Memorandum submitted by Centrepoint (DM 21)

 

Summary

Homeless young people and Centrepoint frontline staff were interviewed to gather their experiences of the benefits decision-making process.

Most young people apply for benefits and receive a decision on their claim without major difficulties, but many of those interviewed identified inefficiencies in the system. A minority experience very serious problems which put them at risk of becoming homeless again.

A greater number of young people experience problems with their Jobcentre Plus benefits than with their housing benefit claims. Staff members commented that housing benefit offices were generally more responsive as they had a smaller caseload and it was easier to develop positive working relationships with assessors.

Many of the problems highlighted with claims made at Jobcentre Plus were down to administrative errors, such as forms getting lost on the way to the central JSA office in Glasgow.

Whether claimants found the process clear and easy to follow depended largely on which individual staff member they saw - the effect of the individual assessor or advisor appears to have a major effect on young people's experiences of the whole process.

Staff should therefore be better trained in customer service skills to ensure a more consistent level of service and take greater account of the needs of vulnerable young people.

Specialist young people's advisers were found to be very helpful, so such specialists should be available in all Jobcentres, and where necessary the administrative process should be made more flexible to accommodate the circumstances of vulnerable young people.

There are inconsistencies in how much documentation and information different individuals are required to submit for their claim to be processed. Young people are also sometimes given conflicting advice from different sources within DWP.

Jobcentre Plus and benefits call centre staff should therefore receive more detailed training about benefit eligibility criteria to ensure that all staff are working to the same set of rules.

Communication between assessors and claimants is often poor. Young people are not kept abreast of the process of their claims, and are often not told there is a problem with their claim until support staff call to query why it has not yet been processed. This can cause long delays which has a serious effect on young people's wellbeing.

The appeals process is seen as hard to access and unlikely to be successful, which deters many young people from making an appeal. Those who have used the process felt it was made deliberately difficult and found that the process was subject to repeated delays.

 

Introduction

 

1. Centrepoint is the leading national charity working with homeless young people aged 16 to 25. We are a registered social housing provider, a charity enterprise and a company limited by guarantee. Established 40 years ago, we provide accommodation and support to help homeless young people get their lives back on track. We work with around 800 young people a day and have over 30 services across London and the North East. Young people can stay at Centrepoint for up to two years, during which time they receive intensive support to help them develop the skills they need to live independently. All our work is informed by our distinctive support and development approach which responds to young people in a holistic way. To meet the broad range of young people's needs, our accommodation services are supported by specialist in-house learning and health teams.

 

2. The majority of the young people at Centrepoint receive housing benefit to help them pay for their accommodation at our services. Most are also in receipt of other welfare benefits such as Income Support, Jobseekers Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance to them meet their basic living costs. Few young people we work with receive any financial support from family or friends, and many find it difficult to find work due to the chaotic nature of homelessness and a lack of qualifications. Many are therefore entirely dependent on welfare benefits to support themselves as they try and rebuild their lives and move towards work and independent living.

 

3. We are delighted that the Work and Pensions select committee is conducting an inquiry into benefits decision-making and appeals as this is an area where many of the young people have experienced difficulties. Problems often arise from how Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) guidance is implemented on the ground, with local staff often failing to follow the guidelines properly.

 

4. To collect feedback on this topic, both young people and Centrepoint frontline staff were interviewed to understand their experiences of the benefits decision making process. This submission is a summary of the issues they raised.

 

Main findings

 

5. Interviews with staff and young people revealed that most young people apply for benefits and get a decision on their claim without major difficulties. Some, however, experience very serious problems which put them at risk of becoming homeless again, and the majority of young people have at least one example of how they found the benefits system to be inefficient or unclear.

 

6. On the whole, more problems were reported with Jobcentre Plus benefits than housing benefit, so the issues outlined below apply to Jobcentre Plus benefits unless otherwise indicated.

