Select Committee on Work and Pensions Seventh Report

4  The claimant experience

181. DWP provides a service to its claimants, and rightly aims to treat people in a sympathetic and dignified way. One of its five strategic objectives is to "ensure customers receive a high quality service, including high levels of accuracy."[209] The DWP's report Getting Welfare Right stated that "our customers matter to us. We want to continue to respond to their needs and individual circumstances."[210] As we stated in the introduction to this report, the claimant's perspective must be central in assessing the impact of complexity, and in working out ways to mitigate it.

182. John Wheatley of Citizens Advice told us that claimants:

"come to the system not knowing what benefit they want to claim. They come knowing that they need help but they are in a situation where they do not have the money and they need to do what they need to do. So they are looking for a system which gives them the answer, tells them what their entitlement is." [211]

183. Sue Royston said that, in her view, it was possible to address complexity by shielding the claimant:

"I think it is inevitable that there will be some complexity, but a lot of complexity could be masked by better delivery for the customer. In terms of an affordable way to tackle complexity, masking complexity is very important - delivering a system which is easy to use." [212]

184. Fran Bennett spoke of the importance of designing processes from the point of view of the claimant, rather than the system, referring to:

"the danger of what we used to call at the Child Poverty Action Group 'the administrative imperative'; in other words, doing things because it is simpler administratively, without looking at the whole picture from the claimant's perspective". [213]

185. The Minister stressed that customers did have the right to expect the DWP to be providing services in an appropriate way:

"It is about keeping up, but more than keeping up, it is also about keeping ahead, and we do have to think about our customers' expectations; after all, how are they engaging with the real world in respect of other things that they are doing? They should not expect the process in respect of benefits to be any further behind the way they are doing their banking or getting their TV licence, or anything else that they regularly engage with; we should be making the same sort of effort." [214]

186. DWP is attempting to implement these ideas through its Insight programme. It explained that during 2007-08 it is aiming to "understand better what customers want through a newly established Customer Insight team".[215] It conceded that the "Department currently takes a product-based view of its customers" but continued that Insight would help it to understand:

"What customers want and need from the Department's services;

"How products and services come together in groups for individuals;

"How those individuals would or could access those products and services and how DWP might target its service delivery to meet customer needs in the most efficient way possible;

"How the service to customers may impact upon policy outcomes and, therefore, how to prioritise, design and deliver services in order to maximise positive outcomes." [216]

187. The DWP has recently advertised for a new Director of Customer Insight, a post which is to command a salary of £100,000.[217] The programme is therefore at an early stage and the three senior operational managers we took evidence from were unaware of it.[218]


188. Sue Royston told us that one way of better capturing the claimant experience would be to work on customer pathways or journeys:

"One way in which you could look at measuring complexity would be to have, in a sense, a whole basket of customer journeys, starting with straightforward journeys like a partner leaving; but also dealing with more complex journeys … These journeys would be examined to measure all sorts of things like how easy was it for the person to find out about benefits? Do benefits get missed? How many contacts does the person have to make in order to claim the benefit? How easy is it to report a change of circumstances? Do they have to go to lots of places? Can they just report it once? Is the information shared better, so that different departments find out about any changes? Do they have a way of finding out about new entitlement?" [219]

189. Although she added that this did not necessarily lead on to introducing 'segmentation', ie the process in marketing of dividing a market into distinct subsets (segments) that behave in the same way or have similar needs:

"there are dangers of too much segmenting, in that people have complex lives. The lone parent that I mentioned, because she separated, was taken down that route and the two lots of DLA were missed. You have to be careful to get the full complexity of people's lives." [220]

190. The DWP researched the feasibility of profiling claimants in a 2003 study. The research concluded that "Profiling outperforms the random allocation of treatments but wrong denial and wrong treatment rates are not trivial." It added "whether statistical profiling performs accurately enough for policy purposes is a subjective judgement."[221]

191. The Freud Report quoted research done by DWP on a 'segmentation tool' which also posed questions about its value:

"The 2005 pilots also included a pilot around segmentation. This was specifically to see whether a simple 'tool' could be used to identify those who would be most likely to come off the register in the first 13 weeks … The segmentation tool was reasonably effective in identifying those who are likely to sign off within 13 weeks - around 60% of those defined as 'green' (and likely to leave JSA within three months) did flow off benefit, compared with around 50% of those defined as 'red'. However this also suggests: a high level of mis-classification; and a high proportion of people classified as 'green' still on JSA after three months."[222]

192. We agree with Sue Royston that looking at customer journeys could be a good way of shedding light on the claimant experience, and as such should be a useful tool for the new Customer Insight Team.

