21 December 2014

"The out-of-work group who are in housing estates and unwilling to work"

This story starts back in September with another utterance from Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary:

"We're not just getting people back to work, we're making real inroads into that stubborn part of the out-of-work group who are in housing estates and unwilling to work..."

(Source:  Sunday Express: We are breaking up 'Shameless' housing estates, says Iain Duncan Smith)

This suggests some pretty detailed research into a highly targeted intervention. How had he identified those in Housing Estates? And, fascinatingly, had they discovered a way of identifying those "unwilling to work"?

So I asked and was told:

"According to the Department’s most recent Labour Market Statistics, the number of claimants on Jobseekers Allowance is down half a million since the election, the number on out of work benefits is  800,000 lower since the election, and the number of children in workless households is at its lowest since records began, having fallen by 290,000 since the election.

During his work as both a constituency MP and Secretary of State of the Department, the Secretary of State will have seen for himself the impact of these falls, and has subsequently reflected on this during his interview."

So it looks like there hasn't been any rigorous research on this - at best, Iain might have spoken to a few formerly unemployed people and discovered that they lived in housing estates and really didn't want to work but had been forced into it by his policies.

So I submitted a review request pointing out

"...you have not provided information for the main part of my request, ``In particular, please provide:
• The numbers in the out-of-work group who are in housing estates
and unwilling to work during 2010 and for all subsequent years for
which statistics are available
• The method used to identify claimants as “unwilling to work” ''

After some nagging and delays I was told "The Department does not define “unwilling to work” therefore data is not held on this topic"

It also tells me of  statistics produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on working or
workless households, derived from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) but so far as I can see, there's no analysis of "housing estates"

My conclusion: While the "stubborn part of the out-of-work group who are in housing estates and unwilling to work" might actually exist, no one really knows how many there are and if the numbers have changed recently. Iain Duncan Smith's statement should be seen as essentially political speech intended to demonstrate action on a matter of public concern. See also "Folk Devil"

20 October 2014

The “Pretending There Are Enough Jobs” Industry

This post is a bit off-topic as it refers to Australia but it makes a point that applies just as much to the UK. Points made in the full article include:

"To put it simply, there is not enough work for everyone who wants it and that is not going to be reversed anytime soon."
"As of August 2014, there are 4,868 job service providers in Australia"
"Now, if these Job Service Providers were making a difference that would be fantastic, but they cannot force employers to create more positions,"
"Tony Abbott, plans on making it harder for jobseekers to receive payments. Apparently, the Government wants to beat the unemployed into submission while ignoring that employers aren’t hiring because they don’t need any more employees and that is not the fault of anyone who currently does not have a job."
"If all goes to plan, half of us will be employed in the “pretending there are enough jobs” industry helping the other half of us get employed (most likely in the “pretending there are enough jobs” industry)."

1 October 2014

Another sort of Jobcentre target

Most jobseekers have to attend the Jobcentre every two weeks but this is going to change. From October 2014, it is expected that 50% will be on weekly "Job Search Reviews" Enter "D McDermott" who was told s/he'd now have to attend weekly and was even told that everyone had to.

"D" made an FOI request, to find out more. In the first round it became clear that only 50% would receive this extra support. Also provided was the mechanics of the 50%. Basically, if JCP staff feel you'd benefit from weekly attendance, that's what you get. It gets more complex - Senior Operations Managers and Customer Services Operations Managers (CSOM) are going to  measure the position against the 50% ratio for their cluster of Jobcentres and will investigate where any Jobcentres are significantly above or below the target.

So, front-line staff have to decide whether to require weekly attendance based on what they feel about the claimant and with the knowledge that 50% is expected and will be monitored. "D" wrote back:
You can not possibly know for sure that 50% of all claimants will need this extra help so I do not understand how targets can be set.What happens if a Jobcentre only has 5% of claimants who need extra support? Will said Jobcentre employees be subject to extra demands/reprimanded to fulfil this quota?
From an FOI point of view it's rather week. The DWP is unlikely to have any "recorded information" showing that discipline will be applied to staff not meeting their quota.

It's still a good question though. 

12 September 2014

'Benefits Street' and the Myth of Workless Communities

This is an interesting paper about a hunt for inter-generational benefit culture and how hard it is to find evidence.


