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Mitcham Jobcentre Plus

Volume 495: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2009

I am delighted to have this Adjournment debate, but I am sorry that we are holding it in the current circumstances. Despite the fact that the Government have made enormous efforts to introduce measures to help people looking for work or training, the people we expect to provide that help are ill-equipped to do so.

Over the past 12 years, unemployment has fallen in my constituency. In April 1997, the unemployment rate was 5.4 per cent. In April 2009, it was 3.7 per cent. The Government’s philosophy has been that those who can work should work. Work should pay, and we will do our best to ensure that it does. I appreciate that the unemployment figures are rising again and that there will be more people for jobcentres to deal with, but that is all the more reason for anyone who can work to be given all the help that they need to get a job.

Many good things have happened in the past 12 years, and I would not want to characterise everything as bad. Hundreds of my constituents have found work through the new deal, and thousands have benefited from tax credits for those who are in work.

I appreciate that working in a benefits office is not easy. I know that because I used to do it. My first job on leaving university was as a clerical officer in the then supplementary benefit office at Irene House in Balham. Twenty-eight years ago, it was very much a case of them and us. Many of my colleagues would look down their noses at the people on the other side of the barrier—in those days, there were real, physical barriers. Colleagues used to tease me because I always signed my letters legibly, and people could tell who had written to them. On one occasion, an Irish man who was in his 50s—not unlike my dad—and who had never before seen the inside of a benefits office was so humiliated by the officer’s questioning that he began to cry, and I am not ashamed to say that I joined him.

The Government have made great progress, and there has been some improvement in staff attitudes. However, one role of MPs is to act as a local information service to the Government nationally. We need to be able to tell the Government how their initiatives are working. If things are not working as planned, however, it is surely our role to bring them to the attention of Ministers, and that is why I called for today’s debate.

I am sure that the Mitcham jobcentre has a lot of work to do, and that work is probably not easy, while some of the people the jobcentre deals with may sometimes be awkward. Equally, I may be seeing only people who experience difficulties, and there may be many thousands of people whom I do not see because their cases are dealt with immaculately. In the past few months, however, I have seen an upsurge in the number of constituents who have contacted me about the jobcentre.

It is not only me who has been contacted. Other community groups and organisations, including the citizens advice bureau and a local community development trust, have told me that there has been an increase in the number of people complaining about the service that they receive. Those bodies have also told me that many of their clients are too intimidated to complain and are worried that making a complaint could see them lose their benefits or be treated even worse the next time they ask for help. Therefore, rather than seeing the rare, exceptional cases where problems occur, we may be seeing the tip of the iceberg, and that is why I am here today.

Like all hon. Members, I want our public services to be services. I want them to operate at a level that we can be proud of and which will help our constituents to find work or to get the training that they need to achieve their aspirations. That is what the Government are all about and it is what I am all about.

I want to highlight a number of cases that I have dealt with or about which local organisations have contacted me. We are all concerned about the standard of advice at local jobcentres and the lack of knowledge or initiative on the part of the staff. That is almost certainly the result of inadequate training. The problem has been noticed not just by me, but by the citizens advice bureau and local community groups.

While I was out canvassing in Wandle road a few weeks ago, I met a woman who had just lost her job. She had held a quite senior position in customer services and she could not believe her experience at Jobcentre Plus. She commented on the unmotivated way in which she was dealt with and on the lack of initiative. She said that she would never have accepted that lack of imagination and helpfulness in her industry.

When Mr. T from Eastfields, who has a history of serious mental health problems, went to the jobcentre, staff sent him on an entirely inappropriate training course that he could only ever fail. There was a lack of imagination about how to deal with him. His case may well have been complicated, but Merton Mind, a charity that would have been ideally placed to help him, was just across the road.

There is also Mr. F of Mitcham, a former bus driver in his 50s who was finding his work too hard. I noticed that he had a Private Security Authority licence, and I had been to a company that provided transport for special needs children the day before, so I put the company in contact with him. There was a vacancy, and he got the job. The question, however, is why Mitcham jobcentre did not suggest the same during the weeks that it saw him. It was not a difficult suggestion to make.

There is not just a lack of imagination and training; I also get complaints about the attitude of staff. I have heard stories about some of the procedures that claimants are forced to go through, which are extremely discouraging. Staff at Mitcham jobcentre are often thought to be rude or, at best, unhelpful. The jobcentre is thought to give bad advice and bad customer service on occasion.

