Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)|
WEDNESDAY 5 DECEMBER 2001
60. You said in your memorandum that initial
teething problems with Call Centres have now been resolved and
that staff seem generally positive and supportive of the approach
adopted by management. There has been some evidence from the Department's
research on staff attitudes to suggest there have been time pressures,
delays in calling back clients and lack of time to discuss work
options properly. Is that something you recognise in your evidence?
(Mr Wylie) It is something we recognise. It is something
we raised with management and we have discussed with them. The
initial allocation was about 45 units per client for Call Centre
staff to deal with their claim. There was some pressure to reduce
that time on the basis that some claimants take 20 minutes, some
can take an hour and management argued that the average was lower
than 45 minutes. Through negotiations we managed to secure agreement
that it would not be reduced and it seems to have settled down.
Certainly the last time we talked to our reps from the Call Centres,
the evidence was that it was settling down, that they did feel
they had roughly around the right amount of time they felt they
needed. Obviously everybody would like more and if we could argue
for more, then we would argue for more, but in terms of the time
allocated, at the moment it is safe to say that we are fairly
61. Do you have any worries that if the time
is cut too much that would affect the quality of the claim?
(Mr Wylie) Yes and the number of mistakes that are
made. People make mistakes if they are rushing through a job and
that could cost in terms of lost benefits or people being paid
62. There are possible implications here for
take-up of benefits if the time is cut too much.
(Mr Wylie) Yes.
63. I should like to move on to the role of
the private sector which you talked about in your introduction.
The private/voluntary sector ONE pilots were intended to develop
innovative and flexible ways of delivering ONE. Do you think they
have achieved this in any way and if not, why not?
(Mr Wylie) It is no secret that our policy
as a Union is that we are opposed to the involvement of the private
sector in the provision of these services. We do not think it
appropriate that organisations should make a profit out of the
provision of what we see as essentially public services. We do
not think it is appropriate that the private sector are not accountable
for their actions as our members are through Government. Two of
the points we tried to make in our written submission were: first
of all that there is an argument that the private sector could
bring added value but we see no evidence to support that being
the case; second, that the private sector would provide innovation
and again we have seen no evidence to support that. Some of the
initial proposals from the private companies including Deloittes
included the development of an electronic claim form which did
not appear. Action for Employment were developing basically a
benefit bus which they were going to take around the estates on
the Wirral to bring employment advice to people nearer to their
homes. That did not appear either. Reed talked about a jobs mart
which in fact is almost exactly the same as that provided by the
Employment Service: a few PCs on a desk where people can scan
through jobs which are available to them. We do not accept that
the private sector brought any innovative proposals to the ONE
pilots. We do not accept either that they add any particular value
to those pilots. The evidence we have seen is mainly from our
members that they are not performing as well as the public sector
are performing. They are causing problems for our members in BA
and ES. In Warrington, for instance, the Benefits Agency staff
have stopped returning incorrectly completed application forms
because it is much easier just to pick up the phone, sort them
out and fix the problem themselves. We had problems with Reed
in July when they laid off staff, because it was too expensive
to keep the secondees. They sent them back to their home department
and recruited staff directly themselves on lower wages. That is
action which is driven by the profit motive, which we do not think
is appropriate in this sort of service provision.
64. Do you think it could just be a question
of time and that the proposed extensions to the PVS contracts
will give more time for innovation to feed through?
(Mr Wylie) They have had a couple of years. All the
arguments which they have consistently put to usand we
have quite a good working relationship with Action for Employment
and Deloittehave been that they can only provide these
innovative ideas if they have enough money. Because there is not
enough money for them to provide innovation, they cannot do it.
That is exactly the same as the public sector, is it not? If you
give us more money we can provide innovative ideas and increase
the quality of the services we provide. We do not see the need
for private sector involvement in these pilots. We do not see
them adding any value to what is being provided by our members
in the public sector. We certainly do not see any innovative ideas
coming out in the next 12 months, simply because the contract
has been extended.
