Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 118 - 139)

MONDAY 10 MAY 1999



  118. Welcome to our second set of guests. Thank you very much indeed for the evidence you have given us so far and for coming to talk to us this afternoon. Perhaps I can begin by asking you to give us each a brief introduction to the work you do and your general views about this issue?

  (Mr Wood) I am Richard Wood, I am the chief executive of the British Council of Disabled People. We are a member organisation and an umbrella for organisations which are controlled by disabled people. It has to be written in their constitutions that they are controlled by disabled people. Currently we have 136 groups in England, Scotland and Wales. We regard ourselves as a human rights organisation, we have been heavily involved in a campaign for anti-discrimination legislation, and we work on a whole range of human and civil rights issues both here and in Europe.
  (Mr Betteridge) I am Neil Betteridge, Head of Projects and Campaigns at RADAR. RADAR, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, is similar to BCODP, an umbrella group. We have around 500 member organisations, over half of which are controlled by disabled people. Our main functions are information provision, and we provide information on all matters relating to disability except medical issues and we take about 23,000 calls a year on that; we seek to represent our member organisations and campaign on their behalf; and I, within the organisation, have overall responsibility for all the social policy issues including employment and social security.

  119. Thank you very much. Can I ask you both in general terms about the barriers to work for the people you represent, and whether you think Work-focused Gateways is the best approach to assist and help the people you represent?

  (Mr Betteridge) In terms of where disabled people can go, partly via the gateway, it is important to know where we are coming from, where we are starting from, and it is impossible therefore, without digressing wildly, to ignore the historical factors both in terms of the individual background of disabled people, what they have gone through in the way of previous education and work prospects, but also the historical reasons which shape the environment. When you combine issues like the possibility the disabled person is a young person, if they were disabled then they may have been excluded for at least part of their education, if they were, shall we say, fortunate enough to have been included within mainstream education as a disabled child, they may well have encountered negative, perhaps oppressive, attitudes from peers and/or teachers, may have found the built environment very restricting, and it may well be that further opportunities since then have been limited by reasons beyond their own personal control, all in the context of potentially very limited expectations. Those expectations cut both ways, employers and potential employers may have quite low expectations of what disabled people can achieve and that in itself has or can have a very corrosive effect on what a disabled person themselves think they can achieve, and the two together make for quite a potent formula. So the gateway needs to take account of all of that and we cannot just look at it in isolation.
  (Mr Wood) If there are to be gateways, I would prefer two because I think there is a confusion here between benefits and work. I do think there is a real confusion in the minds of disabled people who have recently experienced the Benefit Integrity Programme, and the Benefit Agency now for many disabled people is in disrepute and they are not trusted and, more than that, they are feared. To add to what Neil said, you have also to take into account that people who have come out of work, people who have become disabled while working, through injury, accident or illness, are quite often coming out of work being labelled disabled for the reason they have come out of work which is itself a very negative experience and would not raise one's expectations or make them look forward to further employment and repeat some of the experiences they have had. So you have people coming into this gateway from two directions, you have people who were non-disabled people, who were in work, became disabled people and then came out of work—and I am pleased the Government is going to concentrate on job retention because that is absolutely fundamental to disabled people retaining work—and you have people, as Neil described, coming from the other direction. It is not just necessarily about their experiences in life. It is the case that disabled people have a general overall experience of not being asked and not being able to make decisions because those decisions are often taken away from them. We are probably the only group of people who from cradle to grave have a whole range of professionals who make decisions about our lives. This is a normal, every day experience for disabled people. One of the things we will come on to, I am sure, when we talk about personal advisers, is whether the introduction of yet another range of professionals into our lives is a good or a bad thing, or whether we should be encouraging disabled people to take advantage of better information or better advice, if you like, where they can make decisions rather than other people making decisions. I think there is a confusion here, a confusion of ideas. It is certainly the case that disabled people should be entitled to the benefits they are entitled to if they cannot work, and we know in many cases that is not happening. Clearly it should be the case that if disabled people wish to work and are able to work, they should have that opportunity, but I do not see how the two necessarily fit together.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. I want to move on to John Healey but before I do so perhaps I can remind all of my colleagues that we are going to have to finish by about quarter to six, so forgive us but we are in something of a hurry.

