Monday, 17 January 2011

The Inept Leading the Clueless: JCP, JSA and Disability

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.


  1. My experience is somewhat similar. After being made redundant, I found the disability advisor at the local job centre perfectly pleasant but unable to offer any useful assistance. The disabilty advisor summed up my position as 'unemployable but not incapacitated', accurate but unhelpful. She could offer me basic skills training (not much use to a science graduate), she could offer me a long-term condition management course (medics agree I am doing all that can be done, thanks very much), she could not come up with any way to convince an prospective employer to risk taking me on when I go off sick at no notice. Her eventual advice was to start my own business and she gave me a few web-sties for reference! Having had an asthma attack in the job centre brought on by the smokers on the door-step (and frightening the staff in the process), they did decide I could sign on by post.

  2. I am on ESA - in fact it is suspended waiting for them to acknowledge the results of the Tribunal (in my favour, but took 10.5 months to get that far).
    The mandatory meetings prior to that were great fun. I used my mobility scooter, my personal advisor (ESA claimant only) worked upstairs. We'd waste up to 10 mins of my appointment each time while he tried to persuade someone else to vacate their desk on the ground floor.
    And he admitted that he had no idea what to do for someone with degrees, and previously in a management position.
    I went on the condition management course - interesting but not very useful.

  3. I just had to arrange a meeting with them (see my latest blog for why) and told the woman I was speaking to on the phone that I was willing to come into the office, but needed them to provide adjustable seating (which all of them have for themselves). 'Oh', says she, 'It will be simpler if I come to you'. There's something really wrong with a system that robs its staff of the initiative to grab a chair from the next office (and much the same thing happened with my ATOS assessment).

  4. I'm so glad that, having had my ESA tribunal appeal disallowed, i have this to look forward to, as someone with issues of stress/anxiety and other problems I won't bore you all with. I can barely contain myself.

  5. GW: I fully understand the issues WRT anxiety and stress, stress from dealing with JCP left me curled up in pain just last week. But I do think you can manage the system to a certain degree to minimize the damage they can cause. If you have problems dealing with them face to face, then do as much in writing as possible and don't be afraid to copy your MP and/or the minister on communications, it seems to concentrate their mind wonderfully. If you can get someone to work as an advocate with you, then do so, and keep reminding the JCP staff and any contracts that even if you are claiming JSA you are still disabled and can't be treated as a typical claimant -- they actually need to engage their brain and think in order to deal with your individual situation.

  6. Please don't blame the JCP people, with Gov't cuts and loss of casual staff they are working as hard as poss under extreme conditions, sometimes with the minimum of training. It is not their fault, it is down to the Gov't and it's policies of cost cutting, they hate what is happening to people as much as you do, many are going off sick themselves with stress and anxiety about there own job's going.

  7. This is a really awful thing to hear. I'm sorry you went through this needless nightmare. Mayhap political correctness brainwashing has prevented any government worker from even acknowledging the fact you're disabled. They see the crutches/wheelchair and after a brief flutter their PC-ridden brain goes "this person is the same as me, he/she needs no special help".

  8. "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"

    I think you'll find this is their default setting for ANYONE they talk to, not just disabled people.

    1. my idiot advisor forced me to put 8am to 6pm seven days a week on my jobseekeers agreement not only that he wants me to consider jobs in dundee he seems to be under the impression that because i worked in a shop 10 years ago i can work in shops in dundee despite telling me 10 years ago i had insufficent experience for retail work he also thinks all the shops in dundee close at 6pm they dont 99% of them close 5 or 530 the only late opening shops are a tesco express and farmfoods and iceland also none of the employees are over the age of 25 (cheaper wages) also having to travel by bus to dundee will cost me £30 before i even get there also if there are high winds in the winter the tay road bridge which the only way back into fife is closed i cant get home when i pointed this out his reply was "not my problem" well it is his problem as the rail bridge is usually closed during high winds as well so even getting a train isnt an option
      depending on when the bridge reopens i wouldnt get a bus back home as the last bus leaves at 11 and one day the bridge was reopened at 1130pm after the buses had stopped running
      also if an employer insists i work until 6pm i cant get the 1808 bus home meaning a two hour wait until 2010 by which time i dont get home until 9pm
      ive got arthritis and the cold weather causes me severe pain especially if it snows and i am expected to hang around dundee until i can get a bus in the cold and rain? my idiot advisor lives on another planet i think
      there are over 5000 unemployed in dundee one of them would most likely get any job i try for unless of course dundee unemployed prefer to sit on their arses watching jeremy kyle instead of working(i dont include disabled persons in this remark)

