Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)

MONDAY 10 MAY 1999


Mr Pond

  80. I wanted to ask some questions about the rather thorny issue of compulsion. I know that is an issue which in particular the Carers National Association was concerned about when the Welfare Reform Bill was going through the Committee stage. You will be aware the Bill does have a requirement to attend an interview and that does have certain benefit penalties attached to it, even though, apart from the job seekers, there will be no requirement to take up any of the options offered. One of the points John made a few moments ago was about the difficulty for lone parents in terms of whether work was the appropriate option, and can I first ask John to address the point about the experience from the pilots on the New Deal for Lone Parents which found that although at the early stage when people were asked for interview many decided not to, those who did attend an interview were given some of the options and in the majority of cases, I think nine out of ten, actually went to the next stage and took the options up. Does that not suggest that there is some role for compulsion in terms of getting people to the interview stage?

  (Mr Findlay) Our view of the New Deal for Lone Parents is that it has only been rolled out properly for a matter of months and we do not really know how the voluntary element of it is working. If you look at the figures, and there is some research which has been done about how many lone parents feel they are ready to go into work now, it is one in three one in four, and the response rate to letters going out is roughly that. What we have got is that the people who are in that position feel that they are ready to go to work and are therefore taking part in the New Deal for Lone Parents, whereas the other ones, where there is ill health of the child or recent family break-down, do not feel it is appropriate and have not been attending. My view is that we have not really given the voluntary element of it a chance. There was a press release which came out last week which highlighted how lone parents actually value the voluntary nature of the New Deal for Lone Parents and feel that has not been given a chance to operate effectively before being evaluated to see how it works and before we go down the road to compulsion. I think if we go down the road to compulsion too soon, that is sending out a very negative message to lone parents who are in difficult circumstances.

  81. Diana, I think your association did have particular concerns about compulsion for interview?

  (Ms Whitworth) I would like to say on that particular point that one of the concerns we have about the pilots is that they are voluntary, and the nature of the fact it is voluntary means we will not be finding out through the pilots how the heavy end of caring will actually feel about this and what their experiences will be like, and we are very keen that they should be involved through interviews, and we would be very happy to provide access to people so you could actually learn more about their feelings about it. Going back to the business of compulsion, yes, we do have concerns. First of all, in order to be entitled to the invalid care allowance you have to go through a number of hoops in any case, and the person you are caring for has to be receiving disability living allowance at the middle or top end, and in addition you have to demonstrate that you are caring for 35 hours a week or more. Arguably 35 hours a week or more caring is equivalent to a working week for a lot of people. When the announcement was made in October and indeed when it has been leaked and there were articles in the press about it, our Carersline was inundated with people ringing up extremely distressed about the notion. For example, somebody who is caring for his wife 24 hours a day, up three times a night, she has got a degenerative disease, he has to help with toileting, slowly becoming incontinent, in those circumstances he feels the state is not valuing his contribution as a carer and he feels extremely stressed and worried at the notion he is going to be asked to even consider work. We therefore feel that the Invalid Care Allowance should not be a trigger for this process, though we think that it is proper that there will be some carers in receipt of Invalid Care Allowance who may wish to go through the work focused interview, because they recognise they are coming to the end of their caring time or for whatever reason. If that were not to be the case, then we think that the issue of deferral is something which needs to be looked at carefully, and we would hope that those in receipt of invalid care allowance would be able to defer their interview and that an interview would only take place if the personal adviser could demonstrate that there was good reason for the interview to go ahead.

  82. Following that line of argument, and I am going to ask Natalie to respond to some of these things in a moment, obviously regulation will specify circumstances in which an interview may be deferred or there may be reasons why it should not take place at all, but would you say there are particular categories? If you were drafting this regulation, which categories would each of you exempt?

  (Ms Whitworth) You mean apart from the point I have already made about those in receipt of invalid care allowance?

  83. Yes.

  (Ms Whitworth) I do not think I can answer that question immediately. I would have to give that some thought. We have talked in general terms about it but clearly you will need to have quite complex regulations and, to be honest, there seems little point in having regulation when you already have a law which is acting as a barrier in any case to people having access to the invalid care allowance. It seems a waste of time, a waste of public money, but I am very happy to go away and come back with an answer for you.

  Mr Pond: It might be helpful if we could have a note on that<fu1>1.

  Chairman: That would be helpful.

