The role of Jobcentre Plus in the reformed welfare system - Work and Pensions Committee Contents

3  The employment support process

The typical "signing on" process

35. After the initial 40-minute meeting described in the previous chapter, the main interactions JSA claimants have with Jobcentres are regular face-to-face interviews with Jobcentre Advisers, in which compliance with their Jobseekers Agreement (JSAG) is monitored. These interviews typically occur every two weeks and are known within JCP as fortnightly job-search reviews (FJRs) and, more commonly, as "signing on".

36. The National Audit Office (NAO) has highlighted that Jobcentres have applied a considerable amount of flexibility to the signing on process, for example by cutting the average time of FJRs or conducting interviews over the telephone or in groups, in order to cope with large and fluctuating caseloads. This was particularly the case in the recent economic downturn, during which JCP cut the average time of FJRs from 5-10 minutes to 4-7 minutes.

37. Jobcentres also have flexibility to vary the timing, length and number of more in-depth, work-focused interviews (WFIs), in which Advisers offer support and advice and can refer claimants to external sources of support where appropriate. The NAO found that JCP prioritised compliance-based FJRs over WFIs during the height of the downturn: between 2008-09 and 2009-10 the number of FJRs increased by around a half, while WFIs increased in absolute terms by only 11% and decreased as a proportion of all Jobcentre interviews from a quarter to a fifth.[30]

38. Witnesses, including the PCS union and Inclusion, were concerned that JCP's predominant focus was now on compliance monitoring with less attention given to meaningful and in-depth employment advice and support. Inclusion called for JCP to "re-balance their relationship with claimants [...] towards offering higher levels of positive support."[31] In the 2013 Spending Round, which set out plans for financial year 2015-16, the Government announced a return to WFIs at specific points in claims (see chapter 7).

The Claimant Commitment

39. The Claimant Commitment was designed as part of Universal Credit (UC) but DWP has taken the decision to apply it to JSA claimants ahead of the slower than anticipated implementation of UC (see below). DWP started to apply the Claimant Commitment in around 100 Jobcentres per month from October 2013 and it is expected to replace the JSAG across the whole Jobcentre network by late spring 2014.

40. The key aim of the Claimant Commitment is to more clearly and specifically set out what claimants must do to try to find work: each claimant "will be given a weekly timetable of tasks to complete". Launching the Claimant Commitment for new JSA claimants in October 2013, the Minister for Employment (Esther McVey MP) said:

    The Claimant Commitment marks the start of a redefinition of the relationship between the welfare state and claimants. In return for state support, we expect claimants to do all they can to meet their responsibilities to return to work.

    It also strengthens the ability of Jobcentre Plus staff to support claimants back into work at the earliest opportunity. Work coaches and jobseekers will agree regular specific tasks and training opportunities and the penalties claimants could face for failing to meet their responsibilities to get into work will be clearly spelt out.[32]

41. Under the Universal Credit Regulations 2013, UC claimants can be required to commit to up to 35 hours of job-searching activity per week—exceptions are made for jobseekers with caring responsibilities and those with physical or mental health conditions or disabilities.[33] The Government's intention is to instil in the majority of unemployed claimants the notion that "looking for work is a full-time job".[34]

42. During our visit to the North West of England, JCP staff told us that the Claimant Commitment was an improvement on the JSAG as it enabled them, and claimants, to set out more specific and measurable job-search activities; in contrast, the JSAG often simply stipulates that the claimant complete two or three job-search activities per week. However, staff also reported that there was a high volume of claimants who were finding it difficult to fulfil the terms of their Claimant Commitment, particularly the requirement to spend 35 hours per week looking for work.

43. Some witnesses believed it was important that JCP take care in how it "operationalised" the full-time job-search requirement. Adam Sharples told us that JCP had taken positive steps in recent years towards a greater focus on outcomes rather than processes. Tony Wilson argued that JCP needed to avoid process-driven, box-ticking behaviour. He highlighted research undertaken by the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team (BIT, often called the "Nudge Unit") in Loughton Jobcentre, where BIT had piloted a new approach to the FJR process. This offered "a different form of intervention with more time" and in which the claimant is asked to "set out what you are going to do, verbalise what you are going to do, come back two weeks later and discuss whether you have done it or change your objectives, go out and do it again." He believed that the trial had achieved better outcomes as a result of this "more focused one-to-one engagement" between Jobcentre Adviser and claimant.[35] The trial achieved a 15-20% increase in off-flow from benefits at 13 weeks of claim.[36]