Let me mention the case of Sandra from Morden, because there is a particular problem with crisis loans. Sandra, too, has a history of mental illness. She spent three whole days in the jobcentre because of complications in communications between Mitcham and the central processing unit in Makerfield. One day, she spent from 8 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock at night at the jobcentre. At the close of the day, she was told that she could go to the police station to get help. Obviously, the police officers met that advice with disbelief.

Sandra went in one day to ask whether documents might be faxed to Makerfield. She was told that she needed to make an appointment to use the fax and to return the following day. When she did go to get her documents faxed, the line was busy, but she was not told. All the time, staff knew that she had no money and that she was walking to and from the jobcentre each day.

That brings me to the issue of photocopying—I can hardly believe that I am talking in the House of Commons about a photocopier at Mitcham jobcentre, but I am. In one particular incident, someone was told to fill in a form, but they were informed they could not do so on the premises. They were forced to leave and to stand on the pavement outside while they completed the form. When they returned, they were told that it had to be copied. There was a photocopier right there, just a few feet away, and there seemed to be many staff in the office. However, the person was told that if they wanted to use the photocopier, they would once again have to leave the jobcentre and stand on the pavement outside. They had to use their mobile to phone Edinburgh to arrange to use the photocopier, which was only a few feet away in the jobcentre. Eventually, they got through to staff in Edinburgh, who booked a spot an hour and a half later on the photocopier, which was right there in Mitcham. If something like that had happened to Victor Meldrew, we would not believe it, but it is routine at Mitcham jobcentre.

From the feedback that local groups and I have obtained, it appears that the worst advice is given to lone parents and to anyone looking for training rather than work. Lone parent advisers and personal advisers often do not know about courses that are available or they provide inaccurate information. Obviously, it is not just the jobcentre that runs courses, and many organisations and colleges also run them, but staff at Mitcham jobcentre do not seem to know which courses they sponsor. There is no written material to advise clients, who are often told to trawl through large numbers of prospectuses, even though they do not know what they are looking for or what might be there for them.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are examples of Mitcham jobcentre enrolling someone on an external course, saying that it includes child care, only for the parent to turn up and discover that it does not. With all the other pressures on young parents, such mistakes are extremely disheartening.

There is also the case of a young woman who was not able to pass any exams at school. She went to see her lone parent adviser to suggest that she wanted to be a beautician. The adviser apparently frowned at her and insisted that she should redo her GCSEs instead, even though it was far more likely that she would get work if she got training.

Many staff seem either not to know about particular jobs, training opportunities or benefits or to be unwilling to let people know about them. I regularly hear people say that they are not told about benefits such as in-work credit, which is an excellent Government initiative. It is a fixed tax-free payment of £60 a week—in London—for parents bringing up children alone and working at least 16 hours a week, and it is payable for up to 52 weeks on top of earnings. The problem is that people must claim before they start work, and the claim form must be completed and returned to the jobcentre within five weeks of starting work. If jobcentres such as Mitcham will not let their clients know that they might be eligible, clients could potentially lose out on £3,000, which is unfair. After all, £3,000 would make a real difference to someone’s chances of staying in work.

I have also been told of several instances of clients not being informed of the discretionary funds that might be available to them, to help to pay for an interview suit, or for such things as fares and child care. It is as though a client needs to find out their entitlement, because the jobcentre will not let them know. Mrs. L came to see me because she had finally got a job but did not have the money for a suit or her travelcard. Mitcham jobcentre’s response was to suggest that she should ask her new employer for the money up front. I am not sure that that is living in the real world. Clients are made to feel that they, not the jobcentre, should do the research and find out what is available for them.

Even when the advice is not wrong, and my constituents are not discouraged from applying, I often hear stories about Mitcham jobcentre miscalculating what people might be entitled to. One great thing that the Government have brought about is that people who are thinking about working are given an illustration of how much better off they will be. Many people in Mitcham and Morden have complex lives, with child care to worry about, and very high housing costs. The cost of housing in London is a particular problem, and merits an Adjournment debate of its own. It is a serious worry and can be a big disincentive to working. That is all the more reason to get the figures right at the beginning. The Government’s tax credits are an enormous help to people looking for work, but if someone is advised that they will take home a certain amount, and they budget for that amount, a big mistake is not necessary for debts to mount up. Someone need not be many weeks behind on the rent for the debt to be more than £1,000. I am told by the citizens advice bureau that the biggest problems with calculations are with jobseeker’s allowance and tax credits. The problem is frequently due to poor training.

