As I was on the way out of Department for Work and Pensions (on health grounds), the District Manager for the District in which I worked changed. When I returned to work in early 2013 she made a point of coming to say hello. She was that sort of manager.
She had worked in the District before and knew the patch well. She was (and I assume still is) nobody’s fool. She was also the sort of boss who would back you to the hilt if you were doing your job to the best of your ability. Moreover, she would back you up even if, for the best of reasons you had made a mistake. You just had to make sure you confessed what you had done straight away and not try to pull the wool over her eyes. A joy to work for and someone who thought maintaining a good life/work (think about it) balance was more than just a slogan. The sort of person you would follow to hell and back, but not to see just how quickly it took them to get lost.
Unsurprisingly, as someone who liked to see and be seen, she went around the Jobcentres in the District to get a feel as to how they were functioning. One shocking fact she discovered was that many staff no longer knew how to refer people for jobs. It was not just that they were not ringing up employers to sell jobseekers to them, but they did not know how to do it. I must stress that submitting someone to a job properly is an art in itself, particularly given the need to be able to conduct a three way discussion; comply with various protocols, including the Equality Act 2010 and present the jobseeker before you in the best possible light, perhaps even being a little economical with the actualité! Your job is to get the person in front of you in front of the employer.
I am not sure whether any action was taken after these fact finding visits. I am fairly sure that the learning and development provided by DWP (mostly on line these days) would not address the issue. You need a mixture of formal training, formal and informal mentoring to become effective at conducting diagnostic interviews. Only after one has reached a diagnosis of what is preventing someone finding a job and, crucially agreed it with them may one then advise that person about the help available to them. Simply calling someone a Work Coach, after they have worked through a few online courses, sounds to me like a pathetic attempt to convince the coaches (and their clients) that they are engaged in activity of some value. It also sounds dreadfully like another cheap, in all senses of the word, import from the good old US of A.
Submitting someone to a job might form part of a diagnostic interview, but not always and neither would one expect it to involve on all occasions referring people to help such as jobsearch support, Work Trials, training, education, work experience and specialist services. An interview should not have a pre-determined outcome. Although when I was an adviser, we used to conduct In Work Benefit Calculations as a matter of course. Today they are called Better Off (In Work) Calculations. You will notice the less than subtle change of emphasis there. We used to start by checking whether or not a client’s current entitlement matched the payments they were receiving and then looked at the wage level at which one would be better off in work, taking into account additions like Family Credit and additional costs, for example having to pay for school meals and the cost of travelling to work. Incidentally, it was not unusual to come across under payments or cases where deductions had continued beyond the point where they should have ceased, but fairly rare to come across over payments.
I recall that in our patch, taking into account rent levels and Council Tax bands, a single person with no dependants needed a gross of £140.00 per week to be about £10 or so above their income break even point. We recommended that, but some people took jobs paying less to get off the dole and into work. Sometimes because overtime would be available, though of course not guaranteed. Sometimes because after three months their hourly rate would go up. And sometimes because of an example of Family Credit downgrade avoidance that was legal, but of course only mentioned in passing after we learnt about it from one of our clients! The print outs we provided from our calculations included in work figures going up in £10 bands and you quite often actually saw the poverty trap band therein. A point in the calculations where the total in work income fell back to the level below the previous one before resuming its rise above that level.
My old boss got moved sideways last year. I leave you to make up your own mind as to whether her sideways move was connected to her taking to her own home, over a weekend, a member of staff presenting as suicidal. Old school, my ex boss and pickled in the public service ethos, came up through the ranks, cared for her staff and about what Jobcentres were supposed to be about. Since May 2010 many like her have gone sick, found other jobs, taken a redundancy package, kept their heads down, in anticipation of retirement or been moved sideways. I gather this has been happening across the Civil Service and elsewhere in the public sector. Now is not the time to say, “Yes, Minister, but …”.
I personally believe that the rot set in when the Benefits Agency took over the Employment Service. We were told it was a merger, but they significantly outnumbered us in staff numbers and over time ever greater adherence to the (Social Security) rules has taken precedence over the (Employment Service) guidelines. So much easier to sanction someone off the register than help them into work. Moreover, the Employment Service existed to help bring employers and all jobseekers together. I stress all because employed people used to come into Jobcentres to find work as did people on benefits not requiring them to look for work, but who wanted jobs; students; househusbands and housewives; schoolchildren (when did you say you are sitting your examinations?) and people of pension age. All the world used to pass through the Jobcentre, including ex bank managers and Tory MPs! Big crop of the latter in 1997.
Neil Couling, quite often the face of DWP in front of Select Committees and the media, said last year that if the same level of sanctions being deployed today had been the standard in the late 1980s then unemployment would not have reached the level it had back then. I was an adviser for part of that time in an open plan Jobcentre (with no security guards) whilst Mr Couling was in a DHSS office well away from the public. I bumped into a friend and colleague from those days a month or so before Christmas and she said, interestingly, perhaps we were a bit lax. That comment made me wonder if the wise words of Couling are cascaded within DWP via its Intranet. However, she went on to say that these days all we are doing is sanctioning people.
Yes, Jobcentres have become sanctions factories with 10 minute interviews for those on JSA and 20 for those on ESA being the norm now. It was 30 minutes on average when I was an Adviser with 45 minutes for a New Claim interview. I say average because if someone was tootling along fine then that left more time to see someone else. No need to give someone 30 minutes, if they did not warrant it and we used to see people without appointments between times, for example lone parents. We had a good reputation in our local community. A contention partly supported by the fact that as our Jobcentre was not on a high street then clients, like lone parents and people on Incapacity Benefit had to go out of their way to come and see us.
My friend is old school too. We knew back then who was doing their damnedest to look for work, the vast majority; who were the loveable rogues, the jack the lads, the fly boys and the chancers, all of whom were harmless, but needed the odd reminder, usually just the mention of a sanction, about being available for and actively seeking work. And we knew who the toe rags were too. Thankfully a tiny group, but still able to cause a lot of stress to all around them, other jobseekers included, out of all proportion to their numbers. The only group you could never empathise with were the toe rags. The rogues et al often provided colour on a boring day as did the harmless eccentrics, one of whom was a nymphomaniac. Perhaps we might have been tougher with the toe rags, but probably that would have meant coming down hard on the ones no one else would touch.
In one case we would have been treading where the police, Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise, the Department of Transport and Trading Standards would not tread, unless they could put the gang in question behind bars for a long time. I would like to have seen Mr Couling sanction one of that band in an open plan office and live to recount what he had done. I do look forward to him receiving his P45 in recognition of his contribution towards the development, implementation and roll out of Universal Credit. Now that would be a new claim to take!