Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Can I declare the public proceedings open and start by apologising to our witnesses this afternoon? We have had some difficulties getting a joint quorum but we are going to proceed in any case because we have a quorum of the Social Security Committee. We can proceed under that guise, although it gives us a bit of difficulty with Yvette and John having to sit this out really as observers. So if they adopt a strong silent pose from the side, there is nothing nefarious about that, it keeps us technically in order. Can I welcome you all? I do not know if Jeremy or Lee want to make an opening statement of any kind. It might be helpful, even if we got an idea or a reminder of which areas of the issue you are all particularly interested in, just by way of scene setting. Then I want to go on as soon as I can to some general design issues and a series of questions which the Committee are interested in. Lee or Jeremy, why do not one of the two of you start with just introducing the team?

  (Mr Brown) I will introduce everybody. I am Lee Brown, Project Director. Chris Barnham, on my right, is from DfEE. Jeremy Groombridge, on my left, is from the DSS, both of whom lead on policy. Sue Duncan, on my far left, from analytical services in the DSS, is here to answer questions on evaluation.

  2. Right. That is very kind. You have very helpfully done a memorandum for us which focused our minds, if you forgive the pun, on Work-focused Gateways. Can I start with a general question and, Lee, just farm the questions out and please, witnesses, feel free to pitch in as you wish. There has been a lot of public relations, some might say hype, around the rhetoric of all of this. Do you as a professional team supporting Ministers believe that the end result is going to measure up to the volume of rhetoric that we have heard in the fullness of time?

  (Mr Brown) Yes, we do. We are designing and carrying out this implementation to allow that. What we are doing in the design is building on previous experience and current experience around the New Deal personal advisers and advisory services of the Benefit Agency and other DSS agencies that have been developing. We are learning from these how to make the service better for customers and we are learning from those how to reattach people to the labour market who have been detached from it. I think, based on the experiences of New Deal and modern service in the DSS, we are in a position to say that we will put something in place which over time will produce better results.

  3. This is radical reform? This is something step-wise, this is not just another relaunch as Governments do from time to time, they make the best, obviously, of what it is they are proposing. You think this is something that is qualitatively different?

  (Mr Brown) It will be qualitatively different. The previous experiments and programmes and measures that I mentioned have been focused on particular parts of the benefit and labour market systems: the New Deal, when people have reached particular stages of unemployment or when people have a particular characteristic and active modern service looking at the beginnings at the front end of the claims for particular clients. This is about the radical reform and the redesign of the whole of the front end of the claims process so that we do bring together the labour market elements, the labour market focus, with benefits being used in particular ways to encourage people to reattach themselves to the labour market.

  4. Why have Benefit Agency district boundaries been used for the pilot areas? I am tempted to ask you what lessons you learn in Dunoon can be translated to a situation in Paisley? The Clyde Coast Benefit area has got a lot of the seaside and a lot of industrial Glasgow. How does it make sense to have a pilot over such a huge area? Why did you not look at local authority or indeed Employment Service areas to carry the pilot study boundaries?

  (Ms Duncan) The unit of analysis, although there are four areas for each variant, the unit of analysis is four together.

  5. Right.

  (Ms Duncan) The pilot areas were selected to reflect different labour markets and different types of areas. When you are looking you need to look at the four together rather than the individual ones, that is really the way that they make sense.

  6. You did not consider using local authority areas or any other smaller focused areas where you could actually look at micro economies, individual community economies?

  (Ms Duncan) The size of the area and the number of areas per variant was really dictated by the flow through of claimants that we needed to draw reliable results. That meant we needed four areas in order to get sufficient numbers of the three key claimant groups in order to say anything about the effectiveness.

  7. So local authorities were not really given an option of trying to be involved in a local authority area specific set of pilots? You did not consider going into local authority areas?

  (Mr Brown) We looked at them all: the Employment Service district, the local authority area and the Benefit Agency district. As Sue has been suggesting, one of the primary determinants was the number of people who needed to flow into particular types of benefit so that we could have meaningful results. That meant that you needed to have a conglomerate of local authorities so that you could get that number of people claiming housing benefit and council tax benefit. I suppose the only exception to that would be in Leeds which has sufficient numbers and happens to be both a BA and an ES district. If you had used local authorities to get the volumes we are speaking about, you would have been biased towards Birmingham, Leeds, Leicester, cities rather than the type of arrangements we have which covers urban/rural varieties, urban varieties within rural. The Benefit Agency district was the most administratively valuable in those terms.

  8. Presumably it would be safe to assume that the New Deal experience, such as it is, has played a part in setting up these pilot studies?

