Select Committee on Social Security Seventh Report


User Issues


  19. Organisations representing lone parents, carers, and people with disabilities have expressed concern about the element of compulsion which will come into effect from April 2000 in the pilot areas. Gingerbread was one of many who argued that "compulsion raises a barrier of suspicion and fear and reinforces a negative view of government and agencies".[28] The requirement to attend an interview focused on work, or face a reduction or complete loss of benefit, was criticised for the signal it sent out that other types of activity—bringing up children, caring for disabled people, tackling the everyday barriers associated with disability—were not valued.[29] Although compulsion for people claiming benefits other than Jobseeker's Allowance will only extend to participation in a work-focused interview, there was concern that clients might feel pressurised into taking work against their will, even when it would not be an appropriate option in their circumstances. For example, the Carers' National Association said that "carers were very concerned that they will be forced to work; that the quality of life and the health of the person they care for will suffer; and, if they are unable to work, that their benefits will be cut".[30] Witnesses were critical of some of the publicity which attended the announcement of the pilots which had focused on the compulsory element as a "clamp down on the work-shy"[31] or "the end of the something for nothing welfare state".[32]

20. Despite the fears and anxieties of organisations representing the targeted groups, we were impressed by Ministers' commitment to making the ONE experience a positive one. Ministers told us the intention was to make the interview a "helpful intervention," the purpose of which was to enthuse, to give a sense of direction for the individual, and to help them become more proactive.[33] They also made it clear that, while the emphasis was on tackling barriers to employment, the ONE meetings were also about moving people forward in other ways towards independence:

    "there will be people having these interviews who do not have an immediate prospect of work: either because they have caring responsibilities, which it is generally accepted should take priority where they want to; or because they have an illness, or some other physical condition, which makes work a remote possibility. Now, the projection of this has got to be sensitive to their needs as well, which is why I talk in general terms about movement towards greater independence and doing something depending on the circumstances."[34]

21. Critics of the requirement to attend argue that, if the ONE interview is of sufficient quality, people will be keen to attend without the threat of loss of benefit and the element of compulsion is therefore unnecessary. However, the pilots for the New Deal for Lone Parents indicated that, although a large proportion of those invited for interview declined to attend the interview, an even larger proportion of those who did attend took up one of the options offered. We understand why some clients are reluctant to attend interviews voluntarily, given that in the past such invitations indicated the likelihood of being accused of abuse and/or having benefit reduced. However, ONE represents a cultural shift in the approach towards clients. Ministers pointed out that there were two distinct phases to the ONE pilots: the first period until April 2000 when participation in the adviser meeting would be voluntary; and the period afterwards when it would be compulsory.[35] The two phases do give an opportunity to compare the two approaches. We conclude that ONE interviews offer positive advantages to all those claiming benefits. We take the view that the requirement to attend an interview is not onerous in itself; but the element of compulsion may well be necessary to bring along those people who are demoralised, isolated, or lacking in confidence, in order to connect them to the help and encouragement which is available.

22. However, if ONE is to work, the mistrust and alarm which the compulsory element may engender must be dispelled. We welcome Government assurances that compulsion will not extend beyond a work-focused interview for people claiming benefits other than Jobseeker's Allowance.[36] We recommend that the invitation to attend a ONE interview should be positive in tone rather than threatening, and should make clear that, in the case of people claiming benefits other than Jobseeker's Allowance, the choice of whether to act on the advice and information given in the ONE interview is theirs.

23. The penalties for failure to attend a compulsory ONE meeting are tough.[37] A person who fails to attend an adviser meeting will simply be regarded as not having made a claim, and will therefore not be entitled to benefit. If an initial interview is deferred, but the person then fails to attend it when rescheduled, benefit will stop. Where a person fails to attend a compulsory ONE interview during the course of a claim (triggered by a specified event, such as completion of a personal capability assessment for Incapacity Benefit), they face a benefit reduction which will continue until the ONE interview takes place. Any benefit lost in the interim will not be refunded. The non-payment of benefit or the imposition of a benefit reduction can only be avoided if the person can show, within set time limits, "good cause" for their failure to attend an interview.