 

Inconsistency of information

 

7. It was apparent from the feedback that inconsistency of information is a significant problem. Young people and staff said that they had received contradictory information from the local Jobcentre and DWP call centres, and in some cases, even from different individuals from within a single Jobcentre. This contradictory information was given about a range of different aspects of decision-making process, but there was particular confusion about eligibility requirements and conditions for maintaining benefits. These inconsistencies often left young people confused and discouraged from pursuing their claims.

 

"The staff at Belfast [call centre] are better trained and more informative than those at the [local] jobcentre. There is frequently contradictory information offered from these two services."

Staff member

 

8. At times, information given to staff and young people was not only inconsistent but false. One young person was told by Jobcentre staff that he could not claim benefits because he was homeless, even though he could provide proof of residence at a Centrepoint hostel. Staff also reported examples of Jobcentre Plus staff giving false information to young people about what effect taking a job would have on their other benefits and overall income. It was felt that staff simply wanted to get young people working at any cost, without properly explaining the effect this would have on their housing situation, and exploring whether it would leave them at risk of homelessness.

 

"There is often misinformation from Jobcentre and DWP staff. Calling is difficult and there is no direct number. There is a distinctive lack of customer service".

Staff member

 

9. Centrepoint staff reported that it is sometime difficult to get clarification of eligibility criteria from DWP on what will and will not affect a young person's benefit. For example, one staff member said they had been trying for several months without success to get DWP to confirm what education young people could pursue under the 16 hour rule without risking losing their housing benefit entitlement. For example, staff enquired whether young people are allowed to do exactly 16 hours or whether it must be under 16 hours, whether homework hours count in the total course time limits, and whether Access courses are considered higher education. Staff have enquired with both the local housing benefit office and central DWP enquiry lines but nobody has been able to provide them with a firm answer of what exactly is permitted under the rule. It is important that staff have the correct information so that they can advise young people accurately, and so young people can make informed choices about what educational courses to pursue. The current situation all too often leads young people to choose not to pursue education for fear of losing their housing benefit and becoming homeless again.

 

10. Another problem with housing benefit, income support and JSA identified by Centrepoint staff was that different young people in almost identical situations can be asked for very different levels of proof in order for their claim to be successful. There is a feeling that requirements vary widely depending on which assessor is handling the claim.

 

11. This lack of clarity on the requirements for benefits means that there is a great deal of confusion among young claimants of what they are entitled and what documents they need to provide. Unfortunately the inconsistencies in approach also make it difficult for Centrepoint staff to advise them effectively.

 

Recommendations

12. To resolve this problem of inconsistency, Centrepoint believes that there should be improved training schemes for frontline Jobcentre Plus and call centre staff. Staff should be tested on benefit eligibility and requirements to ensure that their knowledge is sound enough to give reliable advice.

 

13. In addition, clarification should also be brought on issues where there is confusion, for example over what is permitted under the 16 hour rule. DWP needs to provide a clear, definitive list of requirements for all areas of benefits entitlement so that both DWP staff and support staff in organisations such as Centrepoint can advise young people accurately. There should be no room for confusion and subjective decision-making.

 

14. If they do not have a solid grasp of the system themselves, DWP staff will be unable to ensure young people have properly understood the conditions for acquiring and maintaining benefits. This will leave claimants poorly informed and at risk of breaking the conditions of their benefits without realising.

 

Poor communication

 

15. Both young people and staff raised poor communication as a problem in the application and decision-making process. For example, a number of young people said that when they went to the Jobcentre they were not offered a meeting with an advisor to discuss what they are eligible for. They were simply given some paperwork and sent away. Where young people did manage to book in appointments with an advisor, some found that their slots were cancelled without them being told.

 

"The Jobcentre are rubbish at keeping you informed. One of my appointments was changed without telling me. Because I am young, they take advantage and talk down on you."

