Work and Pensions CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Oxfam Cymru

1. About Us

Oxfam works with others to overcome poverty and suffering. We do this in three ways:

by developing projects with people living in poverty that improve their lives and show others how things can change;

by raising public awareness of poverty to create pressure for change; and

by working with policymakers to tackle the causes of poverty.

For further details about Oxfam’s work in the UK, see . The evidence presented in this submission is compiled from information provided by Oxfam’s partner organisations many of whom have supported people to navigate their interaction with JCP.

2. Summary

In partnership with Community Links, Oxfam ran a series of listening events as part of the European Year of Poverty and Social Exclusion 2010.i Many people at these events shared their experiences of using JCP: a majority of these were negative. People talked about what they viewed as inappropriate, inflexible and unsympathetic support. People talked about the conflict arising from the fact that JCP is charged with supporting people back into work and simultaneously with policing their benefit claim, with the power to stop payments. They suggested that the following are the sort of changes required:

“Make Jobcentre Plus a place only to issue benefits and there be a separate place for job support.”

“Better support from the Jobcentre, clear advice about what you are entitled to when looking for and in work.”

“People in Jobcentres that give advice need to be better trained so they are able to develop better relationships with their clients.”

Oxfam is concerned that current practice within JCP appears to be:

Budget and statistics driven rather than needs led, so the needs of the client are never a priority.

Aimed at getting people into any job—no matter what its pay, hours, conditions, long-term future or skill level—short-term targets are always a priority [this is in contrast to the Work Programme though, which is geared towards long-term work, if not good quality work].

Starting from a position of client mistrust and assuming the client will abuse the system rather than starting from a position of trust enabling the client to claim all that they are entitled to and supported to fulfil their potential.

This causes fear and anxiety for people who need to access JCP services. JCP is extremely restrictive in terms of the client’s future; ignoring their skills, talents, potential and the reality of their lives. The service JCP offers can lack an institutional level of empathy and humanity.

Oxfam calls for a new needs based model based on trust and respect and providing support enabling people to achieve their full potential. This includes providing JCP staff with adequate training and support to deliver the service in a rapidly changing and increasingly complex internal and external environment. The welfare reform agenda is a prime opportunity to implement positive change.

3. Approaches to Identifying Jobseekers’ needs and Barriers to Employment

In communities that Oxfam partners work, unemployment is high and people are heavily reliant on benefits. Our experience suggests that most people want to work but face significant barriers to making this happen, including a shortage of jobs let alone suitable jobs.

Our partners support people in taking small, manageable steps to overcome some of the personal barriers including poor physical and mental health, caring responsibilities, lack of accessible and affordable transport, poor basic skills, issues due to English as a second language, a lack of IT skills and poorly developed workplace skills.

Evidence from partners highlights significant failures in the provision and delivery of some welfare to work schemes. Some service providers fail to understand the real barriers that prevent people from taking up jobs, and the complex range of factors they must consider in making decisions that will allow them to cope from day to day.

3.1 Initial Customer Assessment and assumed understanding

JCP’s Customer Assessment Framework is insufficient in its current form to provide a holistic picture of an individual’s personal circumstances and the barriers which may limit their ability to enter the workplace. Oxfam’s experience of working with BME lone parents, via a JCP special project, for example showed that many of the women faced quite complex personal, social and structural barriers. The amount of time allocated to initial assessment and the quality of information which can be derived using the existing tool can compromise the appropriateness of the type and level of support the customer is referred to and their likelihood of a positive outcome as a result.

In addition, in Oxfam’s experience JCP staff assume a level of understanding on the part of the customer. In the case of certain client groups, for example BME women, there are a number of factors which contribute to a situation where the customer does not understand the process, nor express their needs and are fearful of asking questions. This may occur for a variety of reasons; among the most prevalent are language barriers, cultural issues, poor understanding of DWP systems and fear of authority (which may be particularly for those who have come through the Asylum system).

Oxfam recommends an improved system of initial assessment and diagnosis which would lead to increased personalisation of subsequent support and improved outcomes for individuals.

It would be beneficial to develop advisor skills and increase sensitivity to the needs of customers with complex needs.

There is clear evidence that one of the key aspects of successful welfare to work provision is one to one time with a qualified advisor. It is essential for people to be allocated a personal advisor who is accessible at each visit to ensure consistency of advice/decision making and continuity of service. At the initial assessment stage the personal adviser and the client should jointly devise and agree a personal development plan.

Oxfam’s Sustainable Livelihoods Approachii and toolkit provides a good starting point for improving the initial assessment process and for developing advisor understanding and delivery of a holistic, person centred approach. Oxfam Cymru is keen to explore options for piloting this approach at local JCP offices in Wales and would welcome further discussions on making this happen. The need for a much more thorough, needs-based assessment of jobseekers needs was also identified as a priority in the recent Work and Pensions Committee reportiii on the Work Programme.

