Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 359)




  340. We veterans of this Committee find it difficult to produce a report which does not have a recommendation about ethnicity in the process. We might persuade ourselves that a full blown report on ethnicity in the process might be a good idea.
  (Mr Brown) If the Committee wanted to work alongside the Department on the new rules and evaluate them as they go along I would welcome that.

Mr Dismore

  341. The issue arises not just in your half of the Department. The fact that statistics are not kept in relation to the social security side of it in relation to ethnic minorities—
  (Mr Brown) No, I think that is changing, but you are right, they were not historically, but I think it is more Mr Stanton's area.
  (Mr Stanton) There is an issue about the recording of ethnicity in the benefit claim. Historically the position has been that we are only entitled to ask for information that affects the benefit claim, but we have been monitoring (and it has been a long standing monitoring) labour market statistics for JSA claims where a marker is put down on ethnicity and we do take it into account in the evaluation and consider it an important issue. I have just also been told that the evidence on the ONE pilots is that ethnic minorities were more likely to receive advice about work than non-ethnic minorities, so it is not all that way.

  Mr Dismore: It did not sound that way last week. It sounded the opposite last week, but that can be checked.

Mr Stewart

  342. Minister, I would like to raise the issue of work-focussed interviews which of course in itself a good thing, but there is a down side we have discovered that you should be aware of, which is that there is some evidence of longer delays in individuals getting their benefits. What is your view on the subject?
  (Mr Brown) There is not intended to be any extra delay in the system; in fact quite the reverse. We aim to provide a service that is focused and that meets people's needs both on the benefit side and with the job search as well. It is intended to be proactive and the emphasis is intended to be on helping people into work or back into work. I am not saying that nobody has had their benefit delayed but I am not aware of any institutional delay in the benefit.
  (Mr Lewis) The point I think I would like to make is the one that, in one sense, I was giving for a different reason in answer to an earlier question. One of the changes we have made in Jobcentre Plus, compared with the ONE pilots, is actually having a separate benefit expert who sees the customer immediately they come in. The personal adviser sees them and then they see their benefit expert again before they leave the office, even when on their very first visit. One of the aims of that (as well as giving the customer a more rounded service is that wherever possible they leave with the maximum certainty about their benefit position) is so that more cases, particularly where the position is a simple one, are put into action more quickly. It is too early to know whether we will succeed in that ambition; but one of our objectives for making the process operate in that way is to speed the benefit claim process.

  343. In the annex to the statistics that you kindly provided to our Committee on Monday of this week it does appear that there is a higher incidence of crisis loans in the pilot areas than in the control areas. Does this reflect the delays in clients receiving benefits in the ONE pilot areas?
  (Mr Brown) I do not know the answer to that.
  (Mr Lewis) I am not sure that I know the answer to that either in that specific degree of detail but there is evidence that many crisis loans (and that term covers a very wide variety of payments) are necessary where there is a delay in putting a regular benefit payment into effect so that if we are able through the Jobcentre Plus process to get people's benefit into payment more quickly then it ought to follow that there will be less need for certain kinds of crisis loan.

  344. Can I move on to another aspect of crisis loans? Am I right in suggesting, Minister, that people in need of crisis loans immediately will not be dealt with in the glossy open plan offices which have got great advantages but will go down the road to the unreconstructed benefit offices which have staff with screens? Is there a danger of a two-tier system here with the poorest and almost desperate getting the worst deal?
  (Mr Brown) The issue is this. If there is an event, an exchange, between our staff and the public that we know carries a high risk of unacceptable behaviour and even of an act of violence then it has to be done in a safe environment. It may well be that crisis loans are such events and in those circumstances it has to be done in a screened environment. Each cluster of job centres will have a screened office where these transactions can take place. What I cannot say is that each and every job centre in a single building will have a screened environment. The service across the district is provided in a predominantly unscreened environment. Each assessment is made with regard to local circumstances so there will be some variation across the different job centre clusters.

