Jobcentre staff who allegedly forced Salford and Rochdale claimants off benefits by agitating and inconveniencing them ‘undermine the country’s benefits system’, according to poverty bosses.
‘Let’s set them up from day one’ was a comment from one district manager to staff at the Salford job office as they were advised to sanction benefits completely should claimants fail any directions.
A report written by an ex-employee has been presented to an inquiry by MPs, revealing the shocking undercover actions of those in control of the benefits of Manchester’s poorest and most vulnerable.
John Longden, a former personal adviser at the Jobcentre said: “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.
“The aim was to find an opportunity to make a referral to the decision maker with the possibility of getting the customer sanctioned.”
Staff who failed to meet sanction targets each month were threatened with disciplinary action.
Neil McInroy, Chair of Greater Manchester Poverty Action Group said: “Earlier this year [we] highlighted how work by Manchester Citizens Advice Bureau had revealed that 40% of those who had been sanctioned had not received a letter informing them of the sanction and almost a quarter did not know why the decision had been taken.
“These allegations suggest there is a planned and systematic process and/or a policy behind these findings. This is very grave, and if validated, will undermine a benefit system which is there to support all of us in times of need – not make personal situations worse.”
Mr Longden, who had worked for the organisation for 23 years, revealed that during the period from 2011-2013, managers at the Jobcentre made the decision to force customers to apply to all job programmes regardless of their suitability for the role.
When claimants failed to attend interviews because they were ill suited or under qualified for the role, managers took the opportunity to sanction them for failing the directions of the Jobcentre.
A benefits sanction involves the stopping of payments for at least four weeks – usually equivalent to around £300 – as a penalty for breaching the rules and conditions of their agreement, typically by failing to attend Jobcentre appointments or looking for work.
His report also disclosed the existence of ‘hit squads’ set up to target customers for sanction action, the purpose being to scrutinise claimants’ weekly job searches in such ‘forensic detail’ that they were set up to fail.
Customers would regularly break down and cry because they felt they were being treated unfairly, he added.
He noted that a trend had developed where appointments were being made for jobseekers without them being informed of the date or time – the intention being to be able to sanction applicants when they failed to turn up.
Mr Longden claims these ‘fake interviews were clearly illegal’, but despite raising the issue with his line manager, he was accused of lying and the case was dismissed.
The whistleblower’s evidence was lodged last year with the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, a body set up to investigate benefit sanctions policy.
Hazel Blears, Labour MP for Salford and Eccles, responded to the written evidence: “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 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.”
The union representing jobcentre staff, PCS, said the allegations rang true with its own survey of members, which saw almost two-thirds highlight pressure to refer claimants for a sanction inappropriately and more than a third of staff formally monitored for not making enough referrals.
PCS is just one of a number of witnesses who gave evidence to a Select Committee last week.
A DWP spokesman said: “Mr Longden’s 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 everyday to help people into work. There are no targets for sanctions.”
Image courtesy of Helen Cobain, with thanks.