Memorandum submitted by the National Association
of Citizens Advice Bureaux (NACAB) (OP 09)
1. A large proportion of the 1.8 million
benefits problems brought to Citizens Advice Bureaux each year
relate to poor quality administration. This is also the case in
the ONE pilot areas.
2. The personal adviser concept remains
a valuable model, but the reality often appears to fall short
of the quality service that was promised.
3. Problems reported by Citizens Advice
Bureaux with ONE include:
Delays in obtaining a ONE appointment;
Incorrect information and advice;
Problems with telephones;
Wrong advice given to sick and disabled
Not implementing benefit appeal decisions.
4. We conclude that the promise of a radically
improved service to customers through the single gateway for claims
has not been fully achieved. We hope that the lessons learned
from the ONE pilots will be used to improve the services offered
by Jobcentre Plus pathfinder offices and work-focussed interview
sites. CAB clients want to see an improved service for all, not
just for people who need help with finding a job.
5. We believe that all official benefit
services (Benefits Agency (BA) and Jobcentre until April 2002,
Jobcentre Plus and Pensions Service from October 2001 in some
areas and subsequently elsewhere) should provide:
Help in getting paid work, or training
or other help to improve their chances of getting work, including
advice on in-work financial help.
Services should also:
Make sure that people are aware of
all the benefits and other help available, help with identifying
and claiming the right benefits, and receive their entitlement
quickly and accurately.
1. The CAB Service is pleased to submit
evidence to the first inquiry being held by the new Work and Pensions
Select Committee. The inquiry is timely and well-chosen, as the
launch of Jobcentre Plus pathfinder offices in certain locations
later in October will continue and develop many of the ways of
delivering work-focussed services that have been piloted by ONE
and the New Deal.
2. In 2000-01 the CAB Service dealt with
1.76 million benefits problems and 639,940 employment problems.
Many of our clients have dealings with Benefits Agency offices
and Jobcentres, and Citizens Advice Bureaux are also located within
each of the ONE pilot areas. A substantial proportion of the problems
reported are a direct result of poor quality administration.
3. The CAB Service is running a Benefits
Administration Campaign to coincide with the establishment of
the new agency Jobcentre Plus. The campaign aims to ensure that
local Citizens Advice Bureaux maintain good links with benefit
service providers, so that administrative issues are addressed
and services improve.
4. The present Government has sought to
transform welfare, from a service which asks what money can be
paid out to one which asks how a person can be helped to become
more independent. The 1998 paper "A new contract for welfare:
the gateway to work" (Cm 4102) described the priority as
being to "forge an entirely new culture". In October
1998, the Government set out its plans for the single gateway
to work, with the aim of offering people an improved service designed
to provide serious help in getting back to work. People were to
receive a personal adviser, who as well as helping them to plan
a route back to independence, would also ensure that they received
the benefits to which they were entitled.
5. The "active modern service"
would provide "individually-tailored advice to benefit claimants
of working age, making best use of modern technology and tapping
into the expertise, innovation and efficiency that both the private
and voluntary sectors can offer." An interview with a personal
adviser to discuss available options would become a condition
of receiving benefit.
6. From the outset, we were concerned that
the active service strategy was focussed primarily on people who
were able to move towards work, and considerably less on those
who were not in a position to take on paid work. The emphasis
has been, and remains, tilted towards the first half of the Government's
key welfare objective of "work for those who can, security
for those who cannot".
7. The CAB Service took the view that the
active service provided by the personal adviser could mistakenly
focus solely on people who were job-ready. We said that "Financial
support at the right time, and help with the process of claiming
it, can be essential in enabling people to get back on their feet
and manage in the community." (New ambitions for welfare:
CAB Service response, July 1998)
8. Nevertheless, we were enthusiastic about
the development of personal advisers within a modernised service
that was flexible, efficient and easy to use, because of the potential
this model had for improving the quality of benefit service delivery
as well as services for people moving into work. Citizens Advice
Bureaux regularly describe a very poor benefits service, beset
by delays and outright errors. There is poor communication and
understanding, both of client's needs and the regulations which
govern entitlement to benefits. Approaching two million social
security problems are dealt with by CABx each year, with a very
large proportion relating to poor administration rather than to
matters of policy.
