West Dunbartonshire Citizens Advice Bureau has launched a scathing report showing the lack of fairness in the benefits system today (Tuesday 18 February 2014).
The report - “Unjust and Uncaring” - focuses on the impact of benefit sanctions on unemployed and disabled benefit claimants in West Dunbartonshire. While Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) have published considerable evidence from the service across Scotland, this is the first report of its kind from an individual CAB. Margaret Lynch, Chief Executive of CAS, will be in West Dumbartonshire today to help the CAB launch the report.
As well as addressing the arguments as to whether ‘conditionality’ works, the report highlights the difficulties for unemployed people in an area where it has been said that there are 40 applications for each vacancy. The report condemns conditionality and the sanctions process for the lack of fairness and the lack of transparency and the failure of Job Centre Plus to help people find work.
Joe McCormack, Manager of West Dunbartonshire CAB says,
“Last summer we became increasingly concerned about the number of benefit claimants who were being sanctioned in West Dunbartonshire. The sanction process should be fair and open and should be a last resort, imposed on those who refuse to meet the conditions of their benefit entitlement. However, in too many cases we saw people being sanctioned for trivial reasons.
“Whilst JobcentrePlus would argue that we only hear one side of the story, we are absolutely clear that many of the claimants who have come to the CAB for help don’t know each other, don’t live in the same towns, have entirely different circumstances, but their repeated and consistent testimonies offered us a clear picture of a system which seems to be geared towards stopping benefits for the most trivial failure. We have even had claimants sanctioned for attending job interviews!”
Gareth King, Manager of Clydebank CAB (one of three CAB offices in West Dunbartonshire), says,
“What’s most frustrating for advice agencies is that once a decision has been taken to refer for a sanction, no-one at a local level seems prepared to intervene even if everybody agrees that the sanction was a mistake – and that happens a lot. We keep hearing that sanctions are a last resort but in too many cases there seems to be no thought given to the impact on the individual.
June Maxwell, a volunteer adviser at Clydebank CAB, says,
“Working without pay is meant to be rewarding in other aspects - but how rewarding can it be to watch a pensioner in tears or to hear your client say as he walks out that he’s off home to think of ways to kill himself?
“Those bearing the brunt of sanctions include the young, the old and the sick - often those very same people who are through lack of skills or means, unable to challenge decisions that affect their wellbeing. That’s why agencies like ours must act as their voice.
“For those who are most likely to find themselves out of work, the instructions in the sanction process are too often unclear or contradictory, and no account is taken of people without access to computers or the internet, or have only a limited ability to cope with the extensive form-filling that applications for benefits require. No matter who makes the mistakes - whether it’s JCP or the Work Programme, it’s always the claimants who are left to go hungry.
“That’s why we talk in the report about a ‘compassion deficit’ - because it seems to us that no one cares. In fact, in some cases it’s almost as if meting out sanctions is enjoyed, as if being cruel to people is somehow a virtue”.
Linsey Close, a volunteer adviser at Alexandria CAB, says,
“The assurances given by DWP as to how conditionality and sanctions work, just doesn’t happen in practice. Too many benefit claimants don’t know why they have been sanctioned and some only find out they’ve been sanctioned when they realise there is no money in the bank.
“I think it is disgraceful that in a so-called “civilised” society, people are left with no money, food or fuel based on a subjective decision by a JCP Adviser and then have to wait several weeks with no money while waiting for a decision. What’s worse is that even when there might be hardship payments available we know of many cases where claimants weren’t told”.
Joe McCormack says this report is likely to be the first in a series of reports by the CAB on welfare issues and the impact of government reforms on local people. He says,
“Even in the last few weeks, when we were at the stage of concluding this report, it has become apparent that Work Programme Providers in West Dunbartonshire are behaving disgracefully towards unemployed people and people with long-term health problems. Our primary obstacle is that many JSA and ESA claimants genuinely fear coming forward. They feel they will be victimised and subjected to further sanctions for daring to speak out about the way they are being treated.
“Our hope is that by publishing this report we will encourage more people to come forward at an early stage for advice and assistance. While people may be shocked at the case studies used in the report, and our claims about the harshness of the regime, unfortunately we can assure them that there are even greater injustices occurring within local JobCentres and the Work Programme.”
Margaret Lynch, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Scotland, will be in West Dunbartonshire today to help the CAB publish the report. She says,
“I’m here today to back the West Dunbartonshire CAB in what they are saying in this report, and also to say that the shocking trends it describes are not unique to this part of the country, but are in fact reflected in CABs all over Scotland. This report is a serious piece of evidence, and is representative of the impact that some aspects of welfare reform are having on families all over the country.
“Over the last few years I have been in touch regularly with the Scottish Secretary and the Welfare Minister to discuss these issues, and I intend to make sure that both of them have a copy of this report on their desks first thing tomorrow morning.
“Joe and his team, have done terrific work here at the CAB, not just in compiling this evidence, but also in their ongoing efforts to help people mitigate the impact of these reforms on local people here. People in Dumbarton, Clydebank and Alexandria can be assured that they have a first-rate advice agency in the local CAB, where they can get free, confidential and expert advice on these and other issues.
“The government needs to understand that the details set out in this report are providing an accurate picture of what is happening to people in West Dunbartonshire as a result of government policies.
“But more than that, as this report argues strongly in its conclusion, we need to see a change in attitude by the government. They need to accept that their welfare changes are having a devastating impact on many people, rather than insisting that the system is working well and the vulnerable are being protected – which is simply and demonstrably not the case, as is shown clearly in this report.”