Work and Pensions CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Hackney Economic Development Network

1. Executive Summary

The main issues raised below focus on a lack of effective and appropriate support given to jobseekers in Hackney, especially ex Incapacity Benefit and Employment Support Allowance claimants. Additionally, the implementation of inappropriate benefits sanctions is a serious concern with deleterious effects which in fact often obstruct claimant’s efforts to find work. We also assert the urgent need for greater transparency regarding the provision offered by Jobcentre Plus (JCP) and a drastic improvement in their communication and collaboration with stakeholders, particularly the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) who often provide vital support to the same client group. While JCP managers regularly attend partnership events we have witnessed a disconnect between their attentive engagement at these meetings and the conduct of frontline JCP advisors. Greater clarity regarding who is accountable for which decisions and the protocols and procedures of submitting complaints or concerns are necessary since VCS organisations repeatedly stated they did not know who to contact at JCP in order to resolve issues on behalf of their clients. Frequently the attempts of VCS groups to contact JCP in order resolve errors, disputes or complications led nowhere. It is imperative that an institution with such a broad sphere of jurisdiction implement the policies and procedures which enable effective partnership working. Working in honest collaboration with the voluntary sector in order to attain a greater understanding of the needs of their clients and the necessity of providing a holistic approach to job seeking would only increase the effectiveness of Jobcentre Plus to support residents into sustainable employment. We believe that the most effective approach to moving people into work is to create a culture of support, empowerment and encouragement rather than one of shame and anxiety, which is ultimately counter-productive.

2. Brief Introduction to Hackney’s Economic Development Network

Hackney’s Economic Development Network is a network of voluntary and community sector organisations working in the field of education, employment and training, we are hosted by our local CVS. Our members work with a range of client groups including young people, refugees and people with disabilities. Over the past two years the EDN has worked in partnership with Hackney Council and the Hackney Health and Social Care Forum to run a series of events on welfare reform, specifically Incapacity Benefit reform (chaired by Meg Hillier MP), Housing, “Under Occupancy” and the Benefit Cap. These events included both briefings on the complex and numerous changes to the benefits system and roundtable discussions of the most pressing issues. Over 300 people from a range of sectors attended these events including NHS staff, council staff and VCS advice and support workers. The evidence presented below has been drawn from issues raised at these events as well the responses to our request for evidence from our members and the local third sector.

3. Factual Information

3.1 Approaches to identifying jobseekers’ needs and barriers to employment

3.1.1 Lack of insight into needs of jobseekers: Organisations reported that JCP lacked an awareness of how to effectively engage with clients, for example using terms such as “enhanced CRB check” to someone with low levels of English. A lack of understanding of the needs of disabled jobseekers was also reported—for example, at one jobcentre plus office the disability advisor is located upstairs. Despite disabled access this seems counter-intuitive. Organisations working with people with learning difficulties and mental health problems report that there is a lack of appropriate provision and support. ESA claimants with varied and complex mental health issues have been referred to VCS organisations in order to find volunteering opportunities. Many of these people do not understand why they have been referred to the VCS organisation, but state that they have been told that if they don’t volunteer their benefits will be stopped. On further engagement with the claimant, it transpires that they have severe issues including communication issues, alcohol dependence and behavioural problems that prevent them from volunteering. Clearly their complex barriers to employment have not been identified and an adequate support plan has not been put in place. VCS organisations are eager to support benefit claimants to volunteer, but it is crucial that they are provided with an overview of the claimants’ needs and access to the relevant support services in order that they can work in tandem to enable the claimant to productively engage with a voluntary placement.

3.1.2 Lack of awareness of individual circumstances of jobseekers: Several young people reported that they did not feel that JCP treated them as human beings but were rather seen as targets and “boxes to be ticked”. Organisations also reported that the individual circumstances of jobseekers were often not taken into account, see case study below.

Case Study: Ms Y has had her benefits stopped twice, both times as a result of not being able to sign on due to caring responsibilities. On the first occasion she had to attend a meeting at her son’s school as he was having difficulties and facing exclusion. She phoned the jobcentre several times but was unable to get through. She managed to attend her appointment but was 15 minutes late and as a result her benefits were stopped for two weeks. She was unable to get this money repaid. On the second occasion Ms Y had to attend a meeting with her daughter about college. She attended the jobcentre in time for her appointment but there was a huge queue. Had she waited in the queue she would have been late for the appointment with her daughter. She consulted two managers who assured her she could “sign on as soon as she was able”. This occurred on a Thursday and she went back to the jobcentre the following Monday morning where she was told that since she had not attended on the Thursday her benefits would now cease for two weeks. On both occasions she had to appeal in order have the payments reinstated. Ms Y’s appointment time to sign on is 9.15am, however she is responsible for taking her son to school in the morning and is consequently always anxious about being late to her appointment. The jobcentre have refused her numerous requests to change her appointment to a later time.

3.1.3 Encouraging a counter-productive attitude toward volunteering: JCP have referred numerous clients to a volunteering agency. When the client arrives they often state they have been instructed to visit the agency or else their benefits will be stopped. Whilst volunteer bureaus are pleased that volunteering is recognised by JCP as a valuable source of work experience, by making it compulsory and by not sufficiently explaining the benefits of volunteering, jobseekers often arrive at the agency feeling coerced and unwilling to volunteer.

3.2 JCP’s role as a gateway to contracted-out services such as Work Choice and the Work Programme

3.2.1 Poor communication re health conditions: One organisation reports that a client with learning difficulties was referred from a specialist Jobcentre Plus disability advisor to a generic Work Programme (WP) provider without communicating to the new advisor that the client had a learning disability. The client did not receive the appropriate support and had his benefits sanctioned for not looking for work rigorously enough. When his support worker contacted the WP to inform them of the client’s needs the advisor stated that his learning disability was not referenced in the case file.

