Work and Pensions CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by John Slater

Summary

1. Jobcentre Plus (JCP) is a monolithic dysfunctional organisation where claimants are seen as an enemy that must be sanctioned at every opportunity. Senior management is completely divorced from the day to day reality of JCP employees. It is culturally and operationally incapable of providing the leadership, compassion, innovation, flexibility, support, management of third party suppliers and professionalism required to deliver the services and roles set out by the Committee. Any organisation that employs over 80,000 people will typically struggle to respond quickly, flexibly and innovatively to change but JCP is at the extreme end of poor in this regard. The Committee needs to consider the current size, structure and leadership of JCP as part of its inquiry.

Submission Main Body

2. I have extensive professional experience of working in large and often multinational companies delivering change programs. JCP exhibits all the typical symptoms of a failing dysfunctional organisation. Senior management is divorced from the day to day reality faced by customer facing staff and this breeds resentment and ultimately failure.

3. Without senior leaders constantly demonstrating the required “culture” (ie this is how we all behave around here) lower level managers and employees working on the front line make it up themselves and this leads to the problems reported recently by The Guardian newspaper. The Guardian exposed sanction targets being set for each JCP building which Ministers and senior management have stated is not official policy and should not be happening. The spreadsheets released to The Guardian by a JCP whistleblower look very professional and are clearly not the product of a lone rogue manager. When was the last time Darra Singh, Robert Devereux, Sue Owen, or Terry Moran1 spent a day on the “front line” really talking to staff and customers? Leaders that inspire really do walk around the business and talk to people.

4. I have worked with a number of public organisations and know senior people who work for large private organisations that have public authorities as key customers. I have talked to a number of senior people who openly laugh at the thought of public bodies managing private companies effectively. Comments are generally along the lines of we just threaten them with the lawyers or tell them it will require a contract change that will cost them a lot and they back off.

5. Based upon my limited experience of JCP and the National Audit Office’s report on how the Atos contract is managed I would suggest that JCP is probably one of the poorer public sector organisations when it comes to commercial management. Large consultancy organisations that work with “customers” such as JCP deliberately blur the lines between organisations and offer “help” with developing policy or dealing with changes. This is a deliberate ploy to allow them to influence the shape of future policy and make their company appear invaluable to the public authority. The goal is to make the public authority believe that they cannot afford to get rid of their company and that it would be in everyone’s interest if they could do other work for the public authority. The sell will always be along of the lines you know us and it means you don’t have to deal with yet another company. JCP does not have the skills or the will to manage small commercial organisations let alone large multinationals.

6. There are clearly issues with normal day to day management of the “business”. A number of people have submitted Freedom of Information Act requests in response to publications and statements made by JCP. These may haven been about a percentage being cited for a particular measure and people asking how the number was derived. Invariably, the response is that the information isn’t held (ie they don’t know) or it answer turns out to be a circular reference to a different document that also simply states the number. If JCP is unable to “do the basics” adequately then it has no chance of coping with the more complex issues.

7. JCP staff and senior management appear to have a total disregard for the law. Whilst most of what the JCP does is based upon primary or secondary legislation they have an unfortunate habit of implementing local policies that have no basis in law. This leaves the Secretary of State open to legal challenge and gives rise to cases such as Reilly and Wilson versus the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2013] EWCA Civ 66. There are numerous examples where JCP is breaching the law in relation to sanctions, preventing claimants recording their business with the JCP. I believe that there are a number of requests for Judicial Reviews underway that will only add to the list of losses for the Secretary of State.

8. A highly pertinent example comes from meeting minutes obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. Minutes of a meeting with Atos revealed a discussion of how to deal with people that “failed to attend” for medical examinations. The suggestions were:

(a)Consider limiting the number of times good cause can be considered—eg two strikes and claim is closed.

(b)Suspend benefit payment until compliance (this could be for FTR too?).

(c)Consider benefit sanction for non-compliance.

(d)BF223 not to be issued by Assessment Centre, but used by Department if outbound call fails or used in electronic format.

(e)Fail to participate cases (under influence of drink/drugs) should be treated as failed to attend.