This paper critically engages with a pervasive myth about welfare in the UK which is commonly spread by politicians, think tanks and the media. This is the myth that there are areas of the country which are so affected by entrenched cultures of 'welfare dependency' that the majority of residents are unemployed. In undertaking research that sought to investigate a different idea - that there are families where no-one has worked over several generations - we simultaneously gathered evidence about the likelihood that there are localities where virtually no-one is in employment. The rationale for Channel 4's Benefits Street was exactly this; that whole streets and neighbourhoods are of out of work and living on welfare benefits. We draw on research evidence gathered in Middlesbrough and Glasgow to investigate this idea. Thus, the aim of our paper is simple and empirical: is the central idea of 'Benefits Street' true? Are there streets and neighbourhoods in the UK where virtually no-one works?

Full paper here

19 August 2014

Daily Work Search Reviews

One of the support options for the long term unemployed announced by George Osborne back in September 2013 was daily visits to a job centre.  This has now been the reality for some claimants for a few months now in the form of "Daily Work Search Reviews". The guidance gives examples of claimants who may be suitable:
  • claimants who need additional support with their jobsearch activities, which the Work Coach believes will be best provided by Daily WSR. This may include following up job applications and interviews, identifying and addressing issues such as skills gaps
  • claimants who have reasonable levels of work experience but may lack the level of motivation required to seek out employment opportunities or pursue options for improving their employment prospects
  • claimants who have a history of poor timekeeping in terms of attending interviews at the Jobcentre. The timekeeping requirements of Daily WSR would improve claimant's discipline and understanding of the importance of timekeeping in a work environment
This might be reasonable but I found something rather curious in the detailed design of  DWSR. Also from the guidance

61. Daily WSR times must vary on each day Monday to Friday; this varied pattern is then repeated for 4 consecutive weeks (i.e. the attendance time must be different for each day of the week but in each 4 week block the time on a particular day will be consistent).

63.The timetable must be changed every 4 weeks; the exception being that the revised timetable issued at week 8 can run for 5 weeks (i.e. until the end of the Daily WSR period).

It's difficult to see how this detail helps review jobseeking activities. As a lesson in timekeeping it seems a bit OTT for those who hope to get a 9-5 job. It offers a good chance of a sanction though when the jobseeker gets confused!

Naturally, I've been asking about the intent of the design but have yet to get a good answer 

I have found a big clue though. An obvious use of this regime is to disrupt a claimant who may be working on the side and the following paragraph hints at it:

19. Check the Customer Information System (CIS) to determine if the claimant has a Fraud Referral and Intervention Management System (FRAIMS) indicator present. If so, the Fraud and Error Service (FES) must be contacted for further advice before any decision to assign the claimant to Daily Work Search Review (WSR).

This paragraph seems to be unique to Daily Work Search Reviews. I think the intent is to frustrate fraudsters working on the side who have not yet been detected. Those already being investigated may be allowed to continue until there's enough evidence.

Of course, for the honest claimant it's a hassle but that has never worried the Jobcentre,

Update 19-Aug-14: I finally got some sort of answer.

The first interesting part was where I’d suggested DWP ask the author of paragraphs 61 and 63 for the thinking behind the variable timing aspect. They answered:

“We do not hold information on who wrote sections 61 and 63 of the Help to Work guidance”

Maybe that’s usual in the Civil Service but it seems odd to me. In many workplaces it’s normal to keep a note of who did what and why. Then, when the next person comes along and considers removing something or making a change, they do it the knowledge of why things were done the way they were. (My favourite example of the importance of records is this)

They do offer some information on the intent of making claimants turn up on a complicated timetable for their Work Search Reviews

"Information about the intent of the variable timing aspect can be found at paragraph 48. It lists claimants who may be suitable for daily work search reviews. One of the groups mentioned are

“Claimants who have a history of poor timekeeping in terms of attending interviews at the Jobcentre. The timekeeping requirements of Daily WSR would improve claimant's discipline and understanding of the importance of timekeeping in a work environment”.