Mr Healey

  120. You heard the last evidence session.

  (Mr Wood) Yes.

  121. You have expressed some concerns about how this process is going to be designed and how it will operate and how personal advisers and registration and orientation officers will be trained and how they will act.

  122. You are both national organisations, are you involved at all in the preparation of the pilot?

  (Mr Wood) No.
  (Mr Betteridge) No.

  123. Why not?

  (Mr Wood) We have not been invited to be.

  124. You have made no approaches?

  (Mr Wood) No.

  125. Can you see any circumstances in which you might become involved in the design or delivery of Single Gateway?

  (Mr Betteridge) RADAR is keen to contribute and is going to contribute to the conference taking place, I believe, in mid June looking at the training needs of personal advisers. Not being an organisation with the sort of infrastructure that provides that sort of service delivery, I think it is very difficult to be more hands on with pilots. In terms of the policy aspect and the advisory aspect it is really important that disabled people and their organisations are involved from the very beginning.

  126. Are any of your member organisations involved?

  (Mr Betteridge) Some of them are, yes, and we are talking to them about that through our regular member meetings. I think one of the unique things about this, as opposed to any other forms of service delivery you could compare it with, is that if you do not involve the opinions and needs of disabled people at every stage, it ain't going to work. You can look at social services, you can look at housing, you can play number games with those sorts of services, but this is about getting disabled people to come to trust the process that they are being asked to take part in. It is about that volition, that willingness, to own [the process] that will make them more and more work ready. To engender that kind of trust you need to be building in from the early stage, both in terms of training as personal advisers and how you assess the whole rolling out of the programme, the views of disabled people because that is fundamental, that is crucial to the success of this.
  (Mr Wood) I think I would add to that by saying that the issue of course for many disabled people is not just about work, it is about independent living and it is about control over one's own life. There is far more to that than work. In our own movement one of the things that we are well known for are our Centres for Independent Living which are set around the country. Resource centres run by disabled people providing direct services, providing counselling, providing support, and support into work is exactly the sort of thing that they could do. It is more than just about work. I put it to you that for many disabled people work is the end of the process. There are many, many issues that we have to get sorted out in our minds before work even appears on the agenda. If we need personal support to be up and about during the day, out of bed in the morning, if we need that sort of assistance, if we need transport, if we need mobility assistance, it is only as we obtain those things and gain the confidence of being in society and moving around that one is going to move towards maybe thinking about work and even as the first stage there, it has certainly been my case in working in the movement that many disabled people start off as volunteers, they start off working in an informal capacity and then move on.

  127. In very much that spirit then what are the pros and cons you see for the people you represent with, say, call centre technology as a way of avoiding location bound interview or indeed the development of electronic interaction, digital TV and other methods like that?

  (Mr Wood) I think that is inevitably going to happen anyway but whether it is a good thing or a bad thing is debateable. Firstly we are assuming that all disabled people have access to technology but we are talking about people who are among the poorest people in society. It may be that some do, I would imagine the vast majority of disabled people probably do not have and even if they did I think it is also about how one interprets the information, the difference between picking up a leaflet and actually understanding what the leaflet says. For disabled people who find it so difficult to get information anyway, having the chance to sit with somebody to have it explained, which is what we do in our CILs—Centres for Independent Living—can be absolutely crucial.

Mr Pond

  128. I want to talk to you about compulsion. It has always been a disappointment to me to find out that the contestants in Just a Minute knew the subject in advance. You know the questions in advance. It is important because Neil spoke a few moments ago about trust and Richard especially in the evidence which you gave to the Social Security Select Committee on Disability Living Allowance and Benefit Integrity Project you talked about the climate of fear that has been created. In those circumstances, is it not necessary, first of all, to get people involved in the process before you can win their trust and overcome the fear that people might have and, therefore, is there not a case for saying at least the interview process should be compulsory?

