Parents claiming universal credit are required to pay childcare fees upfront, then claim the money back, which leaves them at risk of falling into debt. To help parents on the lowest incomes stay in work, the government plans to pay these childcare costs upfront – much-needed changes set to be implemented in September 2024.
‘She was saying I had to take any job that is available’
When Mpongo first signed on to the government’s Jobcentre Plus service, she explained that her childcare responsibilities limited the kind of work she could take on.
“I was telling them that the times I can work were the most important thing, but they weren’t listening to me,” she said. “I can’t leave my child alone to go to work, I can only work according to the hours my sister is free.”
New research from the Institute for Employment Studies and abrdn Financial Fairness Trust found many job seekers were critical of the approach taken by Jobcentre Plus, which they said pressures users to take any job, rather than helping them find the most suitable and sustainable role for them. Benefits are currently conditional on claimants spending 35 hours a week working on job applications, regardless of how appropriate the position is.
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“[One job coach] said I had to take any job that is available, even if it is full time, and when I am in the job, I can explain my situation and ask to reduce the hours… But I don’t think it works like that. It’s better to tell them the truth from the beginning,” she added.
Mpongo’s situation exposes deep-seated problems with government thinking on employment. The current strategy is often frustrating and demeaning for applicants, alienating for potential employers, and heaps pressure on Jobcentre Plus staff.
A focus on compliance means that Jobcentre Plus work coaches spend more time monitoring jobseekers than helping them, according to the report. The proportion of benefits claimants facing sanctions is now double that of 2019.
It’s increasingly a numbers game for staff, meaning that they struggle for the time needed to deal with the nuances of a case like Mpongo’s. Back in March a pilot scheme was launched in 60 branches of Jobcentre Plus offering staff who get the most people back into work £250 in vouchers.
The pilot also made it compulsory for universal credit claimants who have been on the benefit for 13 weeks to visit a job centre every weekday for a fortnight for “intensive support”. Failure to attend could lead to sanctions. Currently, UC claimants are required to attend once a week for the first three months and once a fortnight from then on.
The Public and Commercial Services Union’s (PCS) DWP group president, Martin Cavanagh, claimed the government was hellbent on making it more difficult for people to claim benefits, adding, “asking more customers to travel more often into job centres does nothing to help our staff or their workloads”. Last week, the PCS union rejected the DWP’s 2023 pay award for civil servants, saying it fails to address inequalities in the system.
‘Before the interview, we were talking every day for a week’
It’s unsurprising then, that job coaches struggling against the system turn to outside help. Two years after she began the process, one of Mpongo’s job coaches recommended she speak to Big Issue Recruit, telling her: “I’m sure they will help you.”
Mpongo was introduced to Shak Dean, a job coach at Big Issue Recruit. He listened to what she needed in a job and lined up four interviews for suitable roles.
“Before the interview, we were talking every day for a week. He told me I could call him anytime,” she said. “Before the interview, I wanted to practise my English so that’s what we were doing. He would tell me some professional words and I would write them down.”
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Big Issue Recruit even paid for her transport to the interview, and Dean made sure her Oyster card was topped up so she could travel to work until her first paycheck. “They were a really, really big help,” she says.
In her first interview, Mpongo secured a role working as a catering assistant in Central London, where she works three days a week from 8am until 4.30pm.
“Sandrine has a great attitude and a genuine drive to improve her situation,” Dean says. “Her manager has fed back that he and the team are extremely happy with her progress. He has high hopes for her to progress onto other roles.”
The flexibility of the role allows her to do work she enjoys, cooking, while still taking care of her son. “If I have the chance to go further, I will do it,” she said.
Big Issue Recruit is a specialist recruitment service, dedicated to supporting people who face barriers to joining the workforce into sustainable employment. It is a person-centred service and free to candidates, supporting individuals pre-, during and post-employment.
On signing up, candidates are partnered with a personal job coach to understand their needs and goals, build confidence, skills and resilience and coach them through the selection process, to secure the roles that are suitable for them – meaning that employers can find the right candidate who is more likely to stay in the position for longer.
Job coaches work with candidates post placement, to establish a good relationship with their new employer and support them to thrive in their new role.
Nearing its one-year anniversary, Big Issue Recruit is well on course in its mission to bring people from a more diverse range of backgrounds into the job market. Big Issue Recruit has supported 109 candidates in their job search, put 80 jobseekers forward for interviews, and enabled 43 people to secure positive employment.
To find out how Big Issue Recruit could help you into employment, or help your business to take a more inclusive approach to recruitment, click here.
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