Getting bad advice is catastrophic enough, but unfortunately I have come across several examples of Mitcham jobcentre treating people in a way that would not be acceptable elsewhere. A local community group has given me the feedback it has obtained from people after they have gone to the jobcentre in Mitcham. They say that they are made to feel dumb or stupid and are not treated with courtesy or respect. They feel exasperated, saying “I did not know where to go next.” Understandably, people are unwilling to complain. They are nervous that it will affect their benefits, and they feel intimidated.

Mr. E from Morden recently contacted me to say that he had been out of work for more than six months. His story illustrates the discourtesy of the jobcentre, and the mistakes that it makes. He had child care responsibilities that meant that he could not work full time. He told me that he was pressured by Mitcham jobcentre to forgo his parental responsibilities or lose his benefits. Eventually it was he who found out about the new Government self-employment credit, which gives £50 a week if someone sets up as self-employed, to help them through the difficult first months in business. He told me that that was ideal for his circumstances, as he would be able to fit his work around his parenting responsibilities. Mitcham jobcentre had not told him about it. Indeed, he says that when he asked about it the staff did not seem to want to help. Mr. E says that he is the only person at Mitcham currently on that benefit, even though one would think it might be of interest to many people in a similar position.

I have also received complaints about form-filling. Staff will not help people to complete forms. That is not only unfriendly and unhelpful, but it leads to problems down the line, as some forms can be difficult to complete, even for those with a good standard of English. Mr. H and Ms B came to see me with a story about something that happened when they were in the jobcentre. Another client, with poor reading, asked staff for help with an application form for a job at Asda. The jobcentre staff refused, so Mr. H completed the form on the gentleman’s behalf, and he got the job within the next few days. What is worse, incorrectly completed forms lead to delays in people receiving payments, or to people getting the wrong amounts, and perhaps having to repay money that they no longer have, so why will staff not help?

I have heard of numerous instances of forms being lost or not being received. One man’s form was lost five times between Mitcham and Makerfield, where the forms are processed. When that happens, there is poor communication with Mitcham jobcentre. It is often difficult to get through to Makerfield. The onus always seems to be on the claimant and not the jobcentre to sort things out. There is an 0845 or 0800 number, but such numbers are not free to people calling from their mobile, and it always takes a long time to get through. Someone ringing the number must get through a lengthy automated inquisition, and pressing the wrong button means they have hung up, and must start over again. I am concerned about the use of 08 numbers for Government services. The people who most need them tend to be mobile users, who do not get 08 numbers free, or as part of their inclusive minutes. Several pounds can go down the drain even before a real person answers. The use of 08 numbers is a tax on benefit claimants; they should be free to all mobile users or changed to geographic numbers that are free.

I cannot believe that in this debate I must raise the issue of toilets. Even though claimants can often be expected to wait at the jobcentre for a long time, they are not allowed to use the toilet. Staff tell them to go to the pub or the betting shop, even when, as in the case of a young Muslim woman accompanied by children, that will cause considerable offence. Asking people to go to the pub or betting shop is inappropriate not just for the clients but for local businesses.

I could go on much longer, with example after example of poor service or advice, and that is why, last month, I held a meeting with the managers at Mitcham jobcentre, including the district manager at Jobcentre Plus. I was joined by a co-ordinator from Commonside community development trust. Commonside is an excellent and popular community group, based in Pollards Hill, one of the least affluent areas in my constituency. Its staff have been trained on benefits advice, and they often deal with people who have been bypassed by conventional sources of help. We outlined many of the cases and concerns that I have raised today, and promised to keep letting the jobcentre know when it got things wrong. Sadly, however, I have not noticed an improvement, and as the local MP and the Government’s eyes and ears on the ground I want to use this opportunity to make Ministers aware of the gap between what the Government hope for, and the reality for people who need help in Mitcham and Morden.

I cannot say whether the difficulties experienced by my constituents are unique to Mitcham, or whether they apply more widely. After all, my local jobcentre is the only one about which I receive complaints. However, it sometimes gives bad or incomplete advice, and on occasions the advice is given discourteously and disrespectfully. Perhaps that is due to poor training. Perhaps it is the culture of the jobcentre. However, clients often feel that they are treated as a nuisance, rather than as real people who want the best opportunities for their families. The Government have introduced some wonderful initiatives that should be a great help to people looking for work or training. Good public services matter to us and to my constituents. However, unless the people on the ground are as helpful, imaginative and thoughtful as the initiatives themselves, they will not deliver all they could.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing the debate. I am sorry that she has, as we have just heard, a long list of complaints, and that she feels that the people who work in Mitcham jobcentre are ill equipped and have, at times, a poor attitude. I pay tribute to the 54 staff who work there. They deal with 3,000 claimants a month and, according to the measures that I have seen, they do a good job in one of the top-performing jobcentres in one of the top-performing districts in the country. That is why my hon. Friend’s remarks are of great concern to me.

