Work and Pensions CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Gipton Supported Independent Living

GIPSIL (Gipton Supported Independent Living) provides support, including housing and related services, to people who are vulnerable and in need, in the belief that this is crucial to their success in becoming independent and reaching their full potential.

Q1. JCP’s employment services, including: approaches to identifying jobseekers’ needs and barriers to employment; the effectiveness of the “Get Britain Working” measures; JCP’s role as a gateway to contracted-out services such as Work Choice and the Work Programme, including processes for referral and handover; JCP’s use of the Flexible Support Fund, including how spending decisions are made and evaluated; and the effectiveness of JCP’s relationships with other key stakeholders, particularly local authorities

1. As an advice service working with vulnerable young people aged 16–25, we have encountered a number of issues around JCP’s “identifying barriers” & proactively seeking remedies for jobseekers.

2. We work with many young people leaving the care of social services who struggle with the transition to independent living, a process which invariably involves claiming mainstream benefits. Many of these young people have some level of mental or physical health problems, frequently related to their backgrounds which have often involved neglect or abuse. Such young people often have clear aspirations to find work. However, the general experience tends to be negative in terms of the support from Jobcentre Plus they receive in their search for work.

3. Example 1: One young man had a history of acute collapsed lung and lung lining wall on his left side. Following surgery he has an increased risk of chest infections or collapsed lung. His GP stated that he was not fit to work in dusty environments, do heavy lifting, be subject to extreme temperature changes or engage in other strenuous physical work. He had worked as a bin man but had to leave due to chest infections (had three to four weeks off over a four month period); and had also worked as a youth worker but had six to seven weeks off over a six month contract due to chest infections/flu/colds. He also has issues with anxiety, coping with change and coping with social situations.

4. Unfortunately, rather than have these restrictions placed in his Jobseeking Agreement he was signposted by Jobcentre Plus to ESA which culminated in his being found fit for work and failing the WCA after being awarded zero points in respect of each descriptor. This is an example of someone who should surely have been supported to remain on JSA with appropriate limitations as to employment type. This would have maintained the young person’s enthusiasm for employment and reduced the impact on Jobcentre Plus resource by preventing the whole process involved in an ESA claim. The case actually demonstrated that Jobcentre Plus support is not tailored to the individual and is wholly inflexible.

5. Example 2: Care Leaver with low level learning difficulties, coupled with emotional vulnerability due to his upbringing. He struggles with the job search process but was not referred to the disability adviser. Instead, he was sanctioned for only applying for eight jobs during the fortnight rather than the 10 required. There appeared to be no consideration of the quality and realistic aspirations exhibited in his applications and certainly no acknowledgement of the limitations and barriers affecting the individual claimant. The process appeared punitive and inflexible by design.

In terms of the JCP’s role as a “gateway to contracted out services”, we have had many issues around lack of clarity and cohesion between JCP and Work Related Activity Providers such as Interserve.

6. Example 3: Client made her claim for ESA on the basis of her anxiety and agoraphobia which was restricting her ability to find work (client also a Care Leaver). Her mental health precluded her from taking part in the Jobseeker’s Allowance Work Programme (via Interserve) for which she was repeatedly sanctioned.

Due to anxiety and depression, client:

avoids situations that could lead to panic attacks, such as crowded places, public transport and queues;

is unable to leave the house for long periods of time;

needs to be with someone she trusts when going anywhere (eg a friend or support worker);

avoids being far away from home; and

suffers considerable fear and anxiety if forced to engage in uncomfortable situations (such as listed above), or with unfamiliar people.

7. These problems were reflected in the ESA Decision maker’s decision to award her six points for going to familiar places unaccompanied, six points for difficulties communicating with other people and social engagement, and nine points for occasional uncontrollable outbursts in her WCA assessment.

8. Despite these acknowledged problems, the client was sanctioned for failing to attend a Work Related Activity appointment at Interserve on 11 December 2012. Further, this sanction remained in place despite the client attending three consecutive sessions of “Work Related Activity”, and being due to attend a fourth session on Monday 22 April.

9. This case was particularly troubling as we believe the client’s level of participation far exceeded the stated requisite of “an agreement to undertake Work Related Activity” and, as such, there was no justification for the sanction remaining in place. It should be remembered that a sanction is extremely punitive and reduces the claimant’s ESA entitlement by the entire weekly personal allowance of £71 leaving only the support component in payment. This clearly causes immense financial hardship for someone with health problems acknowledged through the WCA process.

