Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 97)



  80. I am just making the point that it was only seven per cent then so there would have had to have been a very startling increase for it to be ready in December. We will be interested to see that. I am asking these questions because obviously you have got the Pension Credit roll-out next autumn and you are trying to hit a huge target group, it is 4.1 million of households who will become eligible, but at the moment, as you know, the take-up for the MIG has been really distressingly low. I ought to say at this point that I acknowledge there are good things about the MIG and the Pension Credit but the real weakness so far has been the take-up, has it not? Up to a third of those entitled to receive the MIG have not been receiving the MIG. I would like to ask whether you are confident you will hit your 67 per cent take-up target by 2004 for the Pension Credit?
  (Mr Smith) Obviously I very much hope that we will not just hit the target but exceed it. I think it is worth stressing here that there are some questions around the measurement of take-up in this area on which we are doing further work. What you really need to do is to compare and link the survey responses which are often taken to estimate the extent to which there is not take-up, you need to cross-reference that really with administrative data on whether people really are eligible in order to narrow the range of estimation around what the extent or lack of take-up is. All I am saying is as well as doing everything we can which we must do to promote take-up it is helpful not least to inform the ongoing discussion and evaluation of performance to be accurate in measurements as well.

  81. Just a quick supplementary. At this time of year you usually release the income related benefit take-up figures but you are studying take-up generally. Do you know when you will be able to release those figures?
  (Mr Smith) I have no reason for thinking that it will be on any different timetable than it normally is.

  82. The point is that it already is on a different timetable because they are usually released in September but you are studying it so you are not able to tell us when you will be able to.[10]

  (Mr Smith) I think it is best if I give a note to the Committee on that.

Mr Dismore

  83. I have a couple of issues. Can I first of all raise the question of recruitment of staff in London and the South East where I know that you have a few problems, particularly in The Pension Service but more generally. One of the issues I raised with Alexis Cleveland before was to do with the citizenship requirement for civil servants. The way that it is presently arranged one in six Londoners are excluded from working in your Department even at the most junior clerical job, often in the languages that are needed to deal with the people making the claims. They are excluded from working for the Department simply because of the fact that they are not British or Commonwealth citizens . Have you any plans to try and look at that and see if that can be changed?
  (Mr Smith) There is obviously a wider issue for the Government and public service recruitment than simply our Department here. I agree with you that it is an important issue you raise. The Cabinet Office is aware of the difficulties nationally with restrictions placed on recruitment to the Civil Service and they are pursuing options for lifting those.

  84. Can you give us any idea when we are likely to hear the result of that investigation of options?
  (Mr Smith) I am not in a position to put a particular timetable on it but I will go from the Select Committee and discuss this further with colleagues in the Cabinet Office.

  85. The other issue I want to raise with you in this context is looking at the Invalid Care Allowance and the changes that are coming in. A lot of pensioners are very confused about this. Benefit has been extended to pensioners who are not on full pensions, as it were. Part of the problem is I do not think the changes have been explained to pensioners properly. The alterations to the rules are not being properly understood by pensioners and some advisers think that anyone over 60 or 65 can now claim entitlement and then they find that they are not entitled to it if they are on a full pension. Can you explain what has been done to try to clarify which pensioners can now claim ICA. Has there been any thought given as to what the cost would be of extending it generally to pensioners rather than the restricted extension there has been and the general principle that pensioners who are beyond the income support level but caring for others are not getting any extra help at all to do that?
  (Mr Smith) I think the first point I would stress is with the development of the dedicated Pension Service, both through the advice we give through the pension centres and the call centres and through the development of the local services as well, we will have a better network there for disseminating accurate information to pensioners and, indeed, will be better placed to be able to respond to their enquiries on precisely these sorts of issues. If it is a case of examining the guidance that is given or the way that we disseminate leaflets and information, I am very happy to look at that.
  (Mr Dismore) There are two issues, one is getting information out and the other is that pensioners who are carers who will probably not qualify for any official help may think that is an injustice.
  (Mr Smith) We do not have any present proposals to change the policy. I take on board the argument you have made.