9. It is clear that there is absolutely no recognition by the people discussing these options that they are dealing with seriously ill human beings. Their focus was solely on “how can we fail their claim”. It must be recognised that absolutely none of the suggestions have a basis in law. In effect someone who is seriously ill and regularly being admitted to hospital could find their benefit terminated because they missed two medical assessments. People who are drug addicts or alcoholics could have their claim purely because of their addictions. If the suggestion related to people suffering from cancer, motor neuron disease, MS, etc I suspect the suggestion would not have made it into the meeting minutes. Another question needs to be asked as to why such discussions are taking place with a company such as Atos?

10. Unfortunately two years ago I became ill and unable to work. While a number of specialists were trying to diagnose by condition I applied for Employment Support Allowance (ESA). In addition to my savings this meant I was able to pay my bills and stay in my home, but only just. Setting the ESA Assessment to one side I was called to attend a work focused interview (WFI) at my local JCP whilst I was appealing a decision (which I won comfortably).

11. My condition means that I frequently suffer with extremely poor bladder and bowel control which can be highly embarrassing. Upon arriving at the JCP I asked if I could use a toilet. The gentleman on reception refused. I explained my situation and that if I did not get to a toilet very soon her was going to see a grown man wet himself. He laughed to my face and told me that “I would just have to cross my legs”. Fortunately I managed to make it across a main road to local council offices where I was allowed to use a toilet.

12. During my WFI I explained how unhappy I was and that I wanted to make a complaint. The advisor ignored me went into what I can only describe as a script that was totally irrelevant to me. When challenged as to what help the JCP could offer me given my academic and professional background she had to admit that there was nothing and that being forced to attend the WFI was in effect a total waste of my time. The whole experience and associated stress exacerbated my illness for several weeks afterwards.

13. I decided to complain about my treatment by the staff at the JCP building. This proved to be a complete farce. I was initially ignored and when forced to address my complaint I was told a pack of lies (this is not an exaggeration). JCP policy was presented as law and no adequate explanation was forthcoming when I proved otherwise. The “final letter” from the Chief Operating Officer’s office was laughable. If a senior executive at any of the multinational companies I have worked for had allowed such a letter to leave their office they would have been dismissed.

14. To date, in relation to my complaint, the Information Commissioner has confirmed that the Freedom of Information Act was breached, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has confirmed that the Equality Act was breached and the Independent Complaint Examiner is investigation a number of other serious issues. One of these is the fact that the adviser has stated that they remembered me and confirmed that I did not complain. Unfortunately, for JCP and the advisor I record all of my dealings with the DWP and JCP and have a clear audio recording of me stating that I wanted to make a formal complaint about my treatment.

15. If JCP is to stand any chance of addressing the points listed by the Committee it requires a complete cultural change. I suggest that JCP staff see claimants as the enemy and their role being to get them off benefits as quickly as possible and by any means.

16. There is compelling anecdotal evidence concerning how JCP employees treat claimants. Whilst this may be anecdotal it is consistent across the many examples published and I suggest cannot be ignored. One lady reports being sanctioned for not applying for certain jobs. It turned out that she didn’t apply for them because they were all managerial positions that she had neither the experience or qualifications for. However, this mattered not to the JCP advisor who proceeded with the sanction. Another person reported being sanctioned for arriving ten minutes late to sign on. He had to walk five miles to the JCP building but this was not good enough for the advisor who sanctioned him. A lady reported that her father died and she didn’t apply for many jobs that week as she was looking after her grieving mother and arranging her father’s funeral. Sadly it appears that we now live in a society where we no longer have sympathy for fellow human beings who have lost a parent, we simply sanction them! This behaviour mirrors the information published by The Guardian Newspaper where advisors were being told to get creative about sanctioning people in order to hit their targets.

17. If JCP put as much effort into genuinely helping people as it does in looking for inventive ways of sanctioning them then perhaps it will have more success. The vast majority of what JCP is supposed to do is based around change. This covers being able to cope with rapid and frequent change due to government policy and facilitating the change necessary by claimants that will enable them to get new jobs. Unfortunately I do not believe that JCP realises this or that it has the necessary leadership and skills to cope with it.

18. It appears to me that JCP has a number of deeply ingrained “corporate beliefs” that will be difficult to change. I suggest that some of these are:

(a)All claimants are lazy benefit scroungers.

(b)Given a choice claimants would rather live on benefits than work.

(c)You cannot trust claimants to do anything unless you are looking over their shoulder.

