time to challenge the penalty before it is imposed.
What does the law – the Jobseeker’ Act actually say….
The duty to actively seek work is not to be found in the job seekers agreement but in S7 of the jobseeker’s Act. S7(1), which provides:
“a person is actively seeking work if he takes in that week such steps as he could reasonably be expected to have to take in order to have the best prospects of securing employment.”
More detail is set out in regulation 18 of the Regulations. Regulation 18(1) provides that:
“… a person shall be expected to have to take more than two steps in any week unless taking one or two steps is all that is reasonable for that person to do in that week.”
Mr Commissioner Williams held at para 10 & 14 of CJSA/1814/2007 (case law)
“That is illustrated by this appeal. C was required by his Agreement to take 6 steps each week and several other steps from time to time. That is clearly more steps than the regulation requires of him to meet the test of “actively seeking work”. And it is more steps than the Agreement asked him to record. On the facts, the secretary of state’s representative now accepts that C took four steps in the week and that those four steps met the test in section 7(1).”
“Further, there is nothing in the Act or the Regulations requiring that a claimant must comply with everything in the Agreement. The reverse is the case. Theagreement must comply with the law. To be valid, a jobseeker’s agreement must comply “with the prescribed regulations in force”: section 9(1) of the Act. The pattern of the legislation is that a jobseeker’s agreement must comply with the test of actively seeking work in sections 1(2)(c) and 7 of the Act and regulation 18 of the Regulations and not the other way round.”
The Outcome of this case – Success!
Using this piece of case law the appeal was allowed, because the judge determined John (the appellant) was actively seeking work as per section 7 of the Jobseeker’ Act 1995 and he took significantly more than 2 steps to in order to have the best prospects of seeking work (Reg. 18 JSA Regs 1996)!
What does this outcome mean?
This result confirms that Jobseeker Allowance claimants are unwittingly agreeing to unreasonable, thus unlawful Jobseeker Agreements (soon to become JSA Claimant Commitments) and, as a result 1000s are being sanctioned unfairly.
However, this achievement is a hollow victory for the thousands of Jobseekers expected to comply with their Jobseeker’s Agreements.
This Tribunal ruling does not set a precedent for DWP to follow. As far as DWP are concerned “it will be business as usual”. DWP’s position will remain that if an individual claimant wishes to challenge their Jobseekers Agreements on the basis of this Tribunal ruling they will have to jump through all the various hoops. Most will decide it is not worth their while and I know from my own experiences how difficult it can be. Further, the claimant must have the capacity to do so (many claimants are vulnerable) and they must also know that their Jobseekers Agreement is unlawful. The majority will not and as for the handful of claimants that do, DWP will cope with these people.
What we appear to be dealing with here is, maladministration by the DWP on a grand scale affecting 1000s of individuals.
What can people do?
I would strongly urge those who have been affected to get in touch with their MP to raise this important issue.
And, you must appeal.
Read the recent news reports about unfair sanctions….
“70,000 job seekers’ benefits withdrawn unfairly, says think-tank”
I believe it is significantly higher.
Rising rates of successful appeals have been seen as a sign that the system for penalising those deemed to have broken job-seeker agreements is flawed.
This is absolutely vital information. Any jobseeker who can demonstrate that s/he has taken more than 2 ‘reasonable steps’ a week (or fewer if it is not reasonable to expect them to do that many) to find work has complied with the law. A jobseeker’s ‘agreement’ or JSA ‘claimant commitment’ is a fluid plan and is supposed to guide a claimant into work. If it imposes excessive and unreasonable steps for a claimant’s particular circumstances, it is unenforceable, as John’s case clearly demonstrates. According to the law, ‘excessive’ means more than 3 and any sanctions imposed for not meeting additional conditions is not legally valid. Any claimant sanctioned for failing to meet such an illegal requirement has a right to have it overturned on appeal.
And the scale of this is enormous.
‘Mary’ is right that the numbers stated for people sanctioned are vastly understated in the sources she quotes. 818,000 people had been sanctioned by late Feb 2014, just since the end of 2012.
But the DWP doesn’t care. It relies on the fact that only about 2% of people sanctioned formally appeal to get away with breaking the law 98% of the time – and on ignorance to keep it that way.
This government will never be shamed into changing its treatment of unemployed, disabled and otherwise disadvantaged people – it thinks it has found a formula to make its actions popular: the demonising of the vulnerable.
If it won’t be shamed, it must be removed – and that means relentlessly spreading the word on this and its many other misdeeds so that the election in 2015 becomes unwinnable for these shameless criminals. Please help to do so – publicise this, write to your MP and write to the press until they pay attention.
And if you’ve been sanctioned for failing to comply with an unlawful sanction – appeal, appeal, appeal and seek publicity for your appeal until the scale of the illegality can’t be ignored.