Gillian Wilkes, from the West Midlands, was recently made redundant after working all her life. She describes her shock at the Job Centre’s treatment of claimants, and explains the reasons for her refusal to participate in one of the government’s workfare programmes.
Following redundancy I had to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. I read the rules and regulations to ensure I didn't fall foul of any stipulations and dutifully carried out my job search.
However, at my fourth signing on appointment I was told by the advisor that because I had not applied for two jobs within the last fortnight, my search was not adequate and that my benefit would be stopped. I pointed out that I had completed the required six 'tasks' on the agreement, which included contacting
two companies to see if there were any job vacancies available. The regulations did not stipulate that applying for 2 jobs was a condition of receiving benefit. The advisor didn't agree with me and informed me that my job search would be sent to the 'Decision Makers' to see if the doubt was justified. In the meantime, my benefits would be stopped immediately for two weeks.
I was horrified as my disabled husband and I had no other income (his claim is linked to mine). Those two weeks without money were the most humiliating of my life. We had to ask for food hand-outs from friends and family, couldn't pay any bills and had to scrounge tins of food for our dogs and cat. After both of us working for 45 years (I'm 60 and my husband is 63) and paying a lifetime of tax and contributions, we were being punished because I hadn't applied for two jobs.
That was in May and, to date, I have still not been notified of a decision by the Decision Makers. I appealed against the sanction and heard nothing. When I contacted the appeals department, I was told that my case would not be heard until around September.
Then, after signing on for just ten weeks, my advisor said she was referring me to the Mandatory Work Activity (MWA) programme. She handed me a letter without any explanation of what it was about. I asked her for some details and she mumbled something about skills.
A week later I received a text message from a company called Groundwork West Midlands telling me I had been referred to them. I checked them out on the internet and discovered they were an environmental company that trains young people in ‘groundwork’. I then started to worry what this was all about. Am I to be trained as ‘Granny Groundworker’, I wondered.
I then received a letter from this company, thanking me for attending an engagement meeting or telephone interview (I had been offered neither), and informing me that I was to start my MWA programme on the Monday coming. It said I must participate for 30 hours a week for four weeks at ‘Acorns’. The letter stated if I did not have good reason for turning up then, for my first offence, I would lose my benefit for 13 weeks, and for my second offence I would lose it for 26 weeks.
What am I now? A criminal it seems! I was simply told that I must dress smartly in black trousers and white shirt. There were no details about the work or the company so I contacted them to request some information.
Acorns turned out to be a charity shop. Now, I don't wish to sound like I am above charity shop work, as I know charity shop workers do a wonderful job, but what skills am I going to learn that will help me find the sort of job I am seeking? I do not need discipline or time-keeping lessons. I have worked as an Administrator, Secretary and Finance Officer for the past 45 years but now I am just being used for free labour.
Adding ten hours a week travelling time amounts to a 40 hour week but I would still have had to sign on, attend interviews and complete a job search every day. That means I would have had to complete my job searches in the evening. I would have thought it was illegal to expect people to work day and evening.
The Department for Work and Pensions contradicts itself as this programme stops people from doing the very thing they need to be doing: looking for paid and fulfilling work.
I have paid enough tax and contributions in my lifetime to cover the cost of my benefit so I find it insulting that after just a few weeks of claiming, I am expected to work for every penny. The programme is a total waste of taxpayer's money, which would be better spent on skills courses for the young unemployed, not placing the older, experienced generation on these money wasting programmes.
I have now read other people's accounts and experiences on the internet regarding this MWA and believe advisors pick on claimants that have been sanctioned before or have challenged them over other issues. I personally believe it is very wrong they can use a claimant's benefit to blackmail them. Why should someone's welfare be in the hands of some judgemental advisor who is anxious to show her superiors that she is fulfilling her quota? There doesn't seem to be any way of complaining about this or challenging the referral without going to the very people who have placed you on the programme in the first place.
The DWP claim the sanctioning of benefits has stopped on ‘workfare’ programmes but it is clearly continuing. The greedy employers who exploit the unemployed should try living themselves without income for 26 weeks. They would soon back out of this scheme.
I have refused to attend this program and have now received a letter warning me that my benefit may be sanctioned. Fortunately, my husband is now entitled to receive Pension Credit so I can sign off JSA.
I will fight for a refund of my sanctioned benefit from May. After all, I feel it is money I am owed and will sue for it in court if necessary. I hope others will do the same.
And I will continue to campaign against the injustices of this MWA program, both for the benefit of those who do not have the means to fight back and for taxpayers in general, who are not aware of how their contributions are being used.
Thank you for taking the time and trouble to read this.