Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 145 - 159)

MONDAY 17 MAY 1999



  145. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Can I declare the public session of evidence open. We have got the advantage of representatives from the Public and Commercial Services Union together with the Trades Union Congress with us this afternoon together with some officials from the relevant departments. I wonder if from a TUC point of view you could just say a word about what you do in relation to your work in the TUC and then perhaps Frank can do the same. Maybe the rest of our guests could just say a word about what they all do for the record.

  (Mr Exell) Thank you very much indeed, Chairman. We are very grateful that you have given us the opportunity to come along this afternoon. My name is Richard Exell, I am the Senior Policy Officer for Welfare to Work issues at the TUC. I am here with my colleague, Pat Hawkes, who is a member of our General Council and the Chair of our Disability Forum. The TUC's particular interest in the Gateway is that we regard ourselves as one of the stakeholders in the social security system with a long standing interest in Welfare to Work issues. Trades unions have become increasingly concerned about access to employment for disabled people which is an issue that we highlighted in our written comments. We are hoping that we will have an opportunity this afternoon to talk about that.

  146. Frank, perhaps you could do the same.
  (Mr Bonner) If I can pass to Alan Churchard who is our Deputy General Secretary and who will be leading for us.
  (Mr Churchard) My name is Alan Churchard, I am a Deputy General Secretary of the PCS. I have a broad responsibility for this area of policy. PCS's main interest in this area is that it is our members who have to deliver the Single Gateway process and, therefore, we obviously have a direct and key interest in the outcomes, particularly in the pilots which are coming up very shortly. Could I introduce my colleagues.

  147. If you could do that, that would be very helpful.
  (Mr Churchard) On my right is Frank Bonner who is the Group Secretary for our members in the Employment Service and on my left is Mr Keith Wylie who is Deputy Group Secretary for our members in the Benefits Agency. I am sure you will understand that both have a keen interest in the Single Gateway.

  148. Thank you very much. You have both in your ways, I think the TUC slightly earlier and the PCS relatively recently, sent us very helpful memoranda which set our your general overarching views of Single Work-Focused Gateway pilots that we are considering this afternoon. I would like to perhaps set the scene by asking an introductory question and a question that flows from that about whether, in fact, your welcome is sustained now that you know in a wee bit more detail what is proposed. There were some pretty sweeping aspirations set out in the Government's original plans talking about the needs for transformation and integrated services and empowerment and personalised, localised introduction to the new way that the Government is delivering the services. Do you still feel confident that the way that the Government is doing these things is the right way to go about it?
  (Mr Exell) Perhaps if I might ask Pat to come in on this.
  (Ms Hawkes) We in the TUC for some time have argued for a reform of benefits administration very similar to what the Government now proposes. We have responded frequently in the past on that. We generally are supportive, we are just concerned about some of the detail, which I am sure we will go into after a while, about the individual needs and how individuals are going to be dealt with.
  (Mr Churchard) Again, we are very supportive of the general idea. As I think you outlined yourself, the proposals are very sweeping, in fact are probably the most dramatic reforms of the social security system for several decades, almost since the inception of the basic schemes. It is a very ambitious project but we are supportive of the general idea. There is an awful lot of work to be undertaken in these pilots and beyond before everyone can be happy and satisfied that it is a practical exercise. Certainly in terms of the broad proposal we are very much in favour of it because we see the potential advantage to the citizen of being able to deal with a single official rather than having to deal with numerous agencies. We also see advantages from the point of view of our members in terms of the role that is being asked of them which is very much more a supportive, encouraging type of role instead of perhaps in the past a too narrow a focus on whether people were entitled to benefits and that being the end of the story. From those two perspectives we are very much in favour of the broad thrust of it.

