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A job seeker has set himself alight: how many in the UK are steps from such desperation?

The job seeker who set fire to himself in Birmingham appears to have been driven to this horrific act by an all-too-common glitch in the welfare system. A Citizens Advice Bureau worker explains how such desperation is only steps away for many seeking support from the British state.

A man aged 48 sets fire to his legs outside the Job Centre Plus in Selly Oak after a row over a non-payment.

The same day I get a message at work that someone is seeking our help for a Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) appeal. We have no specialist caseworkers available. Like many Bureaux, our very limited funding has to concentrate on the most obviously vulnerable, those claiming disability/incapacity benefits. Citizens Advice Bureaux are swimming in clients needing help with Employment & Support Allowance (ESA): the grotesque mis-assessments of Atos Healthcare and consequent misjudgments of Job Centre Plus are all-too-well-documented.

When people are turned down for ESA, their money stops and they are expected to claim JSA. The man in Selly Oak faced an overwhelmingly common predicament: the payment gap while Job Centre Plus processes the claim. There can be weeks of no money and total inability to find out what’s going on. A CAB adviser can sometimes cut through the undergrowth; the hold-up is often the omission by one (overworked) JSA clerk to complete a computer entry, thus freezing the system for ESA, which has no access to the JSA computers.

It would be easy to discount the Selly Oak man’s act as drama not desperation: police were quickly at hand in so public a place; he received only minor burns. He could fit the picture painted by David Cameron in his recent welfare benefits speech of people who, morally weakened by a culture of entitlement, need the discipline of ‘tough conditions’.

But his act deserves a more thoughtful response. The DWP’s ‘six-point plan’ for dealing with claimants threatening self-harm or suicide, implemented in March 2011, was apparently simply the next stage in a long-running strategy. It appeared, though, just when increasing benefit stringency made suicide an ever-more-likely response to desperation. I have seen clients increasingly unable to avoid self-harming behaviours, being prescribed higher doses of medication or being rehospitalised under the stress of their benefit claims.

Accumulated poverty

Remember the context. Benefit levels pay below the poverty line. The low-income threshold is 60% of median household income. In August 2010, childless, single people on means-tested benefits and assessed as non-disabled (probably the Selly Oak man) were below half that threshold. Of all benefit groups, only single pensioners came (just) above it (see the Poverty Site). The situation has deteriorated and is set to carry on deteriorating (See this IFS commentary [pdf] on poverty forecasts running up to 2020).

Those living long-term on benefits have no chance of having spare cash against a rainy day; nor do those moving in and out of low-paid work. (See Resolution Foundation’s Life on a Low Income.) Poverty is cumulative. The longer on low income, the worse the deterioration in savings, household stock (washing machine, clothing and shoes, car to get to schools and any available job), health (poor food, cold, often damp private rented housing) and hope. (See Houses of Parliament Postnote 371, Jan 2011, for percentages of homes reaching the decency standard.)

Tough and complex

The insecurity of people on JSA haunts me. Even forgetting Job Centre Plus’ misjudgments, the system expects people with significant mental or physical disabilities to be fit for work, relying on the legal requirements for employers to make reasonable adjustments. It’s a tough system even for the fit.

For over-17 year-olds, a sanction means total withdrawal of JSA for the period. Where they can show that hardship will result, ‘vulnerable’ people (pregnancy, a young person in the family, disability/chronic illness or caring responsibilities) may receive hardship payments amounting to 60% of the single person’s JSA entitlement. They first have to prove their case. Non-vulnerable claimants must wait two weeks before applying for hardship payments or to the social fund (save possibly for limited crisis loans).

When income-related JSA stops, so do housing and council tax benefits. People need quickly to prove their lack of funds to the local authority to get these reinstated before arrears mount. Fear of eviction is part of life on means-tested benefits.

Justifying the removal of legal aid for welfare benefits, minister of state Jonathan Djanogley persistently argued that these were straightforward matters needing no legal expertise. The welfare benefit system and hence the law which it administers is notoriously byzantine – hence government’s desire to simplify it into Universal Credit.

