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23 Nov 2005 : Column 441WH—continued

Jobcentre Plus Customer Management System

11 am

Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley, and to have secured this timely debate on the Jobcentre Plus customer management system. It will have a profound effect on most, if not all Members.

The CMS has been designed as part of a complex plan to centralise and streamline the benefit system. I will focus on the roll-out of the CMS at the contact centre for the east of England, which will operate in tandem with the benefits processing centre in Norwich. The contact centre is in Lowestoft. I should add as a footnote that Great Yarmouth is 20 miles from Norwich and 11 miles from Lowestoft.

Before CMS, any prospective claimant had a choice of ways to start their claim. They could telephone or attend the local office, where queries on the relevance of questions in the claim forms could be raised. Alternatively, they could collect forms from the post office, general practitioners' surgeries, citizens advice bureaux, and so on. Now, under the CMS, the only method accessible for the vast majority of people to begin a claim is via the Lowestoft contact centre.

Unlike the previous system, the CMS is supposed to operate first by a telephone call made at the caller's expense, when they lodge a claim and basic personal details are taken. That should result in a callback within 24 hours. The outward-bound call from the contact centre should result in details being taken to enable a claim to be made and an appointment to take place at the local job centre. That process should take place within four days; then the information collected on the CMS should be transferred to the benefits system, enabling payments to be worked out within 30 days of the initial call.

The roll-out of the CMS for Great Yarmouth was delayed, owing to the associated costs of an extension required to provide a screened area for social fund work and an area for processing, and did not happen until after March. Great Yarmouth was the first office in the east of England region to use the CMS, although some offices elsewhere in the country had previously piloted the system from late last year. Management reports from the pilots, including one in the west country, were critical and concluded that the CMS did not work well in small offices. Concerns from the pilot have proved well founded in Great Yarmouth.

The CMS has meant that experienced local staff are being moved to Lowestoft to undertake contact centre work, or into Norwich to the benefits processing centre. Owing to that, we are losing a vast amount of knowledge and understanding in dealing with local cases in Great Yarmouth, as workers are coerced into moving, or being made redundant. Indeed, work force skills are being ignored to satisfy the drive to centralise processing and customer handling, whatever the consequences.

The CMS and the centralisation process have resulted in the closure to the public of Yarmouth house, the social security office covering the whole of Great Yarmouth, during a process that was accelerated over the summer, despite assurances that adequate time
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would be given to consult before a closure decision was made. Following representations from the Public and Commercial Services Union, the office is at least able to open its doors to allow people to collect payments. Despite that, however, management has refused to use the facilities available for effective customer contact.

I have been told that to avoid having to reverse a decision on closure, Jobcentre Plus management has gone so far as to send claimants to the town market place to receive a phone call in a public call box for a crisis loan interview, followed by a later call to advise them of the decision to pay under the CMS. Small queues have even been known to form at those telephone boxes as a result. Surely, if that is true, it is ridiculous, especially in the Great Yarmouth constituency, which suffers from high benefits dependency.

In the most deprived ward in one of the most deprived constituencies in the country, we have lost jobs in the community as people directly and indirectly employed in Yarmouth house have left, been moved, or await their fate under the CMS, despite Government promises that they would move more jobs away from the centres and out to areas of deprivation. Here we see the reverse happening. Perhaps the Minister will tell me how many jobs have been taken away from Great Yarmouth and give us an evaluation of why Yarmouth house was not even considered as one of those centres, because there is enough space in the building.

Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): I am interested to hear my hon. Friend's sad stories, which he will know are shared by other Members of Parliament throughout the country. For example, the CMS system in east Kent that serves my Dover constituency has caused so many problems that some people are waiting one month, or even two, to get their first jobseeker's allowance claims, and even when they go to the telephone hotline—we have to call it a warmline now, apparently—they might be waiting for an hour. Some people have even been threatened with eviction because no money is coming in during these sad, sorry delays.

Mr. Wright : Absolutely. I agree with my hon. Friend's sentiments. That situation is replicated throughout the country. Indeed, those stories are heard in my office, too.

How good is the CMS service that is replacing the service previously offered by Yarmouth house in Great Yarmouth? Apparently, only 8 per cent. of calls were getting through to the Lowestoft contact centre under the CMS at one stage, and as few as 6 per cent. were getting through elsewhere. The CMS in Lowestoft was suspended several weeks ago and the contact centre is only now starting to reuse the system. When one gets through, which takes hours and sometimes days, the initial call usually takes much longer than envisaged: 20 minutes plus instead of five minutes. The callback often comes several days, rather than several hours, later. Imagine the cost to the contact centre of lengthy calls to mobile telephones, bearing in mind that the vast majority of people claiming benefits do not have a phone in their home and rely heavily on mobile phones. The contact centre in Lowestoft is recruiting 55 more staff, which will take it to a level that it did not anticipate requiring until the full roll-out of the CMS, showing that staffing levels are set too low and have led to problems.
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I understand that staff in the centre find the work unrewarding and are aware that they provide a poor service because of that and the inadequate scripting that they are provided with under the CMS. Before CMS3 started recently, the staff had a paper brief of 35 pages of issues not covered in the script. The script restricts staff in many ways; for example, it includes a request for answers to sensitive questions about a partner's details which are not required when a claimant wishes only to claim national insurance stamps.

