Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Trades Union Congress (TUC) (SG3)

INTRODUCTION

  In October 1998 the Government published A New Contract for Welfare: The Gateway to Work,1 a policy document setting out the Government's plans for "a more streamlined and efficient system in which there is a single point of access to welfare, and in which everyone who has the potential to work is provided with help to find it."2

WHAT IS THE GATEWAY?

  Like other recent Government initiatives in this area, the Gateway has been designed in accordance with the basic principle of "work for those who can, security for those who cannot". The Gateway is designed to:

    —  Put work at the heart of all welfare provision for people of working age, making sure that people applying for benefits are aware of the full range of support and assistance for moving into employment.

    —  Provide a single point of entry to the welfare system, in place of the "confusing array of different institutions, including the Employment Service, Benefits Agency, local authorities and the Child Support Agency."3

    —  Treat people as individuals, providing "greater emphasis on intensive individually-focused counselling."4

    —  Change staff roles from assessing benefit eligibility "towards actively helping people to improve their chances of getting work."5

  Discussions of the new system with officials and ministers indicate their intention that the main change brought about by the new system should be the end of the assumption that advice about help moving into employment is only appropriate for Jobseeker's Allowance claimants. For the 75 per cent to 80 per cent of people passing through the Gateway who are signing on the system will not be very different from current arrangements. Everyone the TUC has spoken to has rebutted the concern that the Gateway is the "thin end of the wedge", with more compulsion to follow incrementally.

  The Government has said that "there is no question of forcing lone parents and disabled people into work,"6 but that it does intend to legislate to require all working age benefit claimants making new and repeat claims to attend an initial interview to talk about their prospects of getting work as a condition of getting benefit. This legislation will probably be an element of the welfare and pensions bill due to be introduced in early 1999. At present the Government does not intend to apply this obligation to renewals of claims by the existing stock of claimants, or to in-work benefits or tax credits. The obligation to attend an interview will, however, apply to people not in full-time work claiming Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit—the Government is currently discussing implementation issues with local authorities in the pilot areas.

THE TIMETABLE

  The Gateway will initially be introduced on a pilot basis, in three phases:

    —  In phase one, from June 1999, the "basic model" (see below) will be introduced in four areas (Essex South East, Warwickshire, Clyde Coast & Renfrew and Lea Roding [Essex & East London]).

    —  In phase two, from November 1999, two sets of variants on the basic model will each be tried in another four areas. In one group (Somerset, Buckinghamshire, Gwent Borders and Calderdale & Kirklees) call centres will be offered as an extra way of making initial contact with the system.7 In the other (Suffolk, North Nottinghamshire, Leeds and North Cheshire) private and voluntary sector organisations will be invited to manage part of the caseload.

    —  In phase three, from April 2000, the obligation to attend the initial interview will come into effect in all the pilots.

  The Government has not indicated its timetable for extending the Gateway nationwide, but there will be an evaluation of the pilots, which is scheduled for the end of 2000, and further plans are likely to follow this. In addition to the evaluation, the Government plans to publish periodic quantitative monitoring data (as with the New Deal) as the pilots proceed.

THE BASIC MODEL

  The Gateway will have three stages:

    —  Registration and orientation. On initial contact, people will supply basic information and explore "alternatives to benefit."8 The Government intends to enable people to make this initial contact in as many ways as possible, including by phone, by post, in person and (possibly) by e-mail. For some people referral to a personal adviser will be inappropriate, and they will be helped to claim their benefit and referred to any other relevant support. Others (such as recently bereaved people) may not be immediately referred. Most people will, however, be directed to the next stage.

    —  Personal adviser. The interview with the personal adviser will normally be within three working days at the office (or at home in some cases). The aim will be to draw up an individual "action plan" of steps to independence, and the adviser will provide information about in-work benefits and other support which is available. The Government hopes that as many as possible of these services will be co-located with the Benefits Agency. Although the Gateway is a "Gateway to Work" many non-work-related issues (such as housing or transport) affect people's ability to get and keep jobs, an action plan should address these issues as well.

    —  Benefit claim. The Government's description of the Gateway—interestingly enough—provides no details of this stage.

TUC CONCERNS

  The TUC has, for some time, argued for a reform of benefits administration very similar to what the Government now proposes. In our response to the March 1998 Green Paper on welfare reform we said:

    Our welfare agencies, especially the Benefits Agency, Employment Service and local authorities, need to be transformed into agencies of empowerment. Welfare management must be personalized, localized and integrated.

    The agencies delivering this service will:

      —  Be facilitators and supporters—policing the benefit system and calculating entitlement will only be a part of their work.

      —  Treat people as individuals.

      —  Respond to local conditions.

      —  Work with each other. We may well have the same agencies and authorities, but their offices will often be in the same place, and they will co-ordinate their work to help citizens avoid duplicated meetings and forms.

    Services can be personalized at the same time as they are localized. The Government's New Deal approach indicates the way ahead. "Case management" empowers and draws on the commitment of front line staff, requiring and enabling them to use their initiative in making links for their clients to appropriate services and schemes. It also empowers claimants to take control of their own futures.

    This will require reforms in these agencies, new legislation and Government support. An enhanced skills base is vital if they are to become innovative and proactive. The Benefits Agency and the Employment Service need to become "learning organisations", with staff trained to national standards, constantly updating their knowledge and skills.

  The TUC can therefore see that the Gateway potentially has a great deal to offer claimants, but we also have a number of concerns:

    —  The involvement of the private sector in assessing benefit eligibility raises obvious concerns about confidentiality and data protection. We are also worried that any incentive regime for private contractors related to moving people off benefits could lead to unfair treatment of claimants.

    —  It is vital that a Gateway which will be accessed by far more disabled people than the current JSA system addresses a fundamental problem in helping Severe Disablement Allowance and Incapacity Benefit claimants into work: on the one hand, they must prove they are incapable of work to get their benefits, on the other, the Gateway will help them into work. Disabled people will not trust the people giving them advice about employment if they are not re-assured about their benefit entitlement. There must be a "chinese wall" between the benefit assessment and the employability assessment.

    —  In particular, while requiring people to attend an interview may be helpful in the longer term, we would be very concerned if the Government were to make it compulsory for non-jobseekers to sign the "action plan" their interview draws up.

    —  The high proportion of disabled entrants also makes it a priority that the Gateway should be accessible. This means communications support as well as accessible premises. It is also important that the personal advisers working with disabled claimants are trained to avoid the disasters we saw with the Benefits Integrity Project.

    —  Indeed, the skills of these advisers, especially "person skills" like listening, will be central to the success or failure of the whole project—early investment in training must be a priority.

30 March 1999

NOTES

  1.  In discussing these proposals over past months, the new system has often been referred to as the "single work-focused gateway", but we understand that this phrase is now out of favour in Government circles, and that "the gateway" or "the single gateway" are now the preferred terms.

  2.   The Gateway to Work, p 1.

  3.   The Gateway to Work, p 1.

  4.   The Gateway to Work, p 3.

  5.   The Gateway to Work, p 3.

  6.   The Gateway to Work, p 3.

  7.  The TUC understands that claimants will be able to contact the call centres by text as well as voice telephones. We also understand that, the Government is looking at the feasibility of having a single call centre for all four pilots, but that it is more likely that there will be separate centres in each pilot area.

  8.   The Gateway to Work, p 8.


 
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