(Mr Churchard) The performance of the private sector
in terms of innovation has frankly been very disappointing. In
the examples which Keith mentioned, by and large these new ideas
are things which we have already tried and in some cases are still
in operation. Things like benefit buses are not a new idea; they
have been used in the Benefits Agency for quite some years. Nothing
has really come out that we have been aware of that has dramatically
changed the delivery of service at all for the better.
65. Would you like to make any other comments
at all on the extension of the period of the private/voluntary
sector pilots or have you said enough?
(Mr Wylie) We do not think it is a good idea; we have
concerns about the behaviour of some of the companies, particularly
Reed. In the memorandum we mentioned investigations into allegations
about Reed claiming more placements than they have actually made.
I am aware of a Citizens Advice Bureau report on the employment
zone pilot that Reed run in Liverpool where there is clear evidence
that they have been putting pressure on clients to seek or accept
unsuitable jobs. We are providing a public service and organisations
making a profit should be a secondary consideration. It appears
to us, certainly in the case of that company, that it is becoming
a primary consideration and their only motive for taking this
work is to make a profit.
66. Have you really given us all the evidence
now, all the examples to back up your statement in your evidence
that there is evidence to suggest that the PVS variants are performing
less well? Is that really it or would you add anything further?
(Mr Wylie) That is our view. We could probably provide
statistical evidence but you would have access to that as a Committee.
67. It is those examples which you have already
(Mr Wylie) Yes.
68. Just talking about A4E, Reed and Deloitte
separately for the moment, would you draw distinctions between
the three of them? Can we have your comments separately on the
three in terms of how they perform?
(Mr Wylie) It is difficult to monitor exactly how
Reed perform because they do not talk to us. They do not recognise
this Union, they will not negotiate with us and apart from one
occasion before the contracts were awarded they have not met us.
We do have quite a good relationship with A4E and Deloitte. The
point we make repeatedly in the submission is that they are not
doing anything better than we are doing in the public sector.
They may well be performing on a par with the public sector, but
they are not providing any innovative ideas, they are not providing
any additional value and as far as we can see, they are not outstripping
the performance of the public sector. If that is the case we just
do not see the need for them to be there. In terms of them competing
against each other, I do not have a feel for which of the three
companies is performing the best, though we do have some concerns
about the performance of Reed. In terms of A4E and the Deloitte
contracts it is likely that they are performing around or not
greatly differently from the public sector.
69. What have been the advantages or disadvantages
for staff in transferring from the ES or BA to the PVS pilots?
(Mr Wylie) Most of the staff do not transfer, they
are just seconded. They remain civil servants and are seconded
to the private company for the period of the contract. Deloitte
and Reed offer financial incentives to civil servants to second
across for the period of the contract in the region of £1,000
for an adviser, slightly less for an administrator, slightly more
for managers. The problem with that is that the value of that
top-up has been eroded over the years because ES pay increases
have eaten into it and DSS/Benefits Agency pay increases have
eaten into it as well. The incentive for staff to second has reduced
as time has gone by. We think that is probably the reason we are
seeing a fairly significant drift back of people on secondment
to the public sector.
70. If my memory serves me right, when we were
in Leeds talking to some of the private sector managers, they
were saying that they had encountered some resistance in trying
to recruit people from BA and ES, because allegedly there was
some kind of trade union campaign in Leeds. Do you have anything
to say to rebut that or is this a local factor?
(Mr Churchard) It was not an allegation.
We did have a campaign. It was not just Leeds. It was really a
campaign drawing people's attention to the possible disadvantages
of transferring over on the terms which were being offered, compared
with what people could expect if they stayed with their parent
department or agency in terms of conditions and increases.
71. It was more a pay and rations complaint
than a vision thing about ONE.
(Mr Wylie) Yes.