More concerning is the fact that under the CMS, emergency appointments are discouraged by the system because appointments cannot take place for four days after the contact centre makes its callback to allow for forms to be posted, received and brought to an interview. Non-emergency appointments to attend the jobcentre under the CMS often take place between one and two weeks later. For example, in Great Yarmouth on 18 November the first appointments were for 2 December, despite extensive overtime. Many appointments are then missed because appointments often overrun and last up to two hours rather than the projected 45 minutes. Indeed, we have only now reached the stage that we were at before Jobcentre Plus and the CMS.

The CMS is not only behind with the appointments that it keeps, but inflexible when making them. The system does not allow a booking prior to circumstances occurring. That significantly impacts on a resort such as Great Yarmouth, where the end of seasonal work could normally be planned for and appointments could be made in advance of unemployment. The CMS allows individuals to call only from the first day of unemployment. Due to its rigidity, the system also requires appointments with the financial assessor and personal adviser to take place consecutively. That has caused conflict because frustration must be managed. Yarmouth jobcentre currently has four security guards and two floor managers, when only a receptionist was required previously. Despite that deterrent to aggressive behaviour, local incidents recently included the arrest of a man in the office for possession of and threatening to use an 8-in blade. Another incident involved two men with an axe and a sharp gardening instrument being taken away by the police.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): That is only in Yarmouth.

Mr. Wright : I think they came from Norwich.

Ironically in the light of those incidents, the aim of the CMS was to reduce the need for contact and general footfall—the number of people who visit the offices to use the services available. Unlike other organisations that try to improve that scenario, Jobcentre Plus now actively discourages that by referring people to a website or another contact centre for jobs, or by advising them that they need an appointment to have a query on their benefit claim answered. The CMS was designed to play an important part in that active discouragement. Despite that, the last count in Yarmouth indicated that some 5,500 people a week came in compared with the 2,500 planned for. That is a direct result of the problems caused by making processing more remote through the CMS.
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The goal of 80 per cent. of information being transferable from the CMS to IT systems that enable the processing to be done is simply pie in the sky. Incapacity benefit claims do not transfer at all, two thirds of the others do not transfer, and anticipated savings on processing have not been realised because of the additional time required by the CMS on liaison between processing teams and financial assessors.

The administrative nightmare caused by the CMS is serious. Claims under the CMS now have to be totally rebuilt following minor administrative errors. That fault could be rectified through reprogramming, but others will not be so easy to solve. Under the CMS, statements of between 15 and 30 pages were being posted from the contact centre to local offices to avoid administrative problems in using the CMS. The situation was not vastly improved under CMS2, which required handwritten notes to be faxed to the local office from the contact centre. Under CMS3 those details are now held on the CMS, but the system continues to be unreliable. A good example of that was when it went down for the whole afternoon on 15 November.

Owing to the introduction of the CMS, some officers are no longer even taking claims. In Suffolk, only three of the 13 sites take claims. A similar process is starting in Norfolk. Soon, people from North Walsham will be required to choose to attend one of three sites, necessitating an up to 50-mile round trip at their own expense. To further compound that problem, I even heard suggestions that contact centre staff have been told to refuse requests for travelling expenses, and to refer cases for an alternative decision only when complainants become aggressive.

The closure of some sites has already occurred, with others opening on a reduced basis. As more work is centralised, the situation is likely to be exacerbated. I have been made aware of problems of constituents calling the jobcentre to ask about payments. They are referred to a team in Norwich, only to be referred again when querying payments. In future, jobseeker's allowance will be based in Basildon, social fund in Norwich and bereavement benefit in Bury St. Edmunds, with more of the same consequences.

Dissatisfaction with the CMS has been portrayed in feedback from Citizens Advice in its recent memorandum and in press articles highlighting the 62 per cent. increase in incidents in Jobcentre Plus. The Public and Commercial Services Union, representing staff in Jobcentre Plus, has made extensive efforts in consultation with and briefing of interested parties, including the Work and Pensions Committee, to raise further those concerns.

Despite that, Jobcentre Plus's middle management and the chief operating officer continue to maintain that there is no problem with the CMS. If that is the case, why has the roll-out been delayed and, more recently, suspended? Why does feedback from the practitioners in local offices, in processing, social fund and the contact centres, indicate a lack of confidence in the system? Why do complaints via various sources confirm a problem?