24. Much of the anxiety of groups representing those potentially affected arises from the severe consequences for vulnerable individuals if their benefit is stopped or reduced. Disability Alliance asked, "what happens to the person with severe depression who does not respond? The carer who has given up work and ignores the letters because they don't seem relevant? The lone parent with a terminally ill child who is camping out at the hospital and has too much on her mind?"[38] Assurances have been given that termination of benefit will only follow three failures to attend an interview, with the added safeguard of the "good cause" provision.[39] But where failure to respond is due to fear, misunderstanding, communication difficulties or mental illness, another invitation letter will not necessarily make a difference. We recommend that, in addition to repeat invitations to attend an interview, an attempt should be made by ONE staff to establish personal contact with a person facing loss of benefit, either by telephone or a home visit, before the claim is ended or benefit is reduced.


  25. Normally an adviser meeting will take place within three working days of the start-up meeting.[40] The Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill does allow for an interview to be waived altogether or deferred, either in specified circumstances laid down by regulations, or, more generally, at officials' discretion.[41] In the light of the potential benefit losses for failure to attend, and the risk of the interview being conducted at what may be an inappropriate time for the client, attention has focused on the use of such exemptions or deferrals.

26. Organisations representing lone parents have put forward the very particular problems which can face lone parents when a relationship breaks down: the emotional trauma for both parents and children; possibly having to move house or cope with homelessness; disruption in finances and schooling; and in some cases the aftermath of domestic violence or sexual abuse.[42] In such cases, they argue that the ONE interview should be deferred until the parent's situation has stabilised.

27. Some disability organisations have singled out people with severe mental illness or severe learning difficulties as groups who should be exempt from ONE interviews on the basis that such interviews were likely to be of little benefit and might risk threatening the disabled person's income.[43] A particular problem raised by a number of organisations concerned the apparent mismatch between a person applying for Incapacity Benefit, on the basis that they were incapable of work, yet facing an immediate ONE interview to discuss the possibility of work.[44] The implication was that the ONE interview should be deferred until the person's capacity for work had been fully examined and determined in connection with the Incapacity Benefit claim. On this particular question, we were reassured by Ministers that an individual's active participation in a ONE interview would not be used in evidence against them in their claim for Incapacity Benefit.[45]

28. The Carers' National Association wanted all carers receiving Invalid Care Allowance or the Carer's Premium paid with Income Support to be exempted altogether or, at the very least, those caring for disabled people in receipt of the highest rates of Attendance Allowance or Disability Living Allowance.[46]

29. The Government has said that it does not intend to set out in regulations the categories of people for whom waiver or deferral of the ONE interview would be appropriate. Instead, the decision will be made on a case-by-case basis by reference to the circumstances of the individual claimant.[47] This approach has been welcomed by some groups.[48] However, it puts considerable responsibility on individual officials when exercising their judgement in a particular case. Mr Jeremy Groombridge, Policy Manager for Welfare to Work at the DSS, sought to reassure us that "the watchword is very much one of sensitivity and whether a discussion at that point in time would be meaningful."[49] We can see the advantages of such flexibility, where a person's individual circumstances can be fully taken into account. However, there is the danger of a lack of consistency of approach in dealing with individuals in similar circumstances, with the result that people are treated differently, for example, because they live in different areas or because of other factors, such as ethnicity. It is our view that a high degree of consistency is needed in the delivery of what is likely to become a national service. We recommend that during the period of the pilots there should be continuous monitoring of decisions on exemptions and deferrals both to inform on-going training of staff and to develop a model of best practice which can be used by all the pilot areas and which can form the basis for national guidelines on exemptions and deferrals in any national roll-out.

30. If client groups are to be won over to the benefits of ONE, the quality of the service offered must be of a high standard. The quality of the ONE service should be judged, among other things, on the quality of the decisions taken on exemptions and deferrals, and on the follow-up action taken when a person fails to attend an interview. We recommend that research should be carried out on the quality and consistency of decisions in these areas, including an analysis of the impact of the decisions made on the clients affected.


