Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)



Ms Shipley

  260. The Social Security Committee visited Lewisham, which I am sure is a model you are aware of, and it was quite a small example of a One-stop shop. There were two considerations that arose out of it. The positive side was clients and personnel seemed to greatly benefit from it and the whole environment was so much more positive but the people running it admitted it was more expensive, does that bother you? The second consideration was to do with things like the CAB, who could envisage that they might need to integrate or be encouraged to integrate or even bid and receive money to integrate and a moral dimension of independence arose from that. Would you comment on that?
  (Ms Eagle) The Lewisham pilot was obviously directly about the connections between the Benefits Agency and the local authority with respect to housing benefit and council tax benefit. What we were trying to do there was focus on whether closer working could actually deliver a better system. We are waiting for the absolute final evaluation of the Lewisham project.

  261. It looks good.
  (Ms Eagle) But, you are quite right, it was extremely popular with those who used it. It was also popular with staff. It delivered administration savings, we think, that were quite substantial. Just one example of the way in which it can deliver a faster benefit service, it was taking on average nine days I think to get information in an income support form sent off to the housing benefit bit of a local authority so they could begin to put that into payment. This was reduced to half a day. It was not done with fancy fibre optic electronic cabling, it was actually done I think with somebody on a bike and a large brown envelope. So you do not always need super duper IT to do this. It does help if you have more connections between the staff of one organisation and the other. They know who they can pick the phone up to and there is a regular connection established. We are looking to see whether we can use some of that experience in the ONE pilot. On expense and how much it costs, I think we have to remember that if you get a more efficient service you will actually save money too because you are getting the benefit into payment faster, you are taking a lot of duplication of effort in trying to reach a conclusion on an entitlement to a particular claim out of the system and I regard this as undergrowth that you need to brush away so you can see what it is you are actually meant to be doing. We are waiting for the primary evaluations. Even if it costs a bit more up front, we are waiting to see whether it is actually cheaper in terms of efficiency in the round.
  (Mr Smith) On the resourcing what you can actually see it has is a shift of resources from duplication—shunting people from pillar to post and to a certain extent from bureaucracy—towards front line personal advice and support.

Ms Atherton

  262. Following on, you have talked about the guy with his bicycle and brown envelope. Local authorities have also said that they feel that they have taken quite a major step backwards, that they are now using paper again instead of new technology. Do you have a vision of where the technology is going to be and are you conscious that you have got all these different agencies and organisations with different IT systems that do not talk to one another, although, okay, people can pick up the phones, but where is the vision?
  (Mr Smith) The first step is to get the access to the different systems from within each of the centres, the ONE centre, the offices, which are dealing with this. Secondly, it is to get those different systems on the same computer screen. Thirdly, it is properly to integrate the systems. There is no doubt that IT is a major challenge with this. It is something that we cannot afford to get wrong. We do have to proceed very much in a step by step fashion in order to ensure that the basic quality of service which is available from the very outset of the pilots is satisfactory before we are going to be able to get both the software and the hardware enhancements that are needed in order to get a fully integrated system. There is a vision there of full integration and we do have to move carefully step by step.
  (Ms Eagle) I think also local authorities tend to have more sophisticated IT. ES has slightly less but still quite good IT and BA has the oldest of the IT. That is a quick summary of it. But, do not ignore the capacity that new browser technology could give us actually to browse across different IT methods and to integrate. Our people are working very hard on integrating some enhancements with the pilots to do that. ITSA is our technology agency in the DSS, is doing some very interesting work on what might be possible. We all want a utopian IT system that is stunning and available to everybody on one tiny little screen but I would not want to give the impression that we could not make a major difference even without having that. That is why I used the bike and brown envelope as an example. A lot of people tend to say "we will have to wait until we get our perfect IT system before we can really achieve this". What we are trying to say is you can achieve significant improvements without whilst working towards introducing that IT system. It is a question of knowing that you can make advances at the same time as you are scrambling to get your IT systems integrated.

  263. You will know that there are some of us on this Committee who are very enthusiastic about the whole concept of a One-stop Government in the totality. As you write your diaries late at night—
  (Ms Eagle) We do not write our diaries.

