Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by The Local Government Association and The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities


  The Local Government Association was formed by the merger of the Assocation of County Councils, the Association of District Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities on 1 April 1997. The LGA has just over 500 members. The membership now includes every local authority in England and Wales. In addition, the LGA represents fire authorities and passenger transport authorities and works with police authorities (as the Association of Police Authorities) The LGA provides the national voice for local communities in England and Wales; its members represent over 50 million people, employ more than 2 million staff and spend over £65 billion on local services.

  The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is an association of local authorities in Scotland established in 1975. The objectives of COSLA are to promote the welfare and good government of the people of Scotland and to advance and maintain principles and values of local democracy.


    —  LGA and COSLA support the broad objectives of a single point of entry to the benefit system and the provision of active advice and assistance on employment;

    —  Most pilot authorities are supportive of the project, but are concerned over the extremely tight timetable for implementation. Local authorities have been expected to respond immediately to the initiative and this is difficult when they are themselves responding to a wide ranging agenda of local government reform;

    —  LGA and COSLA have established a national liaison group with DfEE and DSS to discuss issues of major concern to local authority pilots;

    —  LGA and COSLA are concerned that pilot authorities' actual costs are not being fully funded and point out that continuing uncertainty over funding is hampering some local authority involvement—this is a national pilot and should not be funded by the council tax payer;

    —  LGA and COSLA have reservations about the principle of compulsion as a pre-requisite for benefit entitlement. It will be particularly important that the Gateway is operated sensitively having regard to the particular circumstances of claimants;

    —  It is vital that personal advisers are fully trained in understanding the complex and diverse needs of claimants;

    —  It is important that local government is fully involved in evaluating pilots and in the future development of the initiative.


  1.  LGA and COSLA support the broad objectives of the single point of entry to the benefit system and the provision of active advice and assistance on employment. It builds on the general concept of "one stop shops" which a number of local authorities have implemented for their own local services. In some of these initiatives local authorities have also sought to include other organisations, such as the Benefits Agency. The SWFG provides the potential to access advice, benefits and local government services in a much easier way than previously and should result in a step improvement in public service provision.


  2.  There was no consultation with local government on implementing the timetable for the pilot SWFG schemes. Accordingly, whereas the Employment Service and Benefit agency have had time to gear up to the initiative, local authorities have had to respond immediately and work to a timetable which has been set without full consideration of their requirements.

  3.  Local authorities are currently responding to a wide agenda of change embracing Best Value and Democratic Renewal. Local authorities' benefit services in particular have been subject to numerous year on year changes to the housing benefit scheme and at present many—including some pilot SWFGs—are involved in implementing the Verification Framework. This is a set of new checking procedures to prevent fraud entering the system and entails a considerable change in working arrangements. It is therefore a credit to local government that so many authorities have responded positively to involvement in SWFG pilots.

  4.  However, the tight timetable for implementation has meant that many authorities have had difficulties in contributing as much as they would like to the various development stages of this project. This has also been severely hampered by lack of clarity over financial support for local authority participation which is discussed below in more detail. As a result, many pilot local authorities feel that the objective for an equal partnership between local authorities and Employment Service/Benefit Agency in developing the pilots is not being achieved. The LGA view is that not sufficient thought was given at the outset as to how Government could best achieve the engagement and involvement of local government having regard to the small size of many authorities' housing benefit teams and the other pressures on local government.

  5.  The short timescale is also likely to mitigate against the private/voluntary sector's ability to innovate in the private/voluntary sector variant.

  6.  To bring about greater local authority influence on some of the key operational issues being addressed, LGA and COSLA have established a national liaison group with the DSS and DfEE. This has now been meeting monthly and is proving to be a useful forum. LGA and COSLA have also accepted an invitation to be represented on the relevant Departmental Project Board and this is welcomed. However, there is major concern from pilot local authorities at the time it takes to get decisions on key operational issues and that at this late stage many still do not have a clear view as to how the Gateway will operate in their areas.