44. The Minister told us that monitoring compliance with the Claimant Commitment would include Jobcentre Advisers checking job-search activities such as: how many jobs claimants had applied for; and how many interviews they had attended.[37] Neil Couling confirmed that claimants would be expected to keep a diary of their job-search activities but indicated that Jobcentre Advisers would not set strict minimum expectations on the number of hours to be spent looking for work. JCP had taken the Nudge Unit research into account and the Claimant Commitment was intended to be "much more of a discussion" between claimant and Adviser. The approach being adopted was a "hybrid" of the Nudge Unit approach and that used in the UC Pathfinders and would be evaluated as it is rolled out over the next few months.[38]

45. The trial undertaken in Loughton Jobcentre using a different approach to the fortnightly job-search review was not only different insofar as it was about future rather than past activities; it also involved the Jobcentre Adviser spending more time with the claimant. Evaluation of the trial must take this into account.

46. Claimants are required to make themselves available for jobs within a radius of 90 minutes' travel time from their homes. We were concerned that 35 hours per week job-searching might increase travel expenses incurred by claimants and that some might therefore struggle to afford "full-time" job-seeking. As noted in the previous chapter, claimants have no absolute right to claim travel expenses from the FSF.

47. The Minister assured us that reasonable travel expenses would be available through the FSF for those claimants who needed them. Neil Couling said that in his experience claims for travel expenses tended to be turned down only where JCP had some doubt about whether the claim was related to a genuine job opportunity. In general, claims for travel within the 90 minute area would be met. The Minister indicated that, when recording time spent looking for work, claimants could legitimately include time spent travelling to and from an interview, as well as the time spent at the interview itself.[39]

48. We welcome the introduction of the Claimant Commitment and the greater clarity and support for claimants that it should bring. We consider that to be fully effective it should represent a discussion between the claimant and the Jobcentre Adviser. It would be highly regrettable if the Claimant Commitment resulted in a process-driven, box-ticking exercise in which Jobcentre Advisers measure the length of time claimants spend searching for jobs, regardless of the likely effectiveness of the job-search activities undertaken. We recommend that guidance on this issue is set out clearly for Jobcentre staff.

Improving ongoing support through online processes

Universal Credit

49. The original intention for UC was that almost all claimants would make and manage their claims online. One of the policy intentions of this "digital by default" approach within UC was to produce efficiencies in benefits administration processes.[40]

50. Adam Sharples noted that there had already been significant progress in online claiming of JSA.[41] Recent figures show that 84.2% of JSA claims made in October 2013 were made online.[42] He believed that online management of ongoing UC claims had the potential to achieve greater efficiencies, with less need for manual intervention from JCP staff in the event of changes in circumstances as UC rolls out.[43]

51. However, it should be noted that the implementation of UC, and the requisite IT, has proceeded at a far slower pace than originally intended. An initial Pathfinder began in four Jobcentres in Greater Manchester in April 2013. Claims in the Pathfinder Jobcentres were initially restricted to relatively simple new claims from single, childless claimants who would otherwise have been eligible for JSA. The first phase of national implementation was originally scheduled to start in October 2013—and be fully completed in 2017—but was scaled back to include only six further Pathfinder Jobcentres and initially restricted to the same simple types of claim.[44]

52. The NAO reported in September 2013 that DWP "does not yet know to what extent its new IT systems will support national roll-out." It found that the Pathfinder systems had limited functionality and did not yet allow claimants to report changes of circumstances online.[45] In oral evidence on UC implementation on 9 December, Howard Shiplee, DWP's Senior Responsible Officer for UC, confirmed that IT systems could not currently support online management of claims and that the development of a system which could do so might "take some considerable time."[46]

53. DWP set out its plans for the next implementation phase of UC in a Written Statement on 5 December 2013, after we had concluded taking evidence for this inquiry. It will start to test the functionality of the UC system in relation to couples, from summer 2014, and families from autumn 2014, in the 10 Pathfinder Jobcentres. DWP's current "planning assumption" is that a UC service will be: "fully available in each part of Great Britain during 2016, having closed down new claims to the legacy benefits it replaced; with the majority of the remaining legacy caseload moving to Universal Credit during 2016 and 2017".[47] The Secretary of State confirmed in oral evidence on UC implementation that about 700,000 ESA claimants would not migrate to UC until after 2017.[48]

