Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, may I call the Committee to order by welcoming our four guests. May I say hello to John Wheatley from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux? John is a frequent flyer in terms of appearing in front of the Committee, has helped us with some other previous pieces of work and we are pleased to see him again. We have Craig Lane from Newport CAB, Richard Kramer from Mencap who is the head of campaigns. Lucy Birkinshaw is a social policy worker at DIAL UK. You are all welcome. Thank you very much for taking the trouble to put in the written submissions which have helped us enormously. We are in the course of an important piece of work for the Committee, looking at the lessons for the Jobcentre Plus policy changes which the Government are introducing which can be derived from the ONE pilots. May I start by asking each of you whether there is anything which is obvious that you want to add to your statement about what difference ONE has made, briefly as an opening framework, then we can start with some of the more detailed questions?

  (Mr Wheatley) The only thing to add really is that when we first heard about the single gateway we were very curious as to what this meant. It sounded like a rather narrow channel through which everyone would have to pass before their claim for benefit or their search for work was progressed. As time has gone on, we have come to regard the ONE pilots as a useful learning exercise with some good things which have come out and also some bad things where problems need to be addressed for the future.
  (Mr Lane) I would just emphasise that the problems, where we have seen them, have related to poor accountability and the level of staff training and expertise in dealing with claimants. The overall impression of ONE is that it could have been better.
  (Mr Kramer) Mencap has always welcomed the idea being put into practice of one-stop shops in terms of offering advice on benefits and employment. The background is that people with a learning disability are probably one of the most marginalised groups in the workforce and the Government has produced a White Paper which says only ten per cent of people with a learning disability are working, so anything which is offering benefits without bureaucracy and more tailored advice on work is going to be a good thing.

  2. Thank you for being so concise. Let me just ask whether you were particularly aware of the new work focus to all this, in the minds of your clients and the people you represent? Was there a proper appreciation and has the message from Government got through about the essential new element which is the work focus element in the course of the ONE pilot?
  (Mr Wheatley) It is an interesting question how far people have in mind what the Government wants them to have in mind. In reality a lot of people simply want to know how they get the advice they need, where they have to go. It is quite clear already from what is happening in the ONE offices that people do have to take a different attitude to the way they approach their claims, the sort of advice they are going to get. I do not have any direct experience of it. Craig is probably a better person to talk to about this than I. My impression is that there is a sense that work is the thing.
  (Mr Lane) My experience relates to a Call Centre pilot on the Gwent borders. Many of our clients just see it as a new mechanism; it is the route into their benefits. We have had no particular feedback that the work focus was particularly intrusive or over-emphasised; we have had very little feedback on that element of the interviews. It has just been another stage in the process. We have had some comments on appropriateness, when somebody has had a recent change of circumstances which required a claim to be made or someone who has commenced a severe illness or who has caring responsibilities they did not have before. There are issues about appropriateness of having an interview at that point when maybe it might be much more useful in six months' time.

  3. Richard, finish off that section and in particular could you refer to the submission you have made where you say that as an organisation you did not have good links with the two Deloitte pilots, but you did have good links with the Warwickshire pilot. Could you compare the efforts taken to promote work amongst your claimants with learning disabilities in the context of the private sector pilots?
  (Mr Kramer) Where it has worked very well, as it did in Warwickshire, was where the voluntary sector—and when I say that, Mencap's Employment Service; we have our own Employment Service in 30 local authorities—have been engaged from the very start. I was just drawing up a list of things: engaging the training and delivering disability work training, being involved in local discussion groups, going to open meetings with the ONE team and being involved from the start. That is where it has worked well. Obviously in Leeds it has not worked well for other reasons. The other point is that there has been good awareness amongst Mencap staff where the ONE team have made the attempt to involve people locally; there is very poor awareness amongst people with a learning disability themselves, even when they have gone through the ONE process. It is a very typical comment for a disability organisation to make but in terms of accessibility of materials and ONE service reaching out to specialist colleges and day centres where many people, new claimants, may be and going from there to the ONE service, ONE has not been as effective as that. It has not reached out sufficiently to people with a learning disability.

Mr Mitchell

  4. May I probe something Craig was saying in his very useful introductory remarks? He referred to some concerns over the level of staff training and expertise. One of the things which is most interesting about this for us as a Select Committee is to probe the extent to which it is actually working, that one person is able to deliver both the benefits advice and the work help. Clearly we want to know how effective that is in the pilots and whether it is actually working. I have heard some circumstantial evidence that it is not making much impact because those who give the ONE part of the advice then say it would be helpful if you talked to so and so, who will give you the views on the work approach, for example. When you mentioned the level of staff training and expertise, was that what you had in mind or are there other aspects of training which in your experience and that of your colleagues needs to be beefed up?
  (Mr Lane) This is in relation to the training across the whole range of benefits that ONE deals with. Usually local authority administered benefits have not been accessed through the same people who were dealing with job-seeking benefits and Income Support. The staff who were drawn together to operate the Call Centres were drawn from the Employment Service, from the Benefits Agency and from local authorities. In our area they came from several local authorities with staff being drawn together from a lot of different organisations, each of which would have had expertise in a different area. In the feedback we have had from clients is that they have not been adequately experienced or knowledgeable enough to give the correct advice across the whole range of benefits. There are examples of incorrect advice, examples of inappropriate advice and incomplete advice.

