Earlier this month, MPs slammed Jobcentre Plus for leaving 21 million phone calls unanswered in 2004-5.(1) Despite government claims of improvements, stories of poor service continue to mount, argues Neil Bateman
Jobcentre Plus (JCP) is the arm of the Department for Work and Pensions that administers benefits and job search activities or people under 60. It was set up in 2001 as a key part of the government’s welfare-to-work reforms, the aim being that people could obtain advice and help on benefits and job-seeking under one roof.
Since the announcement in 2005 that DWP had to lose 30,000 staff over three years, on top of other spending cuts in the department, concern has been growing in the social care and welfare rights fields about the deteriorating standards of service provided by JCP. There has been concern about the effect on vulnerable customers, particularly care leavers, those with sensory impairments and people with mental health needs who have greatest difficulty with the JCP one-size-fits-all approach to customer service.
Welfare rights advisers and social care specialists identify problems with JCP, including:
● Delays in processing claims and changes of circumstances – six weeks is common – leaving people destitute.
● Communications between different parts of JCP “not being received”.
● Huge difficulty accessing JCP by phone.
● JCP staff insisting that all benefit claims are made by phone, when the law does not state this.
● Frequent refusals to communicate with third parties (despite the DWP’s good new policy on this).
● JCP staff making basic errors in advice to claimants and when assessing their claims.
● Inflexibility in how people are dealt with caused by JCP’s use of scripts for telephone enquiries and deficiencies in the content of the scripts.
● Resistance by local JCP managers to consultation and dialogue with stakeholders.
There are exceptions to this, but the feedback was generally negative with many examples cited. Such experiences are also borne out in a recent report by Child Poverty Action Group.(2)
Although complaints about bad service by JCP are not new, a tipping point in the deterioration of the service seems to have been the move earlier this year to centralise benefits processing – eventually in 77 large centres – and the introduction of a call centre approach to new claims. As with all call centres, staff rely on standard scripts for conversations with callers. It is difficult for these to cover the diversity of people’s needs let alone the complexity of the benefits system.
Our investigations show that the service failures are serious and widespread with concerns echoed across agencies that work with unemployed people.
For some time Citizens Advice has been highlighting concerns “about the ability of Jobcentre Plus to administer a high-quality service, in particular to many of its most vulnerable customers”.
The scale of the problems has led Citizens Advice to carry out a survey of citizens advice bureaux. Emerging results show that not only do local CAB workers feel strongly about the standard of service at JCP offices, but that 80 per cent state they are having to advise people hit by serious delays in obtaining their money. Matters are made worse by what seems to be reluctance by local JCP managers to have liaison meetings.
Loss of expertise
Oxfordshire Welfare Rights, which provides a service to the county’s social care service users also faces major problems with JCP. Welfare rights worker Peter Turville sums up what many feel: “Advisers often feel powerless to sort out delays and other problems because it’s so difficult to get through to JCP staff. The standard of service appears to have deteriorated to that of the Child Support Agency.”
Turville also highlights the loss of expertise within JCP caused by centralisation. For example, staff in his area who dealt with incapacity benefit appeals have been switched to processing Social Fund applications. One adviser who specialises in back-to-work benefits for parents, says she has many callers referred by JCP staff for advice about JCP benefits. “It seems ridiculous to me that someone who happens to enquire first at their local Jobcentre Plus should be sent to us to check they are entitled and then back to the Jobcentre to make the claim.”
I spoke to several advisers who mentioned that local staff and managers often shared their frustrations at the poor service on offer. So it’s little wonder that even Leslie Strathie, JCP’s chief executive, admitted to the House of Commons’ work and pensions committee last November that the organisation was “failing badly” in many aspects of its customer service.
The chair of the committee also criticised JCP for redeploying staff with the wrong skills and attributes in their call centres as a way to manage their job cuts. Since then there has been the announcement that the benefits processing repayment programme has been scrapped at a cost of £141m (this major IT project would have been crucial to delivering service with fewer staff) as well as many initiatives to try to turn around the situation, including a national action plan to reduce delays in processing claims launched last March. It still feels like there is a long way to go.
Paying for JCP’s failures
It is not just benefit claimants who are affected. There is strong evidence that advice agencies and social care agencies are also picking up the cost of JCP’s failures. Citizens Advice said workloads had increased as a direct result of problems and there was evidence that social services departments were often baling out people with no money because of JCP’s failure to deliver benefits on time or to make interim payments – there were even cases of people sent by JCP to social services for money.
Much time is also being spent arguing with JCP staff that they can indeed allow people to make paper benefit claims rather than having to phone a call centre – even in cases involving people in hospital receiving chemotherapy, those with serious mental health problems, people whose first language is not English or those who are deaf.
Despite these problems, it’s not that long ago that I witnessed a presentation by a senior JCP official who claimed that JCP was “transforming people’s lives”. Several advisers expressed the view that for a long time JCP managers were in denial about the state of their service.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Jobcentre Plus has met or exceeded most of its targets for 2005-6 and this is through the continued hard work of staff. Every working day, Jobcentre Plus conducts 36,000 work-focused interviews, processes more than 15,000 new benefit claims and, through its website, enables customers to access details of around 300,000 job vacancies.”
But there is recognition at the top of the DWP that all is not well in JCP. We are now promised: “We have learned from our early experience of operating a contact centre and are confident that we will be able to offer customers an effective telephone-based service.” (3)
TRAINING AND LEARNING
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at
www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected
training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.
Jobcentre Plus was established in 2001 by the Department for Work and Pensions as a key welfare-to-work service. Social security services provided by JCP have deteriorated because of staff reductions and organisational changes. The impact is greatest on the most vulnerable service users and on agencies that work with them.
(1) Public Accounts Committee, Department for Work and Pensions: Delivering Effective Services through Contact Centres, House of Commons, November 2006
(2) Child Poverty Action Group, Jobcentre Plus: Changes to Delivery: A View of How Changes Have Affected Claimants and
Advisers at Local Advice Centres, 2006
(3) Letter to external agencies from Matthew Nicholas, JCP director of external relations and communication, October 2006
This article appeared in the 16-22 November issue, under the headline “Don’t call us…”