Dr Rita Griffiths is Research Programme Lead for the IPR.
“Anyone who thinks Jobcentres are like [those in The Full Monty] … would be pleasantly surprised by visiting [one today],” quipped Damian Green, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in his address to the Conservative Party Conference last week; “no screens, no queues … no sense of sullen despair.” He is right in his observation that Jobcentre Plus offices today look very different from how they did in the 1980s and 1990s, when The Full Monty – along with films like Billy Elliot and Brassed Off – depicted the humiliation and shame wrought on working class men forced to sign-on after being made redundant from jobs in mining, steel and other heavy industries.
It is true that the metal security screens have gone, and dole queues no longer snake out of the doors of benefit offices – which have long since disappeared, along with the traditional industries and breadwinning jobs these men were once employed in. However, it is debatable whether, as claimed by Green, this is down to the transformative power of a modernised and rebranded Jobcentre Plus better equipped to meet the employment needs of ‘ordinary working-class people’ in the post-industrial era. Some would argue it says more about the depersonalised, contracted-out and digitised nature of today’s benefit and employment services – director Ken Loach, for example. His latest offering I, Daniel Blake, for which he won the 2016 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, sits uncomfortably alongside Green’s resolutely upbeat account of the changing landscape of government employment support. The protagonist of Loach’s drama, a skilled man in his 50s whose working career is curtailed after he suffers a heart attack, finds himself cut adrift amidst the faceless, ‘digital by design’ bureaucracy of Jobcentre Plus call centres, online benefit processing and the impersonal, one-size-fits-all responses of government-funded advisers. So who is right?
In their own way, both are. Today’s Jobcentre Plus may have upholstered seats, carpets and jaunty, modern graphics – but just try getting past one of those burly security guards if you want help to get a job, or secure better-paid work. Austerity-driven civil service staffing cuts mean that, unless you are an existing benefit claimant required to attend a mandatory appointment with an adviser as a part of your ‘Claimant Commitment’, you will likely be turned away – told instead to search for jobs online, or to contact a call centre (using your own mobile and, until recent lobbying persuaded the DWP to change its stance, at a premium call rate). If the security guard allows you entry, you will be directed to a Jobpoint, a touchscreen monitor for online job-hunting – that’s if they haven’t already been removed, along with the free-to-use telephones, as Jobcentre Plus moves inexorably towards full digitisation. In fact, you may be hard-pressed to find a Jobcentre in your local area; in the last five years, scores of them have been closed – including many in rural areas where the nearest alternative may be over an hour’s travel away.
Reduced Jobcentre footfall is of course an undeniable product of the changed nature of work, and online recruitment methods now used by most employers and applicants. However, research is beginning to show that another important factor in the decline of Jobcentre use is the increasingly punitive way in which ‘jobseekers’ and other benefit claimants are dealt with, and a corresponding rise in the incidence of benefit disentitlement and sanctioning. Arrive late for a mandatory appointment, or apply for fewer jobs than is stipulated in your ‘Claimant Commitment’, and you risk being sanctioned. Too many sanctions and you risk losing your benefits altogether, potentially for up to three years. The government claims that sanctions are used infrequently and only as a last resort, but the evidence tells a different story. Research by David Webster from the University of Glasgow found that between 2007 and 2012, one fifth (19%) of all JSA claimants – equivalent to almost a million and a half people – had been subject to sanctions or disallowances. In the context of an increasingly stringent, parsimonious and punitive welfare system, some eligible groups are simply not bothering to claim, further reducing the claimant count.
This brings us to another reason that Jobcentres may seem less desperate places these days: increasing localisation and discretion in the delivery and payment of welfare. In what Frank Field describes as “the most radical departure in welfare since the Atlee government", emergency financial help and other discretionary support intended to prevent the poorest and most vulnerable people in society from falling through the safety net has been devolved from central government to local authorities. This has occurred, it should be noted, with limited public debate about the issues and implications localisation raises. So the queues, over-crowded waiting rooms and sense of despair have not gone away, they have simply relocated – into the burgeoning network of council ‘one-stop shops’ and food banks, where cash-strapped local authorities and volunteer workers struggle to help the growing numbers of claimants and families whose benefits or tax credits have been reduced, stopped or failed to reach their bank accounts for whatever reason.
