Professor Malcolm Harrington’s review of the ESA WCA claimed that disabled ESA claimants had nothing to fear if they were rejected and placed on JSA instead because 'Support is available on JSA that if explained to claimants could allay some of their fears about “failing” the WCA'. As a recent disabled JSA claimant (December 2008 to February 2010), I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the reality behind that blithe assurance.
With an extensive outsourcing process behind me I was likely better informed than many JSA claimants and I made it clear in my initial contacts with JCP that I would need to talk to a Disability Employment Adviser. Getting the initial JSA paperwork back full of errors was worrying, the initial interview with the DEA was worse. Having explained to her that I was a highly qualified, highly experienced engineer and that the only thing stopping me being a strong candidate for any of dozens of available posts was my physical inability to commute or relocate, she promptly started advocating that I apply for minimum wage positions and it was fairly clear that that was her default setting for any disabled person sent to talk to her. As far as I am concerned there are two words that define that attitude: Institutional Discrimination. As I had suggested one possible way ahead for me would be to study for a doctorate she did pass me on to a careers adviser colleague of hers, who somewhat floored me by revealing that until the month before she hadn’t been allowed to talk to anyone with more than two GCSEs; how she was meant to help someone wanting to talk about a doctorate I’m not certain. To her credit she did manage to pass me on to an actual university careers advisor, but that was through a personal contact of her own rather than a regular JCP route.
I then moved into the fortnightly grind of signing on; initially with the DEA, but within two months she had thrown me back into the general pool, saying she couldn’t offer me any further help. This put me on a par with most JSA claimants, which may not seem like a problem, but my disability means that I am not most people. The Job Centre was pleasantly decorated and furnished, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that they might need on-site disabled parking, or that couches and non-adjustable seats, no matter how smart, might not be adequate for someone who has problems sitting or standing for any length of time (and when you are running the better part of an hour behind scheduled appointment times with twenty people waiting and only eight seats in the waiting area…). It averaged out that every other trip to sign on was leaving me curled-up in pain for the rest of the day. That was just the physical access issues, I was also seeing a different JCP clerk pretty much every time, some of them obviously half-trained back-office staff dragged out to try and deal with the ever-increasing number of claimants, and almost every time I would be questioned about why there were agreed restrictions on commute distance in my Job Seeker’s Agreement. Surely the whole point of defining the Job Seeker’s Agreement with the DEA was to have it agreed by someone with some knowledge of disability? Not for it to then be questioned by everyone else who came into contact with it? Nor for me to need to explain the details of my disability to every JCP clerk I dealt with in order to justify myself. As soon as the DEA dumped me, and even though my crutches demonstrate to everyone who sees me that I am disabled, JCP lost sight of the fact that I was disabled and started trying to treat me as indistinguishable from anyone else, if not actively pressuring me into being precisely that.
JSA working practices for signing-on were enough to make any efficiency expert curl up in the corner in despair. Their computer system seems to be some Heath-Robinsonesque lash-up, part working in Windows, part needing them to spawn out into some proprietary tool. My part of the process as the claimant was to provide a list of job search activities made in the past fortnight and a little slip of a paper form was provided for this. As part of my disability means I can’t write legibly or comfortably, and the form was in any case too small to cover more than a fraction of my job-search activities, I simply ran-off a word-processed list each time, only to have several of the JSA clerks take umbrage that the list wasn’t on the ‘official’ form. What did they do with the form once I handed it over? They copied it, manually, into an on-screen form, taking anything up to five minutes of hunt-and-peck typing, then handed me back the original. Hello, this is the 21st Century! Why drag me physically into the Job Centre, causing me considerable pain and distress, for a transaction that can be done more quickly and more efficiently using a telephone and/or email?
As I passed various JSA milestones I would occasionally have a more in-depth interview with someone at which I would have to justify everything yet again. Facing a highly-qualified disabled person clearly puzzled them, their systems could barely cope with a highly-qualified claimant, add disability to the mix and they simply had no reference point on how to deal with me. They did send me to talk to an ‘executive’ recruitment consultant at one point, but as soon as I explained what effect disability has on my ability to work, a look of absolute panic swept across her face and the only suggestion she could come up with was to pass my details to the Royal British Legion’s training agency – 18 months later I’ve still heard nothing back from them. The one real change was that after 6 months of claiming Contributions-Based JSA I stopped receiving any benefit at all.
