Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380 - 396)



  380. This is the back of house stuff that you were talking about.
  (Mr Brown) Yes.

  381. You also talked about a large programme of re-investment and renewal and Mr Lewis talked about more resources being around than at any other time during your five years in charge. How are we getting on with IT? I take the view, and I suspect some other members do also, if not all of them, that Jobcentre Plus will not work unless the IT does.
  (Mr Brown) Certainly Jobcentre Plus, the final version of the service, is predicated on how you make these significant changes in the information technology. It is a very large programme that we are embarked upon. It will take us time to get where we want to be but eventually we want computer to speak unto computer and for the system to be holistic and to work right across the Department's range of responsibilities. I know that the members of the former Social Security Committee will know that that is not the position now. Even now Benefits work in silos, they each calculate it on their own discrete systems, and upgrading the whole system and making certain that it all talks the same language and is accessible through a range of security protocols to everyone who needs to have access to it is a very large journey to set out on. That is exactly what we are doing.

  382. But we are only setting out on it now.
  (Mr Brown) No.
  (Mr Lewis) I should like to add something to that because it is the case that some of our core benefit systems do need replacement and that is under way now. It is not all about tomorrow. We have made some huge investments in recent years which are there now. Members of the Committee will have seen, for example, in their own visits the new job point touch terminals which are being rolled out now into not just every Jobcentre Plus office but into almost every Jobcentre in the country and that by the end of this financial year will be virtually complete. That is a huge advance. It means that literally at the press of a button somebody coming into a Jobcentre can find any of our 400,000 plus jobs at any moment. We have got now as well, and have had for a year or more, all of our jobs on the net. We have become the most heavily visited Government web site in terms of people searching for work on the net. We are about to introduce our national employer direct service working through 11 call centres where employers will be able to notify job vacancies through a single telephone number nationwide in a much more efficient and effective way than we do now. It is really great to say that we have been winning some awards, national and international, for those new pieces of major technological advance. It is not all about what is coming in tomorrow. There is lots more to do but there has been some really tremendous progress and I am very proud of it.
  (Mr Brown) There is also the front of office technology as well.

  383. I know there always seem to be shifting targets with IT but until you get to the stage where computer shall speak unto computer, as you put it, have you any idea how long it is going to be until we get that kind of integration? We did hear evidence that the IT stuff was still not very good. We also heard that it was good. That is what I picked up on a visit from some of the staff.
  (Mr Brown) There are some things in the front of office where we have already made some changes and the equipment is new and modern. It is not holistic throughout the service, I have to say, and there are still investments that we need to make.

  384. When are you going to make them, is the question?
  (Mr Brown) With the front of office the programme will be finished by something like the end of this year. The heavier question of course is not about that but is about the way that the information we have is held, not so much for the Employment Service but for the benefits functions.
  (Mr Lewis) There is a major programme in the DWP which has a whole number of major initiatives attached to it. Some of that is happening now and we are rolling out now what we call EOI[81], which is the replacement of desk-top terminals throughout the existing major public face arrangements. We do have plans over a two to three year period for replacing what are called the legacy systems, those core systems that contain the benefit claims of millions of individuals. That is, as you can imagine, a very major programme not just to introduce all of that massive change but to make sure that we keep the existing systems running in the meantime and the customers do not notice any deterioration in the service to them. That programme is going ahead, there are plans for it, the investment is there, and our staff will love it if it is completed even sooner but it is undoubtedly under way.

  385. Do you think Jobcentre Plus can work in the intervening two to three years? You have talked about trying to keep it going and introduce the new stuff, which is always very hard.
  (Mr Brown) Yes is the answer to that, but it is hard work and frankly this is an appropriate moment to pay tribute to the people who are working for us who are committed to the Jobcentre Plus model and who are doing the work both front of house cheerfully and well and also providing the back-up support which is not seen by the public but is also very important, and with equipment that is frankly antiquated and which you are quite right to urge us to replace. We have a programme for replacement. I am chary about giving timescales for two reasons.

  386. There is always slippage.
  (Mr Brown) No. We are being pretty hard-headed about all this but there are still discussions with the Treasury that have to come to a conclusion and there are also of course discussions with our private sector partners and there is an element of commercial confidentiality in all of that.

Mrs Humble

  387. May I just re-visit a couple of areas that you answered questions on previously? In answer to Andrew Selous when he was talking about case loading and the length of time that the personal assistants needed to spend with people, you gave a very comprehensive answer about how you expect people to work with clients, but then in answer to Karen and talking about agreements with local authorities Leigh Lewis said that he expected personal advisers to deal with issues that were not necessarily to do with what was going on in the building but things outside, namely, housing benefit, council tax benefit and so on. Given that these personal advisers are going to be doing a complex job in their initial interviews and then maintaining that ongoing contact, do you seriously think that you have got the staffing levels right? Have you got sufficient staff to do this very important job?
  (Mr Brown) On the housing benefit question there are two aspects to it. One is about the administration of housing benefit which is the responsibility of the local authorities. Ideally I would like us to be able to work far more closely with local authorities than we do at the minute. I genuinely believe, and it is the advice that has been put to me as a Minister as well, that there would be change overload if we tried to somehow alter the relationship between the Department and the local authorities even in terms of exchanging information and so on while we are trying to implement all these other changes as well. I found the case persuasive, I have to say. On the calculation of the housing benefit entitlement, that of course is something we have to take an interest in, because we are trying to explain to a client the difference in their real income, their post tax income, between being on benefit and being in work. Of course housing benefit is part of that calculation. We can do that bit of it in-house. The adjustment of benefit is a calculation to help the client with their decision making. I think we are slightly talking about two separate issues.

