Victory for claimants’ rights in Oxford

The fight for the right to be accompanied

Comrades in Oxford have sent us this account of their struggle with a local Jobcentre to uphold the right of claimants to be accompanied to interview. Their determination and persistence was strengthened by the fact that they knew ECAP had gone through the same experience in Edinburgh, and had won.

On 5th July 2023, 19-year-old benefits claimant Xanthe Wells was denied their right to be accompanied during their appointment at the Oxford Jobcentre. They had attended with their friend Connor after having trouble with their work coach. 

The coach, Klive, had frequently been condescending towards Xanthe and had imposed sanctions without reasonable grounds. On one occasion, he intrusively questioned Xanthe about the interests and political involvements of a recently passed away friend, which suggested he had taken it upon himself to search up the friend in question. This happened because Xanthe had asked to rearrange their appointment that week in order to attend the remembrance ceremony for their friend, which they had to miss because Klive did not agree to move the appointment. 

When Klive called Xanthe to his desk for the appointment, Connor joined and explained that he was there to accompany Xanthe.

“Klive quickly refused to let me accompany”, recounted Connor, “and when I asked if I could read out the DWP guidance saying Xanthe had the right to be accompanied, he said no. He said to Xanthe he wanted to see an official diagnosis of a mental illness before allowing them to be accompanied, while they responded that they didn’t need to present a diagnosis in order to be accompanied. He also was very patronising to Xanthe, speaking over them and insisting they were fine without someone accompanying them, when they had explicitly said they wanted me there. I was eventually asked to leave the building as I was asking questions about why he wouldn’t let me accompany Xanthe. It’s not the point but I didn’t raise my voice or anything, I only insisted on an explanation for why I couldn’t be there. ”

Connor left the building at the request of the security guard, meaning Xanthe was left alone for their appointment, where Klive wrongfully accused them of filming the conversation on their phone, saying they were breaking the law. 

Ahead of their following appointment 10 days later, Xanthe sent a message on their Universal Credit journal explaining that they would again be accompanied by Connor, quoting DWP guidance on the matter.

“This time, when we walked into the jobcentre, we were immediately met with 2 security guards and one of the jobcentre managers, who explained they wouldn’t allow me a representative for their appointment, and Connor wouldn’t be allowed to enter the building.”

Xanthe had once again been forced to attend an appointment without a representative. 

In a discussion between Connor and the jobcentre manager Robyn, Robyn outright lied about the right of claimants to be accompanied. She said claimants are only allowed to be accompanied if they’re an assigned carer, an appointee (which she said Connor could not be) or in ‘very exceptional’ circumstances, such as when someone is applying for but has not yet been granted disability benefit. When Connor raised the fact that this did not match the official DWP guidance, Robyn said that the national guidance does not account for how they work locally, and that if all benefit claimants who had mental health issues or needed support were accompanied, they wouldn’t be able to facilitate that in the jobcentre as there would be too many people.

Later, on July 29th, Xanthe attended the jobcentre with their mum, and two friends who were to stay outside but as additional witnesses. On their arrival, again, the security guards were at the door awaiting Xanthe’s arrival. They asked Xanthe’s mother to stay outside, even as they both insisted on Xanthe’s right to have her present. Klive soon came to the jobcentre entrance and said “Xanthe, I’m not having this, we’re not having this meeting. I will mark you as failing to attend”, even as Xanthe offered to attend the appointment alone as they had been made to before.

After being sent away from the jobcentre by their work coach, Xanthe received a notification on their phone stating that they had been sanctioned for ‘not attending an appointment’. 

Xanthe heard nothing from the jobcentre for the majority of August, though the wrongful sanctions were all dropped in that time.

Finally, on August 30th, Xanthe was able to arrange a meeting with the jobcentre manager, Robyn, which took place within earshot of Klive. Robyn explained that Xanthe would be allowed to be accompanied to their appointments, on the condition they do not record anything while in the jobcentre. She also recommended to Xanthe to ‘move on’ from Klive’s intrusiveness about their deceased friend, with no further accountability process mentioned. 

This is a victory for claimants, but also testament to the evasiveness of the Oxford Jobcentre. Without proof, they claimed that Xanthe had filmed an appointment and insisted to the end that this was the source of the dispute, rather than their decision to deny claimants rights that are set out in DWP guidance.

The tactics employed by the Oxford Jobcentre reveal their modus operandi: intimidate claimants with sanctions and coerce them into backing down from claiming their rights and challenging the oppressive mechanisms of the benefits system. Xanthe states: “The fact that the Jobcentre eventually withdrew all the unfair sanctions they had imposed on me demonstrates that, when their actions are put under scrutiny by claimants, they cannot justify themselves.”

Xanthe and Connor say that they contacted Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty (ECAP) member Mike, who helped them proceed with the complaint.

We believe this patronising behaviour and dismissal of young people, particularly those on benefits, is symptomatic of a society that does not care for the younger generations. In Oxford we also face a massive lack of spaces for young people to gather without facing a paywall, meaning there’s very little space for most young people in Oxford to hang out and get support when they need it.

Cowley Collective is a new organisation based in East Oxford. We hold solidarity events where local people can come together to share clothes, chat at our free café, and make use of the pop-up food bank and crèche. We believe strongly that the most effective way to respond to social issues is with local community action. Building benefit claimants power and confidence is a part of this.

Since this dispute, the Oxford Jobcentre allowed Xanthe to be accompanied to each of their appointments until their claim closed.

You can find Cowley Collective on social media with the username @cowleycollect.

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