It is one of the thorniest Cabinet jobs, beset with elephant traps and potential mishaps.
But it appears that Therese Coffey started as Work and Pensions Secretary with an advantage. She had, as she puts it, been a “customer” of the benefits system before Boris Johnson put her in charge of it.
“I’ve actually claimed benefits three times, before I became an MP, at different stages of my life,” the 50-year-old reveals.
The first time was shortly after leaving St Edward’s College, a Catholic school in Liverpool, where she grew up. Then, after graduating from University College London with a PhD in chemistry in 1998, “there was time between that and actually getting a job”.
The third time the future Work Secretary “signed on” was after she quit a successful career as a management consultant in order to become a full-time politician, having risen to become property finance manager at the BBC.
She stood as a Conservative candidate in the 2009 European Parliament elections. “I had stopped work to allow me to do this thing full time and then all of a sudden, when I didn’t become an MEP I had to start working again.” This time, she says, “I’m not sure I got any money but I got the National Insurance credits, which is what I wanted”.
Coffey says she used the benefits system because, “I’m a believer of, if you need help you go and get help”. She went on to enter Parliament as MP for Suffolk Coastal in 2010.
This week, Coffey is expecting to declare that the Government has met the Prime Minister’s target, set in January, to get 500,000 people into work by the end of June.
It is unclear what effect this gross figure will have on the overall number of people claiming out-of-work benefits, which stood at more than five million towards the end of last year.
But Downing Street sees the announcement as some good news for the Government amid a tidal wave of fury from MPs and activists over last week’s bruising by-election defeats, the partygate scandal, Johnson’s leadership and the direction of the Conservative Party.
The former environment minister is speaking to The Sunday Telegraph on a visit to the Kennington Park Jobcentre Plus in south east London, which has found jobs for some 1,100 people since the “Way to Work” scheme was launched on Jan 31.
It is her first newspaper interview since her appointment in 2019, when Coffey decided the Department of Work and Pensions should be “boringly brilliant” rather than its secretary of state seeking a high profile.
Coffey remains loyal to the Prime Minister who appointed her to the Cabinet in 2019 – albeit not as vociferously so as Johnson’s closest allies. She gives a muted response to the apparent widespread disaffection of traditionally Conservative voters in Tiverton and Honiton, saying: “I always want people to come out and support our party because I genuinely think the interests of the country are usually served best when Conservatives are in government.” However, she says, voters in both the Devon seat and the separate by-election in Wakefield, which the Conservatives also lost, knew that the votes were “not going to change the composition of the Government” – reflecting the view Number 10 is at pains to instill in backbenchers, namely that the Tories would fare better in a general election.
She adds: “The Prime Minister has fully apologised about the situation and has already made changes at Downing Street... I think there is added vigour from the Prime Minister after recent events.” She insists that the Government has set an “ambition” to reduce taxes and is already doing so by lifting the threshold at which people start paying National Insurance, from next month.
But high levels of job vacancies are spooking MPs and ministers, having risen to a record 1.3 million unfilled roles in May – an increase of 20,000 from the previous quarter. The number of people on out-of-work benefits reached 5.3 million in November 2021– a figure revealed in The Telegraph last weekend. Senior Tories fear that the party risks losing ground gained during Sir Iain Duncan Smith’s tenure at the Department of Work and Pensions during the Coalition years, when the former Tory leader focused the department’s efforts on getting claimants off benefits and into jobs.
Coffey attempts to cast the vacancies in a positive light, suggesting that they relate to the Prime Minister’s lifting of Covid restrictions last year. She also points out that the rate of unemployment has fallen to its lowest level since 1974.
“Given that we’re fully open now, thanks to the leadership of the Prime Minister (‘getting the big calls right’ she adds, reciting Number 10’s defensive line semi-jokingly, as if it is a marketing slogan like ‘that’s Asda price’), we now have this record number of vacancies. And we’ve been gradually getting people back into work. I’m very confident we are going to hit our half a million target next week. At the beginning of this week we managed 480,000.”
At the same time as Britain experiences record numbers of job vacancies, more than one in five people are claiming out-of-work benefits in some parts of the country – something both Coffey and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are keen to address in order to increase productivity.
Under the current rules, benefit claimants no longer have to keep attending appointments with job advisers – known as “work coaches” – when they are employed for the equivalent of nine hours a week. Earlier this month, The Telegraph disclosed that ministers were considering increasing that cut-off point to at least 12 hours.
Coffey now confirms the move publicly for the first time and reveals that the change is to go ahead, as part of the Government’s push to fill vacancies and bring down the number of people on out-of-work benefits. While the threshold will initially be raised to 12 hours, she believes “we can go further than that” in a second stage, if the Treasury pays for more work coaches.
Coffey, whose department runs the Jobcentre network across the country, says: “Once you get a job, if you’re working fewer than the equivalent of nine hours a week, we still expect you to be coming in and looking for work. We’re going to be raising that, I hope, very soon. We just want to help people get on into work. So that’s really important.”
Coffey has faced claims that even 12 hours’ work a week should not be enough to relieve claimants of the responsibility to find more.