We were therefore concerned that the personal
adviser's services should not be limited to assisting people in
finding paid work. We believe that the personal adviser should
also help people in genuine need to maximise their income by assessing
and advising people on benefits which might be available to them,
providing forms and assistance with completing the forms where
necessary. The personal adviser should also be willing to offer
constructive training and other assistance designed to increase
a person's "job-readiness" to people who were not immediately
able to undertake paid employment.
10. We were encouraged at the time by the
remarks made by Andrew Smith MP during the Committee stage of
the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill 1999, when he said:
"The single gateway will radically change
the way in which people access benefits. Under the single gateway,
claimants will have an interview and get a personal adviser. They
will be treated as individuals, and offered the help that they
need to become more independent, where appropriate, through work.
The single gateway will also provide a better
quality service, by bringing together the relevant services currently
operated by the Benefits Agency, the Employment Service and local
authorities. The gateway approach will stop people being shunted
from pillar to post and it will give them more help, as well as
underlining that with rights go responsibilities. After extensive
scrutiny in Committee, this part of the Bill received a measure
of cross-party support, and I hope that the same will be the case
today." (column 664, Official Report, 17 May 1999)
11. The personal adviser concept suggested
that a skilled, experienced person could be available to help
with information about jobs and training. That same person could
also steer people with no immediate prospect of employment to
the right benefits, and assist them with making a claim.
12. For example, many CABx report clients
who have a clear entitlement to a major benefit, such as Disability
Living Allowance (DLA), but who have only found this out by visiting
their CAB after being told by a Benefits Agency, Jobcentre or
local authority benefit office that they can't get any help even
though they have a disability. The best personal adviser would
arrange for this client to receive help with completing the form
to apply for benefit, perhaps recommending independent advice
as well, and would assess whether the client's longer-term ambitions
could be met with suitable training or support. This hope now
exists for the personal advisor and financial assessor roles which
will operate within Jobcentre Plus.
Initial Feedback From CAB
13. conducted a quick ring-round of CAB
advisers working in bureaux in the ONE pilot areas in the first
half of 2000. The general impression was that a lot of energy
was being devoted to the new pilot services. Many bureaux commented
in particular that there was good liaison with the ONE management
team, with the bureau receiving regular calls to ask if they had
noticed any problems with the ONE service. Several CAB advisers
and managers commented that services had actually improved, or
that at least the frequency of problems had decreased.
14. In the early part of 2000, NACAB received
very few reports from CABx describing a problem with the ONE Service.
This was despite requests for CABx to monitor the service provided
by ONE, and so suggested that the service was operating smoothly.
Problems with ONE
15. However, later in 2000, reports from
CABx began to arrive at NACAB. The volume of problems reported
has increased steadily since, to a point where it is difficult
to say with any certainty whether the benefit service problems
reported within ONE pilot areas are any less than benefit services
Delays in obtaining ONE appointments
16. Bureaux are reporting delays in contacting
ONE and delays in getting appointments. This is a serious matter
because it can leave clients without income. In call centre pilot
areas, particularly since full participation, claims to Incapacity
Benefit (IB), Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), Income Support (IS),
Severe Disablement Allowance (SDA), Housing Benefit (HB) and Council
Tax Benefit (CTB) must be made through the call centre. The first
contact with the centre is the date of claim. Further problems
with the call centre variant are described later in our evidence.
17. Delays in obtaining ONE appointments,
especially where people have benefits stopped, can lead to clients
being left without an income. Bureaux have also reported unsatisfactory
information being given to clients who ask to apply for a social
fund crisis loan. This is a problem that is frequently reported
by CABx outside pilot areas, and it is a pity that the same mistakes
are made in the ONE areas. People are told not to apply as they
will not qualify, or are incorrectly informed that they need to
be receiving a qualifying benefit such as Income Support.
Incorrect information and inadequate advice
18. It is disappointing that ONE staff appear
to be issuing confusing and inaccurate information to some CAB
clients. The consequences for clients in many cases are serious,
resulting in considerable loss of income. The following examples
19. An Essex CAB saw a married couple who
had entitlement to Income Support. The ONE Service had told the
couple they were not entitled, causing a serious delay to their
20. A Suffolk CAB reported a client who
asked ONE to check if she was receiving her full benefit entitlement.
The client was sent an IS claim form, which confused and upset
the client as she was already receiving IS. The bureau checked
and confirmed that an error had occurred.