In the period in which she has represented her constituents my hon. Friend has, I know, had by and large a good relationship with the jobcentre; she has visited several times and has been assiduous in representing her constituents there. I hope that she will continue to feel able to raise individual cases directly with the local manager. Obviously, staff are currently dealing with an increased footfall of people coming to use the services, as a result of the global recession.

The most devastating effect of any recession is its impact on families and individuals. When someone loses their job it can create a domino effect, leading to uncertainty around home life and putting stress on relationships. It can be a very worrying time, which is why the Government put such emphasis on getting people back into work. Similarly, for people trying to get back on their feet, people who have been out of work for a long period, or those who need help in finding appropriate child care or managing a health condition, the recession can make those first steps into a job just a little harder, as competition for work increases.

For the Government, unemployment will never be a price worth paying. That is why we have invested an additional £3 billion in Jobcentre Plus services since November. That extra money means that Jobcentre Plus has been able to recruit 7,000 staff and will add a further 9,000 to its work force by October. Staff have been recruited on the basis of local need.

In the last decade unemployment in Mitcham fell to historically low levels. At its lowest point, at the end of 2007, 2.1 per cent of the local population was unemployed. As a result of the global recession, that has crept up; it now stands at 3.8 per cent. However, it is worth noting that although youth claimant unemployment has increased by 1 per cent., long-term youth claimant unemployment has fallen by 75 per cent. since 1997, which shows that Jobcentre Plus is turning even young people around quickly and getting them back into work. The employment rate has risen in Mitcham by 5.6 per cent., and the number claiming lone parent benefit has fallen by 16 per cent. A long list of statistics shows that in Mitcham, as elsewhere in the country, the service has been effective in helping people back into work.

As I said, the number of staff in Mitcham has been increased from 44 to 54. As of yesterday, it extended its opening hours by one hour and will now stay open until 6 pm, Monday to Friday. Those additional resources mean that, despite increased demand for services in Mitcham, new claimants still get a first interview within three days and new claims will be processed in just over 10 days. Investment in Mitcham will continue. A further nine staff have been recruited and are expected to start work before September.

We have demonstrated that Jobcentre Plus is able to adapt to current economic circumstances and deal with the increased number of customers. Indeed, despite twice as many people claiming jobseeker’s allowance as claimed it two years ago, benefits are paid sooner and half of new claimants still leave JSA within three months. Significantly, the changes that we made over the past decade meant that when the recession hit we were able to respond to the new demands, delivering all the new help that has been developed as well as the ongoing support that we are giving to disadvantaged groups.

We are determined not to repeat the mistakes made in previous recessions, when many people were left to fend for themselves and expectations on them were lowered. For example, in the early 1980s, the conditionality for unemployment benefit was relaxed so that it was no longer necessary to register at a jobcentre to receive benefit, and it is estimated that the claimant count in 1986 could have been as much as 4 percentage points higher than if that had not been the case. A similar increase in the claimant count today would equate to about £4.5 billion of benefit expenditure. It is estimated that the active measures that we have taken during the recession have resulted in unemployment being 500,000 lower than would have been the case if we had done nothing.

I am concerned that my hon. Friend feels that people in Mitcham and Morden are not getting the high level of support that she and I would want. Mitcham Jobcentre Plus has four lone parent advisers. I know that lone parents are a great concern of my hon. Friend; she regularly speaks about them in the House. Those advisers are specially qualified, and trained to recognise the particular barriers faced by lone parents and to help them gain access to additional support so that they can get back into work. A vast programme of comprehensive training helps Jobcentre Plus advisers to understand the pressures on lone parents; it includes a one-day workshop delivered by the lobby group Gingerbread, which has particular expertise in the subject. It seeks to break down stereotypes and educate advisers on the particular child care problems that lone parents face.

The Government are committed to ensuring that their policies support the well-being of children and families. Only last week, in the other place the Government introduced a series of amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill that do just that. They set in primary legislation the fact that the well-being of a child must be taken into account when a jobseeker’s agreement or action plan is drawn up with a parent, and that victims of domestic violence will be exempt from meeting jobseeker’s allowance conditions for the first three months. We have included a commitment in the Bill that those conditions will not be extended to parents of children under three years of age.

