Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  60. You said in your memorandum that initial teething problems with Call Centres have now been resolved and that staff seem generally positive and supportive of the approach adopted by management. There has been some evidence from the Department's research on staff attitudes to suggest there have been time pressures, delays in calling back clients and lack of time to discuss work options properly. Is that something you recognise in your evidence?
  (Mr Wylie) It is something we recognise. It is something we raised with management and we have discussed with them. The initial allocation was about 45 units per client for Call Centre staff to deal with their claim. There was some pressure to reduce that time on the basis that some claimants take 20 minutes, some can take an hour and management argued that the average was lower than 45 minutes. Through negotiations we managed to secure agreement that it would not be reduced and it seems to have settled down. Certainly the last time we talked to our reps from the Call Centres, the evidence was that it was settling down, that they did feel they had roughly around the right amount of time they felt they needed. Obviously everybody would like more and if we could argue for more, then we would argue for more, but in terms of the time allocated, at the moment it is safe to say that we are fairly satisfied.

  61. Do you have any worries that if the time is cut too much that would affect the quality of the claim?
  (Mr Wylie) Yes and the number of mistakes that are made. People make mistakes if they are rushing through a job and that could cost in terms of lost benefits or people being paid too much.

  62. There are possible implications here for take-up of benefits if the time is cut too much.
  (Mr Wylie) Yes.

Andrew Selous

  63. I should like to move on to the role of the private sector which you talked about in your introduction. The private/voluntary sector ONE pilots were intended to develop innovative and flexible ways of delivering ONE. Do you think they have achieved this in any way and if not, why not?

  (Mr Wylie) It is no secret that our policy as a Union is that we are opposed to the involvement of the private sector in the provision of these services. We do not think it appropriate that organisations should make a profit out of the provision of what we see as essentially public services. We do not think it is appropriate that the private sector are not accountable for their actions as our members are through Government. Two of the points we tried to make in our written submission were: first of all that there is an argument that the private sector could bring added value but we see no evidence to support that being the case; second, that the private sector would provide innovation and again we have seen no evidence to support that. Some of the initial proposals from the private companies including Deloittes included the development of an electronic claim form which did not appear. Action for Employment were developing basically a benefit bus which they were going to take around the estates on the Wirral to bring employment advice to people nearer to their homes. That did not appear either. Reed talked about a jobs mart which in fact is almost exactly the same as that provided by the Employment Service: a few PCs on a desk where people can scan through jobs which are available to them. We do not accept that the private sector brought any innovative proposals to the ONE pilots. We do not accept either that they add any particular value to those pilots. The evidence we have seen is mainly from our members that they are not performing as well as the public sector are performing. They are causing problems for our members in BA and ES. In Warrington, for instance, the Benefits Agency staff have stopped returning incorrectly completed application forms because it is much easier just to pick up the phone, sort them out and fix the problem themselves. We had problems with Reed in July when they laid off staff, because it was too expensive to keep the secondees. They sent them back to their home department and recruited staff directly themselves on lower wages. That is action which is driven by the profit motive, which we do not think is appropriate in this sort of service provision.

  64. Do you think it could just be a question of time and that the proposed extensions to the PVS contracts will give more time for innovation to feed through?
  (Mr Wylie) They have had a couple of years. All the arguments which they have consistently put to us—and we have quite a good working relationship with Action for Employment and Deloitte—have been that they can only provide these innovative ideas if they have enough money. Because there is not enough money for them to provide innovation, they cannot do it. That is exactly the same as the public sector, is it not? If you give us more money we can provide innovative ideas and increase the quality of the services we provide. We do not see the need for private sector involvement in these pilots. We do not see them adding any value to what is being provided by our members in the public sector. We certainly do not see any innovative ideas coming out in the next 12 months, simply because the contract has been extended.
  (Mr Churchard) The performance of the private sector in terms of innovation has frankly been very disappointing. In the examples which Keith mentioned, by and large these new ideas are things which we have already tried and in some cases are still in operation. Things like benefit buses are not a new idea; they have been used in the Benefits Agency for quite some years. Nothing has really come out that we have been aware of that has dramatically changed the delivery of service at all for the better.