Young person

 

16. Another problem highlighted by both young people and staff was that Jobcentre Plus and call centre staff often fail to give a comprehensive list at the start of the process of everything a young person needs to provide in order for their claim to be processed. Instead, young people are often asked to provide one thing, and it was not until they came to the Jobcentre to give this in, that they were asked for something else, and then something else. This can lead to the young person making multiple trips to the Jobcentre, thus causing numerous delays to their claim. It would be hugely beneficial to processing times and therefore the well-being of young people if staff could simply provide at the first meeting a list of everything that claimants may need to provide.

 

17. Another frequently cited problem was that young people were given very little information about how their claim was progressing after they had submitted their initial application. Few were given a realistic idea of how long it would take for their claims to be processed, and many did not know their claim had been granted until the money arrived in their bank account.

 

"When I claimed for JSA, it took about 6 weeks for it to be processed and I wasn't being informed about the process. They didn't say anything about how long the whole process was going to take."

Young person

 

18. The biggest problem was that young people were often not told when there was a problem with their claim. For example, in several cases, young people's claims were not being processed because the assessors required additional information, but the claimants were not told anything else was required until they or a staff member called up to check on the progress of the claim. If no-one had proactively called on their behalf, it is likely that these young people would have been waiting indefinitely for a decision on their claim.

 

"It's out of your hands. You hand your form in and that's it... They don't keep their promises. They say they call you but they don't call you."

Young person

 

Recommendations

19. DWP staff should improve their systems of communication with claimants so that individuals have more information about the process of their claim. To facilitate this, DWP should consider producing guidelines on which circumstances should trigger contact with the claimant, (for example when some information is missing from their form), and at which points in the process claimants should receive an update.

 

Comparisons between HB and Jobcentre Plus

 

20. Many staff members reported that housing benefit decision-making was more efficient than Jobseekers Allowance and Income Support processing which is done centrally. They felt that this was in part down to the localised system of housing benefit decision making. Housing benefit staff were more likely to know of local Centrepoint services and their status of their clients, and it was easier for Centrepoint staff to develop links with decision-making staff, thus making it easier to get updates on individual claims. For example, one Centrepoint service has a system with the local housing benefit (HB) office that they have a slot every fortnight when they can talk to HB staff to discuss queries they have about young people's claims. Another service has email contact with individual HB assessors in the local office. In smaller boroughs, staff reported that some housing benefit staff could remember the progress of an individual claim by the young person's name. These strong lines of communication encourage familiarity between the Centrepoint service and the housing benefit office, and mean that queries are dealt with more quickly. Staff felt this high level of customer service was extremely valuable to them as support staff, and to young people in terms of quicker processing times.

 

"The email system works really well for this borough. The assessors are responsive and it is an opportunity to build a relationship with them".

Staff member

 

21. In comparison, many problems were highlighted by the centralised system for Jobseekers Allowance and Income Support. Young people's applications made in London have to be posted to either Belfast or Glasgow and everything has to be sent in hard copy. Not only does this slow down the process, but can often lead to forms getting lost in transit. Out of the 14 young people interviewed for this research, several had experienced their forms getting lost on the way from their local Jobcentre to the central office in Glasgow. Centrepoint staff confirmed that this is not unusual. In these cases, the young person is required to resubmit their claims and the administrative process must be started again. This leads to significant delays as young people do not normally find out their forms have been lost until they call up to enquire about the progress of their claim.

 

22. The lack of a local decision making body for DWP benefits means that young people have to call a central phone number to get information about their claim. This can be particularly problematic for homeless and vulnerable young people who benefit from a more personalised approach. When young people call up, some are passed from number to number as it is unclear who is responsible for different sorts of enquiries. This would be avoided if there was a single local office which dealt with all claims for a particular benefit in that area. One young person experienced such problems when trying to claim for a crisis loan, and his story exemplifies the inefficiency in the current division of responsibilities:

 

"I was eligible to get a crisis loan. So I went to the Jobcentre and they gave me a number to call for the crisis loan. I called the number and was given lots of options, got through to a woman who told me to go back and choose a different option. I ended getting through to the same woman who gave me a different number. I called them but they told me to go back into the Jobcentre where I was told by a different person that I wasn't eligible."

