Work and Pensions CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Ljiljana Devic

I am presently in receipt of JSA (IB), and I attend at the JCP once a week. I was referred by the JCP to the Work Programme provider Maximus, for help with my self-employment project, and I attend at Maximus once every two weeks or as required.

My academic qualifications and training are in law. My proposed self-employment venture is a website (advocatus.org.uk) intended help and guide the weak, the vulnerable and the voiceless, and to thereby make a positive contribution from my experiences.

Most inquiries and consultations invite submissions from stakeholders, groups and other entities who have no personal experience of the subject matter but only a vested interest in a particular outcome. As this Committee is one of the few that is inviting representations from individuals, I make my submissions which are founded on diligent research and supported by empirical evidence based upon my personal experience and underpinned with verifiable documentary evidence.

I would begin with the premise that, by any objective assessment, current practices at Jobebcentres are, de facto, real and overt torture. A claimant, and possibly his wife and children, is unlawfully deprived of his welfare benefit, and thus of food and other bare essentials, and thereby tortured into forfeiting his lawful entitlement. In legal, ethical and moral terms, this is a definition of torture.

The staff at my JCP, and doubtless at other Jobcentres and benefit offices, seek to achieve their targets without the slightest regard for moral, ethical or legal principles. They regularly, overtly and systematically breach not only welfare legislation but a gamut of domestic primary and secondary legislation, EU and international legislation, human rights legislation, the UN Convention against torture and other international human rights instruments. To the world, we proclaim and promote English jurisdiction as the “gold standard” jurisdiction of choice. Simultaneously, the weakest, the voiceless and the most vulnerable in our own society are daily being subjected, with total impunity, to treatment that flouts every rudimentary principle of justice and of natural justice.

Even JCP staff’s own trade union, PCS, confirms and condemns such practices, albeit terming them “pester power”, “frustrate” and “botherability” instead of using the unpalatable but accurate word “torture”.

The atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib shocked the world. At Abu Ghraib, a few soldiers were torturing a few civilians in a foreign country in a time of war. These atrocities pale into insignificance when compared to the atrocities being committed against the weakest and most vulnerable in our own society by our own people, and only in the misguided and misunderstood pursuance of government policy.

The blame might lie with those who formulated policy but failed to ensure that that their foot soldiers implemented it as intended. They have put guns into the hands of those who have neither the sense nor the knowledge of how and when to use them. If, being aware, their masters continue to condone or ignore such practices, that is truly a matter for public concern.

Government policy and recent legislation is intended to ensure that, in the current economic climate, the numbers of those in receipt of state benefits should be reduced. Those entrusted with the task of implementing this policy are instructed to adopt a robust stance by encouraging claimants into work and by rooting out the shirkers and the fraudsters, and a raft of recent primary and secondary legislation underpins this policy. All that is rational and acceptable in times of austerity, and also palatable to the electorate.

It is the perversion between policy and practice that should be a matter for public outrage and for government action.

Prior to recent legislation, the relationship between jobcentre staff and their customers was, by and large, transparent and equitable. They shared a common goal, whereby Jobcentre staff tried to help and guide claimants towards gainful employment and the claimants tried their utmost to move beyond a life on £70 a week.

Since the recent legislation, and the subsequent fiery proclamations from the Secretary of State, the relationship between the Jobcentre staff and it customers is now entirely adversarial, if not combative. There is not an iota of effort to help claimants find a job. The sole and overt objective is to have the claimant disqualified from claiming benefits upon any grounds, be they entirely unfounded, in the interests of targets and government statistics.

The Jobcentre staff construe government policy and pronouncements as carte blanche authority and direction to use any means whatsoever to reduce claimant numbers. There seems little evidence of any attempt to correct this expedient interpretation of government policy. Staff are set targets for the number of claimants to be culled daily or weekly, and they feel compelled to ruthlessly meet those targets for fear of losing their own jobs.

I can only cite examples from my own experiences with my JCP, which I can support with verifiable documentary evidence, but I fear that neither my one case nor the practices at this one Jobcentre are isolated examples.

(1) The Committee may find that it is impossible for any claimant to support his submissions with verifiable evidence.

It has taken enormous effort and perseverance for me to secure the evidence that I have, and I persisted only because I was sufficiently motivated by the eventual goal of my self-employment project and my website.

It would seem a matter of systemic policy and practice to make it impossible for a claimant to prove what happens inside a Jobcentre or what happens during the course of any meeting or interview with JCP staff. Such policy and practice would seem to defy the fundamental tenets of justice, natural justice and human rights.