  345. Obviously I understand the point about high risk clients not being interviewed in the Jobcentre Plus for crisis loans but as a general rule why cannot crisis loans be issued in Jobcentre Plus offices?
  (Mr Brown) I am not sure it is always the case that they will not be but it is an operational matter. The issue is the safety of the staff.
  (Mr Lewis) In some cases they will be, of course, where there is a screened area in the Jobcentre Plus office. Even in those places where there is not we hope that the service will be better than it has been in this respect, that where somebody now simply arrives to seek a crisis loan in an existing Benefit Agency office they will often have to wait for a period of time, sometimes a considerable period of time, to see a person who can deal with that, where somebody contacts us through the Jobcentre Plus process, either originally by phone and it becomes clear in the telephone conversation that they wish to apply for a crisis loan, or they come into a Jobcentre Plus office and it is clear that they wish to apply for a crisis loan. We will not simply say, "Would you like to go down the road?". We will actually make an appointment with them for a time and with an individual named member of staff, even if that is in another office, so that they will be able to go to that other office at a given time to see someone who is expecting to see them. Even in that respect therefore the service should be significantly better than it is now.

  346. My final question links to an earlier point made about the financial assessors. I think it is a very welcome development. Will claimants have ongoing contact with the benefit assessor if they have any benefit related queries during the course of their claim?
  (Mr Brown) The continuing contact is in the generality going to be with the adviser, the person who is helping them to get work, but if there is an issue that they think has not been properly considered in their financial assessment, then, assuming it is a new issue and not that they think they could get a higher amount if they try again, then of course the service is there for them. I think it is unlikely that there will be a continuing relationship. I cannot think of an exception where there will be a need for a continuing relationship between the financial assessor and the client. It will be with the personal adviser who is trying to get them into work.
  (Mr Lewis) That is exactly right, if I may say so. The personal adviser will act as the supporter into the system for that individual, so if there is a need during the period when they remain claiming for them to get specialist advice then a personal adviser will be provided for that.

  347. So the financial assessor will be a specialist post, highly geared up in this, and he will advise the claimant. Is the objective that we increase the take-up of benefits in the UK as well?
  (Mr Brown) Yes, but this works both ways. We are determined to ensure that the person's benefit entitlement is properly calculated and they get what they are entitled to, so there is that welfare advisory function in the financial assessor's role as well as being the starting point for a conversation about work and—what is at the heart of this—the difference between having a steady waged income and having to rely on benefits. The Government's intention is that people will be better off in work, and that is not just underpinned by the policies of this Department but more widely.


  348. Inverness and Aberdeen and places like that are far flung. This is not a part of cosmopolitan Britain like some of the rest of my colleagues cover, so there could be issues about sending people not round the corner in a cluster but 15 miles away. Can you give us some assurances just for the record that rural areas are not going to be disadvantaged in that?
  (Mr Brown) Yes. This issue about how you deliver an office based service to rural communities is not a new one. Indeed, I got some experience of it in my previous ministerial post so it would be odd if I did not pay some attention to it. By a combination of outreach work, of using the telephone, of fixed appointments, we think we will be able to deliver an even better service than we deliver at the moment.
  (Mr Lewis) A good example is in our Devon cluster of offices at the moment where it is the case that on some occasions we will ask someone to travel to Exeter in order to get the specialist support or service they need, but actually in two key respects I think Jobcentre Plus is going to be a very significant improvement. If you go into a Jobcentre now, or had you done so before Jobcentre Plus was introduced, and raised a benefit query the staff there were not able to help you with that. No doubt they would have done their best to refer you and give you a telephone number and so on but they were not able to help you. The staff there now in a Jobcentre Plus office will be able to answer routine benefit inquiries, so that is better. Secondly, even where they need to say to someone that they need to travel to a different office (the same point I was making to Mr Stewart) they will actually proactively make that appointment there and then and talk to their colleagues, so the individual is going to Exeter or wherever it may be, but to see a named person at a named time who is expecting to see them.

Rob Marris

  349. The integrated electronic claim form for JSAs our research suggests is going to be helpful. Is there going to be a similar form for incapacity benefit and income support?
  (Mr Lewis) It is certainly our intention that we want to move to electronic claim taking in a much more extensive way than we use it now and we are working hard to introduce something we call the customer management system which we do aim to introduce into Jobcentre Plus nationally and which will include electronic claim taking. As colleagues I am sure will know, this is not a small or lightweight undertaking. It is a major programme of IT.
  (Mr Brown) Incapacity benefit and income support, there will be a specific form for that.
  (Mr Lewis) But it will be part of the initial claim taking process.

