Employment Minister Mark Hoban has threatened Jobseeker's Allowance claimants with tougher sanctions if they 'play the system'.
Writing in The Telegraph, Mr Hoban said 'there are some out there who don't want to roll up their sleeves, and who think they can play the system. Well I've got news for them – they can't.'
The Minister was announcing an increase in the penalty periods for those who turn down jobs or do not co-operate fully with Jobcentre Plus staff.
He writes 'from tomorrow there will be clear and escalating levels of penalties.
For failing to do something required by a Jobcentre Plus adviser, the claimant will lose their benefits for four weeks. Every time it happens subsequently, they will lose their benefits for three months.
For the most serious rule-breaking, such as refusing to accept a reasonable job offer, or walking out of a job without good reason, they will lose their benefits for three months. If they do it a second time, they will lose their benefits for six months.
A third failure, at this level, is simply not acceptable and we will impose a three year penalty.'
Mr Hoban sets out the bargain the government has made with unemployed people, citing the Work Programme, extension of the New Enterprise Allowance and Youth Contract as examples of policies which should help them get back to work or education.
Attempting to reassure jobseekers, Mr Hoban writes that 'People who play by the rules will have nothing to worry about. We will give them the help they need.'
But he ends with 'But for people who can work but who refuse to play by the rules, tomorrow will be a rude awakening.'
Mark Hoban has identified weaknesses in the system that do not, on the whole, exist, or exist at such a low level that they need little attention.
Few jobseekers who jump all of the hurdles to getting Jobseeker's Allowance each fortnight, showing evidence of the work they have looked for, and queued for a variable level of service, only to receive an amount of money that most European countries would consider totally inadequate to support their basic needs, try to 'play the system'.
The rewards are so meagre, and the current sanctions so harsh, that most go along with everything they are asked for. This is in fact part of the problem of signing on; it is so disempowering to jobseekers to be shown such a lack of trust and faith, from the very first time they register, that it actively works against the confidence they need to be able to find work and perform well at interview.
The idea that there are many jobseekers who are turning down jobs repeatedly, and who therefore need sanctioning, is also misguided. How many jobseekers are really going to go through an application and interview process for a job they don't want, and through that be identified as the ideal person for the job? Employers would go out of business if they showed this lackadaisical attitude to recruitment.
Unemployed benefit claimants will also feel a chill at Mr Hoban's threat 'For failing to do something required by a Jobcentre Plus adviser, the claimant will lose their benefits for four weeks'. Most jobseekers will have come up against at least one frontline adviser who is having a bad day and makes entirely unreasonable requests, and putting more power in their hands may lead to abuses of power.
But the Minister also sets out a bargain which he may not be able to fulfil his side of.
He writes 'Jobcentre Plus advisers will work with [jobseekers] to find suitable jobs and help them move into work'.
The cuts in Jobcentre staff, down 10,000 in the last two years, mean the service they can provide to jobseekers is much more limited than it was. They still have to sign customers on and apply checks to their jobseeking evidence, so the thing that has suffered is support to find work.
For many jobseekers this is the only professional support they receive, with referral to the Work Programme not taking place until 9 months.
Frontline Jobcentre staff can refer their customers to training or support organisations, check over CVs and application forms, tell jobseekers about employers in their area that are hiring new staff, and a range of other quick help.
Through a big reduction in staff numbers over a period when unemployment has risen, they are unable to give this valuable work the time it needs, and unemployment may be becoming more entrenched as a result.