By Richard Johnstone | 13 February 2013
Jobcentre staff coped well with the rise in unemployment following the financial crisis but could still be more efficient, the National Audit Office has concluded.
The auditors found that between September 2008 and March 2009, the number of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants increased by two-thirds, from 900,000 to 1.5 million. During this time, Jobcentre Plus managed to maintain services without a large hike in costs or major performance problems, according to the NAO report.
This was in part due to the Department for Work and Pensions relaxing requirements on staff to allow them to prioritise benefit eligibility checks and ensure claimants were paid.
However, variations in caseloads between jobcentre staff at different locations meant there was still room for greater efficiency. Responding to change in jobcentres found that advisers dealt with an average of 168 cases in 2011/12, but there were variances of almost one-third between different offices.
There was also only limited information on how well individual jobcentres performed in supporting claimants to work. In around 40% of case files examined by the auditors, the reason why individuals stopped receiving the JSA was not recorded. Claimants could have found work, moved on to other benefits, been imprisoned or ceased claiming without taking up work.
As the DWP continued to develop jobcentre services ahead of the introduction of the new Universal Credit, it needed to better track the performance of personal job centre advisers, thereportconcluded.
‘The jobcentre network is a well-established operation and has shown its capacity to maintain services during a downturn,’ auditor general Amyas Morse said.
‘The Department for Work and Pensions must, however, improve how it understands performance, if it is to support claimants effectively. Simply measuring how many people end their claims for benefits does not reveal the true impact of jobcentre services.’
• The government has insisted that controversial welfare-to-work programmes will continue despite a ruling by the Court of Appeal that the regulations for the schemes were unlawful.
Two Jobseeker's Allowance claimants, Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson, challenged the legality of regulations governing a number of schemes.
The Jobseeker's Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations provide the basis for the government’s flagship Work Programme and also cover the Community Action Programme and sector-based work academies.
Both claimants said they had been threatened with losing some of their allowance if they did not take part in two of these work experience schemes.
Judges said that although it was not unlawful to require jobseekers to take part in such programmes, the current regulations did not meet statutory requirements.
Employment minister Mark Hoban said he was ‘disappointed and surprised at the court's decision on our regulations’.
The government would seek permission to appeal, he added, but new regulations would be tabled to avoid any uncertainty.
‘Ultimately the judgment confirms that it is right that we expect people to take getting into work seriously if they want to claim benefits,' Hoban added.