The future of Jobcentre Plus

Jobcentre Plus is undergoing substantial change. In a report released last week, the Work and Pensions Committee identified concerns over both the role of JCP’s Work Coaches in the new system, and the capacity of the flagship Work and Health Programme to meet the needs of claimants.

Against the backdrop of a changed labour market, the much-delayed roll-out of Universal Credit and the scaling down of contracted-out welfare-to-work programmes, JCP will be expected to provide employment support to a broader and more challenging caseload of claimants, including those with disabilities and the long-term unemployed. Many of these claimants would, previously, have been supported outside JCP, through the contracted-out Work Programme or Work Choice.

Disabled people tended to fare badly on the Work Programme (just 1 in 7 ESA participants moved into work, compared to 1 in 4 JSA participants) but much better on the specialist Work Choice scheme, where 59% of participants moved into work in 2014/15.

Disappointingly, the Department will not be building on this success. The replacement Work and Health Programme represents a manifold reduction in support that has alarmed charities, employment support providers, and disabled people-led organisations alike. It will have a budget of just £554m over its lifetime for all categories of claimant: much less than the estimated £1 billion spent on disabled people alone in Work Programme and Work Choice up to 2016. Many of those who could benefit from participation will not be able to access the new programme. This decision is doubly disappointing given the Government’s commitment to halving the disability employment gap.

The DWP’s success in supporting claimants into and in work will, therefore, depend largely on JCP Work Coaches: front-line support staff. Doubt remains, however, as to whether they and JCP are culturally and practically equipped to rise to the challenge.

One cultural challenge is that, all too often, JCP is seen by claimants as an enforcement agency, with Work Coaches as its “police”, due to their role in sanctions and applying conditionality. They will now be expected to provide more extensive support and coaching, including discussing claimants’ barriers to work, which may be very personal. These are potentially conflicting roles.

Work Coaches will need appropriate guidance and leadership to balance these roles. More widely, the Department needs to show it has claimants’ best interests at heart. This includes getting its performance measures right: it should go substantially beyond measuring “off flow” from benefits, instead considering whether claimants sustain employment, and whether those further from employment are being helped towards work. Work Coach performance should also be appraised in terms of their success in helping claimants to move into work, and to progress in work.

The Department’s decision to follow a generalist Work Coach model, while at the same time taking on claimants with more complex needs, presents a major practical challenge. To compensate for their lack of specialist skills, Work Coaches are encouraged to refer claimants to external support. Identifying barriers and making the right referrals, however, requires specialist knowledge in itself. Currently, Work Coaches have little incentive to develop this.

There is, therefore, a clear case for some Work Coaches to take on and work directly with smaller numbers of claimants with more specialist needs — not only disabled people, but homeless people, care leavers, self-employed people and so on. Others can retain a larger caseload of claimants who are expected to more into work relatively quickly and easily. The additional skills of specialist Coaches should be reflected in higher pay: something not offered by the current Disability Employment Adviser role.

The Department’s intention of improving support for people left behind in existing welfare programmes is very welcome, as is its willingness to try innovative models of support. Compensating for the decision not to build on existing successful models will, however, require a massive cultural and practical shift in JCP. The doubt remains as to whether JCPs and Work Coaches have the resources, skills and expertise to do this, especially at the rapid pace that the DWP is expecting. Without significant training, preparation and resources, it may be simply front-loading this brave new world for failure.

Rt Hon Frank Field MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee