Newly released emails show pressure on JCP staff to sanction ever more claimants

There has been a long-running argument about whether the management of Jobcentre Plus (JCP) set targets for benefit sanctions. Ministers are adamant there are no targets for sanctioning people off benefits, while nearly everyone else laughs incredulously and say there quite obviously are. The Work and Pensions Select Committee are currently conducting an enquiry into the issue of sanctions, and recently spoke to the PCS union which represents thousands of JCP staff. Late last week, the select committee published some supplementary evidence supplied by the PCS union, that provides email evidence to show the pressure Jobcentre staff are being put under to increase the number of claimants they are referring for sanctions.

If you read the document linked to above, you’ll be left in little doubt that targets for sanctions exist, and that the management ethos has little to do with getting people into work, and everything to do with chucking as many people off benefits as possible. Rank and file staff are facing disciplinaries for failing to meet targets. This is not based on whether the actual decisions advisors make are the correct ones, but simply how many claimants they refer for sanctions. They are being told that if jobseekers are meeting their Jobseeker’s agreements consistently, they should be made tougher, to increase the chance they will do something wrong so they can be sanctioned.

Here are a couple of quotes from the emails documented by the PCS:

On toughening up jobseeker’s agreements if they are being met by claimants:

“If all your customers are meeting their commitment easily, then challenge them further to undertake more jobsearch activity.”

The targets seem to be for off-flows, rather than off-flows into work (get people off benefits at all cost). JCP workers are singled out for praise if they sanction an unusually high number of claimants:

“The team has achieved 39 off-flows for May 2014 cohort with [name redacted] having a whopping 11. Well done.”

The PCS evidence also reveals unacceptable pressure being placed on claimants of ESA (those judged too sick to work). They note misleading and potentially intimidating letters being sent to people in the support group (who have no prospect of being able to work in the near future), asking them to attend meetings they are under no obligation to go too.

There are also reports of targets to get sick people to undertake work experience, and that businesses are reluctant to take people on these placements, so Jobcentres are resorting to make the claimants do work experience in the Job Centre!

I’d urge you to read the whole document. It’s quite a damning indictment on the management culture within Jobcentre Plus (no doubt in the face of ministerial pressure), the stress that places on frontline staff, and in turn leading to the shameful treatment of the claimants themselves, all so some faceless management bods can tick a box somewhere and get a pat on the head from their boss. Shit always rolls down hill as they say.

Michael Meacher’s Speech on Benefit Sanctions

There was a backbench debate in the House of Commons today on the DWP’s use of benefit sanctions. The official line is that claimants are only ever sanctioned if they are not doing what is required of them to either find work or prepare for work. The strong suspicion however is that sanctions are being used primarily to get people off benefits. Labour MP Michael Meacher opened the debate with a speech in which he gave numerous examples of where claimants have been sanctioned through no fault of their own, and highlighted the impact this can have on people’s lives. Here is the text of the first part of his speech (from Hansard):

“I beg to move,

That this House notes that there have been many cases of sanctions being wrongfully applied to benefit recipients; and call on the Government to review the targeting, severity and impact of such sanctions…

…From the evidence that I have collected from my constituency surgery, Citizens Advice, YMCA, the excellent Work and Pensions Committee report on this issue and the Library, it is abundantly clear that the standards that the DWP likes to claim always apply in sanctioning cases far too often certainly do not. I wish to cite a number of cases drawn directly from those sources.

A security guard at a jobcentre turned away a man with learning disabilities who had arrived 20 minutes early to sign on. The man then returned two minutes late to sign on and had his JSA sanctioned for 4 weeks.

A man was sanctioned for four weeks because he had not known about an appointment as the letter had been sent to an address that he had left a year ago, even though Jobcentre Plus was aware of his current address.

A woman claiming employment and support allowance had been diagnosed with cervical cancer and had given the back-to-work scheme provider a list of her hospital appointments. She was sanctioned for failing to attend an appointment on the middle day of her three-day hospital stay. The woman had two daughters but her ESA was reduced to £28 a week. She asked for reconsideration, but had heard nothing five weeks later.

A woman was sanctioned for failing to attend provider-led training when the receptionist had rung to tell her not to come in because the trainer was ill. She was subsequently told that she should have attended to sign the attendance register.

A woman whose ESA was sanctioned had her benefit reduced from £195 to less than £50 per fortnight because she missed a back-to-work scheme appointment owing to illness. Her sister had rung two days beforehand to say that she could not attend and arranged another date, when she did attend.

An epileptic man had his JSA sanctioned for four weeks because he did not attend a back-to-work scheme meeting as his two-year old daughter was taken ill and he was her sole carer that day. He rang the provider in advance, but was told this would still have to be noted as “did not attend”. During the four-week sanction he suffered hunger, hardship, stress and an increase in epileptic attacks, but he was not told about hardship payments or food banks or how to appeal the sanction decision.