Mr Pond

  84. Natalie, could I ask you about the general issue of compulsion and any particular groups which you think regulation should provide different treatment for?

  (Ms Cronin) I would like to separate out the exemption, where groups would not at any stage be called for interview, and I would not be representing anybody within those groups. I would like to concentrate on those for whom the interview would be deferred and as I understand it, I think the onus should be on the adviser to show there should not be a deferral rather than the other way around. Within that category I would put families with children under five. For all the next categories I would say families as a wider range but I think we would concentrate on lone parent families, if we had to whittle down the categories. I would also put in large families with, say, four or more children, who are more likely to be from ethnic minorities, and then people whose life circumstances have changed such as if there has been a family break-down. Also, if a child has lost one parent and they then lose the other to the work place, that may not be the most helpful way to help that family. Finally, mental health, if you have a couple with one with heavy caring responsibilities towards the other partner, work may not be the best option at that point.

  Mr Pond: Are we not assuming, and perhaps John would also like to respond to this, that the interview itself albeit compulsory is a form of penalty? You are there listing categories of people who might indeed find it difficult to take on work or training as some of the other options, but you seem to be suggesting that just the interview with a personal adviser itself would be onerous and difficult. Would there not be some of those people within those categories who might benefit from contact with a personal adviser and get some idea of the options available but with no compulsion to take on any of the options?


  85. For example, if I can interpose, if the personal adviser was going to offer advice about education and training options which may be available as well as work options, do you think that might be helpful?

  (Ms Cronin) I think linking it with training is an important element which we have not touched on so far. I was concerned also about families who have children with disabilities and who have heavy caring responsibilities, they are freeing up the time for something which they feel is not appropriate for them at that time and the anxiety that it may cause may be less constructive.

<fo1>1 See Ev. p. 72-3.  (Mr Findlay) Could I go back a wee bit to the regulation versus guidance issue that you raised? I am not going to go through a list of what I think should be dealt with in the regulation because I know that is an incredibly difficult task and one that would require a great deal of thought. There are various categories mentioned within the White Paper that would suggest there has been some thinking done on it. I think it is the whole issue about whether it should be guidance or regulation that needs to be looked at very carefully. Our experience with the Child Support Act is that guidance and not regulation with undue harm and distress has shown that from a variety of different offices, Benefit Agency sources, the reaction can be completely different from the same set of circumstances causing lone parents a great deal of distress. I think that is our concern about when guidance is put down on a global issue, that it is open to interpretation and can be dependent on the type of adviser we have got. I know from reading previous minutes of your meetings that what has been said is that if people are trained to high standards that would not happen. It has to be said that it has been our experience that it does happen and I think it would happen no matter how good the training that is put in place. That is an issue that I think is very, very important: guidance or regulation.

Mr Pond

  86. Can I ask Diana and Natalie also their views? It is clear from officials giving evidence that there would be a considerable amount of flexibility in the official's ability to determine the advisers, the ability to determine whether interviews should be deferred or whether a particular individual needs special treatment. Are you happy with that amount of flexibility?

  (Ms Whitworth) I think I would agree in terms of the exemptions that there should be regulations and not guidance because I think that will make it easier for the advisers as well as clear for carers or indeed anybody else who might be asked to go for an interview. It is also equitable. It will also save time and a lot of argument. The second point was about regulations — I have forgotten, sorry, can you remind me?

  87. Yes. It was generally about the discretion that the advisers would have.

  (Ms Whitworth) Yes. I think in some areas, those of us who go back a long way in the whole benefit system, particularly myself who worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau, do look back on the era of discretion with some affection because it was easier perhaps to negotiate things out of the system. So discretion in some areas may be appropriate but certainly in some of these areas it will be very important that there is very clear regulation.

  Chairman: I think John has a couple of questions and then we will move on to Joan.

Mr Healey

  88. Thank you. I want to come in on the territory of the compulsion, if I may, in two areas. Diana, specifically to you, in your evidence you have told us about the fears you have got about those entitled to Invalid Care Allowance and in your evidence you point out also that at least 10 per cent who receive Invalid Care Allowance also work despite having to show that they care for the person they care for at least 35 hours a week. How do they manage that?

