August 17, 2012 : ?Making money out of their own inefficiency?

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Simon Collyer formed the Association of Pension and Benefits Claimants after a series of disputes with the Job Centre. Here he describes the effects decisions made against him have had on his life, and his efforts to overturn them.

I started signing on when I returned to the UK after running my own company in South Africa. I wanted to put down my preferred occupations as Sales Management and Business Development. Unfortunately my Employment Advisor did not know what Business Development was and instead put me down as an administrator. As a result, I felt I was being continuously sent for the wrong jobs.

In the autumn of 2008 I lost my new job and was made homeless after a series of catastrophic errors by Colchester Council, Tendring District Council and then finally the Job Centre, which lost my Housing Benefit forms as I was about to move. I had to move into a hotel, then into Colchester Night Shelter. It was a very stressful time indeed. Being excluded from the shelter one night, waiting for a Crisis Loan, in thick snow, I nearly froze to death. Only a Good Samaritan in the shape of my removals man saved all my goods furniture and clothing from being dumped, by letting me store my chattels in an empty house of his.

The Job Centre admitted liability, but argued there was ‘No Injustice’. After two years of struggle, the Independent Case Examiner decided otherwise, and I was given the modest compensation of £200 and a refund of the money I had lost. Large amounts of public money could be saved if Job Centre and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) officials just owned up to their mistakes immediately. Court costs deter defendants who know they are in the wrong from wasting courts’ time. As there are no penalties like these in the benefit appeal and tribunal system, there is not the same motivation for the staff to become more efficient.

I survived in the Night Shelter, sharing a room with a man who later robbed a bank with a shotgun. Another new ‘room-buddy’ had just been released from Chelmsford prison for GBH and was built like Ronnie Kray. He told me he didn’t like my snoring! High on drugs, he later stabbed a visitor in the shared house we had been moved into. He attempted to attack me too but luckily my fire door saved me. After this I was rapidly moved to my own place and got ready to start the slow climb back to normality.

But in 2009 the Job Centre gremlins started again. The computer system fills up once a claim reaches 100 lines of data. I was paid late (manually) and had to use my computer and other goods as collateral for the first of many Cash Converter loans. My computer is my diary system and its loss caused me to sign on the wrong day, meaning I had my benefit ‘suspended’. The Job Centre would not respond to my correspondence and it took five months to get an explanation about why I was being paid late. I started a new job selling advertising on a local authority publication, commission only. On my first day I telephoned the Job Centre to say I had started work, and was told that, because of this suspension, I would not get a month’s rent run-on payment and that it was going to take three weeks to set up Self-Employed Credits. Having been homeless I was forced to resign as I could not risk losing my home again. I had no chance to try out my new job.

Things hardly improved. A letter of complaint to the Colchester Job Centre was found unopened in the Chelmsford office. When you write to specific Job Centre officials, your letters are often answered by someone else, avoiding direct personal responsibility.

I had to battle to get Colchester Job Centre to give receipts for documents handed in. With no proper tracking system in place at that time, documents were frequently getting lost and my suspension appeal documents went missing.

I lost another job due to Job Centre mistakes and, having recommended in a letter that the Colchester Job Centre manager resign, I had Travel-to-Interview permits withheld by a member of staff, with no reasonable excuse or justification. As the Job Centre pointed out, proving these matters in court ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is very difficult.

I was trying to create business plans at this time to get project funding and my computer was in and out of Cash Converters - a trap many people fall into. I could never redeem my goods completely. I was rolling over the interest on this borrowing caused by the Job Centre’s late payment of benefit.

Then, on 14 December 2010 I was sanctioned for refusing to attend a job interview organised for me by the Colchester Job Centre at a local hospital. It was where my father had died of cancer and where I had my last visit with him as a young boy. Hospitals were grim places then, and I remember feeling quite frightened by the experience.

I took my sanction case to the First-tier Tribunal. The Job Centre’s defence must have taken hours, if not days, to prepare, although they failed to appear in person so I could not question them. However the judge was sympathetic to my cause. It came to light that this hospital job interview had a requirement for specific qualifications that I did not have.

Sending claimants for jobs they do not have qualifications for is a dangerous and irresponsible practice. I was refunded four weeks benefits and my six week sanction was reduced to two weeks.

In comparison to the money and work and time that I had lost, it was nothing. In fact the Job Centre had gained by withholding this benefit money for the seven months it took to bring this case to tribunal.

Recently a friend of mine, a former happy, robust and hard working individual tried to commit suicide after being out of work for two years and consistently being refused help to retrain. He said the last straw was sitting on hold to the Job Centre’s 0845 number for twenty minutes.

They “were making money out of their own inefficiency”, he told me.