  (Mr Brown) Yes. There is a number of ways. One is, as I said, in design terms, the personal adviser model has proved popular and effective as we heard at the informal meeting. It has been a successful approach and we need to build and develop that particular approach. The other way that it has influenced is that we are developing local partnerships to deliver this at various levels. In the district there is a pilot management group which brings together the Benefit Agency, the Employment Service and the local authority in each of those localities to plan and implement. That is based on the New Deal approach to things.

  9. If the New Deal is informing the process then are you concerned about the drop-out rates? There are some figures which suggest that people do actually drop out of the system in terms of the New Deal. Are you worried that there is a deterrence factor in this new set up that might cause people to just shy clear of the whole process?

  (Mr Brown) I do not expect that to happen. This is at the front end of the claim rather than later on in the claim. I think at the front end of the claim is the stage when people are wanting to make their initial claim to benefit. Our design principles do not expect there to be a high level of drop-out or deterrence at that particular stage.

  10. What would you consider to be a high level of drop-out?

  (Mr Brown) I am not sure. I think what we are anticipating for this stage, between making an initial inquiry at the registration and orientation stage and going forward to fill in the claim form that there will be a drop-out of one per cent, which I do not consider high. One per cent would be people coming in who were making a general inquiry about whether they might be entitled to benefit and you are able to tell them then and there they are not because they are 65 years old or they are 14 years old, they do not fall into the categories of working age.

  11. Statistics for the New Deal for Young People that I have seen, and I am referring to the New Deal statistics first released, suggest that nationally 18 per cent of participants leave the Gateway for unknown destinations. Around six per cent of those invited to take part in the New Deal for Young People leave before having their first interview. Do you think we will do better than that with this?

  (Mr Brown) If we go into the stages, registration and orientation is the first stage. People will go to the registration and orientation interview. There will be a basic check on their entitlement, there will be the beginnings of a discussion about types of work they need and want to do. There will be an investigation of where they have to go, whether they should be claiming child support, whether they should be in touch with the Child Support Agency. From that people will flow to the personal adviser interview. The personal adviser interview will be compulsory for everyone claiming Jobseeker's Allowance so I do not expect there to be drop-out at that stage. It will not be compulsory at the moment for people claiming other benefits. I think we might very well see numbers such as those you have referred to not wanting to take part in a personal adviser interview at this stage for a number of reasons. If people have been unemployed for a long time they are often scared to make commitments and the personal adviser interview will be seeking to encourage them to make commitments.

  12. So you know the statistics could be improved upon in the Single Work-focused Gateway as opposed to New Deal for Young People? You are hoping to do better that these statistics that I have just quoted to you?

  (Mr Brown) I think we are at the beginning of a claim process. We have an opportunity here to get people before they have been unemployed for a period of time and have the effects of unemployment telling on them.
  (Mr Barnham) Could I just add something? It is worth bearing in mind that the New Deal Gateway and the Single Work-focused Gateway are very different things. In the New Deal Gateway you have got young, long-term unemployed people who are undergoing a mandatory process and at the end of that if they do not get a job, or do not leave the benefit, they have another mandatory option. In the Single Gateway, the requirement that is placed upon them, assuming the legislation is passed and those initial interviews become compulsory, is much more modest. We are only asking people to come and have a discussion with a personal adviser, there is no requirement beyond that on them to do any particular activity.

  13. Can I turn to two quick further questions from me? I am concerned, I have had some correspondence about this myself and I am sure my colleagues have as well, indeed the TUC have raised it, they are worried about the inherent conflict that is involved where a disabled person goes through the process because on the one hand they are trying to establish a claim for benefit and on the other hand they are trying to prove they are incapable of work. How can you cope with that? What reassurance can you give the TUC and disabled organisations and pressure groups representing the disabled that they are not going to suffer unduly from that potential conflict?

  (Mr Groombridge) Perhaps I can answer on that one. What we are doing with the Gateway and with the Work-focused interview in particular is we are seeking to have a discussion with people, not just disabled people but obviously that is one of the kinds of groups that we expect to come along and to talk to them about the kinds of barriers that they face, the kind of employment potential that they have got. In the discussion that we will have with them we will make a distinction between the medical assessment, which will eventually be the personal capacity assessment, and we will have in the Work-

focused interview a fairly broad ranging discussion which is designed to help them explore whatever pathway there may exist to independence from benefit. Really the two can sit side by side. What we would like to do in the Gateway is to encourage people to start planning and thinking about what possibilities do exist from the outset. The personal capability assessment is likely to be some way down the line but addressing the barriers, the potential, that people have right from the outset enables us to help them, to sit down with them and start planning with them and that is what we are about.

