Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 1-19)




  1. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Can I open the public session of evidence and welcome the Secretary of State, Alistair Darling. Secretary of State, we are very grateful to you for coming, at relatively short notice; we were in a bit of a hiatus with dates because of the imminence, or otherwise, of the general election, and it is very good of you to come at relatively short notice to talk about the departmental structure and organisation. I wonder, did you have anything you wanted to say? We have got four or five areas that are pretty obvious, drawn basically from what is in the Annual Report, and if you wanted to start by making a short opening statement maybe that would be very helpful, then we can go into the areas of cross-examination.

  (Mr Darling) Thank you very much, and I am always glad to submit myself to a Select Committee, especially in such splendid surroundings, which are more reminiscent of a court than they are of the committee rooms across in the Commons; and I see we have been very accommodating in allowing you to meet in the Grimond Room, as a nod to the Liberal Chair of this Committee, and you will see I am wearing a yellow tie, as a further nod in your direction. I think the best way to spend this hearing, obviously, is to deal with your questions and your comments, but I just wanted to make the general point that, I think, over the last four years, we have laid the foundations for quite a major change in the social security system, it is moving away from, essentially, a system designed to make payments of benefits in a passive way, offering very little help to people to become independent, to become self-sufficient. In my view, we inherited a situation where we were not doing nearly enough to help the people who were never going to be able to work, people who are severely disabled, many pensioners who were living in poverty, and we have changed that over the last four years. We have a massive programme of reform ahead of us, we have the Integrated Child Credit, which will come in from 2003, we have the Pension Credit, coming in in the same year, we have the Child Support Agency reforms which will come in from April next year, and, of course, we have to replace our entire IT system, a process which we have already started, but which will increase steadily over the next two to three years, which will, of course, enable us to offer a far better service to the public. And, crucially, of course, which is something which has always been of concern to this Select Committee and to the House generally, to increase our accuracy and our general business performance rates. Finally, on top of all that, we are in the process, which is some way down the line now, of substantially reorganising the DSS, it is now far more focused on the public, on its customers, than ever it was four years ago, and I think the public will see, over the years to come, a steady improvement. So we have made a good start, we have laid the foundations, we have a massive programme which we must deliver in the next Parliament, but I think the Department is in a better shape now to do that. And, of course, crucially, what we will be judged on is the outcomes, what it is that we do for people, eradication of child poverty, ending pensioner poverty, helping people get into work as well as providing greater help for those who cannot, it is on that that we will be judged; but I think we are in a far better state to deliver that now than the Department was four years ago.

