By Bronte Matthews
Birmingham’s job centre staff are being subjected to an increasing tirade of abuse and attacks, figures show.
Last year saw 867 reports in Birmingham and Solihull job centres – up from 566 just five years before, a rise of 53 per cent, a Freedom of Information request revealed. Most of the attacks were verbal but some led to cuts and bruises, and more serious injuries.
Over the five-year period there were 84 physical assaults along with 109 attempted attacks in spite of staff being equipped with panic alarms, and many meetings taking place behind a glass barrier.
The increase in attacks comes as unemployment rates have risen dramatically in the downturn, leading to people feeling desperate and angry. A study this year found one in five 16 to 25-year-olds in the city had experienced mental health issues because of unemployment. It also found 18 per cent of out of work 16 to 25-year-olds from Birmingham “felt worthless” and 39 per cent said they always or often felt down or depressed.
In January it emerged that Birmingham had the highest youth unemployment rate among the major cities, at 13.7 per cent.
West Midlands unemployment has been falling recently – latest figures for November to January showed a drop of 8.2 per cent, or 19,000 – but it still stood at 221,000 out of work.
In 2008/2009 there were 566 instances of verbal and physical abuse against job centre in Birmingham and Solihull, 574 in 2009/2010 and 533 in 2010/2011.
Last year there were 703 verbal attacks in Birmingham, and over the five-year period there were 14 incidents described as ‘written’.
The job centres themselves suffered severe damage as some claimants attacked furniture, glass barriers and other equipment. The figures show that in 2012-13 there were 121 cases in Birmingham where property was damaged. This is a massive 348 per cent increase since 2008/9 when there were just 27 attacks recorded. A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesman said: “We introduced an updated web based reporting system in September 2011, which resulted in improved reporting of these incidents.
“The DWP takes all incidents of unacceptable customer behaviour seriously – and encourages its employees to record where this occurs.”
If an incident of verbal or physical abuse against a member of job centre staff is recorded that claimant is marked as ‘potentially violent’ for a minimum of six months.
Their case is then reviewed after six months to see whether they should still be in this category. Customers deemed a high risk and aggressive are interviewed in a screened room with extra security measures taken to protect job centre staff.
Every job centre should have at least one security officer available. Tensions are also thought to have increased in job centres since it was announced that many existing benefits would be abolished and replaced with a new system.
In June 2012 a job seeker set himself alight outside the Jobcentre Plus in Harborne Lane, Selly Oak, in an alleged row over his benefit payments. The man recovered after receiving hospital treatment. Last year Zaheer Ahmed failed in his bid to quash a potential life term for attacking a job centre worker with a machete. Ahmed, described as “unpredictable and dangerous” was “upset” that his welfare benefits had been stopped and visited the Jobcentre in Washwood Heath Road on February 2, 2006, producing the machete in a fit of rage, causing cuts to a worker. The Department for Work and Pensions issues advice to job centre staff to of how to deal with threats of suicide from claimants.