Single point of contact


193. We cover the rules governing the reporting of changes of circumstances later in this report. The fact that claimants have to deal with multiple agencies was identified by several witnesses as a real pinch point of complexity for people. Sue Royston told us:

"If there was one point of contact, it would make it much simpler for the claimant but it would also stop overpayments. It is where somebody reports, 'I have done some extra work' to one department and then thinks that that goes through, but it does not get passed on … From all the disability groups and the welfare rights groups I have talked to, the sharing of information was a huge request. It probably came top of the list." [223]

194. This assessment was borne out by the evidence we received from other organisations. Every Disabled Child Matters explained:

"In our experience, the majority of overpayments and underpayments to claimants are caused by poor inter and intra agency communication, and to claimants not understanding that agencies are most unlikely to be talking to one another and that they should notify other benefit paying agencies of relevant changes." [224]

195. John Wheatley of Citizens Advice described the current situation, where people had to approach different parts of government, as "beyond the wit of most people";[225] and Paul Treloar of Disability Alliance talked about "a very disjointed approach."[226] Paul Dornan of CPAG stressed that the data-sharing needed to be done in real-time.[227]

Case study: "Someone came into a CAB. Somehow the benefits system had registered incorrectly that their child was no longer there; and, as a result, all their benefits had stopped. It took the adviser three hours to report to five different benefits to get their benefits back into payment. That was with all our contact numbers and our knowing exactly where to go and who to reach. It would have been impossible for the claimant to do that on his own, and yet all his benefits had stopped."[228] [Sue Royston]

196. The CPAG memorandum referred to a test case "in which the DWP successfully argued that even though one part of it knew about a change in circumstances, other parts of the DWP could not be assumed to know about the change."[229]

197. The NAO was particularly critical of where the DWP was starting from in its IT and the links internally between systems:

"The Department has 35 major IT systems and is currently undergoing one of the largest modernisation programmes in Europe after a period of limited investment in making linkages between systems. This has affected its ability to help staff cope with the complex system. IT modernisation is constrained by complexity, with solutions made harder in some cases by a lack of compatibility between different systems."

Although it added:

"However, the Department advised us that the infrastructure is being put in place to enable existing systems to be replaced with new, accessible technology which would help staff make more common connections and allow eligibility and award recommendations to be made for more complex cases." [230]

198. The DWP's recent report on error, Getting Welfare Right, commented that:

"According to findings of our internal research, some customers fail to report changes in their circumstances for the following reasons: Customers' awareness and knowledge of the specific changes that have to be reported can be patchy …; Customers struggle to apply the requirement to report changes in circumstances to real-life situations …; and Customers also assume that when they report a change of circumstances to one part of the Department or their local authority, the information is automatically shared with other relevant parts of the Department, and that they therefore do not need to inform them separately.

"We accept that we have to do a lot more to explain the requirements of individual benefits to our customers more clearly and on a more frequent basis."[231]

199. The report concluded that:

"We need to do more than improve our leaflets and heighten customer awareness. We plan to look creatively at how to make it easier for customers to report changes of circumstance, as well as raising their awareness about what they need to report, when and to whom - a particular difficulty for those recipients of Housing Benefit who are not receiving any other benefits, as they do not have the regular face-to-face contact that Jobcentre Plus has with many of its customers."[232]

200. The value of a single point of contact is rising up the government agenda. It was recently raised by Sir David Varney in his review of public service delivery, Service transformation: a better deal for citizens and businesses, a better deal for the taxpayer.[233] He identified a number of key actions for the Comprehensive Spending Review 2007 in order to deliver a broader service transformation programme, including the development of "a change of circumstances service starting with bereavement, birth and change of address by 2010, initiated as a feasibility study, to drive citizen and business focused cross-government working."[234] The report added that the Government should also:

"improve Directgov and so they become the primary information and transactional channels for citizens and businesses, reducing the number of departmental specific websites .. [and provide] the Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Paymaster General respectively with responsibility for the services".[235]

201. The Report continued that progress against the objectives should be very closely monitored:

"I recommend that establishing and taking forward a service transformation programme with an associated published delivery plan should be one of the Government's top priority outcomes for the 2007 CSR period. This level of priority will be essential to driving the programme forward and to incentivise collaboration across the public sector. I would recommend that there is regular monitoring of progress on the programme and that there is a much greater use of benchmarks to judge how departments are performing. Finally, as happens already with existing PSAs, I recommend that performance against the delivery plan is made public, on at least an annual basis, so that citizens and businesses can judge how public services are changing."[236]

202. Alexis Cleveland, Chief Executive of the Pension Service, told us that the change of circumstances initiative was now known as the "Tell Us Once" project, and that she was leading it. She continued that the project had started in January in liaison with HMRC, the Department of Communities and Local Government and the Department of Health, and involving other organisations such as CRUSE.[237] A feasibility study had been submitted to Gus O'Donnell and the Civil Service Steering Board in May, and the project was now moving to pilot stage.

