Anyone with half a brain cell knows that the current government are not adverse to lying about their ‘achievements’ – even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
So we come to the claims of government that they have been responsible for increased employment and a reduction in the numbers of people claiming benefits – claims which are contested by academics at the University of Oxford.
Digging deeper into government claims, the academics found that hundreds of thousands of jobseeker’s allowance claimants stop claiming without finding employment – the ‘disappear’ from the welfare system.
Prof David Stuckler, of Oxford University, said that benefit sanctions “…do not appear to help people return to work. There is a real concern that sanctioned persons are disappearing from view. What we need next is a full cost-benefit analysis that looks not just narrowly at employment but possibly at hidden social costs of sanctions.
“If, as we’re finding, people are out of work but without support – disappeared from view – there’s a real danger that other services will absorb the costs, like the NHS, possibly jails and food support systems, to name a few. Sanctions could be costing taxpayers more.”
The research is being presented today (Wednesday 21st January) at a Commons select committee inquiry into welfare sanctions.
The Oxford-based research showed that between June 2011 and March 2014, more than 1.9m sanctions were imposed on people receiving jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), with 43% of those sanctioned subsequently ceasing to try to claim the benefit. Only 20% of those who left gave as their stated reason that they had found work.
Study author Dr Rachel Loopstra, from Oxford University, said: “The data did not give us the full picture of why sanctioned people have stopped claiming unemployment benefit. We can say, however, that there was a large rise in the number of people leaving JSA for reasons that were not linked to employment in association with sanctioning. On this basis, it appears that the punitive use of sanctions is driving people away from social support.”
The main union representing jobcentre staff, PCS – also due to give evidence on Wednesday to the select committee inquiry – suggests: “While there is considerable anecdotal evidence about the inappropriate use of sanctions, there is a lack of empirical evidence. We believe that DWP should publish a more detailed breakdown of sanctions, and specifically more detailed explanations as to why they were imposed. PCS’s survey of our adviser members showed that 61% had experienced pressure to refer claimants to sanctions where they believed it may be inappropriate to do so.”
Critics, however, say that the sanctions system has spiralled out of control since the coalition tightened benefit conditionality in autumn 2012. Ten years ago, typically a thousand people a month would be sanctioned; by October 2013 that figure hit 12,000 and currently stands at around 7,000. In some areas up to 10% of all unemployment benefit claimants were sanctioned.
Sanctioning is no longer a last resort tactic aimed at the stubbornly workshy, say critics, but a crude way of pushing down claimant numbers and cutting back on the benefits bill. The work and pensions committee has heard estimates that sanctions have seen £275m withheld from claimants – who are already living on the breadline – over the past two years. The biggest impact has been on vulnerable individuals, such as people who are unable, rather than unwilling, to comply with the benefit conditions.
Food banks and local authority crisis welfare schemes report that sanctions account for the increasing number of penniless people who come to them in desperation. One of the most shocking aspects of the sanctions regime has been the number of stories of people who have been driven to crime or destitution – in some cases with fatal consequences – after having their benefits stopped, often for spurious reasons.
The bottom line, according to the people that deliver the government’s Work Programme is this: the current sanctions regime, introduced two years ago, makes the job of getting people off benefits and into work harder.
As Kirsty McHugh, the chief executive of the work programme providers representative group, the Employment Related Services Association (Ersa), put it:
“For a minority of people, receiving a sanction can be the wake-up call they need to help them move into work. However, for the vast majority of jobseekers, sanctions are more likely to hinder their journey into employment.”
Another piece of evidence of government manipulation is being presented to the Committee by former Jobcentre official, John Longden.
Longden states frontline staff were ordered to “agitate and inconvenience” customers so they fell foul of the rules, enabling staff to stop their benefits payments.
Staff who failed to meet sanctions targets each month were threatened with disciplinary action, he claims.
Longden says he was told by a manager that the message with regard to customers was: “Let’s set them up from day one.”
He adds: “Customers were being deliberately treated inappropriately in order to achieve [staff] performance [targets] without regard for natural justice and their welfare.”
Longden’s evidence covers events he says he witnessed at Salford and Rochdale jobcentres between 2011 and 2013.
Longden claims that staff used several tricks to set up claimants. On several occasions jobcentre advisers purposefully booked job appointments without informing the claimant, ensuring they could be sanctioned when they failed to attend.
Claimants would be set unreasonable job search targets, referred for jobs for which they were clearly unsuited, or ordered to sign on every day in the hope they would fail in a task, miss an appointment or be late.
“The aim was to find an opportunity to make a referral to the decision maker [an official who decides whether to sanction a claimant] with the possibility of getting the customer sanctioned.
“It was distressing to see so many customers treated in such a way,” states Longden.
“One customer was made to attend daily for two months and eventually broke down and wept in the office.”
He adds: “Staff were threatened by the cluster manager that their jobs would be taken by other people if they didn’t do what they were told.”
Longden says he raised objections with his line manager more than once after witnessing staff take inappropriate action, but no action was taken.
He says staff “were being asked to behave in a manner that was against the [DWP’s] values of integrity and honesty”. The confrontational approach caused arguments with customers and sometimes police would have to be called to restore order.
Longden, who says he spent 23 years as a jobcentre adviser, states: “Sanctions of customers were encouraged by managers daily, with staff being told to look at every engagement with the customer as an opportunity to take sanction action.
“I was personally told by a manager to ‘agitate’ and ‘inconvenience’ customers in order to get them to leave the register.”
Ian Wright, a former personal adviser at a Leicester jobcentre, states he was ordered by managers to send more claimants for sanction, and was threatened with disciplinary action when he questioned the policy.
Unscrupulous staff would target weak and vulnerable claimants for sanctions, he states. In one case a customer who could neither read nor write was formally directed to put their CV on a job match website. “Unsurprisingly they did not manage this task and were sanctioned.”
The reality of government claims of reducing unemployment and getting more people back to work are fictitious.
Iain Duncan Smith and his cohorts have ensured that a culture of fear exists within the Department for Work and Pensions where Jobcentre staff were bullied into ‘punishing’ vulnerable members of society in order to try and reduce the numbers claiming benefits.
Over the course of the past two years there have been revelations by current and former employees within the welfare system of severe misuse of the sanctioning process and pressure to meet targets regardless of the appropriateness of sanctions against the claimant.
Duncan Smith has a proven track record of lying, including the misuse of official statistics to bolster his outrageous claims about welfare reforms.
The facts far outweigh government claims.
The current government has done nothing to reduce the welfare bill, has done nothing to create jobs and reduce unemployment, and has certainly not taken a fair and logical approach to ensuring the vulnerable in society are not abused.
What the government HAS achieved are MASSIVE increases in indirect costs to housing associations and local councils (at the same time as introducing severe cuts), a massive increase in the cost of ‘reforming’ the way benefits are paid, and have treated the most vulnerable in society as easy targets – typical behaviour of bullies.
Whatever chest-beating and propaganda the government engage in prior to the coming election the facts are the facts. They tell story of incompetence and abuse.