Lest anyone is under the illusion that job centres are there principally to help the unemployed find work, a quick read of a new report by a parliamentary committee will prove salutary. What shines through is a harsh sanctions regime enforced by management under government orders to make life hard for claimants.
While the House of Commons work and pensions committee is not opposed to benefit sanctions, its report exposes their arbitrary nature. The MPs were also concerned that initial interviews with claimants by Jobcentre Plus staff were superficial and geared towards benefit eligibility rather than re-employment.
Under new rules introduced by the ConDems at the end of 2012, the number of sanctions has increased rapidly. Now some 5% of all Jobseekers Allowance claimants are sanctioned every month. Some 860,000 Jobseekers Allowance claimants were sanctioned in the year to June 2013, the highest number in any 12-month period since at least April
The committee’s report insists: “Our evidence suggests that many claimants have been referred for a sanction inappropriately or in circumstances in which common sense would suggest that discretion should have been applied by Jobcentre staff.”
The committee was given evidence about the consequences for the unemployed people when they suddenly losing their benefits. Church Action on Poverty (CAOP) and Oxfam reported that financial hardship due to sanctioning was a significant factor in a
recent rise in referrals to food banks. The Trussell Trust, a charitable organisation which runs the largest chain of food banks, has published statistics which show that changes to benefit payments are the third most commonly reported reason for referral to food aid.
Most Jobcentre Plus staff are in the Public and Commercial Services Union, which says it is opposed to sanctions. The PCS is scathing about the way the role of the Jobcentres has changed under successive governments, and describes them as “a sign posting outfit” with advisers used “as compliance officers”.
The union’s evidence to the committee rejects the idea that the sanctions regime increases the likelihood of someone getting a job. “Instead it seems to be more of a political measure to satisfy the anti-welfare lobby rather than a constructive measure to help people into work.”
While the Department for Work and Pensions denies that Jobcentre Plus staff have targets to meet, it is clear from this report that they exist by another name. Performance is measured primarily against the proportion of claimants coming off benefit, known by the jargon “offlow”. Even the MPs are forced to concede that sanctioning could be seen by staff as a “a route to achieving offflow performance targets”.
According to the PCS, there are “expectations” for sanctioning claimants and staff who fail to measure up can be placed on an “improvement plan” by management, potentially leading to disciplinary action and even dismissal.
The union’s evidence adds: “We have also had reports that some offices are operating what has become known as ‘botherability’. This involves asking claimants to come in to appointments in their Jobcentre at weekends, and if they miss these appointments they will be sanctioned or their claim closed. In local offices where ‘botherability’ is being used, the clear intention is to ‘bother claimants off JSA’.”
So when you read headlines about falling unemployment, dig deeper. And when you do, you’ll find the figures have fallen in part because many people have been driven into low-paid jobs or workfare schemes as a result of sanctions or the threat of them. With all the major parties trying to be more macho than each other over targeting claimants, things are not going to improve any time soon.