Disabled benefit claimants have complained after being targeted by government letters telling them to attend short-notice “work-focussed interviews” (WFIs), but failing to mention that attendance was voluntary.
Research by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) has found that employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants from across the country have been receiving the letters, which say the interviews will “discuss the possibility of going into paid work, training for work, or looking for work in the future”.
Many disabled people have been sent the information by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) even though they have been placed in the support group, for ESA claimants who have been assessed as too ill or disabled to carry out work-related activity.
One claimant told DPAC: “I can’t cope with any more stress, I can’t do it. Not on top of the constant pain I’m in and all these high level opioids… it’s all just an accident waiting to happen.
“When will the stress and worry end? I don’t feel very supported, I feel lost, lonely and very, very scared indeed.”
Another claimant says: “I have had a letter asking me to attend a WFI and I am in the support group.
“I rang them to cancel and they have tried to bully me into going to the interview. I explained I am too ill but they still kept on.”
DPAC says in a report into the “potentially dangerous” DWP tactic that it is “particularly shameful that the contact letters that we have seen do not inform people of their right to decline the work focussed interview”, while some of the letters are giving claimants “very short notice” before an appointment.
It adds: “We conclude that this is nothing but harassment of claimants by jobcentres, which risks causing serious harm to [claimants], especially those with severe mental health impairments.”
Meanwhile, a union has warned that nearly 2,000 ESA claimants from the Birmingham area – all waiting to be assessed for their “fitness to work” and eligibility for ESA – are also being invited to attend DWP work-focussed interviews.
The PCS union, which represents DWP staff, says it believes the interviews are being held to force at least 10 per cent of the claimants off benefits.
Again, the letter fails to explain that attendance is voluntary.
The union says DWP staff have been told by managers to “keep it to themselves” that claimants do not have to attend the interviews.
One manager was even overheard saying that the way to deal with these claimants is to “hassle, hassle them off benefits”.
Andrew Lloyd, Midlands regional secretary for PCS, said the letter was “outrageous”, and he accused DWP of “duping” ESA claimants.
A DWP spokeswoman said the letters investigated by DPAC and those uncovered by PCS had been sent out to ESA claimants “so we can support them to take steps into work if they feel able to”.
She said: “Using the skills and experiences of our work coaches, we have received a number of positive responses from claimants who have welcomed the opportunity to speak to a work coach about the help and support that is available.
“Claimants are attending interviews purely on a voluntary basis and we have not invited in customers where this would be inappropriate.”
But she said the interviews were a “short term activity” and there were no current plans to “extend further this work”.
She said: “The letters make no mention of the interviews being mandatory and it has never been our intention to suggest they were.”
She added: “We are committed to helping disabled people and those with health conditions to fulfil their ambition to work.
“Work is almost always good for health and most disabled people can and want to work, provided they have the right support.”
But Linda Burnip, a member of the DPAC steering group, said the DWP response “seems to be totally divorced from the reality of what is actually happening to people”.
She said: “I’ve just checked the sample letter we had sent to us again and there is no mention of these interviews being voluntary at all.
“Many of those who contacted us had been told that they must attend or their benefits could be sanctioned and in most cases the notice given to attend an interview was only a couple of days.
“I’m also sure that anyone who felt able to work would already be looking for work without needing to be forced into seeing a work coach.
“Regardless of what DWP are saying, this is causing disabled people in the support group unnecessary additional anxiety.”
19 November 2014