(Mr Churchard) Yes. One of our functions is to advise
our members on the best course of action to take when they have
a choice. We set out what we thought were the plus points and
the negative points of taking one option or another. The bulk
of the plus points seemed to us quite clearly to lie with staying
with their particular agency or department.
72. This is maybe not a local problem. Is this
a national campaign?
(Mr Wylie) To put that into context, the only discouragement
we gave to staff in terms of ONE, was transferring to the private
sector variant. We did not discourage staff to transfer into the
basic model of ONE or into the Call Centre model of ONE. It was
our opposition to the involvement of the private sector which
led us to discourage people from involvement.
73. It seems to have had some effect in Leeds
anyway. That is clear. Is this something you propose to continue?
(Mr Wylie) Our policy on the private sector involvement
has not changed. We would not encourage our members to second
to private sector organisations because we do not feel they should
be doing the work and we do not think our members will benefit
by transferring to those organisations.
74. With previous witnesses Leeds always came
up as the bad example; on everything we said it was always Leeds.
I am just wondering whether what you have just said about your
own campaign has meant that the Leeds ONE has not worked at all.
The complaint was that the staff in Leeds would not engage with
the voluntary sector, would not get out of their offices, would
not get involved in the community, whereas in Warwickshire they
did that and it was very successful. I am just wondering whether
the action of your Union has played a role in making sure this
has not worked as well as it might have done.
(Mr Wylie) It might have done. It might
also have had something to do with the way Deloitte ran the contract
from day one. The problems with the Deloitte contracts in the
Leeds and Suffolk pilots were that originally Deloitte worked
in partnership with CSL and CSL took care of all the personnel
issues, they recruited staff and dealt with the Union and we talked
to CSL managers. Within three or four months of going into the
contract, either Deloitte sacked CSL or CSL pulled out of the
contract; we are not clear which it was, it depends who you ask.
If you ask Deloitte they tell us that they sacked CSL. If you
ask CSL they tell us that they pulled out of the contract. We
do not know which was the case. That created some fairly significant
management problems in the first part of that contract and we
had fairly intensive discussions with Deloitte about how they
would get through that period. It created insecurity for our members
who had seconded across, it created insecurity for the people
Deloitte employed on the contract and it generally caused problems
for both Leeds and Suffolk. I do not know that it was any worse
in Leeds than Suffolk; maybe it was. That might well have had
something to do with the fact that you are receiving reports about
the contracts not being particularly well run.
Chairman: I did promise we would spend a reasonable
amount of time with you this afternoon looking at health and safety
of staff issues, because they are obviously important and very
75. Can you update us on the current strike
(Mr Churchard) I can give you some hot-off-the-press
news, because we have just come from a meeting of our National
Executive Committee today. We have just completed a ballot of
all our members in the Employment Service and Benefits Agency
who are due to transfer to the Jobcentre Plus agency and there
was a majority for some more extensive strike action involving
approximately 70,000 members in the Benefits Agency and ES combined.
As a result of discussions today at our National Committee we
have issued notice today to management of some discontinuous strike
action taking place later this month.
76. That is something which will greatly concern
Members, given that it could mean disruption of payments to people
who are by definition the poorest in society and particularly
in the run-up to Christmas and after Christmas when people may
have financial bills from the festive season. You say in your
evidence that it remains the case that unscreened working in ONE
offices creates a higher risk to staff than the current arrangements
in Benefits Agency offices. You produce a few anecdotes in your
evidence and obviously any particular case involving anyone is
regrettable. Do you have any statistics over a longer period or
statistics which show that there is a genuinely greater risk in
ONE offices or in unscreened environments for people who are working
in those environments?
