A Liberal idea to empower claimants


At Conference we agreed a policy motion, “Mending the safety net”, on ways of stopping people from falling into poverty caused by problems with social security nets. Leaving aside the heated arguments for how this would best work, how about involving those we are talking about in having a needle and thread too ?

Whatever the ways we have of mending the safety net, those who need it must be able to understand the letters that they are sent from the officials concerned.

I am not blaming the officials, they don’t necessarily know how what is written is perceived, but what can be done is listen to the recipients.  I was a volunteer advisor with CAB for 40 years, and know how many people just do not understand what they are being told.

Sometimes this is because of a learning disability or general literacy problem. But many people in this situation pass onto friends and relatives who also cannot understand fully.

As a fully trained and experienced advisor I sometimes had to ring the department to get clarification.

We heard in the debate about how people are sanctioned for not complying  with the rules.  They have not necessarily understood properly the rules they have to obey strictly and to the letter so they are not sanctioned.

There are letters not understood about being able to claim other benefits.

There are many letters not understood that gives a refusal of a benefit, but does not make clear that an appeal can be made, and what the time limit is. To say nothing of understanding why it has been refused.

What I propose is that the party campaigns for a liberal solution: a customer testing panel.

This could be made up of actual claimants who would meet up with relevant officials, read proposed letters, and feedback what they thought it meant.  Such a panel could rotate around the country to ensure one group did not get into understanding the departmental lingo, and regional differences were ironed out.

In return it would save time and money for the relevant department. Think what it would mean to those claimants to be welcomed into the office, even given tea and biscuits; what it would mean for them to be listened to; what it would mean for them to make a difference; what it would mean for the thousands who would receive letters they could understand. Surely it would raise confidence and skills.

This suggestion is truly empowering and Liberal , let’s go for it!

* Suzanne Fletcher was a councillor for nearly 30 years and a voluntary advice worker with the CAB for 40 years. Now retired, she is active as a campaigner in the community both as a Lib Dem and with local organisations.

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  • nigel hunter 3rd Oct '16 - 10:16am

    As far as I m concerned the above is o.k. but ALL letters to be understood should be written in straight forward SIMPLE ENGLISH language possibly even with pictures to explain the form.

  • Simon McGrath 3rd Oct '16 - 10:17am

    brilliant idea

  • Nonconformistradical 3rd Oct '16 - 10:33am

    The fact that someone as bright as Suzanne is saying that sometimes she had to seek clarification is perhaps a measure of the extent of the problem and I agree that what she suggests is a great idea. Her experiences demonstrate the problem of the (presumably) literate letter writers being on a different wavelength from many claimants.

    However, if a claimant with a general literacy problem (without necessarily having a leanring disability) is helped in this way over benefit communications that doesn’t solve the problem in other areas – such as dealing with other aspects of their finances. Their literacy problem needs to be addressed as well – to minimise future problems and to help them to become more employable in a world with a shrinking proportion of jobs for the unskilled.

  • paul barker 3rd Oct '16 - 10:43am

    I feel a rant coming on. This is an excellent idea but the problems go way beyond unintentional obscurity. I was recently transferred from Employment Support to Jobsearch (ESA to JSA) having failed (?) the dreaded fitness test. (Thats a whole story in itself, this being my 4th or 5th time through the Fail-Appeal-Win Appeal cycle, at vast public expense.)
    4 different staff have told me that this makes it really simple, much easier than starting a new claim. The simple actually involved a 30 minute phone conversation, something I found a bit of a strain. The woman on the other end was trying her best but she was obviously struggling with her training. She kept repeating chunks of script obviously learned by rote & her tone swung wildly between sympathy ( the real Her) & threats (her training). Its obvious that Staff are being trained in passive/agressive tone, overlaid with sickly “customer service” jargon.
    The whole bloody system stinks.

  • Kay Kirkham 3rd Oct '16 - 10:59am

    Suzanne is absolutely right and her solution could also be applied to the letters sent by other public and private bodies. I spent a fair bit of time last year being treated ( very well ) by the NHS but some of the jargon, terminology and layout of letters is dreadful. I suggest we call it a Focus test. If it wouldn’the work in a Focus then it shouldn’t be used!

  • An excellent idea.

    But why should this need political involvement rather than being done long ago by the civil servants involved? What does this tell us about how ‘fit-for-purpose’ the civil service is?

  • suzanne fletcher 3rd Oct '16 - 3:15pm

    thanks for comments so far. Just to clarify that this idea was what I put to the conference motion “mending the safety net” on social security, so it talks about DWP letters. However as Kay Kirkham and others say, it needs to be taken on board by other public bodies too. When I was a councillor I made the suggestion for letters from the housing department and it was taken up.
    As for political involvement – yes it should have been done by civil servants, but I would think that the one’s that link with the public, are not listened to by those above with the power to change how things are done. At the end of the day, the civil service is under the direction of the Government.
    The very idea of listening and even involving claimants and letter recipients in general is alien to some chiefs. But it is a Liberal value.

