Sick ‘Ashok’ walks miles to food bank after benefits stop

‘Ashok’ comes into this London food bank with his voucher, given to him by the Jobcentre. He wants me to use both his real name and the picture I took of him, but in the end I can’t. He’s too ill, upset, confused and generally vulnerable. He doesn’t seem to have been told precisely why the Jobcentre has taken the decision to stop his Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). He’s finding his situation bewildering in the extreme.

It seems he opted to use a job club book to record his job search instead of  doing his hunting online. He thinks his decision to quote  the Yellow Pages as one of the  sources for job leads has triggered a benefit sanction. Ashok is originally from  Mauritius, but when I ask him about this, he can’t remember when he arrived in the UK. He thinks it might have been sometime during the eighties.  He’s is so anxious and unsteady that it takes over half an hour for him to be able to sign the food bank voucher given to him by that Jobcentre in the next borough that seems to be sending more and more people our way.

As the “recovery” we’re hearing so much about in the broadsheets takes off in some parallel universe, our local council is, thankfully, tuning into the growing level of desperation hitting this part of London. The council has done much behind the scenes to help support the food bank network here. I’ll write more about this. One food bank is open every day in this borough, so that people can always get to one when they’re in crisis. Assuming they’ve been given a voucher, of course.

The problem is that 58-year-old Ashok, who struggles to keep his balance and whose hands and legs are shaking, has had to walk miles to us. He had no money for his bus fare – and that is increasingly the case for those who have to get here. He is terribly upset and breaks down in tears as he asks me who is going to give him a job “at my age”. He shows me his anti-depressants and has made an appointment with his GP for a few days time. He asks me to write down a list of his symptoms that he can show to the doctor.  I write: “Hands shaking and painful, trembling legs, unsteady, not sleeping.” I suspect some kind of cognitive impairment, and he’s been unemployed for some time. His is not a life you would want for anyone….

He says he’s been expected, while on JSA, to apply for 20 jobs a week. He asks how he can do this. He was told to sign a form at the Jobcentre. He doesn’t know what it said and wasn’t given a copy.  He normally gets his money the day he came to us – but it didn’t arrive. We tell him to talk to his  GP about moving to employment and support allowance (ESA). This benefit, for those too sick to work, seems to be the right one for him. It’s unclear whether his Jobcentre has discussed this option with him and explained how to go about applying for it, before stopping his JSA.

The other food bank volunteers say that Jobcentre clients should get written confirmation of a sanction from higher up the system, once a local Jobcentre has broken the news that their money is being stopped. The way Ashok has been treated is shocking, and it’s left him broken. What lies ahead for a society that treats its most sick and vulnerable citizens in this cruel way?

A few days ago the Department of Work and Pensions launched  what it describes as an independent review of JSA sanctions. It’s led by Matthew Oakley, a member of the Social Services Advisory Committee. The review’s tight scope is to look at the clarity of information given to claimants who have had their benefits reduced for failing to take part in mandatory back to work schemes, and “what could be done to make the process clearer”.

As the void blog pointed out this week, the review, which is open until 10 January 2014, “doesn’t intend to consider whether sanctions are being misused, the impact of sanctions, or whether targets are being set for Jobcentre staff to sanction benefit claims”.

What kind of society puts thousands of ill and distressed people on unsuitable back to work schemes and then humiliates them by sanctioning their paltry JSA? Then launches a review into the way the humiliation is being explained?

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