4. JCP’s Role as a Gateway to Contracted-out Services such as the Work Programme

4.1 Work Programme in Wales

Oxfam Cymru has provided clear evidenceiv,v of a lack of provision by Work Programme providers in Wales for people with intensive support needs such as poor basic skills, a lack of IT skills or mental health problems for example. The UK Government payment by results model is encouraging prime contractors to adopt a “traffic light” approach to supporting people mandated to the Work Programme. People with significant barriers to work, for example poor literacy and numeracy, drug or alcohol problems are coded “red” and deemed too far from the labour market to warrant investment in training or work placements and are effectively “parked”. This is occurring at a time when the UK Government are extending conditionality attached to benefit receipt where failure to comply leads to benefit sanctions and potentially destitution.

The situation is exacerbated as people mandated to the Work Programme in Wales are unable to access relevant, local training provision and employability support specific to their needs. For example, because of concerns regarding “double funding”, those on the Work Programme are unable to access publically funded basic skills courses to improve literacy but neither will the Work Programme contractor provide this training. This is because, despite commitments through the Joint Employment Development Board, there is no agreement between the DWP and the Welsh Government to facilitate access for Work Programme participants on to Welsh Government and European funded provision in Wales which is in direct contrast to the situation in England.

In addition, evidence suggests it is almost impossible for third sector specialist training providers to tender or deliver parts of the Work Programme contract. These are the very organisations that have expertise in supporting people in “hard to reach” groups. Such organisations are then prevented from working with this group of people because of the aforementioned double funding issues.

The resulting impact on Welsh job seekers can be devastating.

Oxfam recommends that as a matter of priority DWP and the Welsh Government work together to develop a bespoke alternative employability support package for people furthest from the labour market in Wales that would run in parallel to the Work Programme. This would effectively provide an exemption from the Work Programme for people needing intensive support.

4.2 Deferred mandation

It is our understanding there is a DWP standard approach that allows JCP staff to defer mandation to contracted services, such as the Work Programme, for certain people for a 13 week period if they are in the process of applying for or receiving employment support from other providers. In our experience this is not often practiced as the current IT system does not immediately flag up to JCP advisors if their client is on or applying for alternative employment support and often JCP advisors do not actively search for this information before mandating customers to the Work Programme. Better use could be made of the standard deferral process, especially in Wales, to allow people with intensive support needs for example to continue to receive specialist local employment support from community providers that is more suited to their needs and more likely to produce positive outcomes for the individual concerned. Improvements to processes for identifying jobseekers barriers to work so that those with the severest barriers are offered alternative support before mandation to schemes such as the Work Programme was also recommended in the recent Work and Pensions Committee report on the Work Programme.

Oxfam calls for JCP advisors to ensure people are only mandated to the Work Programme if this is the best course of action for them in terms of employability support. Full use of the standard deferral option should be made where applicable.

5. JCP’s use of the Flexible Support Fund (FSF)

It is unrealistic to expect people on benefits to be able to pay for travel and childcare costs up front when looking for work or when taking up work experience, skills and training (including ESOL) or volunteering opportunities to improve their employability. The vast majority of people living on benefits already struggle to feed their families and heat their homes and so do not have a disposable income to pay for additional costs. This situation will be exacerbated by benefit cuts associated with the UK Government Welfare Reform Bill.

The FSF can provide help with travel costs incurred while attending job interviews but there is no automatic right for an individual to receive this additional financial support. Support is allocated via the Advisor Discretionary Fund (ADF) which may also provide help with childcare and travel for work experience or volunteering. Our evidence suggests there are wide differences, even within a region, in advisor use of the FSF. Oxfam recommends that:

Provision of out of pocket expenses for jobseekers needs to be standardised across JCP offices so that people can expect the same level of support regardless of where they live.

It would be beneficial if expenses such as travel and childcare could be paid direct to the provider to ensure individuals trying to improve their employability are not faced with additional burdens on their already stretched finances.

This will help people take-up personal development opportunities and enhance the likelihood of securing employment.

6. JCP’s Role in Relation to the Rights and Responsibilities of Benefit Claimants

6.1 Conditionality and benefit sanctions

Oxfam believes in the right to enough income to live a life in dignity. Benefits are already very low, both historically, in relation to average earnings and in comparison to the cost of food and fuel. If they are taken away, people literally have nothing left to live on. The threat of destitution should never be used as a tool of public policy.

