Select Committee on Works and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses(Questions 180-196)




  180. That is one way of doing it.

  (Ms de Heer) Yes, it is one way of doing it.

James Purnell

  181. Some of this was obviously the fact that the pilots were set up quite quickly and there was quite a short training period. It is quite important for us to work out whether you think this is just something which is impossible for one person to do or whether with better training it could have been done, particularly now that the housing benefit and council tax benefit side of it is being taken out of Jobcentre Plus for the future.

  (Ms Taylor) We would say that it is possible to train people to a standard where they can make informed decisions about whether they need to pass somebody on to a specialist adviser for certain particular things, but to do that the training has to be at the heart of the programme and it was not. It was very much a kind of rush job but it still was not integral to the whole system. Staff turnover was also a major problem and you need to build in a really intensive staff training programme that is within the system, that is stable within the system, so that as you have staff turnover you are constantly re-doing that training and not just training once and that is it for the year and it is over and done with. It is possible to reach an appropriate standard but you must have that commitment. A lot of that is getting back down to having appropriate resources put in initially, not to be spent on logos and new claim forms which we cannot photocopy, but training people on the questions which need to be asked and what the answers will mean.

  182. You would advocate a generalist adviser combined with some specialist advisers. That implies you think there are some types of claimants who are being badly advised or under-advised at the moment. Are there some types of people you are particularly worried about?
  (Ms Taylor) We are particularly worried about the most vulnerable client groups, people who might have mental health problems, young people in particular, people with certain forms of disability, all of those for whom a consideration should be whether employment, or what sort of employment, is actually suitable to that person. From our perspective, we are looking at more than just this being about helping people in employment. Obviously that is a critical factor, but it is also about ensuring that they have access to the benefits that are relevant to their needs. Those are the groups we are most concerned about.

  183. It was the model in ONE to have the generalist adviser. In Jobcentre Plus there is going to be a benefit financial assessor who will see them at the beginning and then at the end and that slightly separates this idea of having a generalist adviser. Is that something which you approve of, or is that something you are worried about?
  (Ms Taylor) We do not have strong feelings either way about that. We feel it is another option to look at.
  (Ms de Heer) A ONE office in our area has just been transformed into a Jobcentre Plus but it is early days yet to see whether or not that is working in practice. It will be interesting to see how it works and whether it does give an improvement in service. To some extent through some of the partnership working and communication which has gone on through ONE, there is now more understanding and more liaison taking place which is positive. We would hope that it would improve.

  184. Housing benefit and council tax benefit have come out of Jobcentre Plus for now. Do you think the benefits advisers and the generalist advisers will still need to be trained to understand those benefits, to be able to advise people properly?
  (Ms Taylor) It is absolutely essential that they have a better understanding of housing benefit because as we discussed earlier, this is potentially one of the biggest worries for people considering going into the employment market. If they are already on housing benefit, how is it going to affect them? Changes are being made to housing benefit to make that easier, but people in Benefits Agency and Employment Service need to know what is going on in housing benefit. They do not need to know all the nitty-gritty detail, but they do need to have enough of an understanding to be able to give broad advice to people.

  185. That would be less than was required under the model where housing benefit and council tax benefit were included.
  (Ms Taylor) It would probably still have to be very much the same, if they are going to give the appropriate form of advice, which then comes back to the point, "Why have it out in the first place?". If you are going to give the right level of advice, you need to have a reasonably good understanding of the system, in which case, you should be able to passport that information onto the housing benefit authority.

