Work Programme staff were told to increase sanctions against clients, says former employee

A former employee of three separate Work Programme providers describes how staff members were compelled to increase sanctions in order to hit financial targets.

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From 2011, at the dawn of the Work Programme, to 2014, I worked on three separate Work Programme provider contracts. At some point during each of these I, with my then colleagues, was approached by various levels of management and told in no uncertain terms to increase the number of sanctions raised on our clients.

Different justifications were given for this demand, but the implication was always the same – get the dead wood off our books so we can concentrate on the job-ready customers and hit our targets. Fortunately, I was clued-up enough to resist these attempts at coercion through a proper knowledge of the legal foundations underpinning the Work Programme, but many didn't, and, at threat of receiving a disciplinary and/or losing their jobs, complied.

If the general public could hand out medals, I'd have a chestful by now. As soon as I mention that I used to be an employment adviser on the government's Work Programme, they seem to feel I deserve one for dealing with the Stella-swigging, Sun-reading, swearing and spitting media-fuelled image they have of the typical participant. Of course, I'm always quick to point out that there's no such thing as a typical participant (I had two barristers on my case load for example) and often make a point of telling them I actually really enjoyed working with my clients – it was the system itself that I had issues with.

From my first day working on the Work Programme, I was led to believe that it was for the good of those people who found themselves unfortunate enough to be languishing in the long-term unemployment doldrums: the demotivated, the marginalised, the vulnerable. This, however, proved not to be the case. I moved to a different provider a few years later, believing it was the employer rather than the system that was at fault. Wrong again. If anything this new lot were worse. The real problem was that for staff and participants both the key word wasn't motivation, or empowerment, or education. The key word was, in fact, compliance.

In order to progress as a participant (or as a staff member, for that matter) you are required to blindly comply with the immoral, the unjust and the misguided. Many do comply, but many struggle to, for whatever reason. Many participants, consequently and often wrongly, have their benefits stopped – sanctioned, to use the official parlance. And why was this the case? Some will point the finger of blame at poor information management; some at bureaucratic incompetence; others at the lack of effective leadership and direction. Personally, I'd be tempted to say that this is what happens when you attempt to privatise the public and place financial targets on human heads.

In the first few years of the programme, the DWP paid a fee to Work Programme providers for each single job start. Now, and for obvious reasons, the DWP has rethought this process and only makes payments for sustained employment. But at that time, every provider in the country took advantage of the situation by sending participants to labour farms – factories and the like that took advantage of a willing source of cheap labour for a few days/weeks at a time, as benefited business requirements, before discarding them again.

The whole process was a costly one for the participants themselves who ended up having to wait weeks before having their benefits reinstated, relying upon hardship payments in the meantime. Hardship payments, roughly equivalent to Jobseeker's Allowance, did not however cover the rent that housing benefit pays on a live claim, putting claimants at potential risk of eviction. Attempts to resist such "farming out", to not comply with what were clearly disruptive and immoral demands, were again met with threats of disciplinary action or sanctions depending upon whether you were an employee or a participant.

There are so many wrongs I could point to regarding the day-to-day operations of my time on the Work Programme. Attempts, for example, to force sickness benefit claimants back into work when their health clearly wasn't up to task. Cases of fraud, with staff under so much pressure to meet financial targets that they felt they had to fabricate job starts.

Bullying, blackmailing, bigotry and a general lack of regard for the fact we were dealing with real people; individuals with their own specific barriers and issues who needed to be supported accordingly, not forced to comply with financially-motivated objectives. As soon as you start putting a pound sign on their heads – these barristers, baristas, welders, fitters and fabricators – you immediately cut them off from the help they are entitled to. And that, quite simply, is why the Work Programme just doesn't work – and never will while in the hands of private enterprise.

Philip Hegarty worked for three separate Work Programme providers between 2011 and 2014