  9. My disability advisor sent me for an interview working in the local butchers. I had to turn up or lose my JSA. Only one problem I have uncontrolled epilepsy and can have several partial complex seizures in a day. I continue with whatever task I'm doing or slide down a wall to sit on the floor, I've even been know to walk the length of the high street. The manager of the Butchers shop was horrified at having been put in the position where he had to interview me and tell me I wasn't suitable. I knew that before I went through his door so wasn't angry with him. The advisor continued to push me toward shop jobs - I mean who is going to employ a person who would have seizures in their shop while dealing with customers. Thankfully I finally got an admin job with the council & the daft things I do there can be excused (unplugging the phone while gibbering at customers)I have had to fight to keep my job as even the council discriminates against disabled people. I wish that JC+ would employ disabled people as disability advisors - they have a better idea of some of the difficulties faced by other disabled people. I know that they are not perfect but as a person who walks about I can struggle to comprehend all the difficulties faced by wheelchair users

    1. if the council you work for is discriminating against you because of your disabillity complain aboout it they cant sack you because they are the ones in the wrong being discriminating against disabled people

    2. I also have epilepsy (nocturnal tonic clonics which can pretty much make me sleep for a day and complex partials during the day time) and am about to lose my current job. I think people under estimate the effect this has on me. So i "fall down" sometimes, ah thats fine, sure she'll be grand when she gets up.

      I'm not looking forward to dealing with the job centre.

  10. My JCP requires everyone to undergo a "quick look over from a security guard" medical in order to gain access to their lift. If they don't like the look of you they don't allow you in and you cannot go upstairs to any of your appointments. How disability aware of them. *sigh*

    1. if the security guard refuses access to the lift phone the person you have the appointment with and say you cant get upstairs because the security guard isnt allowing you to use the lift and you cant manage the stairs
      the person will either tell the security guard to let you use the lift or have to come downstairs to see you

  11. Thank you so much for leaving a comment on my blog, David. I have just left you a reply there, but I would be most interested in hearing if being switched to ESA has helped you at all, and if not, why not.

  12. Tbanks for the comment you left on my blog and the link to this post. I found the whole process traumatic enough, I can't begin to imagine what it must have felt like to cope with the added complication of a disability. x

  13. DavidG: What you have experienced is despicable. I am so sorry and horrified you had to go through all that. The person who anonymously asked you not to blame the JC people because they are stressed about losing their own jobs should hang their head in shame. I can understand the stress though because then they will be at the mercy of JC staff! How do government cuts cause them to be ignorant? I lost my job of 3 years 11 months ago because of disability discrimination by a new manager. I was appalled to get the same treatment at the Job Centre. I totally agree with Monic that the JC+ should employ disabled people for their disability officers. They would be far more productive in finding work for them suitable to their abilities and disabilities.

    I have been directed to this site today after almost a year of enduring discrimination from my disability officer. She barely acknowledges my disability (I am registered deaf with speech, diabetic and have hyperparathyroidism)She recently signed me off JSA because of an operation on my nose next week effectively preventing me from from job searching for 24 hours and a parathyroidectomy in January 2012) She apparently didn't know that her decision would cost me £28 a week for 13 weeks (you do not automatically get your disability premium on ESA despite having a disability and DLA). After many hours of phone calls and visits I was transferred back onto JSA as they acknowledged I was misguided. I have to appeal for the weeks I lost in writing of course. We make no excuses for our disabilities and ask not to be written off as useless or brainless so that we can earn a decent wage for our skills. All we get in return from most JC staff are repeated errors, ignorance, discrimination and endless excuses

  14. This is truly shocking.

    The experiences I read her are just the same exp. I suffered from today, as I also have in the past.

