Select Committee on Social Security Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Lancashire County Council Welfare Rights and Social Inclusion Services

Summary of Contents:

  • Commitment and financial investment
  • Staff and training
  • Comprehensive benefit checks
  • Record keeping
  • Forms completion
  • Information for customers
  • Partnerships with BA/ES
  • Access to the Gateway, including home visits
  • Vulnerable customers
  • Administrative and adjudicative functions
  • Information functions and advice functions


Lancashire County Council Welfare Rights Service was established in 1987 and exists to serve the 1.1 million residents of Lancashire. Our purpose is to ensure that all those who need advice and help to obtain Social Security and local authority benefits to which they are entitled are able to get it—and we have offices, satellite outposts, telephone advice services, and the facility for home visits, throughout the County to achieve this aim. We have extensive benefit casework experience, with annually approximately 60,000 advice transactions. We also assist with around 2000 plus Social Security appeals. It is with this background that we welcome the invitation to contribute to the joint inquiry into the Single Work-Focused Gateway. Our response is based on an analysis of the proposals contained within the Green Paper.

1. The Single Work-Focused Gateway will be a radical change to the way that claimants of working age access the benefits system. If it is to capture its full potential for improved service and administration, it will need a commitment to delivering a high quality service, as well as a substantial financial investment, to stand any chance of success.

2. The quality of the staff responsible for the implementation of the Gateway will be crucial to its success and there will need to be considerable training to help them move from the old culture to the new. This training would not only need to cover all aspects of Social Security and local authority benefits, but also an awareness of the effects of various mental and physical disabilities. The latter would be particularly important for registration staff, since it is they who decide whether a person is ready for a work-focused interview. Additionally, there needs to be an investment in the provision of ethnic/cultural awareness training to enable staff to sensitively and accurately determine a person's readiness for work—at all stages of the Gateway process.

3. The initial registration process should incorporate a comprehensive benefit check, with customers being informed of all the benefits to which they may have a potential entitlement. This would, therefore, need to include advice on claiming the non-Gateway benefits—e.g. DLA and Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefits. In our experience partial information can be unhelpful and lead to problems. It would be interesting to see if evidence emerges from the pilot projects that customers are receiving comprehensive benefit advice.

4. In our experience, full benefit checks can be difficult and time-consuming to deliver. Adequate time should, therefore, be allowed at the initial point of registration to obtain a full account of a customer's personal and financial circumstances. We say this despite having at our disposal a state of the art IT package which is custom built for advisers and based upon laptop technology. We would be happy to demonstrate the package. (Delegates from advice services in all parts of the country are attending a seminar demonstrating the package in Preston on 7 May 1999.)

5. Detailed record keeping is also essential to ensure that all parties are clear on the advice that has been given, and any action taken—eg claim forms sent out or completed. This would be even more essential in the transfer of a case from registration staff to a personal adviser, and in pilots involving the private and voluntary sector.

6. Customers should also be given some form of written summary of the advice that they have been given—for example, a "Gateway Passport" (perhaps something similar to the current Jobseekers Agreement booklet) that could record an individual's route through the Gateway process and the advice and directions given. This would also allow customers to seek redress in situations where incomplete or wrong advice has been given. Paragraphs 19(4) and (5) of the Social Security (Claims and Payments) Regulations allow a benefit claim to be backdated for 3 months where someone was given "information by an officer of the DSS or of the Department for Education and Employment which led the claimant to believe that a claim for benefit would not succeed". It is easier for people to establish this if they have some written evidence of the advice given.

7. Pilots operating in partnership with the private and voluntary sector will need to insist that a written summary is given to customers to allow them to take advantage of the above provision on backdated benefit. Advice from non-DSS/Employment Service staff must be in writing for these Regulations to have effect.

8. Time to help with forms completion needs to be built into the Gateway process. DSS research has repeatedly shown that form completion remains a major problem for people, and also causes significant processing problems due to delays as a result of incomplete or wrong information. Document verification (e.g. birth or marriage certificates, mortgage details) has also been identified as a cause of delay. Clear and constructive policies are needed in this area.

9. Even in the best conditions for quality advice transactions, and sound adjudication, difficulties will arise. Customers, therefore, not only need to have clear information as to what is expected of them at each stage of the Gateway process, but also clear information as to their appeal rights if something goes wrong. There should also be a duty on the Gateway staff to ensure that the customer understands these rights and duties.

10. There will also need to be consistency of service provision (especially in terms of quality of service) in areas where the BA or ES are working in partnership with the local authority and/or private and voluntary organisations. All will have their own practices regarding, for example, access and record keeping—which could cause inconsistencies in service delivery within the same local area. Detailed partnership agreements will need to be drawn up, with regular reviews built in, to reduce the risk of this occurring. These should also include the setting of challenging qualitative standards, in addition to the usual quantitative target-setting relating to number of customers interviewed or processed.

11. Partnerships are also a two-way process, and obviously need a commitment from both parties to work. As a local authority advice service, we have made consistent attempts over the years to achieve satisfactory liaison arrangements with various departments of the Benefits Agency and Employment Services (particularly over casework issues) and these have met with a very mixed response. Across Lancashire we have experienced considerable variations in standards and performance.

12. Access to the Gateway process should be as flexible as possible, and take account of the personal circumstances of certain groups of claimants who may have problems attending BA and ES office-based interviews—eg carers, people with disabilities, and those living in areas with poor transport facilities. From our experience, comprehensive benefit checks by telephone are possible (and are hopefully one of the options being looked at in Phase 2 of the pilot programme)—but this is obviously not an alternative option for everybody. A commitment to home visiting in all appropriate cases needs to be made. In our experience, there are currently wide variations in local BA office policy regarding home visits—in some areas they only seem to be possible when linked with particular benefit activities (e.g. to investigate potential fraud cases). Research has demonstrated the efficacy of home visits, and adequate resources should be provided from the outset.

13. Early identification of "vulnerable" customers (eg people with mental health problems or learning difficulties; people whose first language is not English; people with literacy problems) should be a priority. Staff attitudes, in our experience, are an important factor here. We also know that vulnerable customers often do not immediately present themselves as having problems at the initial point of contact. It is, therefore, hoped that the "good cause" provision that exists for JSA claimants who fail to attend compulsory interviews will also be built into the Gateway process to protect their benefit entitlement.

14. Finally, there needs to be transparency in the structures relating to points of departure from administrative functions and adjudicative functions. Claimants need to be clear at all times what purpose is being served when being interviewed or when providing information. If there are not high levels of confidence in this the positive elements of the Gateway will soon be eroded.

15. This is also true, and it is a point of even greater importance, in relation to the functions of information provision and advice provision. There is a vital distinction between the two, but earlier BA/DSS work on one-stop services did not demonstrate the distinction was understood, In a word, advice giving places obligations on the advisers to assist if the advice is unproductive. Equally, advice giving requires a different kind of relationship to the customer, and in our view the qualities of independence and confidentiality are essential. Are there really going to be structures and safeguards which can guarantee these characteristics? If so, it will also be necessary for Gateway advisers to develop a relationship with the external market of benefit advice agencies.

Paul Burgess

Head of Service

Lancashire County Council Welfare Rights and Social Inclusion Services

28 April 1999

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 27 July 1999