New disturbing evidence has emerged that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has introduced harsher rules designed to force more disabled people with significant mental distress to attend frequent face-to-face jobcentre meetings.
Last week, a work coach told Disability News Service (DNS) that she and her colleagues were being “bullied and harassed” into forcing claimants with significant mental distress into attending work-related meetings.
Many have been waiting months for a work capability assessment (WCA) but in the meantime are being forced to make regular trips to the jobcentre so work coaches can meet their targets for face-to-face appointments.
After the story was published last Thursday, DNS received an anonymous phone message – apparently from another work coach – who said the harsher new approach “was definitely happening”, although DNS has been unable to confirm that they work for DWP.
The Benefits and Work website has also reported hearing from someone who claimed to be a former DWP employee and who said that work coaches were being “named and shamed” by their bosses for not pushing enough claimants out of the support group* of employment and support allowance (ESA) and onto universal credit.
They also claimed work coaches were being bullied into sanctioning claimants.
Two DNS contacts have this week described hearing from people claiming to work for DWP who have spoken of a harsher new approach and a push to force as many claimants as possible to attend one-to-one meetings in jobcentres, although again DNS has been unable to verify these claims.
And two more work coaches – although once again DNS has been unable to verify their claims – spoke of their concerns on the news and discussion website Reddit this week.
One said they had recently resigned after 14 years with DWP, and that the claims made in last week’s DNS story were “all true and then some”, with senior managers only caring about the number of face-to-face appointments that are booked.
He said there was an “endemic culture within DWP of bullying and harassing claimants… perhaps 10-15 per cent of staff who want to help people, the rest are awful people who delight in causing misery and sharing their stories in the tea room”.
The other work coach said their job had “simply turned into a daily rush to book as many appointments in face to face for people that just don’t need them”.
This week, the founder of a national benefits advice service confirmed to DNS that her organisation was hearing from an increasing number of disabled people who experience significant mental distress and are being treated with “contempt” by DWP.
Michelle Cardno, a welfare rights lawyer and founder of Fightback4Justice, which provides advice and support for claimants of ESA, personal independence payment (PIP), universal credit and disability living allowance, said DWP’s actions were “cruel”, “disabling” and “intolerant”.
Not only has DWP’s attitude worsened since the middle of the pandemic – when it eased off on conditionality and sanctions – but Cardno said it was now worse than before the COVID-19 crisis began in early 2020.
She compared DWP’s attitude with the worst days of the department under Iain Duncan Smith and the post-2010 coalition government.
She said: “It feels like things have changed and their contempt for people with disabilities seems to have changed.”
Only this week, a distraught woman with severe anxiety and agoraphobia rang Fightback to say that she was being told to come into the jobcentre every day for two weeks to “discuss her anxiety and get her out of the house”.
She is facing a benefit sanction if she fails to turn up.
Another claimant with severe anxiety has been told he has to attend a group CBT** therapy session in a room with up to 10 people.
A third claimant, with epilepsy, experiences stress-induced seizures every time he leaves his house, but he is still being told to attend the jobcentre for face-to-face meetings.
His dispute with DWP has caused the number of seizures he experiences to increase.
Cardno said DWP was ignoring its duty to provide reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.
But she said DWP was also ignoring its own “substantial risk” rules, which make it clear that a claimant should be treated as having limited capability for work and work-related activity if there would otherwise be a “substantial risk” to the health of themselves or any other person.
Cardno said all of those they were supporting would eventually be found not fit for work when they had their WCA.
But in the meantime, she said, DWP was “ticking boxes to try and get as many people in as possible”.
She said: “There seems to be no real purpose behind it other than making them do something and tick a box.”
A DWP spokesperson declined to confirm its new policy, or to say whether it had assessed the risk of harm to the disabled claimants it was apparently subjecting to the new measures.
She said the department would not add to last week’s statement, when a spokesperson had said: “Not all claimants need to come into the jobcentre and work coaches take a flexible approach for those with long-term health conditions to best meet the individual’s need.
“This includes considering their circumstances when agreeing achievable work-related activity and whether appointments should be carried out in person or via phone or their online journal.”
*Those with the highest support needs, who are not expected to carry out any work-related activity
**Cognitive behavioural therapy