  (Mr Betteridge) I think disabled people historically have built quite a knowledge of wedges, some of which have thinner ends than others. We are operating really in a climate where I think almost verbatim I could say that the Government have said that it is the Government's responsibility to provide help, referring to the Gateway and so on, and it is the individual's responsibility to take it up. That is one strand of compulsion which seems to be suggesting that this is the `right' thing to do. There is a kind of subtext there which is quite ethical, quite moral, and it is not just about going to an interview to discuss your current circumstances. I think when you see articles such as the one carried recently by the Daily Mail where they referred to the Gateway in a context where, I think, the beginning of the quote was "the biggest ever clamp down on the work shy", we have to realise that this programme, much of which we welcome, is actually not operating in a vacuum, there is a very real context there just as the Benefits Integrity Project was taking place when there were lots of stories in the press about disabled people being scroungers and parasites, so that context is crucial.

  129. If you were drafting the regulation to determine which categories of claimants might be exempted from the requirement for an interview or for whom the interview might be deferred, could you give us an indication of what those regulations would look like if you were the author?

  (Mr Wood) I think I would have to say I would not start from there with all respect. Again, the issue is about what the purpose of the service is and it is reflected to some extent in compulsion. I would have thought if the agency concerned was so confident that the service was going to do what it was designed to do, that people would be queuing at its doors because we would have vast numbers of people who would want to check their benefit entitlement and we would presumably have people who were interested in work saying: "This is somewhere I can go. I know it is going to be approachable. I know I am going to get the information I want" but the compulsion bit makes it feel like something else, it does not feel like it is going to be a friendly welcoming process that is designed to assist people. It does feel really, really heavy. I suppose it feels ultimately that it is about getting people out of the benefit system. It is like another BIP in a way, it is another examination of people's entitlement designed to get them off the benefit. The question about regulations and the question about exemptions to groups, I think it is very difficult to exempt groups per se. One might think of, say, terminally ill people as one group but even as some people said before about people who have mental illnesses, that does not mean that people could not work or would not necessarily wish to work. I think the issue is about the system being voluntary and attracting into the system people who do want to work. Without putting them into categories and saying: "Those people in that category do not get an interview" but to say to people "Actually if you would like an interview we would quite like to welcome you, we would quite like to talk through the possibilities". What sort of message does that send out to people to say "No, this is not for you"?
  (Mr Betteridge) Yes, I agree with that and it would be contradictory, I think, to create exemptions around type or category of impairment. That may seem slightly at odds with what some of our organisations were saying about a year ago as to how the Benefits Integrity Project could be operated, but we do have a different situation here. Although it was helpful to the whole review process in terms of BIP and post-BIP to look at groups of people for whom really it would be inappropriate to receive a review, here we are looking much more at people who are willing and able to do some work given the right support and right circumstances. It could be very positive indeed if that trust we talked about earlier is engendered. I certainly agree with Richard that if people know they will get a benefits check to see whether they are getting all they are entitled to, if they know the personal adviser can work in a multi-disciplinary way and can actually put you in touch and will do some of the talking for you in terms of other local groups such as housing and social services, then that trust will naturally be earned. That is where information plays a part because if the person who leads that discussion, the personal adviser, is well-armed with useful information, that ownership will begin to happen. So we need several strands going on at once. My understanding of the role the personal adviser has and the flexibility and the freedom the personal adviser has in determining who should go forward and consider work and who may not, I think ties in with the evaluation and monitoring of the whole thing. What criteria are we going to use to judge whether personal advisers are (a) doing those things well and (b) doing those things consistently if there is so much carte blanche? So while to get sensitivity into the system you need flexibility, actually measuring that is a hell of a task.

  130. If the alternative to fairly tightly drafted regulations is the whole issue of discretion, giving personal advisers a considerable amount of discretion, and Richard used the phrase "another tier of professionals who would be making decisions on behalf of these claimants"—and certainly I hope that will not be the case, they will be empowering these people to make their own decisions—what about the role of discretion? Do you have any anxieties about that?

  (Mr Betteridge) That ties in very closely with my previous point. I think I have tackled that one there.
  (Mr Wood) It is difficult, is it not? You are talking about deferrals, are you, discretion as to whether to interview or not to interview?