(Mr Churchard) I am not sure we have precise statistics
on ONE compared with Benefits Agency offices for example. The
point we were trying to make was that in removing all kinds of
screens, prima facie it seemed to us that would involve
staff in greater risk. We did not want to exaggerate it because
much of the more dangerous, more difficult transactions with particular
client groups were not actually a feature of ONE. They are certainly
a feature of Jobcentre Plus and the Benefits Agency as it currently
exists. We were not saying that staff safety in ONE was going
to be a huge problem, but we did want to draw to the attention
of the Committee that removal of all types of screens in ONE pilot
offices had a potential risk to staff which would not have been
there in their own BA offices. It is part of the concept of ONE
and given the nature of the client base and the transactions we
would not have thought that would have led to a huge explosion
in health and safety cases. Our greatest concern is with Jobcentre
Plus which does have the full range of clients and the full range
of transactions including the difficult ones.
77. When we visited a full range of agencies,
both a BA office, a Jobcentre Plus office and a ONE office and
spoke to staff and to clients, although when we met with Union
representatives there were detailed concerns about safety, the
general reaction from people involved in providing the service
was that this was a more positive environment in which people
could work, that it treated people with greater dignity, that
it provided them with better information about services and they
did not in fact raise any particular concerns with us about safety.
I understand that the people who are on strike at the moment are
mostly back office staff rather than people involved in Pathfinder
pilots. I was wondering whether you had any explanation for that?
(Mr Churchard) It is important I make some general
observations. The first would be that we very much welcome the
whole concept of Jobcentre Plus. I shall come back to the safety
point in a moment. We particularly welcome the amount of investment
which is going into the offices and the upgrading of the accommodation
and everything that goes with it is very much welcomed. It may
well be that down the track, when new systems are well in place
and we have dealt with issues like how to direct people from one
office to another, because not all the offices are dealing with
the same client base or the same transactions, once the new system
has been up and running for some time it may well be that people
begin to feel that not only is the investment welcome but the
environment is better. I think they probably will. What we are
in at the moment is a transitional phase from a situation where
people have felt very strongly that in order to protect themselves
from the minority of clients who cause problems and are violent
they need those screens. Just to take the screens away at the
reception area particularly was something that we felt needed
to be handled in a transitional way and it is not being handled
in a transitional way, it is all being done in a rush and too
suddenly. Therefore people lack the confidence to take a huge
leap from the system they are comfortable and familiar with to
the one which they are fearful of. That is the essence of the
problem really: it is a transitional problem, it is a change issue.
Unfortunately it has perhaps not been handled as well as it might
78. That is very interesting. Given that it
is a transitional arrangement, is it not the case that although
screens are part of dealing with the very real problems of health
and safety and that is something which is going to continue in
Jobcentre Plus Pathfinder offices, it is only one lever in dealing
with the problem of health and safety. There are also CCTV cameras,
security guards and the way people are treated. If it is true,
as you say, that people will be treated with greater dignity and
the system will work more efficiently in this new system overall,
that may help reduce the overall number of incidents. Precisely
because it is a transitional arrangement are those not things
which could be examined in the pilots and the Pathfinders rather
than going out on strike at this stage?
(Mr Churchard) I do not want to exaggerate the difference
between the Union's position and the management position. It does
not boil down to a great deal of difference in terms of protective
provisions. We are very much welcoming the increased security,
the upgraded numbers and the upgraded standard of service. We
certainly welcome the CCTV cameras. But, it really does boil down
to the change being made at a pace with which people feel comfortable.
We certainly do not feel comfortable with making that sudden change.
In terms of the pilots, one of the things we have been arguing
for is that we should have a broader range of experiments in which
some might be unscreened, some would have traditional type screens,
some would have pop-up screens. We have been saying that if it
is going to be a proper trial, let us give all the options a decent
chance. All we have been offered is one experiment in one office
in Brent and even that may now be in some doubt. We would have
been more comfortable if there had been a greater range of options
trialed and, perhaps as a result of that greater range of options
being trialed, a more reliable outcome in which we could have
had confidence. There is only one office which is having a different
type of screen arrangement trialed, which is a disappointment