10. Of even greater concern was the apparent role and influence Interserve had in the decision to impose and maintain the sanction. Interserve advised she was required to attend four sessions of Work Related Activity held on only a fortnightly basis, despite JCP guidance stating that to lift the sanction she would only need to “take part in a work-focused interview; or making an arrangement to take part in a work-focused interview at an agreed date” (Reg 63(11)(a) ESA Regulations 2008). Decisions on all matters relating to benefit claims clearly rests with Jobcentre Plus. However, as this case demonstrates, there appears to be, at the very least, a blurring of roles and responsibilities.

11. As well as the lack of consistency between what we were told by JCP staff and Interserve staff, we have major concerns about the programme facilitated by Interserve. The client was referred to the same adviser for ESA WRA as she was whilst on JSA Work Programme. We queried with Jobcentre Plus the efficacy of Interserve and were told that Jobcentre Plus had been assured by Interserve that their staff were trained to deal with both JSA and ESA client groups in a way tailored to their specific needs. This clearly wasn’t our client’s experience and her mental health in no way appeared to be taken into consideration by her Interserve adviser. Our staff have accompanied the client to several of these appointments and witnessed examples of what we would consider bad practice, eg. a client who is acknowledged to struggle with social situations being shouted across a crowded open plan office to a desk with no element of privacy to discuss barriers to work resulting from health problems.

12. We are sceptical as to the robustness of JCP’s auditing of Interserve’s performance, a problem compounded by the apparent exaggerated influence Interserve have over JCP’s decision making process in relation to the imposition of sanctions.

13. We wrote to Interserve directly about this client’s experience of their service. The letter was sent on 18 April 13 and we have yet to receive any acknowledgement or response.

14. Our experience of JCP as a gateway to contracted out services was poor in this example and resulted in a vulnerable young care leaver, who suffers from mental health problems managing an extremely low income, less than £30 a week, for a two month period.

Q2. JCP’s role in relation to the rights and responsibilities of benefit claimants, including: the effectiveness of benefit conditionality, particularly job-seeking conditionality and the mandatory “work-focused interview”; and the level and appropriateness of JCP’s use of benefit sanctions, including differences of approach between JCP Districts

15. We feel that the sanctions process is highly punitive and does not encourage a jobseeker. As we wrote in December 2012 CLG inquiry, (Communities and Local Government Committee inquiry on the implementation of welfare reform by local authorities) Gipsil’s experience of sanctions has been:

poor communication from DWP regarding reason for sanction (eg lack of information on letters, lack of information on notes used by contact centre…);

slow decision making on appeals and a lack of detail in responses; and

lack of designated department or contacts dealing with sanction issues.

16. Minister for Employment Mark Hoban greeted news that 495,000 people sanctioned by stating that the “rules send out a clear message to jobseekers. We will offer them the support they need to find work, but in return for receiving benefits they have responsibilities too. People cannot expect to keep their benefits if they do not hold up their end of the bargain.”1

17. However we have seen clients sanctioned for:

failing to attend appointments they were not informed of;

being double booked by the job centre on to two courses;

failing to apply for a vacancy that had already been filled/no longer existed;

applying for eight jobs with high quality, realistic applications in space of fortnight rather than 10 required; and

client currently midway through an employment tribunal challenging an unfair dismissal exacerbated by an unfair disciplinary hearing together with a failure to provide disciplinary procedure/staff handbook/contract; pay remaining wages and following her being required to work without a break in contravention of the EU Working Time Directive, was still sanctioned by JSA decision maker, despite our outlining the circumstances and detailing that she in no way lost her job through “misconduct” (which in JSA regs is conduct that “can fairly be described as blameworthy, reprehensible and wrong”—R(U)2/77 para 15).

18. Our experiences at Gipsil seem to mirror the findings of Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Scotland. They found young people to be particular vulnerable to sanctioning with approx half of JSA sanctions placed on under 25s.2

Q3. The impacts of benefit reforms, including: the implications for JCP staff roles of the implementation of Universal Credit, including the skills staff will need in order to offer effective in-work support; changes to staff roles brought about by the move to “digital by default”; and plans to support claimants affected by the benefit cap

19. We have encountered a number of issues around the Digital By Default claims process and this has been highlighted through the abolition of Social Fund Crisis Loans. From April 13, new rules require that claimants in financial hardship pending processing and payment of a new claim to benefit apply for a “Short Term Benefit Advance”. However, the Digital By Default JSA claims process simply does not meet claimant need generally or cover the common circumstance of a claimant requiring a Short Term Benefit Advance, as the example below demonstrates.

