From The Guardian, 1 April 2011 (story by John Domokos)
Rising numbers of vulnerable jobseekers are being tricked into losing benefits amid growing pressure to meet welfare targets, a Jobcentre Plus adviser has told the Guardian.
A whistleblower said staff at his jobcentre were given targets of three people a week to refer for sanctions, where benefits are removed for up to six months. He said it was part of a “culture change” since last summer that had led to competition between advisers, teams and regional offices.
“Suddenly you’re not helping somebody into sustainable employment, which is what you’re employed to do,” he said. “You’re looking for ways to trick your customers into ‘not looking for work’. You come up with many ways. I’ve seen dyslexic customers given written job searches, and when they don’t produce them – what a surprise – they’re sanctioned. The only target that anyone seems to care about is stopping people’s money.
“‘Saving the public purse’ is the catchphrase that is used in our office … It is drummed home all the time – you’re saving the public purse. Feel good about stopping someone’s money, you’ve just saved your own pocket. Its a joke.”
The claims came as the big businesses handed contracts to get the long term jobless into worktoday said the government should privatise jobcentres so that their firms could work with people who have been jobless for less than a year.
Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show the total number of cases where people have lost their benefits has soared since the beginning of 2010 to 75,000 in October, the latest month available. The figures also reveal the number of claimants with registered disabilities being cut off has more than doubled to almost 20,000 over the same period.
This follows a change in the rules in April last year where sanctions were extended to claimants who were late for jobcentre interviews and other less serious offences.
When a claimant is sanctioned their jobseeker’s allowance is stopped. They then have to apply for hardship payments, which are usually about half the allowance, or just over £30 a week. John, in Wigan, has been sanctioned for six months and says he has to rely on food parcels and must sleep on his friend’s couch. “It’s left me in a state of depression. I’ve lost weight, I’m tired … I feel like I’ve been attacked for no reason.”
The whistleblower blamed the targets. “We were told suddenly that [finding someone to sanction] once a week wasn’t good enough, we were far behind other offices, and we went to a meeting where they compared us with other offices, and said we now have to do three a week to catch up. Most staff go into work and they’re thinking about it from moment one – who am I going to stop this week?”
The DWP denies there are specific targets, but the Guardian has seen email evidence of referral targets in one office, and the issue of targets has been raised by employees on online forums.
The DWP said: “To say that we are targeting vulnerable people is ridiculous. We only sanction people if they do not adhere to their agreement. We are massively expanding the help and support that jobseekers will receive to ensure that they get the right help and support to get into work. If someone is incapable of work, they will continue to receive unconditional support.”
But the whistleblower said the policy hit the vulnerable instead of hardcore benefit cheats, who he said were a small group. “The young often fall into it, because they haven’t been there long enough, they are generally a major target. The uneducated are another major target. I’ve seen people with … seriously low educational standards and it’s easy to exploit them.”
He said staff had different ways to ensure they could stop benefits for a set amount of people. “So, for example, if you want someone to diversify – they’re an electrician or a plumber, they may not want to go into call centres or something. What you do is keep promoting such and such a job, and you pressure them into taking it off you, the piece of paper. Then in two weeks you look at the system, you ask them if they applied for it … they say no – you stop their money for six months.
“You very rarely see the hardcore taken because they know the forms – they know it better than the staff, the system.”
Shirley Cramer of the charity Dyslexia Action warned that the true impact on people with learning difficulties was likely to be higher because in many cases it was a hidden disability. “Because we know there are large numbers of them, and that they are hidden, and that they are over-represented in disadvantaged groups, they are very much at risk. And we know that with a bit of help they can be terrific employees.”
Martin John, national officer for the Public and Commercial Services Union, said ministers had demanded a tougher approach since the general election. “We are against the use of targets for labour market sanctions, and are worried about the financial impact on people.”
Citizens Advice has reported a significant rise in clients who have had their benefits cut. Andy Robertson, a caseworker in South Tyneside, an area with 13% unemployment, has a huge pile of paperwork for appeals, and says his casework has more than doubled in the last year. “What’s happening at the moment is possibly the worst thing I’ve ever seen with regard to practice from the DWP. Clients seem to be getting sanctioned for next to nothing,” he said.
Robertson worked for eight years as an adviser and financial assessor at jobcentres. He has also seen the changes affect many vulnerable clients, such as those with dyslexia or mental health problems. “Advisers were previously exercising their discretion … now the client-adviser balance doesn’t seem to exist any more.”
Yvonne Fovargue, the Labour MP for Makerfield, raised the issue of sanctioning in parliament during a reading of the new Welfare Reform Act. She is worried that at a time when funding to support groups such as Citizens Advice is being cut, an even stricter regime is being introduced.
Fovargue said the situation would only get worse with the drive to bring people off incapacity benefit and on to the jobseeker’s allowance, where they are suddenly exposed to these sanctions.
The whistleblower also thinks there will be an impact. “A lot of them haven’t been in work for a number of years. So I’m not expecting them to understand the system … which will make for easy sanctions.
“This cannot be right that we are using a department that’s supposed to help people into work to stop them getting benefit that a lot of them are entitled to.”
In Wigan, John said he first found out he had been sanctioned when the money did not appear in his account on the usual day. His jobcentre told him it was because he had missed the deadline for three jobs. He said his Jobcentre adviser said he would send application forms in the post, but they arrived too late. “It’s outrageous … to leave someone with no money for six months. It’s totally hindered my jobsearching, I spend all of my time dealing with these problems now.”
The whistleblower says his office has been told there is no more money for back to work training from April. “From April, we offer no provision … nothing, no training course, nothing. The funding ends at the end of March.
“[Now] your office can shine through one of two targets. You can either shine through getting people into work, but that’s really difficult. Or you can stop their money, and that’s really easy.”
Case study John Robson, 53, South Shields
“It never seems to go away. Every day you’re thinking: ‘I haven’t got a letter today, so obviously there isn’t a sanction going against me.’ Another day there’s a brown envelope from the DWP and you think: ‘What’s this for?’ There’s always that cloud hanging over you.”
Robson was made redundant from his job as a delivery driver 13 months ago. “I was 17 when I started work so I’ve been working for 35 years. I’m not Jack the lad who’s never been in a job and is trying to con the government. I want to work, I just can’t get a job.
“You try your best, and the minute you do something wrong, they’re on you like a ton of bricks.”
Robson has been sanctioned three times. First he was ill and missed a jobcentre appointment. Next he was sanctioned for not applying for one job. “I was sure I had applied for it but I couldn’t find evidence that I had. If you apply for job after job after job, and you get nowhere with it, you can lose track.”
Robson turned to Citizens Advice for help. He won the appeal, but his financial situation remains precarious. “It reached the point where I’d visit my mother and sit there for hours just to get warm, use her shower and cooker, because I couldn’t afford the gas and electricity.”
Recently he was sanctioned for a week, again for not applying for a job. “Because of all the hassle with them I thought, ‘What the hell,’ and just gave up on it. I shouldn’t have accepted it, but you get ground down so much. So many things go wrong when you’re unemployed, and you just get so disheartened.
“It’s actually quite frightening being out there. And nobody seems to care. It’s like a lot of things of life – things are set in place by people who don’t actually experience it themselves.”
Additional reporting: Lisa Evans