Jobcentres are changing. No longer are they the preserve of the unemployed. Under the brand-name of Jobcentre Plus, most local offices have already been converted into offices catering for nearly all benefit claims for all claimants of working age. This means that income support, incapacity benefit, bereavement benefits and so on will all be administered through the JCP network.
Part of the new system involves a change in the way that benefits are claimed, and these changes are proving to be controversial and a source of considerable difficulty for social work clients.
The Department for Work and Pensions is trying to move away from paper claim forms. For income support and job seeker’s allowance applications, the claimant has to telephone a contact centre to make a claim. This is known in department-speak as the “inbound call”. By providing basic information, the claimant then establishes the date of claim. The claimant is given a half-day window a few days later when the department contact centre will call them back to take more detailed information – the “outbound call”.
The customer is then sent a statement of the information provided over the phone, which they take with them to their “work-focused interview” at the local JCP office. This interview is arranged during the outbound call and should be within two weeks.
Clearly, there are concerns that some social work clients will be unable to manage the outbound call. Whereas before, a social worker might have helped someone complete a paper claim form for income support, that option is apparently being closed off. It is also unlikely that the social worker will be around for the entire half-day window when the contact centre is due to be calling back.
Vulnerable customers have the right to ask for a face-to-face appointment at a JCP office instead, but how many of our clients would have the confidence or knowledge to insist on that?
But this isn’t the only problem that advisers from around the country are now reporting. For example, it is proving to be almost impossible to get hold of paper claim forms. Even where claimants have the form, JCP staff have been equally adamant in refusing to accept them.
The regulations governing making claims have indeed been amended to allow the department to accept telephone claims. But that isn’t the same as making telephone claims mandatory.
Paper claims are still absolutely legal and the department would be in breach of the law if it refused to accept them. Simply quote Regulation 4 of the Social Security Claims and Payments Regulations 1987 back at your local JCP office if it starts saying stupid things.
Other problems concern practical matters: the outbound call not being made during the promised time; the information on the form not matching what the claimant said; delays in arranging the work-focused interview; crisis loans or interim payments not being made even in cases of hardship; and particular difficulties arising for people with English as a second language. All very predictable, I’m afraid.
Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a question to be answered please write to him c/o Community Care