employedThere are “grave concerns” over the challenges faced by work coaches in Jobcentre Plus (JCP), and the flagship Work and Health Programme – including providing specialist support for people with mental ill health – a Parliamentary committee has said.

The Work and Pensions Committee has said that against the backdrop of a much-changed labour market, the delayed roll-out of Universal Credit and the scaling down of contracted-out welfare-to-work programmes, JCP will be expected to provide employment support to a broader and more challenging caseload of claimants, including those with disabilities, mental health conditions and the long-term unemployed.

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

Previously, many claimants with disabilities would have been supported outside JCP, through the contracted-out Work Programme and Work Choice. Whether the employment support that the Department [of Work and Pensions (DWP)] offers to these claimants is successful will largely depend on work coaches but the Committee identified several concerns about this approach.

This includes that work coaches are generalists who support claimants with a wide range of needs. However, addressing their claimants’ barriers to work requires specialist skills and knowledge that many work coaches currently lack, and have little incentive to develop.

To compensate for their lack of specialism, work coaches will be increasingly required to identify and refer their claimants to appropriate external support: for example, from charities and third parties. This, in itself, requires a level of specialist knowledge.

The requirement to refer to third-party support, alongside the more complex caseloads and extended support role, will place increasing pressure on claimants' appointment times with work coaches.

The Committee was also concerned about the "manifold reduction" in external support that the Work and Health Programme represents. It will have a budget of £554 million over its lifetime: substantially less than the estimated £1.5 billion that was spent on disability employment through the Work Programme and Work Choice it replaces. Witnesses told the Committee that this reduction in programme capacity meant that many of those who might benefit from participating would be unable to access it. Given the government’s pledge to halve the disability employment gap, this is a disappointing development, the Committee said.

“The success of the Department's approach will depend on supporting people who, in many cases, are long-term unemployed or have substantial health issues back into work,” Field added. “Many of these may have seen Jobcentres as enforcement agencies, and their staff as police, and have been poorly served in the past. Instead of building on examples of successful programmes such as Work Choice, the Department is overseeing a massive reduction in the spending on the replacement Work and Health Programme. Compensating for this will require a massive cultural shift and practical shift in JCP, enabling it to become a place that supports real progress to, and in, work. We are not convinced that JCPs and work coaches will have the necessary resources, skills and expertise to do this, and especially not at the rapid and ambitious pace that the DWP is expecting. 

“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."

Vicki Nash, head of policy and campaigns at Mind, welcomed the report: “Many of the concerns [in the report] highlighted echo our own,” she said. “It’s concerning that work coaches in Jobcentres will soon become the only source of support for the thousands of people with mental health problems who are currently out of work. People with mental health problems rarely have good relationships with their work coaches, in large part due to the prospect of being punished if they’re unable to do what their work coach asks of them. Threatening to cut people’s benefits often makes them even more anxious and unwell, and pushes them further away from work.

“Many people find it difficult to talk about how their mental health affects them even with those closest to them or who know them best, like friends, family or healthcare professionals. So it’s hardly surprising that many people aren’t able to speak openly and candidly about their mental health with someone they barely know, in a short space of time, in a busy open-plan Jobcentre, with the threat of having their benefits cut looming over them.

“If the government is serious about encouraging work coaches to develop positive and trusting relationships with people with mental health problems, then it needs to make that relationship voluntary by removing the suspicion and sanctions that currently lie at its heart. We hear time and time again how people dread spending time at the Jobcentre. The current approach to back-to-work support is cruel, inappropriate and doesn’t help people back into employment.”