When someone is unable to work due to insufficient available jobs, illness or caring responsibilities, the state should provide adequate income that reflects the cost of living in the UK. This support should be provided as a right, but it is reasonable to expect people to deliver responsibilities in return for this support.

These responsibilities should be appropriate, reasonable and relevant to each individual’s circumstances and support should be provided as necessary.

They should not be imposed to meet ideologically imposed targets, nor due to misconceptions about why people claim benefits and their lives, nor from a lack of understanding about the challenges of living in poverty in the UK.

The claimant commitment should be a collaborative agreement and not a diktat. All the evidence shows that the transition to work only sticks if working is a rational choice not a punishment. Any responsibilities on a claimant must be matched by responsibilities on the state to provide high quality and personally tailored support. Providing greater autonomy and shared ownership of a work-related activity plan means that the benefits of self-determination are present.

It is not right that vulnerable people are being sanctioned for not meeting what often seem to be disproportionate demands. It is not right that JCP centres are sanctioning people, stopping their benefits and then referring people to volunteer-run food banks simply to survive. Food Banks (such as those run by the Trussell Trust) are charities staffed by volunteers. Foodbanks provide a vital emergency service to people in a short-term crisis but they should never be an alternative to a social security system which is a right and a life-line that we should all be able to access in times of unemployment and crisis.

JCP advisors need to ensure that jobseekers are fully aware of their rights and responsibilities and any flexibilities within the system, for example those for lone parents.

Similarly, the rights and responsibilities of both jobseekers and providers, alongside DWP/JCP Standards of Service, must be extended to contracted-out services such as the Work Programme. There is evidence that practices of Work Programme providers are below standard and inappropriate for example people being contacted at unsociable hours and expected to take up work at short notice and people being threatened with sanctions via text message.

6.2 Evidence of inequality within JCP

Research supported by Oxfam Scotland and undertaken by the Govanhill Law Centre (2011)vi showed that administrative delays, inefficiencies, barriers and inequality are endemic within the UK public authorities, including JCP, charged with administering welfare benefits for Roma European Union (EU) citizens in Glasgow. These administrative failings cause real poverty for some Roma people and represent a fundamental denial of their rights under EU law. Evidence was found of the DWP discriminating against Roma clients in a number of ways, contrary to the Equalities Act 2010, and there was no evidence of the DWP taking positive steps in terms of the 2010 Act to advance equality of opportunity for Roma clients.

In surveys undertaken as part of this research several respondents felt members of staff at their local Jobcentre Plus were racist. Surveys showed that many Roma clients and their advisors felt that they were discriminated against by Jobcentre Plus. Roma respondents advised that staff at their local Jobcentre Plus were rude and often turned them away without assisting them. This position was confirmed in the results of surveys of people working with Roma clients who reported Roma clients being told that they did not want to/were not able to work and refused assistance with job searches.

“At point of initial contact there is not nearly enough language support from the Jobcentre. I think Jobcentre [Plus] have a duty to provide language support. Roma clients have to scramble around to find a friend or advice worker who can accompany them to their appointment and interpret. They often have to rely on someone else and this has an impact on their privacy.”

Oxfam recommends better communication with non-English speaking clients—better access to translators and interpreters. Interpreters should be offered if it is apparent the client does not speak English—shouldn’t wait for client to ask as they might not realise that interpreters are available.

7. The Impacts of Benefit Reforms

7.1 The implications for JCP staff roles of the implementation of Universal Credit

The introduction of Universal Credit will result in JCP staff delivering a more complex role needing an even greater analysis and understanding of their client’s circumstances. Face to face support will become more specialised and will include responsibility for agreeing payment exceptions and referral to budgeting support. Universal Credit is a single household level monthly payment incorporating most other benefits and so it is more important than ever to avoid delays and errors in processing claims. Any error or delay will potentially affect the whole families budget not just one individuals.

The Initial Assessment will need to be adapted and improved to consider factors contributing to the need for alternative payment arrangements and personal budgeting support. It will become even more important that the JCP advisor has a holistic picture of their client’s circumstances.

7.2 Changes to staff roles brought about by the move to “digital by default”

It is clear from Oxfam’s work that face to face support with benefit claims and job search will still be needed for many people. A lack of IT skills often accompanied with a low level of literacy and numeracy or ESOL act as barriers for many people when trying to access JCP online services. Digital inclusion issues prohibit individuals for example, in using Universal Job Match system but support to understand and access this system is currently not available through JCP. There is already evidence of people being sanctioned due to digital inclusion issues. This situation will be exacerbated due to the fact that from 5th April all new and repeat JSA claimants must claim online unless classed as “vulnerable” and the introduction of Universal Credit.

24 May 2013








Prepared 27th January 2014