203. Alexis Cleveland added that issues under consideration included not just improving how the Government received information from the public but also what it did with it, warning about the risk of claimants being "drowned in brown envelopes … if we then all individually, as departments, trigger a response back to an individual."[238]

204. The recent DWP Getting Welfare Right refers to two ongoing projects in this area. Firstly, the One: Time Solution, which "will introduce a new IT process within Jobcentre Plus and The Pension Service, which will provide improved data-sharing and data-matching capability. It will also contain tools for use by managers and staff, which will help them to carry out their work more easily and efficiently. By extracting and converting data held in the Department's existing computer systems in a new way, it will be possible to make better use of this information in the future",[239] and is due to go-live around the middle of 2007.[240] Secondly, a new computer system, the Customer Information System, which "interacts with our current IT. It will share across the Department basic customer information such as name, address and rate of other benefits in payment".[241]

205. We asked the Minister for his views on the single point of contact. He replied that "it should be the case, ultimately, that customers can give us the essential information which the system needs, give it to us once and then we will have what we need."[242] He continued:

"that is the way government services will move, and in terms of supporting customers it is the way they should move. I think you can see bits of that beginning to happen already. It will work provided that behind the shop window, if you like, all the different bits are joined up on our side, and so successful systems of data-sharing between different parts of government are critical to achieving that vision which we have got, and that is beginning to happen. There is very positive discussion and work taking place between ourselves and HMRC, for example, on this." [243]

206. He added that he saw the system as being in "a transitional phase at the moment, to be honest with you, moving from what was, of course, a predominantly paper-based system to one which ultimately, I think, will be far more electronically data-based."[244] Brendan O'Gorman added that the Pension Service was working on an electronic document storage system. A contract to deliver this would be advertised at the beginning of 2008; and if the product was successful, it would be rolled out to other Agencies.[245]

207. We welcome Sir David Varney's recommendation that a Government-wide change of circumstance service should be established by 2010. Given that the DWP has such an important role in the delivery of the Varney review through the 'Tell Us Once' project, we believe that successful implementation should be incorporated as part of the Department's targets, and closely monitored as proposed by Sir David Varney.

208. Tell Us Once is limited to a relatively narrow area, so we welcome the Minister's commitment to introduce a single point of contact for changes of circumstances across DWP, including for housing benefit, and ask the Department to set out a timetable of its wider work to achieve this, including the One:Time Solution and the Customer Information System. It is essential that a single point of contact is developed to facilitate both the easy communication of changes in circumstances by claimants and a prompt response from agencies. This will help claimants to avoid unnecessary hardship, such as the threat of eviction.

209. We welcome the fact that progress is being made towards the introduction of an electronic document storage facility in the Pension Service, and ask DWP to keep us informed of progress with this important project.


210. Professor Veit-Wilson noted that Lord Beveridge had observed that because of the complexity of the social welfare system "Citizens cannot be left to find out all about it by reading official pamphlets, however clearly they may be written."[246] There was a role also for expert help and advice.

211. The potential of one-stop-shops was raised in the evidence we received. Janet Allbeson described them as "a sort of holy grail", adding "It has proved very hard to put into practice, that is the truth of it."[247] When we visited the United States, we were told about the 'one-stop centers' that had been established following the Workforce Investment Act 1998; it was stressed to us that although information was often available in one place, it did not help if the rules and eligibility were different. In addition, although the centers were mandated to provide integrated services to the unemployed, they were not expected to offer certain services, but just to provide information about them.[248]

212. David Freud's report had an ambitious aim for Jobcentre Plus in becoming a one-stop shop:

"With responsibility for tailored employment support for the hard to help transferred to the private and voluntary sector, Jobcentre Plus should have the capacity to become the natural one-stop shop for a large number of standardised services for the mass market. This would place Jobcentre Plus at the heart of a connected set of welfare services, giving claimants and the taxpayer the full advantage of the contact it has and its physical presence on the high street. Jobcentre Plus could provide a one-stop base for relevant changes of circumstance, as proposed by Varney; consolidate the provision of benefit services, including working Tax Credits and housing benefit; sit at the heart of an integrated employment and skills service (Leitch); and further promote access to formal childcare (Harker)."[249]

213. Sir David Varney also recommended "the establishment of more cross-government one-stop-shop services. These should develop into locations where the whole of a 'theme' can be transacted, covering both central and local government, starting with the change of circumstances service".[250]

214. The Minister took the view that there should be a "one-stop principle rather than a one-stop shop … Different customers will want to deal with this in different ways and what I want to ensure is that, whatever approach any particular customer wants to take to us, we are facilitating it and supporting it."[251]

215. However, he added:

"In more and more parts of the country there are physical one-stop shops appearing, where one individual can guide someone through the whole range of public services which they might be engaged with, which, say, are much wider than just DWP or benefits issues. I think, logically, this is the way things are progressing. I share your vision." [252]

216. He drew attention to the work currently underway in Local Government with Local Area Agreements to drive such projects forward.[253] A Local Area Agreement "is a three year agreement, based on local Sustainable Community Strategies, that sets out the priorities for a local area agreed between Central Government, represented by the Government Office (GO), and a local area, represented by the local authority and other key partners through Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs)."[254] They are structured around "children and young people, safer and stronger communities, healthier communities and older people, and economic development and enterprise."[255] Alexis Cleveland, Chief Executive of the Pension Service, spoke about the work her Agency was doing with the Disability and Carers Service and local authorities to integrate services more effectively.[256]

