Work and Pensions CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Brent Council

1.0 Summary

1.1 Brent is a large London borough that spans from the inner city in the south to a suburban expanse in the north. We have a socially, economically, and culturally diverse population which brings many benefits and challenges to any organisation delivering services in the area.

1.2 We have already contributed to London Councils’ consultation for this inquiry; however, as the borough that faces the most impact from the Overall Benefit Cap (OBC) and other welfare reform, we feel it is important to provide more local evidence from our experience of working with Jobcentre Plus (JCP) over the last year.

1.3 Our response is based on experience from our Revenues and Benefits, Housing, and Employment and Enterprise teams who have all been working together to deliver Brent’s response to the welfare reforms. We have provided evidence based on general experience rather than individual cases and acknowledge that there are exceptions to most of these observations.

1.4 We understand that Jobcentre Plus by necessity has to provide a volume service for its clients, and budget constraints often restrict the ability of JCP to provide more personalised or tailored interventions. However we know from experience of successful welfare to work programmes, like Employment Zones, that what works is lower case loads, more intensive workflows, and a real focus on employment as the outcome. At the moment JCP colleagues are not able to deliver this level of service even if they wish to. We believe that JCP managers should have the flexibility to be able to respond to local nuances that clearly exist within their large geographical districts. For example, Brent is a significant outlier in the West London district in terms of demographic, and deprivation, and local managers need to be encouraged and empowered to respond directly to that.

2.0 JCP Employment Services

2.1 Approaches to identifying jobseeker need and barriers to employment

2.1.1 We believe that this is a weak area in JCP delivery for the following reasons:

Advisers do not have enough time with customers to understand their barriers to employment and deliver a personalised service. From our experience of delivering employment programmes, residents do not divulge all their constraints to employment in an initial meeting even if it is an hour long. We build a picture of their needs over a number of meetings where rapport and trust is established. JCP Advisors do not have the time to do this, and there is often no continuity with who sees the customer from one meeting to the next.

Advisors identify barriers to employment based on the provision that they have available to refer to. For example someone who does not speak English as a first language will be referred to English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision. In many cases this is the right approach, however for many people their language is not a constraint for the type of work sector or organisation they would like to work in and their job search is delayed by referral to a course. That person may need intensive support with finding a job and making applications in English but they would be able to manage the actual work and continue to improve their English whilst in work.

Advisors are poorly trained or empowered to identify signs of mental health conditions or substance addiction in customers; and they do not address these constraints with the customers. People with these needs, particularly where they have not been diagnosed professionally and managed with treatment, tend to be processed through the system without being advised to access support.

2.1.2 Although it is important to identify jobseeker need and barriers to employment, we also believe that it is important to look at positive factors in a person’s employability and the best advisors should be able to elicit this from even a very basic work history. We see little evidence of this happening at JCP; in fact, many residents we support feel disempowered and lower in confidence after JCP visits.

2.2 Effectiveness of Get Britain Working Measures

2.2.1 We commend the measures that have been set out in this initiative and we have seen a commitment to them at a management level, however they do not translate to operational reality and therefore are not effective.

2.2.2 For Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants we do not see flexibility in the frequency and duration of advisory interviews. Many people in our area need intensive support to find vacancies and make applications. High quality application forms take at least an hour to complete, and yet jobseekers are getting about twenty minutes with an advisor once a fortnight to make applications—that is only if they ask assertively for more support with applications. Most jobseekers are directed to the Universal Job Match (UJM) site to make applications however in our experience even residents who have attended IT courses to learn how to use these systems need further one-to-one support to make high quality, targeted applications.

2.2.3 For Income Support claimants who are affected by the Overall Benefit Cap (OBC) the six-monthly work focussed interviews are not frequent enough to engage them to look for work. From our experience, residents generally are not aware that they can ask for further job search support from Lone Parent Advisors. When they do ask for this support, they are once again referred to UJM. We see very little evidence of Income Support claimants being informed about voluntary referral to the Work Programme.

2.2.4 People with more complex constraints to employment are not being supported effectively by Work Programme providers due to their limited resources to engage and work intensively and individually with these people.

3.0 JCP’s Role as Gateway to Contracted out Services such as Work Choice and Work Programme

3.1 In our experience JCP is reluctant to refer people from the voluntary caseload to the Work Programme due to the cost of attachment fees. They also use the Work Programme as a “stick” for JSA claimants in an attempt to motivate them to get work before they reach 12 months on JSA. This causes people to have a negative perception of the programme, creates anxiety, and reduces engagement.