20. Example 4: Care Leaver does not have telephone. He is advised to make claim online. He does not have a telephone number but is unable to complete claim form without one. He uses the Gipsil drop in number as he has no alternative. There is nowhere on the form to explain this. We completed the form on 16 April 2013.

21. Client has no money or food. Explained we could no longer apply for a Crisis Loan whilst he awaited his first payment of benefit, however, we could request a Short Term Benefit Advance (STBA). We rang JCP to request one but were informed the online JSA claim had not been registered yet, so could not complete a STBA. The adviser informed us the client would have to wait until he had received his call back regarding his first JSA appointment and, at this time, the claim would be registered enabling a STBA request. This would be within two working days.

22. The first problem is that the client does not have a phone, so Gipsil will need to receive the call from JCP about his appointment time, explain our role and request implied consent as the client is unlikely to be present at the office when they call. We will then need to visit him to inform him of appointment time and assist him with ringing back to JCP to make STBA.

23. As such on 17 April 2013, we received call back from JCP—after I had explained situation, the male operator would not speak to me but agreed to ring back at 2.15pm when the client would be at our centre.

At 2.15pm we received the call back and I put it through to the client who was asked a series of security questions and allocated a JCP JSA appointment: Thursday 18 April—12.40pm (advised to get there at 12.30) at Southern House JCP.

24. Now the JSA claim is registered we rang through to JCP to make a claim for a Short Term Benefit Advance on grounds: new JSA claim, not due to receive payment for two to three weeks and no money for food, gas, electric, water.

25. We were advised that JCP would take my contact details as support worker and contact me instead with courtesy call to confirm receipt of application and DM decision.

26. As you can see the new means of making a claim for JSA for those without IT access, email addresses and phones is not fit for purpose. Previously, a client could make a claim for benefit over the phone, be allocated an appointment time straight away and then apply for a Crisis Loan within the space of two hours. The system is now long and drawn out for clients. Even those with the necessary IT facilities are looking at two day process (or longer over weekends or bank holidays). This clearly puts vulnerable young people in a desperate situation and can only have a negative effect on them.

27. A further issue with Short Term Benefit Advances (STBA) it that we were told by an JCP operator that clients must have attempted to request an overdraft facility from their bank before they are able to make a STBA request. In fact, for one client this blocked off the process of their application. As well as being frustrating this is unrealistic and financially dangerous. As a young, single, care leaver with no family support, no capital, and no source of income or employment, the client would be unlikely to be granted an overdraft facility by any mainstream bank. Indeed, it would be irresponsible to lend in such circumstances due the charges attached to overdrafts which would further reduce the capacity of a vulnerable young person to budget on a maximum weekly income of £56.80. It further seems at odds with the overarching aims of financial inclusion as it will encourage people to look for alternative sources of credit (such as loan sharks or other illegal means) when they are at their most vulnerable.

28. The implementation of the new Short Term Benefit Advance process appeared unplanned and despite seeking clarification as to the procedure prior to implementation, we received no accurate information from JCP. We were told at varying times to continue using the old Crisis Loan telephone number and the New Claims number both of which were wrong. Anecdotally, our feeling was that JCP local staff did not have accurate information and that the implementation of STBAs was not regarded as a significant issue. In fact, access to emergency funds pending the processing and payment of benefit claims is both common and critical to claimants’ welfare, especially those most vulnerable.

Summary

29. Our experience of JCP is that staff are under significant work pressure in a period of unprecedented change. Our feeling is that there is insufficient resource to effectively deliver welfare reform resulting in a lack of preparation and clarity around the processes necessarily involved. These issues have grave potential to impact upon local partnership relationships and have a further detrimental impact upon the service provided to claimants who are frequently vulnerable and at risk.

23 May 2013

1 http://www.dwp.gov.uk/newsroom/press-releases/2012/oct-2012/dwp108–12.shtml

2 For more detail see: http://www.cas.org.uk/publications/voices-frontline-jsa-sanctions

Prepared 27th January 2014