Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. No glaring gaps, no stream of reports back that they do not understand child care or they do not understand this or that.
  (Mr Wheatley) No. The highest compliment I heard from a CAB adviser was that they thought a New Deal for Lone Parents adviser rather than anyone in ONE had all the skills of a CAB adviser.
  (Mr Kramer) It has worked well in circumstances where ONE advisers know of schemes like supported employment, and linking up with New Deal and maximising opportunities, and having that wider knowledge of social services and housing. Where it has worked very well is where there have been five or six meetings, not the one meeting, where they have really put in the time.

  21. Do they have the time?
  (Mr Kramer) In some cases they have made the time to do so where they see disability clients as important. There has been a couple of problems in Leeds where people have come off adult-based courses which are training and they have been perceived as being able to work. There was one case where somebody came off a training course and she was asked whether she would be able to work. She said she was already working, despite the fact that she had just finished an education-based training course, and her benefits were stopped. There is sometimes a duality of someone being seen a capable of work by the Benefits Agency but not being capable by the Employment Service. There are some problems there.

Mr Stewart

  22. I should like to ask some questions about the process of claiming benefits. As a Committee we visited the Leeds ONE office and they were telling us there was a big problem with poorly completed claim forms. Do you find that the ONE advisers are able to help with this? What is the solution? Would any of your organisations take on this role, perhaps for a fee?
  (Ms Birkinshaw) Certainly DIAL in Leeds has had a lot of problems in this respect. A number of the clients have had problems with the ONE system because they have not had the time to give them the advice on how to fill out forms. Clients have been coming to DIAL for that advice but unfortunately a lot of the time, because of the short time between when they get the claim forms and when they are supposed to see the personal adviser to follow it up, DIAL has not had the time to help that claimant go through the process of filling out the form. So it has been a problem and the majority of the evidence from Leeds has been that the advisers there have not taken the time to help disabled people to fill out their forms. It is a major problem. In the Suffolk area it has been much more constructive. In the cases where ONE advisers have not had the time to do that, they have passed them on to DIAL—but they have had that agreement that that will happen, therefore they have had the time, whereas in the Leeds case that agreement is not in place. It is the client who is approaching DIAL without reference to ONE to fill out the forms, so it takes that much longer. That is the difference between one area which is working together and one that is not. It is a major problem; most of our feedback is that ONE advisers do not have the time or are not taking the time to go through the claim forms with clients.

  23. I know it is hard for you to answer on behalf of the Department, but is your impression that the problem is the number of staff or is your impression that it is the lack of training of staff or is it a combination of both?
  (Ms Birkinshaw) It is a combination of both. In some areas it seems to be more lack of knowledge, but certainly it is a combination of both in most.
  (Mr Kramer) I agree entirely. It is a mixture of knowledge and training. Where it has worked well, in Warwickshire, there have been early referrals. What Mencap are planning to do is look for more brokerage support. So we are linking up with a mental health charity and a physical disability charity to try to offer a service to ONE, because there are people with physical disabilities and learning disabilities. It is offering that specialised support. There have been problems in Leeds in terms of some of the knowledge of some of the disability-related benefits. There has been a lot of reactive work where Pathway have become involved. Mencap have become involved because there is a problem with some of the benefits. The voluntary sector would love to do everything for a fee. The serious answer is that a lot is expected of the voluntary sector in terms of goodwill and there is a lot of expertise out there. It should be used in a more formal way. Yes, would be the answer.