  131. Yes.

  (Mr Wood) Without some sort of guidelines, it feels really loose. What sort of information will disabled people get about whether they have been deferred, and why they have been deferred? One of the problems it seems to me is that there are a lot of assumptions made in what is going to happen here about support networks which might be there, the resources which are going to be there, the number of people the personal advisers can work with to provide support. I think what custom and practice is showing is that those support networks are not necessarily there and the resources and people who ought to be there are not necessarily there. I think that is borne out by the fact that, for example, on employment services we have had a whole train of professionals—we have had DROs, now we have the PACT teams, we have access to work—and here we are with still over nearly 60 per cent of eligible disabled people unemployed. Some of that is to do with employer attitudes. It is strange that the employer threshold was only reduced to 15. Why was it not reduced all the way down to two, to have brought all employers under the DDA and then we could have done some work around the legislation, we could have done some work around real training programmes because employers would have been motivated to participate? We are making assumptions about further and higher education and training opportunities, that they are accessible, that they are resourced, and I just do not think they are. I think the fact that so many disabled people remain unemployed despite a host of interventions over the years and advocates and professionals speaks for itself. I am not sure what it is that personal advisers are going to have by way of resources that other people have not had access to.

Mrs Humble

  132. Can I go on and explore with you the role of the personal adviser and these registration and orientation officers —

  (Mr Wood) You like that title, don't you!

  133. I am going to work on it! I am open to suggestions as long as they are printable! Clearly that registration and orientation interview is going to be very important. When the officer is taking details of the individual's personal circumstances, part of that is going to be asking them if they have any personal needs which need to be taken into account when they are referred on to the personal adviser, so they clearly will need skills and training. So, differentiating the role of the registration and orientation officer and the personal adviser, what sort of skills and training do you think the registration and orientation officer should have and then I will ask you the same question about the personal advisers?

  (Mr Betteridge) I think it is a bit like brushing up on language to go on holiday. It is great to learn a few phrases but the trouble is somebody answers you back in the same language. If the R&Os are going to be phoning people up to address in some circumstances very difficult issues about the people's range of needs who may have to attend the interview, they have to be able to deal with what comes back, and that to me seems to call for a similar set of skills to those you would expect from the personal advisers if we want the sensitivity to which we are committed to show itself. Similarly, a crucial part of the role of the personal advisers—and this picks up on an earlier question about them being generalists—is that the person in that job knows their own limitations and similarly knows when to defer or refer on. So if the nature of the beast is to be a generalist, that person must have quick and ready access to specialists, especially for people with more complex impairments.

  134. Yes, you mention that at 6.5 in your submission, and that in a way is an open question. Do you think that disabled people will be disadvantaged by having a generalist personal adviser and how do you think we can address that as an issue?

  (Mr Betteridge) I refer to my previous answer, as they say. It could be a very positive thing to have a generalist who is able to deal with a wide range of clients but also I think it is important that that person knows what referral mechanisms are at their disposal. To pick up on the previous point about the very initial contact, one of the ways that trust can be engendered and built up is if the person speaking to the disabled person, whether they be the R&O or the personal adviser, can display local knowledge. If they can show the person they understand what the local transport links are like and they understand what it is like getting from where they live to the office where the interview is going to be held, that trust will be there from the start and we all know how important first impressions are.

  135. Richard, what do you think about the skills and training of R&Os?

  (Mr Wood) Training and skills are obviously vital but so is experience, so is empathy, so is understanding, and we would like to see significant numbers of disabled people employed as personal advisers because, just going back to our own experience of running our own organisations, that is absolutely crucial, particularly when you are referring people for counselling and getting to the heart of what it is that is going on in a person's life. In terms of how I would like to be met if I was going to one of these centres, I would like to be met by the same person who was going to work with me all the way through the programme. I do not particularly like the idea of meeting, as one of the witnesses said before, unfortunately somebody who is going to be regarded as a receptionist, somebody who is just out front to take a few details. I would like to get straight into the heart of the matter and speak with somebody who I am going to have a contract with, or a contact with. Why am I going to be, again, shifted from pillar to post?

