Two whistleblowers have come forward to select committee panel. Photo: Getty/Matt Cardy
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“Unscrupulous staff set claimants up to fail”: MPs attack the sanction culture at Jobcentres

Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, said evidence being heard in the current DWP select committee will leave ministers with no place to hide. 

A Labour MP has claimed that the government has developed a culture in which Jobcentre Plus advisers are expected to sanction claimants using "unjust" and "potentially fraudulent reasons", in order to get people off social security.

Speaking to the New Statesman, Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth – who instigated the current Department for Work and Pensions select committee inquiry into benefits sanctions beyond the Oakley review – said that this created an illusion of the government bringing down unemployment. 

Abrahams added: “The last thing Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey want is for this uncomfortable truth to be uncovered and that’s why they've consistently refused to hold an in-depth inquiry to investigate the appropriate use of sanctions.

"The evidence we are hearing from courageous whistleblowers – one of whom I met when I took him to meet Iain Duncan Smith face-to-face – and many other individuals and organisations, who have seen first-hand the effect of this government's inhumane methods, will leave the ministers no place to hide at the final sessions on 4 February when they will have to account for their actions.”

One of the whistleblowers who submitted written evidence to the inquiry was Ian Wright, an ex-employee of the Department for Work and Pensions. Wright said in the evidence handed to MPs in December 2014 that he was ordered by managers to send more claimants for sanction, only to be threatened with disciplinary action when he questioned the policy. 

The whistleblower who worked as a personal adviser at a busy inner-city Jobcentre in Leicester said: “There are staff with few scruples who will set up claimants to fail by failing to give out information or giving false information.” In one case a customer who could neither read or write was formally directed to put their CV on a job match website. “Unsurprisingly they did not manage this task and were sanctioned.”

The whistleblower also questioned the basis of the system: “To seriously aggravate the situation, is that as soon as JSA payment is suspended, the claimant’s housing benefit also stops. For many of the most vulnerable this can lead to homelessness, which I suggest does not assist either their health or job prospects in any way.”

Another former adviser, said in his evidence submitted to the select committee that the Jobcentre branch where he worked had set up “hit squads” and actively encouraged employees to “agitate” and “inconvenience” benefit claimants in order to get them to leave the centre’s register.

 “Customers dealt with by these squads had their job search scrutinised at an almost forensic level in order to get a suspension of benefit… customers would often break down and cry or argue because they felt that they were being treated unfairly,” he added.

These cases aren’t the first instances of whistleblowers from Jobcentres coming forward: in 2011, the Guardian reported that an adviser told them that Jobcentres were “tricking” people out of benefits to cut costs. And last year in a wide-ranging survey the Public and Commercial Services union – which represents 67,000 members from the Department of Work and Pensions – claimed that 36 per cent of union members surveyed said they had been placed on a performance improvement plan for not making enough sanctions referrals.

A union spokesperson for PCS said to the New Statesman: "The pressure on advisers to stop claimants' benefits for all manner of minor infringements is immense and intolerable. There is no evidence that strict conditions and sanctions do anything to help people find long-term, sustainable employment. All they do is force people off benefits, yet DWP refuses to monitor what happens to people after they sign off."

Hazel Blears, Labour MP for Salford and Eccles, responding to some of the written evidence in the select committee said: "These are extremely serious and detailed allegations and I will be seeking assurances that they have been properly and independently investigated, and asking to see the conclusions of the investigation. I hope they will also be carefully considered by the select committee.

"I totally agree with the principle that anyone who is fit to work should make every effort to find a job and learn new skills in order to help them do so. However, if evidence that people are being deliberately set up to fail and that artificial targets are being set to stop benefits is shown to be credible, that is totally unacceptable and the DWP will have serious questions to answer."

A DWP spokesperson responding to one of the whistleblower’s claims said: “These allegations were thoroughly investigated and no evidence was found to substantiate them.  Furthermore, the people named in the allegations strongly refute them. The reality is, sanctions are a necessary part of the benefits system but they are used as a last resort in a tiny minority of cases where people don’t play by the rules. Jobcentre Plus advisers work hard every day to help people into work. There are no targets for sanctions.”

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn



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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.