Young person

 

Recommendations

23. Ideally, a greater proportion of benefits decision-making would be done locally. As shown by the example of housing benefit, this should help speed up the process and make the system more accountable. At the moment, the local Jobcentre cannot tell you anything about your claim, young people are simply told to ring the central call centre.

 

24. If such decentralisation is not possible, there are some lessons which Jobcentre Plus could learn from HB, as even small changes in procedure can make a big difference. For example, one staff member suggested that young people should be given a receipt for every piece of paperwork submitted at the Jobcentre so they have proof of what they have given in if things get lost. This already happens at their local HB office, and has proved to be helpful in providing a record of what has been submitted at each stage. Centrepoint therefore believes that this receipt system should be extended to Jobcentre applications too.

 

25. The frequent problems cause by lost forms could be avoided if it were possible to process claims electronically, thus removing the need to post paperwork. Jobcentre Plus should therefore consider how the application process can better utilise online services.

 

26. To help young people navigate the system more easily, DWP should make division of responsibilities between central teams clearer to local Jobcentres. This will help Jobcentre staff direct claimants and support staff to the correct helpline number first time. Knowing exactly who to go to could help support staff build up relationship with decision makers which is something that can make a huge difference to day-to-day working.

 

Lengthy processing times and their effects on young people

 

27. The inefficiencies in the current system mean that the length of the decision-making process is variable and difficult to predict. Many young people find that their claims are processed fairly quickly, within a couple of weeks or so. Others, however, experience long delays, which can have serious implications for the young people affected.

 

"There is variation in the length of time the benefits decision takes. Sometimes a decision is made almost immediately and other times it can take weeks. This occasionally depends upon the pro-activeness of the young people or the capability of the staff, but more often than not seems to be determined by luck".

Staff member

 

28. Delays in the decision-making process can have serious implications, not only for young people's financial situations but for their education and housing security. For example, one Centrepoint resident aged only 16 had to keep missing school to go and attend her appointments at the Jobcentre as she was repeatedly asked for more and more information about her Income Support claim. Another young woman aged 18 told how she had got into significant arrears at another hostel before coming to Centrepoint after her housing benefit failed to come due to a problem with her Income Support claim. She received little support from hostel staff, which meant the issue was not resolved until she moved to Centrepoint. This left her in two months of arrears to her previous hostel totalling 946, which she is now forced to pay back at a rate of 18.50 a week. Given that her total income is only 50.95, this has a significant impact on her ability to meet basic costs and feed herself properly.

 

29. Many young people also experience problems due to their benefits being suspended when assessors are deciding how a change in circumstances will affect their claim. For example, several young people had their benefits suspended when they changed address.

 

"I have had a lot of problems with my benefit being delayed, stopped and suspended. I have gone for days without food or money for transport."

Young person

 

30. Although there are systems in place to help claimants cope during delays in benefits processing, unfortunately these are often not very efficient, leaving young people with no money to support themselves. For example, young people reported that it was not always possible to get through to the crisis loans application number. One young man reported that the number was engaged every time he tried to call. Even when young people were able to access crisis loans, several reported that the amount was extremely small and not enough to cover basic living costs. One young man reported that the crisis loan staff had simply told him he had to get his benefits sorted quickly. He felt this to be extremely unfair as he had handed his form in and now all he could do was wait for the centre in Glasgow to process it.

 

Recommendations

31. As mentioned above, delays are often caused by decision-making staff asking for one piece of information, and then when this is provided, asking for another and so on. Frontline staff should give a more definitive list of what is required to make a claim at the start of the process by taking the time to talk through the individual's circumstances to understand what requirements are relevant to them. This will prevent later delays by avoiding the need to repeatedly go back to the young person for further documentation.

 

32. To limit the impact on young people of delays and gaps in benefits when assessors are considering an application or change in circumstances, the process for claiming interim benefits such as crisis loans should be made simpler and more accessible. The current system is failing too many young people, leaving them without money for basic living costs while administrative procedures are undertaken.