  2. Thank you for that. One of the things that I should have said perhaps at the beginning, because it is an appropriate time in the cycle to say it, is that we are extremely grateful for the assistance that we get from your professional staff, not just the liaison staff who co-operate between ourselves and the Department but all the staff that we come across in the Department in our visits throughout the year. We are extremely grateful for the help that we get, because they go out of their way, and they do extremely good work, in sometimes quite difficult circumstances. And, just as a matter of courtesy, we would like to ask you to reflect that, in any way you can, in the course of your work, because I think it is important that we have good relations and keep good relations with the Department; we are grateful for that. And, secondly, the Annual Report, just in passing, this is obviously a document that is a bit in transition, because we are now working with resource accounting, and it is harder to understand because it is a different system; but this does not make it quite clear, to me, anyway, just exactly how the benefit spend is deployed. Now I think that you have answered some written Parliamentary Questions recently, perhaps pointing up how the benefit spend is actually deployed, in terms of the information that is in the Annual Report, maybe you could say a bit about that.
  (Mr Darling) Yes. I will deal with your first point, first, if I may. I am grateful for what you say about the staff, and I think it is important that all Members, particularly members of the Select Committee, should be able to talk to staff, they should visit Benefits Agency offices, the Child Support offices, because it is very easy to knock public service, but the fact is that in the DSS we employ something like 88,000 people, most of whom are engaged in front-line service with the public. There have been good increases in performance, I am thinking of the Child Support Agency, for example, which has seen quite a significant turnaround from where it was to where it is now, and that is due, to a very, very large extent, to the efforts of the staff, not just senior staff but, of course, staff on the front line; so I think they deserve support and recognition, which I think is something that is long overdue. And, obviously, the staff that you deal with, the Committee, tend to be staff in and around Richmond House, and they are very happy to talk to you, formally and informally. On the departmental report, as the Committee will know, the entire Government is moving to resource accounting, which I think will be better, in terms of showing the true cost of Government, if you like, rather than the older way. As you say, I was concerned, that the resource accounting has many benefits, however it was not quite so clear as to how much we spent in cash terms and benefits, year on year, and I think that information, which we hold internally, is something that ought to be in the public domain. So I answered a Parliamentary Question yesterday, I think it was, and that additional information is now there, which would enable someone to make a comparison between this year, last year and past years. I will need to reflect on what we do in the future, because, quite clearly, you cannot have a situation where the Government moves onto resource accounting except for the DSS, which accounts for a third of Government spending, and it carries on, in the old sense, and that is not possible. I do think resource accounting will give greater transparency as to how much we spend in each of the client groups, which is something that I think is long overdue; but I will reflect on how we make sure that information is available so people can make meaningful comparisons. What I would say to you is, and I think this is an important point, that social security spending now is growing at an annual rate of 1.4 per cent, which is the lowest rate in any Parliament since the second world war; and, indeed, if we had not increased spending on pensions and on families with children then social security spending would be going down, in real terms, for the first time ever. And I think that shows, firstly, that we are getting far tighter control over social security spending than we have had in the past, but also, when you consider that we are spending £4 billion less this year and next year on unemployment than we had been, and that money therefore is available to spend on pensioners and on families with children, I think that shows the success of this Government's policies, underpinned by a strong economy, making the reforms of the New Deal and making work possible, making work pay, it is now beginning to reap dividends. It is allowing us to do far, far more for people who were neglected in the past, particularly some whom I think probably you will want to come on to during the course of today's hearing. But, I think, if people were looking for evidence, is welfare reform working, yes, it is working and it is beginning to bear fruit.

  3. That is reassuring; if you are willing to look at how the benefit spend is reflected in the Annual Report, I think that is encouraging. I know these things are difficult, but I do not think that these departmental reports are as transparent, you have to be really quite expert, and an accountant, to be able to get as much information as I think we would like from the Annual Report.
  (Mr Darling) That criticism can be made of the old accounts as well; pouring over the accounts is not everybody's cup of tea. But I do think that they should be presented in such a way that not just managers but people like yourselves, Select Committees, who are there to hold Departments to account, can actually look at them and draw a conclusion from them. Now I think resource accounting has many, many benefits, I think it is a better way for the Government to account for how it spends public money, but what we need to be sure is that we can give the public, and therefore the House, figures that will allow it to make its own deductions as to where the Government is going and where the money actually is being spent, and this Department does spend a third of all Government spending, it is therefore very important that people should know where it has gone.

