Work and Pensions CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the National Housing Federation

The National Housing Federation is the voice of affordable housing in England. We believe that everyone should have the home they need at a price they can afford. That’s why we represent the work of housing associations and campaign for better housing.

Our members provide 2.5 million homes for more than 5 million people. Each year they invest in a diverse range of neighbourhood projects that help create strong, vibrant communities.

1.0 Introduction

1.1 Housing associations operate in some of the most deprived and disadvantaged communities in the UK and understand the importance of getting people into work to tackle poverty and raise aspirations. Housing associations run 1,000 projects to create jobs and help their customers and others into work, investing over £80 million in jobs and skills projects.1

1.2 Furthermore, many housing associations offer targeted early support for their tenants if their circumstances change; helping them to look for work, access a bank account or take up debt advice. This kind of support is particularly important if their tenant’s entitlement to benefits changes, as it can prevent the build-up of arrears or other budgeting difficulties.

1.3 The Federation welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s inquiry into Jobcentre Plus (JCP). Our comments focus on JCP’s employment services and the role of JCP in the successful roll out of Universal Credit. In both of these areas, good relationships and partnership working between JCPs and local housing associations will be vital. In summary:

1.4 We would like to see more partnerships at a local level between JCP advisers, housing associations and related voluntary or community services that focus on supporting individuals into sustained employment.

1.5 Clarity is needed over the role JCP will play in each stage of the UC claimant journey and how this will link with the work of other organisations providing support for UC claimants. Further information is needed before the national rollout of UC begins so that claimants and partner organisations, such as housing associations, can be clear what support can be expected from JCP.

1.6 It is essential that JCP staff are given adequate guidance and training to ensure that they are able to fully support UC claimants.

1.7 Data sharing protocols between JCP and local partners should be developed so that support can be provided to claimants in the most effective way.

1.8 JCP will have to make sure claimants understand the details of their claimant commitment and the consequences of not keeping to it. A system should be put in place to ensure that claimants are given a warning, and support where appropriate, before a sanction is applied.

2.0 Employment Services

JCP’s relationship with housing associations

2.1 Housing associations—as both employers and providers of training and employment services—are important organisations for Jobcentre Plus to engage with. Many housing associations offer support to their residents in identifying their skills needs and helping them to overcome barriers to employment. This support can take the form of running drop in centres, job clubs, providing one-to-one support sessions and linking with local employers to help their tenants secure a job interview.

2.2 In many areas housing associations have developed good working relationships with JCP. Where this works well JCP and housing associations work together to support people into sustained employment, this often incudes supporting individuals beyond the job start date or referring them on to other, more focussed support services. However, in some areas there is a lack of awareness about what housing associations do for employment and skills in the local area and a lack of engagement with them.

2.3 The Federation is working with JCP to help improve and instigate relationships with housing associations at a local level. However, we would like to see greater partnership working between JCP and housing associations across the country.

Approaches to identifying jobseekers’ needs and barriers to employment

2.4 Housing associations have had varied experiences of working with JCP to support jobseekers. Better links between the employment services offered by housing associations and those provided by JCP could improve outcomes for jobseekers.

2.5 Some housing associations give jobseekers intensive support, which the local JCP may not have the capacity to provide. For example, Peabody Housing Trust’s Employment and Training centres give advice and skills training alongside information on local opportunities and, where possible, a guaranteed interview with an employer. Because advisers have more time to spend with each jobseeker, they are able to address some of the wider pressures and barriers to engaging with employment. Where necessary, jobseekers can be referred on to more specialist support. This approach, which requires more time to be spent with individuals, has proven to be an effective intervention and engaged over 1,000 people in the last 3 years.

2.6 We understand that the number of jobseekers each JCP has to deal with every day means that offering a service like this may not be possible. However, JCP would be able to achieve better outcomes for all of its jobseekers if it had better links with organisations (like Peabody) which are able to provide more in-depth support. We would support practical partnerships at a local level between JCP advisers, housing associations and related voluntary or community services that focus on supporting individuals into sustained employment. When taken together these organisations can provide an effective and joined up suite of interventions that can genuinely support more people back into work.