The law permits a claimant to audio record interviews or meetings at the Jobcentre, a fact repeatedly confirmed to me in writing. Yet, despite repeated requests, I have never been allowed to avail myself of this legal right on the grounds that my JCP does not have the facilities that would be conducive to audio recording, and thus no evidence can ever be obtained to support any allegation of wrongdoing. In any dispute as to fact, the word of a JCP employee and his colleagues would have to be weighed against the word of a “scrounger”.

Emails to the JCP, the CSOM at the JCP or to any other member of staff at the JCP receive neither an acknowledgment nor a response. Other government departments and agencies at least send an automated read receipt as a matter of good practice.

The staff at my JCP refuse to sign a receipt to acknowledge receipt of letters delivered by hand. A letter from the District Office of my JCP states, “I can confirm that our Department does not have a policy requiring staff to issue receipts.”

My JCP is, in effect, strongly disinclined to put anything in writing or in any format that would evidence their words or actions. Oral but unrecorded communication is their preferred mode of operation. I fear this policy is not confined to my one JCP.

JCP is a part of the DWP , regardless of organisational structure, and as such must adhere to the letter and the spirit of the law, and thus the JCP’s unique practice in matters of propriety, transparency and accountability is disturbing.

Similar privilege and confidentiality is not afforded at the claimant. Any member security staff, an employee of an external company, lounges behind the JCP adviser at meetings, listening to and reading all the personal and confidential data of the claimant.

It might be mentioned that claimants, diplomatically termed “customers”, see a different adviser at each visit and thus the adviser knows little about the claimant and his individual needs and circumstances, and cannot provide any personalised help or guidance.

The customer can never be aware of the structure or hierarchy within the JCP, and thus can never approach the appropriate person about his concerns. Every Tesco prominently displays names, photographs and contact details of its senior staff but publicly funded JCP does not deem this necessary.

In the past, a customer charter, extending to several pages, was available in every JCP. The customer charter has since shrunk to one page but it would be miraculous to now find a copy available in any JCP.

(2) Security staff are now used as a deterrent to dialogue. I have personally witnessed an incident where an elderly gentleman was being interviewed by a JCP employee. She was explicitly intimidating him into agreeing to conditions that were unlawful and he was politely trying to explain his views. Instead of communicating with him, she called a member of the security staff to have him removed.

(3) Recent legislation, and consequential policy, increases the severity of sanctions if a claimant breaches “conditionality” to his claim, whereby payment of benefit can be stopped for up to three years.

Legislation has not amended eligibility criteria or the contractual relationship, obligations and rights stipulated in a Jobseeker’s Agreement entered into between the claimant and the JCP.

With complete disregard for the law, JCP staff are set targets to remove a certain number of claimants every day or every week, and these targets are achieved by overtly ignoring or breaching the contractual terms and relationship stipulated in a Jobseeker’s Agreement. This fact is confirmed by their trade union and by a number of other “whistleblowing” disclosures.

Staff achieve these targets by referring the desired number of claims to a Decision Maker on the grounds that there is a “doubt” about the claimant having breached the conditions of his Jobseeker’s Agreement.

(4) As referral of a claim by a JCP adviser to a Decision Maker (DM) is a practice now being used extensively to achieve targets for reducing the claimant count, it merits examination.

It is a prescribed requirement that a JCP adviser should seek input and explanation from a claimant when considering a referral and, only after taking into consideration all the facts, should take the serious step of referring a claim to a DM, and the claimant should always be made aware of the referral.

Since the advent of targets, this prescribed requirement, fundamental to justice and natural justice, has been ignored entirely. A JCP adviser now makes a referral to a DM totally regardless of facts, of documentary evidence and of any input from the claimant. I can prove that, in my case, a referral was made even without my knowledge.

The immediate result of a referral, regardless of the eventual outcome decision made by a DM, is that the claimant’s benefit payment is stopped from the day of referral. There is no presumption of innocence in such minor civil matters. Nevertheless, this minor civil matter can, and often does, deprive the claimant, and possibly his family, of food and basic necessities.

(5) In a referral to a DM, the JCP adviser should apprise the DM of all the relevant facts, including the input, explanation and evidence provided by the claimant. However, the claimant never gets sight of the referral or the allegations or facts therein. The DM arrives at his decision based solely upon the submission from the adviser.

It should be borne in mind that the DM is not independent and is not acting in an independent capacity. Both the adviser who refers the claim on the grounds of “a doubt” and the DM who decides upon this “doubt” are declared to be acting for the DWP.

In any court of law, under our adversarial system of justice, the judge must be impartial and be seen to be so. A judge sees nothing, hears nothing and reads nothing from only one party. It is a requirement that any material put before a judge must also be disclosed to every party to the proceedings. This is a fundamental requirement for transparent justice. Those on the lowest rung of society evidently do not deserve such consideration.

(6) If the decision is favourable to the claimant, the JCP can ask for the decision to reconsidered any another DM. The claimant is neither made aware that a reconsideration has been sought nor of the grounds submitted for reconsideration.