  4. That is very helpful, thank you for that. Can I turn now to the structure and organisation of the Department. There is a lot of speculation about where the current reforms into the different client groups will end, and whether actually it will undermine the necessity to have a coherent, independent, free-standing Department at all. Of course, we understand, as a Committee, that these matters, the construction of Government are a matter for the Prime Minister, but to what extent is the Department planning further change beyond that which is announced, in terms of moving into the pensions agency, the working families' agency and the children's side of things; what is the working assumption for the immediate future within the Department on these matters?
  (Mr Darling) As you rightly say, machinery of government decisions are a matter for the Prime Minister, and I am not going to speculate on them. I can understand why people speculate on them at this particular time but I am not going down that road. What I can do though, I think, is set out the rationale for the changes that we have made in the Department, some of which we touched on last year, I recall, to explain why we are doing it. The starting-point, when I became Secretary of State, three years ago, was that I was pretty clear that there were two fundamental problems with the Department. One was external, that I do not think it was properly focused on its client groups, on its customers, essentially it was organised round benefits systems, and there are many of them, it was not focused on outcomes, what it was trying to do for children, what it was trying to do for people of working age or for pensioners. And, I think, internally, as I said before, problems like inherited SERPS were almost bound to happen, because of the Byzantine structures within the Department, there were too many autonomous empires, the Benefits Agency was actually bigger than the DSS and was in a position where it was beginning to second-guess what Ministers of all Governments have decided, and it just was not a very good way of running things. And then, of course, as part of that, when we started doing comparisons between DSS and outside organisations, or even Government Departments, we seemed to employ an awful lot more people than they did at the centre, which seemed to me to be unjustified. So what I have done over the last three years is systematically to divide the Department into three, to reflect its three main client groups, children, people of working age and pensioners; and, of course, as you will know, as part of the exercise, we also slimmed down the centre. I think a year ago I said that we hoped to move 3,000 posts away from the central headquarters and redeploy resources to put more people in the front line; now, so far, as of 31 March, we have actually reduced the number by 2,700, the remainder will be transferred in the next few weeks. So that has been quite a major reorganisation within the Department and has allowed more money to go into front-line activities. So that was a useful exercise in itself. The Department is now so organised that there are these three distinct divisions, and that process is largely complete, as far as the management is concerned. What still has to happen is, of course, the change in the IT systems. Perhaps I can come back to IT in a moment, because I think that is something you wanted to ask me separately about. But suffice it to say, at this stage, the Department essentially is built around Income Support, that was its main product line, if you like; that will change, because, clearly, we are changing the benefits, the working age benefits and pensioner benefits will look very different in three to four years' time, with the Pension Credit and the initiatives we have got to help make work pay. So what you will have is the Department operating in the three different divisions, not just in policy terms but in organisational terms as well. I do think that when people talk about machinery of government, or the architecture of Whitehall, they should not lose sight of the fact that, yes, it is important, to the extent the system has got to work, but what actually people will judge any Government on is where it actually delivers and its outcomes, and I do not think the nation would mourn if there were not a DSS, they would be more concerned about, "Is there help to get me into work?", is there more money going to pensioners, are we increasing child benefit. Now how we organise these things is really, as I say, a matter for the Prime Minister anyway, but I think the DSS is now organised in such a way that it is far better placed to deliver the sorts of services that I think the public want than it was in the past. And, of course, if you look at working age, we are in the process now of bringing together the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service into the new organisation, which is branded Jobcentre Plus, which is designed to give all the services through one door to people of working age. In parallel, the Pensions Service is also being established, to provide not just service for today's pensioners, like Minimum Income Guarantee, or Winter Fuel Payment, but also pension policy generally. And, as I said to you last year, we are working with the Revenue on the Integrated Child Credit, and the Child Benefit Centre will move to the Revenue at some point, so that you have got an integrated flow of services and cash to children. So that organisation is complete. I think what you are getting, as a result of that, is, you will get a better focus on outcome, and, crucially, you will get a far tighter control of management and of the way in which the service is delivered; and I think that in itself has merit, never mind what might or might not happen in the future.

  5. That is all very helpful. But what about the bits that do not fit naturally into the client groups, the Social Fund and the Disability and Care Directorate and the Child Benefit Centre; have decisions been taken about where they will fit in the jigsaw yet?
  (Mr Darling) So far as the disability benefits are concerned, remember, DLA and AA are operated by a distinct unit anyway, so the unit is still housed in the Department, but it does not affect the delivery of those benefits; and, frankly, my priority there is to make sure that we administer them far more effectively than we do at the present time. Incapacity Benefit is a working age benefit, that is part of the working age side of things, so that would be administered by Jobcentre Plus; and, Social Fund, it will be divided, because most of the Social Fund, actually, goes to people of working age, so it will be administered there, but also there will still be a need for the Social Fund for older people, so it will be divided. But, essentially, what you will have is, working age benefits will be delivered by Jobcentre Plus and the pension benefits will come through the Pensions Service. But, as I say, the disability benefits, which are very, very important to a large number of people, some people who need a great deal of help and support, it is free-standing anyway, and I think the main priority there, as I say to you, most people actually could not care who `owns' it, if you like, or which Secretary of State answers questions about it, what they are more concerned about is the quality of service. And, recently, you have taken an interest in what goes on in Blackpool, quite rightly so, and my priority there is to sort that out and make sure that we can improve the services that we provide there.