  5. So you have not found compelling evidence of the expertise in fundamentally two different areas residing in one person.
  (Mr Lane) We have had no reports back in relation to expertise in relation to the job seeking function and the work element of it. Our experience has related entirely to accessing the benefit system.

  6. Do any of the other witnesses have a reflection on that?
  (Mr Kramer) May I bring in a different dimension. Where it has worked is where the ONE adviser is involving the disability employment adviser (DEA) at the right time, where the ONE adviser has a generally good knowledge in disability but knows when to refer to a disability employment adviser and an early referral is made, but the personal adviser is still the case manager and so still takes responsibility for the whole exercise and involves Mencap and other groups. Then, if all those elements come together at the beginning, people are getting the right advice on employment and benefits. Where that is not happening, in some of the other areas, people are not always getting the right benefit advice or the right tailored work support. The role of the DEA is very crucial.
  (Mr Wheatley) We never really thought it was realistically possible for the personal adviser role to live up to everything which was expected of one individual. People were drawn from the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency and they inevitably had different experiences and different work histories. Some of the ONE advisers I have met have been extremely competent people, very knowledgeable about the benefits system and have learned very fast from colleagues about job placements and relationships with employers. It has been a steep learning curve. The worry we always had from the outset was that it might be possible to do this as a pilot exercise, where you were able to attract the best people from your staff to these key jobs, but that if you tried to do that nationally, it would be more difficult with the current staffing arrangements in the department. To some extent that is borne out with the arrangements for the Jobcentre Plus, where a separate financial assessor will be the benefits person — the money person — and a personal adviser will concentrate more on the work.
  (Ms Birkinshaw) From DIAL UK's point of view, all the feedback we have had in the main criticised the lack of knowledge about disability benefits and the specific needs of disabled people in relation to work and benefits. That has gone throughout, even in the positive feedback we have had, that has been a starting point when it first started out. The one positive point has been in the Suffolk area, where there has been a lot of building on relationships between ONE and the DIALs in those areas. They now have a DIAL worker who goes in and sits in on some of the ONE assessments and the ONE meetings and helps out the ONE adviser, who passes over to this worker in areas they do not know about. That is one way they are working together, but there are other areas where there is no contact; contact has been declined. When ONE has been approached to talk to DIALs about disability awareness training and things like that, there has been no response. In the main, there has been a criticism of the lack of knowledge around the specific disability benefits and the more complex things like linking rules and things like that.

Ms Buck

  7. Who funds the DIAL worker who sits in the room?
  (Ms Birkinshaw) DIAL is employing them and they go in on a voluntary basis to help out.

  8. So this is DIAL, the charity, overseeing —
  (Ms Birkinshaw) DIAL is providing one of its part-time workers to sit in on occasions.

  9. Would it be fair to say that where that service does not exist, it might not exist simply because DIAL does not have the money or the resources?
  (Ms Birkinshaw) Take Leeds as an example. The DIAL in Leeds has tried to contact the ONE management on several occasions to arrange meetings and to set up some kind of feedback and feeding in of disability benefits issues, and to participate in training. They just have had no response from the ONE management in that area, despite it being on the same public/private and voluntary sector standing as the Suffolk area. There has just been no attempt on the part of the ONE team to involve DIAL in anything to do with ONE.

  10. You were talking also about some example of good collaboration between Mencap and ONE. What are the characteristics of a ONE project which do successfully engage with this specialist and user-based service? Is it just down to the individual entrepreneurship of the local manager? Is it down to well-funded local organisations? What actually works?
  (Mr Kramer) It works where ONE uses the experience they have in the team, perhaps it is the disability employment adviser, reaching out to local groups at the start. In Warwickshire they publicised their successes as well and tried to spread good practice. We tried to work with ONE very closely and we produced "Taking Care of Business"—a good guide to employing people with a learning disability. That is where it works well. If you look at Leeds, we would echo exactly what DIAL UK was saying. There was an initial meeting. We tried to get involved and it has proved difficult. What happens is that clients have come to Mencap saying something is wrong with their benefit. People may not have been told about various disability benefits. In some cases people have been told they should be working when it does not seem they are capable of working. There have been problems. It is the early intervention of the voluntary sectors that makes the difference.