  (Ms Whitworth) Because they are determined to, I imagine. As I said, people who are in receipt of Invalid Care Allowance may indeed be able to work part-time but it poses huge problems. People who are working in respect of Invalid Care Allowance cannot earn more than £50 a week which means with a minimum wage of £3.60 they would be working very few hours indeed. Last week I received a letter from somebody on the Isle of Wight who was telling me about her experience. She is in receipt of Invalid Care Allowance and she looks after her mother. She decided she simply had to get out of the house and she got a job working a few hours at a swimming pool in a cafe part-time but when she told them she could not earn more than £50 a week they felt that was a huge difficulty for them because that meant she could not do any overtime, her hours were very limited. There are very great difficulties in this area. It raises huge difficulties.

  89. If it is an option that at least one in ten take up, is it not at least arguable that it may be an option that others in this category might wish to try and pursue and that the interview with the personal adviser may be the very route by which they are going to get those options opened up to them because otherwise they may simply not know how to go about it?

  (Ms Whitworth) You are absolutely right and that is why we agreed it should be voluntary.

  90. Let me test this because from my experience of the New Deal the whole concern and fear about compulsion is the fear that really has not been realised throughout. Let me just ask you to pursue the point Chris was making, whether you are against compulsion per se or whether you draw the line at what is notionally called this work-focused interview. Do you have any objection to the registration and orientation stage being compulsory?

  (Ms Whitworth) If you were going to separate it out I think we would need to consider that.

  91. It is two stages, it is not, it is likely to be two separate interviews possibly with two different people? Do you have an objection to the registration and orientation interview being compulsory for people who should claim the benefit?

  (Ms Whitworth) I think I would need to think about that. What I would say is that anybody who is a new claimant would have to go through a process of being assessed in any case to receive that claim. If that was what you call registration and orientation then I would say that was an appropriate process.

  92. How about the allocation of a personal adviser who, as colleagues have pointed out, in the course of their discussion or interview may be discussing issues of child care, cover for respite care, education and training opportunities, it may not simply be a question of, "Here is a job you have to consider taking it"?

  (Mr Findlay) I think maybe at the registration period, that is when these potential benefits of a personal adviser could be raised with the individual claimant. The other question is why make it compulsory? Is there something there that says that people would not go to a personal adviser if it was put to them that they could get a range of information and advice? That is my question: why make it compulsory when we have not tried to say to people "If you go down that road this is what we can offer". If you are going to make a claim for benefit you will meet somebody, so that is a fact which will happen. At that point all these benefits can be explained to the individual claimant and then they can make a choice.
  (Ms Whitworth) Can I add on this—

  Chairman: Would you mind, I think the time is passing. We need to move on. We can come back to it because we are going to move on to personal advisers. Joan has got some questions on that.

Mrs Humble

  93. Can I pick up on John's comments that this is a two stage process? A lot of people have concentrated on the importance of a personal adviser and I am going to ask you a few questions about what training you would expect these people to have. There is going to be that initial stage of the registration and orientation officer, unless the Government can come up with a snappier title. Can I ask you, therefore, first of all what sort of training you would expect that person to have? They are going to be the first individual that somebody sees when they enter the new Work-focused Gateway. That person is going to sit down with them and hopefully be friendly and welcoming and ask them basic questions. What sort of training do you think the registration and orientation staff ought to have?

  (Ms Whitworth) As with all these things, it is always odd in organisations that you put your least trained person on the front line. It is in any organisation the receptionist who is the worst paid person in the building and yet has to have some of the best inter-personal skills. I think you have identified already inter-personal skills as being terribly important. It very much depends, going back to what John Healey was asking about this work focus, if in this interview, whether it is registration and orientation, whichever stage, if the focus is on work rather than what this person needs in the way of support, the whole family and their circumstances, then I think you have a very different set of skills. If you are actually asking somebody to think about what is going to be the best for this person, they have to be able to identify really very much the same sort of things that the personal adviser will have to deal with, and I would think they would have to have a fairly broad knowledge of the benefit system, and as far as carers are concerned they would have to understand at least what carers were about and what caring issues were about and what is involved in looking after somebody and the different types of caring problems that people have to deal with. But it is very difficult to see the skills they would have would be tremendously different from those of the personal adviser.
  (Mr Findlay) I would agree with that because at the end of the day they are the ones who are going to make the decision about whether you go on to the next stage. The R&O officer is going to make that decision and it is there they have the discretion to assess whether or not there are circumstances to defer the next interview, so they do need to have a broad range of skills equivalent almost to the personal adviser.

