From the TUC

Sanctions administered by Jobcentre advisors will undermine reform

15 Nov 2010, by in Labour market, Society & Welfare

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.

GUEST POST: Kate Bell is Research and Development Co-ordinator on Community Links‘ Deep Value Project. Prior to this, she was Director of Policy, Advice and Communications at Gingerbread, the charity working for and with single parent families, to improve their lives.

3 Responses to Sanctions administered by Jobcentre advisors will undermine reform

  1. Clare Fernyhough
    Nov 15th 2010, 11:14 am

    Firstly, concerning claimants visiting the jobcentre more regularly, I costed JSA for my own circumstances and if I covered basic untilities, without food, I would have exactly £1 left (the ‘heating or eating trap’). It costs £3.40 to get to my jobcentre; I couldn’t afford to get there once, never mind on a number of occaions during a week.

    Can you imagine how demoralizing it would be to be put on a work programme earning just £65 per week? I presume they would have to find your transport costs, but with such a small amount for food, where will the participants get the physical strength from?

    Concerning the jobcentre staff, all the barriers were taken down at our jobcentre and the place was indeed a much nicer environment. They achieved this firstly by making people apply for claims on the telephone; reducing ‘face to face’ enquiries helped avoid violent incidents. Staff were also retrained and became far more empathetic and respectful of claimants. If these officers are now going to be part of a system that penalises individuals and families, we may see a return to the days when staff were targeted and were in danger.

    When I watched the parliament debate about this however, IDS seemed to suggest that benefit officers will be free to use their discretion concerning any sanctions so that those who have genuinely been looking for work where work does not exist, do not lose any income.

    One thing for sure is that incentives to work should be that work actually pays and pays well, not that the only incentive to work is that the alternative is abject poverty.

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    Nov 15th 2010, 11:53 am

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    […] Bell, who is programme manager of our Deep Value project, has a guest post on the TUC’s Touchstone blog today. It suggests that asking Jobcentre advisors to impose […]

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