  6. Thank you. Can I ask just one or two questions about staff pay and conditions, because you said yourself, I think when we had a joint meeting with yourself and the Secretary of State for Education, that it was important to end staff uncertainty. Are you sure that you have managed to get these messages, and you have got a coherent line that you have just explained to us, and that is all understandable, but are the staff being carried along with this, are you certain that they are not being left with some doubt about where their own future lies?
  (Mr Darling) We have devoted considerable time and energy to making sure that staff are kept informed and that they know what we are doing. The Chief Executive designate of Jobcentre Plus, Leigh Lewis, whom I think you will have come across from his time at the Employment Service, writes to staff regularly, telling them of the progress that we are making; and, really, since his appointment, just after the turn of the year, we have made quite substantial progress in the work that is going to be necessary to start to bring the two organisations together. As you will know, we are planning to set up just over 50 Pathfinder offices from this October, that will gradually be rolled out, and the managers for these offices are being appointed in the next six weeks or so. So we are keeping staff informed. Clearly, if you ask staff in the offices what is their concern, their concern naturally will be, "Well, where do I fit into all this?". Now what we are doing is we are consulting with them and their representatives, but we are confident that we can make a smooth transition so that staff will be allocated between the Jobcentre Plus and the Pensions Service over the next year or so. Bear in mind that we pay out benefits for 17 million people a week; we must make sure we have got continuity of service, that is very, very important. We are making massive changes, which I referred to, all of which require a lot of time and effort on the part of staff, and at the same time we are reorganising things, but it is important we keep staff involved and we are doing that. Just one thing, to answer a question you did not ask, but since you mentioned staff morale, I was just looking at—

  7. That was the next question, yes?
  (Mr Darling) If you look at the staff turnover, which is indicative of how the state of the nation is, if you like, it is interesting that, the Benefits Agency, the turnover is just over 5 per cent, which is what you would expect in an organisation of that size. But the Child Support Agency, which is a body that has an awful lot of criticism and an awful lot of difficulties, is going through major change at the moment, a real restructuring, with a new Chief Executive, there are different business processes, it has got new computer systems coming in, an entirely new system from next April, and so you would expect there to be a lot of uncertainty there, and yet, whereas the staff turnover in the year to April 1999 was nearly 28 per cent, last year it was down to 14.5 per cent. Now that shows what you can do with good management, taking staff, explaining what the new system is going to do, better organisation, it makes a big, big difference; and, within that CSA figure, actually, if you look at the different offices, a lot of the offices actually are doing a lot better than that. So I think that any staff, anywhere, will always tell you that management could be better, but we are devoting far more attention to better management, and that is delivering better results. When the Jobcentre Plus is set up, of course, and you were asking about staff conditions, as I said to you before, and as David and I said to you when you had your joint meeting last year, Employment Service and Benefits Agency terms and conditions are different; clearly, they are having to be brought together because it is not sustainable to have an organisation where you have got people doing the same job on different terms and conditions. That process, negotiations and discussions are going on at the moment.

  8. Improving staff morale is an important issue for us. It would be helpful, I think, actually, to consider, if you are thinking about new ideas for inclusion in Annual Reports in the future, that things like staff turnover figures, over a period of time should be included, I agree it is the management trends that are important, actually would be helpful to know, and I do not think there are actually any turnover figures in the Annual Report, as it is currently?
  (Mr Darling) I am happy to include something along these lines, because it could be helpful. Remember, there are other things that can distort things as well. I think the CSA is a well-run organisation, a lot of effort has gone into it, but one of the things that there is nothing you can do about is that if a new finance company moves in next-door to your CSA office and offers cheap mortgages, a pound or two more, and nice plants round the room and people not complaining, then it is difficult to keep staff. But what I would say is, one thing that strikes me, as you go round the country, you meet people who have worked for the DSS and its agencies and its predecessors for 20 or 30 years, and they work there because they have chosen to work in the public service and they like working for it, despite all the difficulties, and sometimes people who have been sitting there in the front line, at the counter, which is not the easiest place to be on a Monday morning, and they have done it. Even in places like Edinburgh, which is full of the financial services industry, who pay well, wonderful conditions, you meet people there who say, "I have chosen to work for the public service and I want to do that," quite rightly, they want to be rewarded for having done that, but the staff loyalty is extremely high. And, as I say, I do attach considerable importance to improving staff morale, and that is why I mentioned the Child Support Agency, because that, in many ways, represents what was wrong with the system in the past, not enough time and attention being given to the laws that we pass, the systems that its staff were supposed to operate, the way in which the staff were treated. That is being turned round, and it is part of the systematic improvement that I think you are seeing within the whole Department. We have got more to do, mind you.