3.2 We do not believe that JCP in our area is suitably resourced to deliver support for people affected by welfare reform as well as the 2000 plus people who will come back to them after the Work Programme. Our engagement with them suggests that there has been little planning for this.

4.0 JCP’s use of FSFincluding how Spending Decisions are made and Evaluated

4.1 We welcome JCP’s commitment to use this funding to deliver initiatives that do not duplicate existing provision. At the moment there is a gap between the provision that JCP believes is in place and the experience of our residents. We are looking to add provision based on our residents experience of services and the gaps that exist, however it is difficult to demonstrate this to JCP evaluators who look at the existing list of provision as it is presented rather than how it is actually delivered. There has been no consultation with us, the Local Authority, on local needs and priorities. We would welcome an invitation to sit on the evaluation panel.

5.0 Effectiveness of JCPs Relationships with other Key Stakeholders, particularly Local Authorities

5.1 JCP colleagues in Brent take pride in their relationship building and rightly so. They have shown commitment to working collaboratively with us to address the needs of people affected by welfare reform. The following aspects of this partnership work particularly well:

5.1.1Co-location—we have an advisor from JCP based in our customer service centre on two days a week. Anyone who is affected by welfare reform can be referred to her and she works with them to apply for jobs or signpost them to provision and services that are relevant to them. JCP has committed to increasing this to five days a week and ensuring that there is cover for absences so that we have this as a reliable resource and there is better collaboration and communication between the two organisations.

5.1.2Planning and strategy—a senior manager from JCP attends and actively participates in our welfare reform mitigation planning and delivery group meetings. We have her as the named contact and know that she has some authority to make decisions for JCP at this local level (and would like to see this increased).

5.1.3Awareness sessions—these have been set up for JCP frontline staff to understand what the council is delivering in relation to welfare reform and vice versa. This paves the way for case conferencing and the quick resolution of issues.

5.2 There are however improvements that can be made on the current partnership. Although JCP has shown commitment to positive relationships, they do not accept or provide constructive feedback in order to improve services and achieve outcomes. When we have provided feedback about the effectiveness of their services they have not generally shown a willingness to listen to this and make amendments accordingly. We have concerns that large numbers of claimants will slip through the JCP provision for people due to be affected by OBC because the provision is focussed on getting people to attend a course rather than to achieve job outcomes. The course is not personalised to achieve job outcomes for those with complex needs. Previous attempts to have a discussion about this and identify how we can work together for an effective, co-ordinating response have been ignored. The JCP response is centrally driven with little consideration of local need. This affects local partnerships as what we are trying to achieve as the Local Authority is not necessarily being supported by the local JCP.

6.0 JCP’s Role in Relation to the Rights and Responsibilities of Benefits Claimants

6.1 Appropriateness of JCP’s use of benefit sanctions—differences in approach between benefit districts

6.1.1 We have seen several cases where residents’ benefits have been sanctioned based on the subjective evidence of individual Advisers. Even if a process of warnings is applied, the evidence that the Advisers provide often contradicts the claimant’s version of events. If complaints are made to managers there is a bias on the adviser’s side when the issue is reviewed. Claimants feel disempowered and frustrated in this process and are subsequently put off from engaging positively with the same Advisers.

6.1.2 We also think that information about the process for signing off from benefits, and claiming in-work support is not communicated effectively to claimants. There is often confusion about timescales for declaring work, applying for in-work benefits, and the evidence that will be required to be eligible for them. This again comes down to the amount of time that Advisers have to spend with customers and their reluctance to help those with literacy support needs to fill in the correct paperwork.

7.0 Supporting a Flexible Labour market

7.1 JCP’s effectiveness in matching jobseekers to suitable job vacancies including the introduction of UJM

7.1.1 JCP Advisers do match jobseekers to vacancies but they have limited time to do and review this. Sometimes Advisers provide print outs of vacancies and sometimes they make the application with the jobseeker. There is no follow up to see if the jobseeker was successful, or to find out reasons why if not. We have spoken to residents who have made hundreds of unsuccessful applications, and JCP has not reviewed the suitability of their applications.

7.1.2 We support JCP’s drive to digitalise their services. Universal Job Match is in theory, a great resource for job search and job matching however it is not accessible to many people in our area. This is because of a low numbers of computers in JCP offices; and lack of support for those with literacy and IT skills support needs to use them.

7.2 Is JCP suitably focussed on sustainable job outcomes as well as off-benefit flows and how is this or should be measured

7.2.1 We do not see a focus on sustainability. If someone has started a job they are not provided with support for that transition retrospectively. The focus is on off-flow rather than an individualised review of how starting a job has or will impact the individual, what the risk factors might be for them falling out of work, and how they can be addressed. There is no support for customers who are in work to sustain or find better work which leads to people cycling between welfare and work.

