Written evidence from the Welfare at a (Social) Distance research project
Dr Jo Ingold, Prof Lisa Scullion, Dr Ben Baumberg Geiger, Dr Daniel Edmiston, Dr Kate Summers, Dr David Robertshaw, Dr David Young, Dr Eleni Karagiannaki, and Dr Rob De Vries
This written evidence is submitted on behalf of the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project. This is a major national research project investigating the benefits system during the COVID-19 pandemic, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19. The project comprises a nationally representative survey of benefit claimants; in-depth interviews with claimants; and local area case studies of support organisations. As such the project is uniquely placed to provide insights into how the social security benefits system is functioning during the pandemic.
The evidence is submitted by Dr Jo Ingold, Prof Lisa Scullion, Dr Ben Baumberg Geiger, Dr Daniel Edmiston, Dr Kate Summers, Dr David Robertshaw, Dr David Young, Dr Eleni Karagiannaki, and Dr Rob De Vries, from the universities comprising the study: University of Salford, University of Kent, University of Leeds, Deakin University, and the London School of Economics.
In addition to our responses to the Committee’s specific questions below, we would be very happy to provide any supplementary information that may be of use. We would also be happy to provide oral evidence to the Committee.
Welfare at a (Social) Distance is a major national research project investigating the benefits system during the COVID-19 pandemic, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19. For more information on the project or to contact the team, please visit http://hub.salford.ac.uk/welfare-at-a-social-distance/
1.1. Understanding who needs support – questioning the ‘claimant count’
1.2. In order to deliver against its objectives in providing employment support, DWP needs to have access to data that provides an accurate picture of who needs support and what type of support they need. The benefits (or ‘social security’) system is a critical gateway to employment support.
1.3. At present, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) ‘claimant count’ is the existing estimate of the number of people who are claiming unemployment related benefits. This is based on the numbers of people in the ‘Searching for Work’ conditionality group on UC, added to the numbers claiming JSA.
1.4. However, there are a number of existing issues with the claimant count:
1.5. The idea behind the ‘claimant count’ is important – DWP needs to know how many people are unemployed and claiming benefits – but at the present time, we need an alternative measure. This alternative measure needs to be clear about what is meant by ‘unemployment’. The standard definition – based on whether people lack a job, are looking for work and are available to start work – was not designed for these unusual times. The first rapid report of our project offers an alternative count of the number who are unemployed and claiming benefits.1
1.6. Understanding the support that is needed
1.7. The majority of new UC / JSA claimants from May and June 2020 who were looking for work expressed a strong need for employment support. Two-thirds (67%) of those looking for work at this time said they would find employment support useful. This included: support in thinking about sorts of jobs they could do; searching for jobs online; writing a CV / interview skills; or improving skills / getting training.2
1.8. Our evidence makes clear that personalised coaching support is needed, particularly in relation to helping individuals think about how their skills and experience could be translated into another occupational sector.
1.9. Beyond this, other types of support are also required by new claimants, as the figure below shows.
1.10 From our qualitative data with organisations delivering support, we found that in some cases, additional support had been introduced to support clients with COVID-specific challenges, such as support for ‘re-entry anxiety’ (after prolonged social isolation), and strategies for managing children at home. Some organisations used training to explicitly foster an online sense of community and combat loneliness, but there was an employability agenda linked to this too. One participant suggested that regular sessions promoted confidence, presentation skills and the maintenance of a routine. Practical support around interview preparation was also changing in response to the emerging pandemic context.
1.11 Despite the suspension of job-search requirements during the pandemic and 2020 lockdown in the UK and an extraordinary drop in job vacancies, the majority of workless new UC/JSA claimants (59%) are looking for work. They need help in doing so, with a majority (67%) of new UC/JSA claimants saying that they needed employment support such as helping them to think about what jobs they could do or improving their skills/getting training.
2.1. Current benefit application support
2.2. Claimants also need support when making an application to initiate or sustain a claim for benefits. A recent report by the DWP showed that only 54% were able to submit a claim online unassisted, while 43% said they needed more support when registering their claim3. Again, this is a critical issue given that the benefits system leads to the provision of employment support.
2.3. There are considerable differences in the number of claimants receiving support across different groups. As shown below, for both existing and new claimants those claiming Employment Support Allowance (ESA) were most likely to have received support.
