Ministers have refused to apologise after MPs from across the North East highlighted the “cruel and inhumane” treatment of benefit claimants in the region.
Officials such as Jobcentre staff had been encouraged to strip claimants of benefits for no good reason, MPs said.
In a Commons debate led by Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah, MPs highlighted a series of wrong decisions and abuse of benefit claimants.
* Veterans injured in Afghanistan or Iraq stripped of benefits after they were told they were fit to work
* A Newcastle man stripped of benefits because he was accused of failing to seek work in the days after his father died
* A man in Bishop Auckland constituency who was a collecting a sick daughter from school and was accused of inventing a “fictional child”
South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck said her constituents had been “humiliated” by job centre staff.
“Constituents of mine have been refused a private room to discuss intimate personal or medial issues … the general attitude of staff is confrontational and sometimes just downright rude.”
Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery said Jobcentre staff provided a valuable service and took their role seriously – but they were under pressure to “sanction” as many people as possible, suspending their benefits on the grounds that they had broken rules or failed to prove they were seeking work.
The debate, attended by Labour MPs from across the North East, followed long-running complaints that benefit claimants are being sanctioned for no good reason.
> Very long-running complaints… its a shame it takes a looming General Election to get Labour’s collective arse into gear, and also leads the cynical to wonder whether the situation will just revert after the election (whoever wins).
But Work Minister Esther McVey infuriated MPs by refusing to discuss whether the criteria for imposing sanctions were fair, despite repeated requests for her to address this topic.
She denied her department deliberately inflames talk of “scroungers”, saying: “I have never put forward a story like that and I never would.”
Ms Onwurah recalled that she was largely bought up by her mother in a single-parent family in Newcastle which depended on benefits.
She said: “I am so glad she did not have to face the sort of vilification and abuse that benefit claimants face now.”
She added: “I want to know what this government is doing to prevent the demonisation of those who are now claiming benefits.”
> That’s easy – nothing. Why would they, it’s their policies that encouraged it in the first place.
What we want to know now is what Labour would do, should they win the next election.
Newcastle East MP Nick Brown said one constituent had been told to go to an office in Felling, Gateshead. He walked to the office – because he had no money to pay for public transport – where he was given a telephone number to call.
People with disabilities, but who were judged to be fit to work, were being trained for jobs it was very unlikely they would be able to do, he said.
> There must be more unemployed forklift drivers in the North East than anywhere. Qualifications that are basically useless because the majority of jobs requiring a forklift licence also specify a period of experience in a real situation, not a poxy do-it-or-get-sanctioned course.
And, in Sunderland at least, they send qualified and experienced forklift drivers on these courses too… Southwick Jobcentre advisers in particular were notorious for that.
Julie Elliott, MP for Sunderland Central, said Jobcentre staff were under pressure to sanction claimants.
“They work hard and are put under enormous pressure. Staffing levels have diminished dramatically since 2010.
“We hear anecdotally about the pressures of informal targets on sanctions – we all know they are in place – from people who are too frightened to say something, so they tell us off the record.”
> Ah… definitely an election looming. Julie Elliott is my MP, but failed to respond to a complaint against Jobcentre staff that I made a couple of years ago. That’s not the way to win votes, Jules – electorates are for the full term of the parliament, not just a general election.
Mrs Lewell-Buck accused the Government of encouraging the public “to think of claimants as spongers or skivers, so that working people struggling to get by will blame the unemployed man or woman next door”.
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 07 Jan 2015
People looking for work have had their benefits stopped to meet government targets, the PCS union claims.
The union, which represents many job centre staff, said they had been under “enormous pressure” to stop claimants’ Jobseeker’s Allowance.
Some claimants said they had benefits withdrawn for “genuine mistakes” such as missing appointments.
The government says sanctions are a “last resort”, and strongly denies the union’s claim.
“Job centre staff are under enormous pressure to implement sanctions on unemployed people,” PCS union north-east regional secretary Simon Elliot said.
> Some of them. Others seem to revel in that little bit of power, and dont require any pressure whatsoever…
“Staff are faced with the threat of sanctions themselves in the form of what they call performance improvement plans if they don’t impose sanctions.
“If you look at the guidance for implementing the performance improvement plans it clearly states that it’s a measure against targets.”
David Taws from North Tyneside had his benefit suspended for forgetting an appointment.
He phoned to apologise but was told the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would need to be informed.
“The letter turned up on the 20th of December and I was literally sanctioned over Christmas,” he said. “It was horrific – I had to go literally begging for food at a church hall.”
Another man, who did not wish to be named, said his benefit was cut for a month in September.
“I explained that I was caring for my nana,” he said. “I was up and down to the hospital with her. It totally slipped my mind. I phoned up and said I’m half an hour late for my appointment and they said, ‘OK, we’ll just put it as a miss’.
“I got a letter two weeks later saying I was sanctioned – for 28 days.”
Mr Elliot said staff were being forced to carry out “politically motivated” objectives.
> Forced ? You’re a bloody trade union, man ! You should be in there fighting.
The DWP strongly denied there were any targets for the number of sanctions that Job Centre staff must hand out. It also said there was a right of appeal.
North Tyneside Council Conservative group leader Judith Wallace defended the use of sanctions to “stamp out the something-for-nothing culture”.
She said: “If people are unemployed, and looking for work, clearly it is right that they should get benefits but, equally clearly, it’s right that there should be conditions attached to those benefits.”
> Yes ? And haven’t there always been conditions attached ? It’s just that they’ve never been used as a political weapon in such a cynical way before. And for all sanctions have increased massively, lets not forget that unemployment continues to rise in the North East.
And where are our local Labour MPs in all this ? Or any other local political party outside the coalition ?
- The new regime came into force in October 2012
- Sanctions of between four weeks and three years can be imposed
- More than 400,000 in England, Scotland and Wales had Jobseeker’s Allowance stopped in the first nine months of the new system
- In Northumberland and Tyne and Wear the figure was almost 17,500 for the same period
- In Durham and Tees Valley it was nearly 16,000
- It was more than 20,000 in Cumbria and Lancashire
Source – BBC News Tyne & Wear, 24 Jan 2014