7.3 Employers’ assessment of the effectiveness of JCP as a recruitment partner

7.3.1 We do not have a response from an employer perspective per se but we have set out some observations that we would like the committee to take into consideration.

7.3.2 Overall JCP’s engagement of employers, particularly those with vacancies for lower skilled workers, is excellent. They have a wide range of vacancies on their database and these are easy to access via the job points and UJM.

7.3.3 JCP do not always get the most out of employer partnerships to benefit the most excluded unemployed people. For example JCP organised a job fair where they advertised a dozen employers. Only five or six actually attended and not many of these had live vacancies. The 800 residents who attended this event were left disappointed. The employers who did attend informed people to look for vacancies on their website and JCP response to this was that this fits with the digital agenda. This is an example where central JCP policy does not meet local need. The majority of those 800 people who attended the job fair were not IT literate or proficient in English enough to access vacancies on line independently. For this very reason they took the pro-active step to go to a job fair so that they could present themselves to local employers in person.

7.3.4 We find that jobs advertised in Jobcentres and on UJM are not always local or within a commutable distance. This is even after the location and distance from filter fields are completed by the applicant.

7.3.5 There is no follow up of vacancies advertised through UJM to review if they were filled by customers applying via the online tool. We are concerned that jobseekers are making applications but these are not going through to the employer as we have seen examples where the employers have stated that they have not had any applications.

7.3.6 Jobcentre Plus does not provide support for people to pay for CRB checks and this is often a hindrance for them to be able to apply for low pay jobs. Despite saying that it is the employer’s responsibility to pay, we do not see evidence of JCP lobbying to those employers to improve their recruitment practises so that candidates who are going for low skilled, low paid jobs are not having to pay for these checks.

8.0 The Impact of Benefit Reforms

8.1 Plans to support claimants affected by the benefit cap

8.1.1 JCP has taken positive steps to support claimants who will be affected by the OBC including named Benefit Cap Advisers in each office; and participation in meetings with the council and other partners to identify ways of working collaboratively. We have some concerns about the effectiveness of the JCP approach:

8.1.2 The OBC course does not provide enough individualised, intensive support for those with complex barriers to employment and high support needs, and the focus is on attendance rather than job outcomes.

8.1.3 There is not enough support for single parents (a high proportion of those affected by OBC) to apply for jobs and to address their constraints to employment. Many are not aware that they can get this support at JCP or that they can be referred to the Work Programme. There is little support to find vacancies with work hours to suit school holiday term-time and holiday hours; or with finding childcare.

8.1.4 Claimants have a negative perception of JCP and there is no drive from JCP to improve engagement.

8.1.5 Only a few specialist Advisers have the skills to write CVs and other Advisers refer claimants to these Advisers for support. This creates unnecessary delay with job applications at a time when finding work is urgent.

8.1.6 We do not see evidence of resource being matched to the exceptionally high support need in Brent to address the welfare reforms. Although Benefit Cap leads have been identified, they have come from the existing pool of Advisers.

9.0 The Governance of JCP

9.1 The potential for more radical future changes to JCP

9.1.1 Brent is reviewing the relationship between its housing and employment functions, co-locating them under single management and seeking to bring them under the same customer interface. In other words, when a customer walks through the door we want to resolve their employment situation primarily and use this as a way of empowering them in the housing market and preventing homelessness. We would be very keen to explore the prospects of a far more integrated model of delivery in Brent which places a wide range of current JCP services under the same management as the Council’s statutory housing functions and would welcome the opportunity for further discussion on this.

9.1.2 Having seen the positive effects of the small scale co-location of JCP with our Revenues and Benefits and housing teams we propose that this should be scaled up and replicated so that representatives from JCP benefits, adviser, and employer engagement teams work at the Council customer service centres on a full time basis.

9.1.3 We propose that the teams are structured under a shared manager so that customer service across all benefits, housing, and employment support provision is delivered in a holistic way and shared objectives are agreed and prioritised.

9.1.4 This level of integration with the Council will also allow for better partnership work with the Childcare Information Service, Children’s Social Services, Adult Social Services, and regeneration teams who lead on Section 106 agreements for vacancies with developers and other employers in the borough.

9.1.5 We have an opportunity to break down the delivery silos in our area and provide a true customer lead service. In the short term we will make efficiency savings in delivery costs; and in the long term we will see regeneration and growth through improved interventions.

24 May 2013

Prepared 27th January 2014