The sorry tale of how GMWRAG received a response to our first ever Freedom Of Information request; missed a chance to do some DWP wide research and learnt more than we possibly intended.

On the 13th of August 2018 GMWRAG made a Freedom of Information request to DWP via our new WhatDoTheyKnow account. You can read all about the context for that first request in our post of that date but it’s worth reiterating the basics here.

On the 3rd of August 2018 @neilcouling posted the following tweet.

“Nice end to the week. UC claimant on work experience in jobcentre tells whole of DWP, UC is better than JSA, feels more customer-friendly, giving people responsibility for their money means work less of a culture-shock, that change is inevitable but this one is welcome.”

@GMWRAGtweets has enjoyed “bants” with Mr. Couling previously and we’re well aware of an infamous occasion claims were made of being inundated with thank you cards from claimants who had been sanctioned. The final number could be described as something less than “inundated” unless DWP are now using a dolls house sized letter box as the front end for mail handling.

We have no idea whether the above account is controlled by Mr. Couling (or perhaps a “UC claimant on work experience”) but the above tweet provokes more questions than answers and Mr. Couling wasn’t very forthcoming.

We probably don’t need to comment further on the phrase “UC claimant on work experience in jobcentre”… but we will! We think the very concept of “work experience in jobcentre” begs a question as to what on earth JCP think they’re doing? Why would you place anyone on work experience in a jobcentre? If you can do it for one why can’t you do it in all (recognising the problematic nature of doing it in even one JCP)? What safeguards are in place if the work experience doesn’t work out? Is the work coach the supervisor? And so on… ad nauseam.

However, our more immediate concern was that this was someone giving out a message which offers a perspective on UC which flies in the face of all the evidence accepted by the Public Accounts Committee, the Work and Pensions Committee and the National Audit Office and in the context of doing work experience in, of all places, a JCP. So, this would be someone who not only seemed unlikely to have had any issue with the fluctuations inherent in UC in other situations and is therefore potentially largely uniformed by the wider issues but also who looks from the outside to have said something which at worst looks potentially coerced given that the language used, to most reasonable people, does not appear to be the language of a claimant. Indeed it bore remarkable similarities to those leaflets the DWP had to concede contained case studies of claimants who weren’t exactly real!

So, GMWRAG elected to ask a simple question? Which jobcentre? When we didn’t get an answer we decided to just keep asking. Every day!

At first we couldn’t any response at all but then, after 5 days Mr. Couling denied we’d asked him anything.

“Think you need to check back on your twitter history. I don’t recall you asking me anything. This tweet suggests you have asked a local jobcentre? But if I missed a tweet from you apologies”.

By this time we had, of course, on the 4th of August 2018 asked every JCP on Twitter in the UK whether this inspirational claimant had been at their office. We didn’t think this was unreasonable. Weren’t these the same JCPs who had claimed to be so responsive on social media that they had once prevented a claimant setting out to sign on in those notorious “adverse weather conditions” less then 10 minutes after they’d been asked if they were open! Yes, they were.

At the time of writing, a mere 40 days later, not a single one of those JCPs has shown enough social media manners to offer us a polite response. Not a “Sorry, not us”. Not a peep. Were there to be a storm of biblical proportions it seems most unlikely any JCP would be able to offer up a response in 9 minutes.

On the 8th of August 2018 Mr. Couling finally responded that this “… wasn’t from a jobcentre, which perhaps explains why jobcentres haven’t responded.”

Well, on one level, we had achieved a little more clarity, albeit only in the sense that we had established that blood wasn’t likely to leak from a stone any time soon. On the other hand, are we truly alone in thinking that an organisation which gets asked a questions and fails to acknowledge that even if only to confirm that they couldn’t help is best described not as “customer friendly” (to hark back to our original concern) but simply unprofessional? If GMWRAG members received a query from a client or another government department or indeed just about anyone, and simply failed to answer does “unprofessional” not leap out as the obvious adjective?

GMWRAG then asked, not unreasonably, if not in a JCP, then where. Mr. Couling was on fire now. He came back with the brilliant phrase “Sure, social media.”. We then asked which account and… silence.

ON the same day GMWRAG then found the account of one @AfrikKwame who quite remarkably had tweeted (on the 29th of March 2018 mind you) the words

“@JTomlinsonMP @ MMorley_JCP @Director_LHC I’m Deaf and loving my work experience at Barnsbury JC, coaching non-Deaf UC claimants into work.”

Putting aside that this means that work experience in a JCP is actually “a thing” we didn’t think this was our man (more on this later) but Mr. Couling then tweeted the astonishing

“This exchange reminds me of the bit from the Life of Brian where a follower says “only the true messiah denies his own divinity”. Brian replies “well what chance does that give me?”. Noted you never accept anyone might be happy with UC. I’m listening why not reciprocate?”

Two days earlier Mr. Couling had accepted an invitation to the October GMWRAG meeting! He then clearly set about doing some serious listening as his Twitter account fell mysteriously silent…

You can read the full text of the DWP response here. Like us you may wonder at how the DWP intranet translates into “social media”. Despite encouragement from elsewhere we think it would be futile to pursue this angle. Whilst most of us think of social media as specific platforms like Flaccidbook or Witter, it can be defined sufficiently loosely for Mr. Couling to be able to get away with the use of the phrase in connection with a post or broadcast on an intranet. See here for an example.