  186. I should like to ask a question about the partnership working at the very front-line level. We found on our visits and the evaluation says that there was sometimes some friction between the local government side and the ONE pilots and that seemed partly to be down to organisations having different targets and to that extent slightly different objectives. Was that an issue? What could be done? Your local government goals and the Jobcentre Plus goals overlap on economic regeneration on social services. What could be done to make partnership working easier at the very front-line level?
  (Mr Gary) I should like to see the ability to have a bit of flexibility come into the system rather than the rigidity of the regulation and format which come from central government. May I give you a very good illustration on that? Somerset was affected by foot-and-mouth disease earlier in the summer. We had a guy who had a contract with the county to cut verges and keep them clear. He could not because there were certain areas which were restricted, so he did not get paid. He went to the Benefits Agency through the ONE system who said he was still employed because he had a contract, now, he could not claim housing benefit because he had not gone through the ONE system. He went round in a circle until one of us—and I am not going to say who it was—decided we would take the regulations into our own hands and risk it because the guy was going into rent arrears with the local authority. He had a local authority house, so we would have been challenged on that through our own audit systems as to why the guy was going into rent arrears. What that required was the intervention of a manager somewhere who had the wherewithal to say to hell with this, but it would not come from the ONE side; they kept him in that system. We had to bend it in order to get him out of that particular hole. Everything has come out fine, thank goodness, but there was nothing there which allowed that flexibility to integrate the two requirements, that is he was going into rent arrears and he was not getting any income but through no fault of his own.
  (Ms Taylor) In terms of better joint working, we are strong proponents of secondments and that happens in quite a lot of local authority and BA areas, where staff move between the areas so they have a better understanding of each other's agendas as well as the practicalities. Co-location does make a lot of difference, if people are working together in offices, even if you are working for different employers, because they are dealing together on a day-to-day personal basis. A lot of those kinds of departmental boundaries and jealousies can then get broken down much more easily. It is when you have this "them" and "us" and all in different places that it really is not helped. It is not impossible to get round it and you do have plenty of examples where you have good local liaison at local level and that is because both sides are willing to put a lot of that effort in. Generally they will be meeting very regularly, probably on a weekly basis, so they can deal with issues and pick up problems as they arise. Certainly the ability to have greater discretion at the local level gives them a lot more interest and initiative in making them want to work together better rather than if it is all a very top-down mandate from above.
  (Ms de Heer) Perhaps more requirement to talk properly to each other. There are liaison meetings but it took quite a long time with ONE for ONE to understand about two-tier authorities and to take into account the needs of social services authorities and the needs of social services' service users because they were very much focused on housing benefit authorities. I would not want that to get lost. There is a lot about working with vulnerable clients and understanding and greater awareness of their needs and if there were more communication with social services in a meaningful way, some of the problems which were encountered by those clients and expectations about work which are perhaps unrealistic could be resolved more easily.

  187. Is it more about communication and joint working than about targets and the policies which have been put in place?
  (Ms Taylor) Yes. The targets and policies are not necessarily in conflict. They have a different perspective. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive, so it is possible for us understand the Employment Service role is to get people into work, to get them employed, and clearly we support that objective. It is understanding that from our perspective there is a wider interest as well.

Andrew Selous

  188. It seems clear that the Department is going to rely increasingly on call centre technology to deliver benefits. Based on your experience so far, what lessons do you think need to be learned?

  (Mr Gary) I get two different messages. One is that the call centre technology and the way in which we deal with call centres is very much an on-trust method as against the verification framework which is quite the opposite. You cannot run a call centre and go completely electronic, if you are going to require people to bring in original documents. I do not have the answer to that. I wish I did. I understand the need for the verification framework; I can also see the huge advantages we have with the call centre technology, which could be a lot, lot better if we did not have to go through this tortuous process of the verification framework. That is one thing. It is not a lesson, but it is one thing we need to look at. The other thing is IT. If we are going to have one-stop-shops, let us have a one-stop-shop, let us not then have to fill in yet another set of information for the local authority and pass it down the line. That is essential. It should only be a one-punch job.
  (Ms Taylor) The other issue on call centre technology is how you then deal with people who have difficulty with telephones. Certainly you can end up with extremely lengthy conversations. This is particularly difficult for older people, people with hearing problems, people with English as a second language. Although this is not directly related to ONE, certainly the introduction of pension credit in 2003 will have a big potential impact on the way that is likely to go. What that means for local authorities is we will probably need to be more interventionist in dealing with people who might fall through the possible net because there is not likely to be anybody else out there. With the call centre technology being moved more and more towards centralist districts, so not necessarily in a lot of locations, somebody has to deal with those people who have difficulty with that kind of technology.