Mr Dismore

  86. A couple of years ago at the Party Conference there was an announcement that we were going to have a health and safety bill to deal with a whole range of issues and we also had to update legislation because it has not been updated since 1974. Things seem to have gone very quiet since September 2000. What progress has been made towards a health and safety bill? I am not expecting you to give a gracious speech to the Committee, but are we likely to see legislation in the near future on this?
  (Mr Smith) I think that amounts to pretty much the same question. I cannot anticipate the announcement of the legislative programme. I do, of course, appreciate the importance of making progress in this area, particularly on Crown immunity.

  87. Apart from the very detailed issues, which I will not press you on now, there are two or three very important key questions about health and safety law, one is to reflect the changing nature of work and the fact that many people do not work in the traditional employer/employee relationship, there are self-employed people and home workers who are excluded from all, if not most, health and safety legislation. There is the question of Crown immunity, which there is increasingly concern about. The other one is the extent to which private prosecutions might be allowed in the health and the safety legislation without the consent of the DPP. They are all very key fundamental questions which go beyond the detail. I was wondering whether you can give us any idea on the views you have on those three issues?
  (Mr Smith) They are all very important for the reasons that I gave you. As I said, I am not in a position to confirm what we will be able to do and when by way of legislation in these areas. I might say more generally though that I believe with the responsibility for the Health and Safety Commission coming to DWP there are obviously positive opportunities which we should be making the most of for collaboration between our role more generally in the labour market in good employment practice and the work of the Health and Safety Commission in relation to the workplace. Whilst we have overall sponsorship responsibility for the Health and Safety Executive obviously there are other very important areas in relation to transport, nuclear safety, and so on, which will remain the responsibility of the secretaries of state in those areas.

  88. The last point is the question of corporate killing, I have been asking questions about this since I first got here in 1997, and I have been campaigning since long before that. I brought my own Ten Minute Rule Bill on this a couple of years ago. As a response to that the Government did set up an inter-departmental working party to produce a consultation document, we got response to the consultation two years ago and ever since then it has been analysing the outcome of that through the inter-departmental working group. Your Department is now involved in that process, can you let us know when there is likely to be any progress on that issue, because it is one that is causing a lot of concern in the outside world, particularly in the context of transport accidents, obviously more widely as well.
  (Mr Smith) As you refer to the Home Office being the lead Department I had best confer with David Blunkett.

  Mr Dismore: It was a manifesto commitment.

Andrew Selous

  89. Can you tell us what discussions you have had, if any, with the Health and Safety Executive in regard to the possible Fire Service strike that we may be about to see, particularly about nuclear power stations and industry? They, I understand, are the body that will take the decision whether public safety is compromised by those fire strikes. Can you share anything with the Committee?
  (Mr Smith) The Department is, of course, represented in the coordination and discussions which take place in government, not least with the Cobra Committee and, of course, the Health and Safety Executive is supplying appropriate advice. As I said earlier in relation to nuclear safety and transport safety there is an important interest for the responsible departments as well. That advice is being supplied and it is being acted upon.

James Purnell

  90. I would like to ask a few questions on employment in the New Deal. The Committee was genuinely grateful for the generally positive response you gave to our inquiry on the Government's Employment Strategy. One of the general thrusts of our argument is that the New Deal should be made universal, instead of having a number of specific schemes there should be more flexibility of delivery of the New Deal with more discretion for advisers. You said in your reply you were actively considering moving in that direction. Could you tell us the time scale you plan to bring proposals forward and if you could outline your general thinking in considering those proposals?
  (Mr Smith) Thank you for your kind remarks and we welcomed the Committee's Report. We are examining not only the role of advisers and the discretion that they have, which I think is a useful lesson we have learned, not least from the experience of the employment zones, but also more generally how we might simplify the New Deal programmes. I think they have been a great success. Earlier on I was referring to the New Deal for Lone Parents, the New Deal for 25 plus and the New Deal for Disabled People we have been rolling out. I think from the perspective both of the client and indeed from the perspective of employers it is perhaps an unnecessarily over-elaborate array of options and variants and we are therefore looking closely and as quickly as we can as to how it would make sense to rationalise. The adviser role is very important in that we are developing the advisers' discretionary fund anyway, which gives them up to £300 flexibility to deploy resources in a way that can most immediately help someone overcome barriers to moving into work. We are moving quite quickly ahead on all of this.

  91. Does that mean sometime this year or slightly more medium term?
  (Mr Smith) There is not that much of this year left now, I would say next year would be more practical.