This doesn’t really wash because the other groups are mentioned are those lacking motivation and those needing additional support. How are they helped by this? Also note this guidance:

"49. Key considerations for Work Coaches in determining a claimant’s suitability for Daily WSR must include:

  • whether the claimant is likely to be able to understand and cope with daily variation in attendance times"

 So, to qualify for this lesson in timekeeping, you must be bad at it but not actually incapable (E.G.: Due to mental health issues)

My conclusion

The reason the timing of DWSR is as difficult as it is may well be due to an initial idea to disrupt those working on the side or to frustrate claimants off benefits and hit sanction targets. However, to be lawful, all interventions by the Jobcentre are supposed to be helpful so something benign had to be documented.

I may now move on to investigate paragraph 19 mentioned above.

See also the (lack of ) evidence fro DWSR being effective.

(Original version published 19/07/2014 20:18)

29 May 2014

That "Jolt" again

I wrote recently about Mr Couling's surprising remarks to a committee of the Scottish Parliament that sanctioned claimants welcomed the jolt. Since then a number of FOI requests asking for evidence have been made, see here and here. Unfortunately, most of these have fallen foul of the £600 limit despite geographically limiting their request although this one faired a little better.

I have submitted a slightly different request simply asking for the evidence relied on by Mr Couling in making his surprising remarks. Like some of my previous requests, this allows the DWP to simply ask Mr Couling for the evidence and send it to me. It shouldn't be too expensive.

13 May 2014


From time to time, DWP spokesmen say things that I and others find difficult to swallow. This post is about two such items and efforts to "fact check" such utterances.

1. Universal Jobmatch.is a jobs website run for the DWP by Monster Inc.It's received quite lot of adverse criticism because of the "bogus jobs" advertised on it and the suspicion that it's more about policing claimants job searching that actually helping them find work.

Then I saw  a letter from Neil Couling (Head of Jobcentre Plus, DWP) and Sal Iannuzzi (CEO, Monster) saying:

With millions of active jobseekers over the last year, those best placed to judge the system, our users, tell us they like it and that it makes a real difference to how they look for work.
This surprised me so I asked for full details of the evidence relied on for the assertion that users like Universal Jobmatch. You might have expected a multinational corporation and a large government department to have extensive information - survey results perhaps. You'd be wrong. The essence of their reply is here:
Jobseekers, who have been using Universal Jobmatch, have provided anecdotal informal feedback on the service to Advisers and Work Coaches at Jobcentre Plus offices across the country. This feedback indicates that jobseekers like Universal Jobmatch and that it makes a real difference to how they look for work. 
Remember, that's the full basis of the assertion.

2. The other surprising utterance (again by Mr Couling) was to the Scottish Welfare Reform Committee on Tuesday 29th April 2014
Neil Couling: ... My experience is that many benefit recipients welcome the jolt
that a sanction can give them.
The Deputy Convener: So, jobcentres across the country have been inundated with thank you cards from people who have received sanctions.
Neil Couling:Yes that is not so remarkable.
The full report of the meeting can be found here

There have been several FOI requests asking for evidence, see here and here

11 May 2014

Analysis of a Million Sanction Decisions - Part 2

Those of you who read my previous post where I tried to link the propensity of JCP staff to refer claimants for a sanction may recall that I didn't have access to the individual Jobcentre case-load figures. I've now located Statistics on Jobseeker's Allowance by Jobcentre district and by month from March 2008 to October 2012 and used the October 2012 figure for the claimant count at each Jobcentre and hence calculated the rate of sanction referrals for most Jobcentres. (Remember, a "referral" is JCP staff "reporting" the claimant for sanction - an "adverse decision" from the Decision Maker" is by no means certain) I say "most" Jobcentres because some have been renamed, closed or opened between the two sets of data. If I couldn't match them up, I took them out. That's why your favourite Jobcentre might be missing. There are other limitations

Here's some analysis - feel free to  download the data and do your own too.

1. To get an idea of the variation between Jobcentres, I did a scatter plot

This shows that highest sanction referral rates are found in some smaller Jobcentres. A few of the lowest rates are in this group too. Large Jobcentres are very middle of the road.