  9. I confirm that, that when we went to Blackpool I was certainly very deeply impressed by the commitment of the staff, although I have to say that some of the management, and we are talking about kind of middle management people, some of the management loads that were being carried by some of these young people were fantastically high, it seemed to me, for the amount of money that they were being paid. Now I notice, and I am interested, that in the Annual Report you say, in response to one of the PAC questions that was addressed to you, recommendations about retaining staff, that you have moved to, I think, annual payments, of, I think, £1,500, to try to secure key staff.
  (Mr Darling) Yes.

  Chairman: Is it not time really to look fundamentally, and I know that there is a lot going on, and if management change is too quick and severe then it can risk becoming incoherent, but is there not a case for doing a pretty fundamental review of staff pay and conditions? Some of these people that we met in Blackpool, in particular, I think, are not getting paid enough, to be honest. Maybe that is an easy thing for us to say, but I think that there may well be a case—

  Mrs Humble: I have to agree with him on this, I have to say.


  10. This was an idea that was put into my mind by Mrs Humble. But going on and listening to the management loads that they carry and the work that they do and the pay that they get, it is not surprising that they are tempted by incoming financial institutions, or indeed incoming MacDonald hamburger bars, maybe, even. Is there not a case now, once you get a chance to get these new client group managerial arrangements bedded down, for having some kind of fresh look at the way that the pay and conditions for the whole Department are actually conducted, to reflect the responsibilities that some of these key members of staff are carrying at the moment?
  (Mr Darling) As you know, every year the Department enters into negotiations with staff representatives, and over the years we have tried to recognise where we need to improve things. For example, on the CSA, last year, I think it was, the Department recognised that something had to be done about the CSA pay, because of the retention problem, and we did. Now you mentioned the £1,500 payment, it is too soon to say whether that has worked, because it only started in January, and I think I am right in saying the staff would not have seen the benefit until the end of March, and so it is early days yet. I also said to you that, as part of building up Jobcentre Plus, we have to review pay and conditions, because, as I say, the ES and the BA conditions are different. So all that work is continuing. And the other thing we are doing, of course, is, in each business unit, asking ourselves whether or not we can improve the way in which people are expected to work; and pay is very important to everybody, for perfectly obvious reasons. But one of the things that undoubtedly will help staff morale and their enthusiasm for work is the conditions under which we expect them to work. The new IT, the Early Office infrastructure, the front end, will start to come into offices from July, and so, for the first time ever, our staff will be working on IT equipment of the sort you would expect and take for granted anywhere else, and the old green writing on the black screens will disappear. Also, the Benefits Agency, for example, is paying particular attention to the performance in some offices where there has been low morale, very high rates of inaccuracy in benefits, absenteeism, and so on; the evidence is that when you put in a good manager and start to address some of the business systems and the conditions of work you get a much better and happier staff. Now these are management responsibilities. Now I accept that pay and conditions are always a matter of concern to staff, I have lots of meetings with staff up and down the country, I make a point of doing that every couple of months, or so, it is always raised, and I always say to them, "We will do our best, although, clearly, I'm not in a position to promise `don't worry, suddenly there's going to be lots and lots of money'," the Government has got to keep an eye on its pay-bill. But we do want to treat our staff fairly and we will treat them fairly.