Ms Buck

  350. Minister, at the beginning you quite rightly talked about the issue of certainty, of people making the decision to return to work. What the evidence shows, academic or anecdotal, is that housing costs are critical, and you know how obsessive I am about that. You have been to seminars where I have bored for England on it. One of the things that came out of the evidence particularly from local authorities was some concerns and disappointment about aspects of the relationship between ONE and local authorities and as a consequence of that, or underpinning it in fact, was the fact that the IT is not compatible, the fact that the benefits staff do not have an understanding (we do not expect expertise) of how critical housing benefit calculations are to a full in-work package. First of all can you tell us why you have made the decision that local authorities are not going to be partners in Jobcentre Plus? Can you talk about why you feel that the relationship in terms of delivery of advice on housing benefit has not worked and what it is that you could do as a Department to try and make sure that there is compatibility and that that very important aspect of advice is delivered?
  (Mr Brown) We are still talking to the local authorities. It is not that the relationship is severed at a national or a local level. Why have they not been included specifically in Jobcentre Plus in the way that they were in the ONE pilots? The reason is just frankly overload of change. Because we have taken the decision to make these very fundamental changes not just in the way in which the service is delivered but in the technology that we use to deliver the service and because we are trying to join up the benefits and the employment services all at the same time with a large programme of re-investment and renewal, it was thought, and I was not in the Department at the time but having looked at it I think the decision was right, that to try also to deal with housing benefits to work issues would just be trying to take on too much all at the same time. There are continuing issues with housing benefit, hopefully in the way in which it is administered and the timing of changes, which you are very familiar with, and of course they do impact on people's willingness to move from a benefit claim and housing benefit claim and housing tax rebate and potentially in some cases the economic impact of free school dinners when a person moves to work and then goes over the threshold. All of these are taken into the calculation. You are absolutely right. Housing benefit is probably the largest single issue at the forefront of people's minds when they compare the wage and the benefit.

  351. I am sympathetic to the central point. You cannot do everything, of course you cannot, but there is a danger that one is going to get a two-legged stool in all this. If we do not get that right somehow, whether it is by involving local authorities into Jobcentre Plus or not, then there is a whole cohort of people who are simply not going to get the service they want. That is not just about getting the total better-off calculation because I think that generally can get done, but there is also just the process of getting the claim chased.
  (Mr Brown) Yes, and of course these things take time. The Ministers are very mindful of this. It is an issue not only that we are alert to but we see the need to try to resolve. There is work between the Department and the local authorities on the systems and work on timing and also work on—

  352. Would you just be a little bit more specific about what you see the improvement package containing?
  (Mr Brown) I cannot, no. I am not sure it is possible to say now.
  (Mr Lewis) We are very much talking to the LGA nationally and to authorities in the Jobcentre Plus Pathfinder areas and there are discussions going on, for example, about the number of forms that people have to complete at the moment and whether we can rationalise and simplify that. One of the ways in which we will be offering improvement as well in another sense is that an individual having a personal adviser means also that that personal adviser's role does not in a sense stop at the office door. If, for example, that adviser is talking to someone who is wanting to go into work, who is worried about their housing benefit claims, worried about housing benefit run-on and issues like that, that adviser will talk to their local authority colleagues, will try and make sure that the liaison is as good as it can be.

  353. But is that really happening? I simply did not get a sense either locally or from our visits that this is happening, desirable as it clearly is, and it is a reflection on the successes that people really feel that they want to connect to this personal adviser, that this person is a help-mate to take them through system but actually they cannot do it.
  (Mr Brown) It is early days. We only rolled them out in October and two of the later ones came in December and January, so we have got 53 of the offices providing the service as a flagship in the way that we want, but for people to already be coming back to their personal adviser with their housing benefit problems, we have not picked that up yet, I have to say. The personal adviser is there for them if they want to come back with a problem. Remember that the idea is not just to help people into work but to sustain them in employment. There has also been some work at the margins on the right to return to housing benefit and so on if their circumstances do not work out.

  354. Absolutely, but I wonder how much not picking up that particular problem is due to the fact that people are ringing up and asking to speak to the adviser and simply being told that that person is busy. Are you picking that up because I have not had that sense that there is capacity in the system to do it?
  (Mr Brown) No, I am not picking that up either. I am not picking up that there is a great demand to see the personal adviser to discuss housing benefit once people are in employment, but if people wanted to they could. I have not picked it up yet. I suppose you are going to say that the Minister will be the last to find out. If there is an issue of people ringing in and being told that the personal adviser is doing something else and all the other things that sometimes are said, I have not picked that up as a problem.

