Statement from Boycott Workfare: Stop the Sanctions!

Boycott Workfare call on the PCS to take action on conditionality, workfare and sanctions

Public sector workers, including at the DWP, will soon face sanctions under Universal Credit unless we take action now

Public sector workers, including at the DWP, will soon face sanctions under Universal Credit unless we take action now

The PCS conference takes place in Brighton later this month. Join a rally urging delegates to support a position of non-cooperation with sanctions against welfare claimants at 12.30pm on 21st May.

We are extremely disappointed that PCS leadership have decided not to allow debate at their conference on two motions which called for the union to move from theoretical to practical unity with claimants in challenging sanctions.

Current welfare policies and reforms represent an unprecedented attack on claimants and on the welfare state itself. Conditionality, workfare and the huge rise in sanctions are driving claimants further into poverty and destitution. At the same time a vicious campaign of hatred driven by the media and political classes has stigmatised those on benefits and poisoned public debate.

Workfare forces claimants to work without wages under the threat of sanctions. Those on workfare are exempted from legislation that protects the rights of people at work and denied access to union membership and representation. Sick and disabled people claiming ESA can now be forced onto workfare. Workfare drives down wages and conditions for all workers and it is in all our interests to end it completely. Between 2009 and 2011 the number of sanctions handed out to claimants tripled to reach over half a million. In January this year 85,000 people were sanctioned, suggesting that the number of sanctions could reach one million this year. People are now having benefits withdrawn for up to three years (including for failure to participate in workfare). As the PCS have said this increase in the number and severity of sanctions is purely a political decision.

As conditionality and sanctions have increased and become more severe so the range of claimants subject to them has been extended. Sick and disabled people found “fit for work” by the hated Work Capability Assessment are now subject to this regime as are single parents with young children. Plans for in-work conditionality will see sanctions applied to part time workers and the self employed. The introduction of Universal Jobmatch and a requirement for claimants to spend 35 hour each week on jobsearch or workfare will inevitably lead to more sanctions and is intended to do so. Plans to make hardship payments a recoverable loan will force those who are sanctioned into debt. Housing benefit is increasingly being suspended where people are sanctioned. This systematic removal of welfare support is causing sharp increases in homelessness and the use of food banks.

Boycott Workfare welcome the fact that the PCS have spoken out against workfare and the huge rise in sanctions. We also understand that the primary role of the PCS is to represent their members including around 84,000 staff in the DWP. It should be obvious that there is a tension here where the PCS are campaigning against policies that their own members are required to implement. But there is also the possibility that the PCS could take concerted action to defend the welfare state in the interests of both claimants and their members. Government policies cannot be implemented without workers to implement them.

At meetings with the PCS we have raised the possibility of action being taken. Sadly the PCS have been dismissive of our suggestions and they have been met with arguments for inaction. PCS leadership have argued that anti-strike laws prevent action being taken in solidarity with claimants. But the interests of claimants and PCS members are intertwined and these policies directly impact on the working conditions of PCS members. Increased aggravation between PCS members and claimants put both at risk. And under Universal Credit many DWP staff will themselves face conditionality and sanctions. The right of workers to withhold their labour is fundamental. Laws which undermine this right do not comply with international obligations and should be challenged. Without those prepared to take risks and challenge injustice we would not have unions or a welfare state.

This is not about blaming those PCS members tasked with implementing unjust policies. We know that the blame lies elsewhere. This is about the role that unions could and should take in building solidarity between workers and claimants and in empowering workers to take action. If the PCS are sincere about campaigning for social security justice then they should refuse to cooperate with the implementation of unjust policies. Words are not enough. Boycott Workfare therefore calls on the PCS to take action to protect welfare provision and to frustrate the imposition of policies designed to undermine it.

Boycott Workfare would like to thank those PCS branches who have signed our pledge and those members who have taken part in our actions. We are grateful to members of the PCS in the Civil Service Rank and File Network who put forward a motion to this year’s PCS conference. We urge all PCS members to call for proper debate and practical action on challenging sanctions and to support the emergency motion calling for non-cooperation with sanctions to be debated as well as the rally on the 21st May.

