Jobcentre bosses set up “hit squads” to target benefit claimants for sanctions and put pressure on them to sign off the dole, according to evidence presented to an inquiry by MPs.
The written statement, by a former jobcentre official, John Longden, says 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. It has been lodged with the Commons work and pensions select committee, which is investigating benefit sanctions policy.
A sanction involves the stopping of claimants’ benefit payments for at least four weeks – equivalent to almost £300 – as a penalty for breach of benefit rules and conditions, typically failure to look for work or attend jobcentre appointments.
Ministers introduced tighter rules for claiming benefits in October 2012, saying sanctions were a “last resort” that would encourage claimants to “engage” with jobcentres. However, critics say jobcentres are increasingly neglecting to help claimants find jobs and are instead focusing on finding ways to impose financial penalties on them.
In further written evidence to the committee, another former Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) official accuses jobcentres of “bullying people off the [unemployment] register”.
Ian Wright, a former personal adviser at a Leicester jobcentre, says 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 PCS union, which represents jobcentre staff, said the evidence chimed with its own straw poll of members, which found almost two-thirds had experienced pressure to refer claimants for a sanction inappropriately, while more than a third had been placed on a formal performance improvement plan for not making enough referrals.
PCS is one of a number of witnesses giving evidence to the committee on Wednesday morning.
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.”