  355. We certainly picked it up on a visit. This also goes back to the discussion we had about ethnic minority communities which is that in many inner city areas, as we know, there is a huge amount going on, facilitated in many cases by local authorities working alongside local organisations on the whole economic development agenda. That tends to be concentrated into cities with large ethnic minority communities so the overlap is there. Evidence again from the Local Government Association and local government is that that partnership that could facilitate the successful working of your side of the deal is not as effective as it could be. As an explanation for that, and this has certainly been my experience, having a successful single generation budget project in my constituency which has included a centre for jobs and opportunities linked into the Employment Service, is that there are quite small but significant bureaucratic problems running civic entrepreneurship alongside a government bureaucracy. Are you really giving a lead to local jobcentre managers to say to them, "How can we overcome these bureaucratic barriers? How can we get you working hand in glove with local regeneration partnerships?"?
  (Mr Brown) That point has been made to me almost formally by representatives of the Local Government Association but also, as I visit the country, the point is made that, particularly in the inner city areas where there are regeneration projects, they are either really pleased that the Department is fully involved or they make the point in the same way you have, that they would like the Department to be involved, and yes, we do want to be involved. The new Department is an important partner in urban regeneration because of our focus on jobs and also because of our interest in intermediate labour markets which have a very important part to play in urban regeneration. I do encourage local managers to get themselves involved and to get their staffs involved.

  356. Will you set them free?
  (Mr Brown) I am in favour of more local discretion, although exactly how much I will need to talk very definitely to Leigh about before making some blanket commitment to yourselves. It is not just an issue for me but right across Government. I meet regularly with the Parliamentary Secretary from the Department of Education and Skills because training is a big issue in this and with the Minister of State from the Department of Trade and Industry to focus on issues like this one: how we can join up and get more from working together than we would get from individual departmental initiatives. One thing we focus on more than anything else is the single regeneration budget as it was and these regional and local initiatives as they are now.
  (Mr Lewis) One very small point. It may on the face of it seem terribly bureaucratic but I do not think it is. We now have finalised the district structure of Jobcentre Plus as a whole. It is a national organisation and will have 90 districts. The key decision was that boundaries would align with local authority boundaries. That means that no local authority should have to deal with more than one Jobcentre Plus district. That ought to be a major step forward because our boundaries at times have completely interlocked with one another and made it very difficult.

Mrs Humble

  357. My question follows on very neatly from Karen Buck's question. I did have a concern that with the development of this new service, local initiatives might be lost. In Blackpool, at the same time as the ONE pilots were being set up, we had our own little enterprise which was a joint working scheme between the local authority, the Employment Service and income support. The Secretary of State visited and it is joint working that has helped all three parties. It has certainly helped the local authority in processing housing benefit claims and it has meant in turn that individuals have not been approached by three different organisations for the same information, so I want a reassurance that as you are re-configuring the services an initiative like that could continue.
  (Mr Brown) I would like us to be involved with the local initiatives and to be there to help them. I really do think that what the Department is setting out to do can play a major part in urban regeneration, but we should be attending the steering committees of local partnership organisations and offering what we can. I am enthusiastic about being involved rather than trying to supplant what local groups are trying to do.

Mr Goodman

  358. When the three private contractors came here and gave evidence they all said they would like the opportunity to become involved in the future development of Jobcentre Plus and their views were perhaps best summed up by Action for Employment who said that they still had their fingers crossed for private sector involvement in Jobcentre Plus but that perhaps they were being naive in that. Based on the ONE experience do you see any role for the private sector in the delivery of Jobcentre Plus or did Action for Employment have their fingers crossed in vain?
  (Mr Brown) I think the early evidence is frankly inconclusive. I have looked at it quite hard and am quite taken by the fact that each of the private sector partners taking part in this pilot had a different approach to it and had differences of nuance in the evidence that they have given to yourselves. I would have said therefore that the jury was out on what the ONE pilots can tell us about private sector involvement. I really do think it should be given a longer chance and we will evaluate it, no doubt together, in 2003 when the final evidence is in. Jobcentre Plus I see primarily as a public service, the coming together of the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service. In other words it is coming together to provide a public service in exactly the way that the two previous departments did. That is my view of it.

  359. You obviously have not ruled out private sector involvement.
  (Mr Brown) I am trying to be open-minded about it and if I discovered that something worked very much better because of some private sector initiative, then clearly one would want to give that very careful consideration, but we are proceeding to roll out Jobcentre Plus as a public service.

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