2. Suspecting something "unnatural" about this chart, I sorted by sanction referral rates and plotted a histogram

  • Slopes are pronounced at around 4% and 8%. This suggests that JCP is monitoring the statistics and paying closer attention to offices outside the 4-8% range. There might even be an internal understanding that 4-8% is OK
  • The lack of any offices with less than 2.5% might be an indication of a mandatory target to exceed this figure
  • Again, there are some high rate outliers.
See below for some high/low rate offices

Finally, for a different take on sanction geography, see Geographical Variations in JSA Sanctions and Disallowances by Dr David Webster. This has some interesting work on the correlation between sanctions and local unemployment rate. It's also where I found the link to claimant count data :-)

5 May 2014

Analysis of a Million Sanction Decisions

I was interested to find out if  individual Jobcentres varied in their sanction rates. This is not as simple as it might seem. Front line staff don't make these decisions, they refer a "doubt" to a "Decision Maker" who may be based elsewhere.

The decision might be to impose the sanction or  reject it. (They can also "cancel" it but that's more technical). However, I decided to to stick with the number of decisions (regardless of what the decisions actually were) as a measure of the propensity of front line staff to "report" claimants.

So I downloaded the data from the DWP StatExplore" tool and to further simplify things, focussed on decisions under the "new" regime from 22nd Oct 2012. There's a load of Jobcentres with zero decisions - mainly because they're closed so I took them out. I sorted the data to show the "top" offices at the top.You can download my extract of over a million sanction decisions here but for those with less time, some headlines:

"Top" performers
Bottom of the league

Some of the variation is understandable. In particular, some of those places and presumably their case-load is small. I've tried to find matching caseload statistics without success. Some data I noticed:
  • Hull is well know for having a lot of unemployment and hence the caseload will be high. So being near the top of the table may not be so remarkable.
  • Southampton with over 5000 looks high considering that according to the council they only have 4,187 unemployed.
  • Norwich has almost 5000 decisions and Norfolk County Council's unemployment figures for the whole county say In the year to December 2012, 24,000 people of working age were unemployed in Norfolk. 
I think I may have to do an FOI request for the case-load figures so I can do a proper analysis!

PS: See also a later post that resolves the caseload issue.

Conflict at the Jobcentre

In an ideal world, Jobcentre advisers and claimants have constructive discussions about the best way to get work and new employment would be found. The "system" recognises that this doesn't always happen and provides a mechanism called a "Jobseekers Direction" to force claimants to do what the adviser wants on pain of having their benefits cut. The guidance has changed over time but the main thrust is that it's a way of dealing with pig-headed claimants who won't act in their own best interests. Those with a jaundiced view of Jobcentres would worry about the power this places in the hands of inadequate or even bullying staff.

I've stumbled on a hint of an evidence stream that Jobcentres could use to detect abuse of the system. - if they so wished. I noticed the answer to a Freedom of  Information request and in particular some statistics about JSDs over short period in just one Jobcentnre. I've graphed them:

Now, it might be that there were some particularly recalcitrant claimants attending in early January 2013 who were quickly brought to heel so reducing JSD activity in subsequent weeks. Another possibility is that just one adviser was in a bad mood and had themselves a JSD-fest. Having worked in various customer-facing roles myself, the most likely explanation was that there was some sort of "initiative" in early January. Perhaps advisers were simply reminded that a JSD could be a useful tool?  (I recall going on a safeguarding course at one job and suddenly we were seeing appropriate cases everywhere!)

I would hesitate to offer firm conclusions about t what was going on. There's too little data. I can't tell if a single member of staff went off the rails or if a larger team had some input. But Jobcentre managers should monitor similar figures as a possible way of checking how the relationships between their staff and claimants are going. Perhaps they already do - I hope so.

PS: Related to this, see Results of PCS membership Survey on Conditionality and Sanctions (Posted 1 May 2014) especially:

26 April 2014

DWP have no idea if Workfare costs jobs or not

The DWP know that "work for your dole" schemes  such as the  "Community Work Placements" starting next Monday could tempt rogue employers to replace paid staff and get free labour. They tackle this by having "strict" guidelines that paid jobs must not be displaced.

But do they do any research, auditing or enforcement of the rules? No, they don't and that's official. I know because I asked them via some Freedom of Information requests and they have now admitted they don't know saying "the Department does not hold the information you have requested"

So if you lose your job because your employer has recruited someone via the Jobcentre who must work 30 hours a week for 26 weeks or lose their benefits, you'll know why. Your former employer doesn't even have to pay them their £71.70 a week, the taxpayer does that. From the taxpayer's point of view, it's worse than that - in most cases, a "provider" gets thousands for arranging it all.

