The Department for Work and Pensions (the Department) is responsible for the management of jobcentres which play a central role in helping people into employment. In 2011-12, the network of 740 jobcentres cost £1.4 billion to operate, with nearly 37,000 staff helping 3.5 million people to leave Jobseeker's Allowance and setting up around 3.6 million new claims. Jobcentres coped well with the higher claimant numbers and increased demand for their services during the economic downturn. The number of Jobseeker's Allowance claimants increased from 0.9 million in September 2008 to 1.5 million in March 2009 and has remained broadly constant since then. Jobcentres responded to the increased demand for their services by prioritising checks over eligibility for benefits and making sure that payments were processed, while adjusting other services such as the proportion of work-focused interviews and the issuing of sanctions.
The Department measures the performance of jobcentres by the number of people that stop claiming benefits. The Department does not measure, however, how many people each jobcentre has helped into work or have a complete understanding of why claimants have left the benefit system. Yet the Department does know that around 40% of individuals claim benefits again within six months and around 60% claim again within two years.
Clearly there should be consequences for claimants who do not meet their obligations to look for work. The focus on how many people stop claiming benefits, however, raises the risk that jobcentres may unfairly apply sanctions to encourage claimants off the register. Citizens Advice has seen a sharp rise in enquiries from people needing advice about sanctions applied by their jobcentres, particularly from vulnerable claimants. The Department acknowledges the difficulties of ensuring that sanctions are applied consistently.
We welcome the principle that jobcentres should have some flexibility to determine the best way to support claimants in their local area. But the Department lacks the information it needs to challenge performance effectively, learn what works in what circumstances, and so improve value for money. For example, there is a wide variation in the way jobcentres' district managers choose to deploy personal advisers and assistant advisers and the extent to which administrative tasks are split, but there has been little evaluation to understand what models are working best and why.
Local flexibility also raises the scope for jobcentres to 'park' harder to help claimants such as those with disabilities. The Department's own evaluation of jobcentre services found that Employment and Support Allowance claimants were getting a worse service than those on Jobseeker's Allowance.
Jobcentres will need to adapt their services to cater for new claimant groups as a consequence of the introduction of Universal Credit and in response to people increasingly managing their benefit claims and job searches online. Some claimants will inevitably struggle to understand their responsibilities and may find it difficult to deal with online applications. DWP has a responsibility to ensure that more vulnerable individuals are able to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. It is not acceptable to depend solely on libraries and Citizens Advice when local advice services are already stretched.
On the basis of a Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Department for Work and Pensions and Citizens Advice on responding to change in jobcentres.