Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 54-59)




  54. May I welcome our colleagues from the Public and Commercial Services Union, Alan Churchard and Keith Wylie who have helped us with inquiries before when we were doing the work on the ONE pilots and Eddie Spence. We are very grateful that you have taken the time and trouble to come this afternoon and thank you for your written submission, to which I hope you will be able usefully to add over the course of the next hour.

  Alan, is there anything you want to say at the beginning, maybe by way of introduction of your colleagues. My first question is, that if my memory serves me right, two years or more ago when we last talked about this, when it was more of a prospective idea than it is now, you were fairly supportive. I am not trying to be clever and put words in your mouth. How have things changed since then? Perhaps you would like to say a word of introduction about Eddie and Keith as well.
  (Mr Churchard) May I do two things? First of all I shall pick up your suggestion and introduce my colleagues, which I think is the right thing to do. Then your suggestion that we very briefly review what we said last time, the key points, and say how we think it has developed since then. On my right is Eddie Spence, our Senior National Officer dealing with all matters connected to DWP. On my left Keith Wylie, our Group Secretary, who deals with this particular issue of ONE amongst many other things. Last time we emphasised a number of points. One was the general support which the Union brings to the ONE concept. We said at the time that we thought it would be better for clients because it is more of a multi-access means of dealing with multiple problems at the same time in the same place. We expected it would be better for our members because the role they were being asked to play would be more satisfying, more comprehensive coverage. Broadly speaking that has turned out to be the case. The evidence, such as it is at the moment, is that clients are broadly happy with the ONE concept and certainly our staff are also broadly happy. There are some frustrations which will probably come out in discussion about things we also mentioned last time, for example the state of the IT is very frustrating and continues to be a problem. There are difficulties with training, which people have felt has sometimes been the wrong kind of training, and sometimes it has not been delivered at the right time. No doubt this is true of all organisations, but there is certainly a feeling they could have done better. There are all those kinds of frustrations including work loads and one or two other things. The Committee was concerned at the time about problems of bringing together staff from different areas and that maybe there would be a culture problem. That has not been proved to be the case. We were pretty much positive at the time that it would not be. We had separate discussions also last time about Call Centres and the problems which might arise there. Broadly again, the evidence I have seen is that clients are broadly happy with the Call Centres' performance. Certainly our members within those Call Centres are reasonably content about the procedures and though there were some difficulties early on about the time allocated to particular clients, that has been resolved and staff are broadly content there. We discussed, and shall discuss again today no doubt, the role of the private sector. We argued at the time that we saw big problems with that and we had basic problems of approach there in terms of involving the private sector in delivery. We should perhaps spend quite a bit of time on that today and focus on it and our view is that our fears have been borne out by events. Then we had a discussion about the evaluation process and we felt at the time it was a little bit vague and we were not entirely convinced that the way it was being evaluated understood the complexities of the interaction between the private sector and the public sector. Our main point was that the way the private sector functioned in that aspect of the pilots was very much dependent on the relationship with the public sector. It was difficult to say that the private sector had done well or the public sector badly or vice-versa. We are concerned that crude comparisons like that might be drawn. However my understanding is that the evaluation process is at the moment taking place. We have not had information about it, so we cannot really shed too much light on that. Finally, as you have hinted, the question of safety, which I am sure you want to question us about. Our view at the outset was that it is difficult to draw broad lessons for Jobcentre Plus from the operation of ONE mainly because many of the difficult things being done in Jobcentre Plus are not being done in ONE. The client mix is different, the types of transactions are therefore different. That is very briefly a run through where we focussed last time and where we are up to now.

Mr Stewart

  55. May I talk about some of the service condition issues, which I am quite interested in? If I understand the issue correctly, we have the merger of the Benefits Agency and Employment Service staff; effectively we have two cultures, two sets of service conditions, two tribes coming together. There is also there some implications for management of change. What are the implications for you for service conditions in this?

