Select Committee on Works and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 161-179)




  161. May I welcome our guests from the Local Government Association? We have Ms Gwyneth Taylor who is the Head of Housing, Mr David Gary, who is Chief Revenue Officer from Taunton and Ms Veronica de Heer who is the Benefits Manager of the Benefits Team in Essex County Council. Welcome. I do apologise for keeping you slightly late but we had a very instructive session with our colleagues from the private sector. Gwyneth, maybe you could just say a word about the LGA and what your take on this whole subject is and perhaps introduce your two colleagues, for the record, just to make it clear what they do.

  (Ms Taylor) The LGA fully supports the vision behind ONE and the single work-focused agenda. Our particular perspective about ONE is having a single point of entry to the benefits system and the better delivery of welfare benefit service. I hope the team I have brought along today will reflect the different constituencies within the local authority area, Taunton Dean being an authority which manages housing benefits, and Essex social services department having a particular interest in the welfare rights angle and the welfare benefits issues. One of the key things we have found and experienced with the ONE pilots is the fact that there is a certain gap in understanding about the different local authority constituencies and perceptions. That being said, we think that we have learned many very positive things from ONE which can be brought forward but there are also some other areas we need to try to improve on. We have given you our submission and we are very happy to speak in more detail about that.

  162. Just for the record, Karen Buck is an honorary Vice President of the LGA which is a non- pecuniary interest which she declares for the avoidance of any doubt whatever. May I ask to what extent local authorities felt involved in the process. You are supposed to be equal partners, partnership is a big conceptual emphasis in some of this change in culture. Would it be true to say that your colleagues in the local authorities which took part in these pilots did feel they were on an equal footing with the other public service agencies?
  (Ms Taylor) No. We brought this out in our 1999 submission. We felt we were involved at a very late stage, after the initial policy work had been done. That lack of involvement at the initial outset has continued throughout the experience of the ONE pilot. What we have found is that where it has worked and worked well, it has worked well at a local level, where the various agencies involved have got together and made it work despite the strategy pushed on top. What we do feel is that consistently throughout the process local authorities have always been a second rate partner, they have always been considered after the major policy decisions. It has been an issue about looking at the benefits and employment advice service and only later on issues like housing benefit, "Oh heavens! How does that fit in?", or, "How do we deal with delivering welfare benefits rights to vulnerable people". We think that is an area where a great deal of improvement is needed, particularly at the top.
  (Mr Gary) I have nothing really to add to that except to say that it has happened again with Jobcentre Plus. We have not been consulted and suddenly we find that housing benefit and council tax benefit are not part of Jobcentre Plus.

  163. How can we improve the communication. This is an absolutely fundamental part of this process. If we cannot get this right, it will not work.
  (Mr Gary) I echo what Gwyneth has said. At local level much of what has worked has worked because locally people have made it work. It is at the national level that the impetus is required to deal more with local authorities. We meet regularly at the Somerset pilot and we have a very good liaison with our Benefits Agency and Employment Service colleagues, but policy comes from above as well as below. It is coming from above where the diktats happen and we are out of it, we feel out of it.

  164. Do you think it can be fixed? Do you think it can be sorted in time for Jobcentre Plus to be as big a success as you would like to see it.
  (Mr Gary) If the will is there, yes, I do.

  165. So we still have some work to do.
  (Mr Gary) Yes.

Ms Buck

  166. I do not know whether it is the most recent but certainly DSS research showed that fear and anxiety around housing costs were the biggest barriers to getting people off benefit and into work. So clearly housing benefit is of central importance in all this. Your evidence was quite clear about the lack of a single service. Could you start by saying a little bit about what the practical implications of that are? What is it that is not working, that is making both advice and claiming council tax benefit and housing benefit difficult? To what extent are the parallel verification framework and anti-fraud measures responsible for it or adding to the problem?

  (Ms Taylor) One of the big problems with housing benefit is that it is probably the most complex of all the welfare benefits to administer. As a result, it requires a lot of additional information over and above your ordinary income support/JSA cases. One of the essential elements of making ONE work would be passporting, doing a certain number of checks at the employment office and then passporting that on to the housing benefit authority. It is absolutely essential that that is done fully in order to make it work, otherwise the local authority then has to go back to the applicant and even then has to get additional information. A big factor has been staff training or the lack of weight given to staff training in terms of the other options around.

  167. Are you talking about awareness level because we are clearly not training everybody to understand it.
  (Ms Taylor) Awareness and basically understanding the differences between the different welfare benefits and why it is that housing benefit authorities need certain other additional information. There is a general lack of understanding. Verification framework in itself just exacerbates that because apart from anything else the verification framework criteria for local authorities is different from the verification framework criteria for BA. That is a significant problem because if it is BA or ES staff doing the first checks they are going to be doing them in different ways. There are all sorts of issues there. The other big thing was IT and David has examples of the problems.