Mr Pond

  149. If I can address this to the PCS because you are the organisation representing the people in the front line in each of those departments, and then perhaps Pat and Richard would like to add something to this. Firstly to PCS: you are an organisation of so many different amalgamations that you must feel you are swimming in alphabet soup sometimes. It does mean that you now have a very broad remit. In your submission you say you "fully support the concept of joined up Government and the one-stop shop..". Is it the case in your experience that it is possible, given the different cultures in the different agencies and departments, to achieve the one-stop shop without too much grating of those different cultures?
  (Mr Churchard) There are two questions really. One is the possible difference between the cultures within the two Civil Service agencies who are the main players, the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency, and then perhaps the difference between the cultures represented by the traditional Civil Service approach to things and local government, who are also major partners in this project. I do not think we see too many cultural differences in terms of bringing together staff in the two Civil Service agencies and also the CSA which is part of the picture. I do not think that is going to be a major problem. There are potential difficulties with integrating different approaches between the Civil Service and local government, although it is difficult to say precisely what they might be. They might involve, for example, a somewhat different approach to the client given the type of benefits that local government deal with compared to the ones being dealt with by civil servants. I think that is why it is very helpful to have some substantial pilot projects here and there is an opportunity for these things to be exposed and if there are serious problems they can be addressed before the next stage is reached. I do not know whether my colleagues want to add anything specifically about the interface between Civil Service and local government or indeed between their own two agencies.
  (Mr Bonner) I do not think that it should be a problem. In both agencies there is a history of adapting to deal with the demands of the Government of the day and to make sure that what is delivered is what is asked of the agencies. There is a lengthening period of closer working relationships between the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency. I think if the framework is right in the first place and there is a willingness for it to happen and the resources are available, which is always a factor, I do not there are any fundamental cultural problems that should cause us great difficulty.

  150. What about the practical problems, again asking Alan and his team because you are the people at the front line on these issues? This is going to try to deal with quite a wide range of issues: benefit entitlement, information about employment training, tax credits, etc. Is it working in a practical sense as far as you are concerned?
  (Mr Churchard) Again, I think we will find out as part of the exercise of doing the pilots. If there are some potential problems the pilot will identify those, and I guess you are quite familiar with them, the technology and the question of exchanging data between the agencies and then there is the issue of staff training because we are going to be asking civil servants on the front line and also local government officials on the front line to have a much broader understanding of the scope of the benefits system. There are difficulties there and there are others which we have highlighted. I do not think any of these problems are insuperable. Perhaps the most difficult is going to be the technology at the end of the day because ultimately we cannot do what we are doing in the pilots which is recording things manually and then having them put into the different agencies' different IT systems. That is manageable in a pilot, but I do not think it is a basis for regulating things in a joined-up way in the long term.

  151. Are you satisfied that sufficient attention is being paid to the technology issue or are you flagging up for us the cause for concern that you have?
  (Mr Churchard) I have to hold my hands up in a sense and say I am not entirely clear, perhaps my colleagues are more clear, as to what the long-term plans of the various agencies involved are. It may be that their thinking is not highly developed at this stage. Clearly, as with other issues, they are hoping to learn things from the pilots. I do not know if any of my colleagues have more information than that. My impression is that there are no detailed plans at the moment as to how this is going to be dealt with in the long term.
  (Mr Bonner) I think that is right, there are no detailed plans and I think it will be a big issue. Putting together the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency computer systems would be a reasonably major task on its own. Then you have to add in the local authority computer systems which are not compatible with each other never mind with the central government ones. Clearly, there would have to be a fair amount of commitment and resource willed if you are to deliver the kind of computer system which would be necessary, although I think our view would be that whilst it would be expensive in the short term, it almost certainly would be worthwhile in the long term.
  (Mr Wylie) One of the problems that they identified in the Lewisham prototype was the problem of IT and of local authorities' systems talking to Benefits Agency and Employment Service systems. The evaluation report from that prototype flags up IT as a potentially significant barrier to effective closer working.