  24. Do you think there is a gap in the market for a bit more work in the voluntary sector on advocacy?
  (Mr Kramer) Yes, very much so.
  (Mr Wheatley) I am sure we would want to look at any funding proposal as well. There is a real debate to be had about how far the official provider of benefit services ought to be delivering advice on benefit services and how far down the line an agent working for the Department should advise people on claiming benefits. It is much more basic than that in a lot of ONE areas at the moment. We see people in ONE areas who are routinely sent to Citizens Advice Bureaux to have forms filled in for almost all benefits, not just those claim forms which are detailed and time consuming such as Disability Living Allowance and Attendance Allowance or even Incapacity Benefit. The issues are quite complicated. You might be asking someone working for the Department to advise someone that they are not entitled to a disability premium on Income Support at the moment when they are on Incapacity Benefit, but in a year they might be so they ought to make another claim. Those are the sorts of issues that the best CAB advisers would know about and would tell people about and would keep in touch with their clients. You are almost asking the personal adviser or the financial assessor to be an advocate for the client in some cases and there is a real debate there about how far people can be given accurate advice. We would naturally want them to be given as much accurate advice about their entitlement as possible.

Miss Begg

  25. Why should the Benefits Agency not be the advocate? Why should it be the separate CAB? Why can they not do the role that you are doing at the moment? Should that not be the way forward?
  (Mr Wheatley) Perhaps I meant it is a debate that the Department itself needs to have with itself. I sense that there is a reluctance to see the benefits system as something which should be advertised and the detail of it made known to people. In the last few years what has happened is a trend towards requiring people to know what they need to claim and to provide all the information in support of that claim, and not a trend towards providing people with more information. It would be an opportunity now to redress the balance a bit and move back in the other direction.
  (Mr Lane) There is an issue of independence. To an extent the benefits system is still an adversarial one. There is an issue about the appropriateness of the source of the advice. As to the involvement of organisations like CAB in the form filling, the usefulness of that would depend on the model which is being adopted. For example in the Call Centre area there was a virtual form so it was not possible. The form is filled out on screen and the individual claimants do not have access to it until they come to sign it when it is already completed. There is no role there because it is all being done by the Department. It is also important to establish a clear relationship. If there is going to be involvement of the voluntary sector on that formal basis, we need to establish those relationships very clearly. We had an example of a bureau assisting a client with filling out a form prior to a personal adviser interview and that form being ripped up by the adviser and the client being told that the CAB advice was a load of rubbish. There are appropriateness issues there about that sort of behaviour.

  26. We have talked about numbers of staff, we have talked about training of staff, the other issue is the philosophy of staff and there may still be walls between the Department and advisers which we need to try to break down.
  (Mr Lane) Yes.
  (Mr Kramer) There is the role for the voluntary sector in providing advice on benefits, but if we are thinking about Mencap and people with a learning disability, there is a substantial role in terms of giving advice on interviewing someone with a learning disability and discussing work prospects. For someone with a learning disability, a lot of personal skills need to be developed in terms of self-esteem and confidence, making new relationships, being in a workplace. ONE advisers need a lot of support on that because it is difficult; statistically only ten per cent of people with a learning disability work, so for many it is a big step to move into the labour market.
  (Ms Birkinshaw) That also extends to mental health issues as well.

  27. Can we look at the issue of the e-revolution? One of the issues is whether any of the witnesses today have knowledge of the electronic claim forms being used in some of the Call Centre pilots. What effect will these claim forms have on the form filling process?
  (Mr Lane) We are in a Call Centre pilot area. There are issues on the access to advice for claimants because they are not able to get advice at the time the form is completed. Often the form is then forwarded to them for approval, and, with the best will in the world, not everybody reads what they are signing. There are issues about non-disclosure or disclosure of incorrect information and being under- or over-paid as a result of information on that form. To take responsibility for something by signing after somebody else has completed it is not the same as going through the completion process yourself or if necessary with the aid of advice. There were problems with the electronic forms in that they were not universal. You had to engage in a process, attend or have a telephone call with a personal adviser and complete the form. If you wanted to claim Incapacity Benefit, you would have to fill out a standard Incapacity Benefit form as well because the electronic one was not sufficient. It has actually added another stage in the process of claiming. Unless you completed that Incapacity Benefit form, your claim was not properly established and it was not established at the point of your initial contact with ONE unless you subsequently did it within an appropriate time limit. It was clumsy and had a lot of potential and because of those caveats it really did not achieve what it could.

