Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-53)



  40. How long do you train your staff for?
  (Mr Wheatley) Six months basic training, with specialist training on top. It is rather more extensive that other assessors might be given.
  (Mr Kramer) I can see a flurry of bids coming in. It is training and knowledge about disability benefits, but where Mencap's Employment Service can play a really crucial role is the experience. There is knowledge of the benefit system and of things which have changed and sometimes that knowledge is not up-to-date, but it is also the experience of what it means for a person with a learning disability to work and perhaps take a risk of work, the better-off calculations if they do. It is the orientation for someone with a learning disability going into the workplace and what support they may need. That is where the voluntary sector can contribute experience as well as knowledge.

  41. One of the benefits from ONE offices was supposed to be a one-stop shop as far as Housing Benefit was concerned. Do you think that the ONE pilots have improved the Housing Benefit system for claimants or have they actually made it worse and more complex?
  (Mr Lane) Yes, it has made it more complex. It has done nothing to ease the problems with verification of claims and all the issues local authorities still have to deal with on looking at the genuineness of the tenancy, the legal obligation to pay rent, etcetera and the rent restrictions, all issues which are particular to Housing Benefit which local authorities are still dealing with. It has done nothing to clarify the process at all and the confusion of who is responsible for a claim at a certain point and where it has got to. It has done nothing to improve accountability for Housing Benefit decision making or to ease delays. We have no experience of the Call Centre model having had any positive benefit at all.
  (Ms Birkinshaw) Pretty much the same really. There has been no obvious improvement with delays, especially in the Housing Benefit. The same sort of problems have been coming up as before with Housing Benefit. It has obviously not made a significant improvement.
  (Mr Wheatley) It would be very desirable if people were able to sort out their Housing Benefit claim at the same moment. In practice it has not proved as easy as that. It is somewhat disappointing that the Jobcentre Plus model does not appear to be attempting to deal with Housing Benefit in any way. I would hope that they would at least be able to take an initial claim and register the claim and have good links with the local authority Housing Benefit department. Even if there is no formal claim process I would hope there is an informal way of resolving matters between the two offices.

Mr Dismore

  42. You have said one or two bad things about Call Centres. Are there any good things?
  (Mr Lane) Yes. The access issue around Call Centres. It is very useful for people who have mobility difficulties. They can actually access benefit and lodge a claim without having to go into an office or get hold of a claim form. That is very useful. The danger in relying on Call Centres is relying on them in isolation. People need to be able to do it face to face or by telephone because there are always going to be people who have difficulty with either one of those methods. The Call Centre is probably not the best model for developing the personal adviser relationship. It is much harder to develop that relationship by telephone than it is face to face. The principal benefits are in its potential to improve access, but to improve that further it would need to be freephone and not a charged call.

  43. Can they not use the phones in a ONE office?
  (Mr Lane) If they can get to them.

  44. What about problems of interpretation? Do you have that problem?
  (Mr Lane) Yes, we do. We have a large ethnic minority population. We have a lot of minority community languages and a significant proportion of the population does have English as a second language. There are issues about accessing the service when the adviser they speak to does not speak their language. There is a language line with interpreters but the quality of communication in a three-way conversation is always vastly inferior.
  (Ms Birkinshaw) We also have had evidence since we put in our submission that there are problems around getting interpreters for deaf clients as well; the lack of availability or long period before they are made available.

  45. May I go on to one or two points you raised in your submission? Physical access to premises. In your submission you refer to the problems and I assume from what you are saying that none of the ONE premises have suitable access. Is that wrong?
  (Ms Birkinshaw) In some areas it is not as extreme as others. In the Suffolk area they had initial problems with access, but a lot of those problems have now been addressed through bringing in equipment like ramps and temporary ramps and things like that. In some areas, and Leeds especially, it is an ongoing problem.

  46. Is that the one you identify as being the one up the stairs?
  (Ms Birkinshaw) Yes.

  47. We have been there.
  (Ms Birkinshaw) It is a major issue for a lot of our clients. If they are called to an interview, and with the delays in home visits they have experienced as well as an alternative, that is not working at the moment as far as clients are concerned.

