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Benefit halted after eucharist request refused

25 July 2014

iSTOCK

IT HAS been celebrated in churches for more than 350 years; but a court has now ruled that attendance at a Book of Common Prayer (BCP) service of holy communion "could not be regarded as an established custom and practice" of the Church of England.

The ruling came in unsuccessful challenges to the First Tier and Upper Tier Tribunals against a decision by Jobcentre staff to stop unemployed benefit to a theology student.

His error was to go to a eucharist in Chester Cathedral instead of attending an interview with officials from Jobcentre Plus.

Graham Hodson, a former communications supervisor with Cheshire Police, claimed Jobseeker's Allowance on 23 August 2012 after his student-related job at the University of Chester came to an end. A month later he was given two days' notice through "a written instruction requiring him to attend an interview with a personal adviser". He asked the official to rearrange it for half-an-hour later so that he could attend the cathedral's weekly BCP service of holy communion.

The request was refused. Mr Hodson went to the service anyway. As a result, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) withdrew his unemployment benefit, saying that, under the regulations, a person who does not attend an interview with an adviser "is to be regarded as not having made a claim for a specific benefit" unless he can show "good cause for his failure to take part in the interview".

The regulations say that a good cause includes "that the established customs and practices of the religion to which the person belongs prevented him attending on that day or at that time".

The First Tier Tribunal (FTT) rejected Mr Hodson's appeal against the decision to suspend his benefit, saying: "The Tribunal do not accept that attendance at that particular service could be regarded as an established custom and practice of the religion to which the appellant belonged.

"Mr Hodson's [sic] attended services of Holy Communion several times throughout the week but attendance on Thursday was a preference rather [than] an established practice or custom."

The decision was upheld on appeal to the Upper Tier Tribunal. Judge Mark Hemingway said that "The appellant appears to suggest, in effect, that the FTT erred in failing to appreciate that the particular service he wished to attend was of special and particular significance."

The judge ruled that, because Mr Hodson had said that "he would make other arrangements to attend communion" if he had been offered a full-time job, "it was open to the FTT to decide, as it did, that he would have been able to attend a similar Holy Communion service on a different day.

"Thus, it was open to it to conclude that the established customs and practices of his religion did not prevent him from attending an interview on that particular day."

Mr Hodson, who was not legally represented, described the decision as "absolutely ludicrous".

He said: "At the end of the day, there would have been no business impediment for the Jobcentre to allow me to have a different interview for me to go ahead and worship at a BCP communion.

"It is wrong that, even in this very secular UK that we are living in, these things should be ill-afforded to people who are expressing their faith and, in my case, discerning a calling for ministry. I don't think it would have been a big deal for me to have gone to a 30-minute communion service on a day when they could have quite reasonably rescheduled my personal adviser interview."

The vice-president of the Prayer Book Society, the Labour MP Frank Field, a campaigner on benefit reform and poverty issues, said: "This decision beggars belief. It seems that common sense and discretion are found wanting in a growing minority of sanctions decisions."

The DWP on Wednesday defended its position: "It is important that people approach looking for a job as a full-time job in itself, and we will always take religious practices into account when people are claiming Jobseeker's Allowance.

"If a jobseeker isn't going to be able to attend an interview at the Jobcentre, it is important they discuss it with - and get agreement from - their adviser beforehand."

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