Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

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 clients;

    —  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.

Personal Advice

  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 provided elsewhere.

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 illustrate this:

  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 claim.

  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 adviser.

  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 himself.

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 problems".

  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 a result.


  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 processed now".

  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 the organisation.

John Wheatley

Social Policy Officer

October 2001

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