  264. No diaries. As you think about the future and the manifestos of say two Parliaments' time, where do you see this going? Is this the first step to One-stop Government or is this an entity in itself? Is this the starting ground to something like what they have in Australia but much further integrated? Where do you see it going?
  (Ms Eagle) Firstly, I do not know how Barbara Castle ever did it. My admiration for her grows all the time. I am too exhausted to write a diary. I think, again, I will give you my view of that in a minute but we have to be careful to limit what we are doing to what is possible now before we get all grandiose about what it is going to be like in a couple of Parliaments' time. I do think also that when you look at IT there are new things happening all the time. The integration of the telephone and the TV and computer implies that in not too many years probably some kind of digital two-way flow of information will be possible in the corner of somebody's room. That gives you enormous possibilities. Actually boring old electronic claim forms would transform our service from the point of view of BA. You have to keep your eye on two levels, what have we got now and how can we procure in a reasonable way on time to some kind of IT that will enable you to give a much, much better service, such as the Lewisham pilot demonstrated was possible. Then there is this other new digital flow concept that is going to be not too far away. That gives you a shape of how Government services might be. Certainly accessible in different ways. There are going to be face-to-face aspects of it but we have to make sure it is accessible maybe over the telephone and in other ways too so that people can have access to it at their convenience rather than at our convenience.
  (Mr Smith) To a certain extent the progress of the pilots and what we learn from them will actually give some useful indicators of what seems desirable and possible for the future seeing that it is going to be a dynamic process. For example, the involvement of the call centres at the Registration and Orientation stage, that may well have some useful lessons to teach us about how more generally it might make sense to at least have the option of doing things over the telephone. We have to see how it works out first.

Ms Shipley

  265. If I can bring you back to the personal advisers. Both of you in the early part of the session referred again and again and again to the importance of personal advisers and I am certain you are right. A good personal adviser is going to be key to making the most of this work. There are a number of things about that. Training: I understand that there are going to be two major core pieces of training for personal advisers. How will they be recruited in the first place? Are they going to come from existing staff or are you going to look for different levels of skills from people as well as training them in the skills necessary for the job? Caseloads are going to be very important. It has been suggested that a social worker's average caseload is around 40 and a New Deal Personal Adviser's is going to be 30. What sort of caseload will personal advisers be expected to carry? It seems to me that they are going to have a very, very wide ranging role in this. Caseloads tend, I have been advised, to take around 40 per cent of administrative time. If you are an adviser, then 40 per cent of your time is going to be administrative rather than face-to-face. How do you see this being dealt with?
  (Mr Smith) First of all—incidentally—you are right they are going to be a key, I have no doubt, to the success of this, as indeed they have proved in the New Deal. There is a great buzz of excitement in the pilot areas that are getting ready to do this because, as was said earlier, this is the sort of work that people in many cases joined the service to do. They will be recruited from the existing services; the Benefits Agency, the Employment Service, local authorities and officials from the CSA will have the chance to apply for jobs as well. Recruitment has already taken place for pilots that start on 28 June. In assessing the suitability of applicants of course account is taken of the relevant experience that they have got and a good number of people have been working on the New Deal or New Deal for Lone Parents or have particular expertise in housing and council tax benefit and obviously have a claim to the jobs but it is appointments on merit from within those existing services. In terms of the training this is, and obviously has to be, very much tailored to the individual members of staff, taking account of their previous experience and competencies. In terms of the amount of training which is being made available, it varies between around 42 hours to around 300 hours with a median of something like 180. In terms of the average caseload that we expect, I do not have the figure to hand at the moment. Rather than making a guestimate I think it is best if I let the Committee know that separately.[3]