217. Other witnesses stressed that it was vital to bring in other agencies to this work, such as health visitors. Steve Broach of EDCM told us "I do not think we can expect professionals across the other sectors to become experts in benefits advice, but they need to know where to refer people to,"[257] adding "it is the responsibility of the local agencies … to be talking to each other." Dr Paul Dornan made the point that this should be regarded as part of professional continuous development, "not an add-on to the job": "if you are looking at the health of a family and the health of a child, their income is fundamentally important."[258]

218. We look forward to the Government's response to the Freud review, and trust that it will include an assessment of the feasibility of his suggestion that Jobcentre Plus offices should become one-stop-shops for a range of government services. In the meantime, DWP does need to ensure that its links with other agencies who have direct contact with vulnerable people, such as health visitors and local authorities, are strong, and that help and advice about benefits is widely available.


219. The issue of the level of expertise needed on the Jobcentre Plus front line was also covered by several witnesses. Sue Royston told us:

"At the moment, the person at the contact centre deliberately has no expertise in benefits whatever. You need an expert at the front of the process, together with an expert computer system. However, the script could be a lot simpler if they had someone who understood the system but also had the script or a benefit calculator as a back-up. The combination of the two would make a big difference."[259]

220. Sue Royston's report added:

"There is no obvious place within the system where all customers can explain their position and get information about which benefits to claim and the effect this will have on other entitlements eg. the effect of DLA on HB or TCs. As a result, throughout the system there are helpful people giving information when asked but because there are no clear formal arrangements this is often done without the necessary training or backup and the resulting information is sometimes misleading or incomplete."[260]

She suggested that a 'benefit check' should be part of the early screening stage.[261]

221. John Wheatley of Citizens Advice said:

"you need people running the system at the front end who have some inkling of how the system works. It cannot all be done by a script. Otherwise, you take people through the whole script when it is clear from the very outset that they have capital or maintenance which takes them above the level of entitlement for Income Support. You end up with a lengthy call, at the end of which no-one is clear whether anyone is entitled to help and I think that is just a waste of resources."[262]

222. Janet Allbeson of One Parent Families took the view that "the reality is that you have to understand the rules behind the pressing buttons and the cost pressures on the Department, which in a sense I suppose are inevitable, but it means that you have really fairly basically trained staff doing clerical tasks and they do not understand or they cannot explain what they are doing."[263] Michael Fothergill of Off the Streets and Into Work made a similar point.[264]

223. Steve Devereux of Jobcentre Plus, giving his personal opinion, agreed that:

"an understanding of the benefit conditionality would enhance the information gathering process … . I think the improved understanding would enhance that information gathering. In terms of how much information is missing, roughly 56% of the jobseeker's allowance claims, for example, that my Benefit Delivery Centre takes are fully evidenced, fully supported. That means that 44% are not, of course, but 56% are."[265]

224. We were interested to note that Alexis Cleveland, Chief Executive of the Pension Service, told us that her Agency had a very different approach. She commented that "the way we have chosen to set up the business is not to have heavily scripted conversations" as "we have learnt that from … insurance companies and other people … often you can pick up other needs better if you work through a conversation rather than if you are going through a script."[266] Her colleague Janet Grossman stressed that this went alongside substantial staff training and stringent tests of accuracy.[267]

225. We explored the use of the Script during our inquiry into the Efficiency Savings Programme in Jobcentre Plus. In that report we concluded:

"that the script does not prevent misinformation and that a certain level of knowledge of the benefits system is needed to prevent customers being given misleading information about potential entitlement. We therefore recommend that Jobcentre Plus increases the level of training for those who join Contact Centres without a knowledge of the benefits system, recognises the value of experience with benefits advice of some of its First Contact Officers and works both to refine the script and to accept a certain amount of deviation from it."[268]

226. Jobcentre Plus needs staff on the front-line who have a degree of expertise in the benefits system and are not tightly bound to the script. The analogy we would draw here is with a triage nurse in an Accident and Emergency Department. It would be inefficient if staff in Jobcentre Plus contact centres, who will be dealing with routine calls most of the time, were fully trained-up experts in the benefits system. But they should be better trained than they are now, to provide a more informed and flexible service to claimants and save work further down the line. Jobcentre Plus should learn the lessons of its sister Agencies, particularly the Pension Service, on this.


227. The need for greater inter-departmental coordination of different types of financial support was raised in the evidence we received. The Chartered Institute of Taxation Low Incomes Tax Reform Group suggested that the division between DWP and HMRC "causes not only needless system complexity but also confusion to the individual claimant" adding that "this complexity and confusion can be reduced, if not minimised, by the two Departments consulting each other when framing policy and procedures, and working together more."[269]

"Case study: Mrs D (55) is working, Mr D (61) has no income having just lost his Incapacity Benefit. The couple receive a small amount of Working Tax Credit. They apply for, and receive, a small amount of Pension Credit.

