TOUGHER benefit sanctions has led to a huge rise in abuse towards Jobcentre staff in our area.
That’s the view of a city academic and the trade union representing workers after figures obtained by The News revealed increases of abuse towards staff at local centres.
A Freedom of Information request showed the number of reports for abuse between April 2012 and March 2013 at job centres in Portsmouth, Cosham, Gosport, Havant and Fareham was 258 – compared with 150 the previous year and 117 in 2010/11.
In the Portsmouth Jobcentre alone, figures for the Arundel Street site jumped from 76 in 2011/12 to 167 the following year.
While one of those led to ‘more than cuts and bruises’ for a member of staff, the total includes threats of physical abuse.
Dan Finn, professor of social inclusion at the University of Portsmouth, said stricter government sanctions on benefits in the past year could be behind the rise in abuse, with more people left frustrated at being denied help.
He said: ‘When people are dealing with very difficult financial circumstances, there is frustration – maybe reasonably or unreasonably – that can boil over to inappropriate behaviour.
‘From the past, we know that when the benefit system cracks down on people in terms of sanctions, people who are in really difficult situations can’t access money. This can lead to an increase violence experienced by staff. It is a real risk to members of staff in the job centre.’
A new regime of sanctions was brought in by the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) in October 2012.
It means if a person claiming benefits – mainly Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance – does not comply with the terms set by the Jobcentre, their benefits can be cut off for up to three years, depending on the circumstances.
Between the new, tighter rules being introduced and November last year, 1,650 sanctions were applied to people at the job centre in Portsmouth.
The Public and Commercial Services Union has seen a rise in the number of Jobcentre staff complaining of abuse rise in the past 18 months.
A spokesman for the union called on the government to protect its members.
He said: ‘These figures are consistent with what we are seeing across the country from official figures and anecdotally when our members have told us they notice a rise in verbal and physical abuse.
‘It coincides with the strict regime that the government is imposing on benefit claimants. It is absolutely shameful for the government to turn the screw on vulnerable people who depend on benefits.
‘At the same time they are putting increasing pressure on staff to enforce the regime. It is entirely against their will.
‘No-one joined the service to come in to the level of confrontation that they are.’
Former employment minister Mark Hoban has said he does not believe the rise in reported abuse towards Jobcentre staff is linked to the changes in benefits.
The Conservative MP for Fareham said: ‘I think there is no excuse for attacks on Jobcentre staff. We take the welfare of staff seriously.
‘That is why we have G4S personnel in our job centres to help.
‘I think the other thing I would say is quite often these changes don’t really affect the people in the job centres.
‘I would question the link between benefit changes and attacks on job centre staff.’
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said: ‘DWP take all incidents seriously and we actively encourage our staff to report these.
‘We have robust measures in place in all our job centres to minimise the risk of incidents to staff and customers.’
She added all Jobcentre staff, including Portsmouth, must undertake relevant healthy and safety training before working with the public.
Safety precautions are in place including the deployment of security guards and panic alarms.