Mr Thomas

  11. On the question of pay structure throughout the public sector, I am glad that you made the comment that you strive for some degree of parity within the public sector. One of the things I picked up, I am not sure whether other members of this Committee did, on various visits to various offices, was the apparent disparity between salary levels and levels of responsibility within the Benefits Agency and CSA and the Inland Revenue. Do you perceive that as an issue; and, if you do, would you have any proposals for dealing with that disparity?
  (Mr Darling) I think that, on levels of responsibility, yes, they are all different, and even in the Benefits Agency, the way in which its business is conducted, there are disparities, which are gradually being addressed, because I think it is difficult to justify. The Revenue pay more than the Benefits Agency, which presumably is why, when we transferred the Contributions Agency to the Inland Revenue, after a week's complaints then I think the next complaint was, "Why can't we go next week?", I am aware of that. I am not arguing for, nor am I promising, parity; what I do say is that, clearly, you do have to make sure that what you pay staff is acceptable and that it is defensible. But I think I am right in saying that there always have been differences between various organisations, and what we have to do is to make sure that what we have got on offer, for example, if you look at the Benefits Agency, we offer far more flexible working than some other organisations, which suits mothers with children, for example, and we do try to balance these things up; but, obviously, the Government, if you look at what we are offering our staff, year on year, we do try to be fair, that we do try to deal with anomalies, we try to deal with discrepancies. But I do not think that anyone is in a position to say that there will not always be people who will say, "You ought to be doing more than that."

  12. Yes, but on the specific point of the Inland Revenue?
  (Mr Darling) Yes, and the Revenue do pay more; as I say, in general terms, they do pay more than the Benefits Agency, though there are other compensatory factors which also need to be taken into account. But, as I say to you, if you look across the public service, I do not think there has ever been a position where there is parity, so that you can say that person, no matter where they work, will always be earning the same amount of money, and that has never been the case and I do not think it ever will be.

  Mr Thomas: Thank you.

Mrs Humble

  13. First of all, can I say how pleased I am to hear you say that you are consulting with staff and keeping them informed about all the changes that are taking place, because that is very important in a period of change that obviously affects staff morale, given the uncertainty and people wanting confirmation of where they are going to slot into this new system. Part of the uncertainty revolves around the Jobcentre Plus scheme, and is it going to commence when the Pathfinder schemes get off the ground in October, or do you see it being launched officially when the Department does actually formally split and the Benefits Agency goes and the Employment Service goes? Can you give us any idea of a timescale that you are looking at, from commencement through to completion, of this changeover?
  (Mr Darling) As I said to you, the 50 Pathfinder offices will start operations from October this year, and then we will gradually convert BA and ES offices into Jobcentre Plus offices. We are not yet in a position to make an announcement as to the date on which Jobcentre Plus will formally take over from BA and from ES; as you will appreciate, there is an awful lot of work to be done. Basically, you are dealing with over 120,000 people, you are dealing with a system that has something like in excess of 24 different computer systems, you have managements that were designed at different times, doing different things. A lot of work is going on at the moment, but I hope in the not too distant future that we will be in a position then to say the date on which Jobcentre Plus and the Pensions Service, because they will both come into existence at the same time, will take over from the BA and the ES. We are keeping staff informed. Remember, one of the things we will have to do, before we can make that formal announcement, is we will have to be pretty certain exactly which staff are going where, because from that date they will be employed by and answerable to a new organisation. So all that work, which has been going on over the last few months, from the time that David and I spoke to you last summer, is going on, and I attach more importance to getting it right and making sure it works than announcing a date which might not have any meaning. But I repeat this point, that we are trying to keep staff informed. I do understand that staff will always say, "Why can't you tell me everything that I need to know?". It is a massive organisation, changing all these things round, and we will keep staff informed. But a lot of the people in Blackpool who work in the DLA, for example, which I know you have a particular and obvious concern about, that centre is free-standing, and whilst some of the changes will affect them, to a large extent their work will continue because the need to administer those benefits will continue. There are other people, of course, on the Fylde Coast generally, who will be involved very directly because they will go either to the Pensions Service or to Jobcentre Plus, as the case may be, because a lot of the support systems for the entire DSS, as you know, are based there.