    As the cold weather has led to more of us all using our limited incomes on disability benefits to pay for increased heating, and if you have a lung condition and arthritic pain as I do, this becomes much more pressing.

    Yesterday, I finally ran out of money, gas, and food and this resulted in my HAVING to contact the people who supposedly are charged with 'running' the DWP.

    It is very true that they have no training in disability rights. They have no understanding of Disability Discrimination Act, the Equality Act, or dare I say it, the Equality Duty. Whats worse is they have no proper (but limited) understanding either of the legislation which covers benefits, and or the guidance issued by the Secretary of State to prevent disabled and poor peoples hardship.

    When it comes to mental health issues not only do the staff of DWP show contemptible lack of understanding or sympathy, they rather exhibit the attitude of people who have contempt.

    Disabled people (esp. people who suffer from mental ill health) are subject to mental stress, upset, which has led, documented, to many people taking their own lives.

    In essence the way disabled people are subject to is institutional discrimination, which, off course, is illegal, but what power does the disabled man, woman, or child have over the power, exercised through these less than competent people, the state wields.

    If, as a society, we truly wish to have a open, tolerant, non-discriminatory, safe, secure, healthy, fully employed nation, then we first need to teach the people charged with what used to, and was quite rightly, called - ' social security'. Until this occurs, the idea of getting the disabled back to work, is a pipe dream.

    It would be a good idea to start with some training in discrimination and also how medical conditions effect claimants and how there disabilities prevent them from doing things. Asking someone to do something they cant, because of disability, is not only illegal, its pretty stupid.

    I URGE you all to complain to the DWP, and the Minister, and also then to write to the newspapers, even if you do not give your name, and also get involved in disability advocacy with the numerous charities (who themselves, it has to be said, are not always as up-to-date with the needs of disabled people themselves) which would be happy for the help.

    Wishing you all a Happy New Year.

  15. Ive just been disallowed my ESA today, so got on the phone to JCP, do they even know that people will be appearing from ESA with the govt turning its back on the easy target , yes the disabled. I FUCKING HATE THIS SHITTY DECREPIT GOVT AND THIS COUNTRY IS ON ITS KNEES WHILE THE BANKERS GET RICHER IM !$) QUID WORSE OFF A MONTH FUCK YOU CAMERON

  16. i have arthritis and an employment advisor a number of years ago made me apply for a factory labourer job despite the fact it clearly stated must have counterbalance flc and h&s certificate he also refused to tell me where in glenrothes the job was
    i had no alternative but to apply the usual benefit sanction threat hanging over me so i phoned the jobs agency which was advertising the job to be told the contact name was interviewing for the job they took my number and promised to phone back which they didnt i phone the next day to be told the vacancy was filled when i asked if heavy lifting was involved i was told yes when i told the person i had arthritis and unable to lift anything heavy was told i wouldnt have been considered on health grounds i also asked about the flc and h&s certs and was told i had to have them so told the person to rewrite the job description stating this so that idiot advisors at jcp didnt send the wrong person after the job which apparently was only for two weeks not much use that is it! it was readvertised three weeks later same description as before nothing altered on it pratts!

  17. Can anyone advise me what happens after getting contribution based JSA? I am seeing the Disabilty Emploment Advisor and this week my usual advisor wasn't in and I saw another person who told me my JSA ends in 2 weeks time, but didnt really explain what happens next just gave me another JS booklet to fill in!!!

  18. If you have no other means of support, that is a working partner or savings above a certain level you will most likely be moving on to JSA(income based) which is the means tested version of it, there are rules over students under 20's and under 18's etc so the link below has better details, hope it all goes smoothly for you, make sure you get everything you need housing benefit council tax benefit and any disability premiums etc, if in doubt an independent welfare rights worker or Citizens advice bureau should be able to help make sure you have claimed everything you are eligible for, I would recommend NOT relying on the job centre advisors to get it 'right'.