Universal Jobmatch

54. JCP's system for advertising local job vacancies to benefit claimants has developed considerably in recent years with advances in technology. It has moved from a system of vacancies on cards displayed on boards in Jobcentres to vacancy databases accessed through computer terminals, known as "job points", in Jobcentres. The most recent development is the introduction, from November 2012, of Universal Jobmatch (UJ), which is both an online vacancy database and a recruitment website on which benefit claimants, and other jobseekers, can search for and apply for jobs.[49]

55. Claimants are required to register with the website as a condition of receipt of benefit and their online job-search activity can be monitored by Jobcentre Advisers. JCP staff in Greater Manchester confirmed during our visit that claimants who did not wish to record their activities on UJ, or did not wish to allow Advisers to view their online activity, had the option to bring in their activity record in hard copy to the Jobcentre. However, all claimants were encouraged to create a CV and upload it to the UJ site so that it could be easily sent to employers.

56. A number of witnesses agreed that UJ represented a considerable improvement on the previous system. Matthew Oakley of Policy Exchange believed that a key potential benefit of utilising technology in this way was that it could enable Jobcentre Advisers to monitor claimants' job-search activity more proactively between interviews with claimants and therefore facilitate a more "interactive" and personalised approach to employment support during interviews.[50] Jobcentre staff also highlighted this benefit of the new system during our visit to Greater Manchester.

57. Adam Sharples believed that UJ had "the basis of a very useful and quite sophisticated system" but that there were a number of ways in which it might be further developed in the future. His view was that a more developed system could have "huge potential":

    [...] if when you signed on, you were given your own account with access to a library of training material, videos, online tools for job search and CV templates, you could imagine a world in which the whole process of job search was so much more helpful, friendly and sophisticated than it is now with your chance to go in and see a Jobcentre Plus Adviser for three minutes once a fortnight.[51]

We discuss the current functionality of the Universal Jobmatch system, in relation to supporting an effective and flexible labour market, in more detail in chapter 5.

58. Universal Jobmatch has great potential to facilitate effective job-search. We recommend that DWP guidance to Jobcentre staff makes clear that Universal Jobmatch should be promoted to claimants as a potentially effective tool to find work, and that Jobcentre staff should provide advice and support on getting the best out of the system. Universal Jobmatch also provides a useful tool for monitoring claimants' compliance with benefits conditionality. However, we recommend that guidance makes clear that this is a secondary function, with the emphasis on the benefits of using Universal Jobmatch to monitor compliance between claimant interviews, freeing up more time for advice and support during interviews. We also recommend that DWP explore the potential for increased functionality of Universal Jobmatch, particularly in the areas of assessing quality of CVs and the likelihood of success of job applications, to ensure that claimants' job-search activities are focussed and effective.

Support for vulnerable claimants

59. In our November 2012 Report on Universal Credit we concluded that there would be a significant increase in demand from claimants for advice and support services in the transition to the new benefit. We recommended that DWP quantify and provide the extra resources necessary to ensure the successful implementation of the new benefit for all claimants, including the most vulnerable.[52]

60. DWP has taken significant steps to provide online access and support for claimants in Jobcentres. The job-points used by claimants to access the old JCP vacancy system are currently being replaced by computer terminals, known as Internet Access Devices (IADs). Around 9,000 IADs are being installed across the network of 719 Jobcentres.[53] The Minister for Welfare Reform (Lord Freud) told us in December that Wi-fi access was now being made available in Jobcentres.[54] During our visit to Greater Manchester we heard about plans for a "digital Jobcentre" in Oldham (see chapter 7).

The Local Support Services Framework (LSSF)

61. In February 2013 DWP published, with the Local Government Association (LGA), the Local Support Services Framework (LSSF), a document which broadly sets out the types of advice and support services likely to be required as UC rolls out and how they might be delivered through local partnerships including JCP, local authorities and community-based providers. It was explicitly only an outline, the "start of a conversation" about how benefit support services might be delivered in the future.

