Committee of Public Accounts: Press Notice


Publication of 56th Report of Session 2006-07

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

“Personal Advisers are generally doing a good job in guiding and assisting people looking for work. The trouble is that they currently spend some half of their time bogged down with unnecessary administrative work or having to cope with needless interruptions and broken appointments.

“It’s up to Jobcentre Plus to give advisers the kind of working environment and support facilities (including an IT system that makes life easier not harder) to enable them to increase their face-to-face time with customers. Providing advisers with administrative help has been a step forward. It would be counterproductive if such backroom support were to fall foul of future initiatives to reduce costs or staff numbers. The more time advisers can spend getting people into work, the greater the contribution they can make to saving public money.”

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 56th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Work and Pensions, examined the effectiveness of advisers; how customers are helped to meet their responsibilities; and improving the customer experience.

Personal Advisers assess the needs of people looking for work and point them towards the right kind of assistance needed to find a job. In 2005-06, Jobcentre Plus had 9,300 Advisers of different types at a salary cost of £238 million. Between them, they conducted 10.8 million jobseeker interviews for a wide range of different clients including lone parents, older workers and people on incapacity benefits. They are also the gateway to the various New Deal programmes, which collectively have cost £5 billion since 1997, and they have a responsibility to ensure that those on benefits who are required to do so are actively seeking work.

Research evidence from a range of independent sources such as the OECD suggests that proactive approaches to tackling unemployment such as using personal advisers are associated with improvements in unemployment levels, and research with customers suggests that advisers are viewed as valuable in identifying work and training, and in building up confidence. The employment rate in the United Kingdom has risen over the past decade and is fairly stable at around 74-75%, the highest in the G7 group of countries.

The Government aims to increase the employment rate to 80%, which has never been achieved before and will require many more of the harder-to-help (in particular, those on Incapacity Benefits) to enter employment. Personal Advisers will be crucial for achieving this and demands for their services are likely to increase under the proposals outlined in the Welfare Reform Bill, in particular, the reform of incapacity benefits. To be able to meet the demand Jobcentre Plus has introduced diary support officers to take administrative work from advisers. The agency also expects to outsource two-thirds of any additional work generated by the reforms.

The advisers’ main role is to help people find work. Their effectiveness depends on the extent to which they spend time advising customers. Currently advisers spend only 52% of their time in face-to-face interviews with customers, which is significantly less than for advisers in benchmarked organisations overseas and in the private and voluntary sectors. Advisers currently average 28 interviews a week, although Jobcentre Plus aims, where appropriate, to increase this to 35 a week, or 65% of time spent with customers. Interviews last from 20 minutes to an hour (with an average of 41 minutes), depending on the particular programme the customer is part of and what stage of looking for work they have reached.

While some of the Personal Adviser time that is not spent with customers is appropriately used on training, additional tasks and necessary paperwork, there remains a proportion that is wasted waiting for clients to turn up and on unnecessary, repetitious and burdensome administrative tasks that could be simplified or delegated. For example, 89% of the advisers surveyed experienced telephone or personal interruptions during interviews with customers once a day or more; around 14% of interviews are missed when the customer fails to turn up, costing an estimated £16 million each year; call centre errors and benefit payment delays add time consuming and unwelcome tasks to adviser workload; and IT systems can be slow and cumbersome and some parts do not have basic functionality that would be expected in a modern office.

Some 24% of the gains to 2008 from the Government’s Efficiency Programme are expected to come from increases in the productive time of staff. Improving the amount of time personal advisers spend with customers is a key element in helping Jobcentre Plus achieve its efficiency targets and in helping it to be effective in achieving its organisational objectives of helping people find work.