Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-53)|
WEDNESDAY 5 DECEMBER 2001
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
(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
(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.
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
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
(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 possibleyou
may say it is differentto do it without resorting to violence
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
(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?
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
(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
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.