Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 184 - 199)

MONDAY 17 MAY 1999


Mr Keetch

  184. Thank you for joining us from the LGA and, indeed, from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. I apologise that you have been slightly delayed in terms of waiting at the back because of divisions and other things. Let us move straight on. Paul, could you just introduce yourself and your colleagues very quickly and we will then go on and start the questioning.

  (Mr Lautman) It is probably better if I just ask my colleagues to introduce themselves.
  (Mr Bott) I am Gareth Bott, I am the Head of Revenue Services from Ashfield District Council. I am representing the North Nottinghamshire pilot area which is a private/voluntary sector variant.
  (Mr Mackenzie) I am Norman Mackenzie, I am the Social Inclusion Manager at East Renfrewshire Council. I am here representing COSLA. We have in Barrhead, which is part of East Renfrewshire, part of the Clyde Coast and Renfrew basic variant of the Work-Focused Gateway.
  (Mr Shearing) I am Barry Shearing, Deputy Head of Finance, Chelmsford Borough Council. I am representing the South East Essex basic model.
  (Mr Gary) I am David Gary from Taunton Deane Borough Council in Somerset. We are going to operate a call centre variant starting in December.
  (Mr Lautman) I am Paul Lautman from the Local Government Association Secretariat. We are very pleased to provide evidence to you and to pass on feedback from the models of various variants from the local authority perspective and to say that we are sorry we are unable to bring a member perspective to our team but that is solely due to the timetable for giving evidence and also the impact of recent elections.

  185. I am sure that some of your members have got other things to do at the moment. We will press very quickly on if we can because I know some colleagues are going to have to disappear. We have heard already that there has been some small discussion about local government's involvement in the Single Work-Focused Gateway. What is your vision of how the Single Work-Focused Gateway should actually work?
  (Mr Lautman) In terms of the broad concept I think it is important that we place on record our support for the broad vision of the Single Work-Focused Gateway, a single point of entry to the benefits system. I think it is a principle that is very difficult to argue with. We recognise it as an important part of the Government's modernisation agenda to which we subscribe for better, more integrated public services. Indeed, it is in integrated services in which local authorities can claim some leadership. Many local authorities have taken the lead in providing integrated services both with regard to the services they provide directly and also with regard to services provided by other agencies. What we are subscribing to is a shared vision of a single point of entry to public services and, ideally, also to be seamless throughout.

  186. What role has the LGA actually had in developing the concept of the Single Work-Focused Gateway?
  (Mr Lautman) We are contributing through co-ordinating the flow of information to pilots and also feeding back to Government the reaction from the various pilots and engaging with leading Government departments on these issues but it has been very difficult because we have only been involved at the later stages, we had no prior notice of the initiative before the Prime Minister's statement in October. We have had difficulties in understanding the full weight of the concept before we have had national level discussions, so we feel like we have been invited to join the train but the train has left the station and it is a couple of miles down the track.

  187. The departing train leaving the station, is that a sense that you all feel?
  (Mr Bott) Absolutely, yes. We felt that we were engaged after the major part of the vision had been established and our ability to influence that has been curtailed to that degree.
  (Mr Mackenzie) More or less the same from the Clyde Coast and Renfrew pilot. I would add that the culture that informed the way in which decisions have been made and the processes that have been put forward in bringing the Single Work-Focused Gateway to our area have been very much the cultures within the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency. There has been perhaps a view that local government is a shapeless and easily assimilated way of running services. There are five local authorities and therefore seven partners within the development of the Gateway in our area and sometimes it has been felt that there have only been three partners. There has been a difficulty over our other partners understanding the ways in which decisions get made in local government, that there are different cultures, and also perhaps difficulties with the fact that we have had national and local elections in our area and that has delayed our ability to get involved. Nevertheless, we fully support the vision and I think local government in Scotland and elsewhere can add value to the quality of experience for local people.
  (Mr Shearing) We were first invited to a meeting in Sheffield which was for local authority members' representatives only and then to a meeting in Leeds which was ES and BA in November/December of last year. Those from my office who went got the distinct impression that the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency had held earlier meetings and we were more or less invited along as—dare I say it—an afterthought. Suffice it to say, in South Essex the arrangement is working well and possibly this reflects the previous good relationships which we have had with the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service where we have held regular liaison meetings over a number of years anyway. We are certainly helping on low level issues. The impression we get is we are having to rely on the Employment Service, not so much as big brother but as the senior partner in the arrangement.
  (Mr Gary) I would like to go along with that. I went to the same meeting that my colleague here went to in Sheffield. However, I would like to say that I think we have caught up tremendously in Somerset with the partners of the ES and BA. We are working exceptionally well together although there is this terrible culture clash where the local authority cannot automatically run along with what Central Government wants it to do, I have to have deference to the people who put money in my pocket, which is my council members at this point in time, and they have just changed and that has not made life easy.

