Work and Pensions CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Ian Cropper

1. Introduction

This introduction is to give an outline of my relevant experience, which I believe gives me a valid and perhaps quite unique perspective on the performance of Jobcentre Plus (JCP). I am currently unemployed and have been so for nearly two years, which means I have current experience of both Jobcentre Plus and the Work Programme. I have experienced other periods of unemployment in the past, but have also worked alongside workers from the Jobcentre and from DWP, and these all give me a significant perspective on the workings of Jobcentre Plus. I have been a member of a sub-group of the North West Mental Health Task Group looking at employment. I have also worked on employment issues for people with mental health problems as part of my job with the National Institute for Mental Health England (NIMHE).

2. Jobcentre Plus Service

2.1 History

My personal experience of the jobcentre, including from before JCP, is that it has never been much help at all in helping me find a job. I put this down to two factors. The first is that I had reasonable skills to look for work and that the training on offer was for basic English and Maths and therefore not relevant to my needs. The second point is that I believe that the focus of JCP was on other functions, such as processing the claim, and more recently on checking the level or quality of the job search.

2.2 CurriculumVitae

One service that is offered is help with your CV. However I believe that this is currently being proffered as a “quick win” bit of evidence that JCP or Work Programme are taking some positive action. I had a reasonable CV that was tweaked twice while with JCP, and then completely rewritten by the Work Programme, all to no effect.

2.3 Early Support

My personal perspective on the support from JCP is that if you are making a reasonable effort to look for work then you tend to be left to get on with it. Unfortunately this means that you are unlikely to get any help with any particular issues that you may have, such as confidence, self-esteem and especially mental health issues.

2.4 Gatekeeper

From my perspective it is impossible for JCP to play an effective gatekeeper role in respect of the Work Programme. There is no proper mechanism for feedback from clients, nor do JCP appear to have the power to move clients to alternative providers. I do not see any evidence of either action or intent, in regard to performance management of Work Programme providers.

2.5 External Relationships

In the past JCP and the DWP developed good relationships with a number of local and national agencies. I was proud to have worked alongside a number of these workers and very happy with the work we did together. One of the first things I learned from the people I worked with was that if you have been out of work for more than six months, then if you didn’t have depression to start with, you probably will now.

I have not been employed and therefore not involved in anything that has happened over the last two years; however I am aware of the damage that has been done both to the reputation of the DWP (and JCP) and to those agencies (charities) that have worked with them. There has been a real divide created between all these organisations and many members of the public, and in particular with service users. This has not been helped by the misuse and abuse of statistics by the DWP, the Secretary of State and Ministers.

2.6 Work Programme

The problem with just looking at JCP is that one might make the mistake of assuming that the Work Programme performs better by comparison. This has not been my experience. Both have been poor at looking at barriers to work such as mental health issues. Instead the only focus they have is on getting people to identify barriers that could lead to a possible sanction. It is quite clear and well known that the Work Programme looks at creaming the easy clients, and parking the more difficult ones. I have no evidence that the Work Programme actually helps anyone, but just takes the credit (money) for those clients that find themselves a job. My personal experience is that the Work Programme has given me no real assistance at all. They have rewritten my CV to produce one that I am not really happy with, and that has been completely ineffective in securing me an interview, never mind a job. The only other intervention has been to allow me to do an internet job search on their old (Windows XP) computers once every fortnight. This means dragging me away from my modern (Windows 7) computer and also means I have to come home and repeat the search as I am not able to actually apply for jobs while at their offices.

I am always on the lookout for anything that may help my job search, and the other day I found an article giving advice on effective job searching. It was quite striking to me that the advice given matched my own personal strategy, but was critical of behaviour that is the apparent aim of the JCP and Work Programme. Some years ago I looked at the proposals for the Work Programme, while still in a job, to consider it as a possible source of future employment. I felt that the contracts would go to the wrong organisation and that they would be doing the wrong thing. I could have predicted that they would be less effective than having no Work Programme. The statistics support this view, and my own personal experience of the Work Programme only confirms this expectation.

2.7 Universal Jobmatch

Universal Jobmatch has been beset by problems from the start, with fake job adverts and warnings about both computer and information security, and also personal safety. While using the site myself I came across jobs that were dated 2014 and 2015. The problem I find with both this site and the way that advisers work, is that they seem to assume that clients have set categories of work area, and when clients are in any way unconventional then it all breaks down.

One of the major problems with Universal Jobmatch is that it has been set up to assist with sanctioning people. This is the real reason why clients are asked to allow their adviser access to their account. This becomes clear when you look at the options on offer for reasons why you didn’t apply for a job. The only option that does not make a client “look bad” is the “I have already applied for this job” one.