  152. Perhaps the Chairman will allow me just to see if Richard and Pat have any comments on any of those issues.
  (Mr Exell) We have got some past experience to refer to with the one-stop shop experiment a few years ago. I think one of the lessons from that is that you need to get the preparation right to make sure that you do not spend time dealing with problems as they emerge once you have started implementing. In all these things it is the advanced preparation that makes the difference. There were particular problems that were picked up by the evaluation of the one-stop shop, especially about staff feeling that they needed to know every aspect of an individual's claim, which meant that there was a danger of becoming Jack-of-all-trades, master of none and that had a knock-on impact for workloads, clearance times and so on. If you think that the Gateway is going further than a one-stop shop, which was essentially an experiment in one-stop in determining benefit eligibility (and this is a whole new range of tasks which is something that you may want us to come back to later on), that suggests that it is right to have pilots to start off the introduction of the Gateway, but, even so, the lessons from the pilots will not be understood unless what we are trying to do has been thought out. The Gateway will not be able to address all the problems that an individual benefit claimant faces and so working out what it is reasonable for the Gateway to address is going to be a major task here and then working out what are the communication difficulties following on from that. For instance, if it is decided that it is not reasonable for the Gateway to address the health problems of an individual then we do not need to think through communications with GPs and so on, but, on the other hand, it is clear from what the Government is saying that they are thinking about addressing Housing Benefit and in that case it probably is going to be necessary to address other housing issues that may be Welfare to Work barriers for claimants. Staff are going to need training in what sort of housing problems may be stopping the people they are working with from getting into work, who has the expertise locally in helping people get round these problems, who are the other statutory agencies they are going to need to liaise with and any consequent problems, especially with information technology. We can look forward to having some immediate gains just from co-location. If we had a Gateway without co-location we might end up with the worst of all possible worlds here. We still have offices in different parts of the borough that people are having to traipse between and at the same time we are trying to join up the local and national government issues in those offices. The communication for the client and for the officials is going to be particularly difficult. On the other hand, if we are offering that range of services on the same site to people, even if there is not much gain from the rest of the Gateway, the simple one place rather than one-stop would be something of an advantage.

Mr Healey

  153. Richard, you talked about the importance of the preparation for this and the importance of learning the lessons from it. These pilots were sprung as an idea in October 1998 in the White Paper. The first wave of pilots were up and running in June, which is less than nine months. To what extent is the timescale for getting the pilots going adequate and to what extent do we need three years in which to learn the lessons from the pilots?
  (Mr Exell) Three years could be adequate. If we are going to learn how a Gateway can help people who are either unemployed or getting into work we need to have a couple of cohorts going through. So if you think of perhaps a year in which it is bedding down and then a year after that to see how the bedded down system has worked and then at the end of the third year being able to see how people have gone through, three years is probably about the right amount of time. If we stretch it out any more then there is a danger that other events will have caught up with you, other government reforms. We know there is quite a heavy programme of government reforms coming in in this area. If we are going to learn the lessons about the Gateway without having to disentangle each successive wave of reforms then three years is probably not too long and not too short. The time for setting up the pilots is rather shorter, of course. That is something where I do not have any particular expertise and PCS may be better placed to answer that.
  (Mr Churchard) I think we have already discussed the scope of this programme which is enormous in terms of the effects it will have on the benefits system. I think you have got to allow quite a period of time in order to learn the lessons from pilot projects before you jump into wholesale changes where, if you get them wrong, the effects of that will be pretty disastrous. We have got no problem with a lengthy period of pilot projects, which is the right way to approach this, we are more concerned about the speed at which, as you put it, the pilots are up and running next month and a few months after the original documentation. One consequence of that speed is that local government will not be on board the train at the start, they will have to jump on board some time later when they feel able to. That is going to have some impact inevitably on the initial phases of the pilot projects. We would have preferred a little more time to set the pilots up, certainly the main pilots in the context of the Civil Service, in order to enable all parties to have been on board and perhaps for some of the problems to have been sorted out. Generally speaking we support the idea of having a fairly extensive pilot because the consequences of getting it wrong are so severe.

