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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.