  14. It is a major employer, Chairman, of my constituents, the DSS, which is why I am concerned about staff morale, etc.
  (Mr Darling) It is very, very important. In an organisation like the Benefits Agency, and the Employment Service, for that matter, an awful lot depends on the staff, it is not an automated process; getting people into work, for example, can never be a completely automated process. But I think what I detect, over the last three years, is that staff can see signs of improvement. Now one of the biggest things that helped staff morale, actually, was when they saw that there was money allocated, at long last, to replace their IT systems. I was in an office in the East Midlands yesterday, and I was just struck again by the vast amount of paperwork that our staff have to fill in, because it is not automated; now from July it will start to be automated, and I think staff say they can see light at the end of the tunnel. One of them said to me, "It will be so nice to be in work, operating on the same standard of IT equipment as my child does at school." Now the fact that, over the years, our staff were expected to work on stuff that is now getting on for obsolete is an indictment on the years of failure to invest; we are turning that round. But clearly we want to make sure that we keep the staff informed, to make sure we take staff with us, because without the staff support it would be virtually impossible to deliver the service.

  15. And one of the exciting initiatives that staff in the DSS have seen when they look at colleagues in the Employment Service has been the New Deal, has been the introduction of Personal Advisers, and so they are very keen to have part of that action for themselves, and, therefore, bringing Personal Advisers into the Jobcentre Plus scheme is something that they are very much looking forward to. But can you perhaps clarify the role of Personal Advisers within the new Jobcentre Plus; will the Personal Adviser simply be doing an initial interview and looking at the benefits claim, well, that new individual, however they are going to be titled, the claimant, within the new scheme, and offering them advice at that initial interview, or will the Personal Adviser continue through and have further meetings, as and when necessary, with a particular individual, and will that be appropriately funded?
  (Mr Darling) The answer is, it will depend on the individual; every member of the public is different. There are some people who can come in through the door, who perhaps were made redundant, who have got plenty of skills and who will get into work very quickly, and it may be that a very short interview with a Personal Adviser is all that is required, perhaps to tell someone what their entitlement is, what they need to do to keep their National Insurance contributions up, and they can match them with a job fairly quickly. There are others who need quite significant levels of help, and they will need not just an initial interview but they will need subsequent help along the road, and some people even after they get into work. The American experience is that once you have been in work for a while you often get a crisis and you need some continuing support. So it will depend on the individual. But if you look at the Pathfinder projects, for example, in the 50 offices, or so, that Jobcentre Plus will be rolled out from this October, the Personal Advisers there, as I say, the system is being set up so as to allow them as much or as little time as they need. Clearly, there is no point in having somebody in, who is job-ready and is going to work, for several interviews, it is a waste of everybody's time; for others, you will need more intensive help. Again, as I say, I was in the Midlands yesterday and I spoke to one of the lone parent Advisers and also a lone parent who had just gone into work; now I think this woman said she needed about three or four meetings to sort out skills, benefit, and the rest of it, but the lone parent concerned said how valuable it was to have one person and it was the same person. And that is one of the things we are moving to, as within the CSA, so you get the same person, rather than you do not know who it is, to give them that continuing support. The last thing I want just to make very clear to you is that when Jobcentre Plus is set up there will be no distinction as to who came from the Employment Service and who came from the BA, they are all employed by Jobcentre Plus; some people will be in the front office, some will be in the back office. But, as you rightly say, there are a lot of our staff, who have worked for years, who have always felt there was something wrong with a system that all they did was hand out benefit, full stop, rather than say to somebody, "Look, you could get into work." And, as you know, under the present system, we have BA staff working in Employment Centres under the New Deal, and so on, bringing them together, all the evidence is that the staff think it is far better, therefore that is reflected in their attitude towards the public, and the public also think it is better because they go to one place rather than be sent up and down a high street, or sometimes across a city.