21. A Yorkshire CAB helped a client who
had not worked for two months. The client had claimed Income Support
in March, but only received the week's first payment in May. The
client was told by ONE that a former employee had forgotten to
process her claim.
22. A Midlands CAB reported a client who
had been left by her partner. The client had children and no money,
and approached the ONE service to apply for a social fund crisis
loan. The client was wrongly informed that she could not apply,
as she was not on Income Support.
23. It is perhaps surprising that a work-focussed
service should make errors in relation to paid employment and
the effect on benefits. Nonetheless this has happened. For example:
24. A Cheshire bureau described how their
client, a man with disabilities causing mobility problems, managed
to find a job. The client was wrongly informed by ONE that he
would have to return his DLA book when he started work to notify
a change of circumstances.
25. A Suffolk bureau advised a client on
Income Support who had found a job. The client had received inaccurate
information from ONE about the calculation of Working Families
Tax Credit (WFTC).
26. A CAB in Yorkshire saw a client who
had been told by ONE that the family did not qualify for WFTC.
The CAB calculated WFTC entitlement of £45 per week.
27. The call centre ONE variant requires
that all initial contact is made by telephone. Claims are dated
from this initial contact. There have been straightforward difficulties
in getting through, both for CAB clients and for CAB advisers.
This is a particular problem as clients need to be able to get
through, in order to ensure that their claim, if successful, starts
from the date of their call. Calls are not free, and clients have
objected to this cost and inconvenience.
28. In one case, a client attempted to call
the centre over a week without success. The CAB also tried and
got a recorded message asking it to call back later. Calls are
local rate, and are not free. The call centre manager said, when
contacted, that it was extremely busy and under-staffed.
29. A CAB in Suffolk described the difficulties
faced by a client who had no home telephone. The client was recently
bereaved, and had two school age children. The client rang ONE
from the CAB to provide information about her late husband, but
was unable get through. The client urgently needed help, as the
family was living on low part-time earnings of £76 per month.
30. A Welsh CAB was advising a lone parent
with two children aged under three, who had no money and wanted
to claim Income Support. The client was told it would be at least
three weeks before she received any money. The client was told
that ONE needed to ring her to conduct a verification interview,
but they were not willing to ring her on her mobile phone. The
client had to make an appointment for a week later to go to the
nearest Jobcentre, several miles away, to await a phone call from
ONE. The client would then need an appointment with a personal
adviser, before ONE would act on her claim.
31. In the case described, the CAB contacted
ONE who stated that there were no provisions for arranging urgent
appointments. The client did get an earlier interview as a result
of the CAB's intervention.
32. A client separated from her husband
and attempted to claim Income Support for herself and two children.
The BA told her to telephone ONE. The number was permanently engaged.
The bureau tried on her behalf but was similarly unsuccessful.
Four days later the bureau managed to speak to a start-up adviser.
However the BA had not kept a record of her enquiry four days
earlier and so her claim could not be backdated.
Wrong advice to sick claimants
33. Clients who fail the Personal Capability
Assessment (PCA), a test of capacity for work in Incapacity Benefit,
must be allowed to sign on even though they may appear to be unfit
for work or have decided to appeal. Applying these rules correctly
requires a reasonable knowledge of the benefits system if clients
are not to be disadvantaged. Bureaux are reporting Jobcentres
and ONE offices where staff are ignorant of this rule. Clients
have been told to claim Income Support, resulting in a 20% reduction
in benefit entitlement, and a loss of national insurance credits.
34. A client receiving JSA after failing
an all work test for IB was told by ONE staff to claim IB again.
The client did so and signed off JSA, but the claim was disallowed.
The client had no income for six weeks.
35. A bureau reported three cases where
clients appealing an Incapacity Benefit decision were advised
by ONE staff that they could not claim JSA"He is not
fit so there is no question of his claiming JSA. To claim JSA
people must be fit for work", was the comment of the ONE
36. A bureau advised a single parent with
mental health problems who had been unable to work for 10 years,
and had been claiming Income Support. She was advised by the Benefits
Agency to apply for Incapacity Benefit in order to qualify for
the Income Support disability premium. She telephoned the ONE
office to make her claim and was told that only people claiming
DLA could qualify for the Income Support disability premium. The
bureau received the same incorrect advice when they phoned ONE.
