Duncan Smith in the firing line over benefit sanction targets

After new evidence that job centres are being set targets, the Work and Pensions Secretary stands accused of misleading Parliament.

Ministers have consistently denied that jobcentres are being set targets for benefit sanctions in order to drive down welfare spending. On Tuesday, employment minister Mark Hoban told MPs: "There are no league tables in place. We do not set targets for sanctions."

But today's Guardian provides the clearest evidence yet that the practice has become endemic in the benefits system. In a leaked email, Ruth King, a manager at a Walthamstow jobcentre, is shown warning staff that they will be disciplined unless they increase the number of claimants referred to the "Stricter Benefits Regime", which could mean losing their payments for six months. Noting that Walthamstow is "95th in the league table out of only 109", she writes: "Guys, we really need to up the game here. The 5% target is one thing – the fact that we are seeing over 300 people a week and only submitting six of them for possible doubts is simply not quite credible."

Her advice to staff includes: "Do not accept the same job search every week, do not accept 'I dropped off CV to shops like Asda or Sainsbury's', listen for telltale phrases 'I pick up the kids', 'I look after my neighbours children/my grandchildren' or just 'I am busy' – all of which suggest that the customer may not be fully available for work, even cases where a parent shares custody can be considered."

Iain Duncan Smith has today responded by telling MPs that "There are no targets, there will be no targets and anybody caught imposing a target will themselves be dealt with." But with all evidence suggesting that the reverse is true, Labour is seeking to call the Work and Pensions Secretary to account. In a statement issued last night, Liam Byrne, Duncan Smith's shadow, said:

This explosive letter lays bare the climate of fear in Job Centres as league tables and threats of disciplinary action are used to perpetrate a culture of sanctioning innocent people to hit targets. That is just plain wrong and must be stopped – now.

I asked ministers to assure the House on Tuesday that there were no sanctions targets and no league tables. Either Ministers have no grip on their department or they misled Parliament. Either way they must now face the consequences.

He has now written to Duncan Smith asking him to guarantee that the independent review promised by the government "will get to the bottom of every sanction issued by a job centre where targets were in operation".

After Labour's much-criticised decision to abstain in this week's vote on the coalition's workfare bill (which saw 43 MPs defy the whip to vote against it), the row is an opportunity for Byrne to strengthen his position. The promise of an independent review into the sanctions regime was one of the arguments he made for not voting against the legislation. He declared last night: "This is why we took difficult decisions on the Jobseekers' Bill to secure an independent review of sanctions. We knew there were sanctions targets and now we've secured an independent report to Parliament to put right a regime in Job Centres that's running out of control."

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.