Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 227 - 239)




  227. Good morning. You are very welcome indeed. This is a very exciting concept, which many of us are very keen to see develop quickly. Some of my colleagues and I went to Australia to see what they are doing there. We were enormously impressed by the potential for taking forward joined-up Government, and giving the clients the kind of client-based service which I am sure we all see as a way forward in developing the public service. So may I welcome my two colleagues and Ministers, and perhaps ask them if they would each individually just briefly say what their hopes are for this development.

  (Mr Smith) Briefly, without the benefit of having visited Australia, I share what you say about this being an exciting opportunity. We certainly see it as a chance to pilot far-reaching reform in the way in which the gateway to the welfare and employment support services can provide a shift in culture which puts work, the barriers to work, but also other means of enhancing independence, more to the centre of our system; the opportunity is greatly to improve the service to clients, and to replace what is a fragmented and all too often an unsatisfactory service, at the moment, with one which is integrated, which provides seamless support, and which gets a better balance between rights and responsibilities.

  228. Thank you.
  (Ms Eagle) I think that when we began to see how we might be able to evolve the public service in this way, and when we decided that these pilots would be the first step in that process, one of the first things we did was to turn the telescope around and look at it the other way, so that it is focused on the client, the person who is at the receiving end of what, at the moment, are very fragmented and unco-ordinated services, which often ask for the same information over and over and over again, and which have very complex claiming procedures from the benefits point of view. We thought: how can we make this more integrated? How can we make the experience of the client of a public service much more positive, more dynamic, more helpful? How can we also improve the service so that we can give accurate assessments much faster and have a much more service-orientated approach? That was the basic principle we applied in developing these pilots: on turning the telescope round, having a look at how the service felt from the point of view of the people using it. I always bear that in mind when I am trying to make decisions on how we should proceed and what it is we should be trying to achieve.

  229. Thank you very much. Tell us about Wolff Olins, the `ONE' concept. Why did you decide that this was important, how much is it costing, and is it not just a bit of public relations nonsense?
  (Mr Smith) It certainly is not that. If we are to transform the gateway to the welfare and employment support systems, then we do need to look very thoroughly at things, not just things like name and the branding, but what underlies that in terms of the way in which the service is communicating their messages to clients, to employers, to the wider public; what the experience is, as Angela has just been saying, which clients undergo in centres, and what the quality of that experience is. So Wolff Olins' answers are not simply advising on the name and the message, it is the environment, the lay-out, the way in which clients are advised, an input into all of that. They have undertaken extensive research with clients, with staff at the Benefits Agency, the Employment Service, local authorities, and with the wider public and employers, in developing the advice that they are giving us. They won the contract in open and competitive tender. The cost is something like £60,000 a month. We anticipate the equivalent of up to four months' work.

  230. I am not quite certain how we want to proceed; whether Angela and Andrew want to contribute to each of the questions. Do not feel obliged to do so but if you want to you are very welcome.
  (Ms Eagle) I think we will probably contribute seamlessly and if I can add anything to what Andrew has said, or if he can add anything to what I have said, we will just pitch in.

  231. As a model of joined-up Government!
  (Ms Eagle) That is right.
  (Mr Smith) Perhaps it is worth underlining that not only is this pioneering a transformation of the service, but it has been a model for integrated co-operation between Departments. I chair the ministerial group, and a number of Departments represented there are working very closely with the DSS and my Department, and both the project team and the local implementation teams are made up of people not only from Departments, Benefits Agency, and Employment Service, but, very importantly, for the purpose of these pilots, from local authorities as well.

  232. The timetable for the pilots is pretty challenging. Are you satisfied that ONE offices in the basic model areas will be up and running and fully operational by 28 June?
  (Mr Smith) Yes.

  233. That is a good short reply.
  (Ms Eagle) We all know that the timetable is challenging. Everybody has been working extremely hard to reach that. We need to bear in mind that you will not have completely all-singing, all-dancing, fully-up-and-running, at-full-speed pilots on day one, but we will be able to achieve a significant difference in service in those basic pilot areas, one which we hope to deepen as the pilots go on.