  28. There is clearly some work to be done on this issue.
  (Mr Lane) Yes.

  29. Do the other witnesses want to add anything?
  (Ms Birkinshaw) We have not had any feedback about that.
  (Mr Wheatley) In general there is a difficulty with the telephone model, the Call Centre model, in that there is no real accountability about who said what to whom. It seems it is very difficult for the Call Centre model to keep clear records of what the applicant at the other end said and what was said back to them. I have seen letters exchanged between advice agencies and Call Centre managers where there is a dispute about who said what and it is only resolved by saying it is unlikely that would have been said or that would not have been said, but there is no record. When you are dealing with a system which relies on the date of claim and might rely on the actual evidence if it came to an appeal, there are difficulties there with the Call Centre model.


  30. We were told that we had to expect lots of innovation, particularly from Deloitte and all these clever people in the private sector. Has one of them brought forward clever ways of doing things better? Does anybody have any experience of anything being brought to the table by the clever people from Deloittes?
  (Ms Birkinshaw) In none of the feedback we have from any of the private/voluntary sector areas has there been any mention of substantial new ways of going about things.
  (Mr Kramer) No.

Mr Stewart

  31. The Department tell us that there is no conclusive evidence that ONE has had any impact on the time taken for staff to process benefit claims. Yet some of you in your submissions complain of delays for people in obtaining a work-focused interview and hence delays in payment. Could you elaborate on that?
  (Mr Wheatley) It is difficult to know what evidence the Department is using. A lot of our disappointment with ONE is because of the problems we see in relation to delays recording the date of claims, and to delays in processing claims; problems we see fairly frequently in ordinary parts of the benefit system, in the Benefits Agency and Employment Service elsewhere. It is not something which is a surprise, but it is a disappointment in the context of ONE which was supposed to be something better and different. We do not have any systematic evidence.
  (Mr Lane) We have had reports from advisers relating to Housing Benefit particularly and the impact of ONE on the delays there. Delay is endemic in Housing Benefit and the delays might not be any worse, it is just that they are not taking responsibility for them any more. There was a certain amount of that, of toing and froing — between Housing Benefit saying it was the fault of ONE and not passing on the claims, and ONE saying it was a Housing Benefit delay. There was a bit of fudging of the process there. There were problems in the initial processing of claims which is a particular concern when somebody has had a recent serious change of circumstances and is without money, because you are then left having to have access to the Social Fund etcetera just because of delay in the processing of your claim. That is not a good use of resources.
  (Mr Kramer) I would agree with what John has said. There have been problems in terms of people getting the right benefit at the right time, but there were problems about people getting the right benefit at the right time when the Benefits Agency was responsible. Maybe some of the lessons have not been learned and maybe there is a feeling that there are more Employment Service staff involved in the delivery of ONE than former Benefits Agency staff, so problems may arise. I am coining a spin word here: the idea of benefits without bureaucracy is actually how ONE should be marketed and it has not quite worked out in practice. It is also early days as well, so it is difficult to know on what basis you are comparing before and after.
  (Ms Birkinshaw) I would certainly agree with what both witnesses have said about the delays: it is no better, no worse than it was before. One area of concern we have found is delays in the home visits, in taking initial claims and confusion within the system — at least that is the feedback DIALs have been getting — as to whether it is the duty of ONE or the DWP or whoever to organise home visits. That certainly has led to longer waiting periods for those people who cannot get into ONE premises to make claims. It seems that those people are also having longer delays after the eventual home visits.

