The Jobcentre has become a Universal Credit monitoring service!

‘Work first’ can work better

More people in employment is possible, with reforms to work and welfare policy.

‘Work first’ is a core idea that underpins the UK’s employment and welfare systems, and effective ‘work first’ orientated systems have long-term, paid employment as the primary goal for people interacting with them. This is the right objective, but with work entry rates for unemployed benefit claimants falling, health-related inactivity rising sharply and millions of people not claiming benefits locked out of support, urgent improvement is needed to reach it.

For the unemployed, the Jobcentre has become a Universal Credit (UC) monitoring service rather than an employment service. By updating DWPs own figures, we estimate that the department now spends £350 million a year on monitoring claimants, the equivalent of over half of the annual spend on work coach salaries. The estimated 13 million hours a year that work coaches spend monitoring claimants crowds out the opportunity for support which could help people towards work.

The current approach is not leading to improved employment outcomes for people in receipt of unemployment-related benefits. We find that the proportion of unemployed benefit claimants who move into work each year has fallen from 30% in 2014-2015 to 20% in 2021-2022. Coupled with falling unemployment from 2014-2015 to the start of the pandemic, this means that whereas around 500,000 to 600,000 unemployed benefit claimants moved into work each year around the middle of the 2010s, the figures immediately pre-pandemic were around 250,000 a year.

Rather than double down on a compliance-led approach to ‘work first’, with the recent curtailment of ‘permitted periods’ in which claimants can look for work in their preferred sector or with the doubling of the sanction rate (from 3% to 6%) post-pandemic, a better approach would be to seek to reorientate Jobcentres around building productive, supportive, work-focused relationships between claimants and their work coaches.

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