There is a disjuncture between the figures and the reality as seen by my constituents. Is my hon. Friend interested in visiting the jobcentre in my constituency and talking to some of the local groups in order to understand their feelings? The purpose of today’s debate is not to criticise the Government’s initiatives but merely to say that they should be carried through to effect and that people’s experience of them is important. I therefore extend my offer.

I am always grateful for such invitations. I was about to make a similar suggestion. I know that one bad experience of a jobcentre can colour a person’s view of the entire service. I do not want to underestimate the seriousness of my hon. Friend’s complaints. It is a challenge to deal with an increased number of customers and to recruit and train staff to make every contact with Jobcentre Plus satisfying for our customers. It is a challenge that I want us to be able to meet.

The target for customer satisfaction is currently 86 per cent.—a magical figure—and nationally we are achieving 89 per cent. We use mystery shoppers to sample customer service at jobcentres. I shall certainly ensure that that occurs in Mitcham, and I am happy to try to find time in my diary to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and discuss with her some of the cases at the Mitcham jobcentre. My hon. Friend will know better than me the support and training that is available in her constituency. I hope that the staff of the local Jobcentre Plus are as expert as she is, and that they can advise all customers, and not only lone parents, on the opportunities available to them. However, if she believes that that is not being properly communicated to lone parents, or to any other unemployed group in her area, I would be happy to meet her.

Finally, I alert my hon. Friend to some of the excellent outreach work being organised by Jobcentre Plus in her area. I would not want those listening to our debate or reading about it in the official record to think that all is bleak in Mitcham. As I said earlier, Mitcham is a high-performing office.

My hon. Friend will know that Mitcham has a large Somali community, and that 70 per cent. claim benefits, many because they are lone parents. Since last September, Jobcentre Plus has been working with community leaders, the Merton racial equality partnership, local authority representatives and the police to promote the support on offer to that community. That includes providing interpreters, organising network events with Jobcentre Plus specifically for the Somali community, and promoting the benefits of a diverse work force to local employers.

In the next few weeks, lone parent outreach workers will be joining staff at the Lavender centre, one of the Government’s excellent new children centres, where they will be able to reach more lone parents and offer personalised back-to-work support in a neutral setting. A further two advisers will begin working from Mitcham community centre, and another will be placed in Carshalton college. In addition, the local jobcentre has forged a number of local employment partnership agreements with key employers, including Merton council, the Metropolitan police and Morrisons, as well as hundreds of small businesses. Local employment partnerships are a great way to support the local community. Not only do they give local people access to jobs, but the links built between people and businesses benefit the whole area.

My hon. Friend raised a series of complaints, some of which will be disputed by the staff and the manager at the Mitcham jobcentre. However, I promise to explore her complaints. Some were caused by problems at the processing centre in Makerfield. I have been told that crisis loan processing takes one and a half days. Due to its nature we must ensure that it is processed quickly and that people get their money as soon as possible. I will look into my hon. Friend’s accusations of staff having a lack of imagination and taking a poor attitude: imagination and attitude are important for staff seeking to get people back into work.

My hon. Friend mentioned faxes, photocopiers, toilets and so on. I discussed photocopying before coming here this morning, and I understand that there are problems with staff being diverted to photocopy documents. However, if someone is in desperate need of a photocopy, perhaps to meet a deadline, there should be some flexibility in how the rule is applied. I am happy to continue exploring those issues.

My hon. Friend also asked about the use of 0800 and 0845 phone numbers. The permanent secretary to the Department is actively pursuing that with the mobile phone operators. I share some of her concerns on that matter. Some of our most needy claimants do not have access to a landline but use a mobile phone. We must ensure that the 0800 and 0845 services that we offer are fully accessible to them at no cost. That is our aspiration, but we are having to explore the matter with the phone companies.

I thank my hon. Friend for an interesting debate. I expect that some of the issues raised today, although very much focused on her constituency, are of interest to others in the House, because tackling unemployment is the key Government priority during the recession. The active measures that we are taking have resulted in a performance in respect of unemployment that contrasts with that in previous recessions. The use of fiscal stimulus and the difficult decision to invest £5 billion, which only the Labour party supports, are resulting in unemployed people being turned around much more quickly in Mitcham and Morden and elsewhere. Ultimately, I am sure that that is supported by all my right hon. and hon. Friends.