Lastly, a man in Yorkshire and Humber was sanctioned for allegedly failing to attend back-to-work scheme events. He had in fact attended, and the provider had no record of any failures. His hardship request was not processed, his housing benefit was stopped, and he fell into rent arrears and had no money for food, gas or electricity.

These are not isolated or exceptional cases.”

There seems to be the beginnings of a bit of cross-party opposition to the DWP’s behavior with regards to sanctions, and I believe an independent review into their use is under way. While I don’t expect it to result in huge change, if it ultimately means fewer sanctions, then some good will have been done.

 

Poverty porn, appealing the Bedroom Tax and how to rob a bank

The BBC aired another documentary from the ‘poverty porn’ genre this week, where Boris Johnson’s sister, someone off Eastenders, a posh bloke and Theo Paphitis dropped in on people struggling in today’s ‘cost of living crisis’. Here’s two blog posts on issues raised by this show (and others like it):

The Rationale behind Poverty Street Media?

When political issues are reduced to acts of charity

Joe Halewood has been blogging tirelessly on the bedroom tax for months now, and in this post he demonstrates how easy it could be to appeal the bedroom tax:

How to appeal and strangle the bedroom tax – 5 minutes (and you’re almost there!)

For a long time now, it’s been very clear that Jobcentre Plus is no longer worthy of the name. It’s whole operation is now about sanctioning as many people as possible. This blog describes how they may be going beyond what the law allows in their zeal to get people of benefits:

Most jobseeker agreements ruled unlawful – and the DWP doesn’t care

This is a good lay man’s guide to the Ukraine situation:

What Is Going On In Ukraine? An Explanation For the Confused

And here, Neil Wilson blogs on what should happen with the national debt should Scotland vote for independence:

Scottish Independence Myths – The National Debt

In this post, Peter Martin, explains why talk of the need for austerity for years to come is based on ‘muddled thinking’:

Muddled Thinking Watch #1 “We will need decades of austerity not years” writes Philip Booth

Here’s a nice video of a talk by the great Bill Black, explaining “How to rob a bank”.

Finally, yesterday we got the sad news that Tony Benn had passed away at the age of 88. I was excited to go and see him speak a couple of years ago. He was getting frail then, but still in fine form. This 10 minute video is a great reminder that on most things, he was right:

Iain Duncan Smith defies all logic (again). And then there’s Liam Byrne…

Iain Duncan Smith was interviewed for today’s Sunday Telegraph, and is sounding increasingly deranged. Under ever increasing pressure to reduce the welfare bill (an impossible task given the Coalition’s fiscal stance), Smith appealed to wealthy pensioners to ‘hand back their benefits’ if they didn’t need them. So rather than changing the rule on universal benefits (which is a bad idea in itself), he is resorting to trying to make little old ladies feel guilty about their winter fuel payments as though it is costing the nation billions (it’s not). That’s not what I wanted to write about today though. Duncan Smith also said this:

“We want to say to people, you’re claiming unemployment benefit but you’re actually in work paid for by the state: you’re in work to find work. That’s your job from now on: to find work.”

Duncan Smith’s tried this line before. We people objected to job seekers being forced to work for nothing in Poundland he said (of Caitlin Reilly):

“She was being paid for it (working at Poundland), what do you think the taxpayer was paying her for God’s sake? Her job seekers allowance. The taxpayer is paying her wages.”

IDS persists with this idea that the unemployed need to be constantly harassed to get off their lazy arses and look for work, and it informs every aspect of the Coalition’s employment policy. The elephant in the room though is always the tyranny of the maths – 2.5 million unemployed is a much bigger number than the (less than) 500,000 vacancies currently available.

Duncan Smith’s views on unemployment and the unemployed just doesn’t stand up to more than 5 seconds scrutiny, so it got me wondering if maybe he just hasn’t met many unemployed people, and I thought I’d see if there was a negative correlation between an MPs view on unemployment and the unemployment rate in their constituency. Maybe if unemployment is very low where your voters live, it informs your view on the problem and those who are unemployed? So I downloaded the March 2013 JSA claimant rates from Nomis by constituency to see how much of an issue unemployment is in the constituencies of Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet MPs. Here’s the average claimant rate in Cabinet and Labour front-bench constituencies:

JSA Claimant Rate

The claimant rate nationally is currently 3.9%, but in the constituencies of the Coalition “Cabinet of millionaires”, the average rate is just 2.2%, while in the constituencies of Labour front-benchers the average rate is 5.2%, much higher than the national average. Looking at the rates in individual Cabinet Minister’s constituencies we see a pretty common pattern. Unemployment in the constituencies of Cabinet members is typically very low – David Cameron, 1.4%; Nick Clegg, 1.5%; George Obsorne, 2.0%; Theresa May, 1.8%; Michael Gove 1.7% etc. So it may be that in these parts of the country the issue of unemployment is secondary to other issues like planning, wind farms etc. So my hypothesis that low unemployment at home leads to skewed attitudes towards the issue looks plausible.

