UK job centre staff endure violent backlash to government cuts

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As government cuts and social security reforms hit increasing numbers of people in the United Kingdom, those working for the government’s employment and social security agency are becoming the targets of the growing anger felt by benefit claimants.

“I would definitely say things have got worse in the last year or so,” said one Jobcentre Plus worker in West Yorkshire, who asked not to be identified.

“We’ve always had some threats and verbal abuse, but it happens more often now and there’s physical aggression too.”

The employee, who has worked for Jobcentre Plus for four years, told Equal Times how one claimant recently lashed out at her after finding out that her benefits had been stopped for a month.

“She tried to hit me, but another claimant held her back. She was screaming that she was going to kill me.

“Most of my colleagues have had the same sort of thing, and people have told us to watch our backs when we leave work. Luckily no one’s been hurt but I know that’s not the case in other places.”

Over the past year there has been a dramatic rise in the number of violent incidents occurring at job centres around the country.

Recent local media reports of similar violent incidents included one in which an unemployed man in Lincolnshire, in the east of England, was charged by police in after threatening Jobcentre Plus staff with a meat cleaver.

Local people who knew the man say his benefits had been stopped, without warning, under controversial benefit sanctioning rules.

There have also been two other reported knife incidents at job centres in the area in the last few months.


“Shocking but unsurprising”

A recent report by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), the government department responsible for social security and the running of Jobcentre Plus, showed that incidents of actual assault against staff have increased by 45 per cent year-on-year – an increase which the UK’s Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union called “shocking but unsurprising”.

According to the DWP figures, there was a 45 per cent rise in incidents of physical assault, with 672 incidents in the year 2012-13, compared to 465 in 2011-12.

In the same period, incidents of verbal abuse and threats increased by 53 per cent to 35,161 from 22,928 whilst the number of ‘other’ incidents – including damage to property or fights not involving staff – doubled to 6,399.

The DWP says the increase is partly due to changes made to the way in which some incidents are reported.

But many insist that the real reason is growing anger at the impact changes to the social security system are having on people’s lives.

After the recent incidents in Lincolnshire, local PCS Branch Secretary Nick Parker urged people to direct their anger at politicians, not job centre staff.

“Since 2010, PCS has warned that austerity would put our members at risk, and sadly this is proving correct,” he said in a statement.

“We want to make it clear that PCS members are civil servants, not politicians, and their job is to carry out the policies of the government, not to make the laws.”

“It is the politicians who voted these laws through Parliament – who now look forward to an 11 per cent pay rise - who should be held primarily responsible for the poverty conditions that are fuelling this rising trend of unacceptable behaviour,” he added.

Some frustrated claimants however said they feel job centre staff are partly to blame.

“I know the staff don’t make the rules. But they must know it’s wrong to put people into poverty,” said one claimant outside the Jobcentre Plus in Rochdale, Lancashire, who said he wished to remain anonymous as he was afraid of being sanctioned [having his benefits withdrawn].

“If the advisors don’t agree with sanctioning people, they should refuse,” he continued.

“They should get another job. My advisor keeps telling me there are plenty of jobs going.”

Other recent local media reports of incidents in job centres included staff being verbally and physically assaulted, cars being vandalised and attempted arson.

A court heard how one unemployed man in Manchester tried to set fire to a Jobcentre Plus after his benefits had been stopped. He hadn’t eaten for three days and hoped to get a meal while in police custody.


“Draconian regime”

After reports of windows being smashed at the Sparkhill job centre in Birmingham, a spokesman for local anti-austerity group Birmingham Against the Cuts (BTAC) told Equal Times that the increase in violent incidents at job centres is a “direct result of the increasingly draconian regime” put in place by Conservative Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

“Benefit sanctions are a key part of this, with sanctions being more frequently used, and their use being encouraged, with advisors having effective targets.”

“We’re frustrated by the lack of help or support from the Job Centre, and by those advisors that are all too happy to impose sanctions,” he said.

“It’s hardly surprising that, in an increasingly hostile environment, some people will get pushed over the edge and lash out.”

The new, tougher sanctioning regime, which came into force in late October 2012, means a claimant’s benefits can be stopped completely for between four weeks and three years.

Sanctions are intended to penalise claimants who aren’t doing enough to find work, however BTAC and others believe that sanctions are often applied inappropriately.

Bev, a claimant from Liverpool, told Equal Times how she had been sanctioned four times in 2013 for between one and three months after not receiving letters informing her of appointments she was supposed to attend as part of the Work Programme.

Bev now believes Jobcentre Plus staff are intentionally trying to ‘trick’ people into being sanctioned.

“There have been many times this year I’ve had no food in the cupboards, and no electric, because I’m on a pre-payment meter,” she said.

“I’m often at a loss with what the Job Centre expects of me, which of course leaves me worrying if I’m going to be put on another sanction.

“They change the rules too often for people to be able to keep up, staff included.”



The DWP has consistently denied setting internal targets for removing people’s benefits despite repeated accusations by former employees and anti-austerity groups.

In December, a former Jobcentre Plus employee turned whistleblower told Labour MP Debbie Abrahams and the Guardian that staff were being given targets to reduce the number of claimants.

The former employee claimed that all staff at one job centre were threatened with an internal disciplinary assessment if they failed to reduce the number of claimants on the register.

“The truth is that benefit claimants are being deliberately set up to fail in order to achieve sanction quotas without regard for natural justice or their welfare.”

“Staff are being asked to behave in a manner that is against the [DWP’s] values of integrity and honesty.”

PCS says it expects more anger from the unemployed as social security reforms continue, and demands that the DWP better support frontline staff as Universal Credit is introduced.

The Universal Credit system, designed by Duncan Smith, rolls six existing types of benefit into one payment and is expected to bring in the biggest changes made to the social security system since the Second World War.

Ministers admitted last month that the new system was over-budget and behind schedule, and it has come under fire from critics who say any late payments or mistakes could leave people with nothing at all.

“The problem with Universal Credit is that it is built on the lie that people are choosing a life on benefits or in low paid jobs,” a PCS spokesperson told Equal Times.

In addition to these pressures, PCS claimed that low pay in the public sector means that 40 per cent of Jobcentre Plus staff administering Universal Credit will also be receiving it themselves.

"This shows just how shockingly low pay is for many thousands of DWP staff and exposes the extent to which working people are relying on state benefits to survive,” said the PCS spokesperson.

“Instead of cutting salaries year-on-year, then penalising people for being low paid, the government should boost pay in the public sector and force private sector employers to increase earnings by a significant increase in the minimum wage.”