  31. The ONE Service has the potential to revolutionise the quality of advice and information given to people claiming benefits by central and local government. At the start of a claim, the start-up adviser has a crucial role in identifying potential benefit entitlements.[50] During the course of a claim, personal advisers will be a single point of contact for people to report changes of circumstances[51] and to query unintelligible benefits letters and forms.[52] And when a person is considering a move into work, the personal adviser will be expected both to give "better-off" advice—calculating the person's potential income from earnings and benefits if they took a job compared to their income out of work[53]—and to assist the person through the complicated transition from out-of-work benefits to in-work support.[54]

32. The response from organisations who give benefits advice has been enthusiastic, although they remain to be convinced that the scale of the task has been fully appreciated. Lancashire County Council Welfare Rights and Social Inclusion Services pointed out that a comprehensive benefits check is difficult and time-consuming to deliver.[55] Disability Alliance drew attention to the complexities of giving back-to-work benefits advice to disabled people, where options in taking a job might include a choice of working and claiming the Disabled Persons' Tax Credit; working fewer hours and earning up to £15 on Income Support; or undertaking "therapeutic work" (for those on Incapacity Benefit or Severe Disablement Allowance) and earning up to £58 per week.[56] The Child Poverty Action Group voiced concern, based on feedback from the New Deal for Lone Parents, that the computer calculations being used to assess the difference in income and outgoings for claimants if they took a job were sometimes failing to estimate accurately the real costs of taking work or training. CPAG concluded that "better computer systems are not the whole answer, staff need to be highly skilled in benefit calculations to ensure that the system has correct and comprehensive information to work from."[57]

33. The benefits system remains a complex web of entitlements, where people can easily lose out on the financial help available to them. In order to make the most use of the advice and information they are given, we recommend that clients should be given a written summary of the work-related and benefits advice offered during an interview. This could also provide a useful method of quality control, and enable people to gain redress if incorrect information has been given.


  34. Staff from the Employment Service, Benefits Agency, Child Support Agency and local authorities have been invited to apply for start-up adviser and personal adviser posts in the pilot areas. Each agency has its own banding and grading structure, but the ONE advisor posts have been assessed by all as broadly equivalent to executive officer level.[58] People from different agencies will remain on their "home agency" terms and conditions during the pilots.[59] The PCS criticised the management machinery being proposed for the basic model pilots as "bureaucratic and unwieldy". They suggested that groups of staff on different pay and conditions, working for agencies with independent and different priorities and with different managerial and disciplinary procedures were being asked to do exactly the same work in the same locations.[60] When we visited the Calderdale and Kirklees pilot area, staff from all the agencies identified staffing as the most challenging aspect of establishing the pilot, accounting for about three-quarters of the Implementation Manager's time.

35. Evidence from local authority witnesses suggests that there have been particular problems in recruiting staff for the ONE pilots from local authorities. This is a serious matter, given the partnership role of local authorities in the ONE service. For example, in the Clyde Coast and Renfrew pilots where five local authorities are involved, we were told that, out of over sixty posts, only two had been filled by local authority staff.[61] The problem appears to be partly one of timing, with local authorities complaining that they were not brought on board early enough.[62] This is being addressed by plans to enable local authorities to step up their involvement over time.[63] It may also be due to the difficulties in establishing satisfactory terms and conditions of employment for local authority staff seconded to the ONE teams. The Government has said that the pilots will give an opportunity to see what the scope is for evolution and integration of staff from different Agencies within ONE teams.[64] We recommend that the Government should move as soon as possible to common terms and conditions of service for all ONE advisers. Ministers should also consider the implications of the different structure of rewards and incentives for staff in the voluntary and private sector organisations that may be engaged in the ONE Service under the second variant.

36. A quite separate issue of recruitment concerns the relevant experience which prospective ONE advisers will bring to the job. The expectation is that ONE advisers will deal with all client groups flowing through the service, rather than specialising in meeting the needs of particular client groups. Ministers explained that part of the purpose of the new Service was to treat people as individuals and not as members of a particular category of claimants.[65] We agree with the "generic" role being given to ONE advisers, but we draw attention to the onus this puts on the Departments and Agencies to offer in-depth training and continuing support to advisers to meet the special needs of their clients.