© Copyright 2013 | Boycott Workfare | All Rights Reserved

DWP’s culture of sanctions, denials and bad policy

The government has been forced to launch an inquiry after it was forced to admit that jobcentres have been setting targets and league tables to sanction benefit claimants despite recent assurances to parliament that no such targets were being set. The Employment Minister, Mark Hoban, had told MPs that decisions on 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”.

However a leaked email (click here to view original) shows staff being warned by managers that they will be disciplined unless they increase the number of claimants referred to a tougher benefit regime. In the email the Jobcentre manager sets out ways jobcentre staff can catch out claimants, saying: “You should consider every doubt – if you are unsure then please conference with me.”

The advice includes: “Do not accept the same job search every week, do not accept ‘I dropped off CV to shops like Asda or Sainsbury’s’, listen for telltale phrases ‘I pick up the kids’, ‘I look after my neighbours children/my grandchildren’ or just ‘I am busy’ – all of which suggest that the customer may not be fully available for work, even cases where a parent shares custody can be considered.” The Jobcentre manager also said someone can be deemed not to be actively seeking employment, and therefore subject to sanction “if someone is going away from home, but is not willing to return to take up employment, not willing to leave details of how they can be contacted should a job become available or not looking for work whilst away”.

Faced with the email, the DWP said: “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 recent denials of Mark Hoban, Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP seem to fly in the face of honesty when as long ago as April 2011 the govt admitted Jobcentre staff around the country have been involved in a drive to kick people off benefits amid pressure to meet welfare targets set by their managers. And even back then the govt initially dismissed revelations made by another whistleblower who said staff at his jobcentre was given targets of three people a week to refer for sanctions, where benefits are removed for up to six months.

He said it was part of a “culture change” since last summer that had led to competition between advisers, teams and regional offices. “Suddenly you’re not helping somebody into sustainable employment, which is what you’re employed to do,” he said. “You’re looking for ways to trick your customers into ‘not looking for work’. You come up with many ways. I’ve seen dyslexic customers given written job searches, and when they don’t produce them – what a surprise – they’re sanctioned. The only target that anyone seems to care about is stopping people’s money. Saving the public purse’ is the catchphrase that is used in our office … It is drummed home all the time – you’re saving the public purse. Feel good about stopping someone’s money, you’ve just saved your own pocket. It’s a joke.”

The Guardian also spoke to several Jobcentre staff who, speaking anonymously, claim that targets and pressure to stop people’s benefits still existed in their office, and that vulnerable clients are often affected. One employee claimed the practice had been going on at his office since they joined in July 2009.

These revelations are very disturbing considering that from 22 October 2012, a new level of sanctions was introduced which meant people could have their benefit stopped for up to 3 years. How exactly people are meant to survive without any form of income is bewildering and the fact that a decision may be reached to meet a set target should be a concern for everyone.

Jobcentre sanctions: Your money is stopped; you go into freefall

All this comes at a time when the government have pushed through emergency legislation to reverse the outcome of a court of appeal decision and “protect the national economy” from a £130m payout to jobseekers deemed to have been unlawfully punished.

Tessa Gregory from Public Interest Lawyers, who successfully represented Reilly and Wilson at the court of appeal, said the legislation smacked of desperation.

“The emergency bill is a repugnant attempt by the secretary of state for work and pensions to avoid his legal obligation to repay the thousands of jobseekers, who like my client Jamieson Wilson, have been unlawfully and unfairly stripped of their subsistence benefits.

“The use of retrospective legislation, which is being fast-tracked through parliament, smacks of desperation. It undermines the rule of law and means that Iain Duncan Smith is once again seeking to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny of his actions.

“It is time for his department to admit that maladministration and injustice costs. In light of the bill we are considering what further legal action we can take on behalf of our clients.”

The govt’s precarious stance on all this is nothing new. A constant theme with their ‘back to work schemes’ and implementation of sanctions seems to be one of ill thought out rushed through policies based on ‘their’ ideologies rather getting people back into work or indeed factual evidence. Someone looking in from the outside could quite easily come to the conclusion that a vast section of the population is being persecuted simply because they are unable to find work through no fault of their own.

Around one in 10 of those who are assigned to the Work Programme, an £5 billion initiative which uses private-sector providers to train the long-term unemployed and get them into work, end up losing their benefits for failing to “play by the rules.” From the start of the scheme in June 2011 up to April 2012, more than 73,000 claimants were “sanctioned” out of a total of 734,000 referred to the programme.

