Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 319)



  300. Yes.
  (Mr Brown) I have been to six now and have been very struck by the enthusiasm of the people who are working to deliver the service. There are employees of the Department who are very committed to what it is the Department is doing as well as employees of the Department who have reservations on safety issues and are involved in the dispute. We have all got to come together once this is over and I want us to be able to do it in a friendly and focussed way and for the Department to be a good and safe place to work. Also, I believe that we ought to be able to make common cause, as a Government, as management and as employees, on the issue of safety. It is offensive to me if public servants fear for their safety or feel that they are physically at risk. They are delivering the public service that we employ them to deliver and they should be able to do it in a safe working environment. The question that is outstanding between ourselves and the union is how best to do this. There is no difference in principle on wanting to secure a safe environment for our employees. It is the Government's clear view—let there be no misunderstanding about this—that the sort of services and the cultural change that we want to make through Jobcentre Plus cannot be delivered in anything but a predominantly unscreened environment. Of course we are retaining a screened environment Jobcentre cluster by Jobcentre cluster for specific episodes, either for people who are deemed to be of a high risk or incidents, particular episodes, which we believe contain a risk. The majority of the service, as I say, we believe has to be delivered in an unscreened environment and early evidence from the Jobcentre Plus is that the new design, treating people in a very different way than they might have been used to, is having an effect in itself. People respect the premises, like being treated in a human way, like being seen straight away, like the ability to give information over the telephone, like being able to make an appointment, have it kept and not be kept waiting and like the idea that there is an adviser there who is not just saying "See if you can get one of these jobs" but is taking a serious interest in what jobs are available and how the individual goes about getting it.

  301. There was a man swinging a chain on the second floor of Harlesden on Friday.
  (Mr Brown) 600,000 people have gone through Jobcentre Plus since we launched the 53 pilots in the autumn. You cannot extrapolate public policy from the behaviour of just one person. Are you going to take the service away from the other 599,999 people because of the behaviour of one person? The account that has been given in the union submission may well not set out the full circumstances[78]. Of course ministers have asked for an inquiry into it and we are expecting to get the details. My understanding of what happened does not quite square with what has been said in the note that has been sent to you.

  302. I do not want to get bogged down in this.
  (Mr Brown) I do not either. Perhaps I can ask Leigh to say something about the individual incident. What I am saying, it is not typical.

  303. Mr Lewis may want to contemplate whether the Harlesden incident is typical or not in the context of the PCS further submission we have just received. At paragraph 10 it says that in the Benefits Agency in the year 2000, the last year there is data for, there were 5,094 reported incidents in comparison with 2,455 in 1999. That is over a 100 per cent increase. It is the trend, Nick, that I am worried about. Maybe there are individual circumstances and maybe we do not know the full picture of what went on last Friday but I am actually not as interested in that.
  (Mr Brown) Yes, but the rising tide of figures is because there has been a campaign to make sure that every single incident is reported. That is a campaign that has been backed by the union and backed by the management.

  304. I would hope every incident would always be reported, with due respect.
  (Mr Brown) No. Very few of those incidents are actually incidents of violence. Most of them are where people have not liked the decision and hard words have been exchanged. I am not minimising that. Sometimes that can be very vigorously done and very unpleasant for the person on the receiving end. It is just not fair to paint a picture, and certainly not a picture of Jobcentre Plus, as if these are fundamentally dangerous workplaces, they are not.

  305. There is a trend. Reassure me about the trend, Mr Lewis?
  (Mr Lewis) I would like to say, Chairman, just a couple of things to begin with. I regret any incident which takes place in any of our offices. One incident is one incident too many. Also, this is not for me an academic issue, I have a personal accountability and responsibility for the safety of those people who work for me. That is a responsibility I take very seriously indeed and I regret that the current dispute is there. The incident at Harlesden was a difficult and serious incident. Fortunately there was no injury whatsoever to any member of staff or customer and in the light of that we will, of course, look at the risk assessment at Harlesden again to see whether it causes us in any way to change the safety precautions that are there. I think we do need to put this in its context. Every day 200,000 people come in to offices of the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency. On average there is slightly over one incident a day anywhere in Britain in those 1,500 offices where there is any physical contact, however minor, between a customer and a member of staff. It is an issue as to how do we ensure the absolute maximum possible safety of our staff, while not treating the vast majority of people who come into our offices and behave utterly and perfectly reasonably in a way in which we would not ourselves or our families want to be treated. The other thing I want to say is this. If what we are about is simply taking the existing service of, say, the Benefits Agency and taking the screens down then I would not be comfortable in our staff working in that environment. That is not the case. What we have introduced in Jobcentre Plus is a wholly and fundamentally different way of delivering a greatly improved and a much more individual and personal service to our customers. There is a huge amount of evidence from this country and abroad that when you treat people in a more civilised way in a more welcoming environment, then their behaviour in turn becomes altogether different and vastly better. That has been borne out in this country, it has been borne out by experience elsewhere in the world and it is thus far being borne out in the Jobcentre Plus office itself.

