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Jobcentre Plus reforms currently ‘front-loaded for failure,’ MPs say

A new approach to the role of work coaches in the Job Centre Plus (JCP) programme is needed as its approach shifts to helping more complex cases, the Work and Pensions Committee has said in a new report.

The report said that changes such as the introduction of the Work and Health Programme and Universal Credit mean that JCP will deal with more claimants ‘in-house’ instead of through contracted-out provision and with more claimants with complex needs, such as health problems and disabilities.

However, it said that these changing needs were combined with a move to a “generalist” model for work coaches.

Frank Field MP, chair of the committee, said: “The government is basing the future for the new JCP 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 JCP by not thinking through the demands to be made on what is, in reality, the same old system financed by a much reduced budget."

In addition, the report noted that some claimants saw JCP staff as “policemen rather than genuine coaches” because they were required to refer claimants for possible sanction as well as support them into work.

To address this, the committee recommended that the DWP should provide work coaches with more comprehensive guidance on when they could set flexible conditions regarding areas such as frequency of meetings, and allow some work coaches to specialise in helping specific groups of claimants.

The changes will require JCP to form closer partnerships with other local organisations in order to address wider social and health issues that affect patients’ employability, something the report said it has “limited organisational experience” of doing.

It added that the DWP should support JCP districts to develop partnerships by allocating them their own local health budgets for the rest of the Spending Review period, and raising the profile of the Flexible Support Fund, which is designed to fund partnership working.

The committee said it was “disappointing” that the government’s plans for the Work and Health Programme did not involve building on the Work Choice programme’s success on supporting disabled people into work.

It warned that there was a danger that resources allocated to the scheme “do not meet its ambition”.

It called on the department to focus on getting the best possible results from the new, limited programme by producing guidance for work coaches on deciding when the individuals should be referred to the programme and when it should be made mandatory.

The committee concluded that the government’s plans for JCP involve “experimental and un-tested approaches” that will require “significant cultural as well as practical change”.

To address this, the report said the DWP should set out the key policy objectives JCP must deliver over the next five years, assess the staffing levels required to deliver the changes, and set out, by the end of 2016, performance targets for measuring its success in helping claimants.

Field added: “The government has expressed the need to reform capitalism, and to ‘make work pay’. We welcome the department's willingness to take a flexible approach to JCP’s services, and to try to support those who have been inadequately served by the current system.

“But we have grave concerns that shifting a raft of new, specialised demands and requirements onto JCPs, without significant training and preparation and with greatly reduced resources, is simply front-loading this brave new world for failure.”

A DWP spokesperson said that getting more disabled people into work and halving the disability employment gap is a top priority.

“Our Work and Health Programme will provide specialist support to people with disabilities, health conditions and the long-term unemployed, but we recognise there’s more to do,” they added. “That’s why we’re increasing support in jobcentres, investing more in adapting workplaces for people with specific needs while our newly launched Work, Health and Disability Green Paper is looking at how we can go even further.”

(Image c. Rui Vieira from PA Wire)

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