Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)

MONDAY 17 MAY 1999


Judy Mallaber

  200. Does the Single Gateway cut across anything that you are currently doing or does it assist you in the Single Gateway that you are attempting to already develop for your own areas?
  (Mr Durkan) We currently have an agreement with the Employment Service to operate the 16- and 17-year old service where they get special hardship payments through the Council's offices, which is a one-stop service in the city centre. So there is to that degree already a working relationship between different agencies. The Benefits Agency is looking at how they can link the payments for 16/17 year olds in with that service. Prior to the Single Work-Focused Gateway coming into effect we were looking at how we could operate across boundaries. One of the things that it has brought to a head is that it has made people spend more energy trying to see how we can get it to integrate in total. The clients of ES in particular and BA are also the clients of the local authority, so to that degree we can see that we can integrate the services. One of the key aspects is that the name and address details we all hold in local authorities something like 40 times across departments probably. So we can see the bringing of services together and trying to link those into some of the aspects of local authorities, such as further education, links with the TEC, how we look at the geographical information whereby with a lot of money going into benefits we recognise in the local authority that does not have a cumulative effect on the people in communities who tend to live in the areas suffering deprivation, so we always know that the benefit is going into certain areas. We are trying to work together not only looking at the front end, how do we deliver services to people coming into the Gateway, but from the back end, how do we change the opportunities for people in those deprived areas.

  201. That sounds a much more positive picture than we have been getting elsewhere. Just commenting on Gareth's comment about the private/voluntary sector areas not being able to have a say as a local authority, my understanding is that the local authorities are going to be involved in evaluating the bids that are put in. I think we got to a point where you have said it was very slow getting off the mark in local authorities and I think what we are interested in now is are we there, are we taking it forward, what are the positive lessons from here on?
  (Mr Bott) We feel that we are very, very involved now. In fact, I think we would look at the local implementation meetings and think that the local authorities were very much in the driving seat in terms of those particular meetings and the negotiations with the local bidders. I think the frustration that we are feeling is that the design of this acquisition is not about generating a specification of service delivery and then looking for somebody to deliver it, it is about designing that service model, that is what the competition is about. Our local group is receiving proposals from the bidders and merely commenting on those in terms of their workability, not in terms of whether we think they are good, very good, quite good. That is a frustration because we want to see the best possible delivery model in our area for our clients. We are quite worried that because of the nature of this acquisition we will not be able to influence that to the degree that we would like to and our clients, therefore, may have to suffer an inferior product for the sake of testing of the different pilot variants.

  202. Is that same picture true in the non-private sector variants in terms of being involved in the design or not?
  (Mr Gary) Can we just say that on the design, certainly from a local authority's point of view that is not in the private sector, we are very frustrated with the backward steps that we are having to take with IT. We have gone back now with the Gateway project to having to handle paper, a courier bringing it down the road to us for the want of—I had better not say a few bob—some expenditure on the Gateway project side. We could have a fully integrated system up and running with the IT that the local authorities currently have. It is a great shame that we have got to go backwards. We are going to go backwards by having to punch twice, three times, four times, rather than punch once, get the information in and electronically transmit it to all parties involved. It is a great shame, it really is a great shame, that we cannot go to that to get the project running as efficiently as it could be.

Mr Keetch

  203. That is because of lack of investment in IT?
  (Mr Gary) Yes.

  204. Not because of incompatible systems?
  (Mr Gary) No. Our IT manager assures me—he also assures me on lots of other things—that we could have that running. He assures me that we can do it. If we have got the money he says he can do it—honestly.

  205. Again, just to bring other colleagues in, is that a feeling among all of you?
  (Mr Mackenzie) Yes, exactly the same.
  (Mr Lautman) I think the timetable has also made developing IT links very difficult.
  (Mr Durkan) We have done some work on this. I am sorry to go against your IT man but we have looked at integrating the systems and apparently the cost of integrating the systems and the complexities are such that it would not be worth the money to try and do it. In other ways the same can be achieved by developing new databases starting from scratch within the pilots. The problem is going back in the past and linking all the existing ones together because they were not designed to link.

  206. So it is cheaper to chuck away the computers and start again?
  (Mr Durkan) Yes, start developing new databases and link them through the design.

Judy Mallaber

  207. Is that feasible? Certainly my Employment Service people were saying "we know we are going to have to start off by carrying bits of paper down the road but hopefully once it gets moving we can then develop the systems". Is that something that you would expect to be able to do?
  (Mr Durkan) From the one-stops that are being developed at the moment I know it is an issue about what degree of help can people give and what degree of knowledge can they hold, the idea being how can technology help. I think the technology that is available now in terms of personal databases or property databases can be developed in using combined training linked to the intranet etc. So, for instance, you could have processes that are on the computer and can be accessed by those members of staff, so it is not that they have to hold all the data in their head but that information is accessible at some point. I think we will find the same across the country with welfare rights, that welfare rights officers have been given a wide range of information because they have been specially trained and have access to the information that they need. It is at what point is the information available that the person needs to be able to give the service.