  306. Just a quick final supplementary on the issue of the industrial dispute. Can you assure us that there has been no detrimental effect on the turn round of benefit payments and the appeals and things like that? I hear stories that in some of the pathfinder projects, the interim payment procedures are to be paid as manual payments as a result. Is it holding you back in terms of processing?
  (Mr Brown) I am not going to conceal from the Committee that the dispute is making things difficult for us. Our employees are all needed and are all wanted. If they go on strike of course it is disruptive. We have contingency plans which have so far held up and been robust and we are delivering the service in a way. I do not think any individual will have suffered but we are not delivering it—let me be quite candid with the Committee—in the way in which we would ideally want to. I very much look forward to the day when we have everyone back at work and all working together in a safe working environment for a common purpose. Could I just invite David to say something on whether the figures that you quoted earlier are actually comparable year on year. I believe that they are not. David, would you say something?
  (Mr Stanton) I think it is worth very briefly saying that they are statistics about recordings of incidents from which we have to deduce what the trend in incidents is. The figures which have been quoted to you are for two years, one of which, as Mr. Lewis pointed out, was a year in which special efforts were made to ensure that full recording took place. I think you need to look at figures in the context of more than two years and we would be quite happy to send you a note on that. I think it is difficult to see a complete trend out of two figures.

Mr Dismore

  307. When we visited the Jobcentre Plus office in Yorkshire and met some of the staff, they were not particularly hostile to the policy but what they were concerned about was that some of the assurances they had been given about the detail of the safety work had not been delivered. For example, they were complaining that their computers were not bolted to the desk and could be picked up and thrown about. There was a catalogue of half a dozen small things which altogether they felt combined to make the situation less safe than it should have been. Can you give us an assurance that all the detail in each of the offices will be properly attended to and we will not have these sort of complaints once the dispute is settled?
  (Mr Brown) On the question of the computers, my understanding is that there is a restraint on the computers but they are not bolted to the desk so the adviser can turn them around and share information with the person who has come for advice. If there was no restraint there at all, I can promise you we will look at that.

  308. That was the impression we were left with. It was not just that, there were quite a few of these little details which together combined to make these complaints.
  (Mr Brown) We have made big efforts with the risk assessments on each of the sites and although they follow a common pattern, they do all have individual features of their own. I do not know, Leigh, if you want to say anything on the detail point?
  (Mr Lewis) Yes. First of all, I am happy to give the assurance you seek, just to be absolutely clear. We have said as an absolute, I have personally committed to the fact that we will implement each and every recommendation of each and every risk assessment. To the best of my knowledge and belief, that has been done. Indeed, before any of the pathfinder offices were allowed to go live—and I sought this personally—I asked for a written assurance in each individual case that every single measure recommended by the risk assessment was in place and working. I have personally charged my field directors with ensuring that situation continues.

  Mr Dismore: Perhaps you could check the one in Yorkshire for us.

  Chairman: Okay. That took a little bit longer than I had anticipated. I think it was important to get that. We have now got a series of seven or eight areas of questioning which I would like to try and get through as quickly as I can. If we could have precise questions and precise answers because time is always the enemy.