37. The generic nature of the personal adviser role should not prevent the recruitment of staff who can offer a useful insight into the issues facing particular groups in finding work. One of the most challenging tasks facing advisers will be to assist people with disabilities or health limitations towards independence and work. Many of the disability organisations which submitted evidence to us have indicated an anxiety that the barriers to work which can face such groups would not be fully understood.[66] The training offered to ONE advisers is very important in this respect. Another strategy is to recruit people who have experience of health and disability issues, so that, as Mr Richard Wood of the British Council of Disabled People suggested to us, personal advisers not only have training and professional skills, but also a degree of personal empathy and understanding for the difficulties which people with disabilities or health problems can face.[67] We recommend that, during the life of the pilots, special effort should be made to encourage the recruitment of personal advisers with knowledge of disabilities. All advisers should receive adequate disability awareness training. We also recommend that the Government should monitor the impact of ONE on the work of Disability Employment Advisers to ensure that an adequate number of staff is in place.


  38. The ONE service pilots will be delivered by a core partnership of the Employment Service, the Benefits Agency and local authorities. Mr Andrew Smith MP, the Minister for Employment, told us "I chair the ministerial group, and a number of Departments represented there are working very closely with the DSS and my Department and both the project team and the local implementation teams are made up of people not only from the Departments, Benefits Agency and Employment Service, but, very importantly, for the purposes of these pilots, from local authorities as well".[68] In the private and voluntary sector pilots, it will be the successful private and voluntary sector bidders rather than the Employment Service, Benefits Agency and local authorities who will lead in developing partnerships, but close working between all the public service agencies will be a key element in delivering the ONE service.[69]


39. The local authorities have indicated that they were not consulted in advance of the public announcement of the ONE project and that the tight timetable for implementation and lack of clarity over financial support have hampered their involvement as equal partners.[70] Local authority representatives told us that they were engaged "after the major part of the vision had been established" and therefore their ability to influence the vision had been curtailed.[71]

40. Although the Local Government Association and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities are now involved in liaison with the ONE Project Team at national level and local authorities are actively engaged in local management groups in the pilot areas, they appear to be secondary partners in a project "owned" by the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Social Security.[72] Representatives told us "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."[73]

41. The failure fully to involve local authorities from the earliest stages of ONE's development is regrettable given the innovative role which some local authorities have played in developing a "one-stop" approach to local service delivery. The Local Government Association argued "it is integrated services in which local authorities can have some leadership. Many local authorities have taken the lead in providing integrated services both with regard to services they provide directly and also with regard to services provided by other agencies".[74] For example, Mr Durkan from Leeds City Council told us of a one-stop service set up by Leeds City Council involving the local authority and the Employment Service providing integrated services for 16-17 year-olds, where the Benefits Agency was also looking to become involved.[75] We note that there is no variant on the basic model pilot which allows for local authority leadership. Such a model might not only harness the experience which certain local authorities have developed in this area, but also allow experimentation with different models of developing innovation. When we visited Calderdale and Kirklees, it was suggested to us that there were differences in the cultures of decision making between central and local government agencies, with a more flexible, "can do" approach on the part of the latter, with perhaps a more hierarchical decision-making structure on the part of the former.[76] It is a pity that the pilots will not allow local authorities to show what they could do if put in charge of the ONE Service.

42. The private and voluntary sector variant is designed to test innovative and flexible ways of delivering ONE. We are disappointed that organisations dependent on public funds (including local authorities) have been excluded from tendering for these pilots. Local authorities have developed considerable expertise in dealing with targeted client groups and in developing "one-stop shops". We recommend that a local authority led pilot should be introduced, where local authorities are given the opportunity to bid for the pilot being located in their area.

43. Local authorities are particularly concerned that the costs of authorities involved in the pilots have not been fully met. For example, we were advised at the end of April that Taunton Deane (Somerset call centre pilot) had received £5,000 for implementation compared to an estimated cost of over £15,000; Chelmsford (Essex South East basic pilot) had received under £3,000 compared to an estimated cost of £15,000; and Ashfield (North Nottinghamshire private and voluntary sector partnership pilot) had received £4,000 compared to an estimated cost of £10,000.[77] The lack of certainty over what costs were eligible for reimbursement was hampering local authority involvement, because authorities had to work within existing budgets and with regard to capping constraints.[78] We consider that the full participation of local authorities in the pilots is essential for their success. The ONE pilots are a central Government initiative, designed to test out new ways of delivering Government services with a view to national implementation. The Government should therefore ensure that the core costs of local authorities involved in the ONE pilots are fully met. Full participation by local authorities in the pilots should not be constrained by a lack of adequate resources, and the extra costs should not fall on local council tax payers in the pilot areas.