3.3 JCP’s use of the Flexible Support Fund

3.3.1 Duplication of provision: A significant barrier to successful FSF bids is that Jobcentre Plus state that projects must not duplicate available provision, yet the EDN has been told that there is no list of current provision to consult, making this an impossible task. We met with several partnership managers in order that their insights could inform the project design but the lack of information regarding provision already offered is a serious barrier to developing projects which meet unmet needs of Hackney residents.

3.3.2 Duplication of intended provision: Feedback to one VCS organisation regarding an unsuccessful bid stated that whilst the one to one mentoring support included in the project was not necessarily already available, the role of jobcentre plus advisors was intended to provide that level of support although they acknowledge that this is not always possible.

3.4 The Effectiveness of JCP’s relationships with other key stakeholders

3.4.1 Disrupting relevant training: Claimants are informed by JCP that they must undertake Mandatory Work Activity and are then forced to un-enrol from relevant training courses. This is disruptive and wasteful of the investment which financed their enrolment on the course.

3.4.2 Disrupting relevant volunteering: We received reports of five volunteers from a VCS organisation that were informed that they must attend a training course, either through JCP or Work Programme, and have had to stop their volunteering placement. These courses have not been relevant to their chosen vocation and are of considerable duration. Jobseekers have not been given the opportunity to remain on volunteering placements which have been carefully selected in relation to their particular skills, interests and goals. Several volunteers have been productively engaged with their volunteering placements but have had to abruptly terminate their attendance at the placement and on the in-house training they were engaged in.

Case Study: Ms X was attending a volunteer placement with a housing provider as she was particularly keen to move into housing as a career. This role had been carefully selected and she had had to wait some time for the vacancy to arise. She was doing well, and was clearly engaged with the placement. She was told by her Work Programme advisor that she had to attend a mandatory work placement stacking shelves instead. Through our support and since she was articulate and strong-willed, she was able to persuade her advisor to allow her to remain on her placement. This is an unusual case in that she was able to persuade her advisor to allow her to continue to volunteer. There are many others who have not been successful.

3.4.3 Lack of clarity re contacts and procedures: Organisations state that there is significant difficulty knowing who to contact at Jobcentre Plus in order to resolve issues such as those in the above examples. There is no clear procedure set out and no contact list.

3.4.4 Staff turnover: The exceptionally high staff turnover prevents the VCS and Jobcentre Plus from building effective relationships and mutual understanding.

3.4.5 Contracts: One of our members stated they have been contracted by Jobcentre Plus to deliver a cross-borough training programme and that they have worked together very effectively in the delivery of this project.

3.5 JCP’s role in relation to the rights and responsibilities of benefit claimants

3.5.1 Sanctions stopped incorrectly-miscommunication between JCP and Work Programme providers: JSA claimants who identify relevant training which is in keeping with jobcentre plus’ conditionality and which is approved by their Work Programme advisor have at times had their benefits sanctioned by the jobcentre. This occurs when the claimant requests to move their sign-on appointment so it doesn’t clash with their training.

Case Study: A JSA claimant was referred to an ICT training course provided by a VCS group. The course was less than the stipulated maximum of 16 hours a week but clashed with the claimant’s sign-on time. The claimant went to the jobcentre to request that the appointment time be changed. He produced the required Learning Agreement with the course details on. In lieu of this letter his benefits were stopped, despite his Work Programme advisor confirming that he had indeed approved the claimant’s attendance on the course. The WP advisor stated that the jobcentre had not notified him of the claimant’s sanctions. The advisor had tried to contact JCP but to no avail. The VCS provider contacted JCP themselves but to no effect. The VCS organisation eventually lent the claimant money to ensure he had food and could travel to the course. The provider eventually approached their local MP to address the matter.

3.5.2 Lack of clarity re claimant’s rights: Many jobseekers have been referred to a VCS group under the impression that they are only permitted to volunteer for up to 16 hours a week or their benefits will be stopped.

3.6 JCP’s effectiveness in matching jobseekers to suitable job vacancies

3.6.1 Lack of concern for finding suitable employment: Organisations reported that their clients were being pushed into unsuitable retail jobs which were not sustainable.

4. Recommendations for Action

4.1 Send frontline JCP secondments to VCS organisations to breach barriers and enable greater understanding of vulnerable client groups, especially those with mental health problems or other disabilities.

4.2 JCP should review their current methods for communicating with claimants. A user group should be consulted on all revised communication in order to ensure messaging is appropriate.

4.3 Specialist VCS advisors could train general JCP advisors.

4.4 Provide a clear and up-to-date list of relevant contacts.

4.5 Provide clear guidance on the procedures by which to address issues and concerns.

4.6 Provide more appropriate support for people with disabilities.

4.7 Provide in-work support, especially for people with complex needs.

4.8 Provide suitable employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

4.9 Clarify current provision available from JCP so that the VCS know what additional provision is required and can avoid duplication.

4.10 Provide support for people who require assistance travelling to training venues or job interviews.

4.11 Provide specialist support for people aged over 55 looking for work.

4.12 Ensure jobseeker’s are given adequate notice of appointments.

4.13 Recognise the value of volunteering placements or training courses which claimant’s are already engaged in. Encourage advisors to exercise their discretion to enable claimants to continue and not be forced to attend alternative provision. VCS organisations could provide advisors with evidence of learning and experience they will gain.

4.14 Perform comprehensive handovers when referring claimants to VCS groups rather than merely signposting.

4.15 Change the approach and rhetoric of jobseeking to create a culture of support, empowerment and encouragement rather than one of shame and anxiety which is ultimately counter-productive.

20 May 2013

Prepared 27th January 2014