 

Treatment of young people by Jobcentre Plus staff

 

33. In the focus groups and questionnaires, participants were asked about how helpful and polite they found DWP staff. Both young people and Centrepoint staff were sympathetic to the pressures that DWP staff are under, and acknowledged that most were doing their best under the circumstances. Young people's experiences, however, were extremely mixed in terms of quality of service given. Some reported that staff were helpful and informative, but others said staff were indifferent and dismissive towards them as young people. Staff also reported that their experiences of Jobcentre and call centre staff varied greatly, and felt that Jobcentre Plus should invest more in customer service training for their staff to ensure more consistent levels of service.

 

"It depends, sometimes they will speak to you nicely, sometimes they will not."

Young person

 

"Staff needed to be more helpful, communicative and proactive. Better training is required".

Staff member

 

34. Where young people had experiences of good treatment from staff, this appears to have greatly improved their experiences of the system as a whole. Those who said the staff had been helpful generally felt that the eligibility criteria were fair and the conditions were easy to follow. This suggests that positive treatment by staff has a big impact on young people's level of understanding and whole experience of claiming benefits. One young person commented that having the system clearly explained by a helpful member of staff meant they did not have to worry as much and could put more energy into finding work.

 

"When Jobcentre staff are positive and constructive, they can build good personal relationships with young people and this can really help them".

Staff member

 

35. Some individuals are providing an excellent level of service and these people should be celebrated and learnt from. For example, at one service in South East London, young people and staff alike praised the attitude and helpfulness of the local under 18s adviser, saying that he was really good at communicating with young people, considerate of their needs and took the time to explain things clearly. As a result, staff from the local Centrepoint service always refer young people directly to this employee.

 

"The helpful ones are those which give straight, direct advice".

Young person

 

36. Unfortunately, not all young people had such good experiences. Several said that they felt staff treated them with little or no respect because they were young, particularly those who were still in their teens. This can worsen existing feelings which some young people hold that adults and authority figures do not want to help them. One 16 year old reported that staff had refused to give him an appointment when he went to the Jobcentre on his own, but when he went down later with an adult they were much more accommodating. Another young man was sent away and told to come back the next week because the under 18s advisor was on holiday. This left the young person feeling extremely demoralised.

 

"I feel like because I'm young, they think they can take the piss. Sometimes when you go down there they talk down to you."

Young person

 

37. Many young people also said that staff were very unsympathetic and treated them as another case rather than as a human being. Such a lack of empathy can be extremely damaging to young people, as it can mean they do not engage with the staff member as effectively, thus hindering their ability to effectively complete a claim. Some get so affected by poor treatment that they simply leave without making a claim, which has obvious detrimental effects on their welfare.

 

"They just want to get rid of you and get to the next person."

Young person

 

"It seems like the staff lack any type of compassion when you talk to them. I understand they have to be firm to get people to find jobs but their attitude in general is not very warm and tends to be as if you are simply a number instead of a human being. They have to understand that people coming in there are going there a lot and a little bit of compassion can be a great boost."

Young person

 

"Some Jobcentre staff are demotivated and should be more sympathetic to the circumstances of young people. Many regard benefit as charity and claimants as scroungers, rather than as human beings claiming their rights. We need a change in attitude. Benefits are not simply to keep people alive but to encourage them to engage in society."

Staff member

 

38. It was clear from the interviews that a helpful, positive, constructive face at the Jobcentre can make all the difference. It is therefore important that DWP works with its staff to change the attitudes of those who are not currently providing a good service, and ensure that young people's welfare rather than administrative procedures are prioritised in the application and decision-making process.

 

Recommendations

39. All Jobcentres should have a specialised young people's advisor who is trained in interacting with young people and benefits rules affecting this age group. It is important these staff members have both the time and necessary skills to explain the benefits process to young people in a way that they can understand.