Dr Naysmith

  266. I agree absolutely with Andrew that the training is crucial and the quality of the people who are going to be personal advisers is crucial. It is clear that the success of the New Deal depends a lot on the change in culture that seems to have taken place and the quality of some of the staff. Initially when we were talking about ONE, when it was the Single gateway, there was a lot of talk about the Registration and Orientation phase and this was going to be very important, that the personnel who make first contact with the client would be very important so training for that was clearly crucial as well. We understand on the Committee, particularly when we visited Yorkshire, there is a suggestion that this is going to be downgraded now and the talk was of a 40 minute interview to start with but the suggestion is now that it is going to be less than 20 minutes. I wonder whether this does reflect some sort of downgrading? Someone suggested in the voluntary sector that these people will be seen just as receptionists and maybe it would be better if the first contact was with the personal adviser right away. What is the thinking on this now? Do you think it will still add special value to the whole system to have this kind of phase right at the start?
  (Mr Smith) There has certainly been no downgrading of the Registration and Orientation phase, the level, quality and commitment required from the staff there. Apart from anything else this is the very first contact people have with the ONE service. As we all know in service delivery that critically shapes people's perception of the system, how well it is meeting their needs. In terms of the time that it is going to take, that does depend very much on the nature of the applications and the queries which people are making. Certainly one thing we want to do is at the earliest opportunity possible to draw people's attention to the availability of job opportunities where they are in a position to take them and are relatively job ready. Where we want to get to is to be able to point them towards jobs at that initial stage. I certainly see the Registration and Orientation work as very responsible and indeed integral to the success of the whole project.
  (Ms Eagle) It is particularly important from the point of view of making the application for benefits as well. The ideal is to get that out of the way before the work-focused interview so that the individual does not have to worry about the application being made or put in properly. That is another important aspect of the initial interview.

  267. So where does the 40 minutes reduced to less than 20 come from? Is it a rumour or is there anything underlying that suggestion that we have picked up quite clearly?
  (Mr Smith) I know of no basis for saying that so I would describe it as a rumour, an unfounded one.[4]

  268. I will move on now to something slightly different which is the question that does involve advisers as well. The proposals at the moment would exclude people once they move into work of more than 16 hours a week, even though they may still be claiming housing benefit and Working Families Tax Credit and that sort of thing. Would it not be a good idea to keep people in contact with personal advisers when they are in that situation of still claiming benefit even though they are in work?
  (Ms Eagle) I do not think we would expect the personal advisers to be completely debarred from ever talking to them again. I think one of the strengths of the New Deal has been that relationship between the personal adviser and in some cases it has almost been a mentoring relationship. We do expect personal advisers, if that is appropriate, to keep in touch or certainly be at the end of the telephone if somebody wants further advice. They would not just be withdrawn, when they went into 16½ hours all of a sudden the whole service would be completely withdrawn. We would expect there to be some sort of contact.

  269. It would relate a little bit also to caseload, would it not? If people were under pressure then there would be pressure to move people off their caseloads?
  (Mr Smith) I think this very much falls into the category of the sorts of developments that we might well expect to see in the future, not least on the basis of the evidence of the experience of the work being done in the New Deal for Young People on retention. We have got a sub-committee of the Advisory Task Force that is very actively investigating and looking at different ways of working with employers to encourage the retention of employees, especially those who are hardest to help. There will be lessons coming through all the time from that sort of work and from other aspects of the New Deal and that is something that not only would I not want to rule out being applied in the ONE service, I would want to encourage it having a role to play where appropriate. Again we are back to this issue. As I said it is a very powerful idea and the temptation is to say "can you not do this as well" and before you know where you are you have got a very overstretched staff who are being expected to run before they can walk. That is why we take it in a measured way. I think there are exciting possibilities there.

Mr Dismore

  270. Can I come back to the points Andrew made earlier on about the timetable? We have got the pilots coming in next month or later this month, is that correct?
  (Ms Eagle) Yes.

  271. And the compulsion will kick in next April.
  (Ms Eagle) Yes.

  272. How will that actually affect how the pilots will operate bearing in mind that they do not have this compulsory power to start? How will they get people involved and participating on a voluntary basis? When you come to evaluate the pilots as they develop, to what extent will that affect the validity of the pilots or the lessons that can be learned from the pilots when you try to operate the pilot on a compulsory system?
  (Ms Eagle) The first thing to say is that it will enable us to compare the voluntary approach to the compulsory one. A lot of people have been saying "why bother with the compulsory one, it will all be much better if it is voluntary". The way the pilots are, they allow us to assess both of those and to see whether there are lessons in moving from one approach to the other. Initially obviously people will be attracted to the service partially by its reputation, by persuasion at the beginning, by its ability to deliver a better service than they would get elsewhere. Those who live in the pilot areas will certainly have to go through the service but not, I suppose, if they do not want to attend the interview to begin with. When I started I was getting people coming to my surgery demanding to be let on to the New Deal although they were not eligible for it, because they had heard so much about it. I think it is somewhere around there that we would want to create a buzz about it that would enable people not to see the work-focused interview as a threat but as a helpful intervention. Then we will have to look at how many people take up this opportunity in the voluntary phase and compare it with what happens during the compulsory phase. It does give us a chance to directly compare the two approaches.
  (Mr Smith) As with the New Deal I think some ultimate credibility will be word of mouth reports from clients of the standard and quality of service that they are getting. During the voluntary phase it will be voluntary, people will be encouraged to take advantage of the opportunity but it would be quite wrong for there to be any suggestion that they were under an obligation so to do. One thing we are very clear about is the quality of experience that people are going to have is going to be altogether different. I described it some time ago as the "wow factor". I want people to come in for these interviews and say "wow, this really is different and better than anything we have had before". The physical lay out as well as the approach and training preparation of the personal adviser is enormously important in shaping people's perceptions. They will be coming into modern, civilised areas where there is security and privacy and all that grunge and din and the screens that characterise the worst of the present offices which are operating will be swept away. It will give a very powerful signal to clients that this is a collaborative effort between them, and the agencies, the state if you like, helping them find a better way forward. In those circumstances if people are impressed I would expect many of them to want to take advantage of the voluntary interviews. As Angela has said we can compare the voluntary and compulsory approaches. The likelihood is, of course, that with the voluntary interviews you will not get a fully representative outcome because it will be those who are most resistant to this sort of help who are least likely to avail themselves of it, but we shall see.