  16. I have seen that working very well in my own constituency with Benefits Agency staff going into local Jobcentres, and they do value that. But one of the things that the Benefits Agency staff said to me, and I recently visited Mexford House, in Blackpool, was that, as part of the discussion about bringing the Jobcentre Plus on board, within the terms and conditions, that there is the office layout, there is the difference between open-plan offices and screens and how the new system will work. And I recollect having a debate about that when we were looking at, when we did our report on, the ONE pilots, and I note that some of the Jobcentre Plus Pathways are in the ONE pilot areas. Have you learned anything from the ONE pilots that will help you in implementing this new system, both in looking at the different pay and conditions, because we raised that in our report, because there were different pay and conditions not just between Benefits Agency and Employment Service but also with the local authorities who were involved? And, of course, some of the pilots are private and voluntary sector; but I do not think any of the Jobcentre Plus pilots are going to be in those particular areas. However, have you had an opportunity to have a look at the ONE pilots and see what we can learn from that?
  (Mr Darling) Yes; there are a couple of issues. So far as the ONE pilots are concerned, they have been running now for getting on for two years, they have still got another year to do, of course; we have learned quite a lot. None of them are screened; what they do have though is they have got facilities to see people in a screened environment where that is appropriate. One of the things that we have learned is that, if you change the atmosphere in a place, sometimes people's behaviour will change; and by having appointments, where somebody is seen when they come in at the set time, you get rid of some of the aggravation of people who have been sitting for two hours. I was in an office recently, again in the Midlands, where people had been kept waiting, frankly, because the management had not organised itself better, for two hours; it was not surprising that by the time that somebody got to a screen they were quite hostile. And that is the sort of thing that we are changing. The ONE pilots are not screened, and, so far, we have managed to avoid some of the difficulties that have occurred in other places. I think the other thing on the ONE pilots that is coming across is that bringing everybody together is a much, much better way of operating than the way we used to operate in the past; also they have slightly better IT, which is useful as well. On the screens, I have made it clear to staff that we cannot deliver the sort of service we want, under Jobcentre Plus, of seeing people, taking them through what is open to them, helping them to get into work, from behind a glass screen; there are some people where we know there is a risk and that risk can be dealt with. I said this when you raised this matter last year. But I was in America a couple of years ago and I went to an area in New York which was a pretty tough sort of area and they had taken down their screens and they have not had any trouble since; what they had done was to lay out the place a little bit more sensibly, with an appointments system, it was just better organised, and the staff and the public going in there said it was better. Now we are discussing with the trade unions, we are discussing with staff, how to organise things in the future, but I think most of our staff recognise that we are going to have to make those changes, and most of them welcome it, provided, in turn, we make sure there is security in those buildings so that if anything happens it can be dealt with quickly, and I am confident that will happen. But clearly we do owe a duty of care to our staff, to make sure we do not expose them to unnecessary risks. The last point I would make is the obvious one that we just need to make sure that we take staff with us and that they feel that they are being properly looked after, and I think, certainly in the discussions I have had with staff, they accept that, they see the need for change and they recognise that, actually, if you can get a better service you can probably remove some of the aggravation that has occurred in the past.

Mr Thomas

  17. On the new Pensions Service, Secretary of State, could you tell us when you expect that new agency will be launched, and will it be launched in one fell swoop, or will it be a gradual run-in?
  (Mr Darling) It will be launched on the same day as the Jobcentre Plus, as I was saying to Joan just a moment ago, because, basically, what is happening is we are bringing the Employment Service together with the Benefits Agency and then we are separating out the pensions staff into the Pensions Service, and that has to be done at the same time.

  18. When will the Jobcentre Plus set-up be launched?
  (Mr Darling) What I said just a few moments ago was that the Pathfinder offices will start in October, work is going on at the moment to allocate staff to start the process of disaggregating the IT systems, and the rest of it; when that work is complete we will then make an announcement as to the date on which we expect the BA and the ES to be superseded by Jobcentre Plus and the Pensions Service. I hope to be able to do that in the not too distant future; there is a lot of work going on at the moment to allow us to do that. But, as I said to Joan, one of the exercises that has still to happen is that staff have to be allocated between the two, because they will be employed by either the Pensions Service or Jobcentre Plus, but my intention is that they should start together. And, the other thing, I repeat again, bear in mind that, on the pension side of things we deal with both policy as well as delivery, there are 11 million pensioners and pensioner households and we have to make sure that we maintain our service to them. So, as I said, I attach greater importance to making sure we get it right, rather than fixing a date and finding that that date may be more academic than real.

  19. Can you give us a date?
  (Mr Darling) No, I cannot. No, I said in the not too distant future I shall be able to announce a date, but I cannot do that at the moment.

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