The work programme

2.7 Housing associations’ initial experience of the Work Programme has highlighted several problems with the existing referral system which could be easily improved to provide a better service for housing association tenants.

2.8 Housing associations keen to help their tenants into sustainable employment have been frustrated with the JCPs “random allocation” model—where jobseekers are sent to different Primes’ Work Programme services. This has reduced the potential for collaboration and partnership working as it has not been possible to refer to any one organisation, within a particular area, that is working with a particular housing association. This has led to a fragmented, variable and hard to trace series of interventions under the Work Programme contract, which housing associations could not link clearly to residents or join up clearly with their own support services.

2.9 We would welcome local partnerships between JCP, Prime contractors and housing associations to improve the flow of information, join up services more effectively and reach agreements on the referrals and reporting process. As the role of the JCP is expanded with the implementation of Universal Credit, working with housing associations to identify the best services for their tenants will increase the chance of success for these interventions and make the best use of limited public funding.

3.0 Welfare Reform

3.1 The National Housing Federation supports many of the principles behind the introduction of Universal Credit, including making sure that work pays and simplifying the benefits system. The scale of the changes introduced by UC, including the single monthly payment and consequent changes to budgeting patterns, digital by default delivery and changes to conditionality and sanctions will be challenging for some claimants, and for their JCP advisers.

JCP role in supporting UC claimants

3.2 It is clear that JCP will have a crucial role to play in the transition to and operation of UC. Given this new, and more demanding role, it is essential that JCP staff are given adequate guidance and support. As well as providing employment support, JCP will also have to help claimants understand their “claimant commitment” and navigate the new UC systems.

3.3 The successful implementation of UC will require appropriate, tailored support to be available to claimants as they transition to UC and learn to deal with the new systems. The Government will need to ensure that minimum service levels are set for the support on offer so that there are no gaps in local provision.

3.4 The Federation welcomed the publication of the Local Support Services Framework (LSSF), which sets out how support will be delivered in local areas. The LSSF identified that claimants of UC would need support in the following three areas:

Triage and explaining the new services, particularly while they are being introduced in incremental stages;

Assistance with making claims online and managing UC accounts online;

Advice to help manage money under UC’s monthly payment arrangements and ensure that rent and cash flow is well managed.2

3.5 The LSSF also sets out the claimant journey and where partner organisations may be able to offer support at each stage, eg learning about UC, creating an account, making and maintaining a claim, preparing for the initial interview and signing the claimant commitment.

3.6 Although the claimant journey sets out where jobsearch support will be needed, the overall role of JCP at each stage has not yet been fully articulated. It is also unclear what expectations there are for JCP to work with local partners delivering support through the LSSF. Further information is needed before the national rollout of UC begins so that claimants and partner organisations, such as housing associations, can be clear what support can be expected from JCP. In particular, clarity is needed on the following:

The role JCP will play in each stage of the claimant journey3 and how this will link with the work of other organisations involved in delivering support to UC claimants under the LSSF. In considering this, JCP will need to be clear about the importance of working flexibly with claimants, and how in-work conditionality and sanctions can be built into the journey.

The role of JCP staff in identifying claimants who may need to be referred to personal budgeting support or who may need an alternative payment arrangement (APA). JCP staff should be given appropriate guidance and training to ensure they are able to identify claimants who might need an alternative payment arrangement or a referral to personal budgeting support. They also need to know about the other forms of support on offer from local partners under the LSSF so that they can signpost effectively where need has been identified. Systems should also be in place which allow for an automatic referral for an assessment for an APA where a sanction has been applied.

The role of JCP in providing support for claimants to access online systems so that they can make and maintain their claims. The move to a digital by default service means that JCP offices will need to be access points for claimants to make and manage their claims online. However, with a large minority not just lacking access but also lacking the digital or literacy skills needed to fill in online claim forms, JCP staff will also need the skills to support claimants in this way.