Penalties for failure to conform

There is a range of grounds for sanctioning a job-seeker. A Job Centre Plus decision-maker can apply discretionary sanctions lasting between one week and six months for failure without good cause to apply for a job pointed out by JCPlus or to take a ‘reasonable job opportunity’, for leaving a job unreasonably or losing a job through misconduct. The Child Poverty Action Group’s Welfare Benefits handbook has pages on definitions of ‘reasonableness’, what counts/does not count as ‘good cause’ or justifies leaving a job, how refusing to apply for or accept a job is defined, circumstances that must be taken into account and so on.

There are also mandatory sanctions, from two weeks to up to 26 weeks for repeat offences. These include failure without good cause to follow a job-seekers’ direction (such as registering with an employment agency, attending a training session, possibly improving personal appearance). Failure without good cause to take part in mandatory Work Activity Schemes or to persist in initially-voluntary Work Experience programmes is sanctioned.

Claimants can appeal any sanction. They can argue good cause/reasonableness or challenge the finding of misconduct, if necessary going to a benefit or employment tribunal. Confidence and articulateness are needed; so is determination at a time when, pending the outcome, no money is coming in and survival is top priority.

In my experience, JCPlus definitions of reasonableness can be far from the claimant’s, and mine. Adults are not paid travel expenses to work experience placements, and a ‘reasonable’ distance/travel time involved in getting to the work-experience placement can be nightmarish. A lot depends on the decision-maker. No question where power lies. Sudden illness, a failure in childcare or a missed bus can trigger penalties for a job-seeker which probably parallel those hitting casual workers at the tacky end of the job market, but are inconceivable to salaried workers with contracts of employment. Yet the rhetoric all focuses on the need to induce greater responsibility in these job-seekers.

Time, energy and responsibility

Anecdotally, I’d say that most react to sanctions – certainly to shorter ones – by gritting teeth and accepting them, for there seems little point in a challenge. Unsurprisingly, the Legal Services Board found in April 2011 that people with incomes below £10,000 were less likely to know their legal rights or to take action to resolve problems than their richer neighbours.

This is partly to do with time and energy. Government rhetoric continually implies that life on benefits is a doddle. That can only be the view of someone who has never had to manage one ill-paid job while hunting for another to fit around it; or to get to work or childcare by a series of erratic buses; or to hunt for cheap shops without spending on travel; or to make sense of self-contradictory pages of figures from JCPlus and local authority while deciding which bill to pay. Poverty goes with ill-health; around a third of disabled over-25 year-olds live in low-income families (see the Poverty Site). This not only spells individual disability, it probably means caring for sick or disabled friends or family.

Consistently, a failure to find work or to present as employable is depicted as the individual’s fault. ‘It is still possible to stay on benefits for years without gaining basic literacy and numeracy skills’, says Cameron in his recent welfare benefits speech. I have worked with people desperate to increase their basic skills, but nowhere could we find the sustained help needed after half a lifetime of illiteracy, often twinned with mental health problems. Is it calculated cruelty or the cruelty of total indifference which leads politicians thus to blame people for their imprisonment?

The future prospects

As the economy stagnates and Universal Credit introduces yet tougher sanctions, life will become worse. As legal aid is withdrawn from welfare benefits, employment and housing (other than direct threat of eviction), people’s already-thin ability to fight wrongful decisions will wither. Citizens Advice Bureaux will struggle but inevitably fail to answer the need.

We may see more deadly self-immolations in public. We will certainly fail to notice more quiet suicides in private. This is what we are accepting from our government. For those of us exempt from benefit-dependence, it’s what we are accepting for others.  

About the author

Deborah Padfield has been a Citizens Advice benefits adviser, trainer and supervisor in Cambridge, Peterborough and north Essex, where she still works. In the past she lived and worked in London's East End. She has considerable experience of mental illness and is on the steering committee of The Cambridge Commons.