  188. So with this idea of the train leaving the station, the idea that there was not as much consultation as there could have been but now you are beginning to catch up, do you therefore feel that when the pilots come in you are going to be able to take this up and run with it? Clearly it is our hope that local government should be involved as much as possible.
  (Mr Lautman) Certainly local authorities will be running with it and contributing as best they can but it would be wrong to give the impression that we feel on our side that we have been equal partners in shaping the delivery on the ground. We inevitably see where the direction is going, we know the timetable is immovable and local authorities are being very pragmatic and are working towards those deadlines and contributing as best they can but there are many constraints and no doubt we will explore those further as we carry on today.

  Mr Keetch: If I can just explain to you, we have a slight problem in that we have had to move from being a joint meeting with the Social Security Committee into being a meeting of the Employment Sub-committee alone.

Ms Atherton

  189. You are not very happy with the way in which you have been involved, that is quite clear. I think we would be interested to know exactly how you would have liked to have been involved earlier. What have the financial implications been for you as local authorities? Are you getting recompense? Finally, are members of your staff applying to be involved in an equal measure? There are three questions there.
  (Mr Lautman) The first one in terms of when would we have liked to have been consulted, we would have liked to have been consulted before the announcement was made so that our views could have been taken into account in terms of determining the timetable and determining funding issues.

  190. Do you want to expand on the timetabling and funding?
  (Mr Lautman) On both issues they have been presented as a fait accompli to local authorities.

  191. What would your ideal have been?
  (Mr Lautman) That we were involved in discussions before those matters were determined which was before the announcement was made. I am happy to go into the details.

  192. I think that would be useful. That is what I am trying to say.
  (Mr Lautman) On funding issues, we have been told that a certain amount of money has been provided and that has got to cover all related costs, including both for the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service as well as local authorities. The difficulty for local authorities, as I am sure you understand, is that they are very heavily constrained. Authorities have to have regard to capping and other pressures. They are accountable to their members for expenditure spent, but we have had no firm information from the Department as to what the criteria may be and the upper limits of expenditure. Colleagues can comment on individual aspects. For example, authorities' implementation costs have not been fully covered. On funding for the ongoing costs once the models are up and running, we have indicated that we anticipate some additional costs that do not appear to be recognised and the departments are saying, "Well, we will look at those issues once the pilots are up and running and we will consider it then, but it has got to be met within the overall provision that has been made," which may be satisfactory from the Department's point of view but is not a very practical one for local authorities who have got to live within existing budgets and have the difficulty of having to say to their members, "Well, we have been asked to be party to this pilot; it has some additional costs, but we cannot be sure whether these costs will be funded."

  193. It sounds more like a shotgun marriage than a partnership to me. You are being forced to respond, are you not?
  (Mr Lautman) I am surrounded by colleagues who are going up the altar so they might want to comment!
  (Mr Shearing) We had not anticipated that it would take so much time and cost. My housing benefits officer assessed that she was working 20 per cent of her time on the Gateway originally and in bringing it in. She is currently working 80 per cent of her time and having to engage somebody else to assist with some training that we are trying to put in place in the future not just for our own staff but for the ES/BA people because we appreciate they need to know as much as they can about Housing Benefit and Council Tax benefit. There will be additional costs as soon as it starts in telephones charges, faxing information if people come to the local authority rather than to the main Gateway which is located elsewhere. We are also looking at the IT. Obviously we would like an IT link rather than having the old courier system of people transporting bits of paper. There is a cost to all of that. I do not doubt that ultimately there may well be savings, but at the moment we are looking at a budget which was very different to the current financial climate. We were faced with additional costs and we had to make cuts to get the budget to balance.

