By Gary Ryan
Under controversial changes to the benefit system, people working fewer than 35 hours per week at the “national living wage” will be forced to attend jobcentre meetings to prove they are searching for more hours, better paid work, or additional jobs, as a condition of receiving low-wage pay top-ups. If they break this commitment, they face sanctions – currently only imposed on the unemployed.
Now VICE has learned that jobcentre staff fear being subjected to the very rules they are expected to enforce. Which will probably feel like someone making you hit yourself and saying, “quit hitting yourself! why are you hitting yourself?”, only much more serious.
While reporting on the weekly demonstrations outside their local jobcentre in Ashton-under-Lyne – which is one of a handful of pilot areas for “in-work conditionality”, built into Universal Credit – I witnessed two members of jobcentre staff confront protest leader Charlotte Hughes to vent their frustration at potentially facing penalties themselves.
Referring to the information on benefit rights being handed out, one of the disgruntled jobcentre workers said: “Are those leaflets for us as well? Because we’re on low wages as well. I work 16 hours a week. They’re coming for us next. We’re the next to be sanctioned, when we’re all moved onto Universal Credit.”
She added: “At least we’re going to be allowed to go to another jobcentre [from the one they work at] to be sanctioned. Isn’t that lovely?”
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions confirmed that DWP staff transferring over to Universal Credit will be treated no differently from existing claimants. “UC claimants who work at the DWP will get the same support as everyone else,” he said. “Being a UC claimant does not affect a person’s role at the DWP and employees may request their claim is dealt with by a different office to where they work.”
The Public and Commercial Services Union – which represents over 80,000 people in the DWP – told VICE they were concerned about “the big impact” in-work conditionality would have upon its members, insisting extending the sanctions regime to those already in work represents an “expensive” and “irrational” move.
A PCS spokesperson said: “It’s difficult to say what proportion of DWP staff would be affected by in-work conditionality, where pay is historically low. We originally thought it could affect 40 per cent of staff, but it won’t be that high now. The DWP themselves don’t even have an idea of how many people it will affect – it’s all up in the air.”
According to a PCS straw poll of jobcentre workers, 70 percent believe sanctions have “no positive impact” while two thirds said they’d experienced pressure to refer claimants for a sanction inappropriately. More than a third had been placed on a formal performance improvement plan for not making enough referrals.
“As a union, we don’t agree with in-work conditionality and the sanctions regime at all,” continued the spokesperson. “What staff have seen is a huge pressure to sanction claimants as a result of government policy, so they are obviously worried that moving into in-work conditionality will affect them.”
Full implementation of Universal Credit – which unifies multiple benefits into one payment – is not expected until 2021, after delays caused by IT design flaws and management failings. The PCS warns that jobcentres, facing looming staff cuts, will have neither the space nor the requisite expertise to provide meaningful one-one-one career coaching to an estimated 25 per cent increase in the number of claimants expected through their doors.
In May, a parliamentary select committee concluded that sanctions would have little positive effect to those already in work: “Employed people self-evidently do not lack the motivation to work, and there is strong evidence that their barriers to earning tend to be structural or due to personal circumstances, rather than motivational.”
Protestors at Ashton-under-Lyne claim that in-work conditionality is “being handed out like Smarties”, and young people are increasingly turning to the black economy after being unable to reconcile the demands of full-time work with inflexible UC job search requirements and jobcentre appointments.
In Ashton-under-Lyne jobcentre, there was scant sympathy among claimants that their job coaches may endure the same process as them. “I think it’s about time a few of them started being sanctioned,” said one claimant. “They’ll get an overdue taste of their own medicine.”