  273. Can I pursue that point into the next stage, for the non-JSA claimants, the expectation is to have a personalised action plan and then there is a follow-up interview?
  (Ms Eagle) Yes.

  274. How are you going to be able to cross that, or not cross that, very fine dividing line between offering positive assistance and people who are receiving that assistance feeling pressurised to do something voluntarily when this system comes in that they are not required to do? How will you be able to reassure them?
  (Mr Smith) Ask them "would they like another interview" and if they say "yes" give them one and if they say "no" do not.
  (Ms Eagle) I think also we have to remember that the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill does not extend compulsion beyond attending the interview. What we hope is that the helpful element of that will be enthusing and it will actually give some jointly arrived at sense of direction for an individual. As I was saying earlier, a lot of people's get up and go has got up and gone. We have to try to help them get more proactive again. That is what I hope the interview will do. We are not envisaging, certainly at this stage at all, introducing any other forms of compulsion other than the attendance. We want the interview to stand on its own merits as a helpful intervention that people will want to take account of and take action on subsequently.

  275. On the subsequent follow-up interviews are you going to be saying, therefore, if people do not want to come they are not going to be under pressure or forced into doing that?
  (Mr Smith) Certainly during the voluntary phase it is all voluntary. We have provided in the legislation, of course, for subsequent mandatory interviews at certain trigger points on which further regulations will be forthcoming and those will again be mandatory interviews. I thought you were asking about the voluntary phase and further follow-up interviews and not the mandatory triggered ones. First of all, I think it is entirely sensible and in line with what the public would expect that having an interview ought to be regarded as an integral part of accessing the benefits system in the first place. I think people do see it as reasonable. If people's circumstances change in a way that is likely to affect their employability—their youngest child has reached five or their youngest child has gone to secondary school or they have completed a training course or whatever—that could trigger an interview where they are required to have the same discussion. As Angela was saying, I believe that the appeal and effectiveness of the interviews will largely sell themselves because people will see that this is something which is there to help them.

Mrs Humble

  276. Before probing any further about the needs of non-JSA claimants can I just go back to this issue of the quality of service? You have both, quite rightly, pointed out that this is going to be a much better service than the one that currently exists and you explained that in terms of the personal interviews. Of course, one of the sad features of the current system is that people cannot get through on the telephone, they get unintelligible letters sent through the post. Is all of that going to change as well as part of this new ONE service?
  (Ms Eagle) That is changing as part of another initiative really. The changes in decision making and appeals are changing the notification systems. I agree with you that at the moment our notification systems are inexplicable to most people and they cause enormous irritation, frustration and confusion. We are doing our best to see what we can do to make them more intelligible under the decision making and appeals changes. Another important part of all of that is the aspect of decision making and appeals where the individual claimant can have a discussion with the member of staff about a particular decision that has been made and if there has been an error it can be corrected. There is a much more explanatory system coming into being which I hope will flow into the general changes. One is a pilot, a series of pilots, this is happening everywhere. We did change the legislation so that we could try to make this more intelligible and I hope over time that all of these things will flow into one glorious approach to comprehensibility.
  (Mr Smith) All those improvements can and must be made but the additional key difference that the ONE service will make is that there is a personal adviser, your personal adviser, and if you do get some unintelligible communication or something that you do not understand you can pick up the phone and talk to them and know that you have not got to go back to square one in recounting your whole personal history and dealings with the system in order for them to know where you are. So I think there will be a big gain in service support and, if you like, back-up in that respect.