  48. The problem with home visits is the delay, not that you cannot get them organised, it is that it just takes time.
  (Ms Birkinshaw) Yes and the fact that there are arguments amongst departments as to who was supposed to be organising it. One client waited about two months before they were given a date for a home visit and when you are relying on those sorts of benefits and you cannot make a claim until that visit, then it is a major issue. It would be less of an issue if the home visits system was going to be on time and delivered at a reasonable rate, but with the majority of ONE projects based in old style Jobcentres and fairly inaccessible, then it is going to be an ongoing issue.

  49. I presume that everybody is aware of the dispute with Public and Commercial Services union and the question of screens. Some would say that screens operate as a barrier to communication between the claimant and adviser; on the other hand staff say they are concerned about their safety. What is your experience nationally within CABx?
  (Mr Wheatley) You are asking us to comment on an area which is a difficult dispute at the moment. All I would want to say really is that we strongly welcome the transformation of work and benefit services and the improvements which have been promised and we would not want to see that dissolve into a dispute purely about screens. There are wider issues which need to be addressed. We would think that it is possible to have good customer service, with or without a screen. A lot of the reason why people get angry is because the administration of the system is poor. That said, staff do have a right to work in safety without being attacked. I was a little alarmed to hear that the Jobcentre Plus Pathfinder office in Winchester is apparently to have two entrances, one for people of working age seeking a work-focused interview or benefit information and another for people wanting to apply for Social Fund loan or grant. You can guess which area would have the screens. The issues here need to be approached very carefully. I hope the dispute can be resolved to the satisfaction of both sides. We do not have a strong view on whether screens are necessary or not. Our main interest is in ensuring improved customer service.

  50. When your people advise their clients, and sometimes you may have to give good advice that they do not particularly want to hear, do you work in a screened environment?
  (Mr Wheatley) CABs do not have screens. I do not think there is any CAB which operates within a screened environment. You may say they are not handing out money to people typically, but CABs do have to give people essentially bad news. "I'm sorry but the rules say you are not entitled to X", or if you are advising on a debt problem "I think there are issues about what you claim as reasonable expenses". There are things which can provoke people to a negative reaction, but they do not appear to provoke too much violence. There are procedures within CABs to deal with this sort of thing, but it seems to be possible—you may say it is different—to do it without resorting to violence or screens.


  51. It was a bit puzzling to us as a Committee that the Government made quite a lot of noise about the ONE pilots, saying these were going to be the study period, they were going to learn all the lessons for the new revolution leading to Jobcentre Plus, then suddenly, before the evaluation was done, Jobcentre Plus starts anyway. Does that not strike you as somewhat strange?
  (Mr Wheatley) Definitely; yes. We raised this question with Leigh Lewis. What happens when you have something which is a pilot subject to evaluation and you introduce something which looks very much like it nationally? The reasonable reply was that Jobcentre Plus is also being introduced in phases and the Department is willing to learn from the experience of Jobcentre Plus as well.

  52. Do you believe this? Are you confident that is true?
  (Mr Wheatley) We shall certainly work to ensure that it is the case. We shall certainly continue to bring our evidence to bear on both ONE and Jobcentre Plus and take them at their word. Yes; why not?

Rob Marris

  53. I get the flavour from what you were talking about that you thought things were much more successful in Warwickshire than in Leeds. Could you give me three examples of why Warwickshire is better than Leeds? I am not trying to make it a competition, I am trying to find what is more positive, apart from ONE being upstairs.
  (Mr Kramer) It is engagement with specialist help from the voluntary sector. It is commitment to training and disability awareness training. It is the earlier and right involvement of the disability employment adviser to give that proper work advice.
  (Ms Birkinshaw) I would agree with that. It is obtaining the input where it is needed, asking people if you do not know what is going on and involving the people who do know, who have that knowledge.

  Chairman: Ladies and gentlemen, you have been an excellent set of witnesses. It has been very helpful. This is an important inquiry for us. You have obviously put a lot of work into the written submissions, but we are particularly pleased you were able to come and supplement them in the oral session this afternoon. Thank you very much for attending.

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