  189. What would be your overall view on the performance of the PVS pilots compared with the other models?
  (Ms Taylor) We have not had much of a report back.


  190. It has made that much of an impact, has it?

  (Ms Taylor) Yes; we have not had much report back.

Andrew Selous

  191. Even though as the LGA you do represent all authorities. The fact that it has not been fed back to you is quite interesting.

  (Ms Taylor) Such reports as we have had have indicated that there have been more difficulties but generally in a lot of the fairly basic setting up and agreeing processes, issues like that which are really to do with processes rather than fundamental to the policy objective.

  192. Given that reply, you will probably have difficulty answering my next question which is to ask whether you have comments on the particular PVS models in the different areas run by the different companies concerned?
  (Ms Taylor) No, we have not; we have not done any kind of analysis of those particular models.

  193. Do you feel that innovation has been brought to the process by the PVS pilots? Have new ways of doing things been brought to the party?
  (Ms Taylor) No, we have not received messages about the innovative approach of the PVS models.

  194. As representatives of local authorities there is a responsibility to ensure there is a uniform national standard in terms of payment of benefits across the country. How do you see the flexibility in innovation that the PVS pilots are meant to encourage in this area fitting within those consistent national frameworks which are being aimed at?
  (Ms Taylor) You can have local innovation in the way you deliver services and the way you put things together even within a fairly strict national framework. The example David gave is one, and certainly another would be in rural areas if ONE were able to implement the crisis fund. There are certain areas which you can tailor to the needs of the locality which will probably change and there needs to be enough flexibility within the system to allow the agencies to make those kind of decisions. There is an element of discretion which could be introduced.
  (Mr Gary) Innovation is not totally the province of the private sector. We like to think that we can innovate as well. We do very small things because of the money available to us. For example, we have set up a telephone system from rural areas into the ONE system which allows people without telephones or who would find it difficult otherwise to get into the Taunton centre, to communicate from outside. It is only a small thing but it does show a little bit of innovation. To be able to do that locally is an excellent thing because you are tailoring your own needs to suit your own requirement.


  195. What do you think we should say to the Minister when we see him about this early in the new year? Is there a message we should send to him? Is there a message you would like to send to him?

  (Ms Taylor) The message is that there are some really good ideas and good opportunities, but that the initiative needs to be properly resourced, it needs to take into account fully all the various perspectives of the partner agencies, there needs to be a strong commitment to proper consultation and involvement and to adequate staff training. IT is critical and it is not just about providing the right quality and the right level of IT, but having an understanding of the degree and nature of software changes which can take a very long time and can be very expensive to develop. For our particular perspective for housing benefit authorities, especially those who may have contracted out, that is a major issue. Certainly any changes to schemes which require software developments must have appropriate lead-in times. The other thing is just a greater understanding and awareness of the local authority sectors, particularly the two-tier authorities and the fact that it is not just housing benefit, it is welfare rights and other issues. If all those things are taken into account, then we still think there is huge potential here for improving access to services and to welfare benefits for people of employment age.

  196. So you are still pretty optimistic about getting an outcome here which is positive.
  (Ms Taylor) We always live in hope. We are a very optimistic bunch.

  Chairman: That is very valuable. Thank you very much indeed. I know it takes a lot of time putting together the submissions and your appearance here with your colleagues has been very valuable. This is an important report for us, so we are extremely grateful to you for your help in enabling us to produce what I hope will be something which will push the process on and get some of these problems resolved. Thank you very much for your appearance.

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