Universal Credit may have been launched with a whimper – at just one Jobcentre affecting a handful of claimants – but unless urgent action is taken then it will prove devastating for low paid workers at the DWP, HMRC and elsewhere within both the public and private sectors.
Universal Credit is not just an attack on unemployed, sick or disabled people, but everyone dependent on some form of support, such as Tax Credits or Housing Benefits. Part time workers earning less than the minimum wage for a full week’s work will be placed under the same ‘conditionality’ regime for in-work benefits as those currently claiming Jobseekers Allowance. This is intended to to ‘incentivise’ low paid workers to continuously look for ‘more or better paid work’.
This conditionality, known as Work Related Activity, will at the minimum include regular interviews at the Jobcentre. Astonishingly, a part time Jobcentre worker (or any other low paid PCS member) could leave work in the morning only to have to re-attend the Jobcentre in the afternoon for an unpaid back-to-work style interview.
At this interview, which will be carried out by a colleague in the case of Jobcentre staff, part time workers will be interrogated on what they are doing to find full time work. Anyone who refuses to, or is unable to carry out mandated Work Related Activity – which could mean anything from workfare in the hours they aren’t in paid work to filling out dodgy personality tests – will face having in-work benefits sanctioned. In some cases sanctions can last up to three years.
The PCS Union have estimated that up to 40% of their lowest paid members could be brought under this regime, all watched over and policed by fellow PCS members. This is clearly an intolerable situation with the potential to create a poisonous working environment for Jobcentre staff along with bitter disputes across the trade union movement.
For Jobcentre workers the problems do not end there. It is no secret that some unemployed claimants, placed under relentless pressure – benefit sanctions mean kids going hungry – may take out their frustrations on Jobcentre staff. It is also true, for somewhat obvious reasons, that people with a history of violent behaviour often find themselves on benefits. Attacks on Jobcentre staff have tripled in some areas over the last year.
The PCS Union have acknowledged that the enhanced sanctions regime increases the risk of Jobcentre workers facing violence, yet the DWP appear to be brushing off this very real threat to the health and safety of public sector workers.
It is not just low paid workers at risk of harm due to the new regime. Jobcentre workers are not trained to be health assessors, social workers, probation officers or substance misuse specialists, yet they now have unprecedented power over claimant’s lives. Child Protection measures, care plans, support for people recovering from addiction or vital work to house homeless people can now all be interrupted by Jobcentre demands that claimants attend workfare or face having benefits stopped.
Jobcentre workers may be completely unaware of factors from a claimant’s personal life, whether that be a health condition or a criminal record which makes a workfare placement unsuitable. Claimants on sickness or disability benefits can now also be sent on workfare. No health and safety assessments are carried out into placement providers and there have even been concerns raised about whether workfare staff are always adequately insured. In most cases no CRB checks are carried out.
A tragedy is almost inevitable and when it happens it is quite likely to be a front line worker scape-goated by management, the media or government ministers. Jobcentre workers are not paid anything like enough to shoulder this level of responsibility.
Even events which don’t make the headlines should be enough to make all Jobcentre staff pause for thought. Jobcentre managers have long warned of the increased risk of suicide amongst benefit claimants. Even without the shocking attacks on the working conditions and safety of Jobcentre staff, there is a moral dimension to benefit sanctions that can no longer be swept under the carpet.
Jobcentre workers did not sign up to act as Iain Duncan Smith’s unofficial police force, yet they now have greater powers in some cases than magistrates to sentence people to unpaid work. Benefit sanctions are comparable to a heavy fine just for missing a meeting or misunderstanding a letter. The end results of these sanctions are child poverty, homelessness and debt. No worker should be compelled to force other working class people – who have committed no crime other than being sick , disabled, parents, unemployed or even under-employed – into absolute destitution.
The recent leaks which exposed benefit sanction league tables shows just how far DWP management are prepared to go to enforce this callous regime. The fact that ministers have denied the existence of targets to sanction claimants represents yet another attack on frontline staff. Jobcentre workers are now being disciplined for not meeting targets that the Government claim do not exist.
When all low paid part time workers face Work Related Activity, both colleagues and trade union comrades alike will be under pressure by management to sanction each other’s in-work benefits.
The introduction of Universal Credit is a matter of urgency for all low paid or part time workers. Sanctions are the teeth of the new measures, and must be fought in workplaces and on the streets if necessary. Two motions had been tabled at the PCS Conference in May this year to discuss some form of industrial action to resist sanctions, a long held demand of claimants and many rank and file PCS members.
These motions will now not be discussed after the PCS Standing Orders Committee removed them from the conference agenda. The union’s National Executive Committee seem to have washed their hands of this decision and claimed they were not responsible. The thinking amongst the PCS leadership seems to be that benefit sanctions are not a workplace issue for members, or at least are not yet. In truth sanctions have already created a toxic and brutalised regime at the DWP and the situation is set to become far worse.
Universal Credit has been fully enshrined in legislation. Whilst the timetable for full implementation is unclear, the roll out is likely to be hugely extended from October this year. The time to fight is now. Only action, not words, can stop this attack on the UK’s poorest workers. Low paid workers from other sectors, along with all claimants whether out of work or not, should stand firmly behind rank and file PCS members lobbying the leadership, and more importantly the membership, for meaningful action. Only then can we act collectively to stop the all out war on the very poorest that Jobcentre workers are to be expected to wage on behalf of this Government.
The Civil Service Rank & File (CSRF) Network has called a rally outside of the PCS union’s Annual Delegate Conference at lunchtime on Tuesday 21 May, urging delegates to support a position of non-cooperation with sanctions against welfare claimants. They will be joined by claimants. For more details, and to help spread the word visit: https://www.facebook.com/events/258534454291849/
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