44. A potential barrier to closer working between government agencies and local authorities is the variety of different IT systems in place. The Employment Service and Benefits Agency operate different systems, and there is little compatibility between local authority systems or between local government and central government agencies. Yet it is acknowledged by the Government that "the success of [ONE] will depend on harnessing the power of IT in support of more efficient internal processes, and more integrated public services."[79] Despite this acknowledgement, plans for enhanced use of IT in the ONE pilots appear limited. The main operational support for the basic model pilots will be provided by the existing Labour Market System used in the Employment Service, OpStrat used in the Benefits Agency and a new Gateway Enquiry System (GES).[80] We were advised by the DfEE and DSS that they were "investigating the scope for mounting some small scale developmental IT prototypes later this year—eg, electronic claiming as used in the Lewisham prototype—to explore a greater role for IT in supporting service delivery."[81]

45. The Government is right to move cautiously in developing new (and expensive) IT systems.[82] Nevertheless, if ONE is to work well on a national basis, a commitment to substantial investment in IT will be needed to make the vision of a more integrated service for the public a reality. We recommend that the Government should also give attention to future methods of client access, including the potential that media such as digital television offer for interactive, electronic access to a range of Government services, including the ONE Service.

28   Appendix 10. See also Appendices 8, 9, 11 & 21. Back

29   Ev. pp. 14 & 17; QQ. 81 & 126.  Back

30   Ev. p. 43. Back

31   Q. 128. Back

32   Ev. p. 56. Back

33   Q. 274. Back

34   Q. 255. Back

35   Q. 272. Back

36   Q. 274. Back

37   See Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill [HL Bill 62], clause 52, and House of Commons Official Report, Standing Committee D, 13 April 1999, cols. 685-688. Back

38   Ev. p. 39. Back

39   House of Commons Official Report, Standing Committee D, 13 April 1999, col. 688. Back

40   Q. 66. Back

41   Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill [HL Bill 62], clause 52. Back

42   See Appendices 9,16 & 24. Back

43   See, for example, Appendices 8, 11 & 13. Back

44   See Appendix 13, QQ. 143-144 & The Gateway to Work, TUC Welfare to Work Briefing Paper No.24. Back

45   Q. 279. Back

46   QQ. 81-82 and Ev. pp. 72-73. Back

47   Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, Explanatory Notes [HL Bill 62-EN]. Back

48   For example, the British Council of Disabled People and RADAR, Q. 129. Back

49   Q. 32. Back

50   Ev. p. 3. Back

51   Ev. p. 4. Back

52   Q. 276. Back

53   Q. 245. Back

54   Ev. p. 4 & Q. 252. Back

55   Ev. p. 5. Back

56   Ev. p. 40. Back

57   Ev. p. 59. Back

58   Ev. p. 8. Start-up advisers have been graded at Executive Officer/B3 in the BA and Management Pay Band (MPB) 7 in the ES. Personal advisers have been graded at EO/B3 in the BA and MPB6 in the ES. Back

59   See Ev. pp. 8-9. Back

60   Ev. p. 78. Back

61   Q. 210. Back

62   QQ. 153, 186, & 196. Back

63   Q. 258. Back

64   Q. 256. Back

65   Q. 277. Back

66   See, for example, Ev. p. 10 and QQ. 119 & 126. Back

67   Q. 135. Back

68   Q. 231. Back

69   See Ev. pp. 6-7. Back

70   Ev. pp. 93-94. Back

71   Q. 187. Back

72   Ev. pp. 32-33. Back

73   Q. 188. Back

74   QQ.185 & 216. Back

75   Q. 200. Back

76   Q. 257. Back

77   Ev. p. 94. Back

78   Ev. p. 94 and Q. 192. Back

79   Ev. pp. 33-34. Back

80   Ibid. Back

81   Ibid. Back

82   See Q. 262. Back

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