Even if Green’s rosy vision of the contemporary Jobcentre is right, changes are afoot which may yet see a return to Jobcentre queues and sense of frustration. Under the most radical and contentious welfare reform measure proposed to date, working people and families claiming Universal Credit means-tested financial help with housing, childcare and living costs will be drawn into a system of conditionality and sanctioning similar to that which currently applies to unemployed and economically inactive claimants. Untried anywhere in the world, a large-scale randomised control trial involving 15,000 low-paid Universal Credit claimants is piloting a new Jobcentre Plus-delivered ‘in-work progression’ service targeted at an entirely new category of customer: low-paid workers and their partners. If rolled out nationally, an additional one million UC claimants will become subject to work conditionality. But here’s the most controversial part: these people will already have jobs. What is more, unless the family contains children under the age of 13, work conditionality requiring regular face-to-face meetings with a Jobcentre adviser will continue until household earnings reach a minimum threshold equivalent to both adults in a couple working 35 hours per week at the national minimum wage. Only parents with authorised caring responsibilities for younger children and other officially exempted groups, such as those with a serious health condition, will have the option to work part-time.
Encouraging low-paid workers to increase their earnings is a laudable policy goal, but when earning more means working longer hours, even in families with young children – and when working for longer is the only way of meeting mandatory conditions for UC receipt – the role of Jobcentre Plus advisers in supporting individuals to progress in work becomes somewhat compromised. Tailored, one-to-one, personalised support from a work coach which underpins the in-work progression service is similarly to be applauded, but progression implies improvement – not just in earnings, which could be achieved simply by getting another low-paid job - but in rates of pay and job prospects. Will customers be helped to access training to improve their earnings potential and jobs offering better terms and conditions, or will they simply be obliged to find more low-paid work? This raises another important question: in whose interests will this employment advice be offered? These already ‘hard working’ customers, employers proffering zero hour contracts, or a government intent on reducing social security expenditure?
Empathetic, individualised support to encourage employment progression runs counter to the work-first culture and general direction of travel that Jobcentre Plus has been moving in for more than a decade. What seems to be missing too is any acknowledgement that, although low earners eligible for means-tested help may represent a new category of customer for Jobcentre Plus, they are not necessarily a different group of people; it is well known that people in poverty and at the bottom end of the earnings distribution often cycle between work and benefits. How realistic is it to think that low-paid workers will be willing to trust the very same advisers who may have imposed a sanction on them during a previous spell of unemployment?
Not simply a cultural and logistical challenge for resource-strapped Jobcentres, through eroding the distinction between being in work and out of work and potentially extending negative representations of benefit claimants to those who already have a job, in-work conditionality also risks obscuring the hitherto strictly demarcated political dividing line between Theresa May’s ‘just managing’ families and welfare-dependent ‘scroungers.’ Hampered by the incremental and chronically delayed rollout of Universal Credit, and a paucity of up-to-date government-commissioned and academic research, only time will tell whether this new vision for Jobcentre Plus will ever be realised.
 Originally designed as part of Universal Credit, with a rollout that has been much slower than anticipated, the ‘Claimant Commitment’ – with its requirement for 35 hours of evidenced job search as a mandatory condition of benefit receipt – also now applies to claimants of jobseekers allowance (JSA) and employment support allowance.
 See ESRC-funded research entitled ‘Welfare conditionality: sanctioning, support and behaviour change’ led by the University of York.
 A third failure to comply with the most important jobseeking requirements will result in a sanction of 156 weeks.
 See D Webster, University of Glasgow