  11. What, if anything, could central government do to make it work, to build on the best practice and make sure that applies everywhere?
  (Mr Kramer) They need to monitor the work of the disability employment advisers and look at their workload and how they are linking in. There needs to be an expectation to link in with specialist agencies, perhaps on a more formal basis, so they can give that support from the start. Disability-related benefits are complicated. They need to look at training with the voluntary sector as well. We always talk about disability awareness training, but there is a big difference between identifying someone with a learning disability and giving them advice on work opportunities and realising what it means for someone to interact in the labour market. Trying to make it as mainstream as possible, reaching out to day services and colleges where people with learning disability are moving from and then they are going to go to ONE, so you need to contact them first and establish links with people with a learning disability.
  (Mr Wheatley) I would agree with that entirely. My general impression is that the areas where liaison between ONE and the CABs is strongest are the areas where the fewest problems are reported. ONE generally has been extremely good at liaising with the voluntary sector and it would be nice to see that formalised in some way so the bureaux have a direct input regularly into what the problems are, and there is a mechanism for getting those problems addressed and people told what the situation is. That forestalls a lot of problems.

  12. And not just being left to whether there is some sort of personal chemistry between the people in charge at local level.
  (Mr Wheatley) Very much not, no. It needs to be something which is formal and happening in every area.

  13. One of the key anxieties around this whole area was about compulsion to attend interviews. Certainly I and other people were quite worried about that. I was just about persuaded on the balance of probability that the idea of bringing people in to connect them with the workplace would outweigh some of the disadvantage. What is your assessment of the balance of advantages and disadvantages?
  (Mr Wheatley) We were concerned about compulsion. What we have not seen is any real complaint from Citizens Advice Bureaux that people have been forced to attend inappropriately, that people have been dragged in from remote areas at short notice. We have not seen complaints of that kind. There are issues about when something is identified as being compulsory, when an interview becomes compulsory; there are issues about how that is determined which perhaps Craig can mention. We have some concerns about how far compulsion might be extended. We notice that in the Employment Bill at the moment there is a proposal to bring partners of people claiming benefit within the scope of compulsory interviews. We are cautious about the degree of discretion this will give to staff about whether people are called in or not, and what personal circumstances might be taken into account, where to hold an interview might not be appropriate. We have not seen particular complaints about compulsion, other than deciding when or not it is appropriate.

  14. Do you think there might be a consequence for the quality of the process? What you are saying is that there is no particular evidence at the moment that people are being dragged in inappropriately or that it is having a fall-out in terms of attendance at interviews. Does it change the relationship qualitatively?
  (Mr Wheatley) I am not sure we have any evidence either way on that. As I understand it, people do get a series of letters and approaches, and certainly within the ONE pilots advisers and staff working there have been very conscious that they need to use this tool in a sensitive manner. It has not been bandied about without care.

  15. Any other evidence?
  (Ms Birkinshaw) The only feedback we have is that there is a slight distrust amongst some claimants of the process, in that it is a small number but some have said they are not going to claim benefit because they are worried they are going to be forced into work. There are some concerns about the independence of the process where you are claiming benefits and looking at job prospects as well. It is not a massive number of people who are bringing up that concern, but it certainly is there. The only other area where there has been some concern about the appropriateness of it is in relation to ICA, invalid care allowance. Again, there has been a couple of examples where carers have been loath to carry on claiming carers' benefit because they were worried that they were going to be forced into work when their circumstances showed they could not work.

  16. Forgive me, but that seems a slightly perverse logic that people would rather go without any income at all than face the opportunity of being —
  (Ms Birkinshaw) They have been persuaded. Talking to some of our advisers, they have talked through the problem, but there is that slight mistrust out there because of the linking between benefits and employment and because of the emphasis on the work focus. It has been got round because of the strength of advisers in DIALs. I still think there is that underlying mistrust.

  17. So some worries, some fears for the future, but no particular evidence at the moment that it is having a serious fallout.
  (Ms Birkinshaw) No.


  18. Do any of you have any experience of sanctions, people getting their Income Support docked 20 per cent because they do not turn up?
  (Mr Lane) I have experience not of sanctions in terms of a reduction in benefit, but sanctions in access to Social Fund, because there has been an amendment to the Social Fund directions to deny access to crisis loans, to limit access to crisis loans on failure to participate. We have experience of that.

Ms Buck

  19. We talked a little bit about quality and training in the earlier questions. How successful is ONE in terms of engaging the non-JSA claimants? You talked a little bit about particular client groups but also thinking about lone parents and the extent to which the advisers are able, through their skills and training, and willing to engage in what might be more personal and sensitive lines of questioning about job readiness.
  (Mr Lane) We have seen some good examples in the New Deal for Lone Parents. Our feedback from clients about the practice which has operated there has been very positive. If the same principles, skills and approaches are brought into the ONE scheme, then we would see that to be a useful thing. The feedback we had was that it was supportive.

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