Saturday, February 19, 2011

To err is human...

... but if you do it on DWP forms, you can expect a fine.

A £50 fine, to be precise, although that's just a starting figure. It could be as much as £300.

Apparently the point of this fine is to get claimants to take "responsibility" for their claims, because "I have to fill in this form right or I won't have any money for rent, bills or food" doesn't have enough impact on your life to make you take it seriously. Or something.

Leaving aside the class war bit where a bunch of millionaires (who make plenty of "mistakes" in their own benefit claims and consider £50 to be the cost of lunch) are imposing these fines on DWP claimants who are, for obvious reasons, some of the poorest people in the country for whom £50 is two weeks' groceries or more...

I'm reasonably bright. Not exceptionally so, but I have my selection of higher-tier grade GCSEs including English and Maths, I've been able to read and write since before I started primary school, most of the jobs I've held have had some sort of administrative element. I should be as well-equipped as anyone to fill out those forms correctly, and I have a distinct advantage over many claimants who are less academically inclined.

And I have made errors on my claims.

The first one, was when I first got sick and lost my job. Let's set the scene. I'm in my early twenties. I'm sick, so sick I cannot work, and more or less confined to bed so that I can manage the big bursts of effort needed to go out (I haven't yet been taught about pacing). I don't yet know what's wrong with me, so I'm scared. I have no income and the Jobcentre have given me three forms. The biggest one is for Incapacity Benefit. The next biggest is for Housing and Council Tax Benefit. The smallest - which is still some thirty or forty pages - is for Income Support, which I am told is a "safety net" in case my Incapacity claim is rejected.

Bear in mind the reason for my claim was that I was too sick to work in my mostly office-based job. I had something symptomatically akin to 'flu. I was not in a top form-filling state.

I worked on the forms as best I could. By the time I got to the IS one, time was running out, but I did my best and felt quite proud of myself for finishing it all within the deadline.

My mistake? In the Pensions section. Having ticked that no, I was not in receipt of any pensions, I was told to go to the next section of the form. So I skipped over all the questions about what type of pension do you have to the next section of the form, About Other Benefits. What I missed, was that "War Pensions", although tacked onto the end of "Pensions", was in fact a section in its own right - a one-inch strip with the single question are you in receipt of a War Pension and Yes/No tickboxes. The form was sent back to me, red-penned and with a stern letter of admonishment.

I've also made errors on my DLA forms before now, again usually at the level of missing a tickbox, although thankfully I've always caught them before sending.

The BBC article says:
The proposals also reveal that the government assumes there will be very few appeals against these fines.

Well, yes. If my incorrectly completed form and nasty letter had also included a £50 fine, I certainly wouldn't have had it in me to argue the toss, because I was too sick to do so, and THAT was the reason why I was filling in the forms in the first place.

That's the thing about benefits. You claim them when your life gets to a desperate stage. You're sick, perhaps terminally so. Your spouse has emptied the joint account and run off with So-and-so from Marketing, leaving you with a broken heart, no money and two kids who want to know where Mummy/Daddy's gone. You've finally managed to get up the courage to get out of a violent and abusive relationship even though you took nothing with you other than the clothes you stand up in. At the very least, you've lost your job. You're stressed. You're upset. You're running around trying to improve your situation and get back something which is recognisable as Your Life, whether that means you're attending countless hospital appointments or applying for countless jobs, and on top of this, the Jobcentre have presented you with over a hundred pages of forms to fill in?

And while we're at it, let's not forget the cuts to legal aid and the closures of Citizens' Advice Bureau offices which will make it even harder for people to get help filling in forms or conducting appeals. Nice one, George. Withdraw the support, thereby increasing the rate of mistakes, then charge people for those mistakes on the basis that they'll be unable to argue. It would make a wonderful Dilbert cartoon, if only it weren't targeted at real and vulnerable people at their time of need.

Minor mistakes are inevitable when people in these circumstances are filling in these forms. Fining people who can't afford to pay but aren't in a position to defend themselves, is appalling.


Bill Kruse said...

I wouldn't call it appalling, I'd call it predatory. What do you do when you're a predator, go for the strongest or pick on the weakest? A glance at any nature documentary reveals it's always the latter. Elect a group of representatives to protect you from the mugger, the rapist, the thief and all you've done is create a brand new predator, one that will mug rape and steal from you just as surely as the others but not through violence instead through legal means.


Stella Gruenbacher said...

Probably doesn't help a bit, but things are just as bad here in the U.S. Social service bureaucracies keep perpetuating themselves, and their original purpose (helping people in need?) gets lost in the process!

mand said...

What Bill said.