  32. A double whammy really.
  (Ms Birkinshaw) Yes. It has not been improved by the ONE system.

Andrew Selous

  33. The research we have seen suggests, indeed it was our experience when visiting the ONE office in Leeds, that sorting out the benefits took up almost all of the interview time with the personal adviser during the work-focus interview. What do you think are the reasons for that?
  (Mr Lane) The complexity of the benefit system. There is no real integration of the rules of entitlement of all of the benefits. You are dealing with very diverse systems for Housing Benefit as compared, say, to Income Support. If a client attends an interview just with a request for advice on benefit entitlement or goes to a bureau, it would not be unusual for them to be there for an hour/hour and a half to get their entitlement sorted out. The work-focus interview does not last any longer than that. It is probably a little unrealistic to expect to achieve all of that.
  (Ms Birkinshaw) Most of our evidence has been about benefits and the feeling is that because of the complexity of benefits but also perhaps, it has been suggested, because there is a lack of knowledge or limited knowledge amongst advisers about benefits, that is why it is taking longer to get through the benefits part of that and encroaches on any time to look at the employment status.

  34. To what extent do you feel the personal adviser had acted as a continuing point of contact for benefit claimants, this idea that there would be a one-to-one relationship which would go on between the adviser and the claimant? Has that been your experience of ONE offices?
  (Ms Birkinshaw) No. A lot of the people who have come to DIALs, because they have had initial problems, such as a case where a person who was entitled to Income Support was not told this at a ONE interview, so lost quite a lot of money, went to DIAL, found out they were entitled to more and the fact that they had those initial problems has tainted that relationship with the adviser and they are loath to go back for more because they feel they have been let down in the initial stages with bad advice or incomplete advice. It is not building that confidence amongst disabled people to revisit.

Miss Begg

  35. I am just wondering whether the personal adviser is the right model for the ONE pilots. From what both yourself and Richard have said, it seems it is most successful when the adviser has known which is the correct adviser with all the detailed knowledge to pass the client on to. Maybe we are still looking at the wrong model. I am seeking your advice. Perhaps what is actually needed is someone who is very well informed as to the whole range of different advisers and they should just be the initial point of contact and then pass on to the appropriate adviser who would then take them through the rest of the process.
  (Mr Kramer) I partly agree with you. The ideal personal adviser—if we go back to Warwickshire—is that. In Warwickshire the personal adviser remains as the case manager and that is important.

  36. We need to change the terminology. We need a case manager rather than personal adviser. Is there not a confusion of the terms here?
  (Mr Kramer) It is one person who can co-ordinate that support and is responsible and accountable for making things go right. If the personal adviser just referred a case to a specialist adviser then accountability might go. In Warwickshire it works very well and in Leeds there are different people, dealing with different things and there is not that co-ordination.
  (Mr Wheatley) There is still merit in the idea of having one point of contact, almost a case worker, to deal with you when you approach the agency. The difficulty is organising that in practice with the volume of business. Something which is a compromise between the two, so you have one point of contact and you know you will not have to explain everything three times to three different people is very helpful and builds up a relationship of trust. That could also work if you have "Go and see my colleague to sort out your Disability Living Allowance" or whatever it might be.

Andrew Selous

  37. In Jobcentre Plus offices there are going to be benefit financial assessors who will deal with people before they have their work-focused interview. Do you feel this is going to lead to an improvement in the quality of advice received by claimants?
  (Mr Wheatley) Perhaps we should reserve judgement on it until we have some evidence. Potentially, yes, if the financial assessor has the skills and knowledge to detail what benefits people might be entitled to accurately, to provide them with help with form filling, etcetera, all the things we have been talking about, then it could work.
  (Mr Lane) If they could deal with urgent applications for benefit, to ease any urgent cash flow problems at a very early stage in the claim process, that would be helpful.

  38. Do you think that might be the answer to some of the problems we have been talking about in some of the earlier questions?
  (Mr Lane) It would solve the problems caused by the delay in getting an initial interview with the personal adviser which then delays your claim for benefit, because you actually bypass that requirement. As long as you are in the process, there is no reason why they cannot process your need for payment sooner.

  39. Are there specific skills and training that you would want to see the benefit financial assessors having to do this job?
  (Mr Wheatley) Oh, yes. We should like them to undergo a period of CAB training. We should certainly like to discuss with the Department how CAB training methods and materials might be used to train these financial assessors. That might be laying us open to all sorts of problems there.

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