The Department for Work and Pensions launched its White Paper on the Universal Credit last week. One of its most heavily trailed elements was the increase in sanctions for those who fail to seek or find work (on top of the already announced automatic sanction of 10% of Housing Benefit for those on Jobseeker’s Allowance for more than a year).
The White Paper wants to introduce the power for advisers to remove people’s benefits for periods ranging between one week and three years. When advisers believe that claimants would ‘benefit from experiencing the habits and routines of working life’ they will have the power to mandate them to four weeks of compulsory work activity. And advisers will also be able to
“require some jobseekers to attend their local office more frequently to demonstrate the steps they have been taking to return to work; require some people to broaden their job search earlier in their claim; and raise the number of steps they expect a customer to take in any week to have the best prospects of finding work”.
There’s little evidence that these proposals will help those out of work to find jobs, given that there are currently over five jobseekers for every vacancy. But work on Community Links’ Deep Value project, which is examining the importance of effective one to one relationships in public services, suggests that giving advisers more power to sanction claimants may in fact make employment programmes less effective.
The literature review we are undertaking as part of this project shows that the relationship between the Personal Adviser and the claimant is one of the most important elements of welfare to work programmes. As a 2007 review for the DWP of ‘what works for whom’ concluded:
“Friendly staff, welcoming accommodation and a sense of shared purpose are not just desirable rather cosmetic aspects of provision but may be essential elements in the effectiveness or otherwise of provision….a key to effective provision would appear to be for Jobcentre Plus and programme providers to engage effectively with customers and to ‘buy in’ to any provision to which they are referred.”
Developing an effective relationship between a personal adviser and a client requires trust, and collaboration. It’s not clear that this trust can survive the adviser’s decision to require someone to undertake unpaid work activity, or to leave them without benefit for a month. Research already shows that Jobcentre Plus Advisers, who have to police the benefit system, find it less easy to establish effective relationships than those in Employment Zones (currently the Flexible New Deal, soon to be the Work Programme…) who have more autonomy, and are further away from the system of sanctions.
Every welfare reform over the past ten years has trumpeted the need to ‘get tough on welfare’ and to ‘return’ to Beveridge’s aim of ensuring that there is always an incentive to take paid work. But examination of what has actually been going on in employment programmes suggests that it’s when advisers have treated claimants as individuals, and with respect, that they’ve had the most success. Greater sanctions could jeopardise the very thing that makes these programmes work.