Receiving state Pension Credit makes them entitled to maximum Working Tax Credit. Therefore if Mr and Mrs D notify HMRC immediately of their Pension Credit award they will have their Working Tax Credit increased from a small amount of £8.73 per week to their maximum amount of £76.79 per week.

This is where the problem begins for Mr and Mrs D. The subsequent increase in their Working Tax Credit is a change which they must notify to the pension service immediately. The consequence of this is that their Pension Credit will be re-calculated to take into account the increased Working Tax Credit, thus reducing their Pension Credit entitlement to nil. Because Mr and Mrs D are no longer entitled to any Pension Credit, they are no longer passported to maximum Working Tax Credit. Therefore in order to avoid an overpayment of Working Tax Credit they would need to inform HMRC of this. This will mean that their WTC will be recalculated to a much lower amount. At this point Mr and Mrs D would most likely re-qualify for Pension Credit. So Mr and Mrs D are back to the same position they were in at the start. They can now apply for Pension Credit, which will then passport them back to maximum Working Tax Credit….and so the circularity continues."[270]

228. DWP's memorandum highlighted the work ongoing with HMRC in the North East of England to develop service improvements, which has involved HMRC and DWP staff working together in the same locations. It stated:

"This is not wholly new territory - these organisations already seek to share information as part of many core processes - but it represents a potential step-change in the scale and impact of that activity.

"When an unemployed person in the trial area leaves benefit to take up work, Jobcentre Plus staff will work with them to initiate and partially populate a claim for Tax Credit at the same time as they close the benefit claim. They will similarly pursue possible Housing Benefit/CTB claims or changes in conjunction with local authority staff. This ensures that people are aware of, claim and much more quickly receive in-work benefit and Tax Credit entitlements.

"Conversely, when someone leaves work and claims JSA, Jobcentre Plus staff share information as appropriate with colleagues in HMRC (so that appropriate Tax Credits can be stopped immediately, thus avoiding overpayments and debts) and the local authority (to initiate or amend a claim for Housing Benefit/CTB)."[271]

229. DWP concluded that "It is too soon for evidence to be available on the impact of the trial on employment outcomes but the initial impact has been very positive: More claimants are aware of potential in-work entitlements; Claimants moving into work are having Tax Credits processed within 3 days and People moving out of work are receiving both JSA and Housing Benefit within around 17 days, compared to a baseline for the latter of around 37 days." It announced in June, after we had finished taking oral evidence, that the trial was being expanded to a further six local authorities.[272]

230. Given the points we have made already about the importance of improving the interface between in-work and out-of-work benefits, the joint DWP/HMRC pilot to develop service improvements sounds promising and we welcome the fact that it is being extended.


231. When the Committee was in California members were given a presentation on a system called One-E-App, which is described on its website as:

"a Web-based system for connecting families with a range of publicly funded health and social service programs. This one-stop approach improves the efficiency and user-friendliness of the application process for families seeking health coverage."[273]

232. The system provides a "one-stop process for preliminary eligibility determination and electronic submission across multiple programmes."[274] In essence it takes a claimant's details once and gives a preliminary indication of eligibility for certain benefits (which benefits are included depends on the state). The claimant can then choose which benefits to apply for, and their details are transferred on to the legacy Government systems for processing in the normal way. The system electronically captures and stores paper documents. Once faxed through they are electronically linked to the application and the images are saved. The applicant's signature is also captured electronically.[275]

233. One-E-App was developed from an earlier system called Health-e-App and is jointly funded by the California Healthcare Foundation and the California Endowment. It is operational in seven California counties (Alameda, Fresno, Los Angeles, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz), and also used in Arizona and Indiana.[276] Its development drew heavily on the 'Turbo Tax' form, a paperless tax application used throughout the US.

234. Housing 21 suggested an on-line benefits portal would be of considerable use in the UK, proposing "a 'one stop shop' web portal ('Benefits Direct') … using a model similar to the NHS Direct website."[277] We asked the Minister about One-e-App and the potential use of similar systems in the UK. He told us that quite a lot was happening in data sharing, and he thought that this would be an important step forward,[278] although he added:

"that is a perfectly sensible principle. I think quite a lot of our forms are available by downloading from websites already, as I understand it, that is already the case and the technology is going to take us in that direction. I think, yes, is the succinct answer to your question on that." [279]

235. Interestingly, the DWP Report Getting Welfare Right proposed a similar-sounding system to One-e-App:

"In the longer term, we aspire to enable most of our customers to make benefit claims over the internet securely. We already provide electronic versions of claim forms … But we want to go much further than this. If customers can complete the forms online, they should be able to complete them in their own time, with the ability to save them and return to them when they have the correct information to hand.

