Jobcentres 'did things for people, now do things to them'

Wed, 04/02/2015 - 13:50 -- nick

The parliamentary committee examining benefit sanctions right now is bringing welcome scrutiny to the issue, after years of unemployed people receiving shocking treatment at the hands of the jobcentres that are meant to help them into work.

Witness after witness from within the system, as well as from academia, support groups and advice agencies, has lined up to pour scorn on the way that meagre incomes are ripped away from some of Britain's poorest people in the most dishonest way simply to fulfil the coalition's targets and allow them to transfer funds to the rich in tax cuts.

Now one insider has gone public in a new way by writing a play, 'Can This Be England?', on the subject.

Angela Neville was an advisor at Braintree Jobcentre for four years, and saw first hand the changes that took place between the last Labour government and this anti-welfare coalition.

She told The Guardian that she witnessed some sharp practice that led to sanctions, and brought these experiences into her play:

"Staff are subjected to constant and aggressive pressure to meet and exceed targets. Colleagues would leave team meetings crying. Things were changing all the time. The pressure was incredible. Advisers were actively encouraged to impose sanctions (along the lines of “sanction of the month”) to contribute to the points system that ranks jobcentre offices. It was often for stupid reasons.

"A customer maybe would be a little bit late or would phone in and the message wasn’t passed on. It was very distressing to have customers literally without food, without heat, without resources and these are unwell [and] disabled customers. If it hadn’t been for the fact that most of my colleagues were dedicated and compassionate people I wouldn’t have lasted more than a few months.”

This compassion was evidently more evident within the staff group than for claimants, who were left "literally without food, without heat, without resources."

Despite the coalition's endless denials, Neville saw the effects of "relentless" sanction targets while less time was available to help find work and support:

“It used to feel like we were doing something for clients, now it was to them.”

One of the main reasons why advisors carry out these cruel orders is that they fear being let go and having to face the system as users, something that Neville found out when she was made redundant in 2013.

She was threatened with a sanction when she signed on for being five minutes late to an advice session.

The play has been performed at Quaker meeting houses and examines the wider systemic issues with welfare, including how the kind of wider condemnation of claimants has fed through to the attitudes of frontline service providers.

It is currently being adapted for radio.

Jobcentres are one of the main obstructions between claimants and jobs, and for this reason some have floated the idea that they should be abolished.

Neville's experience hardly makes the case for protecting them even if the alternative - an extension of the privatised Work Programme - could end up being worse.