The Work Programme isn’t working. It’s a £5 billion pound failure. Not one of the 18 contractors reached the target set by the government of getting 5.5% of clients a job for at least six months. Only 3.5% of people referred to work programme found jobs lasting six months.

But that’s not even the whole story. Workfare industry lobbyists the CESI have calculated that the real figure of people getting any kind of employment on the scheme in its first 12 months is in fact just 2.1%. The government’s target for minimum performance by providers is 5.5%. Even these pro-workfare industry lobbyists have now stated “this suggests that the Work Programme as a whole is underperforming against contractual expectations, even when accounting for changes in the economy.”

Sources:
Jobcentre was set targets for benefit sanctions – Guardian
DWP seeks law change to avoid benefit repayments after Poundland ruling – Guardian
Government admits Jobcentres set targets to take away benefits – Guardian
Jobcentres ‘tricking’ people out of benefits to cut costs, says whistleblower – Guardian
Jobless stripped of benefits in Government scheme – Telegraph
Boycott Workfare: Week of Action 18th – 24th March: Local events
Important changes to Jobseeker’s Allowance Sanctions from Monday 22 October 2012

Changes to Jobseeker Allowance sanctions

From 22 October 2012 the law regarding Jobseeker Allowance (JSA) sanctions has changed. Those in receipt of JSA are being informed of the changes via a letter being handed out at Jobcentres. The letter can be viewed by clicking here.

The letter states that people could lose their JSA benefit for 13 weeks, 26 weeks or 156 weeks (3 years), if a person:

  • leaves a job voluntarily or loses a job due to misconduct or your part
  • fails to take part in a Mandatory Work Activity (MWA) programme
  • fails to take on a suitable employment opportunity
  • refuses or fails to apply for a job which your adviser has notified to you

The length of time will depend on whether it is the first, second or third time you have failed to meet any of these responsibilities in the last 52 weeks’ (1 year) of the previous time.

It also states that people may lose their JSA benefit for 4 weeks or 13 weeks if a person:

  • fails to attend an adviser interview
  • if applicable, fails to take part in a particular employment programme (such as the Work Programme)
  • does not take the opportunity of a place on an employment programme or training scheme
  • refuses or fails to apply for or accept a place on such a programme or scheme notified to you by your adviser
  • fails to attend or gives up a place or through your own misconduct loses a place on such a programme or scheme
  • fails to comply with a Jobseeker’s Direction

The length of time of a sanction will depend on how many times a person has failed to meet any of the above requirements over a 52 week period. Also if it is deemed that a person did not actively seek work or were not available for work during the period of a sanction, their benefit and entitlement to JSA will be stopped. Any JSA reclaim following such a failure may not be paid for up to 4 weeks and for up to 13 weeks if it is not the first occasion within a 52 week period.

Of course there should be a genuine expectation that a person in receipt of JSA adheres to their Jobseekers Agreement, is available and actively seeking employment. However, not only, are these sanctions very severe, open to individual Jobcentre / work scheme provider interpretation but they also seem to open the floodgates to enforced unpaid work placements.

Statements such as “does not take the opportunity of a place on an employment programme or training scheme” appear to imply that all unpaid work placements will be included within these new sanction procedures and would blow apart previous government claims that the majority of unpaid work schemes are “voluntary”. And this should be of major concern to everyone.

The government’s savage austerity measures are clearly not working and sending the economy into a death spiral which can only be worsened by their continued obsession with forced unpaid work. These policies will not solve the unemployment crisis and neither will they create growth……

Figures obtained by Corporate Watch show that 508,000 benefit sanctions were handed out in 2011; a shocking rise from the 139,000 sanctions imposed in 2009 and with the ever increasing use of schemes such as the Work Programme things can only get worse.

The total number of referrals by Jobcentre Plus to the Work Programme from 1st June 2011 to 31st of January 2012 was 565,000 with 519,000 of those registered onto the programme by private sector providers.

Latest statistics show 91,000 referrals for JSA sanctions were made and completed by the end of January 2012 where claimants allegedly failed to participate in the Work Programme. Of these, 33,000 resulted in sanctions; 34,000 were not sanctioned and 25,000 were cancelled or reserved to be reviewed / applied on a future benefit claim. The total figure of 59,000 (65%) failed sanction referrals should set alarm bells ringing. Obviously these referrals would be for various reasons but a culture of intimidation and coercion seems prevalent amongst the providers.

