On Thursday 21st March, The Guardian carried a report that should worry every unemployed person.
Interviewing Jobcentre staff, and finding other compelling evidence, it showed that, contrary to government denials, Jobcentres are using league tables and targets to force the sanctioning of jobseekers, removing their benefits for a period.
The paper reveals details from an email sent by Ruth King, a jobcentre adviser manager in Walthamstow, in which she writes of receiving "the stricter benefit regime" figures for her area (London and the surrounding counties), adding: "As you can see Walthamstow are 95th in the league table out of only 109.
"Our district manager is not pleased … because senior managers are under pressure to improve our office output and move up the league he has to apply some pressure downwards." She continues: "Guys, we really need to up the game here. The 5% target is one thing – the fact that we are seeing over 300 people a week and only submitting six of them for possible doubts is simply not quite credible."
Ms King writws that she was given a deadline for increasing the number of sanctions under threat of being put on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP).
Failure to meet the conditions of a PIP can lead to a further disciplinary process, and Ms King wrote "Obviously if I am on a PIP to improve my team's Stricter Benefit Regime referral rate I will not have a choice but to consider implementing PIPs for those individuals who are clearly not delivering SBR [sanction benefit referrrals] within the team.".
Employment minister Mark Hoban, speaking to MPs on Tuesday 19th March, said "There are no league tables in place. We do not set targets for sanctions. I have made that point in previous discussions."
He also said that sanctioning claimants "need to be based on whether people have breached the agreements they have set out with the jobcentre, and there are no targets in place".
But, contrary to the minister's statement, Ms King's email shows that league tables and targets are clearly in place, and have at least been implemented across the 109 Jobcentre offices in the London and home counties region.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) reponded to Ms King's email by saying "We are urgently investigating what happened in this case. If a manager has set a local target for applying sanctions this is against DWP policy and we will be taking steps to ensure these targets are removed immediately."
The implication here that the problem could be localised does not account for the regional target uncovered by The Guardian.
Record numbers of jobseekers are being sanctioned - 680,000 in the ten months to October 2012, more than in the whole of 2011 - and it concerns UnemployedNet that this seems to have become unofficial government policy, without going through the usual democratic debates that ensure it would be tested, publicised and understood.
The Guardian has interviewed more than ten front line Jobcentre advisers to check how the policy works in practice, finding that many have been pressured to increase the number of sanctions, while a report in today's edition claims that 'Numerous jobcentre staff have contacted the Guardian since last Friday's story on targets for sanctions to claim such targets are part of the jobcentre culture.'
Neil Couling, head of jobcentres, in a letter sent to Jobcentres today, said "We do keep management information on the numbers of referrals but that is to monitor for anomalies, for example it might highlight where there are higher numbers of sanctions than one might expect. They are not league tables."
If monitoring for anomalies including higher numbers of sanctions takes place, it is likely that monitoring for lower numbers is also part of this process, and if this is communicated as a failing to managers pressure may be felt to increase sanctions even where jobseekers are working mostly within their agreements.
Ian Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, told MPs that there were "no targets for any sanctions whatsoever".
Despite the protestations of ministers, there are only two possible explanations for why this disturbing development has taken place.
Either Jobcentre managers and staff are directly defying the government in applying their own targets, or the government is supporting targets, either explicitly or implicitly, and misleading MPs and the public about it.
Both possibilities are of the utmost seriousness, and may be resigning matters for ministers in charge.
That is why UnemployedNet has today sent a Freedom of Information request to the DWP to try to get answers to these questions:
1) Do Jobcentres have league tables and/or targets for number of benefit sanctions, whether provided from the DWP centrally or by another mechanism?
2) Neil Couling has admitted that DWP gathers information on each Jobcentre office's referrals for benefit sanctions, so how does it use these figures? Are they released at regional, district and/or local level, to whom and in what form?
3) Was DWP aware before this article in The Guardian that Jobcentre managers were disciplining staff for referring too few jobseekers for sanction, and has it clarified to all managers at regional, district, and local level that no targets or related disciplinary procedures are to be applied to any staff at any level?
4) Given the details of the email sent by Ruth King and reported in The Guardian, in which detailed information on a London region league table is discussed, how confident are you that management staff at regional, district or local level are not setting their own league tables and/or targets for sanctions?
5) Do DWP and the government approve of those Jobcentre staff who refer fewer jobseekers than the average for sanction being disciplined?
6) Do DWP and the government believe that the number of referrals for sanction should be considered a performance indicator for Jobcentre advisers or managers?
7) Will DWP and the government commit to halting any current disciplinary procedure for Jobcentre staff that has been implemented as a result of referring too few jobseekers for sanction?
8) Is it government policy to use sanctions as a way of reducing the Jobseeker's Allowance claimant count?
9) Will DWP commit to writing to all jobseekers sanctioned over the last year to provide an additional right to appeal their original punishment, and to offer them support with their cases?
10) Do work programme providers have league tables and/or targets for sanctions, whether applied by DWP or their own companies? Are they required to report sanction rates to DWP, do they sanction more or less than Jobcentres, and has any pressure been applied to providers to increase sanctions?
UnemployedNet will report back on the response to these questions as soon as we have it, but in the meantime please comment below to show your support, and let us know if there are any other unemployment issues we should be responding to.
Removing benefits from claimants should never be undertaken because an adviser is trying to hit a target. With fraudulent claims only 0.7% of the total according to official figures, and the UK having some of the lowest jobless benefits in Europe, throwing so many into abject poverty, with no source of income to call on, is unnecessary and hugely damaging.