Claimant Commitment: more misery for unemployed people / FRFI 236 Dec 2013/Jan 2014

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 236 December 2013/January 2014

Punishing the unemployed for being unemployed: that is the essence of ConDem coalition policy towards those who cannot get a job. At a time when 2.47 million people are out of work, and the ratio of jobseekers to unfilled vacancies stands at 4:1 across the UK, the government is tightening the screws on unemployed people even further.

Not content with its current sanctions regime, the government is rolling out what it calls a Claimant Commitment. This will replace the Jobseeker’s Agreement for all new JSA claimants by April 2014. Heralding the Commitment’s introduction at the Tory Party conference, Employment Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said ‘For those who aren’t doing all they could, or who we think are cheating the system, it is time to make clear that enough is enough … no longer will a life on benefits be an option if you can work.’

The DWP says that ‘looking for work should be a full-time job’. The Claimant Commitment will involve ‘a strict compliance regime’, under which claimants can be required to undertake up to 35 hours a week of job-searching, or any other activity a jobcentre ‘job coach’ thinks is appropriate. The Commitment will be even more oppressive than the existing set of sanctions introduced in October 2012. Under these, 580,000 claimants have lost benefit, in 48,000 cases, for three years.

Other activities that a claimant may be expected to undertake will include ‘work-focused interviews’ whenever and wherever a jobcentre decides; ‘work preparation’ activities, which are designed to force those with sicknesses or disabilities into a ‘health care’ regime dictated by the jobcentre; and meeting a ‘work availability requirement’, where a claimant has to accept employment immediately, regardless of its suitability, or the level of pay and conditions. There is no extra provision for the bus fares, internet and phone costs, or other expenses incurred looking for a job 35 hours every week.

If a claimant breaks any part of their Commitment, they will be subject to sanctions which will mean a deduction, penalty or suspension of all their benefits. A claimant receiving three sanctions can see their benefit stopped entirely for up to three years. Sanctions can be medium or high level; medium level can result from things like failing to apply for the agreed number of jobs each week (even if there are no new jobs available), failing to turn up to a job interview, or even just being ‘sulky and uncommunicative’ in an interview.

Claimants can be sanctioned for the most absurd of reasons. As Birmingham Communities Against the Cuts reported, citing those who have already been sanctioned under the Jobseeker’s Agreement, ‘It’s Christmas Day. You don’t do any jobsearch, because it’s Christmas Day. So you get sanctioned’; ‘You get a job interview, it’s at the same time as your JCP appointment, so you rearrange your JCP appointment ... You attend your rearranged appointment then get a letter saying your benefits will be stopped because going to a job interview is not a good enough reason for missing an appointment.’ Even the seriously ill are not exempt: ‘You retire on the grounds of ill health and claim ESA. You go to your assessment and during the assessment you have a heart attack, so the nurse says they have to stop the assessment. You get sanctioned for not withdrawing from your assessment.’

Claimants will have a five-day window to appeal against any sanction in which they must show ‘good cause’ for their failure to meet the rules of their Commitment, a vague term open to prejudiced interpretation. In the meantime all they will be able to get is a hardship loan – which they will have to pay back. The current regime is already a major contributor to the massive rise in the use of food banks: the Trussell Trust reports that the number of people referred to them tripled between April and September 2013 compared to the same period in 2012, a total of 350,000 people. It will only get worse with the Claimant Commitment.

Cal Shaw