The technology supporting the interactive online application would be able to validate the information the customer inputs as each page is completed online and would provide a warning message should the information appear to be incorrect. The online application form could also be designed so that a claim could not be submitted until simple errors or inconsistencies are corrected. This information would then be ready to be input directly into our benefits systems without the need for re-entry of data, which is where error can enter the system."[280]

It also noted "In December 2006, new legislation enabled local authorities to accept claims to benefit, amendments to claims and change of circumstance notifications electronically or by telephone."

236. We sought information on the 'My DWP project', which aims to provide the following services through a secure internet service on the DirectGov website by the end of March 2008:

"a customer benefit enquiry service that shows which benefits are in payment and when from; and

"a benefit advisor service that will seek to identify which benefits a customer may be entitled to, based on information input by customers, and signpost the customer's next steps to claim or make further enquiries. This service will also, at first for a limited group of customers, provide an initial calculation of benefit entitlement."[281]

237. The note adds that "These services will be prioritised and phased in to ensure that the most beneficial services for customers are delivered first and customer analysis currently underway will guide this."[282]

238. The Minister described this initiative as:

"a very important internet-based service, which will give any customer access to far more information about their records, their potential entitlements, than they can establish quickly at the moment, that again will be another big step forward towards achieving simplification." [283]

239. He added:

"once we have got the internet system ready for roll-out in 2008, the quality of information and support and advice that we are going to be able to give to customers about their own individual claims and the entitlements and the record attached to it will move forward considerably from where it is now." [284]

240. We spoke to Lesley Strathie, Chief Executive of Jobcentre Plus, in January of this year and asked her then what progress was being made with online applications. She explained that "It is not efficient for us at the moment because efficiency would be if the customer could complete the form online and immediately it went into the legacy systems and a payment was processed and out the other side; but we are quite a way from there,"[285] adding "The balance is, for me, I cannot conjure up resources. I have got many challenges and I want to offer the citizens of this country as much choice as possible in getting a really good service, but very often choice costs, and that is the balance."[286]

241. We ask DWP to consider whether its 'My DWP' project should include the function to submit applications for benefits online using a secure system with links to the DWP's own processing systems, along the lines of the One-e-App process used in parts of the USA. We also ask DWP to set out the legislative background to the need for a signature on claim forms, which is often described as a barrier to on-line applications.

Letters and leaflets

242. The Minister highlighted the work that DWP has been doing to improve its leaflets:

"Thanks to the work which was initiated by the BSU undertaking a programme of rationalising all of the literature and leaflets which the Department issues, there were 245, we are down to 178, I think the target is to get it down to 100; we are trying to secure Plain English Campaign accreditation for every single one."[287]

243. Several witnesses commended this work. Anna Pearson thought that the 'leaflet rewrite project' had been a success,[288] and Sue Royston agreed, although she added that "leaflets are not the total answer to dealing with complexity for claimants."[289] Bill Farrell of the Disability and Carers Service explained that work was underway to improve claim forms, and said that the new forms had been well received.[290]

244. Despite these improvements, however, we received evidence on the persistent complexity in letters sent out to claimants. John Wheatley of Citizens Advice said:

"I have been discussing with DWP and its predecessors the need to improve the quality of basic letters since I was a much younger person, and I have grown old in the process really. It is constantly thrown back at you that there are legacy systems which limit their ability to change the way they communicate with clients. I regularly see letters that are sent to clients … They are automatically generated; there is no human being involved in the process of looking at them, and that, I think, is something which does need to change."[291]

245. Disability Solutions suggested that there was a particular problem with the annual uprating letters for Income Support, which did not include a breakdown of benefit entitlement for the April uplift.[292]

246. We heard evidence in Leeds to suggest that the quality of written communications varied between executive agencies. The Committee was told by The Pension Service (TPS) that through the Transformation Programme, TPS were trying to:

"weed out some of that complexity in the letter writing, and the pensions Transformation team are looking critically at the letters that are produced from our legacy systems with a view to putting them in the front end, which is our customer account manager, and simplifying the letters that go out through that medium."[293]

247. When Alexis Cleveland, Chief Executive of the Pension Service, gave evidence, she explained that this process was not an easy one, saying "I cannot promise … a quick fix, though we have been looking to try and improve this";[294] Janet Grossman, Pension Service Operations Director, added that around 26% of 'failure' calls related to letters claimants did not understand.[295]

248. Steve Devereux of Jobcentre Plus explained that its systems were not so advanced as those in the Pension Service:

"There is not as much flexibility. When a processor pushes the button to finalise a claim a letter is generated 200 miles away. That processor cannot necessarily suppress that letter, so there is a bit of a one-size-fits-all"[296]

249. The Committee was given examples of letters which did not make sense:

Case study: "I saw one just recently: an 81-year-old woman who received a five-page letter about Pension Credit weeks after the death of her husband. It had about 50 different sums of money in the statement and was just completely untransparent, even to a CAB adviser. I doubt whether a pension credit expert would have fully understood it, yet letters like that are going out without being seen by anyone." [John Wheatley][297]