Mr Keetch

  208. This does not take account of the problem of NIRS2 or NRS2 in the Employment Service, I believe?
  (Mr Lautman) Sorry, you have lost us.

  Chairman: Hold that question and we will come back to it in a second.

Mr Healey

  209. Can I try and use a specific measure to get some clear idea of the involvement of local authorities in the pilots. I am addressing this to Barry and Paul and Norman and your knowledge of the basic model areas in your patches. The successful candidates recruited for the Registration and Orientation Officers and Personal Advisers should be appointed in early May. How many local authority staff have been appointed in your pilot area?
  (Mr Shearing) Three and a half. That is three full-time and half part-time. Having said that, I think in South Essex there were only three and a half appointed and four and a half applied.

  210. Out of a total recruitment of how many?
  (Mr Shearing) There are five authorities involved, so at a guess the potential candidates in benefits alone would probably be one hundred plus and authority wide several thousands perhaps. If it is open to everybody.
  (Mr Lautman) We attended a meeting with DSS officials today and this was one of the issues that cropped up. They gave us some initial feedback on the local authority staff that have been recruited. It has still to be fed to us formally. Certainly they conveyed to us a very small percentage of local authority staff had been recruited to the basic model variants. That is a small percentage overall. It is also a small percentage in relation to those applied especially when you compare it with the numbers who applied from BA and the Employment Service. We have been getting mixed messages in this area because on the one hand there is talk of us being in equal partnership, and we would expect to see that reflected in recruitment and so on, but in practice it does appear that the Employment Service staff have the lion's share. We understand that the Employment Service staff's jobs are changing most as a result of these pilots. It is perfectly understandable why you may want those staff to have the lion's share of new jobs arising, but I think it is a question of explaining clearly what the criteria are here for recruitment of staff because if you talk about equal partnership and that is not reflected in terms of the actual recruitment of staff then that can have a very negative effect on individual local authorities on the ground who are trying to sell the partnership locally. So I think it is important the initiative is clear on this and other aspects in terms of what are the objectives, what are the criteria on what our partners can reasonably expect.
  (Mr Mackenzie) It has been the same in the Clyde Coast and Renfrew pilot. Out of over 60 posts, the majority went to people who came out of the Employment Service. A minority from the Benefits Agency and only two from the five local authorities were appointed to posts. A larger number applied.

  211. You heard the earlier evidence and the importance of co-location was mentioned. To what degree have you got plans within the basic service model, because it is obviously more advanced than the others, for locating local authority staff in the Single Gateway sites? They may remain local authority staff but they would not be employed by the Single Gateway unit.
  (Mr Shearing) Certainly two of the authorities will be Gateway sites, so we will have staff in fairly close proximity. In Chelmsford we acknowledge the fact that we will have to provide somebody in the Gateway site, which is in another location, certainly during the initial six month period whilst the Gateway staff themselves are coming up to speed. It is an acknowledgment on our part that we will have to provide someone to assist and hopefully to be able to undertake benefits work whilst they are there.
  (Mr Mackenzie) There are 12 sites within the Clyde Coast and Renfrew pilot. Only two people have been appointed from local authorities. There is going to be very little movement. All of the sites are either Employment Service or Benefits Agency within the Clyde Coast and Renfrew pilot. In addition to that, we would fully expect to be sending people along, particularly at the beginning of the pilot because there is going to be the need to share information and to make systems work if they are not absolutely 100 per cent right from day one.

  212. What do local authorities bring to the table in this? You have talked about wanting to be lead partners alongside the others. What is distinct in terms of the expertise that local authorities bring either to the planning of these Gateways or, indeed, to the delivery from the point of view of claimants? Why should you be involved?
  (Mr Lautman) Clearly, as administrators of Housing Benefit and Council Tax benefit we have got a very clear role to play in the Gateway. Local authorities have very considerable experience in delivering services from a partnership basis with other organisations and on a cross-service basis. I am not saying that is the case in all local authorities, but certainly a good number of local authorities do that. Local authorities also have considerable experience in dealing with the more vulnerable groups in terms of providing employment advice for people with a learning disability, mental health problems and providing support for people with language difficulties predominantly through welfare advice and the Social Services departments. So there is a lot authorities have to offer.
  (Mr Bott) One wider issue is the community leadership aspect of local authorities, particularly in trying to deal with social aspiration in our area where we have lost a lot of major employers who do an awful lot of work through partnerships and individually with people on Incapacity Benefit, things like that, trying to break down barriers to employment. I think there are very wide areas that we have an involvement in where we think we are going to influence the design and influence the service delivery.

Mr Keetch

  213. The record of local authorities various enormously and presumably would vary even within these areas you are now establishing, so your record within your partnerships is going to vary tremendously. Will that be a problem?
  (Mr Lautman) I think it is a matter of fact that local authorities' performance does vary in terms of Housing Benefit administration. I think there is an improving situation, but the situation also varies with BA local services.

