IEP’s Vice Chair, Keith Faulkner CBE FIEP, gave oral evidence in the summer and called for wider sharing of expertise and a commitment to professional advice from Jobcentre Plus. We are quoted in the report arguing that accreditation and formal training provision would be appropriate for Work Coaches given their responsibilities as public servants supporting people with complex needs.
The Committee expressed grave concerns over both the challenges faced by Work Coaches in Jobcentre Plus, and the flagship Work and Health Programme. Committee Chair Frank Field said “The government is basing the future for the new Job Centre Plus advisers on too narrow a financial and administrative base. It is in danger of missing this opportunity to create a world-class first in respect of its job advisers, and a world-leading employment support programme for disabled people in Job Centre Pluses, by not thinking through the demands to be made on what is, in reality, the same old system financed by a much reduced budget.’
Against a backdrop of a much changed labour market, the 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, mental health conditions, and the long-term unemployed. Previously, many of these claimants would have been supported outside JCP, through the contracted-out Work Programme and Work Choice. Whether the employment support that the Department offers to these claimants is successful will largely depend on its Work Coaches – front-line support staff. The Committee identifies several concerns about this approach:
Work Coaches will increasingly have to provide positive coaching and address claimants’ barriers to work, yet many claimants currently view Coaches as “policemen” due to their role in administering sanctions: two potentially conflicting roles;
Work Coaches will be generalists who support claimants with a wide range of needs. However, addressing their claimants’ barriers to work requires specialist skills and knowledge that many Work Coaches currently lack, and have little incentive to develop;
To compensate for their lack of specialism, Work Coaches will be increasingly required to identify and refer their claimants to appropriate external support: for example, from charities and third parties. This, in itself, requires a level of specialist knowledge.
The requirement to refer to third-party support, alongside the more complex caseloads and extended support role, will place increasing pressure on claimants’ appointment times with Work Coaches.
The Committee is also concerned about the “manifold reduction” in external support that the Work and Health Programme represents. It will have a budget of £554m over its lifetime: substantially less than the estimated £1.5bn that was spent on disability employment through the Work Programme and Work Choice it replaces. Witnesses told the Committee that this reduction in programme capacity meant that many of those who might benefit from participating would be unable to access it. Given the Government’s pledge to halve the disability employment gap, this is a disappointing development.
Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “The success of the Department’s approach will depend on supporting people who, in many cases, are long term unemployed or have substantial health issues back into work. Many of these may have seen Jobcentres as enforcement agencies, and their staff as police, and have been poorly served in the past. Instead of building on examples of successful programmes such as Work Choice, the Department is overseeing a massive reduction in the spending on the replacement Work and Health Programme. Compensating for this will require a massive cultural shift and practical shift in JCP, enabling it to become a place that supports real progress to, and in, work. We are not convinced that JCPs and Work Coaches will have the necessary resources, skills and expertise to do this, and especially not at the rapid and ambitious pace that the DWP is expecting.
ERSA have said that “The report raises significant concerns around the capacity and skills of Work Coaches to help jobseekers find work. Although JCP will be expected to provide increasingly specialist employment support moving forward, it is currently moving towards a more generalist model for its Work Coaches. With Work Coaches also expected to increase their caseloads, and with no real clarity of how many Work Coaches are even needed, it will be challenging to deliver the appropriate level of specialist advice and support required for a diverse range of jobseekers.”
Many organisations raised concerns about JCP’s ability to adapt and to deliver good quality employment support. The report rightly underlines a lack of a contingency plan for any labour market downturn, as well as pointing out that there is a need for much better measures of progress. To reflect the changing role of JCP, its measures of progress must include getting people into appropriate and sustainable employment.
Speaking in response to the report, IEP Chairman, Scott Parkin FIEP, said ‘the IEP is committed to developing a culture that encourages the public, private and voluntary sector to share their best practice and that we should be improving our services and challenging each other to deliver the best possible service to the people we support.’
The Work and Pensions Select Committee Report on the Future of Jobcentre Plus can be viewed here