Policy Exchange’s new report “Joined Up Welfare” addresses the crucial question of how public services can support people into sustainable employment in a more flexible, holistic and joined up way. Those who are familiar with Community Links’ work will recognise this as an issue that we have frequently grappled with – through our work on Deep Value and early action approaches – and this question continues to be a focus of our ongoing research into the impacts of welfare reform and the quality of welfare to work support.
Policy Exchange’s report looks at the structural reasons why “the current welfare system does not deal with [jobseekers’] overlapping problems from the beginning of the process”. In particular it finds that “siloed” government budgets prevent a cross-cutting approach, that the absence of “single, clear, and central point of contact” for jobseekers means that a piecemeal approach remains; and that a lack of local information “stymies coordination”. These issues resonate with findings from our policy and research work: we’ve found “siloed” budgets can undermine a longer-term preventative approach, and we agree with the need for better join-up between benefits and employment support – a single point of contact would be a great improvement.
Based on this analysis, a central recommendation of Policy Exchange’s report is to split up the Jobcentre into its two constituent parts. The first would be a central hub administering benefits which could refer people into specialised provision from a range of voluntary and private sector providers while remaining a single point of contact for overarching issues. The second part – the employment support of the Jobcentre Plus currently provides – would be formed into a mutual which would be able to compete with said voluntary and private provision. This is similar to the model which has been attempted recently with probation – with limited success for former state providers who have struggled to find the financial backing to run stringent payment-by-results contracts.
The right of the Tory party has reportedly jumped on this as a chance to call for the closure of all job centres. But the idea of splitting up their role has found more widespread support. Labour MP David Lammy has welcomed the suggestion, saying that we need “radical reform of an institution that in its current form is not fit for purpose”. We know the value of diverse, specialised employment support provided by local partners with in-depth knowledge of local labour markets. Policy Exchange promotes this, though our experience of delivering the Work Programme shows how hard it can be to commission this support without forcing out smaller providers. We are also very aware of the negative view many claimants have towards Jobcentres, which is due, at least in part, to its dual role. People feel the fact that JCP staff are ‘holding the purse-strings’ on their benefits poses a barrier to real support to get into jobs. In the words of one man:
“[Jobcentre Plus] says it’s supposed to support you, but fundamentally it’s an administrative centre. They want you to go in, and they want a rubber stamp on what you are doing in order to give you money”.
The jobcentre is only now undergoing the types of reforms which have led to more person-focused, tailored support in other sectors – health and social care for example. It continues to operate a largely top-down and – according to many people we work with – disempowering service, although recent changes such as the introduction of the Claimant Commitment could begin to change this. Policy Exchange’s report has provided a useful addition to calls – including recently from the Work and Pensions Select Committee - for an urgent rethinking of the role of the jobcentre. But it is the suggestion that the job centre should be transformed into a “Citizens’ Support Centre” which offers perhaps the greatest opportunity for transformative change. This would be a central hub covering a range of needs: not just the classic employment barriers but underlying issues of debt, mental health, housing, or anything else. It could address the problem that our research has found of people feeling passed from pillar to post between different forms of statutory and contracted support.
The suggestion made me wonder whether this model could then be taken beyond addressing “barriers for work” and extended to provide support for people who are already in jobs too – an idea that Policy Exchange moots but doesn’t commit to. Many people in work who want to progress into more interesting, stable or better-paid jobs may still face a range of complex issues which joined-up support could address. Under Universal Credit, people in work will be required to show they are looking to progress: alongside these increased requirements they should be offered additional support and it would be great if the “Citizen’s Support Centre” could proactively work with them in the same joined-up way as is does with the unemployed. This could also reduce the stigma and exclusion that people feel when going to the Jobcentre, as well as helping the government deliver on its side of the ‘something for something’ bargain.
The report stops short of calling for JCP to move away from simply aiming to get people off benefits, towards a more positive, long-term focus on supporting thriving lives, sustainable careers and wellbeing. Such a shift would be needed to produce systemic change in the way people are treated and supported, but that megalith deserves more than one blog post’s thinking.