Department for Work and Pensions
Stitching-up claimants is all part of the job, says Jobcentre insider
Former Jobcentre Plus adviser tells of a “brutal and bullying” culture of “setting claimants up to fail”
“Set up to fail”: Claimants
Last week Iain Duncan Smith met a whistle-blower who has worked for his Department for Work and Pensions for more than 20 years.
Giving the Secretary of State a dossier of evidence, the former Jobcentre Plus adviser told him of a “brutal and bullying” culture of “setting claimants up to fail”.
“The pressure to sanction customers was constant,” he said. “It led to people being stitched-up on a daily basis.”
The man wishes to be anonymous but gave his details to IDS, DWP minister Esther McVey and Neil Couling, Head of Jobcentre Plus, who also attended the meeting.
“We were constantly told ‘agitate the customer’ and that ‘any engagement with the customer is an opportunity to sanction’,” he told them.
Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, the member of the DWP Select Committee who set up the meeting, has renewed her call for an inquiry into inappropriate sanctioning.
“I am deeply concerned that sanctions are being used to create the illusion the Government is bringing down unemployment,” she said.
Sanctions pre-date the Coalition as a way of ensuring benefit claimants, who include the jobless and sick and disabled people on Employment Support Allowance, attend appointments and apply for jobs. But under the Tory-led Government, they have soared – to 897,690 a year from the most recent data.
Sanctions can last from a couple of days to three years, and leave claimants destitute.
Abrahams says that sanctioned people only continue to be counted as unemployed as long as they continue to sign on.
The DWP says most people who receive a sanction remain on Jobseeker’s Allowance for the duration of their sanction and so will be included in the claimant count.
IDS and his department have repeatedly denied there are targets for sanctions.
“They don’t always call them targets, they call them ‘expectations’ that you will refer people’s benefits to the decision maker,” the whistle-blower says. “It’s the same thing.”
He claimed managers fraudulently altered claimants’ records, adding: “Managers would change people’s appointments without telling them. The appointment wouldn’t arrive in time in the post so they would miss it and have to be sanctioned. That’s fraud. The customer fails to attend. Their claim is closed. It’s called ‘off-flow’ – they come off the statistics. Unemployment has dropped. They are being stitched up.”
For 20 years, the whistle-blower loved his job as an adviser. He says: “It was really rewarding helping people into work.”
But he says the culture changed after the election of the Coalition.
“Customers were being deliberately and inappropriately targeted,” the whistle-blower says. “I would see people crying in frustration, knowing they have been stitched up. Yet my Jobcentre was held up as a shining example to others. One of the district managers came to congratulate us. He said, ‘I see these people hanging round the precinct, being lazy, drinking, taking drugs’. That was a very senior leader. Another said, ‘These people are taking your money’. There was a total disrespect for the customer.”
Advisers were told to “inconvenience” benefit claimants, he says. “I was told see them face to face, agitate them. ‘Let’s inconvenience the customer’, they said, ‘get on these people from day one’.
“They were treated appallingly, lots of conditions put on them. Many of them were vulnerable people with low self-esteem or coming back off sick. We were setting customers up to fail.
“If I do my job well and their claim is managed well, there should be fewer sanctions. Instead, good advisers were the ones who sanctioned more people. It was a daily mantra, ‘Have you sanctioned anyone?’
I particularly remember a well-qualified father, he was desperate to work, with a wife and child to support. I was told to agitate him. They said, ‘Tell him he’s got to apply for factory and labouring jobs. Change his contract. If he doesn’t take the jobs, stop his benefit’. It was a trap.”
When managers refused to listen, he became sick with stress. “My body just gave up,” he says. “I had high blood pressure, I was put on beta-blockers. I was in a state of physical collapse.”
Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, says Esther McVey had agreed to a sanctions inquiry, but has since made a U-turn.
She says: “Just what are Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey trying to hide?
“This Government has developed a culture in which Jobcentre Plus advisers are expected to sanction claimants using unjust, and potentially fraudulent actions, in order get people off the dole.
“This creates the illusion the Government is bringing down unemployment.
“The last thing Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey want is for this uncomfortable truth to be uncovered.”
Last night a spokeswoman for the DWP said: “We take any allegations such as this seriously and will investigate.
“Our frontline staff work hard to support people off benefits and into work, and it’s only right that we ask claimants to do everything they can to look for work in return. Unemployment is falling, there are record numbers of people in jobs and there are 600,000 vacancies.
BY ROS WYNNE JONES