Time to reform the JSA

In December 1998, the Unemployment Unit & Youthaid launched a campaign calling for substantial reforms to the Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA). It is backed by an alliance of trade unions (TUC, Unison, PCS and TGWU) voluntary groups and other national lobby organisations. Enclosed with this edition of Working Brief is a copy of the campaign document which was unveiled at the TUC's Conference of Unemployed Centres.

The organisations backing the campaign are the core of a group who lobbied against the original JSA legislation during its Parliamentary passage and who helped the (then) Opposition front bench. Led by Ian McCartney and Keith Bradley, they tore into the Tories with a real ferocity and we now hope that many of their trenchant criticisms of the legislation can be put right.

However, we know where the new Government stands. It will not outrightly repeal the JSA Act. Instead Labour's election manifesto pledged only to "review the working of JSA". We want to take them at face value - and this campaign is designed to prompt Ministers into undertaking that review.

What are they likely to change? Firstly we know how tight the Treasury is with public spending. So, our proposals - which will not significantly affect Government expenditure - cannot be rejected on cost grounds alone. But Labour shows signs of adopting much of the JSA regime because it happens to suit the welfare reform political project. New Labour has re-emphasised the "rights and responsibilities" agenda and has placed an overwhelming emphasis on job readiness and workseeking activity. Its approach is ably summed up in the omnipresent slogan "work for those who can; security for those who cannot".

Ministers have used the JSA sanction regime as the basis for New Deal penalties - creating a power that actually toughens the JSA rules even further. And we may see further claimant obligations announced in the Queen's Speech on November 24th: requirements that partners of the unemployed make themselves available for work plus the hints and announcements that lone parents on IS or disabled people on ICB will need to undergo an ability-to-work assessment.

In this context it might be difficult to persuade Ministers to relax the stringent jobseeking rule or to soften the effect of sanctions. So, what we propose are changes which can help the Government's welfare-to-work policies succeed.

JSA is steeped in the ideology of the Conservatives and is out of step with the new social inclusion policies. The JSA is an inflexible benefit system which must be reformed and come into line with a flexible labour market. It sits uneasily with the New Deal programmes too. These involve individually tailored advice along with a choice of quality options. But the JSA rules contain little room for flexibility and take a blanket approach to unemployed people often requiring them to undertake meaningless jobsearch activity.

In the last edition of Working Brief we showed that - in the first 3 months - no claimants had refused to attend Gateway or enter a New Deal option leading to a loss of benefit. In private, Ministers probably feel that "sanctions work" and the JSA's draconian powers are a useful back stop.

But the JSA was not meant as a "reserve power" to be used with discretion. Items in the Employment Service's Annual Performance Agreement (APA) underlined this point. Targets for referral to adjudication were introduced by the Conservatives that required at least 145,000 people to lose benefit for non compliance with formalistic jobseeking and availability rules. This was dropped straight away by the incoming Government - although we suspect that ad hoc targets are still being used by regional ES managers. The Government also dumped the target to ensure a 'positive outcome' for 43% of claimants invited to an advisory 'Restart' interview after 12 months of unemployment. As only about 5% of outcomes involved entering a job, this crude target encouraged all types of sign-offs including having a benefit penalty imposed.

These APA changes have been good news. So too were Ministers' decisions to end "front-line" adjudication from April of this year and to drop the planned extension of the JSA waiting period from 3 to 7 days.

These sort of changes need to continue so that welfare-to-work can succeed. For example, a looser definition of jobseeking is needed to include wider types of activity and to allow Employment Service advisors more flexibility to permit jobhunting that is better tailored to the individual claimant. We also want to see a reduction to the hardship faced by claimants who fall foul of the rules. And we think claimants should keep more of their earnings from casual or part-time work whilst unemployed.

We support many of the New Deal programmes and have welcomed the changes which are transforming the Employment Service and its approach to unemployed people. But JSA represents a throwback to the last Government's punitive policies. Without substantial reform it will remain a stumbling block to making the new Government's policies a success.