Middle management and the chief operating officer are completely wrong, and the strategic delivery of the CMS has been deeply flawed. The problem is profound, and it falls on the Government to address it quickly. I do not envy the Government that task and responsibility,
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working to develop a system with contracting companies that have no interest in or knowledge of the product. It is very likely that we shall have another IT disaster—similar to the Child Support Agency and debt management—unless we act quickly. Instead, we are cutting staff numbers and morale before ensuring that the transition is practicable.

We are not seeking the views of interested parties, such as Citizens Advice, welfare rights services, unemployed representatives and trade unions. Further, we are not assessing and testing new processes fully before their roll-out, and by failing to develop standard operating models and contact centres for those whose needs are best catered for by a local service, we are not addressing the equality issue.

By not resourcing the project responsibly, and by not testing the full costs of proposals, the true savings of the CMS have been massively overestimated. For example, in Yarmouth, a whole year's budget of paper was used in the first month, and the additional cost of severance schemes made possible by the changeover to the CMS is £8 million for Jobcentre Plus in the east of England for the current scheme alone. Further costs are being incurred rapidly for movement of staff, postage, telephony and movement of people and work from one office to another. That has all been undertaken without asking those most affected—the customers and proposed customers—what service they would like. We need to review with urgency the policy that has led us to that situation, put a hold on job cuts, and suspend roll-out and use of the CMS and movement of work while we do it.

This Government have built a platform dedicating polices to producing change within society and creating the support structure that society can expect. The change under discussion should be the right one, but it should be delivered using the appropriate technology, risk-assessed and properly tested. The change should ensure a high level of service, delivered locally where possible, at the right pace for customers and workers—something that the CMS is sadly not delivering.

11.14 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) on his choice of subject for this Adjournment debate and on being such an effective champion of the effective delivery of public services in his area.

During my hon. Friend's speech, he made several specific points about the performance of local services within Jobcentre Plus. I hope that I shall be able to respond to some of them in the course of my remarks, but I cannot deal with some of the specifics at this moment. I undertake to ask the local managers for a report responding to the specific points that my hon. Friend has made. Once I receive it, I will write to him in due course about the points that I am unable to cover.

Mr. Anthony Wright : In addition to the response that my hon. Friend will get from the management, will he secure a meeting with me to discuss the points face to face, rather than by correspondence?
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Mr. Plaskitt : I am more than happy to do that, because I am anxious to make progress on this matter as rapidly as we can, both for my hon. Friend's sake and for his constituents'.

When we formed Jobcentre Plus in 2002, we integrated the job-broking elements of the former Employment Service with the benefit-payment functions of the former Benefits Agency. In doing so, we created a new, modern and more accessible way of delivering services to meet the needs of all people of working age. We are three years into a four-year programme of rolling out the new services through a network of more modern offices. This week, I can report the opening of three more offices, which brings the total to 672.

Jobcentre Plus is not just about delivering services in a new, more modern physical environment; it is about delivering services in a new way to all people of working age. So, alongside the roll-out of a new network of offices, we are investing in new IT to support the new business model. We learned from the early pilots that our customers welcomed the opportunity to make contact with us using the telephone, often in the comfort of their own home. That led us to develop a network of contact centres, and to support those centres with the new customer management system that my hon. Friend has spoken about.

The CMS is an important tool in enabling our staff to collect essential information from our customers, and to use that information to build up claim details on our systems so that we can pay them the correct entitlements. We introduced the system in 2003, after first testing it in Livingston.

The system was not as robust as we needed it to be, and we took steps to correct those problems with what are known as performance releases, which my hon. Friend mentioned. I am pleased to say that, in large measure, the system is now performing in line with our requirements. However, my hon. Friend is right to draw our attention to some continuing difficulties that we have faced in operating the new business model. I acknowledge that in some parts of the country, particularly during the recent summer months, some of our customers experienced difficulty in getting in touch with us through the contact centres. That gave rise to some long waits for callers and some long delays in payments, which were not acceptable.

However, I do not want to pin the blame for those delays on the computer system. The management of Jobcentre Plus quickly realised that they needed to look more deeply for the causes of the difficulties, because it became evident that the problems were more to do with the way that the contact centres were run and the way in which calls were handled.

The management team has acted quickly to remedy the problems. It has tackled basic issues such as staff recruitment, learning and development, and the management of individual contact centres. In addition, it has invoked contingency measures and adjustments to the processes in order to recover the performance in the most affected centres. Early indications following the
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introduction of the adjustments have been encouraging. Since September, we have seen week-to-week improvements in call handling.

Gwyn Prosser : Does the Minister think that, during those difficult times and those long delays, it was sensible to continue laying off staff and reducing the establishment, especially in the south-east of England and in Norwich?