Mr Keetch

  194. Is the feeling that we have a useful spread from Scotland through Leeds, Essex down to Somerset, a cross-national feeling?
  (Mr Mackenzie) Yes.
  (Mr Gary) Yes, very much so, Chairman. I am out-sourced with a private contractor, my benefits division is out-sourced and I am going to get a bill. It is clearly identifiable and the bill will be in excess of what I am getting from central government funding and the council has got to find it from somewhere if we are to continue.

Ms Atherton

  195. Can I ask what your members' reactions have been?
  (Mr Gary) The old ones or the new ones?

  196. Both, I think.
  (Mr Gary) I do not know what the new ones' reactions have been. The old ones certainly wanted to run along with it, but I took a committee report the very first time that we knew about this reflecting what we had been told at that particular point and the council agreed to go along with it at no cost. I am currently going to have to take another committee report which says that is not quite right, there will be a cost and we do not know how much it will be and we do not know whether we are going to be refunded for it and that is a highly dodgy situation to be in.
  (Mr Bott) I have agreed with all of that. In the private and voluntary sector variant we have got the added problem that we really do not know what the proposal is going to look like yet. So in the basic model and in the call centre there are some ideas and my colleagues to some degree can influence what the final design on the ground will be and therefore can see the costs stacking up. We have to sit around for the private and voluntary sector and wait for the proposals to come forward and they are being encouraged not to bring in another basic model or another call centre variant. They are being encouraged to bring in something innovative and different, yet we will not know what cost impacts that is going to have until it is in place.

Judy Mallaber

  197. This is very interesting as part of my constituency is actually in the same area as Gareth's and I have been pressing very heavily for them to get up to speed with local authority involvement and I had understood there had been some improvement. One of the difficulties that we face and I think it is true of all of the pilots, apart from Leeds, is the number of different local authority areas that we are trying to cover. Is that something which you regard as a difficulty? Is it a position that ideally you would not wish to be in? Do you have any comments about the geographical size and shape and co-ordination that that involves?
  (Mr Lautman) There are some practical issues about the lack of co-terminosity between local authority and BA boundaries.
  (Mr Bott) Certainly from the North Notts perspective, yes, we have got six or seven authorities involved in the pilot area. To be quite honest, when we first sat down together to try and work this out I did have the fears about different authorities working together in the first place. That has not proved to be a problem. I think we have worked together very, very well. The problems have come about because the patch that we are working to, which is a Benefits Agency patch, cuts across many of our authorities. There is only one of those authorities that is wholly contained within the Gateway patch and we will have real problems in the future in delivering the services to part of a district. I think there will be people in parts of Ashfield's district who cannot access the Gateway. If it is successful word of mouth will get around and they will want to know why they are being denied access to this sort of service. I think we have got real problems in delivering the service.
  (Mr Lautman) I think there is an ancillary point as well. We are talking about a more customer focused service. Generally speaking, benefit recipients are more familiar with the local authority and know what local authority they come under. If you ask them what BA district they come under, I think they would struggle.

  198. One of the other issues I am quite interested in is whether it does cross over. Are any of your authorities, currently yourself, trying to operate one-stop shops, trying to bring together services? Is the Single Gateway that we are talking about here trying to cut across some of your current arrangements, say, to bring housing and Welfare to Work together or such like?
  (Mr Gary) Our district office and our Deane House is a one-stop shop as far as the council services for the public are concerned and we see it very much as a chance to build on that and extend our services based on and using the Gateway as an additional impetus to that. We would welcome it from that point of view.
  (Mr Lautman) I have a colleague, Michael Durkan, from Leeds City Council, not at the table but in the back row of the public gallery, who has an integrated advice neighbourhood arrangement in his authority.

  Judy Mallaber: Bring him forward.

  Mr Keetch: Leeds is the only area where it does not cut across other local government boundaries, is that correct?

Mr Healey

  199. Chairman, could he just introduce himself for the benefit of the record?
  (Mr Durkan) My name is Michael Durkan, Leeds City Council, Advising Benefits Service.

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