Select Committee on Social Security Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Child Poverty Action Group



Purpose of interviews and training needs


Arranging interviews and processing claims swiftly

First impressions: contact and invitations

Special needs and equal access to the gateway

Welfare advice and the gateway

Gateway as an anti-fraud measure

People who are incapable of work, entering work

Benefit penalties

Private and Voluntary sector pilots


The introduction of the Single Work-focused Gateway (SWFG) is in many ways a welcome development. It will give many claimants the opportunity to discuss the full range of their benefit entitlements and, where appropriate, the possibilities of finding work and overcoming any practical barriers to taking employment. The positive aspects of the proposal are however undermined by the elements of compulsion, by making a claim for benefit dependent on attendance and by an over-emphasis on work and using the gateway as a means of "policing" the system.

The Government announced that the introduction of the SWFG will mark: "The end of the something for nothing welfare state. The days of the automatic right to benefit will go." (Tony Blair. "It really is the end of the something for nothing days" Daily Mail, 10 May 1999). There is, even now, no such thing as an automatic right to benefit. A claimant must justify her/his entitlement by the contents of a written application form in which s/he shows how s/he satisfies the conditions of entitlement.

In the article Tony Blair talks about the duty on claimants to look for jobs: ''individuals have a responsibility to accept work, flexible in the jobs they take and avoid dependence where they can".

The emphasis on the importance of paid work appears to ignore the situations of those who rely on social security because of ill health or because they are carers. Such an approach will be detrimental if it influences the way the new interviews are conducted. Those who have no choice to "avoid dependence" because of their circumstances may become stigmatised. The interviewers must be open minded and aware of the needs of different claimants, only some of whom will be able to move into work. We believe that a successful gateway system should be mindful of the following issues:

Monitoring and advocacy should be essential parts of the gateway. Services offered to non-JSA claimants should be confidential.

The introduction of compulsory Interviews for those not required to be available for work should be delayed until it has been demonstrated that compulsion is necessary or desirable.

If a claimant wants a home interview or believes they should be exempt from the requirement to attend, they should be able to make representations to this effect prior to the interview and before any benefit penalty has been applied.

There should be a duty on personal advisers to follow up claimants who fall to attend an interview to find out why they did not attend before depriving them of benefit.

Termination of a claim is not an appropriate benefit penalty. Non-JSA claimants should not be left without any benefit. If penalties must be applied CPAG would like to see a small reduction in benefit comparable with the hardship system for "vulnerable" JSA claimants.

Benefit claims should be processed and remain in payment in full until a decision has been made by an adjudication officer.

The rules determining whether a claimant has taken part in an interview will need to be very clear. There is a risk that claimants will be vulnerable to the subjective views of a personal adviser over what constitutes "participation" in the gateway interview.

Adequately funded, accurate and skilled advice about benefit entitlement and "better off" calculations should form part of the gateway. This service must be confidential and clearly independent from any decisions over entitlement.

Funding for the voluntary and private sector pilots should not emphasise outcomes. The definition of outcome should incorporate "distance travelled" and education and training as well as work.

The gateway will be less effective if it tries to operate simultaneously as an anti-fraud measure and a service to help people overcome barriers to work.

Purpose of Interview and Training Needs

The range of tasks to be undertaken by both the Registration and Orientation (R&O) advisers and the Personal Adviser (PA) demand wide-ranging skills, expertise and knowledge about issues such as possible benefit entitlement and sources of practical help available. Making decisions such as whether a claimant needs a home visit, special needs interview or whether the claimant should be exempt from the requirement to attend will require a great deal of information about the claimant which they may not be willing to divulge over the telephone. Consequently the skills and sensitivity of the officers involved will be particularly important.

Availability of mentoring and advocacy services throughout the gateway process will be pivotal to its success. The R&O adviser will have to be able to identify cases where a claimant who has problems articulating their needs (such as those with mental health problems or learning disabilities) has a need for a mentor or advocate and to ensure that the claimant has access to these services.

The government has stated that it intends to introduce the scheme on a national basis, subject to the results of the pilots, in April 2000. Assessment of the pilots should involve looking at areas of skill shortage amongst advisers to inform a high quality training programme for the staff who will be involved in the national scheme.

In order to provide a quality service to claimants, consideration needs to be given to the optimum workload an R&O adviser and PA should have. Results from the New Deal studies and gateway pilots may provide some indications.


CPAG is concerned that the interview with the PA is to be compulsory and a condition of entitlement to benefit. In our view this is an unhelpful requirement in what is otherwise an imaginative development. It is unhelpful as it could alarm and confuse claimants, who are not required to be available for work, about what the interview is for. It is difficult to explain that a compulsory interview is there to help them find an appropriate job not to force them into one that they do not want to take.

In a wider sense compulsion sends out negative signals to claimants and their representatives. If the single work-focused gateway contains elements which are of benefit to claimants and is seen to be helpful, many claimants are likely to take it up of their own accord. Conversely some claimants will view a programme they are compelled to attend with suspicion. Many claimants are extremely anxious at any interviews and fear that their benefit could be taken away. The government has spoken of the importance of developing the trust of claimants. This is far more likely to exist if the person has a right to choose whether or not to attend and arrives for positive reasons rather than fear of negative consequences.