“Well, we’re still working through that, I think there’s an opportunity to do more. The more people that we see in the job centre, dare I say it, the more work coaches we will need.
“So there’s a decision to be taken. And I believe we can go further than that. But I can’t do that without more people fulfilling the role of the work coach.
“I think we should just get on with the initial bit. That in itself would bring about 120,000 people [into the work coach system]. If we could start and kind of roll that in, then that would be a good stepping point.” The change could result in people currently “quite close to where the limit is, [being] better off by £100 per month”, says Coffey.
Last year, the Kickstart Scheme helped to get 16- to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit into work. “The key thing that we learned from Kickstart was that getting employers into the job centres to do the interview [generated] a much greater rate of success,” Coffey says.
“Quite often CVs and even job requirements can be a barrier to a lot of people. What works well is getting the employer into job centres... our claimant comes in to have that interview, so there might be a bit of preparation beforehand, and [there’s] no particular reason for them to avoid coming into the job centre, for them to miss that interview.
“But also, getting immediate feedback from the employer is really helpful.”
Coffey has ordered a review into “what worked really well” as part of the Way to Work drive so those practices can be deployed elsewhere. But, she adds: “We don’t need to write an academic thesis about it. I want this to be an agile department.”
Many of the frontline Jobcentre staff, the work coaches, act as “a big brother or an uncle or an auntie” to support those seeking jobs, as opposed to taking more “transactional” approaches, says Coffey.
A generous pot of money called the Flexible Support Fund enables work coaches to fund anything from temporary bus passes to new clothing and childcare costs, removing “barriers” that would otherwise prevent claimants starting new jobs.
“We did make the decision to make the Flexible Support Fund super flexible. So we’ve used it for all sorts of things in the past. We might buy people clothes to be ready for interviews; I’m aware that we’ve kept people in work in one case by fixing their tyres when they failed their MOT.
“You always have to judge the value for taxpayers’ money, but it certainly is one of the things where we believe it can make a difference and remove hurdles.”
Other hurdles can be removed by employers rather than the Government, says Coffey, suggesting that a “key” factor in encouraging people to take up jobs will be firms offering “flexibilities” like shorter shifts for those who want to take their children to and from school. Post-Covid, says Coffey, many people have changed the way they run their lives. “It’s not about being fussy,” she insists. “It’s about work-life balance.
“I think a lot of this is going to be – and we’re seeing good employers do this already – working with employers about aspects of flexible working.
“Even simple things like job requirements. We saw this a lot with Kickstart. People just put automatic job requirements in, but why do you need a driving licence to be a secretary or an administrator?”
“But I think the key thing is going to be that element of flexibility.”
I’ve already seen this at a job centre last week in Bury St Edmunds. They’ve done a lot of work with a meat processing factory nearby, where they’ve started making 10am til 2pm jobs available [for] people with children at school. As has Alton Towers, by the way. “Does it matter if, say, somebody is part of the hospitality team at Alton Towers, that the rooms aren’t turned over until 10am? Well, no, because most people don’t check out ‘til 10am.
“So they’ve actually been able to craft a whole load of more flexible working patterns suitable for people who want to drop off the kids at school and pick them up.
“I think we’re seeing the best employers starting to realise that they have to do this, instead of more traditional 12-hour shifts. I know that won’t be able to be done for every job, but I think more and more employers are really getting it and making that flex.”
Coffey also suggests that more people responsible for caring for others at home could be tempted into employment. “We might encourage those with caring responsibilities to be looking potentially for some more remote working, or digital working – especially now, seeing how the economy’s evolved.”
Ministers have been resisting above-inflation pay-rises for the public sector and warning that private firms, too, could fuel inflation by offering generous increases.
But are higher wages one of the factors likely to draw people to particular jobs that are otherwise seen as less attractive?
“I think so, possibly, but I’m not going to dictate exactly to employers how they fill their gaps. I would suggest that there are different things we can do. So we have been helping more people to try and get into the haulage industry. I’m saying this with a minute bit of knowledge... I’ve got family members who are lorry drivers, but also Port of Felixestowe is in my constituency. Having facilities for people, for drivers, all that sort of thing really helps.”
Despite Coffey’s “boringly brilliant” pledge she is one of the Cabinet members often found socialising among colleagues in Westminster and is particularly partial to karaoke – “a good bringer-together of people”.
“I enjoy singing. I actually prefer dancing,” says Coffey. The minister, a practising Catholic, adds: “I’m better at singing hymns than I am at singing karaoke, for sure.”
Last year she was labelled “insensitive” after being filmed singing “The Time of My Life” at a karaoke evening at the Conservative Party’s annual conference. At the time the Government was under pressure over the removal of a £20-a-week Universal Credit uplift introduced during the Covid pandemic.
But Coffey says her outlook was heavily influenced by an infection in 2018 which almost killed her. An ear infection went “disastrously wrong” and spread to her brain, leading to an emergency operation and a month-long hospital stay.
“We’re all human beings,” she says. “Gosh, I look back and it’s only just over four years ago that, dare I say it, I wasn’t that far off dying, frankly. So I’m a great believer that life is to live.”