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.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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