An internal report by the Department of Work and Pensions has found that unapproved targets for benefit sanctions have been implemented in a number of locations, potentially leading to the unreasonable removal of benefits from jobseekers.
The Guardian has seen a copy of the report, which says that some jobcentre staff have been given personal targets for referring jobseekers for sanctions – which remove benefits from claimants if they are believed not to have met conditions fully - but only after being disciplined.
DWP believes the evidence does not point to any larger scale abuses of power, saying: "We found no evidence of a secret national regime of targets, or widespread secret imposition of local regimes to that effect. There is no national use of league tables. We found no evidence people are being wrongly sanctioned as a consequence."
UnemployedNet submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) last month, and this included similar denials.
In response to the question “Do Jobcentres have league tables and/or targets for number of benefit sanctions, whether provided from the DWP centrally or by another mechanism?” Neil Couling, the head of Jobcentre Plus, replied “No. As I told the Public Accounts Committee recently.”
However, the report, also written by Mr Couling, confirmed that ‘management information’ leaked to The Guardian on levels of benefit sanction referrals could easily be made into such a table:
"It would be technically possible to configure management information into a league table (a simple manipulation of Excel) but as the leak showed, it is not in a league table."
But the report continues: "We have found a limited number of instances where a local manager has misinterpreted the instructions or has fallen back on target methodology in an effort to exercise their responsibilities to ensure the law is being properly applied. I believe that is happening because the cultural change underpinning the move away is incomplete."
The denials made to UnemployedNet may have been in good faith, but stating that no targets for sanctions have been set by any mechanism, as the Freedom of Information response did, has been shown to be wrong.
Mr Couling claims that previous Guardian reports on target-setting are simply the remains of an old Jobcentre culture that is no longer in place. "We need to be vigilant and consistent to ensure junior managers continue to move away from legacy habits as we focus on building the freedom and flexibility approach. We are using these incidents and the recent press coverage to redouble our efforts."
The Guardian has found 16 separate instances of target setting at Jobcentres, and the DWP report confirms the existence of many of these.
One of the most clear-cut cases involved a manager of Walthamstow job centre, who emailed advisers to demand that they refer 5% of their jobseekers for sanctions or face disciplinary action.
On this case the report finds: "The language, tone and contents of the email were simply wrong and an inappropriate communication channel was used. The particular reference to a local DMA [decision-making and appeals] target of 5% was neither necessary nor accurate and appropriate."
Mr Couling also wrote: "Our wider review of the evidence suggests a limited number of other locations where errors of this type were also made."
This private admission will come as no surprise to those who have watched the case closely. When UnemployedNet asked the DWP how confident it was that “management staff at regional, district or local level are not setting their own league tables and/or targets for sanctions?” Mr Couling wrote back a simple, two-word answer “Very confident”.
Given our suspicions of over-sanctioning, UnemployedNet asked the DWP if it would “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?”
This would provide a limited safeguard for those jobseekers who believe they may have been sanctioned due to the target culture rather than real abuses of the benefits system.
Mr Couling replied “No. Sanctions are applied by independent decision makers based on evidence provided under Social Security legislation. All claimants are entitled to appeal adverse decisions within one month of them being notified through the independent Tribunal Service.”
The existence of targets in some locations, even without the knowledge of DWP’s central management, may mean some jobseekers have been sanctioned unfairly as ‘independent’ decision makers usually uphold referrals.
Denying the possibility that Jobcentre staff may suffer if they do not meet targets for referrals, Mr Couling told UnemployedNet:
“Staff are not being disciplined for failing to hit a target because there are no referral or sanction targets in Jobcentres. It has been made clear to all managers that this is the case. It is however right for managers to challenge staff who fail to address claimant’s conditionality during interviews. A Personal Improvement Plan is not a disciplinary tool.”
A Personal Improvement Plan (PIP) is the official document through which an individual staff member’s work performance is monitored and improvements made.
But the DWP report provides a clue on how Jobcentres are pressuring advisers to increase sanctions:
"There is an important difference though in setting an individual target, which is not acceptable, and giving an individual an idea about what might be expected in their local labour market and for their size of caseload as an aid to judging whether the law is being properly applied. PIPs that make these references will be appropriate and do not constitute a local target or benchmark. That is a subtle difference that I suspect some advisers can struggle with."
Advisers may be incentivised more directly by a PIP though, as a separate Freedom of Information request submitted by UnemployedNet revealed that 97% of all DWP staff received performance bonuses last year.
Complying with the terms of a PIP is likely to be one of the criteria for advisers to receive their bonuses, and a PIP which includes a reference to average referral levels provides a financial incentive to increase them.
Mr Couling has committed to publishing statistics on benefit sanctions referrals in the future, and the level of these will provide an opportunity to scrutinise whether the publicity surrounding this issue has affected the numbers.
This week’s UK job figures showed that the number in employment fell while the number claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance rose, leading to some commentators asking where the claimants had gone to.
An increase in sanctions would explain this situation, even while those affected saw a big increase in deprivation and poverty.
All report quotes via The Guardian