During the W&P session with Helen Flanagan and Mark Serwotka (PCS) both referred to targets given by DWP management to job centres and other DWP staff in relation to sanctions for both JSA and ESA sanctions. On the 4th of February, Esther McVey will give evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee. Let’s make sure everybody knows about the inhuman and pointless sanctions regime run by DWP, and for which, as a DWP Minister, Esther McVey should be held accountable.
The evidence presented by Helen Flanagan and Mark Serwotka show a culture where referrals for sanctions (DMA) are encouraged, and where inappropriate targets in relation to ESA claimants who are the focus of this article (for more about sanctions, see Patrick Butler’s article at the bottom of the page) have led jobcentres to manipulate their own systems in order to meet them.
Firstly, what this evidence tells us is that the training material delivered since October 2013, when the new stricter sanction regime became law, ‘did not include any of the safeguards in the legislation intended to protect ESA and vulnerable claimants, by mentioning proportionality and reasonable expectations’. The training attended and documented by one DWP staff member was heavily skewed in favour of enforcing sanctions.
There are also targets to place ESA claimants on work experience schemes, which have led to an increase in placements within the DWP as many employers are reluctant to take them. That should tell us a lot about the success of the #disabilityconfident campaign run by the DWP! These placements seem to have nothing worthwhile to offer to ESA claimants, but at least they allow for a box to be ticked and a target to be met. In fact the target is quite easy to meet as a one-day taster or a few short days will qualify as work experience. That in itself offers some perspective on the Work Programme statistics published by DWP. They are even worse than they look!
More worrying, during a regional briefing in January 2015, DWP staff were also told to ‘take a 35-hour jobsearch approach to ESA customers using Claimant Commitments’. These are people who have been found unfit for work and who will be required, under the threat of sanctions, to spend 35 hours a week looking for work. It shows again that the safeguards of proportionality and reasonable expectations are being ignored and that everything is being done to push claimants to a point when they can only fail their commitments and therefore be sanctioned, which seems to be the point of the exercise.
Another recurrent recent issue which has been of interest for DPAC is ESA claimants in the Support Group being called for a Benefit Review Interview. Some letters were originally issued to claimants that implied that non attendance could affect benefits. This was amended but in a way still found unacceptable by one DWP HR Officer, who said that the paragraph ‘Why it is essential that you attend this interview. This interview has been arranged because your circumstances may have changed and we need to ensure your payments are correct’ was misleading and still conveyed the message to ‘vulnerable claimants that these interviews are mandatory and that their benefits could be affected’.
This DWP HR officer further notes: ‘Mandatory interviews are not supported by ESA legislation and giving the impression to potentially vulnerable ESA claimants that this is the case is a morally dubious activity and has the potential to cause serious reputational damage to the Department. …..This is not a supporting measure designed to help claimants find work but seems to more about intimidating claimants’.
Even worse, this officer refers to correspondence he has seen which states: ‘that we can call claimants in with psychosis and should attempt to call them in the afternoon as hopefully they will have taken their medication in the morning. The claimants in the Support Groups can be called and just gently advised that we are here if they need help and support’.
The truth is slowly unravelling. Sanction targets exist, as was always suspected, and DWP staff are financially penalised for not referring enough claimants for sanctions, while the climate of fear which has been instaured has irremediably damaged the relationship between JCP staff and claimants. That in itself is a scandal which needs more exposure. But the worst is what is being done to claimants, who are senselessly sanctioned, just to meet targets, to sick and disabled people who are harassed and unlawfully threatened with benefit loss if they don’t attend an interview they don’t have to attend. They are being driven to destitution, while their physical and mental health worsens, leading some of them to contemplate or commit suicide. For all this, Esther McVey should be held accountable.
For more on sanctions, read Patrick Butler’s article in the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/society/patrick-butler-cuts-blog/2015/feb/03/sanctions-staff-pressured-to-penalise-benefit-claimants-says-union?CMP=share_btn_tw
And the evidence given by Helen Flanagan and Mark Serwotka: https://wwwrefuteddotorgdotuk.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/sanctiontargets.pdf