37. The system appears to have "broken
down" in some cases, with clients receiving a service which
is not a "single gateway" at all. For example, a CAB
advising a severely depressed young white man with debts tried
to register him with ONE. The CAB could not get through on the
phone, so sent the client to the Job Centre. The client had spoken
to a ONE adviser, but had not understood her questions and had
been sent forms to claim Income Support and Housing Benefit, as
well as IB in this case. The client was unable to complete the
forms. The CAB contacted ONE who said an appointment had been
made for the client at the Job Centre. The Job Centre told the
CAB that the client should go to the Benefits Agency. The client
went to the BA, who told him to go home and fill the forms in
Poor treatment of people with disabilities
38. A client with chronic mental health
problems became entitled to the severe disability premium in Income
Support, because of entitlement to the middle rate of DLA. The
bureau rang the ONE office to request forms, but the office insisted
that the client attend a work-focussed interview. The client was
put off claiming his benefit entitlement as a result.
39. A CAB in Yorkshire advised a client
with a chronic kidney disease who was owed some Statutory Sick
Pay by her former employer. The client had run up an overdraft,
but needed to find money to pay her mortgage. The client applied
to ONE, and was subsequently told her papers were missing. The
client was asked to reapply, and was repeatedly asked to bring
in proof of identity by various departments, causing the client
stress and anxiety which aggravated her medical condition.
Problems for people with no or limited English
40. There have been particular problems
for clients for whom English is not the first language. The call
centre phone system, where options have to be keyed, have presented
problems for people with limited English. Clients have also been
asked to provide their own interpreters.
Problems with benefit claim forms
41. There have been particular problems
with claims for Housing Benefit, which local authorities have
denied receiving after client has completed through ONE service.
In some cases this has led to delays to HB claims of several weeks
and consequent issue of eviction notices.
Not implementing benefit appeal decisions
42. One CAB has described how the ONE service
failed to act on a successful appeal made by their client. This
shows a serious misunderstanding of the regulations that govern
social security benefits. The client, who had heart problems,
anxiety and depression, was found fit for work in June 2000. The
client contacted ONE, who told him to reclaim Incapacity Benefit,
and kept no record of his call. The client was left for 10 weeks
without income, surviving on hand-outs from his family.
43. The CAB rang ONE, and were advised that
there were huge backlogs of work. It took the bureau six months
before it succeeded in getting the client's claim for Income Support
backdated to his initial contact with ONE.
44. The client won his appeal against the
loss of Incapacity Benefit in January 2001, but his problems continued
with repeated interruptions to payment. The bureau found that
several clients who had won their appeals had been told by ONE
that they should make a new claim. This disrupts payment as the
system shows two current claims, and neither are paid until the
matter is resolved. The CAB said "Since January practically
every client we have helped to win their appeal has had this problem.
Last month [August] was the first time that two of my clients
won their appeals and had their benefits reinstated without any
45. The same bureau has also commented that
clients are regularly given verbal information such as "it's
not worth claiming that benefit, as you won't get it". Clients
who accept this official advice at face value lose the chance
to get a written decision and make an appeal, or to get the benefit
if they qualify outright. The bureau noted that a meeting with
ONE personal advisers suggested that they were not informing clients
who had been found fit for work and had their benefits stopped
that they had the right to appeal. The CAB, and other advice agencies
in the area, have noticed a downturn in the volume of clients
with appeals coming to them for advice and support, perhaps as
46. On the evidence from Citizens Advice
Bureaux, it is not clear that the ONE pilots have improved the
quality of service provided to the public. The right hon. Andrew
Smith MP said during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill that
the system would:
"be infinitely better than the anonymous,
alienating and sometimes unhelpful way in which many clients are
He said that:
"One of the key changes that the single
gateway will introduce is that it will streamline the delivery
of benefits. We will provide claimants with a better service through
a one-stop shop, which will give people a single point of contact
for all of their needs. The single work-focussed gateway, as provided
for in the Bill, is the way to provide the quality, sensitivity
and responsiveness in the access point to the benefit system that
the country has needed for a long time. I guarantee that when
the pilots start on 28 June, the system will give a much better
service to claimants".
47. Sadly, we cannot confirm that this challenging
and necessary aspiration has been achieved. This is a pity, as
the ONE pilots represent the point of departure for the Jobcentre
Plus pathfinder offices that will start to operate later in October
2001, using telephones as the main method of initial contact with
Social Policy Officer