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Should the DWP have a duty of care to benefit claimants?

February 5, 2015

There have been many many stories of the appalling practices in Job Centres whereby benefit claimants are subject to quite disproportionate ‘sanctions’ for trivial and often invalid reasons. See for example http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/02/grieving-relative-confronts-dwp-minister-esther-mcvey-after-benefit-sanctionshttp://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/04/jobcentre-adviser-play-benefit-sanctions-angela-neville?CMP=share_btn_fb, and http://dwpunspun.org.uk/sanctions. Although there is mounting evidence for sanctions targets, employment minister Esther McVey continues to deny it.

These practices (which are being highlighted in the play ‘ Can this be England?’ see http://www.beechleaf.net/show_tell/production.html) are extraordinarily cruel resulting in some claimants committing suicide and some Job Centre staff who have not been totally de-humanised under intolerable pressure. I suppose they save the exchequer some money but they also in many cases discourage claimants from securing worthwhile jobs. It is difficult to get at the true facts because any Job Centre Staff who resign or are ‘eased out’ are pressured to sign confidentiality agreements. Assuming these targets exist, at what level are they set? If not set by ministers, what exactly are the pressures on civil servants to set them?

My suggestion is that there be primary legislation to assign a duty of care to the  DWP over all claimants. This should apply to all levels of staff up to the Secretary of State. I am not suggesting there should be no sanctions – just that they are fair, proportionate and likely to result in a good outcome, i.e. to persuade the claimant to make all reasonable attempts to secure a suitable job. I am not suggesting that benefit caps should not be applied; these are a matter for parliament. Of course it is just possible that harmful regulations are the subject of an order in parliament under the negative resolution procedure, though McVey’s denial seems to indicate otherwise. What happens in these cases is that the minister lays the order before parliament (without calling attention to its contents), and it comes into force in 40 days unless MPs successfully move a motion to oppose it. Such a challenge is very very rare. Since parliamentary scrutiny is almost always absent, the minister should not be able in such cases to throw the blame onto parliament.

Of course one has to be able to define what is meant by a duty of care in this case, but this could perhaps be left to the courts. They could hardly make things any worse than they are, and it would take the argument out of the hands of lying politicians.

It would not of course be easy to get such legislation passed, but if such a Bill were debated at all, or even supported by a petition it would be deservedly embarrassing to the government. After all if the culture is not the government’s fault they shoulod have nothing to fear from such legislation.

All thoughts welcome.

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