Ms Buck

  136. Just following up that point about experience and empathy, it is incredibly hard to legislate for that. In a sense I have an image of a quality personal adviser, which I am sure you have, which is a bit like an elephant: it is very hard to describe but you know what it is when you see one. How are we going to ensure those vital qualities are present, not just in the proportion of advisers who are people with disabilities and indeed people from ethnic minorities and so forth but across the board? What kind of contribution can you make to making sure that rather nebulous concept gets turned into an actual checklist of qualities that we can then insist upon as being premium requisites to the training programme?

  (Mr Wood) I would say equality training is absolutely critical. It should be a compulsory part of the training of anyone who is going to provide the service.

  137. How do you train for empathy? You should do but I just want you to get specific, show me how you would do it?

  (Mr Wood) I think what I would do is as part of the training I would put some of these advisers into our CILs for a week or a couple of days and let them answer calls there and let them meet people there and let them interact with disabled people who are dealing with these issues all the time. In that way I suppose you build an understanding. Unless you are another disabled person, whether you have a true empathy, it is difficult I suppose, I do not know whether you would actually achieve that but I do think it is important to have an understanding of what issues are around in disabled people's lives. I think a lot of assumptions are made that work is something that exists on its own. As I said before, there are so many issues going on in our lives that determine whether we can work, whether we feel we are able to work, the whole confidence that we have of people.

  Ms Buck: To follow that up again, what can we ask for from the Government in terms of the training programme and the selection programme? You have come up with one very, very good organisation but between the two organisations and other organisations can you come up with a number of specific examples that can be practical, concrete suggestions for creating, churning out exactly the kind of people we want sitting in front of the desk? Unless you do—looking at it with your specialist experience and others from theirs—some of these people will be excellent but a lot will not be.


  138. Perhaps you would like to consider that and write to us.

  (Mr Wood) Yes [1].

  Chairman: Joan has one small point and then I am going to Andrew.

Mrs Humble

  139. It follows on in a way. You have already had experience of how the New Deal for Disabled People has been working and what sort of lessons have you learned that you can pass on to ask about the role of the personal adviser. In a way it is looking at evaluation and judging exactly the sort of qualities that Karen Buck has been talking about. Are there any lessons you would like to tell us about?

  (Mr Betteridge) Two particular ones from the people I have spoken to in terms of the New Deal. One is around continuity and having the same person you can refer back to, even if that person cannot give you the answer they know where you can find it. Building that up long term is very important. The other links in with that in a way because it is how much more powerful the training for people in roles such as personal advisers can be if they have actually heard the issues direct from the horse's mouth, so to speak. So, for example, some of the advisers I know have had training sessions where disabled guest speakers have been along and they have really brought to life some of the issues that have been a bit nebulous when you read about them in abstract, where someone has described how every time they change school or move to college or take up new training they have to develop relationships with a whole new set of agencies and individuals. That is so much more powerful than just reading about it. That continuity is important. I think it is very easy to sort of start to factor in some quite specific tangible assets of the training on that basis starting from the first principles of listening to people who have gone through some of the difficulties that we are trying to address with the Gateway.

  (Mr Wood) Very quickly I would like to add to that. Firstly, I think one of the most significant outcomes of the New Deal for Disabled People, as I understand it from information that I received, is that 13 out of 1,500 disabled people who have been through the programme have got jobs and if it is only 13 out of 1,500 who have got jobs that says a lot to me about what is going on here. That is not a criticism of the advisers and it would not be a criticism of the advisers who would be operating under this scheme but we must be careful that these people do not have magic wands, they cannot stop prejudice in employers who hold prejudices. They cannot create transport systems, they cannot create training, education, support. They cannot stop local authorities charging disabled people for services and so on and sorting out all their benefits. They cannot do any of those things, they can only work with the resources that they have got. I think what we hope certainly, and I am sure I speak for RADAR as well, as disability organisations is firstly that we will have fully comprehensive legislation, which we were told we would have and now clearly we are not going to get and, as I say, the employer exemptions under the DDA will not change significantly enough to make any impact on employers. 93 per cent of employers are still exempt.

Ev. p. 75. Back

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