Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University have uncovered evidence of widespread sanctions targets and anti-claimant sentiment in the DWP whilst the Coalition government was in power. They warn that with increasing claimant numbers, mass recruitment of work coaches and claims being managed online, the stage may be set for a new period of harsh treatment.
In their paper, ‘Violent bureaucracy: a critical analysis of the British public employment service’ researchers examined the ‘institutionally violent’ claiming process between 2010 and 2015, when claimants were hit by a tidal wave of sanctions created by the Coalition government.
The carried out ten interviews with DWP front-line workers and managers from that period under conditions of strict anonymity, including not identifying even the gender of staff referred to in the research. The DWP staff all worked in different areas of the country and , between them, had over 200 years of experience as civil servants.
The authors look at how ‘Politicians intentionally rehashed and enflamed centuries’ worth of ‘scrounger’ discourses to fortify anti-welfare common sense and manufacture consent for austerity’
Newspapers were filled with anti-claimant propaganda, portraying claimants as ;parasites’, ‘fraudsters’ and migrants placing an increasing strain on public services.
This rhetoric heavily influenced, as intended, the way DWP staff regarded claimants:
‘there was a point at which s/he said, ‘It’s your money! It’s your taxes that they’re living off! You know, you should be sanctioning them!’
Another worker explained:
‘[it was] just work coaches sitting in the canteen at lunchtime saying how awful claimants were and how they were scroungers and liars and all the rest of it.’
DWP staff performance was no longer measured on a range of outcomes, but solely on ‘off-benefit flows’. Meanwhile private sector Work Programme providers were required to target the ‘hardest to help’ claimants including claimants with long-term health conditions and were required to refer claimants for sanctions.
Even though the government repeatedly claimed there were no national or local sanctions targets, the researchers found repeated evidence that there were.
One worker reported:
‘weekly team meetings. And s/he [team manager] used to produce a table which showed how many people you’ve sanctioned or how many people you’d referred to a decision-maker for a sanction.’
‘certain staff would come [in the canteen] and say “well I’ve got my [sanctions] target for the week”’
One manager who had witnessed first-hand the harsh realities of the poverty experienced by claimants still got caught up in the targets regime:
‘it sounds sad doesn’t it, but when the figures were coming out of what the unemployed were prior to Universal Credit, it was like exciting: ‘Oh God, what have we got today?’ ‘How many have we got on the books?’ ‘Has it gone down by hundreds?’
In order to deal with the reality of the pain they were inflicting, staff blamed others:
‘yes people [managers] did pull the wool over my eyes [with sanctioning targets]. I’ll quite freely admit it. I don’t care, that’s their conscience, not mine’
Or they became emotionally detached:
‘I think it’s like you shut down the personal stuff, you’re there to do a job. . .we can’t become emotionally involved, can we?’
Or they saw themselves as having no choice:
‘The way I was treated, I had to abide by these rules that went against everything I thought and believed in’
Claimants were deliberately tricked into creating Claimant Commitments that they would not be able to keep in order to allow them to be sanctioned. One worker described how their manager got non-English speaking claimants to sign a Commitment that they would provide job search evidence written in English and then sanctioned them when they failed to do so
“s/he said to me, ‘you think I’m racist, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Well, I didn’t say that’. I never said ‘racist’, but I said, ‘How can you stand there and tell me that if I’m speaking a different language to the person in front of me, I can penalize them because I can be sure that they’ve understood what I’ve said?’ S/he said s/he would do that. That, that was right. S/he would do this Claimant Commitment and get them to sign it. So I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to sign it.’ S/he said, ‘Well, I’ll sign it.’ So I said. ‘You’re signing to say they’ve understood that?’ ‘Well, they've signed it, so they must understand.’”
Fortunately, that regime of aggressive sanctioning seems to have now ended as the DWP focuses desperately on trying to get universal credit to work with reduced staff numbers:
‘it’s changed now. It’s completely disappeared in our office. There is no manager putting any pressure on us to sanction. There is no conversation in communication meetings which says claimants are lying scroungers’.
However, the report’s authors warn that harsh treatment of claimants has often occurred during periods of austerity. With a hugely increased claimant count following the pandemic and a mass recruitment of work coaches, the scene may be set for a renewed crackdown.
And, as the authors also point out, with 80% of universal credit claimants expected to manage their claims online by 2024, DWP staff will be entirely shielded from the people they are inflicting harm upon.
You can download a full copy of ‘Violent bureaucracy: a critical analysis of the British public employment service.’