  234. To what extent are they real pilots? When we had the New Deal they were not pilots in that sense, I do not think. In what sense are these pilots? Have you genuinely got an open mind about the outcome of the different models? Or have you some preconceived notion and you are doing a bit of experimentation to confirm what you already believe?
  (Mr Smith) These are genuine pilots. The Pathfinders in the New Deal were never intended as new pilots. Obviously they were an opportunity to test and modify the systems before the New Deal went national, but we do not have any preconceived ideas about which of the variants are going to work best. We appreciate, as Angela has just been saying, that we will want to improve them as we go along. Obviously, we think this is a good idea, otherwise we would not be embarking on it; and whilst clearly there is a possibility of national roll-out, we have not yet committed to national roll-out. Neither have we said when we will be in a position to reach a decision on that. I would just stress that the pilots are going to be subject to comprehensive and robust evaluation, although you may have further questions about that.

  235. Just remind me of the time span: how long are the pilots going to last and how long is the evaluation going to be? When may you be in a position to be drawing the lessons from that?
  (Mr Smith) Of course, we get the basic pilots up and running from June 28. We have the Call-Centre and private/voluntary sector variants up and running from this November. They are due to run through until 2002 when we will get the full results of the evaluation.
  (Ms Eagle) The other main phase of difference is the attendance at an interview becoming compulsory, which will happen in April of next year, so you have the two distinct phases of the three different basic approaches.

  236. Okay. So those of us who are very enthusiastic about this concept and want to see it pressed forward pretty rapidly may have to be patient, by the sound of it. We are not going to be in a position until what?—2002?—until you can really draw proper lessons and be in a position to roll-out the programme.
  (Mr Smith) We will make information available as soon as we can. It will not simply be a case of sitting back and waiting until 2002. There will be information on the basic pilots operating in the voluntary mode which, of course, are before April next year—although that is subject to the passing of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill—but there will be qualitative evidence available on their performance by the end of this year, and quantitative evidence available by the summer of next year. On the variants, which are starting in November, Call-Centre and private/voluntary sector, there will be qualitative evidence available in the autumn of next year, and quantitative evidence available towards the end of next year. On the compulsory operation of the pilots, then we are expecting qualitative evidence in the winter of 2000/2001, and final qualitative evidence in the summer of 2001.[1] One other thing I think it is important to underline, which the ministerial group has emphasised and which is a lesson which we have, in a sense, learnt from the New Deal's evaluation, I am concerned that when qualitative reports are published that the quantitative context, within which that qualitative experience sits, is published alongside it. This is because it is in the nature of this research that you get the qualitative research available earlier. It is often very unsatisfactory for us as Ministers and, indeed, for commentators and you holding us to account. You wonder how reliable this is and what does it really tell you about how it is going. So we want to bring forward the quantitative information as early as possible. Sometimes it might be a factual summary of what has happened to date, without our necessarily being able to draw statistically reliable conclusions, but it is better to have the information alongside the qualitative evaluation rather than not to have it.

  (Ms Eagle) It is also important to remember that we have not said that we will roll-out nationally these pilots ahead of seeing how they work, but we have not ruled out rolling them out, or rolling aspects of them out, before the end of the piloting process. So it is really a "watch how things go", make assessments as we go along, and decisions may or may not follow.

  Chairman: Okay, thank you. Archy.