  65. Would you like to make any other comments at all on the extension of the period of the private/voluntary sector pilots or have you said enough?
  (Mr Wylie) We do not think it is a good idea; we have concerns about the behaviour of some of the companies, particularly Reed. In the memorandum we mentioned investigations into allegations about Reed claiming more placements than they have actually made. I am aware of a Citizens Advice Bureau report on the employment zone pilot that Reed run in Liverpool where there is clear evidence that they have been putting pressure on clients to seek or accept unsuitable jobs. We are providing a public service and organisations making a profit should be a secondary consideration. It appears to us, certainly in the case of that company, that it is becoming a primary consideration and their only motive for taking this work is to make a profit.

  66. Have you really given us all the evidence now, all the examples to back up your statement in your evidence that there is evidence to suggest that the PVS variants are performing less well? Is that really it or would you add anything further?
  (Mr Wylie) That is our view. We could probably provide statistical evidence but you would have access to that as a Committee.

  67. It is those examples which you have already given us.
  (Mr Wylie) Yes.

  68. Just talking about A4E, Reed and Deloitte separately for the moment, would you draw distinctions between the three of them? Can we have your comments separately on the three in terms of how they perform?
  (Mr Wylie) It is difficult to monitor exactly how Reed perform because they do not talk to us. They do not recognise this Union, they will not negotiate with us and apart from one occasion before the contracts were awarded they have not met us. We do have quite a good relationship with A4E and Deloitte. The point we make repeatedly in the submission is that they are not doing anything better than we are doing in the public sector. They may well be performing on a par with the public sector, but they are not providing any innovative ideas, they are not providing any additional value and as far as we can see, they are not outstripping the performance of the public sector. If that is the case we just do not see the need for them to be there. In terms of them competing against each other, I do not have a feel for which of the three companies is performing the best, though we do have some concerns about the performance of Reed. In terms of A4E and the Deloitte contracts it is likely that they are performing around or not greatly differently from the public sector.

  69. What have been the advantages or disadvantages for staff in transferring from the ES or BA to the PVS pilots?
  (Mr Wylie) Most of the staff do not transfer, they are just seconded. They remain civil servants and are seconded to the private company for the period of the contract. Deloitte and Reed offer financial incentives to civil servants to second across for the period of the contract in the region of £1,000 for an adviser, slightly less for an administrator, slightly more for managers. The problem with that is that the value of that top-up has been eroded over the years because ES pay increases have eaten into it and DSS/Benefits Agency pay increases have eaten into it as well. The incentive for staff to second has reduced as time has gone by. We think that is probably the reason we are seeing a fairly significant drift back of people on secondment to the public sector.


  70. If my memory serves me right, when we were in Leeds talking to some of the private sector managers, they were saying that they had encountered some resistance in trying to recruit people from BA and ES, because allegedly there was some kind of trade union campaign in Leeds. Do you have anything to say to rebut that or is this a local factor?

  (Mr Churchard) It was not an allegation. We did have a campaign. It was not just Leeds. It was really a campaign drawing people's attention to the possible disadvantages of transferring over on the terms which were being offered, compared with what people could expect if they stayed with their parent department or agency in terms of conditions and increases.

  71. It was more a pay and rations complaint than a vision thing about ONE.
  (Mr Wylie) Yes.
  (Mr Churchard) Yes. One of our functions is to advise our members on the best course of action to take when they have a choice. We set out what we thought were the plus points and the negative points of taking one option or another. The bulk of the plus points seemed to us quite clearly to lie with staying with their particular agency or department.

  72. This is maybe not a local problem. Is this a national campaign?
  (Mr Wylie) To put that into context, the only discouragement we gave to staff in terms of ONE, was transferring to the private sector variant. We did not discourage staff to transfer into the basic model of ONE or into the Call Centre model of ONE. It was our opposition to the involvement of the private sector which led us to discourage people from involvement.

  73. It seems to have had some effect in Leeds anyway. That is clear. Is this something you propose to continue?
  (Mr Wylie) Our policy on the private sector involvement has not changed. We would not encourage our members to second to private sector organisations because we do not feel they should be doing the work and we do not think our members will benefit by transferring to those organisations.

Miss Begg

  74. With previous witnesses Leeds always came up as the bad example; on everything we said it was always Leeds. I am just wondering whether what you have just said about your own campaign has meant that the Leeds ONE has not worked at all. The complaint was that the staff in Leeds would not engage with the voluntary sector, would not get out of their offices, would not get involved in the community, whereas in Warwickshire they did that and it was very successful. I am just wondering whether the action of your Union has played a role in making sure this has not worked as well as it might have done.

