HomeCoronavirusPushing poor people into bad work: how British jobcentres operate | John...

Pushing poor people into bad work: how British jobcentres operate | John Harris

As the government responds to the looming economic crisis, its approach seems to embody two polar opposites. The money it is spending to revive the economy is, we are told, not just unprecedented, but indicative of a huge change in Tory thinking, which shoves Conservatism away from the tenets of Thatcherism and everything that followed it. Chancellor Rishi Sunak tells us this is an administration “unencumbered by dogma”, Boris Johnson cites Franklin Roosevelt, and shocked Daily Telegraph columnists warn of a return to “Labour’s paternalistic corporatism”.

But viewed from another angle, it looks like the government is basically spending vast amounts of cash shoring up an economic model that is now on to its second meltdown in just over a decade. Covid-19 has magnified a social crisis centred on low pay and insecure work, an enduring housing crisis and inequality that defines millions of people’s everyday experience. Yet there is still no sign of any meaningful attempt to change those things. What some people call neoliberalism has, perhaps, reached the stage of high farce, whereby its supposedly rugged, laissez-faire model can only survive thanks to huge bailouts from the state. So, as the old quotation goes, for everything to stay the same, everything must change.

If ever there was a symbol of the cruelties of 10 years of Tory-led government, it is the jobcentre, that fixture of most large British settlements where officials administer working-age benefits, and their “customers” – treated more and more harshly since 2010 – are introduced to a world of frequent appointments and “structured job searches”. English jobcentres began reopening on 1 July. In preparation for the expected autumn surge in unemployment and by way of creating public-sector jobs, a “new brigade” of 13,500 “work coaches” is to be enlisted, doubling the current total.

This change is framed in terms of the need to “tease out the great skills people have and can be used in a new role or career direction”. But such soft approaches will also be combined with the thwack of discipline, thanks to so-called benefit sanctions – whereby people have to follow instructions to the letter under pain of having their payments stopped. At the start of lockdown, the sanctions regime was suspended; now, in the face of huge dismay among people who well know how nasty the system is, it is to be restored across England. The mental health charity Mind says bringing back sanctions is “appalling”, but the government says it is necessary to “reinstate the need for having a claimant commitment” – officialspeak for the demands of a policy whose cruelties are only surpassed by those of the immigration system.

If the zeitgeist of the last four months has been all about helping one’s neighbours, and a sudden awareness of people deemed “vulnerable”, sanctions represent the absolute reverse: benefits docked even if people’s failure to turn up for appointments is out of their control; regular reports of suicides; a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities; not to mention the obscene and heartbreaking story of Errol Graham, the Nottingham man whose emaciated body was found in his flat by bailiffs, after his benefits had been cut off.

Over the last fortnight, off-the-record briefings from the Department for Work and Pensions have sounded almost apologetic, suggesting that no one in government really wants to sanction anyone, and that there is an institutional awareness of unprecedented circumstances. Nonetheless, like some outmoded and malfunctioning part of a rusting machine for which no one can find a replacement, the sanctions grinder is back in action.

A fundamental question hangs over jobcentres and what they do. Good people work in them; as I have been reminded when visiting such places, it is hard to deny that the intentions of those charged with finding people jobs are usually sincere. But thanks to the punitive credo at the core of the benefits system, and the fact that jobcentres are essentially outposts of Westminster and Whitehall, and are obliged to follow national diktats rather than wildly different local circumstances, the system too often fails the people it is supposed to help.

In 2018, a five-year study led by Prof Peter Dwyer from the University of York found not only that “sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek or enter paid work”, but that “the majority of respondents experienced their interactions with work coaches/advisers as being of limited use and/or coercive rather than supportive”. When I spoke to Dwyer last week, he also talked about “counterproductive compliance”: the warped syndrome that kicks in when people are instructed to spend up to 35 hours a week blankly searching and applying for work online under the supervision of a job coach, which amounts to a job in itself, and often gets in the way of people meaningfully connecting with real-world opportunities.

And then there is arguably the biggest issue of all. If we are going to judge the moral aspects of how this country operates over the next few years, everything surely has to start with the fate of people on low pay – among them the “supermarket workers, road hauliers, bin collectors, cleaners, security guards, postal workers” recently lionised by the prime minister and supposedly now deserving of a status upgrade. Yet, as things stand, their collective predicament is the same as ever.

Moreover, the DWP is now tightly woven into the chunk of the economy built around paltry wages, poor conditions and a workforce too scared and put-upon to do anything about it. Put bluntly, via the jobcentre network, the lower tiers of the modern labour market depend on the state pushing people into bad work.

Speak to anyone familiar with distribution centres, garment factories, food-processing plants and “self-employment” that is usually nothing of the kind, and you tend to hear one thing more than most. For fear of entering – or re-entering – a Kafka-esque world of benefit claims, sanctions and long spells spent at the jobcentre, people meekly accept work they know is poorly paid, unreliable and sometimes dangerous. Contrary to what the government is now saying about Leicester and “cultural sensitivities” being to blame for a failure to tackle sweatshops, the effects of austerity on workplace inspections are a connected part of the same story. So too is the fact that in the last 20 years, although several thousand firms have been caught not paying the minimum wage, only 14 have been criminally prosecuted.

Throw historically high unemployment into this dysfunctional mess – which looks likely once the furlough schemes end in October – and whatever the government’s rhetoric, the picture will only get grimmer. Sooner or later, the apparatus that links so-called “welfare” to work will have to be completely overhauled. To use a very topical word, it will eventually be time to defund the DWP, break up the jobcentre system and move to something that is not just more humane, but that might actually work.

The tragedy is that in an age of contradiction, confusion and a failed economic model that stubbornly limps on, people will have to endure more misery before there is even a faint glimmer of anything better.

• John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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