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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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