62. The stated intention is to provide "better support under UC than has ever been available before." The LSSF states that the existing benefits system involves a large number of organisations delivering advice and support across the range of working-age benefits. It assumes that some of this support will no longer be required under UC and states that therefore "UC creates the opportunity for support organisations to focus more of their resources on higher value-added activity aimed at helping people overcome their barriers to becoming self-sufficient and independent of State support".[55]

63. The LSSF recognises that a significant proportion of claimants will require support in at least two key areas: coping with the online application and claims management processes; and opening a bank account and managing household budgets after the move to a single monthly benefit payment. It highlights the need to identify vulnerable claimants—for example, homeless people, those with addiction or mental health problems and people with learning difficulties—who may be in particular need of assistance.[56]

64. Some witnesses argued that JCP should take a much broader approach, establishing closer links with a diverse range of local services which are involved in tackling not just digital and financial exclusion but also the range of social and health issues which can contribute to worklessness. Chris Johnes of Oxfam argued that particularly disadvantaged jobseekers required help to address these types of problems before they could think about returning to work.[57] Jobcentre staff in Ashton-under-Lyne and Oldham told us that they were increasingly building working relationships with local support services, for example hostels, probation officers, local authority welfare advisers and Registered Social Landlords, as part of their response to the current welfare reforms.

65. The LGA believed that the LSSF, as a broad framework, provided a "huge opportunity" to improve support services for benefit claimants. Its vision was of "a locally commissioned and very diversely sourced range of support". However, it was unable to describe in any detail which types of services would be delivered and by which organisations. London Councils told us that it was unable to give its full backing to the approach because the current LSSF lacked detail and clarity. Both the LGA and London Councils told us that they urgently needed information about how the LSSF would be funded because councils would soon need to set their budgets for 2014-15. Councillor Sharon Taylor of the LGA told us that: "the sooner we can have the information around the funding of this, the sooner and better we will be able to plan for what our role is going to be".[58]

66. Citizens Advice acknowledged that the slower than anticipated roll out of UC would offer the opportunity to more fully develop the LSSF.[59] However, it also highlighted that, without "any strong sense" of available funding levels, it was "impossible" for local authorities and advice organisations to start planning.[60]

67. DWP published an updated document, Local Support Services Update and Trialling Plan, on 6 December 2013. This is not yet a comprehensive LSSF to support national roll out of UC; it is "an interim document" which reflects the slower than anticipated implementation timetable outlined above. The document focuses on provision of online and budgeting support but also lists support for claimants with "complex needs" within the scope of the framework. It states that "different arrangements for partnership working, financial management [and] the effective delivery of front line services" will be tested over the course of 2014. A further LSSF document will be published in Autumn 2014, "to allow local partnerships to plan their services for the 2015-16 financial year and beyond."[61]

68. We welcome steps taken by DWP to improve online access and support for claimants—this will be crucial in the roll out of Universal Credit. However, DWP has been slow to produce a detailed framework for the delivery of a comprehensive range of Universal Credit support services, and there remains a lack of clarity about how these services will be funded or what JCP's role will be in delivering or coordinating them. We believe that a diverse range of services, which go beyond online support and help with budgeting, will be necessary if the Government is to achieve its aim of "better support under Universal Credit than has ever been available before."

69. The slower than anticipated roll out affords Jobcentres the opportunity to build strong relationships with a range of local services to support claimants in the transition to Universal Credit and beyond. We recommend that DWP identifies good practice in building local services and disseminates this across the Jobcentre network as the Universal Credit Pathfinders are expanded through 2014.

70. The Local Support Services Framework, now due to be published in Autumn 2014, will set out the agreed process for providing support to claimants. We request an assurance from DWP that this will be a comprehensive document, which provides a best practice framework for the provision of a diverse range of support services and sets out a robust plan for how these services will be funded and delivered nationally from financial year 2015-16, so that local authorities are able to make budgeting decisions and commission services.

Support for claimants with health conditions and disabilities

71. Over half (53.2%) of all working-age disabled people in the UK were either unemployed or economically inactive in the fourth quarter of 2012, the most recent period for which data are available.[62] The very difficult challenges of supporting jobseekers with disabilities and health conditions into work have recently been highlighted by the poor performance of the Work Programme in relation to ESA claimants.[63]

72. A number of witnesses highlighted with concern the relative lack of JCP resources devoted to supporting ESA claimants.[64] Jobcentres have specialist Disability Employment Advisers (DEAs) but some witnesses believed that there were insufficient DEAs to support the ESA caseload: there are around 900 DEAs spread across JCP's 719 Jobcentres. The total ESA caseload, excluding those in the process of being assessed, is around 1.2 million, of which 546,000 are in the ESA Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) and likely to be subject to some level of job-seeking or work-preparation conditionality, depending on their prognosis.[65] Therefore the ratio of DEAs to ESA claimants requiring some level of employment support is over 600 to one. The average JSA caseload is around 140 claimants per Adviser.[66]