2.8 Universal Credit

It is too early to judge Universal Credit but the widespread public expectation is that it is unlikely to work, at least in terms of the IT. There are also many fears that it will not deliver the changes and improvements that have been promised.

2.9 Sanctions

Contrary to what people in ivory towers may believe, sanctions are not a good motivator. In fact it would be very helpful if those in power could realise that the “stick” is a very poor motivator compared to the “carrot”. The single most important element of the current strategy appears to be to facilitate sanctions. This is not helpful to people actively seeking work, as fear does not generally help performance.

As an illustration of how unsupportive the system is I will give you a quick anecdote of what happened to me. On the last Friday before Christmas I received a letter telling me that my benefits had been stopped a couple of weeks previously. They had been stopped because I had failed to sign on one week. I had to rush around to try and sort things out. The reality was that I had not failed to sign on, but in fact it was the Jobcentre that had failed to confirm that I had signed on. The main issue here is not the failure of the Jobcentre, but that I was punished for that failure. A fair system would be one where I was paid until the Jobcentre informed the payment centre otherwise, rather than one where the Jobcentre had to continually inform them that it was ok to keep paying me. After all, such a system would mean less work for Jobcentre staff, which would allow them to focus on other issues.

My greatest fear though is that from my observations there is a serious risk that people with mental health problems may be more likely to be sanctioned. There will be clients who appear to be poorly motivated, lacking enthusiasm, and failing to make sufficient applications. These might be seen as characteristic of someone who is not trying hard enough, but they are also characteristic of someone suffering from depression.

2.10 Outcomes

The priority of government in respect of outcomes is quite apparent from their language, where they tend to talk about people coming off benefit rather than getting a job. It is clear that the priority is about reducing the costs rather than helping people find a job. Sanctions are seen as the easier (and preferred) option. It reduces costs, reduces the unemployment figures, and also fits in with the “scrounger” propaganda.

2.11 Employers

I know from contact with an employment agency that they are not happy with the way Universal Jobmatch operates, and in particular the language and “Americanisations” used in adverts.

It is also clear to me that not enough attention has been paid to the role of employers in the job process. It is employers that decide whether someone gets a job, and it is their criteria that should also be considered when deciding whether a person is “fit for work”. The Disability Discrimination Act has not been a great success in helping people access work, and it is especially ineffective in times of high unemployment.

The most important issue relating to employers is that research is showing that they are unlikely to take on someone who has been long-term unemployed. In fact the research shows that someone unemployed over six months is less likely to get an interview than someone unemployed less than six months, even where the former has relevant experience and the latter does not.1

Summary

I strongly believe that it would be both unfair and wrong to view the performance of JCP without comparison and reference to the Work Programme. It may be the wish of some to transfer the role of JCP out to a private contractor, so it would be wise to compare the performance of JCP and the Work Programme, especially as there is growing evidence that we do not actually get the performance and cost improvements from outsourcing/privatisation than has been previously claimed.

It is my belief that it is unfair to overly criticise the performance of JCP when it seems likely that staff are doing what they have been told to do, and that the priorities set by management (including from the Secretary of State) may be different than the measures that people have been asked to comment on.

One of the problems with Government strategy in unemployment is that it treats everyone as a “feckless scrounger”, and this creates resentment but also resistance. The job seeker and the JCP are working against each other rather than together. This also means that the systems are set up to support this hypothesis, and are therefore directed towards the application of sanctions. As stated earlier (paragraph 2.6) the system is not geared up to give the best help to job seekers. In fact there appears to be a preference to take the easier option of seeking to apply sanctions. There is an emphasis on the quantity of applications made rather than a focus on the quality of application, which goes against best practice. Clients should be encouraged to get a job rather than to avoid being sanctioned. Neither JCP or the Work Programme are focussed on the needs of the unemployed, but are instead looking to please the politicians and their ideology based perspectives.

The system needs to have a better approach towards those with mental health problems, especially as it is clear that already we have people who have committed suicide because of the pressures being placed upon them. If we fail to change things then not only will more people commit suicide, but at some point there will be an increasing number of people who will direct their anger and despair outwards as opposed to inwards. At that point it will be JCP and Work Programme staff who will be in the firing line. There are already signs of increasing violence towards JCP staff. I also though have another concern for staff in that pressurising staff to give sanctions can result in psychological harm. There is also the problem that with all the benefit changes and the difficult circumstances that people have to cope with, that the threat of prison will lose its impact. Prison will offer secure accommodation, with heating and food guaranteed. This is not about prison being a soft option, it is about the reality of life in Britain today for a significant number of people; the so called “precariat”.

14 May 2013

1 Kroft, Kory, Lange, Fabian and Notowidigdo, Matthew, Duration Dependence and Labor Market Conditions: Theory and Evidence from a Field Experiment (September 2012). NBER Working Paper No. w18387. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2147097

Prepared 27th January 2014