When I reached the one year anniversary of my JSA claim, I became subject to ‘Flexible New Deal’ and received a letter telling me that if I didn’t attend an interview with a training contractor my benefit would be docked – that would be the benefit I wasn’t receiving anyway? No ‘Dear Sir’, no ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, just ‘Be Here or Else’. I know a lot of disabled people who would be seriously distressed by, if not completely unable to deal with, a threatening letter of that nature, yet the DWP propose to expand ‘conditionality’ of this sort to all ESA claimants, never mind just the ones rejected onto JSA.
So I turned up on time for the appointment with the training contractor, only to find that the address they had given me was wrong. Fortunately I was able to figure out which building on the out-of-town trading estate was likely theirs, even though its signage was for a completely different training contractor. If I had turned up using a wheelchair I would have been completely unable to access the building, as it was the step was so high that I fell over the threshold. The downstairs office was completely unmanned, with a handwritten sign on a piece of torn cardboard propped on a chair advising me that I needed to go back outside and up the stairs. How a visually impaired client was supposed to deal with that arrangement is anyone’s guess. The staircase I was supposed to climb was an exposed iron arrangement of the type commonly found in warehouses. On a wet day I would never have attempted it, and this was the middle of a notably wet December; even on the one dry day of the month I had to seriously consider whether I could safely make it to the top.
Having decided to risk the stairs, a corridor at the top led to a small office, into which were crammed a dozen desks with workstations surrounding a large central table. Inside the office were two staff members and another client. If I had somehow been able to get a wheelchair to the entrance to the room I would not have been able to get it inside, and even using crutches I had considerable problems navigating to a chair. Telling the staff who I was, and who I was due to see, produced consternation. I was apparently scheduled to see their ‘disability specialist’, but she was scheduled to be in a completely different office in an entirely different town. So one of the other staff decided that she would deal with me instead, and started working through a computerised form. Before I quite realised what was happening I was being asked intimate questions about my disability, despite the fact there was a complete stranger sitting immediately behind me. Apparently the entire concept of data protection, and their legal obligations under the Data Protection Act and the Disability Discrimination Act, had completely passed them by. To give them their due, once I had explained the limitations resulting from my disability the staff member immediately said that she felt that I was completely inappropriate for their programme, which apparently allowed them to compel me to apply for jobs, but did not allow them to first consider whether I was physically capable of doing the job, and that the only action she was giving me was to urgently contact JCP and tell them that she thought I needed to be on ESA, not JSA. The physical after-effects of that 45 minute interview put me in bed for the next week with massively increased pain levels.
After that clowning glory of incompetence I decided enough was enough and wrote a formal letter of complaint to JCP, copying it to the then-Minister for Disabled People (also my local MP as it happened). I also called JCP, spoke to a supervisor and left the switch from JSA to ESA in their hands while I went to visit family over Christmas. I returned home, a week later than expected due to the snow, to find a letter dated 5th of January saying I had failed to sign on and my JSA claim had been stopped (hello, national crisis, massive snow disruption, not claiming JSA any more) and a letter dated the 6th confirming that and sending me my P45. Despite my supposedly terminated JSA claim there was also a letter from the training contractor demanding I attend another interview. I rang JCP to complain, only to be told by the supervisor I had spoken to before Christmas that she had never heard me say anything about switching my claim to ESA, and had phoned me on my home number (despite me having told her I would be away) to confirm that I should be on the scheme with the training contractor
I arranged a face-to-face meeting with the supervisor, but by the time the meeting happened my complaint to the minister had obviously filtered through as I was greeted with a slightly awed ‘You’re the one that wrote the letter, aren’t you?’ and a general falling over themselves to get my JSA claim reinstated and then transferred over to ESA, which eventually happened a full two months after I had initially asked JCP to put it in hand. I also received a fairly abject written apology for the way I had been treated, which admitted JCP had completely lost sight of the nature of my disability, but still attempted to push the majority of blame onto the training agency – apparently the concept of being legally and morally responsible for the behaviour of your contractors hasn’t penetrated into JCP.
So there we have it, my experience of just how well JCP manages to deal with disabled JSA claimants: Professor Harrington, I am afraid that I will have to differ with your review; disabled ESA claimants whose claims are rejected and who are placed on JSA have everything to fear from JCP’s complete cluelessness about disability and their total lack of support for disabled claimants.
And my ESA claim? That’s a sad tale for another day.