“Nobody chooses to go into a jobcentre because they think that’s where they’ll find a job – they’re not job centres – they’re sanctions centres.”
That was the view of a former Jobcentre Plus work coach I spoke to on his experience of how our network of jobcentres are perceived and run under this Conservative government.
He, like his colleagues, is a dedicated, skilled and committed public servant.
Jobcentre staff want to help people into work. They want to be encouraged to exercise fairness and compassion. In my experience, they want a social security system that assists, cares, and recognises individuals’ strengths, potential, and circumstances.
However, despite many areas of good practice, the reality is sometimes anything but. In my constituency, a claimant was sanctioned for seven days for being seven minutes late to an appointment. That is not fair or reasonable, and it is certainly not supportive or compassionate. But it is far too common under this punitive system.
Conservative ministers have often wrapped up welfare reform in the unhelpful language of ‘tough love’ or ‘hard truths’.
So let me give the Tories my own hard truth – the jobcentre approach they have presided over is not fit for purpose. And it needs major reform in terms of culture, how it operates, and its approach to partnership.
I recently spoke to a senior figure in the employment support sector. She told me that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is “the least partnership orientated organisation I’ve ever worked with in my life”.
I am a former manager of a Connexions service and her experience is one I can relate to.
I want to see a jobcentre approach that focuses on real support, delivered in locations that people can access easily, that are real, genuine community hubs, supporting people throughout their working and non-working life.
Because under the Tories, we have seen a department that all too often closes jobcentres across the country without engaging properly or effectively with councils and other bodies.
Under the Conservatives, nearly one in five jobcentres in the UK has closed and the DWP now employs over 30,000 fewer staff than in 2010. As a consequence, there are entire communities and constituencies, including in places with significant employment challenges, that do not have a jobcentre located there.
We accept of course that society changes over time, and the way people want to access government services changes. This is something the Labour movement is recognising. The TUC’s ‘Worksmart’ app is just one innovative example of how services and institutions can respond effectively in the digital age. The approach of 20 years ago may not be the solution for 2030 or even 2020.
But the government’s so-called ‘digital by default’ approach is certainly not the answer to this challenge – 10 per cent of the UK population still lacks internet access and many people do not have the skills to make a claim online. The government’s own research shows that nearly half of universal credit claimants needed help to make a claim.
Changing technology in certain circumstances could be a platform upon which to innovate, improve and extend access to support and services. But moving services online cannot be a driver for cost cutting and marginalisation for those already furthest from the support they need. Location, conversation, and face-to-face support still matter for many.
That said, buildings that are remote from their communities not places of support or aspiration, but offices from which to administer the benefits and sanctions of a failed social security approach are not the future either.
We need a radical cultural shift for jobcentres, from being places of punitive administration to centres that offer professional, impartial careers advice whilst providing compassionate support to those most in need.
Hubs for peoples’ work and life should be, located by, linked in with, and anchored in communities. That requires cooperation and partnership, and it needs a government that liaises with local authorities, communities and partners right across the employment, health and business sectors.
As our economy, and the nature of work changes more drastically and more rapidly than arguably any other time in our history, it is even more important that the government supports people to understand, harness and shape this new reality.
We want to make sure jobcentres deliver not just for people when they have lost their job, but also those who might benefit from guidance and advice whether they are starting out in a career or looking to upskill or retrain. Only then will we create a jobcentre network fit for the future world of work.
Labour is currently undertaking a major consultation on the future of social security, and we are keen to hear what staff, charities, users of services and the public want to see from our welfare system.
How can we bring together all who have an interest in making our jobcentres work – to refocus and reequip them as work and life centres, helping rebuild the shattered morale of staff who for too long have had to channel the priorities of a government’s approach that sanctions rather than supports, and enforces change driven by cuts and savings rather than considered responses to a modern work environment?
We want to make sure jobcentres deliver not just for those who currently rely on them and are being failed, but also those who could benefit from accessing a service to support and guide their potential and aspirations, in and out of work, whether they are starting out in a career or looking to upskill or retrain.
The ‘hard truth’ is this. If our jobcentres are not centres that people can easily access; if they are not places that are commonly sought out by those seeking jobs; and if the ‘plus’ in Jobcentre Plus is not support, but sanctions – then the question has to be asked: is the government’s approach delivering for the people it needs to?
The answer, is currently no.
Under a Labour government, we will work with partners to radically overhaul our social security system so that it supports people instead of punishing them.