Note: this is a previously unpublished blog, that I wrote back in 2013 or 2014 (and 'found' years later on an old hard drive). There are bits that are possibly inaccurate, now. But I wanted to leave it as intact as I could. Apologies for its unedited form for which I make no excuses.
‘This is really important, I’ve put an expectation into Job Centre Plus sites that people will be sanctioned. I’ve done this because it’s the law. My worry is the variation that we are getting [between job centre sites].
‘I have been to job centres recently where they’ve admitted that they have not been doing it [sanction]. They now are and we are getting good results out of it.
These are the words of Neil Couling a senior civil servant at the Department of Work and Pensions, to the House of Commons Work and Pensions select committee on 26 Novemeber 2013.
In my opinion I think it's unlikely I will witness a more cruel civil servant.
In his evidence, Mr Couling appeared to be telling lawmakers that there was a ‘variation’ between the number of sanctions being dished out by different job centres.
Attitudes towards sanctions reflect a wider, toxic debate about poverty in the UK. When a politician like Nick Clegg can tell his party faithful he’s helping ‘turn Britain around,’ he’s not lying. He literally is turning the country around, so the people cannot see who is really shafting them.
Right now, public opinion is full-square behind policies that punish the poor and unemployed. If you ask someone in the street, or at a dinner party, what they think about benefit sanctions, assuming they’ve heard of them at all (not likely), they will, generally, be in favour of them.
Believing, against the evidence, that sanctions are applied fairly, without malice and as a last resort, this is the British ‘way’, well the English way, but it’s a lie. The public are content that punishment should be meted out to a minority in society that senior politicians and the media agree are a ‘skiving,’ ‘scrounging,’ stain on society. But this is a lie.
And people dislike being deceived so, when they recognize they have been hoodwinked, they turn. Iraq is one example, I believe that sanctions, could be similar.
Clearly sanctions are being applied unlawfully, the DWP’s own figures support this (More than 50% of reconsiderations are upheld, a similar proportion of independent tribunals overturn sanctions).
Couling seems to be aware that, to have public trust, the DWP’s policy of sanctioning needs to be seen to be reasonable, he’s many things, including intelligent, but he’s not stupid. Back in November 2013 he told MPs that his department closely monitored its employees to guard against ‘rogue sanctions.’
He told lawmakers that his department kept data on what individual job centre advisors were doing and that this was important in order to retain the public’s trust. He was lying.
‘I don’t want to create an oppressive regime here,’ he said, ‘but to find out if there are rogue sanctions going on. We don’t want the sanctions system falling into disrepute,’ he said.
Mr Couling’s, remarks hinted that he was in some way sensitive to the idea that policy, in this case a policy of immiserating claimants, had to be seen to be justified for the public to regard it as legitimate, like workhouses.
I therefore put a series of questions to the DWP under the Freedom of Information Act, to get a clearer idea of precisely how the department deals with rogue sanctions, to find out how effective he was at searching out bad practice.
· How many times has the DWP taken action against staff who consistently recommend sanctions a high proportion of which are subsequently overturned?
· What does the action taken against these staff consist of?
· How many times has DWP taken action against staff for refusing to refer JSA claimants for sanction, or for not sanctioning enough?
· What does the action against DWP staff, who refused to refer JSA claimants for sanction, or did not refer enough, consist of?
The department could not give a single example of when it had taken action taken against staff for issuing rogue sanctions.
The department could not give details of any disciplinary action taken against staff who issued rogue sanctions.
The department could not say how many times, if any, it had taken action against staff for refusing to sanction.
Finally, the department could not say how many times it had taken action against staff who had not issued the expected number of sanctions.In a statement the DWP said:
‘We do not have a set expectation for how many referrals are appropriate for each office.’
‘The information which is gathered regarding the number of sanctions referrals made for each office is collected purely for monitoring purposes. This is to ensure that all offices are following the policy and raising a doubt with a Decision Maker where a doubt exists.’
‘Should a member of staff be found to be using sanctions inappropriately, or not using them at all, this should be raised by their Line Manager as part of their ongoing performance. This may identify a training need, or where appropriate, the need for a member of staff to be put on a Personal Improvement Plan. We are committed to ensuring that all sanctions referrals made within our Jobcentres are made appropriately and it is for this reason that we collect the data referred to by Mr Couling to the Select Committee.’
The department cannot not cite a single instance in which it has taken action taken against a staff member for issuing rogue sanctions. It cannot cite an example of a single case in which it has taken action against a ‘rogue’ sanctioneer.
There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether the DWP has put in place ‘sanctions’ targets. Couling and the DWP vehemently deny any such thing, preferring the euphemism of ‘expectations’. In some ways talk of a target culture is a red herring. And anyone who knows anything about abuse, knows the maddening fruitlessness of focusing on ‘lies’.
Far from falling into disrepute because too many were being sanctioned, Couling seemed to think the opposite was the case. On his heroic travels around job centres Mr Couling found that a small number of advisors didn’t believe in sanctions, were too squeamish and, therefore, refused to use them.
Statistics are people, with the tears wiped away, but one only has to look at the statistics to see that the DWP consciously, willfully, rationally and massively raised the bar in terms of how many sanctions it wants to see. Check the ONS statistics for the number of sanctions dished out by job centres in Oct 2012, then look again, a month later. Witness that sanctions leapt by hundreds, even thousands of per cent across every job centre in the land just a month later. This was an orgy of sanctioning activity and no-one was spared.
Note also that the number of sanctions dished out have stayed at those elevated levels ever since.
This so-called ‘expectation’, to paraphrase the Marx Brothers, ‘looks like a target, it behaves like a target, don’t be misled, it is a target.’
Autumn 2012 will be seen as the moment the DWP turned the thumbscrews on the unemployed, the disabled and the poor with a vigorous expectation that more and more people should be punished for being out of a job, for being ill or for being disabled.
So far all the main political parties have got away with it (until Corbyn arrived, Labour fully supported sanctions). And it is difficult to see how matters can play out politically, for people in this part of the population. But play out, it will, somehow. Perhaps we are already starting to see it in increased levels of violence at job centres (assaults on staff up 45 per cent), anecdotal reports of mothers stealing baby food and attempts to burn down job centres Perhaps there will be riots. Or maybe just an explosion in street homelessness.
Meanwhile, the regime of sanctioning looks set to encompass ever wider swathes of society. And it is here, occasionally, one hears poverty campaigners hint at a note of optimism, because, the DWP recently upped the ante once again.
Under Universal, for the first time, workers could be sanctioned.
Anyone in receipt of benefit and working less than 35 hours per week will have to demonstrate to the DWP that they are doing enough to find additional full-time hours, or else risk being sanctioned. This is a significant development, with up to 12 million families potentially affected. That’s 12 million people who will come face-to-face with the reality of a mendacious sanctioning regime. That’s a lot more dinner parties, chats down the pub, Saturday nights in front of the X-factor etc where ‘sanctioning’ will become a fractious, despairing and angry topic of conversation.
If the DWP behaves true to form, then these workers, members of the lower middle class (participants in general elections many of them) can expect to be demonized as undeserving and under scrutiny. They too will have the activities listed in their ‘jobs seeker diary’ (FOI – how will the DWP monitor the work-related activity of par-time workers, and they will be angry.