By Kate Belgrave
Yesterday, I spent god knows how long on the phone to the Department for Work and Pensions (a charged-for call, if you don’t mind), having the most ridiculous conversation that I (and probably anyone) has ever had with them.
I was calling on behalf of Sam, a 22-year-old who signs on at East Ham jobcentre in London. A week or so ago, Sam saw a different jobcentre adviser from her usual one. The adviser at that meeting decided that Sam’s jobsearch record for the fortnight wasn’t up to a standard that the adviser had in mind and that the jobcentre would think about imposing a sanction. Advisers told Sam that she’d have to wait a week or two for a decision-maker to decide whether or not the sanction would go ahead.
But in the meantime, to all intents and purposes, Sam has been sanctioned. I say this because she didn’t receive her benefit payment this week. As of Monday, she had 80p left in her bank account. Last week the jobcentre gave her a hardship payment application form, when advisers first started talking about imposing a sanction. She filled in the form and took it to the jobcentre this week with her bank statement showing the 80p.
But the jobcentre now told Sam that she couldn’t submit the hardship form until the jobcentre had made a formal decision about sanctioning her. Sam said she’d already been sanctioned, because her benefit had been stopped. That was a sanction as far as she was concerned. It certainly felt like a sanction. She had no money. Her benefit had been stopped. Still the jobcentre wouldn’t take the hardship form.
So we rang the DWP. The DWP confirmed that Sam’s benefit had been suspended. The DWP also confirmed that Sam couldn’t submit her application for a hardship payment until the jobcentre made a formal decision about the sanction. I said that Sam had surely already been sanctioned, because her benefit hadn’t been paid.
Certainly, as far as Sam was concerned, she had been sanctioned. Her benefit had been suspended and she had no money in her account. How else would anybody view that experience, except as a sanction? Was it a pre-sanction sanction? What was the DWP even talking about? The DWP said that it had to suspend Sam’s benefit payments while the jobcentre decided whether or not to sanction her. True story. That’s what they said.
I said again that Sam had no money in her account. The DWP said again that Sam couldn’t submit the hardship form until the jobcentre made the formal decision about the sanction. The DWP said it hoped the formal decision about the sanction would be made sometime this week. Sam very much hopes the same, as well she might. Her benefit has been stopped, she has no income and she can’t apply for hardship assistance until her benefit is “officially” stopped, even though her benefit has already been stopped anyway.
The DWP suggested that in the meantime, Sam goes to her local council and asks for crisis help there. I wonder how many other people will be in that queue. These people are not only being left completely without income – they’re not even being told how long they’ll have to go without income for.