The introduction of compulsory interviews for those not required to be available for work should be delayed until it has been demonstrated that compulsion is necessary or desirable. Research examining the New Deal for lone parents, which is similar in scope to the SWFG but not compulsory, is due to report this autumn. Although the research would not have been able to take account of the impact of the more generous tax credits, it may provide some explanation as to why so many lone parents did not take advantage of the invitations to interviews for the New Deal. Cumulative figures up to 25 September 1998 show that 48,394 letters were issued and 20,413 initial interviews were carried out (HC 18 November 1998 col. 621—624). It may be that the parents taking up the invitations are a self-selecting group that can gain most benefit from the interview. Those not taking up the invitations may be unable or unwilling to even begin tackling barriers which are preventing them getting work. Interviewing them would merely double a personal adviser workload for little benefit.

Full analysis of research on the single work-focused gateway pilots is not due until 2002. National rollout of compulsory interviews before this date is premature.

Arranging Interviews and the need to Process Benefit Swiftly

The proposal to timetable all SWFG interviews for within three days of the initial contact with the BA may undermine the effectiveness of the whole operation. Whilst some claimants may want to talk to an adviser as soon as possible, in other cases the interview will be more productive if it takes place later. People usually claim benefit because there has been a change in their circumstance; new Benefit Agency leaflets are based around the concept of "life events". It is likely that the claimant will be adjusting to new circumstances such as chronic health problems, care duties or the main wage earner leaving the household. They may have many other administrative matters to sort out relating to their change in status. Claimants will be in a far better position to discuss the future, including the possibility of getting work, once they know their current needs are answered and their new circumstances are stable and secure.

We support proposals to process benefit entitlement immediately for those claiming benefits other than on work-seeking grounds. Those who are not exempted should be required to attend an interview approximately a month, or the optimum period suggested by research, after the benefit decision is given.

Information could be gathered from pilots to assess how soon people claiming benefit for the first time are able to fully participate in a work-focused interview.

CPAG is concerned that in practice it may not be possible to conform to the projected timetable and that interviews with PAs will be delayed beyond the three-day period. Under current proposals claimants will not have a claim for benefit until the interview takes place and therefore payment of their benefit will be delayed. CPAG proposes that a claim should be processed forthwith even though no interview has taken place where:

  • the BA (or other organisation) has been unable to allocate the claimant an interview date within the three days;
  • the claimant has been unable to attend the interview for acceptable reasons (practical or other good cause reasons);
  • the claimant is not required to attend an interview and the interview has been postponed.

In order to enable benefit to be paid in these circumstances, attendance at a work-focused interview should not be a pre-requisite of claim.

First impressions: Initial Contact and Invitation to Interview

The experience a claimant has when speaking to the R&O adviser may affect their whole attitude towards the gateway interview, their personal adviser and ultimately the success of the SWFG. In CPAG's experience, it is difficult to convey the purpose of the interview, its compulsory nature and its scope in easy to understand terms. It is not easy to reassure a person that a compulsory interview about work will not lead to a requirement to look for or undertake work.

The content of the "Invitation to interview" letter will have a potential impact on the subsequent success of the interview. The letter should make it clear that the only obligation on the claimant is to attend the interview and they will not have to take any further steps unless they want to.

The letter should tell claimants whom to contact if they want a mentor, advocate or independent advice. There should be a separate leaflet about the availability of these services to emphasise their independence and confidential status. The claimant should be able to ask for a home visit if they need one or to explain any special needs that must be met to enable the interview to take place.

The letter will also need to contain information about how to make representations where the claimant does not feel able to attend. There does not appear to be a right of appeal against a decision about the requirement to attend an interview or need for a home visit.

CPAG would like to see a clear process for requesting a home interview and for people who would like their referral to be deferred or believe they should be exempt. Without the opportunity to make representations at the invitation stage, if a claimant knows they will be unable to attend for some reason they will have to wait until they are penalised for missing the interview and try to argue good cause. The subsequent delays in the system could leave a very vulnerable claimant without any benefit for a long period.

Special Needs and Equal "Access" to the Gateway

Claimants should be able to bring representatives to help them deal with the questions at interview. Information on the purposes of the interview and the type of questions that will be raised should be sent to a claimant before the interview. This may allay some anxieties about the interview and also enable claimants to arrive best prepared to use the interview as an opportunity to explore the options available to them.

In addition to a general need for advocacy for claimants who have difficulty articulating their needs, some claimants will need specialist help such as interpreters. Where no interpreter is available within the time limit required, the BA should process benefit forthwith provided the person is willing to come at a later date when there is an interpreter available.

Some women in the Muslim community would not be able to take work outside the home. This limitation should be taken into account when work opportunities are discussed. It will be especially important to make clear to these claimants that they are not being required to take work.

Monitoring will need to look at these issues, for example did claimants have problems because of a need for independent advocacy, interpretation or support? Mental health, special needs, race and culture issues should be specifically considered.

Welfare Advice and the Gateway

The gateway will be more successful in helping people into work if there is provision of accurate independent and confidential advice about benefit entitlement including "better off" calculations. A key element of the New Deal for lone parents has been to calculate by computer the difference in income and outgoings for claimant if they look work. Feedback to CPAG suggests that these calculations have sometimes failed to accurately estimate the real costs of taking work or entering training. Better computer systems are not the whole answer, staff need to be highly skilled in benefit calculations to ensure the system has correct and comprehensive information to work from.

In order to gain the trust of claimants to explore different options, a personal adviser providing a "better-off" calculation service needs to be separated from the function of determining entitlement for benefit and referring people for benefit sanctions.

The Gateway as an Anti-Fraud Measure

The gateway will struggle to operate simultaneously as an opportunity to explore options available to the claimant and an anti-fraud measure checking that their claim is legitimate. The emphasis on security and policing the system is particularly damaging to those who are not required to work. If the work-focused part of the interview is of no benefit to them, then it may appear to claimants that the only reason that they are compelled to attend an interview is as an anti-fraud measure. To gain the most from a gateway interview a claimant will need to feel able to discuss openly their circumstances and abilities. Their relationship with the personal adviser should be based on trust, the sharing of information for anti-fraud purposes can not go hand- to-hand with an attempt to win that trust. The construction of an invisible wall between the personal adviser and the function of determining entitlement to benefit and fraud detection would be the most effective way to operate the gateway.

People who are Claiming as Incapable of Work Entering Work

There will be people claiming benefits on the grounds of incapacity who are keen to try out work but unsure how their condition, illness or disability will be affected. The linking rule for "welfare to work beneficiaries", introduced in October 1998, provides a welcome period of protection for people who try out work or certain training but need to reclaim benefit within a year. For three months after they reclaim, their capacity for work is not reassessed. This protection is very limited.

CPAG would like to see this three-month protection from the all-work test extended to people who try out other welfare to work opportunities like worktrials or the incapacity earnings provision introduced in April 1999.

Benefit Penalties

CPAG is extremely concerned about the potential hardship which will be caused by the penalties for failing to attend the gateway interview. Many of the people who fail to attend interviews and do not respond to enquiries from a personal adviser will be the most vulnerable claimants who are very ill or have onerous caring responsibilities. For these people complete loss of benefit will increase their vulnerability but it will also alienate them from the system designed to help them.

We believe that their should be a duty on personal advisers to follow up claimants who fail to attend an interview to find out why, by telephone if possible, before depriving them of benefit which may be their only source of income.

Whilst CPAG supports the intention to give people three invitations to interview prior to issuing a penalty, we believe that it may be more useful for there to be a duty to actively follow up those who do not attend to find out why. We are also concerned that a complete termination of claim is unnecessarily harsh and could cause hardship to the most vulnerable claimants.

CPAG would like to see benefit paid at the start of the claim for all non-JSA claimants, whether or not the interview has been attended, and to remain in payment during any subsequent dispute period. Although CPAG is opposed to the compulsory nature of the gateway interview, if penalties are imposed this should only be after a decision maker has found against the claimant.

CPAG is extremely concerned about the harsh nature of a complete refusal of benefit or termination of claim as a penalty. Even JSA claimants who do not make a satisfactory Jobseeker's Agreement are able to make applications for hardship payments of JSA. We would like to see a similar provision available for benefit to remain in payment until the interview has been carried out. The same "small reduction in benefit" should apply to all claimants whether they are new, existing or have a "deferred" or "triggered" interview.

Given the importance of benefit income to many of the people who will be required to attend, the regulations defining "good cause" for non-attendance should be drawn as widely as possible to protect the welfare of those affected. We would like to see certain reasons for missing an interview included in regulations as "automatic good cause". These should mirror a list of people who are exempt from the requirement to attend. We would also like to emphasise the non-exhaustive nature of good cause, which is within the JSA regulations for all gateway benefits.

The regulations to be laid relating to whether a claimant has "taken part" in the interview risk leading to subjective decision making. For example, a person who is in fact depressed or anxious may appear as aggressive or uncooperative to a personal adviser. Press coverage indicates that there is already widespread confusion about the scope of the gateway requirements with many claimants fearing they will be required to work or attend government employment programmes. It will be even more difficult to convey a requirement, not only to attend an interview but also to be seen to "participate".

The Private and Voluntary Sector Pilots

CPAG has concerns about the funding arrangements for private and voluntary sector organisations who will be running some of the single gateway pilots. The Government plan is to "pay them on the basis of agreed outputs and make them accountable for the impact of their actions on programme expenditure".

CPAG would like to see safeguards built into the funding process to ensure that people who want help but are more difficult to help are not refused opportunities, (for example access to training or a mentoring service) on the basis that they will not yield output related funding. We are also concerned that funding pressure may translate into pressure on claimants to enter work or other programmes of assistance where this is not appropriate to their circumstances.

There should be a clear direction to all gateway providers to reassure claimants about the scope of the requirement and the fact that they cannot be required to take work or undertake training. The funding process should have a minimum emphasis on outcomes and the definition of outcome should attempt to incorporate "distance travelled" and education and training outcomes as well as work.

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