There has been much talk and comment in the media about Ken Loach’s latest film. It’s a well-made, well written, moving film, which at CPAG we were pleased to be able to provide script advice on. It throws a spot light on the numerous and increasing problems faced by people trying to claim social security.
The process and situations portrayed in the film are all too common and reflect the case evidence CPAG receives every day. However what many people may not realise is that, while the Department for Work and Pensions practices shown in the film are a realistic reflection of what actually happens, with the right welfare rights advice they can be - and do get - challenged.
If the characters had access to good welfare rights advice, advice which all too often is itself being cut, the outcome for the characters in the film could have been different.
The Work Capability Assessment (WCA)
The main premise of the film is that Daniel didn’t score the requisite 15 points that would mean he could continue to be paid employment and support allowance (ESA). The questions from the assessor at the start of the film bear little or no relevance to him despite the fact that he has been desperately ill. If you don’t score 15 points on the WCA then the decision maker should also look at whether or not there would be a substantial risk to your health were you to be found fit for work, which is obviously the case here. This means of qualification for ESA is often overlooked during the initial assessment, and is the kind of thing a welfare rights adviser would bring up in the mandatory reconsideration. Which brings me to my next point….
The Mandatory Reconsideration (MR)
In the film Daniel gets a letter saying he’s fit for work. He phones the DWP saying that he wants to appeal, but is told that he has to request a MR (which is correct) and that he can’t do that until he has had a phone call from the decision maker. Now, we know that this did happen in some job centre areas, but it shouldn’t. As soon as you know there has been a decision made on your claim you can ask for a MR, and you don’t have to do it in writing, you can do so over the phone. A welfare rights adviser helping Daniel would have known this and may have been able to save a lot of distress.
Applying for Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) online
While there is a push by the DWP to get everyone to apply for all benefits online, a welfare rights adviser would have been aware that Daniel, actually, could make a claim for JSA on the phone (by phoning 0800 055 6688) or if he couldn’t manage a phone claim, a paper form could have been sent to him.
The film is spot on in depicting the irony of the situation facing many people who are challenging their ESA decisions. In order to claim JSA you have to declare yourself fit for work, despite appealing a decision that you are not fit for work. This shouldn’t have any bearing on the appeal outcome.
Daniel is told that he has to spend 35 hours a week looking for work. A welfare rights adviser would have told him this isn’t necessarily the case. An adviser would have pointed out that Daniel has already told the member of staff that he is only claiming JSA because he’s been denied ESA, in which case there should have been less conditionality put on him while he is going through the appeals process. This means that he can restrict his availability for work, and restrict the hours that he spends looking for work. Also, once his appeal has been lodged with the tribunals service, he is entitled to be paid ESA again at the assessment rate while he waits for the hearing. An adviser would have suggested he submit a fit note from his GP at that time, so he could have some ESA in payment, backdated to cover the weeks when he wasn’t getting JSA.
Unfortunately the scenarios in the film are all too common, for example, people like Katie being referred for a sanction for turning up 10 minutes late for an appointment at the JCP, or people being told they can have vouchers for a food bank as a means of coping with being sanctioned. We have heard that advisers in jobcentres are facing unacceptable pressures and told not to help claimants, as is shown in the film. The film is bleak, but it is realistic.
Also, unfortunately, in this film and in real life, access to accurate welfare benefit advice can make a huge difference, but that advice is becoming harder to find. Had the characters received good advice earlier on then there’s a decent chance some of the outcomes may have been different.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, please contact your local advice agency, council welfare rights service or citizens advice bureau. If you work with people facing these sorts of problems, you can call the CPAG advice lines: in Scotland on 0141 552 0552 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and across the rest of the UK on 020 7812 5231 or email email@example.com.