  92. One of the things I was surprised by in the inquiry was low effectiveness of education and training options in getting people into work. From our visit to America I was struck by the great focus in the institutions we visited there in getting people into work, are you satisfied with the job outcomes, education options and the way that education training is delivered in New Deal or do you think we should be moving towards giving people more general skills?
  (Mr Smith) Yes, people certainly need to have the basic skills and the soft skills. Of course, as far as basic skills are concerned the screening and the opportunity to require people to go on remedial programmes is important. On the question about the effect of the full-time education and training option, I think this has been an issue since the beginning of the New Deal. Whilst we tried earlier on to ensure the sort of courses that were available were really geared towards the labour market, I think too often people were on courses that might have been getting them a good outcome qualification but perhaps were not taking them that much closer to the labour market. This has already been changed with the opportunities we have opened up in the programmes for employers who offer in-house training, for example, through the availability of shorter, more work focused courses. I do think, coupled with the soft and basic skills which you rightly say are important, that is the right direction in which to go. Training and skills have a very important part to play in helping people into jobs but it is important that it is actually meeting real demands and the labour market is linked with progress into a job and is not simply filling time as an alternative to someone taking a job.

  93. Where people do require longer training or more intensive training, is there a case for allowing advisers to lift the 16 hour rule, which is the amount people can study without losing benefit, on an individual basis as part of the greater discretion that you are looking at?
  (Mr Smith) There is obviously a case for looking at it. I would not want to prejudge what conclusion one could come to. It is important that the benefit system is not there as a system to support people in study. You would have to be very careful of opening up an expectation that it might be used in that way. As I said earlier, when you actually analyse the statistics, training often is not as good a route into a job, or a better job, as is sometimes supposed and the best route into a job is to go and get a job.

  94. You said earlier that where appropriate you thought there was a responsibility on government to look at the rights and responsibilities agenda and there has been some speculation that there will be an extension of conditionality in the proposals that you bring forward. Can you tell us which areas you are looking at in respect of conditionality?
  (Mr Smith) We have already got the mandatory programme, the Step-Up Programme, and so clearly we will want to learn from the experience of that. I think we can also review how well the sanctions regime is working as well.

  95. Finally, given what you were saying earlier about the importance of recruiting people into the public sector, do you think that the public sector has done enough to take on New Deal trainees?
  (Mr Smith) It is variable, to be quite honest. We need to keep up the impetus to do more.


  96. One of the things that we will need to think through a bit more carefully is the results of the motions last night which will allow the carry over of Bills. Can I just leave you with the thought that as a Committee we are quite keen to look at potential pre-legislative scrutiny, pieces of legislation within the Department, as appropriate. I would just like to leave that thought with you. I understand you cannot anticipate the Queen's Speech but if there are pieces of draft Bills or pieces of legislation that you think can benefit now we have a longer period before the axe falls at the end of the legislative process, that is something that we will actively encourage you to consider in the future. You might just like to reflect on that.
  (Mr Smith) I very much welcome that invitation. I think pre-legislative scrutiny opens up very important opportunities for the executive and the legislature to work in a very constructive way, so I will examine that.

  97. Finally, can we make the plea that you arrange for a less thrilling year over the next 12 months. It is a facetious way of making the point but there has been a welter of change in the Department and maybe there is a case for doing nothing for the next three years, although that is hard for you because I am sure you want to set your own goals. I think the policy makers at the strategic level in the Department do have to have a care. There are so many pilots going on just now that it is impossible to find an area in the United Kingdom which is not already subject to a pilot to do another pilot in. There is a serious point about letting policy work that has been done bed down before we move on in new directions. I am sure you are conscious of that.
  (Mr Smith) I take it and accept the advice. When we have the scale of change in our organisation, in our IT systems, in the redeployment of personnel and we have these big delivery changes we have on Pension Credit, the Pension Green Paper, Child Support, Housing Benefit, childcare, Jobcentre Plus roll-out, what we need to do to focus more help on the hardest to help in our labour market interventions, the Pension Service, Universal Banking, it is a very, very big and demanding programme out there. I am sure for the year ahead, as well as the policy issues we have to address in areas such as pensions, that ensuring we get delivery in all of these areas is going to be a very important focus of my activity.

  Chairman: That is a very good point on which to end. Secretary of State, thank you very much.

10   Please refer to the supplementary memorandum from the Secretary of State to the Chairman of the Committee, para 9, Ev 19. Back

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