  168. Is it possible to reconcile the verification process?
  (Ms Taylor) We think it is; we think it is and we are asking DWP to do that. I have to say that we have been urging changes to the verification framework for two years, many of which are now being introduced or are on their way to being introduced, but it has taken a long time. I do think that there needs to be a further significant look at verification framework anyway in the light of the pensioner credit bill and other issues. What we have said to DWP is that at the next stage of looking at verification frameworks we want to look at rationalising those two schemes.
  (Mr Gary) This goes right the way back to when we started the work-focused gateway or ONE. We were very disappointed that the IT systems dealt with the DSS/Benefits Agency requirement but were not talking to the local authority IT. We wanted to volunteer to have a system in Taunton, along with the Somerset Benefits Agency where we did not go to paper at all, we did not want to go to paper and we saw ways of doing that. That was stopped from the top because of concerns about firewalls and our ability to interact with the Benefits Agency systems. I believe that could have been got over had the will been there to do it. I felt it was a great shame that we had to go to a paper system when we had the opportunity to develop the Government's own policy of more e-government and less paper. Why punch in twice? I could not understand that. Sorry, I get a little bit emotional about this.

  Chairman: You are allowed to get emotional. Feel free.

Ms Buck

  169. Tell us a little bit about the impact on the claimants of that. Has it had an impact on claimants either in terms of delay/hardship or in terms of in any way affecting the ability of people to take up work?

  (Ms Taylor) The area we should be most concerned about in impact on claimants is sensitivity of dealing with claimants, particularly those who may have special needs or need special advice. There are all sorts of anomalies about people between 60 and 65 which need resolving about whether or not you should be advising people to go down the employment route if they are of that age group or if they have mental health problems. In particular we have had quite a lot of difficulties with young people.
  (Ms de Heer) The examples are not specifically to do with housing costs but are more to do with young people being passed between authorities, between the ONE office and social services department and incorrectly, so that the social services office ended up in fact paying out for a young person when they should have been getting benefit in the first place. That was later redressed but the money paid out by the social services department could not be recouped. We have a few incidents like that, but I do not know the volume of it.

  170. Is it right to exclude housing benefit and council tax benefit from Jobcentre Plus?
  (Mr Gary) I do not believe it is right and my authority's view as well is that it is not right. With the best will in the world all the work we have done to try to make everything a seamless service for both our claimants and job seekers will go out of the window because there is nothing keeping us together.

  171. So the impetus will be lost.
  (Mr Gary) The impetus will be lost. We are all saying no it will not, but with the best will in the world, we know what happens when people live apart.

  172. Would I be right in saying that what you are saying is that with leadership from the top, with investment in training, with some commitment to overcome problems such as the one you quote in your memorandum of a form with the wrong colour for the image processing, with an attempt to overcome some of those problems, it should be possible to make some real progress on this and get it integrated.
  (Ms Taylor) We feel that there was a lot of progress at the local level which it would be a great shame to lose. This has not been a complete success, or as complete a success as we want, but in any experiment you are going to have successes and failures. In terms of having the potential to deliver a much better service, not just in helping people access employment, but also in helping people access the benefits to which they are entitled, from the claimant's point of view the single way of approaching that must be a much better route than being passed from pillar to post. Even if it only went to the point where you passported people on for more specialist advice where that was necessary, it would help. To make that work it is essential that you have the staff trained up to make those kinds of decisions and that you have the resources in place to do it.

  173. The decision not to include it is because it has been a bit of a dog's breakfast.
  (Ms Taylor) Yes, or very complicated. Housing benefit is very complicated.

  174. Too complicated, so we won't do it.
  (Ms Taylor) Yes, it is very complicated, which is why we got it.

  175. We know that. That is a different issue. Co-terminosity between Jobcentre Plus areas and local authorities would have helped.
  (Ms Taylor) Hugely.

  176. But will not have a chance to help effectively.
  (Ms Taylor) Yes.

  177. Or would it still be helpful?
  (Ms Taylor) Co-terminosity would still be very helpful, yes. You have ONE pilots who are having to run two housing benefit systems. That is a significant problem for us and the areas were decided prior to any consideration of the housing benefit aspects.

  178. In terms of you being the delivery agencies and setting aside all the various critiques and problems you have identified so far, you feel as the ones at the sharp end that this should be given a chance to be an essential part of Jobcentre Plus.
  (Ms Taylor) Yes; very much so.
  (Mr Gary) Yes; very much.

James Purnell

  179. I want to ask some questions about the role of personal advisers. We have just had the private companies involved in ONE saying that they thought one of the things they brought to the pilot was better training for their advisers. You do not agree in your evidence with that. Could you talk us through your concerns with the quality of training and quality of advice which was given?

  (Mr Gary) I cannot, because I am not in a pilot which has a private sector involvement. I can only talk about the personal advisers on the call centre which is where we are piloting. I would reflect what the LGA has been saying, which is that I do query whether that individual exists who can give advice on the whole of the social security system. I really do query that. From that viewpoint, we were left wondering how they were going to cope with housing benefit on that side of things and that has proved to be a weakness. That was largely because of the local authority input not being there at the very front end of the system.
  (Ms de Heer) Our concern from the start was about personal advisers having all round benefit knowledge and also enough knowledge about the local services available in the areas which the lack of co-terminosity does not help. I have heard anecdotally of instances in other areas, not in the area where I work, where somebody was given a raft of claim forms and told to go away and fill them in because they were not sure which ones they were entitled to but they would sort it out when they brought them back completed.

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