 

40. To complement this, all Jobcentre Plus frontline staff should attend customer service training to ensure that no matter who a young person's first point of contact is, they receive a positive reception, and that there are staff available to cover the young people's specialist advisor when they are unavailable or on holiday.

 

Inflexibility

 

41. The inflexibility of the benefits system can often exacerbate young people's feelings that staff do not care about them or their situation. Numerous young people reported that the conditions for maintaining benefits were unresponsive to their situation, and that there should be more flexibility to take into account the additional pressures they face as homeless young people.

 

"The conditions were fair when I was at home, but when I became homeless, the staff did not take that into consideration, and assumed it was easy to just carry on looking [for work]. When you're in a hostel there is so much to do just to survive. The conditions should be relative to your current situation."

Young person

 

"They are dealing with people under pressure and should take that into account"

Staff member

 

42. There were a number of examples given as to the inflexibility of the system. For example, several young people who were late for an appointment at the Jobcentre were told they would have to wait a week before they could get another appointment. Given the chaotic lifestyles that many homeless young people lead, they are frequently unable to keep appointments, often for very understandable reasons. For example, one young person's benefits were cut off because he was admitted to hospital and was consequently unable to sign on. This young person explained that:

 

"On the day I was due to sign on, I was receiving treatment in hospital and couldn't go. I was in hospital for 10 days in the end and they cut off my benefit without telling me. I had to go back in afterwards and fill in new forms again".

Young person

 

43. Staff also reported examples of the benefits office demanding what they saw as excessive levels of proof from those who are most desperate for help. For example, one young woman who had been thrown out of home by her mother was told by the housing benefit office that in order to apply for housing benefit, she needed to obtain a letter from her school, a letter from her mother, and proof of identification before she could get any help. The authorities were more concerned with receiving the proper documentation than the speedy processing of a claim from an extremely vulnerable, homeless young woman.

 

"Without benefits, people will aim to make money in other areas such as crime and this could be a greater burden to the state in the future. So the jobcentre should take more time to identify people as high risk".

Staff member

 

44. Some Centrepoint staff felt that benefits staff are too frequently driven by targets rather than claimants' needs. In this way, the rigidity of the benefits requirements is damaging to the welfare of the people that the system is designed to protect, as inflexibility is likely to hit the most vulnerable the hardest.

 

"Targets are misguided, based upon achieving figures rather than actual people's needs. The system is overly bureaucratic, not accessible or easy".

Staff member

 

Recommendations

45. Jobcentres should not be neglectful of the issues young people are going through. Frontline staff should be better trained in how to interact with vulnerable people and identify those who are likely to need additional assistance. To aid frontline staff, procedures and guideline should also be revisited to provide flexibility for the most vulnerable claimants. It should be noted that it is harder for some young people to get hold of documentation, for example if they have been forced to leave home suddenly. Centrepoint recognises the need to properly validate benefits claims, but where appropriate, Jobcentre Plus should provide alternative ways for young people to prove their circumstances. Jobcentres must also recognise that homeless young people are under a great deal of stress and often find it difficult to keep appointments. Where a young person is identified as vulnerable and at risk, staff should therefore be more flexible in accommodating them if they are late or miss their slot.

 

Appeals Process

 

46. Most young people and staff had not used the formal appeals process. Staff reported that details of how to launch an appeal was not readily available, and several young people were not even aware that they had the right to appeal. Among those who were aware of the appeals process, young people widely regarded it as an unnecessarily difficult and complicated process, which can deter people from pursuing a complaint. Many felt there was no point in pursuing an appeal as they believed there was little chance of success. For example, the young woman mentioned above who is paying 18.50 of her 50 per week income on arrears repayments decided not to appeal against a decision not to backdate her housing benefit because she saw the appeals process as long and frustrating, and felt it was unlikely to improve her position. She therefore felt it was better to simply pay off the debt in small amounts.

 

"You never think the complaints procedure is going to work".

