Department for Work and Pensions: Responding to change in jobcentres - Public Accounts Committee Contents

2 Supporting the needs of claimants

8.  Jobseeker's Allowance is a conditional benefit. Each claimant has an obligation to look for work and to be actively seeking work.[18] Jobcentre staff sanction claimants if they have not met their obligation to be actively seeking work.[19] Claimants are either removed from the benefit or remain but do not receive money for a period of time.[20]

9.  We were concerned that these sanctions may unfairly penalise the most vulnerable claimants. Citizens Advice told us that although the number of inquiries from Jobseeker's Allowance claimants has reduced overall, the number of inquiries about sanctions had increased by 25% in the second quarter and 45% in the third quarter of 2012-13.[21] It told us that the people with queries about sanctions were overwhelmingly from vulnerable groups and had no idea why they had been sanctioned, or why their benefit had been stopped.[22] This particularly included people with learning disabilities or mild mental health problems who often did not fully understand what was required of them, or those who had limited literacy skills. Citizens Advice was concerned that jobcentres were pushing people into hardship without fully exploring with claimants why they were unable to meet their requirements for claiming Jobseeker's Allowance.[23]

10.  The Department told us that there are no targets for the rate or number of people who are sanctioned by jobcentres.[24] Jobcentre managers monitor the sanctioning rate of staff in offices to ensure that those being applied are reasonable.[25] While the Department does have information to identify which offices issue the most sanctions, it told us that it does not use this information to tell other offices to increase or decrease the sanction rate.[26] The Department acknowledged that of the 1.5 million claimants jobcentres deal with there are bound to be some individuals who struggle to understand why they have been sanctioned.[27] The Department told us that people should receive a verbal warning that they are about to be sanctioned, but accepted that this might not always happen in practice.[28] The Department told us that the purpose of having face-to-face contact with Jobseeker's Allowance claimants every fortnight is to remind claimants of their obligations and to check that these have been met, and it has been very clear to staff about how the sanctions regime should operate.[29] It did not consider there was a need to formally write to claimants before they are sanctioned, but told us that it was working towards being much more explicit about the conditions of Jobseeker's Allowance, and the consequences for the claimant, at the start of a benefit claim as part of preparations for Universal Credit.[30]

11.  The Department does not routinely collect data on who is most affected by the sanctioning system, for example how many are people who have mental health problems.[31] In October 2012, the Department introduced a new sanctions regime for Jobseeker's Allowance, and for Employment and Support Allowance in September 2012. It told us it is monitoring figures carefully to check Citizens Advice concerns that vulnerable claimants are disproportionately sanctioned.[32]

12.  There is a risk that the emphasis on the number of people who stop claiming benefits when measuring performance may mean that the Department is 'parking' harder-to-help claimants. In 2011-12, 19% of long-term claimants were not referred to other sources of support and were not provided with additional support by the Department. The Department said that some offers of third party support had been reduced because it wanted to give jobcentres more flexibility to decide what is in the best interests of claimants.[33] The NAO report, however, did not find evidence that additional jobcentre support had been provided for those claimants who were not being referred to other sources of support.[34]

13.  The Department's own evaluation of jobcentres' services in 2012 found that Employment Support Allowance claimants did not receive the same level of support in looking for work as those claiming Jobseeker's Allowance.[35] 30% of Employment and Support Allowance claimants did not discuss the possibility of working in the future in their interviews with personal advisers, and nearly half did not discuss what steps they could take to find work. These claimants were also significantly more likely to report that they left their initial meeting with their adviser without an appointment for their next meeting.[36]

14.  The Department told us it had less interaction with Employment and Support Allowance claimants than it did with Jobseeker's Allowance claimants.[37] Advisers typically have face-to-face contact with Jobseeker's Allowance claimants every two weeks, and every six months with Employment and Support Allowance claimants.[38] It told us that the lower level of interaction is one of the reasons why it is reassessing the Incapacity Benefit caseload so that claimants who are able to work are moved onto Jobseeker's Allowance and supported to find work. In addition, the Department told us that it has changed the referral system so that Employment and Support Allowance claimants gain access to the support provided by the Work Programme much earlier.[39]

15.  The Department has 522 disability employment advisers across 740 jobcentres, less than one adviser per jobcentre.[40] The Department explained that it did not make economic sense to have a full-time disability employment adviser in very small jobcentres, which are largely kept open because of their geographical location, but did not explain how it was ensuring that the needs of disabled claimants, who are likely to require more support, are being met.[41]

16.  The proportion of people applying online for Jobseeker's Allowance is now 50%. The Department aims to increase this to 80% as part of plans to increase the number of claimants that apply and manage their benefit claims online.[42] The Department told us that the ability to use online services is an important skill set for people to develop and that people are unlikely to find it easy to find work if they cannot operate online. 25% of job vacancies at present are only available online.[43] The Department told us that it had put 2,000 internet access devices into jobcentres in the last six months to help people claim and search for jobs.[44] It also told us that its work is part of a wider government aspiration to provide adequate digital support.[45]

17.  While technology can improve services, some claimants will struggle with online access. Online services, including uploading CVs, can make job search easier for claimants. The introduction of Universal Jobmatch, for example, can reduce the threat of sanction for those claimants that have searched and applied for jobs online as it automatically provides evidence to jobcentre advisers that the claimant has been actively looking for work.[46] Citizens Advice warned that the impact of changes to services was focused on the majority of claimants with little regard as to how the minority, often the most vulnerable or those most likely to struggle, were managing. Citizens Advice emphasised that moving to online services was a big change and some people had a long way to go before they would be able to use digital services confidently.[47] It told us that the changes to the way people claim benefits would particularly affect vulnerable claimants, who are amongst the least able to communicate and need extra support.[48]

18.  Citizens Advice told us that claimants are often referred to their local library or to Citizens Advice as somewhere they can get help with making and managing their claims online. This assumes that local organisations, in an era of funding cuts, have adequate infrastructure to assist people to undertake functions that jobcentres should be providing.[49] The six-pilot trailblazer for claiming Jobseeker's Allowance online resulted in many people urgently contacting Citizens Advice because they could not claim online.[50]

18   Q71 Back

19   Q 72 Back

20   Q 34 Back

21   Qq 5-6 Back

22   Q 27 Back

23   Qq 5, 27 Back

24   Qq74-75 Back

25   Qq 90-91 Back

26   Qq 86-87  Back

27   Q 72-73 Back

28   Qq76-77 Back

29   Qq 79, 81 Back

30   Q 73 Back

31   Q 74 Back

32   Qq 27, 94 Back

33   Qq 134-135; C&AG's Report, para 1.12, 2.7 Back

34   Q 135 Back

35   Q 136 Back

36   Q 136 Back

37   Q 140 Back

38   C&AG's Report, para 2 Back

39   Q 140 Back

40   Qq 153, 155-157 Back

41   Q 155 Back

42   Qq 17, 168 Back

43   Q119 Back

44   Q 111 Back

45   Qq 116-117 Back

46   Qq 119-123 Back

47   Q 24 Back

48   Qq 1, 19 Back

49   Q 19 Back

50   Q 13 Back

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Prepared 19 June 2013