"I saw a letter the other week asking the claimant for a medical certificate and it was four pages long. It was four pages long because it had been taken from a letter which had obviously been used pre automated letters, there were a number of options and the person sending the letter ticked the right box. It had gone into the computer but the letter form had not been changed. I think the DWP is working all the time on that sort of thing, but there is still progress to be made. A four page letter to ask for a medical certificate is not helpful. It also said, in the first line, We have ticked the box that applies to you, and then there was a cross in the box, because the computer obviously finds it easier to cross than to tick." [Sue Royston][298]

250. When asked about this the Minister conceded:

"I have asked to see a range of these letters myself and I am very interested in how they are being rewritten because I want to make sure they are as comprehensive as possible to our customers. Next month, as I say, Jobcentre Plus will begin a comprehensive review of all the computer-generated correspondence, because the objective is clear, that we want the letters to be comprehensible for our customers, and they are not all at the moment."[299]

251. When we sought further information on the timetable we were told by DWP that "A project will be established within Jobcentre Plus in summer 2007 to review system generated notifications. The review is expected to be completed by March 2008."[300]

252. We welcome the Minister's interest in the quality and comprehensibility of computer-generated letters, and the news that Jobcentre Plus is to begin a review of its correspondence, which has been the subject of much criticism during this inquiry. This review must lead to an action plan to improve the quality of these letters, and the action plan should be forwarded to us.

Statements of entitlement - bringing it all together?

253. Sue Royston explained:

"I do think that the DWP wants to move towards some of this; for instance, the idea of an entitlement record. They are moving towards something like that, and it would be very helpful. In the past when somebody came in, the claimant used to get out their order book; you would look at the order book and you would see exactly what they were on. Often now, claimants do not know what benefits they are on: there are so many and they are so confusing. That leads to problems in all sorts of ways, in underpayments and overpayments, as a result. It would be an entitlement record so that the claimant could see the entire financial package they are on."[301]

254. Other witnesses agreed that an overall assessment of entitlement was crucial, for example John Wheatley of Citizens Advice, who noted "you do not have an order book any more, you do not have any regular, simple statement of what you are getting, and I think that really misses a trick."[302]

255. The Minister's view of Sue Royston's proposal was that it had "real potential. Obviously, it is subject, again, to having the right IT platforms in place to support it, all the necessary safeguards, the protection of the data, all those things you would expect."[303]

256. We agree with the Minister that Statements of Entitlement are the right way forward, replacing an important piece of information for claimants that disappeared when Order Books did. DWP should work to implement this measure as soon as possible, as part of the wider 'my DWP' project.

Limitations of masking and shielding

257. In America it was made very clear to us that "masking" or "shielding" claimants from complexity, whether through advice, new IT systems, or reworded letters, has its limitations. One of the experts we spoke to explained "It's the rules, stupid"; saying that if the system was very complex, even if some of this complexity could be masked, there would still be problems with IT and for staff.

258. Christine Dawes of the Pension Service echoed this when she gave evidence in Leeds:

"As much as we would like to make it [the process for claimants] streamlined sometimes that is not possible because of the complexities of some of the items that we need to get through to [claimants]." [304]

259. Similar points were made by Steve Devereux from Jobcentre Plus:

"The complexities we can shield the customer from to some degree but customers have the right to transparency in the claim and if there are complications then we need to be able to explain those." [305]

260. Dr Paul Dornan from CPAG agreed, noting that "back-room complexity, if it is totally unmanageable, undoubtedly creates front-room problems for people and for families".[306] Citizens Advice summed up the arguments very well:

"It is possible to argue that the system could be as complicated as it wanted to be, provided it was administered correctly, and that people using the system were not expected to understand the system, and experienced it as simple in terms of the outcomes for, and communications with, them. This view however ignores the important role of advice and awareness of benefit entitlement, and the need for a system that is capable of being successfully administered."[307]

261. We asked the Minister about what he thoughts the limits of masking were, and he replied:[308]

"you need to unbundle that concept of complexity and, as I say, I think a priority for us is to see it from our customers' point of view, but also I have been at pains to say that we have no interest in having a benefits system which is so complex that our staff cannot administer it."

262. DWP must put the claimant at the heart of the simplification process, and it is clear that there is much potential for improving the customer experience - and internal DWP processes - without changing the rules. We welcome the work done by DWP to date on this, particularly the Lean Pathfinders. However, it is not enough to rely on 'masking' complexity; there is a need to go further and address the rules of the different benefits and the structure of the system itself. We explore this in the later sections of this report.