We do now have the full text of the voluntarily provided feedback, which reads

“I’m doing work experience at the job centre and I’m on UC. In my opinion UC is
much easier for customers than the old JSA system, it feels much more customer
friendly. Also, giving the customers full responsibility for their money is less of a
culture shock when we enter into full or even part time employment. I do
understand that some of the staff are concerned about the possibility of a heavy
workload due to the change of procedure, however, I think that once the change is
implemented, it will make the whole process smoother for all. In every system
change is inevitable, but I can tell you now, to me this is a very welcome one.”

GMWRAG is willing to listen to arguments that the above is real. The extent to which it was voluntary is open to discussion and ditto the extent to which the above is couched in the language of a claimant as opposed to a broadcast by DWP. However, the matter is not at an end. Indeed we have just tweeted @AfrikKwame to ask if they were in fact the person in question. Watch this space.

Brilliantly, it appears that when DWP posted the above responses they managed to not only fail to fully redact the name of the relevant claimant (too late folks, it’s apparently been sorted) but also managed to post a link which enabled a user to message the whole of the DWP! Yes, you read that right. GMWRAG of course missed the boat on this once in a lifetime opportunity to do some research in partnership with the DWP and that has been taken down also. Bearing in mind that UC is intended to be wholly digital and DWP is currently looking to migrate UC to a cloud computing platform. Let’s not even start on online ID verification. GMWRAG is both mildly amused and simultaneously horrified that such basic errors and data breaches continue to occur. It appears one little question can open up a whole can of worms.

Mysteriously, @NeilCouling is back on Twitter as of today! Perhaps someone lost the password and just found it in a journal!

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GMWRAG at PLP Conference North on Benefit Sanctions and the rule of law.

GMWRAG members turned out en masse for the PLP Conference North at the BPP Law School in Manchester last week. There was particularly strong representation from the newly formed GM Strategic Casework Group and much work is now being done to assimilate what was learnt through a long day of networking, lectures and workshops.

We have attempted a brief taster below and in due course we hope to present some the key documents from the day which are not already in the public domain. Where we can we have provided links so if you want to know who someone is or what they said then please click away.

Happy reading.

Michael Adler Benefit sanctions and the rule of law – Great Britain is 33rd of 40 OECD countries in terms of severity of work incentives. We are worse than South Korea. The slide did say “Korea”. How sad that someone had to ask which one!

2012 was the first year the number of benefit sanctions exceeded the number of fines for criminal offences (Just let that one sink in!)

Judge Wright UT – How the first tier tribunal deals with sanctions following Reilly – the Government response to Jobseekers (Back To Work Schemes) Act 2013 breaching Article 6 is due in August 2017. Could impact many stayed Reilly cases.

Richard CrellinResearch on the impact of benefit sanctions – Research is being undermined by DWP repeatedly resetting the clock on FoI requests at 19 days by asking for clarifications. They refuse to provide data and then publish it as a response on the day any report with is released.

Alison Pickup – Public Law Workshop – looked at project approaches to systemic issues with organisations i.e. not just using the law. We were especially interested in the idea that challenging an apparent unfairness could involve more than litigation e.g. campaigning; publicity; partnership working and so on.

James Stark – Anti-social behaviour legislation, poverty and discriminationvivid description of the Tour De France being used as a test bed for clearing the street homeless and beggars across the UK. People being imprisoned for 6 months for begging for 50p. Longer than under the Vagrancy Act 1824 (1 month).

Zoe Leventhal – Article 6 in social welfare law – Zoe has history on Article 6 challenges. Currently testing the legality of a refusal by the SoS to extend the right to a late MR so appeal rights are lost. A 3 judge panel has sat on whether denial of appeal is a breach of article 6 and whether JR is a sufficient remedy. Decision due in August 2017.

Joseph Markus and Clare Fowler – Bringing an EA 10 claim in the County Court concerning housing, benefits and education. How to bypass the Civil Legal Aid telephone Gateway issues on discrimination cases.

Charlotte O’Brien – Brexit and benefits – There is significant potential for an “administrative cataclysm” yet this is not even on agenda. Need to understand that even the most innocuous changes to benefits now e.g. definitions of work, will have huge impact on who stays post Brexit.

Benefits, safe-guarding and vulnerability. Bedtime reading for the Trafford GMWRAG meeting.

GMWRAG doesn’t often set members background reading but if you’re coming to our Trafford meeting in September then you’ll need to be up to speed on where we’re up to with benefits, safeguarding and vulnerability. The discussion is part of a necessary move towards maintaining a rights based approach to benefits advice by increasingly bringing to bear legislation from outside the social security sphere. The finest examples of this would of course be the increasing use of EU legislation; directives and so on and, more recently, the use of the Equality Act 2010 to challenge DWP practice and policy.

Our first September speaker, Louise Tanner, has put together some background reading to give people a feel for the range of the topic. You can download and read this from our site but before you do we suggest you have a look at the discussion forums hosted by our mates over at Rightsnet.

We recommend a read of

If these don’t give you a feel for the breadth and reach of the subject, as well as the potential for challenging the DWP and local authorities then, er, you probably haven’t read them! See you in Trafford.