Mr. Plaskitt : I am grateful for that intervention, which reminds me that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth, who introduced the debate, has asked me to deal with specific issues on staffing numbers. I intend to do so in a moment.

Each of our 24 contact centres is working to an action plan for recovering performance, and we are managing the return to a full system as quickly and carefully as we can. Nine of the centres are continuing to operate with some clerical procedures, but well over three quarters of the new offices are now operating normally.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth asked me specifically to address issues about the closure of Yarmouth house. I understand his concern about that, but I remind him that the roll-out of Jobcentre Plus is a massive four-year programme involving the makeover and modernisation of a national network of offices. We are also developing a network of contact centres.

While we work on making our services more accessible through new IT and telephony systems in our contact centres, we have to examine carefully our use of the estate. We inherited some unsuitable buildings, often in the wrong locations. That is why we are closing some buildings and opening new ones, as well as refurbishing some existing ones. As we take forward our plans to centralise benefit processes, some buildings, including Yarmouth house, will no longer form part of our network.

We have taken a view, across the country, on the buildings most suitable for accommodating the number of processing staff that we need, and Yarmouth house does not match our requirements. That is not to say that we are in any way depriving customers in Yarmouth of a quality face-to-face service; on the contrary, a service for all our customers will continue to be delivered from Copperfield house. That service will include dealing with social fund and other inquiries that cannot be dealt with by telephone. In our processing centres, staff will be able to develop benefit knowledge and experience to deal with more complex cases more effectively and efficiently, and our customers will have greater access to services irrespective of their geographical location.

Clearly, the closure of any site has an impact on staff. My hon. Friend is, of course, concerned about that. Some 50 members of staff will need to be relocated from Yarmouth house, of whom around half are not able to travel to sites outside Great Yarmouth. Consultation will continue with individuals and we are, of course, making every effort to redeploy the staff affected to alternative jobs, including inter-departmental vacancies, to avoid redundancies. Our policy, agreed with the trade unions, has been to avoid compulsory
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redundancy wherever we can. That is why we are making every effort to redeploy those people most directly affected.

My hon. Friend also asked, rightly, about the performance of the Lowestoft contact centre. The management team at Jobcentre Plus has taken prompt action to rectify the problems at that site. That action includes: the development of a performance improvement programme; speeding up recruitment and increasing staffing numbers from 184 to 242; and providing additional learning and development support. Of course, it will take a little time for those measures to make a difference to the service for our customers, so, in addition to tackling the causes, Jobcentre Plus has introduced clerical contingency measures and temporary changes to its business processes to ensure that customers are not inconvenienced. That has had an immediate impact on performance in terms of answering calls; it improved significantly in the last week of September, and went from below 50 per cent. to above 90 per cent., a level that has been maintained for a six-week period.

I add for my hon. Friend's information that I have been checking performance at the Lowestoft centre against the national situation. Back in the summer—in August—the national performance was way short of the target that we set, but the Lowestoft performance was even worse. The more encouraging news recently is that, nationally, we are now very close to hitting the 90 per cent. target. However, at the beginning of November the Lowestoft centre was exceeding both national performance and the national target; so in a period of four or five months there has been a sharp improvement in performance.

I acknowledge that last week there was a drop to 82 per cent. when a number of calls were diverted from another site to Lowestoft in order to support learning and development activities in Lowestoft. However, we are monitoring the position on a week-by-week basis and taking whatever measures we need to sustain and improve performance. Jobcentre Plus has stipulated that, for every site operating on clerical contingency, there must be a management action plan to map out the return to operation on the full CMS system. Across the east of England region, those plans are in place for each site. I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured to know that we will be reviewing the plans on a site-to-site basis in the next month with a view to moving them to the full CMS supported process on a staged basis. The review will allow me to see performance figures from the centre in his constituency, and I will be happy to discuss them with him when he and I meet after I have had a more detailed report from the region.

Our modernisation programme is about much more than a network of new offices. In parallel with physical upgrading of the offices, we have started to build a modern infrastructure, including new contact centres supported by new IT systems. CMS is an important part of the modernisation programme. It enables people to provide the information that we need to assess their benefit entitlements. By enabling our customers to provide information by telephone, we are responding to their desire to deal with us from their own home, which we learned of when we tested the use of contact centres in the ONE pilots.
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The introduction of new processes has not been without teething problems, as my hon. Friend and others are all too aware. However, we are working hard to deal with the difficulties, and I hope that I have been able to show that we are making real progress in improving the service to our customers. Our handling of calls is improving on a week-to-week basis, and every site now has a managed plan to return to the full CMS operation. The Jobcentre Plus management board is determined to maintain that improvement, and I assure my hon. Friend that I am determined to give it every support in achieving that objective.

11.27 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.

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