(d)No matter what the question, the answer if private sector suppliers.

(e)A one size solution is good enough for all claimants.

19. Unless the current set of corporate beliefs and behaviours are changed it doesn’t matter what new policies or changes are introduced the outcomes will remain the same. I suggest that not all claimants are the same and therefore JCP needs to have a different approach for each type. My personal feeling (I accept that this is not backed up by research but I would be prepared to bet it’s not that far out) is that there are broadly the following groups of claimants:

(a)Those that will get new jobs regardless of what help is made available to them via JCP. They are confident, driven and flexible.

(b)Those that desperately want to work but for a number of reasons (loss of confidence and self belief possibly due to the sheer scale of rejection that have experienced) don’t know what to do anymore and to some degree have given up. I suspect that this is the biggest group and ranges from people that with a little of the right kind of short-term focused support will prosper to those that require longer term help.

(c)Those that have never worked and the tiny minority that appear to have decided that they are going to live on benefits for life.

20. I suggest that JCP needs to understand the different groups and the type of support that each requires. If this is to be done properly some difficult questions need to be asked and real-world answers agreed upon.

21. It could be that for group (a) above JCP simply leaves them alone for six months, unless they specifically ask for help, as the majority are likely to have found a new job in that time. If, after six months, they haven’t found a job then focused help can be provided.

22. For group (b) above I suspect that they will require a range of interventions. Some will be aimed as rebuilding their self belief and self worth and possibly being sent of genuinely helpful training course or job placements. The interventions must be aimed at helping them to recognise the skills they have and the best types of jobs to apply for. It mustn’t be forgotten that some people may in the position where they haven’t ever had to write a CV and haven’t had to apply for a job for over 20 years. Why should we assume that all people have an innate ability to be effective in the current job market?

23. I suspect that group (c) will be the hardest to deal with. They probably won’t have academic or vocational qualifications and won’t have ever worked. If JCP truly wants to get people from this group back to work it will require intervention from a range of specialists able to address psychological and practical problems that are specific to each claimant. I suspect that the cost of genuinely helping this group will be significantly more in the short to medium term than the benefits they receive. There needs to be a genuine political will to want to help these people. If JCP starts out on a programme to help and then simply gives up because it’s too hard or too expensive it will only serve to reinforce the beliefs of claimants that led them to remain unemployed in the first place.

24. JCP and to some degree the Government itself need to address the mantra of “whatever the question the private sector is the answer”. The goal of any private sector company is to make a profit and there is nothing wrong with that. If private sector companies contracted to get people into work are paid a set fee upfront and then a success fee when people obtain and stay in employment their focus will be profit and not helping claimants. Companies will look for and focus on “quick wins”. These will be people were they don’t need to do very much and will therefore provide the biggest return. I suspect these claimants will come from group (a).

25. For all other claimants the companies will assess what chance they have of getting them into work. If the cost of doing this exceeds what they are being paid (even with the success fee) they will either spend up to a financial limit that is less than they have been paid already and then stop or not bother in the first place. I believe that evidence of this happening with current JCP suppliers has been reported to reputable current affairs TV programmes.

26. It must be recognised that private sector suppliers to JCP are selling when the talk about the services that they can offer. I suggest that the people within JCP that deal with contracts need to be more cynical about what is being offered. If it is as easy as these suppliers claim to get people into work then why are so many people unemployed?

27. I suggest that there is another issue that needs to be considered with private sector suppliers. If one looks at the board of directors and senior management teams of suppliers there are clearly not people who have experienced extended periods of unemployment. In fact they invariably have highly marketable skills and experience. I think it is fair to ask how can companies genuinely help people if those running them are not able to relate to what claimants are experiencing? I come from a working class background where my parents frequently had two jobs each and I can remember hiding because the “man from the Pru” was knocking at the door and my Mother didn’t have the money to pay him. However, I wouldn’t be so arrogant to claim that I can understand the issues and problems faced by the long term unemployed because I haven’t experienced it. I haven’t had to deal with the impact of receiving 100’s if not 1,000’s of rejection letters or simply receiving nothing at all.

10 May 2013

1 Terry Moran, formerly chief operation officer at the Department for Work and Pensions and Senior Responsible Owner for Universal Credit

Prepared 27th January 2014