Last weeks confusing court decision on workfare showed two things: firstly, that it’s possible to use the DWP’s own rules and regulations to trip them up, but also that, since they get to write the rules, they’ll usually manage to rewrite them to get out of it. With this in mind, I thought it was worth sharing the results of a recent Freedom of Information request about jobseekers’ agreements.
The jobseeker’s agreement is the contract at the heart of jobseekers’ allowance. It sets out the steps the claimant will take each week to look for work, and, as long as they stick to it, their benefits should be safe. This means that, when the Department for Work and Pensions want to add another hoop for claimants to jump through in order to qualify for benefits, they need to get the claimant to “agree” to change their “agreement”. Of course, as anyone who’s ever signed on will know, the agreement is not the result of an abstract negotiation between two free and equal individuals: the jobcentre advisor tells the claimant what their agreement is going to say, and the claimant usually just automatically agrees, because the threat of benefit sanctions is a scary one and no-one really knows what you can and can’t be sanctioned for.
Universal Jobmatch is one recent example of a new scheme that needed the DWP to change people’s agreements in order to enforce; any new schemes the DWP bring in will require similar changes, and even when they’re not bringing any new ideas in, some jobcentre staff will often just try and change people’s agreements in order to pressure them into doing more stuff per week anyway. So the recent FoI request is useful for making it clear that claimants have some limited rights to resist these changes.
To quote from the DWP’s responses: “Once in place, the claimant or personal adviser can ask for the Agreement to be changed at any time. Where changes cannot be agreed, the Agreement is referred to a decision maker for them to decide whether the changes being suggested are reasonable. If that decision is made in the claimant’s favour, the original Jobseeker’s Agreement remains in place. If it does not and the claimant still does not agree with the revisions, the claim will be disallowed from the date on which the agreement could not be agreed” and “If a revised Jobseeker’s Agreement cannot be agreed, the previous Jobseeker’s Agreement remains in place until a decision is made. Benefit continues to be paid during this period. This is supported by the following extract from the procedural guidance about referring a Jobseeker’s Agreement to a Decision Maker: “Payment of Jobseeker’s Allowance based on the existing Jobseeker’s Agreement, continues until a revised one is agreed.”
There is the right of appeal to an Appeal Tribunal against the Decision Maker’s decision on whether the revised Jobseeker’s Agreement is valid. The Appeal Tribunal is independent of the DWP.”
So, to sum up, if your advisor tries to change your agreement, you don’t have to agree to sign, and they don’t have the right to sanction you right away. They have to refer the new agreement to a Decision Maker who’ll decide if it’s “reasonable” or not. Since they work for the DWP, they’ll almost certainly find that it is, but your old agreement will remain in effect until the new agreement is sent off to the Decision Maker, the Decision Maker reaches a decision, and then they send it back to your advisor. At this point, once it’s been approved by the Decision Maker, you probably will have to sign it, but you still have the right to appeal to an independent tribunal, who may be more likely to take your side. At the very least, it should buy you a few weeks, and as Universal Jobmatch and the recent workfare ruling have both shown, a few weeks is a long time at the jobcentre, so it’s possible that by the next time you see your advisor, they’ll have dumped their new scheme, or at least given up on making it compulsory due to fears of bad publicity. And the more people send their agreements off to the Decision Maker, the more the machinery will get clogged up, so the longer the process will take, and the headache for the DWP will get bigger. Apart from anything else, it makes it more likely that your advisor will give up on trying to get you to sign any more new agreements, purely as a way of minimising the hassle caused to them.
Not everyone will always feel confident to refuse to sign new agreements – apart from anything else, if your advisor’s relatively sound, then you might want to give ground on these issues from time to time in order to keep a good relationship with them. But in general, if the information given by the DWP is correct, refusing to sign new agreements until they’ve been inspected by the decision maker can’t get you sanctioned, and it might have some benefits, both in terms of minimising the hassle individual claimants get from the jobcentre and more broadly as a way of obstructing new “welfare reform” schemes.
Of course, when dealing with an institution as complex, secretive and confusing as the benefits system, it’s dangerous to rely too much on information coming from the head office; the only way to be sure is to share our experiences on the ground and let each other know what works and what doesn’t. If your advisor tries to change your agreement, and you refuse to sign up to the new one, share your experience of how it goes in the comments here, or at other sites like the Void, Intensive Activity or consent.me.uk. Sharing our stories is the best way to break down the isolation that the jobcentre tries to enforce, and to start creating the kind of collective movement that claimants need to defend ourselves.