A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) whistleblower has warned that harsh new policies that are forcing more disabled people to attend weekly face-to-face jobcentre meetings could lead to benefit claimants taking their own lives.
The work coach, who has asked not to be identified*, has told Disability News Service (DNS) that she and her colleagues are being “bullied and harassed” into forcing claimants with significant mental distress into attending work-related meetings.
Many of them have been waiting months for a work capability assessment (WCA) and will eventually be found not fit for work and placed in universal credit’s limited capability for work-related activity (LCWRA) group.
But until that happens, and despite significant mental distress, they are still being forced to make weekly trips to the jobcentre, purely so that work coaches can meet their targets for face-to-face appointments.
The work coach, Jane**, says DWP managers are telling work coaches that they should not have any “white spaces” in their diaries, and so should tell claimants waiting for their WCA to come into the jobcentre even if they know they will eventually be placed in the LCWRA group.
Jane is aware of the many deaths of disabled benefit claimants that have been linked to DWP’s actions over the last decade, including many who have taken their own lives.
She said she was now “very concerned” that DWP’s new, even stricter, approach “might lead to more people taking their own lives”.
One young woman who is unable to leave her home without her mother, due to severe anxiety, has been referred to the government’s Restart Scheme for universal credit claimants who have been out of work for at least nine months, even though it is clear that she will eventually be placed in the LCWRA.
Jane says she has assured this young woman and other claimants she works with who are in similar situations that she will not sanction them if they fail to attend their work-related activity and will try to keep them “under the radar”.
She told DNS: “Why are we hassling these people when we know they are going to be moved into the LCWRA group anyway?
“We have managers looking at our diaries on an almost hourly basis and asking why we aren’t bringing in Tom, Dick or Harry.
“We are being bullied and harassed to bully and harass the people on our caseload and I just don’t believe in it.
“There are a lot of us who totally disagree with what is going on.”
But she fears that some work coaches are less understanding and that that will lead to more disabled people being sanctioned because they are unable to meet the strict conditions they have been set.
Jane said: “I work two desks away from someone and I cringe when I hear her telling people what they have got to do. She is absolutely hounding people.”
When she complained to her manager about the new rules, she was told that this was the process she had to follow.
She said: “It’s very worrying. We really are frightened to speak up about it.”
She is certain that the orders are filtering down from work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey, with every district manager putting their own “interpretation” on those orders, and then feeding them down to jobcentre managers, who pass them on to their work coaches.
But she said she was also deeply concerned that DWP decision-makers appear to be overturning recommendations made by assessors from Maximus – the private sector contractor that is paid by DWP to carry out WCAs – that disabled claimants should be placed in the LCWRA group.
She said: “I have been told of instances where LCWRA was recorded by the Maximus assessor, but when the DWP decision-makers looked at the reports sent back, they made their own decisions – completely ignoring the assessment – and just put LCW (limited capability for work).”
Such a decision would mean the claimant would be forced into work preparation and would not be eligible for an extra weekly payment.
She said: “If this is happening, it is a huge injustice.”
One of those she has been told this has happened to is a young disabled man with agoraphobia, stress and anxiety, who is unable to leave his house.
The Maximus assessor had recommended that he should be placed in the LCWRA group, but the DWP decision-maker over-ruled the advice and placed him instead in LCW.
This meant he received no extra money but – more importantly for him – he would have to cope with DWP pressure pushing him towards returning to work.
Jane said: “I have been told that there is quite a lot of this going on. It’s either to save the department money or to force people back to work, or both.
“Whatever the reason, it’s wrong.”
She has also been told of cases in which a Maximus assessor has made a recommendation, following a WCA, but DWP has left the case sitting in the system for months without making a decision.
Jane’s concerns come as there is growing alarm over delays and backlogs in the benefits assessment system, with DWP even refusing to carry out any repeat WCAs for claimants already receiving universal credit who need a higher level of support.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, raised similar concerns to Jane this week.
He told a parliamentary meeting that Jobcentre Plus had increasingly become “a sanctioning regime, spreading fear, increasing pressure on highly vulnerable people, rather than offering people that tailored help that generally supports people moving towards work”.
He told the meeting on universal credit and mental health, hosted jointly by the all-party parliamentary groups on mental health and universal credit: “I think Jobcentre Plus needs reform so that we can create a modern employment service that helps people find work, helps people train and reskill, and helps support people to flourish.”
A DWP spokesperson did not dispute Jane’s evidence, and she declined to defend the measures that Jane said the department had been taking to force more disabled people to attend weekly jobcentre meetings.
But the spokesperson 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.”
*DNS has seen proof that she works for DWP