2.4. There are demographic differences in those receiving support. Based on our evidence, 18-24 year olds are most likely to receive support, with just over a third (34.4%) receiving support compared to just 20.7% of those aged 55-64. Likewise, those with a health problem or disability are more likely to receive support (42.6%) compared to those without (21.9%).
2.5. This support comes from a variety of sources, mostly social. For example, over half of new claimants drew on the help of their partner (53.7%). This underlines the importance of familial, household and friendship networks in supporting claimants. This is important because the quality and nature of support received can affect whether a successful application is made. Figure 3 below shows the sources of support received.
2.6. We found that the new cohort of COVID-19 claimants were initially younger, more likely to be BAME and less likely to be experiencing a health condition or disability. Within this cohort, young people are more likely to access online and social media support, while BAME claimants are much more likely to access remote forms of benefit support (25.9% of BAME claimants who received support accessed help online compared to 11.9% of white claimants; 38.8% accessed help over the phone compared to 24% of white claimants).
2.7. A substantial minority of new UC claimants were self-employed before the crisis (33% were self-employed compared to 48% who were employed and 19% who were not working). Additionally, over 50% of those in couples claimed partly because they or their partner were self-employed and could not get enough work.
2.8. The most common type of support received by new claimants was to understand if the claimant was eligible, followed by support in making the claim, as shown in figure 4.
2.9. In addition to Jobcentres, our research revealed the extent to which ecosystems of support at local levels play a key role in individuals’ claims for benefit and in their journey towards employment. Of those receiving support, 44.3% of claimants receive help from those working within local authorities and council welfare rights services. These organisations have been under considerable pressure to adapt and collaboration between organisations within local networks has been crucial to sustaining service delivery for changing needs.
2.10. Many participants highlighted changes in the nature of the employment support they were offering. Others noticed clear differences in relation to new clients, who presented as younger, ‘more desperate to get back into work’, were struggling financially, higher-skilled, and wished to change sector. Even when clients had jobs ‘on the table’, these were often associated with uncertainty.
2.11. Business engagement in employment support is critical
2.12. Supporting people into work and supporting business are two sides of the same coin, yet employment, skills and business support are provided by different government departments. Currently, there are too many programmes competing for businesses’ attention and employers do not want to engage with these programmes if: i) there are significant transaction costs to their engagement; ii) there are not clear business benefits; and iii) they do not know how to engage.4
2.13. Our qualitative interviews with support organisations highlighted a lack of vacancies as the primary challenge facing their role in the immediate context, with concerns raised about the types of vacancies available in the medium to longer term. Insecure job offers and an uncertain labour market also posed problems for effective employment support. With a collapse in particular sectors of the labour market, and widespread reservations about using public transport, the prospects for widespread success were viewed as limited.
2.14. Multiple participants also mentioned that their services had seen an increase in enquiries relating to employment rights, specifically where employers had circumvented employee rights, using the pandemic ‘as an excuse to get rid of people’, or breaches of health and safety guidelines in physical workplaces. This is concerning and it is important that DWP recognises this in their service delivery.
2.15. Businesses report confusion over the number of employment support programmes and providers. While Kickstart is a great opportunity for businesses and individuals, it is an opportunity that could be wasted if the barriers to business engagement in programmes of this nature – especially smaller businesses – are not recognised. Programmes that seek to respond to COVID, but critically the post-COVID employment schemes need to better incentivise employer engagement.5
2.16. Having a separate employer engagement team is a good model to adopt within Jobcentre Plus offices, but DWP should ensure that attention is paid to the skills of its employability practitioners and recognition paid to the fact that people who are skilled at working with job seekers may not necessarily be skilled at engaging employers.
3.1. The changing demographics of the COVID claimant cohort
3.2. Since the beginning of March 2020, the claimant count in the UK increased by 116.8%, rising from 1.2 million to 2.7 million in just five months. The majority of new claims have been for UC, but also include other unemployment-related out-of-work benefits. Our research has found that those claiming during the pandemic are more likely to be younger, more highly educated and less likely to have a disability.6
3.3. Specifically, we found that the composition of the new cohort of COVID-19 claimants is likely to be:
3.4. This cohort of claimants has different needs, notably: they are likely to experience a greater level of income shock when moving onto benefits and they have variegated employment histories and potential future trajectories. Many in this cohort will likely have little experience of social security, and may need access to support when understanding eligibility or for applications, as noted in section 2 above.
