Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340
WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY 2002
MP, MR LEIGH
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.
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
(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.
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
(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
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
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 andwhat
is at the heart of thisthe 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
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.
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
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
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.
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
(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.
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
359. You obviously have not ruled out private
(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.