If the decision is adverse to the claimant, the claimant would then be given the opportunity to seek a reconsideration of the decision and to put his case in support. As in any legal case, to have any decision overturned is considerably harder.

If the reconsidered decision is still adverse, the claimant could appeal. As with an appeal and a second appeal in any court of law, and with no legal aid and no legal representation, the claimant would face an impossible task.

It must be stressed that, throughout this process, the claimant’s benefit payments have been suspended, which might have an impact on his resolve to keep battling, regardless of the validity of his stance and his claim.

(7) It seems that the JCP now indulges in the practice of “wholesale referrals”. A claimant is referred, on whatever grounds, to a Decision Maker (DM) a number of times consecutively within a short period of time. This numbers game has a two-fold advantage. At least some of the allegations and referrals should “stick” and produce adverse decisions, and the greater the number of adverse decisions the longer the period of sanction. Anecdotally, if the sanction is for a period of three years, that resourceful JCP employee receives a nice reward from the manager.

Any Decision Maker Appeals (DMA) office would be able to provide factual data on the percentage increase in referrals to DMs over the past few months.

(8) In my own case, my JCP had never previously deemed that I breached any conditions or failed to comply with my obligations. Remarkably, following recent legislation and the advent of targets, my claim has been referred to a decision maker three times within a period of four weeks for doing nothing less or differently than I was doing previously. Thus, I now have to spend an absurdly disproportionate amount of time to addressing these referrals, time that would be much better spent on productive efforts.

If I should wish to question or query or complain about any referrals or sanctions, it is required that I should address my concerns to my own JCP. This would seem analogous to my directing my complaint about being raped to the rapist.

Present legislation and government policy is, it is proclaimed, intended to help me into employment or self-employment. I now spend 40 hours every week to satisfy the increasingly onerous but totally unproductive demands of the Jobcentre. Then, and only then, am I able to focus my efforts to seeking gainful employment and to pursue my proposed self-employment venture. Would it not benefit public funds if Jobcentre staff were allowed the discretion to permit individuals to devote their time and effort to constructive and productive ends rather than to avoiding being the sacrificial lamb to bureaucratic targets?

(9) It is difficult to lay the blame at the door of the Jobcentre staff. They are not lawyers or politicians or philosophers. They work on instructions given to them at brief training meetings or on a single sheet of paper. They are trying to keep their jobs by trying to achieve targets imposed on them. It is conceivable that they neither understand nor fear the implications and consequences of their expedient but illegal actions. I was once told by a Jobcentre manager, “You can’t do anything to us. We have Crown Immunity.” My reply was “True, but you can be sacked.” She confessed that this had never occurred to her.

(10) The benefit claimants have, by and large, paid their dues to the “Welfare State” and paid their premiums towards “national insurance”, perceived as their insurance and their umbrella for a rainy day. Their contributions pay the wages of the 90,000 staff working in Jobcentres and benefit offices, 40% of whom also claim state benefits. If and when it does rain, and through no fault of their own, the same Jobcentre staff leave their paymasters in doubt that their insurance company has gone bust and that the umbrella was actually a well disguised parasol only for sunny days.

Having experienced the services of Jobcentres and of work programme providers, I would comment briefly upon the claimants perception of each.

Public funds pay for 90,000 JCP and benefit offices staff and public funds pay millions of pounds for listed international companies to provide work programmes, with both catering for the same group. Statistical data verifies that the total impact of the service provided by both is negligible. Jobseekers largely secure employment through their own efforts and perseverance. This would seem to be a case of having two dogs and barking yourself.

What is tangible benefit is gained from the 90,000 JCP staff if claimants have to be referred to an external provider for help? If their purpose is merely to process benefit payments, that could be done by a tenth of that number, or even by an appropriate computer system.

The calibre of JCP staff cannot be conceived without personal experience. It would be an enlightening exercise if a survey were undertaken to ascertain what skills any JCP employee could offer to any employer if they were to lose their JCP jobs. It would then be easier to determine whether JCP advisers help or hinder claimants in their efforts to secure employment. I have yet to come across a single JCP adviser who had sufficient experience to help a claimant with constructive and pragmatic guidance. This begs the question whether selection JCP staff is based on merit or on nepotism.

By contrast, Work Programme providers are paid by results and thus select staff on merit. Unlike JCPs, these providers assign one adviser to a claimant, who familiarises himself with the needs of that claimant. Their efforts are restricted by the demands of their paymasters, the JCP and DWP. As the manager at my work programme provider told me, “we are audited by the JCP.” Thus, those possibly able to help are constrained by those who cannot help but who enjoy Crown Immunity.

24 May 2013

Prepared 27th January 2014