After a person receives a sanction, they have the right to appeal. However, the remedy of an appeal is not an adequate one to a person who’s JSA has been stopped. Although if successful the claimant will receive payment of the JSA that was withheld, during this period they will have struggled to survive without that money pending the appeal (which may or may not have been assisted with hardship payments; a reduced rate of JSA). The lack of a mechanism to dispute the imposition of a sanction before it is applied means that many people comply with demands placed upon them by Work Programme providers regardless of whether they are lawfully allowed to make those demands.

Another major concern is the DWP’s Community Action Programme (CAP) which has completed a pilot stage and the rollout is expected to be announced this autumn. If, as expected, this scheme is extended across the country, almost 1 million people on JSA for longer than 3 years will be forced to work unpaid for six months or have their benefits stopped.

Sources:
DWP – Work Programme referrals, attachments and Jobseekers Allowance sanctions
Child Poverty Action Group – Sanction busting – appealing Work Programme sanctions
Guardian – Million jobless may face six months’ unpaid work or have benefits stopped

DWP letter to Work Programme Participants

Shown below is a letter being sent out by the DWP to people participating in The Work Programme and outlines the consequences if stipulated requirements are not met – benefit sanctions.

Following adverse publicity earlier in the year, the government have continuously stressed that unpaid work placements were “voluntary”. Many of those on The Work Programme and similar schemes will beg to differ. More often than not people are informed if they do not participate in “workfare” activities, their benefits will be sanctioned. Even when this is not the case, the amount of coercion, intimidation and pressure to force people to participate is immense.

The phrase used in the letter, “this would include failing to complete any activity that your Provider has required you to do” seems to imply that anyone told to ‘participate’ in an unpaid work placement will face sanctions. Is it a coincidence that this letter is dated 7th August, a day after a High Court ruled that government back-to-work schemes were lawful.

Everyone must realise NOW that workfare schemes will not only have implications for those currently on them. This is not “cheap labour”, it is “free labour” (slave labour if you like) and it is inevitable that the unscrupulous will exploit these schemes and use people out of work as a commodity and make a profit out of their misfortune. It will drive down wages and people on unpaid placements will replace paid employees.

Those on the schemes now and those likely to be sent in the future should be empowered to resist and everyone should oppose all workfare schemes.

Forcing people to work for nothing will not solve the unemployment crisis. The people who are already suffering from the effects of the savage austerity measures will, yet again, be targeted while those that created the economic mess, walk bold as brass unscathed.

For more information about workfare and your rights, please visit:

www.boycottworkfare.org
www.consent.me.uk

The DWP Letter to Work Programme ‘participants’

7 August 2012

Dear XXXXXXXX

Work Programme

You are currently participating in the Work Programme. When we first referred you to the Work Programme we gave/sent you a letter in which we told you about your requirement to participate, set out what you must do as part of that requirement and provided information about the consequences of any failure to take part. I am now writing to you and other participants in the Work Programme to provide more detail of those consequences. All other requirements remain as set out in your initial notification letter.

In your initial notification letter we said that your Jobseeker’s Allowance could stop for up to 26 weeks if you fail, without a good reason, to take part in the Work Programme. This would include failing to complete any activity that your Provider has required you to do.

If you do fail to take part and we decide that your Jobseeker’s Allowance should be sanctioned, your benefit will be stopped and you will lose National Insurance credits for:
• two weeks, for a first failure;
• four weeks, if we have previously decided that your JSA should be sanctioned because you failed without good reason to take part in the Work Programme or any other scheme set up under the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011, and that sanction started within the last 12 months; or
• 26 weeks, if we decided on two or more previous occasions that your JSA should be sanctioned because you failed without good reason to take part in the Work Programme or any other scheme set up under those Regulations, and the most recent sanction started within the last 12 months.

If your benefit is stopped for 26 weeks, you may have the sanction lifted (after a minimum of 4 weeks) if you:
• fully re-engage with the sanctioned requirement at any time ;or
• fully engage with a different requirement notified to you.

This letter is for information only and you do not need to take any action. If you have any queries, please ask at your next appointment at the Jobcentre.

Yours sincerely,

Manager (on behalf of the Secretary of State)

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