The role of JCP advisers in making sure that claimants understand the breakdown of their award, including the amount of the housing element and the claimant’s responsibility for paying their rent. The LSSF identifies this as an important part of the claimant journey—it is particularly important for social housing tenants, many of whom currently have their housing benefit paid direct to their landlord. Where necessary, JCP advisers should be able to help claimants increase their financial independence by signposting to budgeting support as well as appropriate financial products (such as budgeting accounts).

The role of JCP in supporting UC claimants who have limited or no conditionality requirements. The system should be designed to ensure that those UC claimants who have limited on no contact with JCP still have access to any support they might need.

Data-sharing

3.7 We welcome the emphasis that the Local Support Service Framework (LSSF) places on working with local partners. It is crucial that JCP develops good relationships with local organisations such as housing associations who are working with UC claimants. Data sharing protocols with local partners should also be developed so that support can be provided to claimants in the most effective way.

3.8 Housing associations already offer services which help their tenants to find work, access digital services, open bank accounts, manage debt problems and sustain tenancies. Housing associations’ ability to provide targeted support to their tenants is, in part, dependent on having knowledge of tenants’ circumstances. For example, if housing associations were made aware of the onset (or likely onset) of sanctions if a tenant failed to meet their claimant commitment, they would be able to intervene and offer support at an early point.

3.9 As responsibility for the management of Universal Credit is adopted by DWP, existing data sharing procedures between local authority benefit teams and housing associations will be lost. Without data sharing protocols in place, the Federation fears that the consequences will be felt by customers, landlords, and the DWP, with:

Housing association tenants less likely to receive early support to find work or to establish their financial independence;

A potential rise in rent arrears;

A significant increase in the administrative burden on DWP, with more queries from landlords which, before the implementation of UC, would otherwise be exchanged automatically.

Conditionality and sanctions

3.10 New conditions and associated sanctions are being attached to welfare benefits, and claimants will have to accept a claimant commitment to look for or stay in work. JCP will have to make sure claimants understand the details of their claimant commitment and the consequences of not keeping to it. The new sanctions are tougher as they are intended to be a deterrent, meaning that it is all the more important that claimants fully understand their commitment from the outset. This will demand an initial, in-depth, one-on-one meeting with UC claimants, as well as on-going contact to help them continue to meet the terms of their commitment.

3.11 A system should be put in place to ensure that claimants are given a warning, and support where appropriate, before a sanction is applied. As stated above, such systems may need the development of data sharing protocols between JCP and local partners. If a housing association is aware that one of their tenants has been or is about to be sanctioned they are more likely to be able to intervene and offer support. Systems should allow for an automatic referral for an assessment for an alternative payment arrangement where a sanction has been applied.

3.12 Furthermore, when a failure to meet the commitment occurs, claimants need adequate feedback on why a sanction is being imposed. Currently, sanctions are being applied to JSA before claimants have been notified of their failure, and when the notification comes it offers a list of five, different possible reasons why a sanction has been imposed.

4.0 Conclusion

4.1 The evidence presented above highlights the growing importance of JCP working in partnership with housing associations and other local organisations in the delivery of employment services and provision of support to Universal Credit claimants. To date, housing associations have had mixed experiences of working with JCP and we would like to see a greater emphasis on developing these local relationships in the future.

4.2 The transition to Universal Credit presents many challenges to claimants, JCP and local partner organisations. Some claimants will need additional support to navigate the new systems, make applications online and manage the frequency of their new payments. Clarity is needed on the role of JCP at each stage of the UC claimant journey so that claimants and partner organisations, such as housing associations, understand what support can be expected from JCP. JCP needs to have sufficient resources and capacity to deal with these challenges and staff will need adequate training and guidance on any new areas of responsibility.

4.3 It is likely that current systems will need to be improved to facilitate these new ways of working. For example, data sharing protocols will need to be developed so that support can be provided by JCP and local partners in the most effective way.

24 May 2013

1 Building futures, National Housing Federation Neighbourhood Audit 2010–11
http://www.housing.org.uk/publications/browse/building-futures

2 DWP (2013). Universal Credit Local Support Services Framework (pg. 6)

3 Set out in Annex B of the Local Support Services Framework

Prepared 27th January 2014