Mr Mitchell

  309. Minister, we have spent some time now looking at the ONE Pilot and my understanding is that this is a pilot scheme to marry together advice on benefits with advice on work, the marriage of these two things to change the culture in which the service operates. Now, you are a hard working and honest minister. You will have looked at these results. It is in the nature of pilots that they should be assessed in a very honest way. My perception is that the ONE Pilots have, first of all, been extremely expensive and, secondly, they have basically failed. What I would like you to comment on is this. As I understand it, the Department's own research makes clear that there is, through the ONE Pilot, basically no effect at all on getting people back into work, that this marriage, which I understand to have been at the heart of the pilot process, has simply not worked, there is no evidence that it has worked at all and that you are now going to roll out the Jobcentre Plus, which is a similar scheme and I want to come back to that on a supplementary. The private sector—we have had evidence from them—appear effectively to have had both hands tied behind their backs and to have been shackled by the trade unions in what they can do. They have not had a free rein to bring private sector expertise to bear. In fact, I am really very surprised that they are still willing to be involved. It seems to me to have been a pity that even in that area where some of their ingenuity might have helped develop your pilot, it has not happened. Is not the position really that it has been a failure, and we should recognise that, in seeking to serve the clients we are obviously trying to serve?
  (Mr Brown) There are actually three questions in there.


  310. He is only allowed two.
  (Mr Brown) He has managed three, nevertheless. On the private sector involvement, each of the private sector organisations has actually attempted to carry out its tasks in slightly different ways, they have had different approaches to it—and it is after all a pilot—and we are learning from that. I think if they have a quarrel, it is more likely to be with the Treasury than with the trade unions. The fact of the matter is we do have to put safeguards in place for the proper protection of the public purse. It has not been our intention to stifle innovation; but I understand from earlier evidence the Committee has received that some of the private sector organisations see it that way. I hope that this is not a running sore because, of course, in the world of employment the private sector has an important part to play, not just for recruiting to their own organisations but as recruitment specialists in certain areas. It is always going to be an area where the state will have an interest and the private sector will have an interest as well. On the question of the early findings from the ONE Pilots, it was a pretty early look at how the pilots had gone on. I think it will be too soon to try and draw firm conclusions as to whether ONE has made a difference as opposed to what was going on in non ONE areas with the labour market itself. What we do know—and the evidence is overwhelming, and the Committee I know has received a great deal of it—is that our proactive approach to the labour market through the New Deals does make a difference.

Mr Mitchell

  311. That is a wider matter.
  (Mr Brown) Yes. We will know the answer to that, even for the ONE Pilots, when there is a final study as they are brought to a conclusion in 2002[79]. I think to try and expect results from the very early study, the 1999 study, is just asking for too much too soon. I do not think it is safe to draw firm conclusions from that. Your other point was on value for money. The expenditure profile is something like £31 million, £39 million and then I think it declines slightly, largely because some of the ONE Pilots are amalgamating into the Jobcentre Plus offices where as they roll out there is a slightly declining profile of expenditure over time. About a sixth of that—and these are very rough figures but it gives you an idea of it—is money that the state would have spent anyway, it is money that would have been spent through the Employment Service or through the Benefits Service and the rest is new money for the pilot. I think we have learnt valuable lessons and we are continuing to learn valuable lessons from the pilot. There are a wide range of different things which are being tested: how public service is delivered, how we can join up with local authorities, whether the private sector can make a difference. I think it is right to give all these different areas a fair chance which is one of the two reasons why we have extended the pilots for an additional year. Then, of course, there will be a study at the end of it and all of that will come into the public domain. I would strongly defend Government spending money—and these are relatively small sums of money given the Department's total budget—on piloting a range of different ideas and a range of different providers to see how we can make a difference.

  312. I agree with you entirely about the importance of piloting but obviously it is extremely important that people are realistic about results. What you appear to be saying is that "Yes, there is no evidence at all that it has worked so far but we have got a lot more evidence to look at"?
  (Mr Brown) No. I have said it is too early to look at the first study of the ONE Pilots to draw any firm conclusions either way about whether it proactively made a difference on the job market. Indeed, that was one of the factors which was in the Secretary of State's mind when he went for the Jobcentre Plus model for the Service. There are other lessons we can most certainly draw, like the fact that clients liked the ability to give information over the telephone, to come in and be dealt with proactively and even the early study shows that a much larger number of people who went through the ONE Pilots believed that it had made a difference to them, that cultural shift was happening on something pretty early on. Actually I think that is quite an important finding. It is certainly reinforced by early evidence from the Jobcentre Plus pilots where the response from the public and from the staff who are working in the Service is not just positive but overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

