On Monday morning I was in Hammersmith. Welfare Reform minister Lord Freud hosted a session at the DWP’s flagship Job Centre, the go-to venue for anybody wanting to see the Coalition’s welfare reforms in action. Dozens of new Universal Credit (UC) claimants are being added to the books every week in this corner of west London. Advisers there are on message and on mission, and the technology, yes the technology, is working. This is the place the DWP points too when cynics argue the grand plan is doomed to fail.
At 8:55am, along with five others, I waited outside. I must admit it has to be one of the dullest buildings I’ve ever seen. Briefly I even wondered how many job seekers had seen this neo-communist block and made an about-turn over the years, fearing that their already fragile spirit might be broken completely once inside. Thankfully, by mid-morning, I had been reminded again just how misleading first impressions can be.
That rebuke wasn’t immediate though. Upon signing in I was whisked upstairs to a room with walls covered by organisational plans, implementation and delivery charts, newspaper clippings, timelines and lots of laminated things. Then Lord Freud, our MC for the morning, began. Here was the turning point.
He welcomed our latest group of delegates with admirable passion. For a politician who must have sat in that room with welfare tourists like me more often than his own office in recent months, he was energetic. He wasn’t robotic with the official lines – one could tell he believed in what we were about to see. This after all is a man who switched sides in order to get the job done – reporting for Blair and Purnell before becoming Iain Duncan Smith’s underrated minister. He talked about UC roll out – moving from individuals to couples to families; he mentioned the improved technology for claimants and he hailed the new Claimant Commitment (more on this below).
Then to the real business. The Centre’s Work Coaches were lined up behind their desks ready to talk us through the UC experience. My Coach, a 10 year JCP stalwart called Danny, was a born evangelist. He couldn’t get the words out quick enough. Logging in to his own Universal Jobmatch account he explained how he could now work with claimants in an entirely new way. He said this system and its technology is about getting them ready to operate in the real world and within the new UC approach. He can track activity, applications and communicate with claimants. He talked about the new Claimant Commitment and said it enables him to set clear expectations and boundaries. He acknowledged that some would struggle with being paid on a monthly basis, handling their rent and being online, but he felt confident the support was in place for the tough cases. Some are already getting that help he informed me. And he thought the guiding principles behind those changes were common sense. Referencing a few clients he’s working with at the moment he said something like: “…this is what I joined for – after 10 years we’re finally able to make a difference.”
In talking with Danny it was refreshing to cut through some of the hype and hysteria about Universal Credit and the new systems, even for just those few minutes. The endless theory, speculation, warnings and political knockabout is slowly being replaced by a working system. There are plenty of challenges to overcome between now and 2018 but the early operational signs are good. Here are three headline observations I made from my visit.
1. The welfare system is being dragged into the twenty first century
There’s no doubt some people will struggle to adjust to the ‘digital by default’ approach and the system changes which will demand much more personal responsibility. The DWP must ensure those people receive all the help they need to transition. But for the majority these changes will represent progress and bring dynamism to the process of looking for work. As Danny was quick to point out to me, job seeking has changed radically in the last few years and it is time the welfare system caught up. With access to apps, instant communication and online management for all kinds of business now, we must be ambitious for benefit claimants and help them to participate as fully as possible in these developments. If we don’t ready people for these methods before employment, many will crash out of a job as quickly as they find one.
2. The Claimant Commitment is transforming the way things work
Matt Ridley has written persuasively about the impact of the new Claimant Commitment here, which is now used for new job seekers in all Job Centres. All I would add is that Danny’s face lit up when I asked him about it. In effect it’s a simple paper contract between the job seeker and the State. Through it expectations are set for both sides – for the first time there is real clarity about two way street welfare. It seems to empower the Work Coaches and transform the way they can engage with those in their care.
3. We need more Dannys
Danny was not what I expected but is exactly what we need. Doing his job well requires genuine talent. Good Work Coaches will find a way to listen, inspire, challenge and strategise. They will help people to believe. Like a strong teacher they have to engender admiration, respect and a little fear. They need to master the technology and help others to utilise it. Like a good GP they will make the twentieth visitor of the day feel like they are the first. Universal Credit simplifies the system and makes work pay, but without strong Coaches to help people understand that and take risks, it could pass people by. Centres all over the land will need plenty of Dannys. I would argue that Job Centre reform should be on the grid for the next Parliament – we need to release people like him to do more good in people’s lives.
One of the more demoralising elements of the Universal Credit debate in Westminster is the lust with which many critics attack the project. Some, driven by political rather than poverty interest, are clearly longing for this to fail. They should head to west London and talk to people like Danny. He probably cares little for those games. He’s in the real world. He’s just getting on with it.
Four new facts about Universal Credit: