Work and Pensions CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Sunderland City Council

Executive Summary

In this written submission, Sunderland City Council has attempted to contribute to the Inquiry from its experience in each of the subject areas identified. Our concerns are primarily about the practical implications at local of recent changes and the fairness with which procedures are being applied. We also question whether Jobcentre Plus (JCP) ability to act as a strategic contributor locally has been changed at all as a result of the changes within the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

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.We believe that it is right for JCP to act as a gateway to the Work Programme, however we are concerned about the well-reported and ongoing failure of the programme to meet expectations.

2.We believe that as much expertise lies with some JCP and local authority staff, with regard to tackling the traditional JCP customer groups’ employment needs and barriers to employment as it does with some of the contractors engaged to deliver the Work Programme. We would echo calls for more engagement with local authorities in order to deliver effective outcomes than have been achieved to date.

3.We also welcome initiatives such as the Universal Credit Support Services Framework, as an attempt to start to address some “non work issues” for specific customer groups, but also believe that JCP has further to go for instance in ensuring that some staff are aware of and follow agreed procedures—such as Working with Representatives/Implied Consent.

4.The recent transfer of Crisis Loans and Community Care Grant budgets and responsibilities for meeting these needs highlighted significant problems in the training and awareness cascaded to front line DWP/JCP staff, in terms of their responsibilities and those of local authorities in relation to grants that remained with the DWP and those needs that the council could meet. JCP staff were not familiar with Short Term Benefit Advances or Budget Advances or, if they were, did not offer them appropriately and instead referred all applicants to local councils.

5.Gateshead Council has been liaising directly with contacts at DWP regarding this problem which is also being experienced by neighbouring authorities. The following extract from the JCP’s response to these concerns illustrates why our concerns remain.

6.“Right now the main issue is how quickly we respond to your concerns to make your life easier and the customer experience better for everyone.”

7.“This is a major cultural change for our staff (as well as yours) and trying to assist them in understanding that neither Short Term Benefit Advances (STBA) nor the Local Authority provision are crisis loans by another name is very difficult and will take time to establish. Also ensuring that our staff provide the correct responses to enquiries and that the right options are explored is part of that, and we do have an extensive checking regime in place which will gradually ensure such occurrences are considerably reduced. I will look to see what activities we could undertake to speed this process of understanding up as quickly as possible.”

8.This lack of training and understanding of the changes in the system has placed councils under additional pressure and issues are only now in process of being resolved. Given that this is only a small scheme compared to Universal Credit, we are concerned about the level of training which will be given to DWP staff, in order to support these bigger transitions.

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.

9.We believe that it is right for JCP to continue to manage these responsibilities. We are concerned, however, over reports of formal or informal sanction targets being applied to JCP offices and individual staff in relation to performance reviews. We believe that sanctions should only be applied to individuals where appropriate and would welcome these figures (post 22 October 2012 and the introduction of the new sanctions regime) being made available again. We are aware of some individual decisions to sanction people that do not appear appropriate.

10.We believe any lessons from this extension of timescales and powers should be learnt prior to introducing the new conditionality framework into Universal Credit.

11.We are also concerned that customers who are sanctioned have a 15 day waiting period before they can claim a Hardship Allowance. Some customers who then try to apply for Hardship Allowance are also incorrectly being referred to councils to claim Crisis Support. Most councils are not giving out cash payments and, just as importantly, customers who were sanctioned could not previously apply for Crisis Loans when it was the DWP scheme. We would question why customers are now being advised differently.

Supporting a flexible labour market, including: JCP’s effectiveness in matching jobseekers to suitable job vacancies, including through the introduction of Universal Jobmatch; whether JCP is sufficiently focused on sustained job outcomes as well as off-benefit flows and how this is, or should be, measured; and employers’ assessment of the effectiveness of JCP as a recruitment partner.

12.We believe that it is right for JCP to act in support of a flexible labour market. There have been concerns raised however over the ability of JCP staff to support those it refers to as its “non traditional clients” (eg those with higher skills and knowledge levels) back into employment. With the growth in public sector job losses and the reporting of previous issues, this should be a priority

13.It is also clear that Universal Job Match needs further refinement—issues have been reported with regard to the appropriateness or otherwise of some of the vacancies (eg for multi level marketing positions rather than jobs) and that some of the entries are for data gathering purposes or recruitment firms, rather than actual jobs.

14.This system needs to be secure and trusted by both jobseekers and employers—especially given its increasing importance and the apparent compulsion for the former to use it.

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.

15.As detailed above, we believe that staff within JCP have not always been able to address the needs and aspirations of its non-traditional customer base (eg some of those with higher or specialised skills and knowledge that have recently become unemployed). We have some concerns about how well staff will manage the extension of support to people that it currently does not need to engage with as much as it will in the future (eg those in receipt of Working Tax Credit, some disabled people and carers).

16.We believe that people working more than 16 hours per week (eg those currently receiving Working Tax Credit) should be offered support to increase their hours where appropriate. However we do not believe this should be compulsory.

The governance of JCP, including: whether ending the executive agency status of JCP, and bringing it under the central control of a single DWP Chief Operating Officer, has brought about efficiencies and streamlined management as intended; and the potential for more radical future changes to JCP.

17.While it remains unclear at local level whether the scrapping of agency status for JCP has brought about the planned efficiencies, what is clear is that it has had little impact upon the ability of DWP or JCP to respond to local circumstances. Indeed, it is puzzling that services for workless individuals have undergone a high degree of centralisation of control when all other public services are being either instructed or encouraged to become localised and therefore more responsive.

24 May 2013

Prepared 27th January 2014