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Military veterans should not be subject to benefits sanctions – new study

The UK government published The Armed Forces Covenant in 2011. It was a “statement of the moral obligation” which exists between the nation and the country’s military “in return for the sacrifices they make”. The covenant is “a promise from the nation” that those who serve or have served are treated fairly when accessing public or commercial services.

Research has explored veterans’ interactions with the health, housing and criminal justice system. But their experiences of the UK social security system have gone unexplored – until now.

Our research – funded by the Forces in Mind Trust – was based on interviews with 68 former service personnel and 19 key stakeholders (charities, voluntary and community organisations and policy officials). The people we questioned are currently claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or Universal Credit (UC). The study represents the first project to focus specifically on how veterans experience the benefits system and raises questions about whether commitments to the covenant are being honoured.

Why is this an important issue?

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has made a series of adjustments to Jobcentre Plus (JCP) services as part its commitment to the covenant. These include locating an Armed Forces Champion (AFC) in every district. The AFC’s role is to facilitate “joint working” between the Jobcentre and the Armed Forces community.

While such initiatives are welcome, our research suggests a disparity between the commitments “on paper” and the reality on the ground for those actually using the benefits system. In particular, it highlights the difficulties veterans face navigating the system, the appropriateness of the assessment process and the wider “support” that is currently provided.

Navigating the system

Most veterans we interviewed had found work immediately or very shortly after leaving service. But many had hit a period of “crisis” and were consequently having to claim benefits. The value placed on self-sufficiency, strength of character and resilience while in the Armed Forces meant that veterans often saw claiming benefits as a reduction in status from a position of respect. One told us:

I survived for two years without a penny … I didn’t claim anything … I was too proud to go and do anything like that … It is massively degrading when you do something as proud as serving in the army.

The process of applying for benefits was sometimes particularly challenging, too. Another participant told us:

It’s like they put the needle in the haystack of needles and said ‘off you go, here’s your metal detector’, which is just picking up the stack of needles … It’s like it’s all hidden. Like we’ve got this secret pot of money that you may or may not be entitled to and we’re not going to tell you.

Some struggled to cope with the demands of the “digital by default” approach inherent in Universal Credit and the wider delivery of social security. One veteran in his 50s said he was sanctioned because he did not have the IT skills to use the system.

… everything was online … I’m 54 years old, I wasn’t sure what to do, and things weren’t made very clear … I am shocked and absolutely so let down and so deflated.

Benefit assessments

The majority of our participants described having some form of health impairment, which most attributed to their time in service. These health conditions often affected their ability to look for, undertake or sustain employment. As such, many had at some point undergone an assessment as part of their benefit claim.

Interviewees reported overwhelmingly negative experiences of such assessments. In particular, it was felt that mental health impairments were poorly understood and/or regularly disregarded by assessors. One man, for example, relayed this comment from his assessor: “To be honest, all you veterans that say you’ve got PTSD and everything, it’s just a crock of shit.”

Concerns were also raised that service medical information was not routinely being included within the assessment process. This omission was often only rectified when a third party, such as a GP or Armed Forces charity, advocated on their behalf.

The need for support

Most of our respondents had disclosed their ex-Forces status to Jobcentre Plus. But responses to disclosure seem to have varied significantly, with some Jobcentres appearing to have dedicated staff who worked with veterans (those with a large garrison located nearby) while others did not.

It was evident that the majority of people were receiving support from organisations outside the DWP such as charities and housing providers. Overall, the quality of the support being provided by Jobcentre staff appeared to be highly variable and, while there was evidence of good practice, in some cases the approach of staff was considered wholly inappropriate. One veteran claimed an advisor said “I think you should be over it by now” when he told him about his PTSD from an incident in 1988.

The UK social security system is in a period of flux. With the roll out of Universal Credit, alongside the new Work and Health Programme, the time is right to ask questions of the DWP’s covenant commitments and scrutinise how these are actually working on the ground. We urge policymakers to look at our findings and recommendations and give them due consideration going forward.

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