“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. 

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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