Welfare Reform Bill

Memorandum submitted by Consumer Focus (WR 55)

About Consumer Focus

Consumer Focus is the statutory consumer champion for England, Wales, Scotland and (for postal consumers) Northern Ireland. We operate across the whole of the economy, persuading businesses, public services and policy makers to put consumers at the heart of what they do.

Consumer Focus tackles the issues that matter to consumers, and aims to give people a stronger voice. We don’t just draw attention to problems – we work with consumers and with a range of organisations to champion creative solutions that make a difference to consumers’ lives.

1 Introduction

Consumer Focus is concerned about provisions in Clause 44 of the Welfare Reform Bill which will, in effect, remove the engagement of jobseekers in the way jobseeker services are delivered and move the focus of receipt of Jobseekers’ Allowance; Employment Support Allowance; and Income Support from returning to work to meeting imposed entitlement conditions and ensuring awareness of sanctions.

Consumer Focus is aware of the need to streamline all aspects of the benefits system under the new Universal Credit. However, research we have conducted with those recently unemployed who are actively looking to return to work [1] suggests that removing personalisation requirements from the Jobcentre Plus service delivery framework is a retrograde step and will do nothing to aid identifying solutions jobseekers need to return to work quickly. Removing users and potential users from the design and delivery of this public service could also call in to question wider commitments [2] to ensure ‘public services serve the people who use them’.

2 Jobseekers involvement in identifying a route back to work

2.1 The Welfare Reform Bill will affect all jobseekers using Jobcentre Plus and claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance; Employment Support Allowance; and Income Support. Provisions in the Bill will move recipients of these benefits to a Universal Credit. Consumer Focus is concerned that key elements of employment support and employment focus will be lost in the transition. Our research conducted among the recently unemployed who are actively looking to return to work highlights why introducing measures which move the focus of service delivery further towards meeting conditions and away from returning to work could reduce the targeted support jobseekers need.

2.2 The existing Jobseekers’ Agreement is designed to create engagement between jobseekers and Jobcentre Plus. It is now a widely accepted facet of policy development that users, and potential users, should be involved in the design and delivery of public services. Customers of Jobcentre Plus services know their own personal situation better than anyone else and support for those wanting to return to work is currently designed around delivering services in collaboration with the customer – an approach not always fulfilled in practice. The existing legislation ties receipt of Jobseekers’ Allowance to both a condition to look for work and a realistic plan, developed in collaboration with the customer, on how to achieve this.

2.3 Currently, the Jobseekers’ Agreement between Jobcentre Plus and the claimant is derived from information shared between both parties and is designed to identify the most realistic route back to work. It outlines the roles, rights and responsibilities of both parties to the agreement. It is used as the primary means, for Jobcentre Plus, of engagement with jobseekers and, crucially, is intended to establish the person specific framework which would enable a more effective measurement of how actively a jobseeker is looking for work. By engaging jobseekers in the formation of the agreement, Jobcentre Plus recognises, through this collaboration, the central role customers have in helping to identify their own quickest route back to work.

2.4 While our research found that the current system did not always work as intended, with insufficient time given to understanding a claimants’ individual situation and in developing an effective, bespoke pathway back to work, it does point to evidence that suggests the proposed system is likely to exacerbate concerns about the service that jobseekers identified:

‘While you’re signing on they don’t even look at your job search. They just sign you in, that’s it, they don’t even speak to me.’ [3]

Our research found claimants felt processed by a system more interested in processing them than helping them return to work:

‘Sometimes they just treat you like a number, get you in and out as quickly as possible.’ [4]

Customers told us they didn’t find this approach helpful and wanted the support they felt Jobcentre Plus should be offering:

‘They should tell you more what they can do. Make it less transactional and actually be more proactive in telling you things.’ [5]

2.5 Proposals in Clause 44 of the Bill will replace customer involvement in identifying routes for a swift return to work with an emphasis on imposed entitlement conditions and sanctions for breach of those conditions. Our research [6] has shown that although the current system is working under strain, removing customer involvement isn’t in the interests of those who are actively seeking to return to work or, consequentially, in achieving stated policy aims to encourage a swift return to work for the unemployed.

