The news about benefit sanctions is increasingly grim. First, we learn that Labour joined with the coalition in approving fast-track, retrospective legislation (external link) that prevents people on workfare who were illegally sanctioned getting their illegally sanctioned benefits repaid.
Now, whilst ministers continue to deny it, there is incontrovertible proof that Jobcentre Plus staff are being told they must sanction 5% of JSA claimants or face disciplinary action. One office has allegedly even offered Easter egg prizes (external link) to the team which sanctions the most claimants.
A leaked letter from Walthamstow Jobcentre (external link) warns staff they will be disciplined if they don’t move their Jobcentre up the sanctions league table by sanctioning 5% of JSA claimants. The letter gives handy hints and tips on how to catch claimants out, including targeting claimants who have shared child custody arrangements. It also explains how to get ‘an easy win’:
‘An easy win is a JSD [jobseekers direction]. Set one, if the customer doesn’t comply then action the direction!’
It’s hard not to wonder whether the DWP, as an institution, even sees claimants as entirely human anymore. Stopping people’s benefits for between 13 weeks and three years has a devastating effect on claimants’ lives and potentially on the wellbeing of small children and disabled dependents as well. For some people, unfair benefits decisions are the last straw that moves them to take their own lives.
To turn sanctions into a game with chocolate for prizes or to threaten staff with disciplinary action if they don’t meet targets – as if they were selling double glazing rather than destroying lives – is astonishingly cruel and has nothing to do with helping people find work.
When compulsory reconsideration before appeals begins, pretty much every ESA claimant who is found capable of work and wants to appeal will be forced to claim JSA or starve. We know that around 40% of those who appeal will win, and that a large proportion will be so severely sick or disabled that they will be placed straight into the support group. But before that they may prove very easy targets for the JSA sanctions regime and some of may not survive the experience.
Labour claim that they supported the retrospective legislation for workfare victims in return for getting an inquiry into sanctions, including targets. As it turns out, there will be an inquiry into sanctions (external link) but it will not look at the use of targets and it will take a year to report back.
Meanwhile, the head of Jobcentre Plus has already said, before the inquiry even begins, that he believes that the Walthamstow letter was an isolated one, despite the increasing evidence that this is not the case – including a Jobcentre Plus newsletter from Malvern (external link) also threatening disciplinary action if staff don’t meet 5% sanctions targets.
How many claimants believe for a moment that an inquiry will get to the truth or make the tiniest scrap of difference? And how many claimants will continue to suffer hardship and even death as a result of this vicious regime?