  14. Can I turn finally to the position of Jobseeker's Allowance claimants and Lee Brown told the Committee at an earlier informal session that 80 per cent or so of the Single Work-focused Gateway through-flow would be clients claiming Jobseeker's Allowance. How will the experiences of Jobseeker's Allowance claimants in the pilot areas therefore differ from those in other areas?

  (Mr Brown) It will be different in a number of ways. One is that the registration and orientation phase that we have spoken about will take place in the pilot areas whereas in control areas people will see a receptionist, the receptionist will hand them forms and they will be told when their interview is for a new Jobseeker interview. In the pilot areas they will see a registration and orientation adviser, a person who is more knowledgeable and skilled than a receptionist. That person will begin to ask questions to help establish what the individual's needs are. They will then see a personal adviser. A personal adviser in the pilot area will be different from the new client adviser in the control area, they will have more skills and knowledge and they will have the support of a team of experts and specialists who they will be able to call to support them in dealing with the client. I think there are those two primary differences. It will be a different qualitative and quantitative experience. More time will be spent with the client and more things will be able to be done with that client, more opportunities opened up to them.

Mr Pond

  15. I want to explore some of the aspects of your memorandum, which is very helpful, on how to operate. We have talked a bit about this initial and second stage of the process. First on the registration and orientation phase, which is the bit, I take it, which is going to be the compulsory bit?

  (Mr Brown) Yes[2].

  16. Now on that, in your memorandum, you say: "At this initial stage the member of staff will..." and then you list a number of things which will happen. The second thing you list is that "... where it is appropriate, explore whether there are any suitable job vacancies available, which the client could pursue immediately...". Apart from the Jobseeker's Allowance claimants, what sorts of circumstances do you envisage as being appropriate in which at that stage you should be thinking about the job vacancies available?

  (Mr Brown) That will depend on what happens in each interview. The adviser and the client will be discussing the circumstances and the situations of the client. I do not think we can have an iron rule to say what will be appropriate for every different type of client. Certainly for everyone claiming the Jobseeker's Allowance, it could be appropriate to seek to submit them to a vacancy but I think in other client groups that are coming in, a number of lone parents may want to immediately seek work and to help them to do that we would be seeking to help them with their child care arrangements. There may be other people seeking benefits, people that come into claim housing benefit or council tax benefit will probably be seeking to claim another benefit too, who may wish to return to the labour market as quickly as possible. I do not think we can say there is an iron law of what is appropriate, it will vary with each situation and each individual and the advisers will be able to, with the client, make that judgment and assessment.

  17. There is obviously a potential sensitivity here, is there not, because very clearly it is only the jobseekers that will be required to go on to the next stage and take up one of the options offered and other groups, such as lone parents, people with disabilities, will not? There could be a potential difficulty of advisers leaving claimants to think that since job vacancies are being explored at this stage they will in fact be required to pursue those options. Will there be any guidance or training for advisers explicitly to try and see if that is the case?

  (Mr Brown) Yes, we are doing a number of things around training. One is that on 16 to 17 June we will be having a conference for advisers to raise their awareness of specialist client groups. The conference has been designed along with organisations that represent specialist clients—homeless, disabled people, carers, people with health problems. It is going to take place on 16/17 June to allow the specialist groups to put over, to advise, on the importance of sensitivity. It is a supplement to the ongoing training that advisers will already have undergone or will be undergoing to ensure that they are sensitive to special needs of clients.

  18. For those clients for which the job vacancies are being pursued, is there any likelihood of delay in claims for benefit being processed whilst those possibilities are explored?

  (Mr Brown) No. I think we are sensitive to the need for people who are making claims to get their claims processed as quickly as possible. It is one of the factors that we will be judging the pilots by.

  19. Thank you. Then if we can move on to the second stage, the personal adviser Work-

focused interviews themselves. For new claims, how long would you envisage that initial interview will take?

  (Mr Brown) That new interview for a new claimant will be around 50 minutes. At the same time as they are getting their new claim interview there will be another specialist benefit person checking the claim form to make sure that everything has been filled in so that once the interview, the new work-

focused interview, is completed, the benefit form can be sent immediately for processing. That means we have verified that individuals have brought the evidence that they require with them, completed all the boxes in the claim form that we need so that the interview as a whole will be around an hour.

2   Note from Witness: From April 2000 it is the intention for the work focused interview to be compulsory. Back

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