Abuse of benefits by ‘pressurised’ Plaistow jobcentre staff leads to DWP criticism by independent watchdog

JobCentre employees were investigated about the misuse of benefit payments.

JobCentre employees were investigated about the misuse of benefit payments. - Credit: Archant

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has come under fire after its limited investigation of benefit misuse at a Plaistow jobcentre prompted Stephen Timms to call for an independent review.

The East Ham MP said he “was troubled” by the case and raised concerns with the National Audit Office (NAO) last November after being contacted by two former Plaistow Jobcentre Plus staff.

The two women, one of whom is an East Ham resident, said they had been unfairly dismissed by bosses in May 2014 for the mispayment of the Flexible Support Fund to a claimant.

The benefit is supposed to help job seekers with the costs of finding work.

The NAO report, released today, found the two members of staff had awarded the payments “to inflate off-flow as a measure of jobcentre performance”.

Off-flow is one of the primary targets used to monitor jobcentre performance.

In this instance, it measures the number of people who have stopped claiming jobseekers allowance over a set period of time.

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In 2013-14 the DWP raised its off-flow targets for jobcentres as part of its annual review of their performance.

Plaistow was said to have “struggled” to meet its higher target.

Mr Timms told the Recorder: “What they were doing in Plaistow was that some people were given the same amount of money.

“It looked as though statistically they had come off the jobseeker’s allowance but actually it was coming from a different pot of money.

“I think it was the culture of trying to get people off of benefits that was the root cause of what went on.

“In my view, these two staff members should be reinstated.”

The DWP’s internal enquiry of the matter began in 2013 after a customer was awarded a Flexible Support Fund payment by Plaistow Jobcentre after having her Jobseeker’s Allowance payment cut off.

An investigation team spent around 340 hours trying to find out whether there was more widespread misuse of the Fund among staff at several jobcentres including East Ham, Canning Town and Plaistow.

However, the findings did not review the “wider cultural issues or pressures on staff in Plaistow”, according to the NAO report.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said the report’s results were thanks to the “determination of Stephen Timms MP on behalf of his constituent”.

She said: “The report sheds light on concerns that staff were pressurised to meet targets to the detriment of the people they were there to help.

“The Department for Work and Pensions has a duty to ensure jobcentre staff are protected against bullying, harassment and undue pressure to meet management targets.

“The Department must also demonstrate that it has thought through what consequences future targets are likely to have on jobcentres and their staff – both intended and unintended.”

A DWP spokeswoman said: “The report contains no new evidence, and simply summarises the results of our own extensive investigation which found that this was an isolated incident in a network of over 700 jobcentres.

“Our work coaches do a great job supporting people into work and contributing to the record levels of employment.”