THE BLOG
23/12/2013 06:27 GMT | Updated 19/02/2014 05:59 GMT

2013 in Unemployment - Media and Government Combine to Kick the Workless

After a shocker in 2012, unemployed people may have hoped for better in 2013, but all they found was another difficult year.

The one apparent bright spot, the fall in unemployment, came with more caveats than the average party election manifesto. More are working part-time only because they can't find full-time work while those earning less than premiership footballers have lost hundreds more pounds this year as wages still haven't kept pace with inflation.

The man who wants to 'make work pay', but only through making benefits increasingly worthless, saw more criticism than any cabinet minister should be able to survive. Iain Duncan Smith presided over the loss of hundreds of millions in the Universal Credit debacle, was accused of weak management by the National Audit Office, criticised again by the Office for National Statistics for misleading the public, managed a failing youth contract and a failing work programme, and oversaw the hated and poor-quality work capability assessment. Yet here he is, sitting it out and under no apparent pressure to resign.

Some might wonder what leverage he has over the Prime Minister - perhaps he owns the copyright of that infamous picture of Cameron, Osborne and Johnson in their Bullingdon Club finery? - but it is hard not to see past the obvious explanation.

The Conservatives need Smith because he tells them what they need to hear to justify their prejudices about benefit claimants. By talking almost exclusively in terms of traps, fraud, overpayments, laziness and stupidity, he allows them to feel good about the cuts they support, even as he leads them down the garden path.

We finally saw the long-delayed figures for benefit sanctions - the government had refused to publish them for some time - and saw that they had risen by 29% in a single year. This is making a huge difference not just to the claimant count for unemployment, but particularly to the lives of those affected.

UnemployedNet broke a telling story in November, written by a jobless woman who was made to sign a blank jobseeker's agreement by her local jobcentre. Sneaky tricks like this help lay the foundations for sanctions; after all, if you don't know what you have agreed to do to look for work, how can you meet those requirements? And if you don't, then you will be sanctioned immediately.

Sanctions may be the biggest issue of the year for workless people, and have caused the most damage to those signing on. 2013 saw some brave whistleblowers from inside the jobcentre system tell it how it really is, with targets in place despite ministers denying their existence, direct financial rewards for those who sanction the most - up to £500 each year for frontline advisers, but nothing for those falling short of targets - and fraudulent activity including secret changes to files to justify sanctions.

Those advisors deemed to be failing to sanction enough are subject to 'Performance Improvement Plans', the first rung on the disciplinary ladder that can eventually lead to dismissal.

The 'carrot and stick' approach is likely to sweep most before it; those who won't be influenced by the money are still likely to want to keep their jobs. After all, they know what awaits those unfortunate enough to be unemployed.

This lead to another interesting statistic, the 45% rise in frontline jobcentre advisers referring jobseekers for sanctions. This suggests that, far from battling management on behalf of their clients, most are actually requesting more workless people have their benefits ripped away from them than even their managers can justify.

The 'annus horribilis' for workless people wasn't just the result of the government's actions though. 2013 saw TV's race to the bottom gather pace.

Like a dog answering its master's whistle, the BBC responded to Tory criticisms of bias in its output - for 'bias' you can read 'inconvenient truth-telling' - by throwing more mud pies at the viewer like the Nick and Margaret from The Apprentice-fronted 'We All Pay Your Benefits', in which the taxpaying twosome shamelessly told the viewers what to think of the claimants shown and many were depicted drinking in the pub in the daytime. Don't we all on £71 a week?

By the end of the year the nation's broadcaster was carrying news entirely deprived of explanation to ensure it did not attract the ire of the coalition, including a report that rent arrears were rising that did not mention the bedroom tax. It was also rapped by its own watchdog in July for the programme 'The Future State of Welfare' which the BBC Trust described as biased and inaccurate in its negative depiction of a life on benefits.

When the BBC folds like a piece of A4 in the face of mild Conservative criticism, there can be no surprise that other channels put up no resistance to the anti-welfare state line. Channel 4's 'Skint' showed every cliché of a working class life except the work, leading the local police, council, probation services and housing association to release a statement saying the programme 'does not portray an accurate picture of what life is really like for the majority of residents living [on the estate depicted]' as the makers turned the drama up to 11 and the factual content down to zero.

Unsurprisingly Channel 5 wasn't to be left out, the home of films, football and 'fun' needing something to replace its lost Europa League coverage. Its documentary 'On Benefits and Proud' showed the channel would have been better off sticking to the kicking of different balls as it stuck the boot in to some of Britain's most infamous claimants, some of whom had been peddling their nonsense on Jeremy Kyle fairly recently. Not a good basis for a 'factual' programme, and one that also chose to portray workless people in the pub, fast becoming a cliché of the genre.

So another terrible year for claimants with the media laying the ground for the government's wrongdoing. Next time we'll look at what we want from 2014.