One of the UK’s largest trade unions has expressed growing concern that the number of low-income people exposed to benefit sanctions could rise, as Jobcentre’s re-open for face-to-face appointments.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) recently confirmed that face-to-face benefit appointments will resume from May 2021, as Covid-19 restrictions are gradually lifted across England, much to the dismay of Jobcentre staff and claimants.
But the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), who count a number of Jobcentre workers among their members, fears that this could also lead to a rise in the number of benefit claimants who are subjected to sanctions.
Requirements placed on benefit claimaints prior to the pandemic meant that vulnerable people could see their benefit payments for failing to adhere to strict and often unreasonable criteria.
This includes people who saw their benefits stopped or reduced for being a few minutes late for an appointment, due to travel issues, or missing a meeting due to being in hospital.
These sometimes draconian rules were temporary suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic, but are now being slowly reintroduced as the country gradually recovers from the pandemic.
Sanctions can amount to anything between 20 per cent for a first or minor breach, all the way up to 100 per cent of a claimant’s benefits for repeated offences – effectively criminalising some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.
Commenting, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Thousands of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff have been providing support to claimants safely from home throughout the pandemic.
“The only logical reason they would insist on fully reopening is because of management’s obsession with sanctioning vulnerable claimants.”
It comes as the PCS has also threatened industrial action, over fears for the safety of Jobcentre staff who the union says risk being exposed the Coronavirus without adequate protection.
A survey of more than 1,000 of its members found around three in five would feel unsafe returning to work, while one in five said they are unsure about their safety.
Mark Serwotka said: “These results reflect the anger and frustration our members feel every day.
“These stats show how staff feel and should send a strong signal to ministers that they need to urgently meet with the union to avoid potential industrial action.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Throughout this pandemic, jobcentres have remained open to ensure we can continue to provide vital support to the most vulnerable.
“Our return to full opening hours will enable us to provide even more help and support to those who need us.
“We take the health and safety of colleagues extremely seriously and are absolutely committed to ensuring all our sites remain Covid-secure in line with Public Health England and Government guidance to keep colleagues and customers safe.”