A pilot scheme to impose benefit sanctions on the workshy was blighted by violence, mismanagement and subterfuge, according to an internal study.
Threats to dock benefits for failing to attend jobseeker courses were “relatively ineffective” with the hardest to help and were easily dodged, the study of the two-year trials found.
The findings come as James Purnell, the welfare secretary, opens the second reading of a bill that stipulates almost everyone should prepare to work or face sanctions. Mr Purnell faces a battle over plans to place conditions on single parents of children as young as three, a measure opposed by a coalition of Conservatives and the Labour left.
The Department for Work and Pensions’ evaluation found that mandatory motivational courses raised self-confidence, with researchers even noting “therapeutic effects”. However, the pilot “had little or no impact on either the intensity of job search or the way in which work was sought”.
“Very few individuals appear to have viewed prior warnings and possible sanctions as a threat and redoubled their efforts to find employment,” according to the evaluation.
Up to half of those referred refused to turn up to classes, in spite of the threat of financial penalties. But the authors found sanctions did improve attendance among more motivated jobseekers. Administering sanctions proved difficult. Penalties were levied on people missing courses to pick up heroin replacement medication or attend probation interviews. One jobseeker was referred for a sanction after attending his father’s funeral.
“Little attempt” was made to form groups with similar needs, leading to unskilled manual workers, drug addicts and immigrants with poor English being lumped in the same course as managers and civil servants.
The research found “a small number of customers” were “confrontational and violent”. There were several cases of drunken and violent behaviour and one case of an assault on staff. “They are all pushed through the door. But we have no security guards …and most of our tutors are female,” said one provider.
Others said little information was provided about those attending courses. A male tutor said: “On one occasion I ended up alone in a room with a guy convicted for male rape. It would help to know in advance.”
Mr Purnell pointed to research supporting the principles of placing conditions on benefits. The department said the pilot provided a “valuable insight into how sanctions would work in practice”.
“Feedback from these pilots showed that while in some cases customers’ confidence and motivation was raised, in others it was clear that some individuals could benefit from more personalised support …That’s why we’re continuing with our reforms to make the system more flexible.”
The study highlighted the importance of advisers spending one-to-one time with jobseekers. However, it warned that the pressures of a recession would lead to this being scaled back.