Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. Where callers have hearing difficulties or do not have a phone, can you tell us what steps you are taking to provide services for those two groups?
  (Ms Cleveland) Part of the question is whether people can deal with us over the telephone. If they cannot, we shall make other arrangements for them, either for them to come to one of the surgeries which we are going to provide locally, or, if necessary, a home visit for them. Language is another issue.

  21. We are going to come onto that.
  (Ms Cleveland) That is another issue where we need to make sure we have the right services in place.

  22. You will be aware from the Committee's report on Pension Credit that one of our recommendations was that you should have a free-phone service for pensioners. Could you tell us whether these are in the Service's plans?
  (Ms Cleveland) They are not at the moment in the Service's plans. We have some free phone services, but we are reviewing all of our helplines and other lines. At the moment we are assuming local call rate charges.

  23. Will you keep the free-phone under review and the decision to use the telephone generally?
  (Ms Cleveland) Yes. We are talking about the telephone being the primary route coming through. We already know from other research that lots of people would also like to deal with us over the internet as well. We are looking to have a multi-channel offering which gives people several different routes by which they can access us. In the case of pensioners, it is often other community workers or family who are the first people who make contact on behalf of a relative. We are trying to increase the general accessibility of the Service.


  24. How do overseas pensioners relate to the Service?
  (Ms Cleveland) Largely by telephone or e-mail. E-mail is growing in that area.

  25. If they are dealing with you by telephone, do they pay international rates?
  (Ms Cleveland) Yes, they do.

  26. Are you comfortable with that?
  (Ms Cleveland) Yes. It is a choice about whether you go to live overseas.

Mr Dismore

  27. May I pick up one of the points before going on to the main body of my questions? You mentioned that the feedback you had had from the free-phone lines was very favourable.
  (Ms Cleveland) Yes.

  28. That is certainly not the impression I get from the Help the Aged report and the letter they sent to us about this which you have seen and which Andrew Selous briefly referred to. They have given us an extract of a series of appalling examples of the existing system. They comment that many older people already using phone services, such as the MIG helpline, have been badly let down by the service available to callers. The examples they give indicate a terrible lack of knowledge and training on the part of the staff on basic things such as the qualifying age for the MIG system and the more difficult questions about some of the disability benefits. What is your comment on the fact that under the existing system, clearly there are serious problems in terms of staff not knowing what they are doing and how are you going to address that?
  (Ms Cleveland) First of all, this is the report on Senior Line. Help the Aged have sent us reports in the past and they get fed into our programme looking at training for the staff and the same would happen with these cases. Clearly I am not going to try to defend the indefensible, because some of those are appalling circumstances which are shown there. That is very much what has brought us to this view of having staff operating telephones who are trained to deal with queries across the range of products we have rather than just Minimum Income Guarantee or Retirement Pension or through the Benefit Enquiry Line which is also referenced in that letter on disability benefits. It is very much why we have gone—again you probably saw—for a way of scripting for inquiries, but also the help facility that is available to people so if they are asked for something which is outside their terms of reference, they can very quickly get that information available to them. We have also set standards, particularly within the Empower Programme, which is what we used to set up Burnley, that nobody can undertake telephone call duties unless they have been through very specific training modules and we have identified all of those.

  29. Help the Aged will not be able to produce a similar report in relation to phone calls to Burnley next year?
  (Ms Cleveland) You can never say that. I am not going to promise that you will never get an issue like that. We monitor the calls which are made, we record calls, we can monitor them and we are looking to pick up problems far more quickly. Charlie has some ideas about how we can begin to improve training so that you can actually pick up if people are giving incorrect information. It is their managers who will identify that from listening in to a sample of the calls and being able to organise remedial training immediately, not having to wait for a year until you get an external report coming in from Help the Aged.

  30. If someone has given duff advice, will they be immediately contacted and given the right advice?
  (Ms Cleveland) That would be the only way you could take it forward.

  31. That will happen?
  (Ms Cleveland) Yes.

  32. The particular issue I wished to cover with you is ethnic community claimants and the focus on the telephone. How would an ethnic community claimant who does not speak English even know about your Service?
  (Ms Cleveland) Because of our leaflets. Our leaflets are published in different languages and even the general leaflets have paragraphs at the end in different languages. When we have been working with groups from different ethnic backgrounds, often a lot of people speak their native language, but they do not always read their native language. That was quite an eye-opener to me when we did some work on a tele-point. People could look at forms on a screen and they could choose the language they saw the form in and they could choose the language they listened to a commentary in. The vast majority were picking their native tongue to hear it and looking at the form in English because they did not read their native tongue. We cannot rely just on leaflets. That is why forming much closer partnerships with local groups, whether it is churches, local communities or such like, is going to be important. At the moment, the issue is that if someone does not speak English, by and large if they come into an office, or they use the telephone, often it is a family friend, community worker, or someone else who makes that first contact for them.

  33. Are you happy with relatives acting as interpreters?
  (Ms Cleveland) It is not so much whether I am happy, it is whether the customer is happy. If that is what makes them feel comfortable in the way they deal, that is fine. We offer a telephone interpreting service, so it is not essential that a relative acts on their behalf, but if that is what makes the customer feel more comfortable, then yes, I am very happy with it.

  34. A lot of the time, certainly in my experience, people in that situation really have very little choice other than to use a relative. Are you saying that is not going to be the case?
  (Ms Cleveland) I said that we can offer a telephone interpreting service so that there is a third party on the call who can do the translation.

  35. Can we explore that a little further? I have a London constituency. In my constituency, I have about 25 per cent of the community from different ethnic groups and other constituencies in London obviously have a lot more than that. We have an increasing number of pensioners from ethnic communities as part of the overall pensioner care board as well. What will happen, supposing one of my constituents, say a little old lady who only speaks Gujarati or an old chap who only speaks Cantonese, picks up the phone and phones one of your offices in Dundee?
  (Ms Cleveland) It does not matter, it would go to the right office for them based on their telephone number.

  36. Then he starts talking in Cantonese or Gujarati. What will happen?
  (Ms Cleveland) They would pretty quickly identify that they could not deal with them. What they would try to do is establish the language that someone is talking in.

  37. How would they do that?
  (Ms Cleveland) Very few people have absolutely no English. It is an issue which we have with people coming in face to face at the moment.

  38. I am sorry, that is not the case, particularly when you are dealing with some elderly people, particularly women from the Indian sub-continent. A lot of them do not speak any English at all. I know that when I call on the doorstep they have to get a little kid to come along just to identify what I am talking about. That is not the case.
  (Ms Cleveland) The only other option is to have 160 different telephone lines with someone permanently there who can speak the language. We are predominantly an English speaking country. The experience we have so far is that people who come and contact us at the moment contact us with someone who can at least get an appointment at the right part of the organisation. We can arrange to phone people back at certain times, and such like, but you are right, if someone phones up and speaks in Cantonese to almost any of our offices, we will not necessarily realise whether it is Cantonese or Mandarin or Vietnamese in terms of taking that through.

  39. How will you make arrangements for a call back, if you have nobody who speaks the language?
  (Ms Cleveland) The usual point of contact for someone who cannot speak the language will not by and large be over the telephone. It will be through a family member, if it is over the phone, or a community member, or through the local service.


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