Staff member

 

47. Young people and staff who had experienced the appeals process agreed that it was a complex and arduous process. Staff members who had supported young people through an appeal reported that they were not given any indication of how long the process would take, and found it to be an incredibly laborious process requiring a large number of phone calls from staff to drive the process forward.

 

"The appeals process is often not worth young people's time and usually won't be successful. It is not a clear complaints procedure and it is difficult to even get the forms. For example, you have to make phone calls to several different numbers and the papers are sometimes lost. It's an arduous and inconsistent process".

Staff member

 

48. The problems with the appeals procedure are exemplified by the difficulties one young refugee has experienced. The young man applied for income support but was rejected and decided to appeal. At first, he was simply told that he needed to provide proof of his right to remain in the country. The young man had indefinite leave to remain, and was therefore entitled to benefits, but unfortunately had lost the paperwork confirming this. With the help of Centrepoint, he managed to obtain evidence from his solicitor of his indefinite leave to remain. However, when he submitted the necessary documentation, he was then asked for proof of estrangement from his parents. The young man in question was an unaccompanied refugee who fled his country due to persecution. The benefits office already had this information. Despite proof of estrangement being clearly unsuitable in his case, as his parents were still in his country of origin, Centrepoint testified to the young man's estrangement from his family. However, the claim was still not processed. The staff member working with this young person felt as though the benefits staff handling the claim were making the process unnecessarily difficult for this individual. The appeal has been going for several months and the case is still ongoing. The young man has now had no income since January. He has accumulated huge arrears and been dependent upon friends for food despite satisfying benefit staff's requests at every stage.

 

"The appeals process is a shambles, designed as if to purposely deter people. No clear idea was given of how long stage 1, 2 or 3 would last. I have no confidence at all in the appeals process. It needs much clearer guidelines [if it is to work more effectively]."

Staff member

 

 

 

Recommendations

49. Centrepoint would like to see the appeals process made more transparent and accountable. Details of how to apply should be more readily available. The Jobcentre Plus website states that "Information on how to appeal is normally included in the decision letter" but the lack of awareness among both young people and staff suggests this practice is not always followed. Information and application forms should be available in all Jobcentres and signposted by staff if a claimant is not happy with the decision made about their claim.

 

50. This guidance should have an estimated timetable in which assessors must respond. The current guidance on the Jobcentre Plus website lays out the time periods in which claimants must respond at each stage (usually one month), but sets no time limits on assessors. Given the importance of swift decision making for the welfare of young people, DWP too should be subject to reasonable timeframes in which to respond.

 

Conclusion

 

51. Our research found a mixed picture of the benefit decision-making process. Many young people pass through without experiencing serious problems, but too many encounter major obstacles which are often caused by problems that could be easily rectified. Problems often arise due to basic issues such as a lack of communication and poor organisation. If DWP worked with frontline staff to improve customer service, administrative procedures and knowledge of benefits guidance, young people's experiences could be greatly improved. Many of these improvements could be made without a great deal of investment, but instead through a change of attitude among decision makers and frontline staff.

 

10 September 2009

 

Appendix - Research method

 

1. Four focus groups were conducted with young people staying at Centrepoint services in order to determine how effectively the benefits system is working for homeless young people. 14 young people were interviewed across three services and a further 6 questionnaires were completed by young people during support sessions with their key workers. Staff members were also interviewed to gather their experiences of supporting young people through the benefits application process.

 

2. The focus groups and interviews sought to answer a number of the key questions raised by the committee including:

i. Is the decision making process clear to claimants?

ii. How effective is the decision making process? Could it be improved, if so how?

iii. Are there sufficient numbers of decision makers and is the training they receive adequate?

iv. How well does the decision making process operate for different benefits (e.g. ESA, DLA and Housing Benefit)?

v. How does the appeals system work from the claimant's perspective?

vi. Is the timeframe of appeals reasonable?

 

3. To answer these questions, the interviews discussed the requirements for acquiring and maintaining benefits, the length and effects of the decision-making process, the performance of DWP staff, and experiences of the appeals process.