  94. So you see them more than being simply a glorified receptionist or a highly trained receptionist?

  (Mr Findlay) Yes, because they are making the decision about somebody. People are saying, "I have recently been widowed and I have to care for two children", and they are the ones who are saying, "Right, you do not go into the next stage of the interview", so it is they who have the discretion, as far as I can see from reading but perhaps I have picked that up wrongly. They need to have a range of skills to understand that they have to get information from the person which allows them to make that decision on the right grounds.
  (Ms Cronin) I would agree. Either you have a regulated system where you can have somebody with not such a broad range of skills as the adviser, or you go for someone who has greater discretion who needs much better training. I would add to that access to a pool of information which would enable them to make decisions even if they do not have a full grasp of all the different benefits and how they interlink. So in the same way that they have done for the child support testing, the adviser is linked by phone to a pool of advisers they can consult on specialist matters, so they do not need to have the full specialist knowledge. So I would recommend concentrating on personal skills and those skills being linked to the people the advisers are meeting, such as people with disabilities, people who have experienced difficult personal circumstances.

  95. From the very limited information we have got about how Government sees this actually developing in practice, and of course we are going to have to evaluate the many pilots very carefully, that registration and orientation individual will be looking at fairly basic detail—name and address and fairly basic information—from the individual and then pass them on to the personal adviser who is supposed to have those special skills. I have listened to what you have said about the registration and orientation officer needing skills but I am trying to differentiate between the two roles. I want to ask you detailed questions about the personal adviser but I am interested in how you would differentiate the roles, that initial face to face contact and then going on into the detailed questioning?

  (Ms Whitworth) My response was very much coloured by John Healey's question which was saying, what was the harm of going into a registration and orientation interview and would that not be helpful. If it is merely just signing on, taking details, checking the regulations to see whether or not you go through to the next stage, then I would say that is probably something which could be done over the phone and you do not need to attend an interview. It is a process, it is a signing on. But if it is more than that, you certainly have got to have a lot more information and it is a complex, difficult and sensitive job to do. I am only talking about the caring side of it and I see that as being a very difficult job. You add to it all the other issues and you have a very complicated scenario which will involve a lot of training and on-going training in order to maintain standards.

  96. Do you think that the registration and orientation interview might be different in the pilots which are going to be call centres and ones where there are going to be face-to-face interviews?

  (Ms Cronin) Some of the users of our projects have told us of very variable quality in the New Deal for Lone Parent pilots at the call centres. Some are very good and some are a lot less good.

  97. Do you think there are lessons to be learned there from the personal advisers in the New Deal which we should look at here?

  (Ms Cronin) At least having an even level of quality.

  98. Moving on to the role of the personal advisers, I noted in the submission your organisation made, John, that you gave us examples of New Deal interviews for lone parents. What sort of lessons do you think can be learnt from the use of the personal adviser role in the New Deal to help the Single Gateway develop successfully?

  (Mr Findlay) I think it is really in the realms of the training and information they have available to them. One of the interesting areas is access to child care, which is absolutely crucial for lone parents to be able to access work. We have not got the child care infrastructure yet. We have the Child Care Strategy, we have the Working Families Tax Credit, these are all things which are going to happen but at the moment we do not have the child care infrastructure there, and for personal advisers more often than not it is, "Here is a list of child minders", it has not been an in-depth analysis of what a lone parent needs and how they can access it. So it is really the range of information they have at their fingertips which is important, which goes back to the point I made earlier, it will be hard for the personal adviser to have the range of information just on the basis of what the three of us sitting here today say. What has been valuable has been the training and knowledge that New Deal advisers have got which gives lone parents confidence in taking the next step. I think that is absolutely crucial. When things happen and someone gets information about a job with pay which it is not worth their while to take, if the personal adviser has not gone through that with them and they end up going for a job interview and finding that out for themselves, then the New Deal adviser loses credibility through that. So I think the very important thing is the range of knowledge and skills for the client area you are dealing with.

  99. So how do you think the fact we have generalist personal advisers will affect individual client groups? Are you expecting the personal adviser to work as part of a team where there might not be one person having the full range of knowledge but in working in teams they can access other people in order to satisfy each of your particular client groups?

  (Mr Findlay) I think that is how they are going to have to do it. It is the only way I can see it being done.

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 8 July 1999