The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
“On its own, the number of people who stop claiming benefits is a flawed measure of how effective jobcentres are. In 40 per cent of cases, jobcentres do not know whether those who have stopped claiming have actually found work or not.
“The DWP needs to be clear how it will measure the performance of jobcentres under Universal Credit and understand what happens to claimants. The Department needs this information to see whether its interventions are achieving a long-term reduction in the number claiming benefits. At present 40 per cent of individuals reclaim benefit within 6 months with 60 per cent reclaiming within 2 years.
“Claimants who don’t look for work should face consequences. But there is a risk that sanctions unfairly penalize the most vulnerable claimants, particularly those with mental health problems. Those at risk of sanctions should be given a written warning. The Department also needs to monitor by claimant group and jobcentre how many claimants are being penalized.
“Jobcentres should have a degree of flexibility to deal with local priorities but the DWP does not know enough about what works and why. Information is needed on how different jobcentres are managing their caseloads so that good practice can be identified and disseminated.
“Local flexibility also opens up the possibility that harder to help claimants, such as those with disabilities, get ‘parked’. The Department needs to look closely at its ability to support disabled claimants, particularly given that these groups suffer poor outcomes under the Work Programme.
“Jobcentres will have to cater for new claimant groups as a consequence of the introduction of Universal Credit. People will also increasingly manage benefit claims and job searches online. Some claimants will inevitably struggle, which will increase the burden on third parties such as libraries and Citizens Advice. But these services are themselves under severe pressure. The DWP should make sure that vulnerable claimants have the help they need.”
Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 5th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Work and Pensions and Citizens Advice, examined responding to change in jobcentres.
The Department for Work and Pensions (the Department) is responsible for the management of jobcentres which play a central role in helping people into employment. In 2011-12, the network of 740 jobcentres cost £1.4 billion to operate, with nearly 37,000 staff helping 3.5 million people to leave Jobseeker’s Allowance and setting up around 3.6 million new claims. Jobcentres coped well with the higher claimant numbers and increased demand for their services during the economic downturn.
The number of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants increased from 0.9 million in September 2008 to 1.5 million in March 2009 and has remained broadly constant since then. Jobcentres responded to the increased demand for their services by prioritising checks over eligibility for benefits and making sure that payments were processed, while adjusting other services such as the proportion of work-focused interviews and the issuing of sanctions.
The Department measures the performance of jobcentres by the number of people that stop claiming benefits. The Department does not measure, however, how many people each jobcentre has helped into work or have a complete understanding of why claimants have left the benefit system. Yet the Department does know that around 40% of individuals claim benefits again within six months and around 60% claim again within two years.
Clearly there should be consequences for claimants who do not meet their obligations to look for work. The focus on how many people stop claiming benefits, however, raises the risk that jobcentres may unfairly apply sanctions to encourage claimants off the register. Citizens Advice has seen a sharp rise in enquiries from people needing advice about sanctions applied by their jobcentres, particularly from vulnerable claimants. The Department acknowledges the difficulties of ensuring that sanctions are applied consistently.
We welcome the principle that jobcentres should have some flexibility to determine the best way to support claimants in their local area. But the Department lacks the information it needs to challenge performance effectively, learn what works in what circumstances, and so improve value for money. For example, there is a wide variation in the way jobcentres’ district managers choose to deploy personal advisers and assistant advisers and the extent to which administrative tasks are split, but there has been little evaluation to understand what models are working best and why.
Local flexibility also raises the scope for jobcentres to ‘park’ harder to help claimants such as those with disabilities. The Department’s own evaluation of jobcentre services found that Employment and Support Allowance claimants were getting a worse service than those on Jobseeker’s Allowance.
Jobcentres will need to adapt their services to cater for new claimant groups as a consequence of the introduction of Universal Credit and in response to people increasingly managing their benefit claims and job searches online. Some claimants will inevitably struggle to understand their responsibilities and may find it difficult to deal with online applications.
DWP has a responsibility to ensure that more vulnerable individuals are able to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. It is not acceptable to depend solely on libraries and Citizens Advice when local advice services are already stretched.