209   DWP, Departmental Annual Report 2007, Cm 7105, May 2007, Chapter 2 Back

210   DWP, Getting Welfare Right: Tackling error in the benefits system, January 2007, para 2.3 Back

211   Q 91 Back

212   Q 2 Back

213   Q 12 Back

214   Q 372 Back

215   Ev 117, para 4.53 Back

216   Ev 118, para 4.55 Back

217 Back

218   Q 226 Back

219   Q 3 Back

220   Q 56 Back

221   DWP Research Report 196, Profiling benefit claimants in Britain: a feasibility study, Alex Bryson and Diana Kasparova, November 2003. Back

222   David Freud, Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work. An independent report to the Department for Work and Pensions, 2007, p 90 Back

223   Q 30 Back

224   Ev 146, para 26 Back

225   Q 101 Back

226   Q 103 Back

227   Q 140 Back

228   Q 30 Back

229   Ev 193, para 15 Back

230   National Audit Office, DWP: Dealing with the complexity of the benefits system, November 2005, HC (2005-06) 592, Executive Summary, para 23 Back

231   DWP, Getting Welfare Right: Tackling error in the benefits system, January 2007, paras 1.17-1.18 Back

232   DWP, Getting Welfare Right: Tackling error in the benefits system, January 2007, para 4.16 Back

233   HM Treasury, Service transformation: a better service for citizens and businesses, a better deal for the taxpayer, Sir David Varney, December 2006  Back

234   As above, p 5 Back

235   As above, p 5 Back

236   HM Treasury, Service transformation: a better service for citizens and businesses, a better deal for the taxpayer, Sir David Varney, para 4.8 Back

237   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on 27 June 2007, HC (2006-07) 799, Q 10 Back

238   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on 27 June 2007, HC (2006-07) 799, Q 10 Back

239   DWP, Getting Welfare Right: Tackling error in the benefits system, January 2007, p 18 Back

240   DWP, Getting Welfare Right: Tackling error in the benefits system, January 2007, figure 5  Back

241   DWP, Getting Welfare Right: Tackling error in the benefits system, January 2007, para 3.21 Back

242   Q 311 Back

243   Q 360 Back

244   Q 336 Back

245   Q 336 Back

246   Ev 218 Back

247   Q 142 Back

248   Joel Handler and Yeheskel Hasenfeld, Blame Welfare, Ignore Poverty and Inequality, Cambridge University Press, 2007. Also E Richer et al (2003) "All in one stop?" The Accessibility of Work Support Programs at One-Stop Centers" (Centre for Law and Social Policy, Washington D.C.) pp 1-45 Back

249   David Freud, Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work. An independent report to the Department for Work and Pensions, 2007, p 111 Back

250   HM Treasury, Service transformation: a better service for citizens and businesses, a better deal for the taxpayer, Sir David Varney, para 8.20 Back

251   Q 359 Back

252   Q 360 Back

253   Q 362 Back

254 Back

255 Back

256   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on 27 June 2007, HC (2006-07) 799, Qq 8-9 Back

257   Qq 143-4 Back

258   Q 146 Back

259  Q 26  Back

260   Royston (2007) Benefits Simplification and the Customer. Independent report to DWP, para 0.2.2 Back

261   Royston (2007) Benefits Simplification and the Customer. Independent report to DWP, para 0.3.1 Back

262   Q 92 Back

263   Q 141 Back

264   Q 157 Back

265   Qq 245-6 Back

266   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on 27 June 2007, HC (2006-07) 799, Q 18 Back

267   As above, Q 88 Back

268   Second Report of Session 2005-06, HC 834, para 182 Back

269   Ev 187 Back

270   Ev 190 Back

271   Ev 117, paras 4.47 - 4.49 Back

272   DWP press notice, Data Sharing can lead to faster, more efficient services, 26 June 2007 Back

273 Back

274 Back

275 Back

276 Back

277   Ev 164, para 4.2.2 Back

278   Q 337 Back

279   Q 338 Back

280   DWP, Getting Welfare Right: Tackling error in the benefits system, January 2007, paras 4.11-4.12 Back

281   Ev 136 Back

282   Ev 136 Back

283   Q 306 Back

284   Q 330 Back

285   Oral evidence taken by the Work and Pensions Committee on 15 January 2007, HC (2006-07) 218, Q 91 Back

286   Oral evidence taken by the Work and Pensions Committee on 15 January 2007, HC (2006-07) 218, Q 92 Back

287   Q 289. See also Ev 113, paras 4.20-4.23 Back

288   Q 93 Back

289   Q 38 Back

290   Q 224 Back

291   Q 93 Back

292   Ev 84 Back

293   Q 248 Back

294   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on 27 June 2007, HC (2006-07) 799, Q 27 Back

295   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on 27 June 2007, HC (2006-07) 799, Q 28 Back

296   Q 249 Back

297   Q 93 Back

298   Q 42 Back

299   Q 364 Back

300   Ev 232 Back

301   Q 35 Back

302   Q 93 Back

303   Q 341 Back

304   Q 217 Back

305   Q 221 Back

306   Q 141 Back

307   Ev 213, para 23 Back

308   Q 363 Back

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