  • Nonconformistradical 3rd Oct '16 - 5:23pm


    “I would think that the one’s that link with the public, are not listened to by those above with the power to change how things are done.”

    Could that disease (common to both state and private sector working environments) which causes employees to believe that one important factor in the chase for promotion is telling your boss what you believe (s)he wants to hear rather than what (s)he NEEDS to hear? Could it be that at least some of those dealing with the public do understand the problem but won’t tell their bosses about it?

  • This is a perfect idea and should have been implemented decades ago as other people have noted. A few years ago when I had to apply for JSA some of the letters were totally indecipherable and I’m certain were deliberately written to make sections informing you of useful facts make no sense, while pointless stuff was written understandably. The patronising language coupled with this weird style of writing was infuriating.
    I would say this should also apply to legal-ese too however. Many people in civil and family courts are expected not only to represent themselves but also to understand great folders worth of legal documentation. Family court judges can be very good at explaining the point of each clause of an order but I find that this varies, and secondly that civil court proceedings can be extremely difficult for someone trying to fight a landlord for instance, when not just a contract or tenancy agreement is in jargon but also all letters and orders from the court.

  • “I was recently transferred from Employment Support to Jobsearch (ESA to JSA) having failed (?) the dreaded fitness test. (Thats a whole story in itself, this being my 4th or 5th time through the Fail-Appeal-Win Appeal cycle, at vast public expense.)”

    I believe the Citizens Advice at one point semi-recently called for claimants only to be switched to JSA once their entitlement to challenge had been exhausted pointing out that ESA, ESA MR with new JSA claim, ESA appeal with stopping JSA claim and re-registering ESA claim, either backdated payment or JSA claim was a paperwork nightmare and added costs to the government department.

    “There are many letters not understood that gives a refusal of a benefit, but does not make clear that an appeal can be made, and what the time limit is. To say nothing of understanding why it has been refused.”

    I’m afraid I don’t agree with this, at least at this saying its true and equal for all benefits. PIP and ESA are generally good at explaining and giving Cl options to challenge. Tax Credits don’t give a good explanation (you have to phone up – good luck) however are good at giving options if you think the decision is wrong. While HB will be more variable as local authority play far bigger role I also think they are fairly good at explaining. If there was a real poor one it would be the discretionary assistance fund in Wales which basically is limited to “you don’t meet the entitlement” but even that, I believe, explains the option to challenge.

  • You have to be congratulated Suzanne not just for identifying a problem, but coming up with a very workable solution. You have clearly given this some thought, especially the proposal to rotate the location of the groups to avoid regional bias and/or people getting the hang of it.

    Some of these letters will contain a message that the recipient doesn’t want to receive, but all the more reason for it to be presented clearly and concisely. Where further options are available, these should be visible, and not hidden in legalese.

  • I think it just perpetuates the whole broken system of deserving and undeserving poor. The working party looked at a citizens wage and rejected it. I want to know why, with detailed costings. Get rid of thie bureaucratic judgmental nightmare and give everyone enough to survive on. Human beings strive to improve themselves, not many would just sit around and in case they would not have enough money left over for ‘trivial’ amusements. Am I being judmental now?

  • From the article, “In return it would save time and money for the relevant department.”

    Absolutely. What has been called “failure demand”, that is the demand on the system caused by not getting it right first time (or by not making it comprehensible), is a big percentage of the workload for many public-facing civil servants. Some of this workload is on the civil service itself, some devolves to groups like the CAB as Suzanne notes.

    In fact, it calls into question the ethos of the civil service. If they really were focussed on delivering good and efficient service (the two go together in my experience) this would not be happening. Could it be that they are so focussed on paperwork and internal targets that actually delivering for the public is reduced to an annoying complication?

  • David Allen 4th Oct '16 - 4:09pm

    This is a great idea, which unfortunately goes against the evolving philosophy of government in this country: Government by repression.

    Once upon a time Harold Macmillan called himself a one-nation Conservative because his offer was essentially: Leave toffs like me in charge, and in exchange, I’ll give everybody else a reasonably fair deal. I want to persuade you to vote for me.

    Nowadays the Tories’ offer is essentially: We’re the bosses. If you oppose us, we’ll strike you down. If you vote against us, we’ll just change leaders and policies, carry on in charge, and refuse you any comeback. I want to bully you into voting for me.

    If you’re at school, we will make you work harder and harder at exams which get dumber and dumber, so that we can claim brilliant results for schools which are now run by our commercial partners. If you are at University, we will saddle you with debts in order to enslave you. If you are in work, we will put the fear of Government into you so that you do not dare fight your bosses. We will make you fearful of losing your job, because life on benefits is frightful. When these Lib Dems come along with clever ideas to make benefits less frightening, we shall reject them contemptuously, because we want to make life on benefits more frightening, not less. That unclear English, those arbitrary sanctions – they are there for a purpose. To keep people down.

    Britons, ever ever ever shall be slaves!

  • suzanne fletcher 4th Oct '16 - 10:23pm

    thanks all for comments. nearly all seem to think it a good idea – so where next ?

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