3.5. It remains to be seen whether the distinctive characteristics of existing and new claimant groups will endure over time. In the medium term, however, the demographic profile of new claimants highlights a unique set of challenges facing DWP. Without recognising and acting on the differences, DWP runs the risk of exacerbating unequal access to employment support throughout the course of the pandemic. It could be assumed that those claimant groups such as working backgrounds, higher professional status and owner occupiers are likely to find it easier to ‘bounce back’ after the pandemic, but their ability to do so will only be as good as the health of the sectors they intend to return to or move into. Further attention is needed on the distinctive income, employment and support needs of these new claimants, as well as the demand-side (employer) aspects.
3.6. That being said, it is worth highlighting a note of caution that DWP does not give disproportionate attention to new benefit claimants affected by the pandemic and there are many existing claimants who need significant support. Our project will continue to explore how both groups fare in terms of navigating the benefit system and their capacity to ‘bounce back’ over the next 18 months.
3.7. It is also worth noting that the COVID pandemic has changed the organisational capacity of organisations that provide support to benefit claimants. This has been particularly acute where the support service relied on volunteers, many of whom were forced to socially isolate in the early stages of the pandemic.
3.8. Our research with organisations delivering support highlighted that the pandemic accelerated transitioning of services online. Overall, client engagement had improved with remote delivery due to the absence of geographical constraints or clients being more comfortable with online sessions. However, remote delivery of employment support posed similar challenges to other forms of support in terms of consent, rapport and the quality of interactions and for some, online delivery poses a significant barrier that should not be underestimated.
3.9. Blended models of delivery were under consideration for the future. Changing organisational capabilities, pressures on services, and socially distanced support were all highlighted as concerns in terms of an uncertain future for both clients and the local ecosystems of support that they access. Employment support is a human service that cannot solely, and should not, be fully digitised. The implications of a longer-term transition towards remote or hybrid systems of benefits, employment and crisis support are significant and wide-ranging.
3.10. It should be noted that according to our research the significant increase in demand from new claimants as a result of COVID was also accompanied by a lack of contact with existing clients as those with complex needs were struggling to access remote support as well as adequate financial assistance. Three key groups have been identified as particularly vulnerable by participants in our research: people with digital literacy or digital access issues; people for whom English was not their first language; and people with No Recourse to Public Funds.
3.11. The implications of a longer-term transition towards remote or even hybrid systems of benefits, employment and crisis support are significant and wide-ranging. Given the overarching direction of DWP’s service delivery being ‘digital by default’ for UC, the trajectory for the employment support sector as a whole is less clear. It appears that it is currently largely incumbent on employability and skills sector organisations to judge the extent of face-to-face and digitalised support that needs to be offered to customers.
3.12. There is a risk that a permanent shift to remote delivery of support is seen as a core focus of cost reduction. However, potential savings on overheads will likely be replaced by spending on digital infrastructure, while staff and volunteer management would become more resource intensive. Further, many claimants rely on the delivery of face-to-face support, particularly those with more complex needs. Research from our related project Digitalisation of Employment Services in the UK and Australia7 suggests concerns amongst both employment service providers and developers of technology for the sector about the costs of digital service provision on an ongoing basis, on cybersecurity and on digital access and digital literacy for customers.
3.13. Our research respondents suggested that the subsequent withdrawal of COVID-specific measures will be associated with considerable pressure of their services. The majority of our participants mentioned concerns about the withdrawal of the £20 ‘uplift’ to UC, the end of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, and the end of the moratorium on evictions. It was anticipated that withdrawal of these measures would lead to a surge in problems of extreme poverty, debt, unemployment, repossessions, and evictions. This is likely to have a significant bearing upon individuals’ needs for support, with issues other than employment needing to be addressed first.
3.14. DWP’s work, particularly through its network of Jobcentres, is a key part of the local ecosystems of support that we have identified throughout our research. It is critical that the Department works with the other Government Departments of: Work and Pensions; Education; and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and with other organisations at national, regional and local levels to provide tailored employment support for individuals when they need it and, at the same time, to deliver good value for public money.