  214. But they will be within one BA area. Several local authorities' performance could vary considerably.
  (Mr Mackenzie) Within the Clyde Coast and Renfrew pilot all five local authorities have anti-poverty strategies or social inclusion strategies and are leading local efforts to tackle failure to take up benefit, social exclusion, homelessness and so on within the East Renfrewshire pilot contribution area. We also have a local community partnership which brings together employers in the private sector, the Local Enterprise company, the health authority, the local councils, education as well as the community. We have a social inclusion partnership within our area. Renfrewshire Council has a similar arrangement and each of the other Councils are the leaders in their areas in promoting coordinated approaches to tackling poverty, social exclusion and in lots of ways that is one of the things that councils have to offer as well as being payers of benefits.
  (Mr Shearing) At Chelmsford we have recently set up an anti-poverty strategy as well and we have recently created a housing advisory centre which I would see as complementing the Gateway and we have asked that when resources and space within the Civic Centre becomes available we can become a Gateway centre ourselves. So we see all of those gelling together.

Mr Healey

  215. Can I just give you another opportunity to explain what is distinctive and special about the contribution of local authorities. Were local authorities able to lead the tenders for the Single Gateway, what would have been distinctive about the sort of proposals that local authorities might have come up with?
  (Mr Durkan) In terms of the responsibility of the local authorities, the scope and range of responsibility goes beyond that of the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency who have a duty to pay benefit to get people into work, but at that point their duty ends. It has been shown in all the research that has taken place that the people suffering most in terms of deprivation and their ability to get jobs are people from a certain area. Where local government has come in is they can put in the links between everything and it is a much bigger picture, as you are all well aware, than simply getting a benefit payment, it is how to get out of that cycle of benefit dependency. The local authority has got a key role to play in that because of its responsibility for housing and education and social services. The local authority would approach it in that way, whereas once people are off the books of the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency they are off their books.
  (Mr Mackenzie) If we were putting in a tender we would lead with advice as the way into the thing and benefits are part of that, but it is very clear to us that the vision that Ministers have been communicating is that the Single Work-Focused Gateway should certainly be focused on work and whether or not there are barriers to participation in the labour market and whether or not these ought to be addressed but that primarily it is about addressing the needs of the individual person. The Single Work-Focused Gateway is aimed at everybody on a low income of working age, not simply people who are or have been in the labour market. It is aimed at carers and they need advice, they need information, they need help to claim the benefits that are due. They ought to be given information about employment opportunities, but many carers would take the view that unless it is handled sensitively by people who are prepared to listen as well as talk it has the danger of being something that is not going to be of help to them in the choices they have to make for the foreseeable part of their lives.

Ms Atherton

  216. You heard the discussion earlier about the bigger vision of an integration maybe between local and central government services, a genuine one-stop shop. If anyone has got examples and experience of one-stop shops it has to be local government. They are very successful. I was involved as a councillor many years ago in decentralising and I saw 100 per cent uptake in services requested and then a complete drop as we dealt with them and then people became comfortable and knew where they were going in the interim, but there was always this gap of central government not being part of this network. Do you have the same reaction as our previous witnesses of scepticism or would you see it as an opportunity that could be pursued?
  (Mr Lautman) I think that is a vision that local government shares, to be able to facilitate the provision of integrated services locally. Look at the number of areas, for example, of Single Regeneration Budget bids, that local authorities are looking at delivering local services more effectively at a neighbourhood level, not just local authority services but services from other agencies as well. It is perfectly conceptually possible that in the long-term you can think in terms of delivering benefits, advice and following on support at that level as well.

  217. Would you agree with me that the more experience you have got at a hands-on level on the ground the more open and receptive you are to this whereas when you have not been involved you are more sceptical and you can see the problems? I can see some heads nodding.
  (Mr Durkan) Something you mentioned before was the issue about dealing with customer contact as being for the most experienced people, that is something that everyone has learned from and changed their approach on.

Judy Mallaber

  218. In the light of all this do you think that local authorities in private/voluntary sector pilots should have been allowed to bid to run them or is that outwith your remit and your members might go a bit mad if you make a commitment?
  (Mr Durkan) We would have liked to have had the opportunity.

  219. We have not yet asked about call centres. We ought to ask one question. Do you have a view about the pros and cons of call centres as a means of getting information gathered from people in your area?
  (Mr Gary) No, I do not have an issue with the call centre technology. Particularly in a rural area like Somerset it is a super idea because it means that people have not got to travel into the centres, into Taunton and into other towns in Somerset, so it is a green policy. It makes life easier. We can put call help desks in village stores, that is one of the initiatives that councils are trying to work up in Somerset. The only problem we have is the mismatch with the verification framework which is an anti-fraud framework because at that point, at the call centre point, you are taking an awful lot on just a telephone call. That is somewhat offset by the fact that they will still have to come in for a Personal Adviser interview afterwards. I think the call centre idea, or the notion of a call centre, is very good.

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