Tricky business down the job centre

So it appears that the Department of Work and Pensions may not have been entirely correct. The Department initially denied that Jobcentre Plus employees were tricking vulnerable people in order to sanction them and stop their benefits, as reported in the Guardian last weekend. The Guardian yesterday continued the story with the news that:

The DWP has backtracked and released a statement confirming the practice had been going on in some offices due to a misunderstanding between the department and some jobcentre managers. It insisted this was no longer the case.

Some offices. That’s a relief. At least it’s not a systemic and endemic problem. A misunderstanding. That’s good. At least it’s not a question of policy. But given how far the Department’s position has shifted in the last week, perhaps it would be wise to reserve judgement on whether we now have an accurate diagnosis of the problem. Who knows what might emerge in the coming days.

The Government is looking to save money in the welfare field, as much as anywhere else. The costs of welfare policy are not so much the costs of providing welfare services as those associated with the sheer volume of the benefits paid out. The options for making savings in the short term are limited:

  • Moving people off benefit into work at a faster rate would help, but the economic circumstances are not hugely advantageous for doing so.
  • Cutting the amount of benefit paid to each claimant would help, but the political cost of brazenly doing that in the short term are considerable. A less overt and contentious strategy might be to link the uprating of benefits to CPI rather than RPI, which will typically mean that over time their real value declines. That policy’s in place.
  • Similarly contentious would be the third option: implementing more restrictive criteria for entry to the welfare system. The problem with this option is that it looks a lot like abandoning the unfortunate to penury. That might not sit too comfortably on the news grid.
  • So that leaves only one other strategy to save money: to sanction claimants for failing to conform to the rules and as a consequence remove their entitlement to benefit. This is a less visible approach to constraining the welfare bill and, conveniently, talk of “sanctioning” carries with it the implication that the claimant is somehow at fault.

So, if there is pressure coming down from the top to save money, and targets are set for delivering savings, what is going to happen? If your job hangs on meeting those targets – and the very nature of your job makes it only too clear the consequences and conditions of unemployment – what are you going to do? Even if you know it is immoral to look to sanction easy targets, might not your instinct to self-preservation kick in at some point and you make the decision to take the low road? The Conservatives, being firm believers in self-interest as the wellspring of human motivation, should not only expect this but, presumably, find it unexceptional.

The Department might argue that this isn’t what they intended at all. No one has been directed to pick on the vulnerable. There was no intention to create a climate of fear. Arguments will no doubt be made about an unfortunate uncoupling of policy and implementation: with the DWP setting policy and Jobcentre Plus as the Executive Agency not quite taking forward the spirit of that policy.

But if the imperative to save money is perceived to be absolutely overriding, and the consequences for individual members of staff of failing to do so are dire, then such arguments lack credibility. Ian Duncan-Smith and the DWP may not be pulling the trigger, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t load the gun. And the consequences for the vulnerable stand as an indictment of current policy positions.

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