73. Tony Wilson of Inclusion noted that ESA claimants typically attend a Jobcentre no more than twice a year and therefore "do not really have any engagement with a personal adviser", prior to referral to the Work Programme or Work Choice.[67] He argued that employment support for ESA claimants should be a priority for the Government, as this is the group at greatest risk of being overlooked:

    95% of people on ESA are not in the Work Programme, are not in Work Choice and if they are seen by Jobcentre Plus they are seen every six months. That is a group, among others, where we should be increasing resources, looking at how we can use resource more flexibly. If that means, therefore, spending less time with more employable job seekers, those are the trade-offs we need to consider.[68]

74. Following the particularly poor job outcome performance of the Work Programme in relation to ESA claimants, the Government recently announced three new pilots to test approaches to employment support for this group. A group of ESA WRAG claimants in central England "will be required to have regular meetings with healthcare professionals to help them address their barriers to work—or face losing their benefits". The effectiveness of the healthcare professional-led approach will be compared against two other pilots: in southern England a group of ESA WRAG claimants will receive "enhanced support from JCP"; and in the North East of England a group will receive increased help from Work Programme providers. In all, around 8,300 claimants are expected to take part in the three separate pilots, which are due to be completed in August 2016.[69] We expect to return to the issue of specialist employment support for unemployed people with disabilities later in 2014.

75. The Government has recognised the need to improve employment provision for Employment and Support Allowance Work Related Activity Group (ESA WRAG) claimants. However, the current ratio of one specialist Jobcentre Disability Employment Adviser (DEA) to more than 600 ESA WRAG claimants is unacceptably high. We welcome the three new pilots designed to test the relative effectiveness of support provided by: healthcare professionals; JCP; and Work Programme providers. However, the pilots will include only around 8,300 claimants, from a caseload of over 540,000, and will not be completed until 2016. This means that the very large majority of ESA WRAG claimants will continue to rely on standard Jobcentre support which often amounts to no more than two interviews with an Adviser each year. We recommend that urgent action is taken to improve the level of JCP support for job-seeking claimants with health conditions and disabilities, including by addressing the unacceptably high ESA WRAG caseloads per DEA.

30   National Audit Office, Responding to change in Jobcentres, HC 955, February 2013 Back

31   Ev 115 Back

32   "Jobseekers to start signing new Claimant Commitment today", DWP press release, 14 October 2013 Back

33   The Universal Credit Regulations 2013 Back

34   "Claimant Commitment to spell out what jobseekers must do in return for benefits", DWP press release, 29 August 2013 Back

35   Q 17 Back

36 Back

37   Q 516 Back

38   Q 518 Back

39   Q 516 Back

40   Work and Pensions Committee, Universal Credit implementation: meeting the needs of vulnerable claimants, Third Report of Session 2012-13, HC 576, para 17 [Hereafter, Committee's Universal Credit Report] Back

41   Q 56 Back

42   DWP, Business plan transparency measures, December 2013, para 15.1 Back

43   Q 56 Back

44   HC Deb, 10 July 2013, col 22WS Back

45   National Audit Office, Universal Credit: early progress, HC 621, September 2013 Back

46   Q 31 Back

47   HC Deb, 5 December 2013, col 65WS Back

48   Oral evidence taken on 9 December 2013, HC (2013-14) 867, Q 53 Back

49   Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, Ev 112 Back

50   Q 58 Back

51   Q 56 Back

52   Committee's Universal Credit Report Back

53   HC Deb, 10 July 2013, col 22 WS Back

54   Oral evidence taken on 9 December 2013, HC (2013-14) 867, Q 75 Back

55   DWP/LGA, Universal Credit: Local Support Services Framework, February 2013, p 6 Back

56   Ibid., p 9 Back

57   Q 67 Back

58   Q 284 Back

59   Q 291 Back

60   Q 290 Back

61   DWP, Universal Credit: Local Support Services Framework Update and Trialling Plan, December 2013 Back

62   HC Deb, 20 November 2013, col 920W Back

63   See DWP, Work Programme statistical summary, 19 December 2013 Back

64   Q 8 [Tony Wilson]; Hackney Economic Development Network, Ev w33; Richard Layard, Ev w40 Back

65   DWP statistical tabulation tool [accessed 25 November 2013] Back

66   HC Deb, 2 September 2013, col 238W Back

67   Q 8 Back

68   Q 18 Back

69   "Pilot schemes to help people on sickness benefits back to work", DWP press release, 4 November 2013 Back

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Prepared 28 January 2014