  (Mr Churchard) There are two things I would say. In general terms it is difficult to forge a team spirit where you have people on quite different conditions of service. We have seen it in extreme examples in the new DEFRA, where we have a major problem with staff who were previously under MAFF conditions and staff who have been brought in from other areas. It is not quite so bad here. In the internal reviews which have been done by DWP of staff attitudes one thing which came out pretty strongly from that review was that staff were concerned about the continuing differences in conditions which did not seem to be being resolved.
  (Mr Wylie) There are major differences in terms and conditions between former Employment Service staff working on ONE and former Benefits Agency/DSS staff working on ONE. Because of Jobcentre Plus we have spent a fair amount of time looking at those differences and trying to find ways of minimising them and trying to find a method of harmonising the terms and conditions to a single set of terms and conditions. It has been our view all along that there should be one set of terms and conditions for staff working on the ONE projects and latterly in the Jobcentre Plus offices. I can give you a couple of examples. The main function in Jobcentre Plus and ONE is the adviser function. If the adviser comes from the Employment Service their management pay band is MPB6. If they come from DSS they are old civil service executive officer grade and the pay difference between EO and MPB6 on the maximum is just over £1,000 a year. You could have two advisers working in the same office with the same sort of case load, who have been there for six or seven years each and one would be earning £1,000 more than the other simply because of the department they had originated from. That is something which clearly is not sustainable and something we shall be arguing through during the negotiations on Jobcentre Plus. There are also differences on things like appraisal. The appraisal system in DSS is a five box system A-E, but in the Employment Service it is a four box system A-D. People working alongside each other will have different ranges. You either add a box or lose a box. That is the way we shall have to take it forward, but it is very complicated. Performance pay in DSS is different. In DSS last year the percentage of the pay bill which was linked to performance was seven per cent. In the Employment Service it is an equity share system and that way you get so many shares per box marking. In the DSS it is a flat rate, so everybody who gets box A, which is the highest award, gets £70 flat rate performance award. There are some significant differences. The other ones which are causing us concern are dress code - there is a much more clear cut dress code in the Employment Service than there is in the DSS—flexi-time arrangements, all those sorts of things are significant. We hope that in Jobcentre Plus we shall be able to harmonise terms and conditions very quickly because it does cause tension between staff, especially on the question of pay and the rewards package. There is another significant difference between the two and that is the industrial relations environment. It would be fair to say that the industrial relations environment in the DSS is better than it is in the Employment Service. In DSS we have a national partnership agreement which was signed with management a year ago. In the Employment Service we do not. There are very significant cultural differences between the two organisations as well as in the terms and conditions agreement.

  56. What are the historical reasons for the different industrial relations climates between the two bodies?
  (Mr Wylie) Employment Service was set up as an agency and felt that the way forward in terms of industrial relations was quite different to the way the DSS have always dealt with the trade unions. The DSS being an old style civil service department tended to carry on a fairly positive forward-looking industrial relations attitude towards the unions. In the Employment Service that was somewhat different. Under the last Conservative Government we saw ES at the forefront of attacks on the trade unions and trying to find ways to undermine our ability to represent our members properly. Some of that culture has rolled on. It is a lot better now. However, there are still some significant cultural differences in terms of industrial relations.

  57. On the representation side, do you represent roughly the same percentage in each of these two Departments or is there widely different representation?
  (Mr Wylie) It is not that different. It is about the same. In Employment Service we have membership levels of about 65 to 70 per cent. In the DSS it may be slightly higher.

  58. The DWP research on staff attitudes to ONE found persistent complaints about staffing levels, for example staff overstretched being a big problem. Are staffing levels a subject on which you have made representations in connection with the ONE pilots or with the Jobcentre Plus Pathfinder areas?
  (Mr Wylie) Yes, in fact we have a staffing campaign running at the moment. In the Employment Service we saw some fairly significant cuts in spending this year as a result of a potential budget shortfall, the effect being that a large number of mainly administrative grades, mainly casual administrative grades, were laid off in Jobcentres across the country and that had quite a severe impact on the frontline services we provide in Jobcentres. It will have had a knock-on effect in ONE offices and will, we think, after roll-out have an effect on Jobcentre Plus offices. The pilots will be fairly well resourced, the Pathfinders are fairly well resourced. In the longer term we are having discussions with management about how we calculate the number of staff required in each Jobcentre and that is something we hope will have a positive outcome. At the moment it is purely financially driven and if there is a cut at the top, that could focus down on the Jobcentre front line and we lose staff.

  59. Have you as a Union taken any evidence on the ONE pilot areas in terms of recruitment problems, sickness problems, retention issues, compared to non ONE pilot areas? Has any work been done by the Union on that?
  (Mr Wylie) All the anecdotal evidence from representatives on each of the sites, because we get together on a fairly regular basis to talk through problems, has been that the only stark difference is that there has been a fairly high return rate in the private sector pilots, where people who were seconded to the private companies have chosen to go back to their own agency and not stay in those pilots. In the basic model, as far as we are aware, the turnover is no worse than it is in ES or in DSS. In the Call Centre model it is no worse than it is in any of the other Call Centres. We have seen a fairly high turnround in all four private sector areas.

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