  277. Going back to special issues to do with non-JSA claimants. As I am sure you are aware the disability groups and lone parents organisations have all expressed concerns that if all the claimants are going through the personal adviser system that that personal adviser will not be properly addressing the particular needs of lone parents, people with disabilities, of carers. What sorts of reassurances can you give on that?
  (Mr Smith) First of all, as I said earlier, people are being trained especially in the areas where their own personal experience and competencies do not lie. So there will be a general level of competence and expertise. I have to say too I think the first requirements for personal advisers are sympathy, personal efficiency, commonsense in working with the clients. They are not after all at the end of the day working alone, they are members of a team. Obviously nobody is going to perfectly understand all of the different intricacies of all of the different benefits that are being covered or all of the provisions of all of the different programmes or community groups that might be helpful for the client to be in touch with. The important thing is that they know who in their team to ask if they themselves are not certain of some aspect. Can I just say further, as we design this, and indeed as it is implemented, we are closely involving representatives of bodies from lone parents organisations, disability organisations, those dealing with mental health. For example, we are having a series of seminars where we are taking aspects of the ONE service and we are trying to test it to destruction against what they think the problems might be and we are also taking their advice in the training. All of these sorts of issues are being anticipated, worked through in the policy and design included in the training and worked through with those who actually will have to provide the service.
  (Ms Eagle) I think the important thing to remember as well is that this is meant to be a shift to treating people as individuals rather than as categories. Whilst we have to have sympathy and understanding for particular issues or difficulties that people might have—it might be a mental health problem in which case they can take an advocate with them or whatever—we also have to see them as human beings rather than "they are lone parents" and "that is somebody with a disability". The Lone parents are a very disparate group of people. Some have small barriers to work, some have barriers to work that are massive because they have never been in the labour market. Similarly, people with disabilities cover a wide range, it is not a generic category. What we are trying to do with the new service is say "let us treat people as individuals, let us react to their particular needs, circumstances, requirements, not as categories". That is why we are trying to provide a more general sympathetic approach but with the training that Andrew has described.

  278. You both in earlier answers, quite rightly, emphasised that, for some people who are not job ready or who may never be job ready there, are lots of other initiatives that they can get involved in. You did not mention volunteering, voluntary work. Are you including voluntary work as part of that spectrum?
  (Ms Eagle) Yes.
  (Mr Smith) Very much so.

  279. One of the issues that was certainly raised during the Committee Stage of the Welfare Reform Bill was the problem of people on incapacity benefit who are coming forward and claiming incapacity benefit and are saying that they are incapable of work but on the other hand they are getting involved in a work-focused system. Is there a danger for those people—again, I am seeking reassurances here—that by responding positively to a work-focused interview they will be disallowed incapacity benefit?
  (Mr Smith) The personal capability assessment provided for in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill is done separately and independently from the ONE interview. The other thing I would say is that the ONE interview is exploring the barriers to work and ways in which people might move forward in overcoming those barriers. It very much depends on the individual circumstances. I think we all know, and it is one of the great problems in the way in which disability benefits are structured at the moment, that the reality for very many people is not that they can all do all sorts of work or they can do no work at all, it is a question of what sort of work they might be able to do and for what periods and how they might vary with changes in their condition. I see value early on, right at the beginning of the claim as part of the work-focused interview, of sensitively discussing how people might be helped to overcome those barriers. For some, of course, the barriers may be so extreme that it is not meaningful to have the work-focused interview at that time or maybe not even to have it at all. I would say this is the spirit of the whole project, that it is inclusive and that as many people as possible have the interview but we make sure that it is sensitively tailored to their circumstances rather than to start erecting arbitrary walls around the ONE project and saying that certain categories of people are not going through it, because we are then back to this problem of labelling people in advance, which the whole thing is trying to get away from.
  (Ms Eagle) I think possibly the reassurance you are seeking is that if somebody goes to a work-focused interview it will not be used in evidence against them in their incapacity claim.

3   See Ev. p.118. Back

4   See Ev. p.118. Back

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