Today, The Independent published my op-ed on the Government’s approach to employment support during the Covid-19 pandemic.
With eight jobless people chasing every vacancy we need the government to pursue an inclusive recovery. That demands a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) culture that is supportive, not punitive.
At the moment it doesn’t look as though that is what we are going to get. It was a massive misjudgement to give work coaches renewed authority to sanction claimants at the beginning of July and see benefits cut if claimants are not deemed to be meeting their commitments. It makes no sense when in certain parts of the country, 20 people are competing for each job.
We didn’t have enough work coaches before Covid-19 and a new analysis by the Labour Party shows caseloads for a single work coach could almost double from 130 per work coach to an average of 228 later this year. This follows reports that the “claimant commitment” interview has been reduced dramatically from a 50-minute, face to face session, to a 30-minute phone call, suggesting work coaches won’t have the time to get to really understand people’s needs.
As we ease out of Covid-19, it has become increasingly evident that too little was done and done too late. This is why I have called for a clear, cross-governmental plan as to how we can come together around the unemployed as a community and support people to get back to work with a network of mentors – learning from the GOODSAM response and supporting the DWP system through community volunteers, just as we supported the NHS. Our experience in Hounslow suggests this would be welcomed and make a huge difference.
Employers must use an early warning system for more than 10 job losses, rather than more than the current 20, working with early advice systems supported by the employer and connected with the local jobs centre.
Local areas could consider a youth jobs task force led by local young people, working with JobCentre Plus, colleges and businesses to build leadership skills and to help reach out to those who may not be asking for help. This year’s Youth Voice Census data from Youth Employment UK says that only 16 per cent of the young people who had spent time, not in employment, education or training (NEET) had claimed benefits. Only 33 per cent of those who had spent time NEET had engaged with any Jobcentre support.
We need to plan now for an inclusive recovery. The digital divide that has become apparent with young people who have been unable to connect to their online school classroom extends much more deeply. Local unemployed people with no access to the internet should be loaned laptops for their job search.
The schemes outlined so far by the DWP make it clear it is simply not equipped to cope with the employment challenge that lies ahead.
An inclusive approach to getting people back to work demands a fundamental rethink about the structure of employment support. This is a time to enable people to find their way to their next job with confidence and pride, not to punish them.