  313. I hear what you say and I have to say, from what I have seen so far, the facts do not defend the value which you have said exists in the scheme. I would just end really by saying that the Jobcentre Plus scheme which is now proceeding is rather less ambitious than the wording that was set out at the start of the ONE plus approach. There are no mentions of some of the earlier higher motives which were ascribed to the pilot scheme. It seems to me that if it is, as you described it in your opening remarks, a flagship policy, it is a pretty waterlogged flagship.
  (Mr Brown) Yes. This is a difference of political opinion rather than an evidence based discussion.


  314. We cannot have differences of political opinion, that would be too difficult.
  (Mr Brown) Yes. Perhaps.

Mr Mitchell

  315. I am seeking to focus on the evidence of success of the pilot schemes.
  (Mr Brown) My answer to that is that the evidence is early and that the Government has made substantial changes to the way in which we deliver the services which are reflected in the Jobcentre Plus model rather than in the ONE Pilot model. The only missing element that I think you could fairly point to—I do not see why I should do this for you but since we are old friends let me draw your attention to it—is that the links with local authorities are very different in Jobcentre Plus than they are with the ONE Pilot. The reason for that is that the changes we are now making in the Department in drawing the former Employment Service and the Benefit Service together are a substantial series of changes, it is going to take us time to do it. We are addressing—this is really as a result of the ONE Pilot findings—the back of house issues, in other words the fact that the technology is very old and you might say to me "Well, why was it not renewed earlier" and you can guess what I might say back.

  316. If I may rest on this point, Chairman, before being led in this mellifluous language on to a—if I may mix my metaphors—red herring, your very language that goes with Jobcentre Plus is much less exciting in terms of what you can deliver for clients than it was in ONE Pilots. I suspect that is because, sadly, the important piloting process has shown it simply has not worked properly?
  (Mr Brown) I actually do not agree with any of that but there is no point in saying the sort of "did/did not" across the table. David, do you want to say something?
  (Mr Stanton) Can I just say something about the evaluation of the evidence. When we set up the evaluation strategy for ONE, we were quite clear that we were not going to get a perfect experiment with policy on hold until all the evidence came in. We were deliberately setting it up to produce a lot of quite fast information about whether it worked in the sense if you have mandatory work-focussed interviews does it really upset the process or do people cope with it? We have all that evidence and that is affecting the design of Jobcentre Plus. In a sense it is the evaluation which is supportive of what then happened. I think there is quite a lot of evidence that is there. On the employment effect, which was one of the four objectives of the evaluation, I think it is true that it is too early. You have to remember that in the control areas it was not as if nothing was happening to the inactive on the benefits. New Deals were being rolled out and then last spring mandatory work-focussed interviews as well. We are not comparing a completely hands-off control area but wait until the evidence comes in at the end because the mandatory work-focussed interviews, particularly for the client groups we are talking about, will take some time to make an effect. That is also true about the effectiveness of the schemes, the ones that started first, the basic model, show a sign of having an effect.


  317. How long will it take?
  (Mr Stanton) We will have the evidence on the employment effect, the data comes in in the autumn. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research will be analysing the data as they did in the first wave. We are planning to publish about this time next year.

  318. This employment effect might start to show through then?
  (Mr Stanton) That will be the point when we take the best judgment.
  (Mr Brown) Let me say, the Secretary of State was very clear when he made the decision to go to the Jobcentre Plus model, and indeed the Government more generally was clear, that we wanted a greater focus on the move from benefits to work than was given by the ONE Pilot.

Mr Mitchell

  319. Can we just ask David one yes or no question which is this: Does the current research, undertaken by your Department, show that the ONE Pilots have led to any effect at all on getting people into work?
  (Mr Stanton) There is some small evidence but it is too early to form a conclusion.
  (Mr Brown) I might as well point out the small evidence is positive.

78   Reference made to a supplementary memorandum which was submitted by the Public and Commercial Services Union to the Committee on 21 January 2002. Back

79   Subsequent to the evidence session the Department for Work and Pensions stated that the ONE Pilots should run until 2003. Back

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