  7.  LGA and COSLA are concerned that pilot authorities' actual costs are not being fully funded and that lack of certainty over what costs are eligible for reimbursement is hampering local authority involvement. The LGA would accept that in the spirit of partnership a degree of senior management time would not be expected to be reimbursed. However, where significant staff time and travelling and subsistence costs are involved, these should be fully reimbursed. Information received from some pilot authorities indicates that the sums reimbursed to date are considerably short of the expenses incurred. For example, Taunton Deane has received £5,000 for implementation compared to an estimated cost of £15,000 plus, Chelmsford has received under £3,000 compared to an estimated cost of £15,000 and Ashfield have received £4,000 compared to an estimated cost of £10,000 (the latter estimate excludes any costs that may need to be funded for IT upgrades, estates developments, staff training and back-filling and any other ongoing contract management costs).

  8.  LGA and COSLA consider that as the Gateway is a central government initiative the costs involved should not be funded by the council tax payer.


  9.  LGA and COSLA are on record in expressing reservations about the compulsory element of the Gateway. The Government has indicated that certain groups of people will be excluded from interview—for example, people who are terminally ill. However, the LGA and COSLA believe that there are many other claimants for whom the SWFG could be inappropriate. These might include people who have recently had to take on full time care responsibilities, people with learning disabilities or mental health problems.

  10.  LGA and COSLA are also concerned about the effects of compulsion on people whose first language is not English, people with literacy difficulties or other special needs. We wish to avoid a situation where local authority services (for example social services departments) are put under more pressure because of certain customers becoming distressed or concerned about compulsion associated with the Gateway.

  11.  Experience confirms that often Benefit Agency and Employment Service staff may not be aware of many of the issues facing people with learning disabilities or some mental health problems. It is not uncommon to find people with mild to moderate learning disabilities claiming Job Seekers Allowance when in fact their disabilities place them at considerable disadvantages to others within the labour market. In these instances they should be claiming Severe Disablement Allowance or Incapacity Benefit, but BA/ES staff have remained unaware of the person's disabilities.

  12. It is recognised that housing and council tax benefit are expected to be the last benefits to which sanctions are applied. However, LGA and COSLA are concerned that the potential consequences on authorities in terms of their landlord role and responsibilities for homelessness do not appear to have been considered.


  13.  High quality advice by personal advisers involved in administering the SWFG is crucial to its success. Local authority staff have considerable expertise already in many of the areas where advice is intended to be given—employment opportunities for people with special needs, in-depth advice across a range of benefits, proactively identify underlying benefit entitlement, providing assistance with the claiming process, providing accurate "better off" calculations, advice on child care and support with caring responsibilities, as well as a range of local advice.

14.  From what the Associations have established so far, the proposed training packages from the Employment Service and Benefits Agency may not adequately deal with these issues and poor advice will result in additional work for local authority staff. LGA and COSLA therefore welcomes the recent invitation for the involvement of their advisers in the preparation of training packages.


  15.  Set out below is a list of other specific issues which have been raised by some pilot authorities with the Associations:

    —  on the private/voluntary sector variant, it would be unfortunate for the residents of a pilot area if an inferior design were implemented merely for the sake of ensuring valid comparison testing;

    —  concern at the SWFG's potential to create a "two-tier" service as between those inside and those outside the pilot areas (which often bisect local authority districts), between claimants who can and who cannot access the benefits system via the Gateway, and if a call centre is used, between those who have telephones and those that do not; local management of the effects of a perceived first and second class service may be difficult;

    —  concern that the priorities of a private sector led Gateway might be more geared towards the job ready clients (those closest to the labour market) as less effort would be needed to translate these cases into the measured outputs by which an element of the funding will, potentially, be earned; the more disadvantaged clients (eg those with incapacity problems through poor health or low educational abilities) should receive equitable, if not higher priority; and

    —  acceptance that there must be quality assurance and standards to be met in delivery of the more mechanistic, process driven aspects of Gateway work such as claim taking, but concern that it is far less clear what specific expectations will be laid down, if any, to support the objective of "more people in sustainable employment . . ."; how will targets be set? will targets reflect the needs of client groups not immediately suitable for employment?


  16.  The LGA and COSLA recognise that the SWFG is a major part of the Government's welfare reform agenda and signals very clearly the future direction of benefit delivery. It is vital that local government is fully involved in evaluating the pilots and in the future development of the initiative.

4 May 1999

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