Kirsty McHugh, ERSA Chief Executive, FE News

Last week saw the government miss a prime opportunity to correct the direction of travel and put the Jobcentre Plus (JCP) juggernaut on the right track for jobseekers. 

You may well have missed it yourself, since the Government’s response to the Work and Pensions Committee’s inquiry into JCP largely ignored the inquiry’s recommendations. Instead it signalled that the department will continue its aspiration for JCP to be all things, to all people, at all times.

So for the record, in future, JCP staff are going to be expected to roll out Universal Credit, deliver the new Youth Obligation, take on responsibility for careers advice in schools, develop an in work support service, extend services to the partners of jobseekers, provide or signpost enterprise support, plus provide support for jobseekers on JSA until they are two years unemployed, rather than sending to specialist support as happens now.  At the same time the government has just published its Jobcentre estates strategy, which will see offices close around the country.  

Now, we all know that the labour market in the UK has been holding up remarkably well and thus you could well argue that the government can get away with investing less in employment support.  However, we also know that our careers advice is too often shaky, productivity is a huge problem, whilst many who are over a year out of work are unlikely to find quality employment through being commanded to apply for 30 jobs per week through Universal Jobsmatch.

The Select Committee quite rightly recognised this and made three points in particular which appear to have been ignored.  First, that the new work coach model to be deployed in Jobcentre Plus, is welcome, but is unlikely to provide a revolution in performance; second, that the reduction in specialist support purchased from charities, social enterprises and private providers needs to be reconsidered; and third, that the overall purpose of JCP needs  to be reviewed.

On the first point, the Committee noted the work coaches are likely to have large and very diverse caseloads, with a greater proportion of ‘complex and difficult cases’ than ever before. It is simply unrealistic to expect individual work coaches to be able to understand and support such a wide range of needs.  All the evidence points to the importance of specialisation – something the outsourced sector does very well. 

On the second point, we know that government investment in these specialist services is due to be reduced severely, albeit there is a good news about increased funding in places like London and Greater Manchester.  Our estimates are that maybe 45,000 fewer disabled people will access specialist employment support in every remaining year of this parliament. 

The third point, however, goes to the very heart of the Committee’s inquiry, and indeed the current Work, Health and Disability Green Paper, and that is the question of JCP’s raison d’etre.  Employment support in general and JCP in particular must transform itself within the new UC world so that it meets the needs of employers and the future labour market, while being sufficiently personalised to work in a myriad of circumstances.  However, JCP is in danger of becoming a jack of all trades, and a master of none. 

The government should think again about JCP’s core purpose, remodelling it as a powerful gateway and sign-poster to the many valuable different services that already exist, but which can often be overlooked or duplicated.  The service could be reshaped in a way so that it is fit for purpose to operate within a modern and dynamic economy, harnessing the power of the many excellent specialist service and programmes that already exist. It’s crucial that we get this right now and that the government rethinks its response to the Committee’s report whilst the labour market remains relatively buoyant.  This won’t always be the case and we need to be prepared.

Kirsty McHugh, Chief Executive of the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA)

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