  154. Can I come on to the nature of the role of particularly the training that is going to be required for the Registration and Orientation Officer and the Personal Adviser role? Briefly, what are the main components of training that these two specialists are going to require? Also, to what degree are they going to be different?
  (Mr Bonner) In terms of the Registration and Orientation Officer, the role is one of essentially trying to identify what the best mix of benefits is for the individuals who are applying. Currently it is almost a self-selecting process, is it not, you go into a Jobcentre if you are looking for JSA and you go to the local authority if you are looking for Housing Benefit?

  155. What about the skills they are going to require and how different are they going to be from the Personal Adviser skills?
  (Mr Bonner) I think the skills they are going to need are being able to identify where people fall in terms of the benefits they need to claim whereas the Personal Adviser skills are much more advice on getting people into work, much more labour market skills. If you want a reasonably simple division between them, Registration and Orientation are more benefit related skills, the Personal Adviser, who will still have to have benefit related skills, is more concentrated on the labour market issues. Clearly what we are talking about is quite a vast range of benefits to be administered under one head. A fairly high level of knowledge is going to be necessary for both of them.
  (Mr Wylie) A lot of the training will depend on where the individual has come from. If the individual is recruited from the Benefits Agency they will not require any training in benefits information and benefits provision but they will require training in the job market side of the job. If they come from ES they will only require training in benefits but if they come from local authorities they will require training in both aspects of the role. That is quite key because the benefits training is a fairly intense level of training.
  (Mr Churchard) I thought I detected a concern on your part that it is the nature of the role that is really worrying you here, not just the technical knowledge that the staff have.

  156. It is picking up a point you made about the advantage of the Single Work-Focused Gateway allowing people to deal with one official but in fact, actually, there are going to be at least two involved right at the outset. I am interested in the issue of whether or not these are sufficiently distinct roles with distinct skills and whether there is not going to be a significant overlap between the functions as they are likely to be carried out between the two officers and whether or not we ought to be looking perhaps in one of the pilot areas to pilot the idea of a single officer who meets, greets and advises claimants in the system?
  (Mr Bonner) I understand where you are coming from. Part of the problem that is being struggled with at the moment is whilst there are some attractions to that point of view, there is the question of whether you could really expect a single individual to have that breadth and depth of knowledge and to apply it on a consistent basis. There are also work flow issues in terms of does it make sense to use one individual for that process? One of the key objectives, as we understand it, is to provide people with a Personal Adviser who will stay with them for the process, however long that process may be, and therefore whether or not that could be done is a good question. As to being tested, that may well be worth looking at but I must say it is not really an issue that we have given much thought to, it is very early days in all these areas at the moment.

  157. Finally, if I may ask about the sites. From the memoranda we have had so far it appears that the majority of the sites chosen for the pilots, the physical locations, seem to be ES offices. To what degree do you think in terms of the way the pilots are shaping up that we have got the right range of sites?
  (Mr Wylie) We would prefer to see more Benefits Agency sites included in the pilots and that is something that we have complained about already. There is a predominance in the Employment Service and very few local authority.

  The Committee suspended from 4.35 p.m. to 4.44 p.m. for a division in the House.


  158. Before I turn to Andrew Dismore, can I just ask a question of the PCS about whether there is any view at all, or any suggestion or hint even, that people like pensioners and carers and other groups outside people concerned directly with the Single Work-Focused Gateway are going to get left behind, that there might be to an extent a second class service for those who are left out while the Government focuses on trying to assist people out of welfare into work? Is there any sense, any hint, of any of that that you have noticed in your consideration of these questions?
  (Mr Bonner) Only beyond the fact that the Government is very precise about who is going to be dealt with within the Single Work-Focused Gateway and that is primarily the people who are on income replacement benefits. Many of the people you have referred to are being covered by New Deal for Partners, people who are unemployed, and New Deal for Disabled People and all the rest of it. There is a bit of a different approach towards those other groups.

  159. So you do not think that the quality of the service for pensioners and the like will suffer as a result?
  (Mr Churchard) I do not think we have any evidence that it will. The emphasis is on work, getting people into work, if the potential is there as well as the resources to be diverted into that kind of activity. I do not think we are aware of any practical effects or any sense in which those concerns are coming into practice at all.

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