The war on welfare scroungers, part 94

Jobcentres are "tricking" people out of benefits to cut costs, says whistleblower.

He says that he will watch the banks "like a hawk" but allows bankers to walk away with taxpayer-funded, multimillion-pound bonuses. He says he cares about the poor but cracks down on welfare claimants. Such is our Prime Minister, David Cameron, the "compassionate Conservative".

In Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Cameron said:

Far too much in our system is lost from fraud and error and I do not think that taxpayers go to work and work hard in order to fund benefits to which people are not entitled.

Yet, as I noted on Twitter at the time, tax evasion costs the UK exchequer more than 15 times as much as benefit fraud. Why do we not hear the PM condemning tax evasion with the same vigour and regularity with which he raises the subject of benefit fraud? Instead, Cameron kicked off PMQs by condemning and defaming the anti-tax-evasion group, UK Uncut.

The coalition's "war on welfare scroungers", however, continues unabated. Here is a shocking story from today's Guardian:

Rising numbers of vulnerable jobseekers are being tricked into losing benefits amid growing pressure to meet welfare targets, a Jobcentre Plus adviser has told the Guardian.

A whistleblower said staff at his jobcentre were given targets of three people a week to refer for sanctions, where benefits are removed for up to six months. He said it was part of a "culture change" since last summer that had led to competition between advisers, teams and regional offices.

"Suddenly you're not helping somebody into sustainable employment, which is what you're employed to do," he said. "You're looking for ways to trick your customers into 'not looking for work'. You come up with many ways. I've seen dyslexic customers given written job searches and when they don't produce them -- what a surprise -- they're sanctioned. The only target that anyone seems to care about is stopping people's money.

"'Saving the public purse' is the catchphrase that is used in our office . . . It is drummed home all the time -- you're saving the public purse. Feel good about stopping someone's money, you've just saved your own pocket. Its a joke."

The claims came as the big businesses handed contracts to get the long-term jobless into work today said the government should privatise jobcentres so that their firms could work with people who have been jobless for less than a year.

Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show the total number of cases where people have lost their benefits has soared since the beginning of 2010 to 75,000 in October, the latest month available. The figures also reveal the number of claimants with registered disabilities being cut off has more than doubled to almost 20,000 over the same period.

This follows a change in the rules in April last year where sanctions were extended to claimants who were late for jobcentre interviews and other less serious offences.

So much for the "morality" and "Christian ethics" of the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith. This is a callous and cruel coalition government, engaged in a war on not just welfare "scroungers" but on the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.