Mr Kirkwood

  237. I wonder if I could ask Andrew a question about the policy as a whole, and then ask a second question to Angela about the concentration on work. I am concerned, having read and studied the work that David Webster has been doing in Glasgow, he has been arguing the case that of course the policy is right and is enthusiastic about its development but, of course, it is a supply side measure concentrated on the supply side. That is fine where there are jobs available. So in some of these pilot areas where there is a job market to be attacked, reskilling people and making them better able to attack, it is a very sensible policy and is favourable. But if you translate that into the context of downtown Liverpool or downtown Glasgow, where there is already a dearth of jobs, are you not making the situation worse by getting people more job ready? Is this all we are going to get? Is there another part of this in the policy coming later? Okay, maybe you cannot do it all at once, but are supply side measures enough to tackle the totality of the area that we are trying to address?
  (Mr Smith) Of course, what we are doing on the supply side and enhancing employability and reforming the welfare system, sits alongside our macro-economic policies and the commitment we have to creating stable conditions for businesses to plan, and invest, independence of the Bank of England, low and stable inflation, interest rates coming from. That side of the picture, as you will understand, is enormously important as far as job generation is concerned. I would say—and there is never any room for complacency in these areas—that on the evidence to date, I believe that the Government has a good record on the number of jobs which have become available, which is why we have a record number of people in work. The second comment I would make is on the evidence we have from the New Deals. So far there is remarkably little correlation—there is some but it is small—between the state of the local labour market and the success of different New Deal units of delivery in helping people into jobs. The third thing I would say is that I believe that there are indirect macro-economic benefits from these sort of supply side reforms. This is because what has happened in the past is that with successive downturns—we all know how Britain suffered from the extremes of the economic cycle—these have left more and more people really effectively not part of the labour market, and that has had macro-economic consequences as far as how early inflationary pressure emerges during an upturn. I do see, from the New Deals and the wider agenda of welfare reform and connecting people to opportunities in the labour markets and other skilling, that it is possible for us to have a higher level of employment consistent with any given amount of inflation.

  238. That is all fine, and it does not surprise me you say that. However, let me put another question. Supposing the pilot period did throw up the fact that there could be a case for very specifically targeted job creation prospects and initiatives to complement the work that this is all doing, are there circumstances where the Government has at least contemplated that?
  (Mr Smith) Of course, again there are other strands to our programmes like the New Deal for communities, the way in which the Single Regeneration Budget is used, the use of European and Social Funds, other local authority funds, which can enhance, if you like, these supply side measures. There is the development of intermediate labour market opportunities. There is what we are doing on employment zones. In selecting the areas to be fully-fledged employment zones, we were guided by those local authority districts which had the highest level of unemployment and the lowest level of employment; so I would argue that there is extra targeted help available in those areas where the labour market is hardest.

  239. Thank you. I wonder if I could now ask a different type of question, which is about concentration on work. One of the things that some of the disability organisations and Gingerbread, the group looking after the interests of lone parents, have been asking is, if we are concentrating on the focus of work, some of their clients are only being able to contemplate work after quite a long process. They are worried that people are counting off the jobs that have been created and that the success of the project is being measured simply on that test. That would concern them. Can you say anything to reassure them about that?
  (Ms Eagle) It is not going to be measured simply on that test. That is the first thing to say. We are going to develop methods of assessment, which also involve assessing people who have become more employable or moved closer to the labour market. Our only method and definition of success is not going to be: we have got them all immediately into jobs. This is not a realistic way of dealing with some of the clients that we will be dealing with in the new ONE service. We are very acutely aware that people with disabilities who have wanted to work may have been out of the labour market for a long time and have a particular disadvantage which we will have to try to tackle. Similarly, with lone parents. So when we have the work-focused interview part of the process, this is going to involve talks about barriers to work and strategies for overcoming them. That kind of positive input is wholly beneficial and should not be seen as a threat at all. We are not going to be so crude as to measure the applicant only as a job and any kind of job. We are going to look at sustainable employment and moving groups closer to the labour market.
  (Mr Smith) Could I add very briefly to that, that whilst this is a work- focused interview, operating in the way Angela has described, we do want this also to be a gateway to other opportunities for enhancing independence, which might simply be employability in the long-term. For example, lone parents with small children might say that their priority is to stay at home to look after the children. Fine. What I want the interviewer to be able to do is to point them towards community reading schemes, for example, where they can work with their children for their education.

1   Note by Witness: These dates are when information will be available internally. We will aim to make results available as soon as possible. It takes approximately 8 weeks to publish reports. Dates may be subject to adjustment following discussions with contractors commissioned to undertake work. Back

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