  388. My question is much more focussed on whether or not you are going to have sufficient personal advisers to continue to deliver that quality of service that is the starting point that we are all at.
  (Mr Brown) If the volume of work increases we will have to get extra advisers. We cannot reduce the quality of the service, if that is the question.

  389. The personal advisers we met in the ONE pilots seemed to be enjoying their job but we were also very much aware that they were giving advice across a whole range, and clearly you have listened to some of those observations by differentiating the specific benefits adviser in the Jobcentre Plus pilot, but there was a concern that with the roll-out of the service through Jobcentre Plus there were going to be implications for staffing to continue to maintain that high quality. Can you continue to do that?
  (Mr Brown) We are committed to maintaining the high quality service and if that requires more people as demand goes up then we will have to get more people. I really do believe that very strongly.
  (Mr Lewis) The point I was trying to make, and apologies if I did not quite express it clearly enough, was not that in that situation a personal adviser would somehow take over the work of the local authority on housing benefit. It was more that if somebody who has been dealing with that personal adviser comes in and says, "I would really like to take this job. I am having great difficulty working out from the local authority what my housing benefit position would be", I would very much hope and want the personal adviser not to say, "I am awfully sorry; that is nothing to do with me", but to say, "I will ring my colleague in the local authority so that we can sort this out".

  Mrs Humble: I understood that and in fact I was hoping that that was what you meant because that surely was the whole point of setting up the scheme, that there was the one person who was going to look after your every need and be there for you.

  Mr Stewart: Just like an MP!

  390. So I am pleased that you can reassure me on that. Secondly, we had some answers on the extent of the new training for the Jobcentre Plus staff. You were talking, Mr Lewis, about making sure that the personal advisers would be looking at an individual and looking at all their circumstances. Within that training can you just reassure me that you are equipping your staff with appropriate diagnostic tools to differentiate between those people who are work ready, or should be work ready with perhaps just a little advice, and those people who are not and then making sure that they are dealing with them in the most appropriate way possible?
  (Mr Lewis) Yes, I can give you that assurance. I do not want to suggest to the Committee that somehow every one of our advisers can become totally expert in everything but yes, drawing on experience, not just from ONE pilots but from the New Deals where we have introduced something called the "client progress kit", we are trying to equip our advisers with the ability to be able to ascertain people's needs and the scale of their development opportunities so that they can make better informed choices and give better advice to people as to how they maintain their missions forward.

Miss Begg

  391. Minister, you made reference in your opening statement and explained why you have begun to roll out Jobcentre Plus before ONE was finished. I am not sure exactly what your plans are with regard to continuing the roll-out because you say in your memorandum that you sent us that you have offered the private and voluntary sector providers an extension to their contracts of one year from April 2002, and you go on to say: "At the end of such a contract period"—which will be April 2003—"we will have more concrete plans about how and at what rate we will extend Jobcentre Plus across the country". Can you clarify for us what your plans are for extension of Jobcentre Plus in the future? My second question is this. We know that good services do not come cheaply. Are you confident that the resources will be made available for the development of Jobcentre Plus so that you can provide the service that you would like to?
  (Mr Brown) The Government is committed to the Jobcentre Plus service delivery and that does not mean that we will not evaluate the different pilots that we have under way and learn lessons from them and draw them into the developing Jobcentre Plus service because of course we will. If others have suggestions or ideas that they want to contribute then of course we will listen but it is our intention to roll out the Jobcentre Plus model at the same high standard currently seen in the pilots right across the country. I would like to be able to say to the Committee that I can tell you how many years that is going to take and I can tell you how much money is going to be applied to it, but those discussions are currently the subject of the spending round bid with the Treasury and it is not for me to put the outcome into the public domain now. However, I can give the Committee an assurance that there will be a significant further development of Jobcentre Plus over this year and that there will be a rolling programme to make sure that the whole of the country has Jobcentre Plus centres and that the service is of the standard that we provide now, if not enhanced.

  392. Are you convinced, and I know that you are not going to tell us exactly how well you are doing in the spending round, that the will is there in the Government to put the resources behind such an idea?
  (Mr Brown) Yes. The Government is committed to Jobcentre Plus and it will be rolled out and there will be a significant further expansion of it this year.


  393. Can I press you on that last question?
  (Mr Brown) I am sorry I cannot quantify it. I have seen the draft figures but you must not press me on it.

  394. I perfectly well understand the position you have taken. I can tell you on the roll-out that if it gets elongated you might end up with certain parts of the country being prejudiced because they do not get access to the service.
  (Mr Brown) I want to avoid that.

  395. I will settle for that. And you will do your best, honest, guv? You were quite right, by way of conclusion, to say that we do owe a debt to the staff because it was quite clear to the Committee that, although there might be implementation problems of various kinds and you want to engage with them in a positive way and I hope our report does do that, you can certainly see that the staff who are working in the new set-up are running around with their heads a good deal higher psychologically (if I can put it that way) than some of the hard worked staff who we have seen in some of the Benefits Agency offices that we have seen in the past. That is an important sign, is it not? Your visits are like ours. You certainly come away convinced of the commitment of the staff and the valuable work that they do, and we do not often enough recognise that perhaps.
  (Mr Brown) I am pleased that the Committee has experiences have been the same as mine. I was genuinely impressed by what I saw.

  396. You have helped us enormously this afternoon, Minister. I know that these things take a lot of work at ministerial level as well as at staff level. We are really very grateful for that; it has been very helpful. I hope we will get a full Committee report made available to the public before too long.
  (Mr Brown) Thank you very much for the opportunity.

81   Early Office Infrastructure. Back

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