GUIDELINES on how to deal with suicidal benefits claimants have been handed out by the Department for Work and Pensions to Scots workers tasked with rolling out the UK Government’s controversial welfare reforms.
As part of a six-point plan for dealing with suicidal claimants who have been denied welfare payments, call-centre staff in Glasgow have been told to wave the guidance, printed on a laminated pink card, above their head.
The guidance is meant to help staff dealing with unsuccessful applicants for Universal Credit who are threatening to self-harm or take their own life.
A manager is then meant to rush over to listen in to the call and workers – who insist they have had no formal training in the procedure – must “make some assessment on the degree of risk” by asking a series of questions.
One section of the six-point plan, titled “gather information”, demands that staff allow claimants to talk about their intention to commit suicide.
The call-centre workers, who earn between £15,000 and £17,000 a year, must “find out specifically what is planned, when it is planned for, and whether the customer has the means-to-hand”, according to the guidance seen by the Sunday Herald.
Staff are also warned in the plan that they may have “thoughts and feelings” about the situation afterwards and offered reassurance that “this is all part of the process of coping with the experience and is normal”.
Glasgow-based call-centre workers have accused the DWP of asking them to carry out the job of a psychologist or social worker.
The SNP have accused the UK Government of “playing a dangerous game with people’s lives”.
Universal Credit combines six working-age benefits – including housing benefit, Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and tax credits – into a single payment. Although not yet fully rolled out across the UK, Universal Credit is already available to benefit claimants in more than 40 so-called “Jobcentre areas” in Scotland, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling, Inverness and Dumfries as well as parts of Lanarkshire, Aberdeenshire and Ayrshire.
Processors and telephonists have to contact claimants to tell them they have been denied the new benefit or are facing sanctions which can mean payments are withheld for up to three years.
One Scottish call handler, who asked not to be named, said: “Some of us have been given a baby-pink laminated sheet which we’ve been told to hold up in the air if someone threatens to self-harm or commit suicide. So, when we are on the phone speaking to claimants – who are often very vulnerable people who are being sanctioned all the time and have no money – if they express that they intend to harm themselves or kill themselves there is a sheet instructing us how to react, which involves asking a number of questions, including how they intend to do it.
“This would suggest the DWP is expecting it to happen and I assume that this procedure is in place so that they can say they did their part. But we are not trained to deal with vulnerable people in this way. It’s a very distressing thing for us to handle.
“They’re basically telling us to assess claimants by asking how they intend to self-harm or commit suicide, which is a job that only a trained psychologist, social worker, or at the very least, a counsellor should be doing.”
Another worker said: “There was a man on the phone to me who said if he didn’t get money he’d kill himself. This was before we were issued with the guidelines and I wasn’t sure what to do so I could only try to calm him down.
“He hung up the phone and when I tried to call him back I couldn’t get through. It was very upsetting. I spent the rest of the day worried that he may have taken his own life.
“It wasn’t until the next day that a colleague told me they spoke to him later and he didn’t go through with it.
“But I know of colleagues who have been told by claimants that they are going to commit suicide and they have done so. It’s devastating for them.”
Scottish Minister for Social Justice, SNP MSP Alex Neil, denounced the six-point plan and urged Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith to rethink his policies.
He said: “I would call on him to immediately withdraw his six-point plan and bin it because it’s playing a dangerous game with people’s lives.
“It is totally outrageous and unacceptable to put his staff in the position of playing God. They are not medically qualified to properly assess anyone with mental health problems. This is a recipe for tragedy.
“What this is doing is putting people in real danger because if people are assessed wrongly and they are already feeling suicidal it could drive somebody over the edge. This is utterly the wrong thing to do and Iain Duncan Smith should immediately withdraw these guidelines, apologise and have an immediate rethink of the policy.
“It shows total disregard for the wellbeing of the benefit claimant and the DWP staff who are being put in this invidious position. Quite frankly, it’s morally wrong.
“The UK Government is leaving itself open to the charge that this six-point plan is an admission that its welfare reforms are putting people at risk. You could draw that conclusion. That is the implication of what they are doing.”
Lynn Henderson, Scottish secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents many of the DWP staff, also criticised the procedures, saying: “For most of us the thought of suicide is unimaginable but for PCS members in DWP the unimaginable is becoming harsh reality.
“As benefits are cut, people in desperate need are finding they cannot contemplate a future worth living for – and DWP’s solution is to ask overburdened staff, who are under enormous pressure themselves, to take responsibility for spotting whether members of the public are likely to take their own lives or not.
“It’s disgraceful that this Government, rather than recognising that its own policies are driving people to despair, is applying sticking-plaster solutions by asking our low-paid, undervalued members to take on what are literally life-or-death responsibilities.”
A DWP spokesman said: “Our frontline Jobcentre staff work hard every day supporting people to find jobs and it is only right we provide a range of training and guidance to assist them in their work.”
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