Job Seeker’s Allowance payments are being suspended as part of a new tougher regime to cut the number of people receiving the benefit.
The number of payments which have been suspended has increased by 11 per cent, according to the latest figures.
The Department of Work and Pensions said JSA claimants who had failed to do enough to prove they were looking for work, had turned down job offers or failed to turn up for appointments had had their payments suspended 580,000 times between October 2012 and June. The tougher regime has affected around 400,000 individuals as some had their benefits suspended more than once.
In Northamptonshire, between October 2012 and June 2013, benefits for job seekers have been suspended 4,800 times – 600 times in Corby, 740 times in Kettering, 270 times in Rushden and 590 times in Wellingborough.
Now Northamptonshire is taking part in a two-year pilot scheme to help people receiving sickness benefits get a job.
People involved in the pilot – who have all been assessed as being able to work at some point in the future – will have regular appointments with healthcare professionals as a condition of receiving their benefit.
The pilot will compare the help given by healthcare professionals to two other pilot schemes offering “employment-focused support” to see which is most effective at helping people off sickness benefits and into work.
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Employment minister Esther McVey said: “It’s really important we give people who are disabled or have a health condition the support they need to get into work if they are able.
“Traditionally, this help has tended to be work-related, but this pilot will look at whether a more holistic approach is more successful in helping people to manage their conditions and so break down their barriers to work.
“The regular discussions with healthcare professionals will not replace someone’s GP, but can promote health support and help a claimant to re-engage with their GP if they are struggling to adapt to their condition.
“They will also signpost claimants to activities and information to help them manage their condition to improve their readiness for getting a job, and work with local services to provide a holistic approach to health interventions.”
The pilots will run until August 2016, and people will be selected to take part on a random basis.
The government said the most common reason for benefits being withheld was because the jobseeker wasn’t trying hard enough to find a job, a move that has been criticised by charities.
Citizens Advice Bureau chief executive, Gillian Guy, said: “We’ve seen a 64 per cent increase in problems with JSA sanctions since this time last year. From July to September this year, we dealt with 3,895 issues to do with JSA. This is becoming a chronic problem, based on a bad system, which is getting worse.”
Oxfam’s director of UK poverty programme, Chris Johnes, said: “People need support not punishment, they need understanding not condemnation.”
The latest unemployment statistics, published on Wednesday, November 13, show that the number of people claiming JSA in the East Midlands between July and September fell by 0.1 per cent to 87,600 people and that unemployment in the region is 7.1 per cent compared with 7.6 per cent in the whole of Great Britain, and is down by 0.8 per cent compared with May to June this year. Unemployment in Great Britain as a whole fell by 0.2 per cent in the same period.
Kettering man’s anger at changes
A Kettering man has been affected by the changes to the benefit system.
Scott Speirs, 40, has fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome and has been unable to work since 2002, and now he is facing losing his Employment Support Allowance (ESA).
He said: “I’ve been off work since 2002 when I was suffering from depression because of the constant pain caused by my fibromyalgia.
It was finally diagnosed by a specialist in 2008.
“In September I had a home medical by Atos which is a questionnaire that has 30 questions on things like ‘can you lift your hand above your head’.
“You have to answer yes, no or it varies.
“Because my condition is a fluctuating one I had to tick the third option which meant that the diagnosis was that my condition has no significant effect on my health, which I’m appealing against.”
Mr Speirs has been moved from incapacity benefit, which is being phased out, and on to ESA and placed in the work group, which means he has to find work within 12 months or face having his £112 a week benefit capped.
He is appealing against the decision and wants to be placed in the support group, which has no time limit on finding employment.
He said: “Potentially I could lose £100 a week. The Department of Work and Pensions has rung me and told me to stop my appeal as I’ve got no chance of winning it but I won’t be harassed into stopping.
“[Kettering MP] Philip Hollobone has been absolutely brilliant, he has written to Atos and the DWP and has been so helpful.”
Currently there are 4,400 appeals stuck in the system in Kettering so Mr Speirs may have to wait 40 weeks to have his appeal heard. The national average is 17 weeks.
Mr Hollobone raised the issue in Parliament on Monday and asked for “special consideration” to be given to Kettering to sort out the backlog.
Mr Hollobone said: “No-one should have to wait 40 weeks for an appeal to be heard. I raised local concerns about this issue in the House on Monday, November 18.”
Mike Penning MP, in reply to Mr Hollobone, said: “We have been working closely with the Ministry of Justice, and I can announce there were six sessions per month in June 2012 and there are now 18 sessions per month, and we intend to do better.”
Cap brings incomes into line
In April the Government introduced a pilot scheme capping the amount of benefit working-age people could get so that households on out-of-work benefits could no longer get more in welfare payments than the average weekly wage for working households.
The cap was introduced nationally in July this year and rolled out across the country by September.
A Department for Work and Pensions report about the welfare cap published earlier this month stated that by September just over 18,000 households had had their housing benefit capped.
This included 960 households in the East Midlands.
A further report by Jobcentre Plus says that since knowing about the cap it has helped 18,000 claimants into work and a further 35,800 have accepted employment support.