For story of how DWP ducked and weaved to avoid revealing this outrageous nonsense, see my earlier post 

UPDATE January 2015: Related post about how they appear to do things better in Ireland

12 April 2014

Falling between ESA and JSA is possible

[Originally published 8 Feb 2014] 
In the UK, there are two main welfare benefits for people of working age. Simply put, JSA is for people who are able to work but can’t find any while ESA is for people too sick to work. In theory, everyone is covered by this system but I’d been hearing reports of people falling through a gap between the two benefits. People not sick enough for ESA but too sick to claim JSA. Here’s a typical story:

Government benefit changes meant he was assessed for the new Employment and Support Allowance in October. But on October 29 his £124 a week payments were stopped because he was assessed as ‘fit to work’ and told to claim Jobseekers Allowance.

“But when I went to the Jobcentre, the man there looked at me and said ‘I can see you’re clearly not fit to work’ and wouldn’t allow me to claim,” he said. “What was I supposed to do?”

I thought this couldn't possibly be true and the Department for Work and Pensions are with me on this:

“a person cannot be in a position where they are ineligible for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and not fit enough to meet the conditions required for claiming Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA)" https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/claimants_not_eligible_for_esa_o

To find out the truth I submitted a "Freedom of Information" request to the DWP via the What Do They Know site. You can't really ask "Is this true?", you have to exploit your right to access recorded information, basically, documents they already have or can easily knock together. 

So my request:
  • Set out the alleged "problem"
  • Commented that since the problem was serious, the DWP would probably have produced guidance for staff and carried out research on the issue
  • Asked for documentation on the research and guidance
You can see my full request, subsequent correspondence and the "answer" here but you might find my analysis an easier read
  • So far as I can see, they haven't done any research - perhaps they now will?
  • They have eventually come back with some "new" guidance about ESA to JSA Transitions I call it "new" because at the time of writing,  Google can only find it via my FOI request. Let's pick out some bits of that guidance:

23. Although suitable work and jobsearch activities are diagnosed for claimants with health conditions or disabilities, under no circumstances should an opinion be expressed about whether that health condition means they are capable of work, or not. That decision has already been made by a Decision Maker, based on evidence supplied by a medical expert.

  • This item means that no JCP member of staff should tell a claimant they are too sick for JSA. However this guidance is somewhat buried and staff could easily be unaware of it. Let’s hope it’s easily and frequently accessed by JCP staff on an internal system.

24. If the claimant questions whether they are fit enough to work, it should be explained to them that while claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, they have to be actively seeking and available for work. If they do not feel that they can meet either of these requirements, or cannot agree the types of jobs they will look for and the activities they will undertake to do so, the claim cannot be continued.
  • Even if challenging the Work Capability Assessment (that stopped their ESA) as many do with eventual success doesn’t automatically stop a claim for JSA, this seems likely to trip up many claimants. Their options seem limited to destitution or agreeing to actions that they believe they are incapable of
  • This second "choice" is particularly poisonous. Not only does it place the claimant at risk of failure and sanctions,  they have been “forced” to lie to the JCP staff which even if undetected damages the relationship and possibly the mental health of the more vulnerable. 
  • There is another, less obvious hazard. If the claimant goes on JSA and subsequently has more than 2 periods of sickness or periods of sickness exceeding two weeks, their JSA is stopped. Normally, a JSA claimant could fall back on ESA but "passing" the Work Capability Assessment within the last 6 months bars that unless the original illness has worsened considerably or they have a brand new one. This is particularly likely to snooker somebody with a variable illness or disability such as Bipolar Disorder. 


1. Claimants are likely but not certain to fall between the two benefits
2. The DWP have no idea how prevalent this is
3. Even if the claimant successfully navigates from ESA to JSA, further illness could easily knock them off benefits altogether.

Bluntly, the story about the disabled man in Gloucester could well be true and if it isn't, that more by luck than DWP effort.

PS 20/06/14: This briefing from Citizens Advice includes stories from their case-load of people falling between the two benefits.