2.6 While our research showed that more information on the entitlement conditions would be welcome – customers expected conditions but wanted more information on what they were and how they could be met – we found that jobseekers also wanted useful, meaningful employment support and to be aware and make use of the services available to help them return to work. Jobseekers felt they could only do this if Jobcentre Plus engaged with them and took the time to listen, understand and respond to their individual situations:

‘Customers don’t know what services are available so don’t know what outcomes to expect. Crucially there is no reference [in the DWP Customer Charter] to helping customers find work.’ [7]

2.7 The creation of a single, universal benefit should not reduce the level of engagement Jobcentre Plus has with its customers. The proposed reforms should also ensure clarity for jobseekers about the employment support available and how it can be accessed. Our research has found the DWP Charter is too generic to provide useful help to jobseekers and we are concerned the change in this legislation will have a similar effect on how Jobcentre Plus engages with its customers in the early stages of supporting unemployed people.

2.8 With Jobcentre Plus intending to increase its engagement with jobseekers, by delivering a more personalised service, it is unclear why the legislative framework underpinning delivery of a more personalised services is to be rolled back. The potential exists for this anomaly to create confusion not only among jobseekers but also among those delivering jobseeker services. A more coherent and effective approach would be to establish a long-term foundation for engagement by building on the existing legislation in order to deliver high- quality personalised services that help get jobseekers back into work.

3 Customer satisfaction with Jobcentre Plus and the DWP Customer Charter

3.1 Consumer Focus undertook a programme of consumer research on customer satisfaction with Jobcentre Plus and the DWP Customer Charter. We spoke to recently unemployed people actively seeking a return to work. In our first report we asked them how far they felt Jobcentre Plus was delivering on its promises to help them return to work. In the second report we looked at how far the DWP Customer Charter was able to meet the needs of jobseekers and how far it provided them with the information they needed. We found a service severely under strain and underperforming on customer service, both in what it promises the customer and in what it delivers.

3.2 Our research suggests low levels of customer satisfaction with Jobcentre Plus. Customers told us they received little or poor quality information on the services that were available to them. When advised about available services, during the research interview, jobseekers that we interviewed couldn’t understand why Jobcentre Plus had not informed them of the range of services available:

‘I just think they need to make us all more aware of what it is they can offer. Who knows all this stuff exists? Definitely not me. And if other people are being offered it, why are they getting it and not me? I want to know what I’m entitled to. Now I know, I’m going down the Jobcentre tomorrow.’ [8]

Customers told us Jobcentre Plus didn’t listen to them or try to understand their situation and help them find the most appropriate route back to work. Instead customers complained of a one-size-fits-all approach which didn’t take account of their individual circumstances and so wasn’t effective in helping them return to work:

‘Surely it’s not asking for much just to show a bit of interest and enthusiasm for finding me work.’ [9]

Customers wanted to know what was available to them and what conditions they needed to fulfil. Where they did know, through friends and family, and not the Jobcentre directly, they were able to successfully demand services from Jobcentre Plus that they felt could help them. Customers told us the existing generic DWP Customer Charter did not provide enough information to be of use to them as jobseekers. They felt the service was adhering to the standards it set within the Charter but that these offered low quality customer service.

April 2011

[1] Making a Charter work for jobseekers: Why the DWP Charter doesn’t work , Consumer Focus; March 2010; and At the centre: Finding the Plus for unemployed people during the recession , Consumer Focus; November 2009

[2] ‘Some promise solutions from on high – but real change comes from collective endeavour. So we offer a new approach: a change not just from one set of politicians to another; from one set of policies to another. It is a change from one political philosophy to another. From the idea that the role of the state is to direct society and micro-manage public services, to the idea that the role of the state is to strengthen society and make public services serve the people who use them.’ Invitation to join the Government of Britain: The Conservative Manifesto; 2010

[3] Making a Charter work for jobseekers: Why the DWP Charter doesn’t work , Consumer Focus; March 2010

[4] At the centre: Finding the Plus for unemployed people during the recession , Consumer Focus; November 2009

[5] At the centre: Finding the Plus for unemployed people during the recession , Consumer Focus; November 2009

[6] Ibid

[7] Making a Charter work for jobseekers: Why the DWP Charter doesn’t work , Consumer Focus; March 2010

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid