Select Committee on Social Security Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Kirklees Community Law Centre

The Single Gateway: Promise and problem


I support the single gateway proposals. If they are implemented they could significantly improve the current situations of many of our clients. The slogan "making the system serve the user, not the user serve the system" offers a change in culture which, if evidenced to current users and their advisers, will cause astonishment. With the workplace now expected to be the primary provider of the financial support to the socially excluded, the implications of failure are dire.

The scale of the task the government has set itself is enormous. The demolition of three bureaucracies and their reformation into a new user-centred system will give clients a powerful ally if properly focused; if it doesn't work however you will have created a machine which will have the power to almost completely control clients' lives, remove from them the possibility of effective and timely challenge and exact profound social and financial costs from the socially excluded who cannot or will not bend to meet the system's needs.

A great deal of work is being done internally reorganising departments at senior management and policy level. As yet, the question of user involvement in the direction of the new scheme has not been addressed. A clear understanding of people's alienation from the frustration with current practise can set an agenda for the proposed changes which will greatly enhance the chances of successful implementation. Without that voice and control the basic problem at the user-system interface will remain.


As a practitioner, my view of the culture of the current system is that it is overwhelmingly determined by the shift over the past couple of decades from a system based on clearly defined rights, to a managed system based on qualitative decisions made against a background of fiscal stringency over which neither desk officers nor users have any control or influence.

The Government makes wide-ranging changes, heavily influenced by the exigencies of the economy and the treasury. These are passed for implementation to departments and agencies which increasingly see themselves as corporate units in UK plc. Targets are determined and passed down their own businesses in tightly managed waves which, by the time they reach the front desks, could be said to have more to do with internal need for measurable outputs than getting the "customer" what they want.

Officers' success in saving money—easiest done by refusing claims—or by shifting people to "customers" of another department of UK plc means they meet their targets and keep their bosses quiet and any difficulties caused to users are left for they themselves to resolve.

Current research at the Lord Chancellor's department of users needs from the advice and legal sector shows that large numbers of people have problems at work and with money. Many of them seek advice and support in resolving them with differing levels of satisfaction with the outcomes. One of the new tasks the single gateway has taken on is providing assistance and support to users at the R&O interview stage.

User-level Visions

Work: One issue the current pilot has yet to address is security at work. The treatment some employers dole out to their employees is unacceptable. It is frustrating that many clients have no redress because of the limitations in the current system. It is more frustrating that their inability to challenge can and does result in them being penalised or stigmatised when they approach the DSS and ES.

Issues like zero hours contracts, now used in larger organisations; short-term contracts; earlier lay-offs in response to variations in trade and the continuing move to individuals having to go through job after job is said by the Equal Opportunities and Low Pay Commission among others to be responsible for the current economic slow down. People will not move house or spend in shops if they don't think they're going to be able to afford Xmas presents.

The R&O advisers will have to advise on possible challenges to unfair dismissal from previous employment. They will certainly have to have the authority to overrule the current penalties, if, in their professional opinion, the user has a case.

The Government could help by setting out clearly what we can expect in terms of rights at work. Removing unacceptable employers from ES registers may be a symbolic gesture which would send a powerful message to users. ACAS, the new Minimum Wage Commission and the Health and Safety Executive, among other agencies, might have valuable contributions to make.

Access to the system: The pilot committees are doing a great deal of work on the technology for telephone access and training for staff who will run it.

The current experience of users and advisers with accessing services from the DSS, ES and council benefits systems as well as other government agencies (eg CSA and immigration and nationality departments) do not inspire confidence. The burden of making it work must fall on the single gateway. Users and advisers can point out the current problems and reflect the experiences with other departments.

There is a lot of talk about "wow" factors in this project, which I understand to mean elements which surprise. One thing which I think would wow users and advisers is a commitment to put the cheque in the post, once they have provided evidence of need. The system should take responsibility for the time it takes to investigate and "prove" the users' situation. In terms of "joined up government" the single gateway my wish to investigate the realities of what happens when people are asked to survive without income. There is a knock on to families, crime and legal systems, social services, housing departments etc.

Work vs benefits: When the personal adviser is making decisions about which route they will send users down, we expect that "work or training" is going to be the choice in the majority of cases. As I said at the outset, I am in favour of this. Most of our clients want a decent job almost regardless of the system's ability to deliver one or in some cases their ability to meet the pressures of the workplace.

A clear statement of what the single gateway means by "work" and "training" is crucial if confidence is going to be maintained. Most people think "work" is a place you go to for most of the week, that you owe a commitment to and from which you receive an income to cover most of your and your family's needs. "Training" is a course in a recognised educational institution or similar from which you receive a qualification, using which you can quickly go out to work in a better paid job than you had beforehand. The system does not use these definitions at the moment and users and advisers know it. When politicians and senior officials pretend that the system's definition of work and training is commonly held, they promote cynicism and alienation. The Family Budget Unit has done years of research on the real amounts of money people need to live a decent life. Their research might inform targets and attitudes.

The political decision on welfare-to-work may be the UK is going to take a European or a US approach to benefit levels. Currently it seems to being spun as having the sensitivity of Europe whilst trying to ignore the brutality implied by the US levels of subsistence proposed.

Special needs groups vs mainstream: We can expect that for the socially included the single gateway will be a great improvement. If it lumps them together with the socially excluded, however, both groups will suffer. A problem current ES and DSS advisers have is distinguishing between the two groups. Part of their problem is that their targets demand easy outputs and the socially excluded have nowhere to address their petitions. This leads to nonsensical and morally indefensible decisions: disabled people forced onto work registers or into inappropriate training with sometimes tragic consequences; battered women refused benefits because the system uses the assets of the man from whom they've fled in their calculations; vulnerable young people bullied to meet standards of social involvement set by the older settled; non-English speakers expected to deconstruct concepts like "habitual residence" which even educated native speakers can't manage.

One way forward may be for clear notice to be given to users that we want them to identify any problems they may have and some indication of the support they will receive. Not only would this make the system more efficient for the included, but allow clearer and better targets for the excluded to be developed and the best practise of the best desk officers rewarded. At the moment people who care within the system can feel as penalised as their victimised clients.

Support services: The pilot promises support like education, childcare etc to potential workers. Again, let users have set out exactly what's on offer so they can participate in decisions.

The Adviser-free System

The single gateway is going to take over much of the role currently played by independent advisers. The better—off calculations, issues in housing and support, addressing special needs etc are all going to have be made by personal advisers before deciding on the work or benefits track.

Advice services, already reeling under the changes proposed by the Community Legal Service, have not yet considered these implications. It seems to me however that by the time a dissatisfied user goes to seek advice, the only challenge available to us will be the way in which the personal advisers decision is made rather than the content of it. This is completely different from the situation which pertains today and we need to think it through clearly. At worst our ability to intervene at the moment allows proper consideration to be made of some gross mistakes, at best they lead to policy change. Taking us out of the loop removes an important source of support for users and a safety value for the system.

In "joined up government" terms you will no doubt know that the Legal Aid Board has not yet considered these changes either. The CLS is also going to be a budget-determined system. There are already problems with integrating employment advice into the budget calculations of the rest of the system. Private practise is largely abandoning day-to-day advice and with the increasing complexity of work place problems, something needs to be looked at now in determining that skilled employment advice remains available and expanded to something like demand, if at all possible.

In terms of single gateway challenges, judicial reviews are expensive and have system-wide implications when won. The LAB will not want to pay for them, you might want to consider what will happen if there are no challenges at all.

John Richardson

Kirklees Community Law Centre

May 1999

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Prepared 27 July 1999