There are in fact only two members of the Cabinet who have above average levels of unemployment in their constituencies – Welsh Secretary David Jones (who he?) and – wait for it – Iain Duncan Smith! I was surprised to discover that in Chingford and Woodford Green, 4.2% of the working age population are in receipt of JSA. So if Duncan Smith spends any time in his constituency at all, it must be obvious that not all of these people can be lazy scroungers and that there must be an issue around a lack of jobs. Does he think the people of Witney (Cameron’s constituency) are all “hard-working families who want to get on”, while his constituents are all skivers and scroungers? Only someone wilfully blind could dismiss the lack of jobs as the problem and instead blame the attitude of individuals couldn’t they?

But what of Labour? We saw above that unemployment is significantly higher in Labour constituencies than Coalition ones. Does that mean they have more empathy with those who are unemployed and a better understanding of the issue? Ed Miliband (5.9% JSA rate) has talked about returning to the idea of full employment, while Ed Balls (3.2% JSA rate) proposes a new jobs programme for young people. Labour’s ideas are timid and also place a too much of a focus on the individual, but they at least acknowledge the need to actually create jobs. Again then, there’s an argument that higher unemployment in Labour seats makes them more attuned the problem of unemployment.

But there’s one front-bencher’s constituency that has much higher unemployment than any others, with a whopping 9.6% of working age adults claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. He more than any other must understand that is a chronic lack of jobs that has kept unemployment high surely? So who is this person? Step forward MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill Liam Byrne. This is the man who led Labour’s decision to abstain from the Bill retroactively made legal the Government’s sanctioning regime and consistently tries to ‘talk tough’ on welfare, giving credence to the idea that there are hundreds of thousands out there who are on the take. How can he come out with this garbage representing the constituency he does?

So what can we conclude? In general we might think that if an MP’s constituents are unemployed in greater numbers, the greater will their concern be for the unemployment issue and vice versa. If you are a welfare spokesman though, it seems you have to check your brains in at the door, and compete to see who can talk the toughest. Is that what they mean by good politics?

APPENDIX

JSA Claimant Rates by Constituency March 2013

LABOUR      
MP Constituency Number of Claimants Claimant Rate
Ed Miliband Doncaster North 3,594 5.9
Harriet Harman Camberwell and Peckham 5,403 6.2
Ed Balls Morley and Outwood 2,159 3.2
Douglas Alexander Paisley and Renfrewshire South 3,294 6.0
Yvette Cooper Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford 3,475 5.0
Sadiq Khan Tooting 2,329 3.2
Rosie Winterton Doncaster Central 4,354 6.8
Andy Burnham Leigh 3,030 4.7
Stephen Twigg Enfield, Southgate 2,015 3.4
Chuka Umunna Streatham 4,158 5.3
Jim Murphy East Renfrewshire 1,340 2.4
Hilary Benn Leeds Central 7,521 7.0
Angela Eagle Wallasey 2,719 4.9
Caroline Flint Don Valley 2,761 4.6
Maria Eagle Garston and Halewood 3,474 5.5
Liam Byrne Birmingham, Hodge Hill 6,810 9.6
Ivan Lewis Bury South 2,567 4.1
Mary Creagh Wakefield 3,301 5.3
Jon Trickett Hemsworth 2,849 4.7
Tom Watson West Bromwich East 3,907 7.6
Vernon Coaker Gedling 2,215 3.7
Margaret Curren Glasgow East 3,811 6.7
Owen Smith Pontypridd 1,932 3.6
COALITION      
MP Constituency Number of Claimants Claimant Rate
David Cameron Witney 920 1.4
Nick Clegg Sheffield, Hallam 944 1.5
William Hague Richmond (Yorks) 1,208 1.8
George Osborne Tatton 995 2.0
Danny Alexander Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey 1,738 2.8
Theresa May Maidenhead 1,194 1.8
Philip Hammond Runnymede and Weybridge 968 1.4
Vince Cable Twickenham 1,283 1.7
Iain Duncan Smith Chingford and Woodford Green 2,151 4.2
Chris Grayling Epsom and Ewell 1,010 1.5
Michael Gove Surrey Heath 1,121 1.7
Eric Pickles Brentwood and Ongar 1,194 2.0
Jeremy Hunt South West Surrey 876 1.4
Owen Paterson North Shropshire 1,954 3.1
Justine Greening Putney 1,772 2.6
Michael Moore Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk 1,962 3.4
Ed Davey Kingston and Surbiton 1,525 1.7
Patrick McLoughlin Derbyshire Dales 675 1.4
Maria Miller Basingstoke 1,825 2.6
Theresa Villiers Chipping Barnet 1,986 2.6
David Jones Clwyd West 1,722 4.1
Kenneth Clarke Rushcliffe 1,180 1.9
George Young North West Hampshire 1,124 1.8
Francis Maude North Warwickshire 1,585 2.8
Oliver Letwin West Dorset 688 1.3
Grant Shapps Welwyn Hatfield 1,758 2.4