  (Mr Wylie) It might have done. It might also have had something to do with the way Deloitte ran the contract from day one. The problems with the Deloitte contracts in the Leeds and Suffolk pilots were that originally Deloitte worked in partnership with CSL and CSL took care of all the personnel issues, they recruited staff and dealt with the Union and we talked to CSL managers. Within three or four months of going into the contract, either Deloitte sacked CSL or CSL pulled out of the contract; we are not clear which it was, it depends who you ask. If you ask Deloitte they tell us that they sacked CSL. If you ask CSL they tell us that they pulled out of the contract. We do not know which was the case. That created some fairly significant management problems in the first part of that contract and we had fairly intensive discussions with Deloitte about how they would get through that period. It created insecurity for our members who had seconded across, it created insecurity for the people Deloitte employed on the contract and it generally caused problems for both Leeds and Suffolk. I do not know that it was any worse in Leeds than Suffolk; maybe it was. That might well have had something to do with the fact that you are receiving reports about the contracts not being particularly well run.

  Chairman: I did promise we would spend a reasonable amount of time with you this afternoon looking at health and safety of staff issues, because they are obviously important and very topical.

James Purnell

  75. Can you update us on the current strike action?

  (Mr Churchard) I can give you some hot-off-the-press news, because we have just come from a meeting of our National Executive Committee today. We have just completed a ballot of all our members in the Employment Service and Benefits Agency who are due to transfer to the Jobcentre Plus agency and there was a majority for some more extensive strike action involving approximately 70,000 members in the Benefits Agency and ES combined. As a result of discussions today at our National Committee we have issued notice today to management of some discontinuous strike action taking place later this month.

  76. That is something which will greatly concern Members, given that it could mean disruption of payments to people who are by definition the poorest in society and particularly in the run-up to Christmas and after Christmas when people may have financial bills from the festive season. You say in your evidence that it remains the case that unscreened working in ONE offices creates a higher risk to staff than the current arrangements in Benefits Agency offices. You produce a few anecdotes in your evidence and obviously any particular case involving anyone is regrettable. Do you have any statistics over a longer period or statistics which show that there is a genuinely greater risk in ONE offices or in unscreened environments for people who are working in those environments?
  (Mr Churchard) I am not sure we have precise statistics on ONE compared with Benefits Agency offices for example. The point we were trying to make was that in removing all kinds of screens, prima facie it seemed to us that would involve staff in greater risk. We did not want to exaggerate it because much of the more dangerous, more difficult transactions with particular client groups were not actually a feature of ONE. They are certainly a feature of Jobcentre Plus and the Benefits Agency as it currently exists. We were not saying that staff safety in ONE was going to be a huge problem, but we did want to draw to the attention of the Committee that removal of all types of screens in ONE pilot offices had a potential risk to staff which would not have been there in their own BA offices. It is part of the concept of ONE and given the nature of the client base and the transactions we would not have thought that would have led to a huge explosion in health and safety cases. Our greatest concern is with Jobcentre Plus which does have the full range of clients and the full range of transactions including the difficult ones.

  77. When we visited a full range of agencies, both a BA office, a Jobcentre Plus office and a ONE office and spoke to staff and to clients, although when we met with Union representatives there were detailed concerns about safety, the general reaction from people involved in providing the service was that this was a more positive environment in which people could work, that it treated people with greater dignity, that it provided them with better information about services and they did not in fact raise any particular concerns with us about safety. I understand that the people who are on strike at the moment are mostly back office staff rather than people involved in Pathfinder pilots. I was wondering whether you had any explanation for that?
  (Mr Churchard) It is important I make some general observations. The first would be that we very much welcome the whole concept of Jobcentre Plus. I shall come back to the safety point in a moment. We particularly welcome the amount of investment which is going into the offices and the upgrading of the accommodation and everything that goes with it is very much welcomed. It may well be that down the track, when new systems are well in place and we have dealt with issues like how to direct people from one office to another, because not all the offices are dealing with the same client base or the same transactions, once the new system has been up and running for some time it may well be that people begin to feel that not only is the investment welcome but the environment is better. I think they probably will. What we are in at the moment is a transitional phase from a situation where people have felt very strongly that in order to protect themselves from the minority of clients who cause problems and are violent they need those screens. Just to take the screens away at the reception area particularly was something that we felt needed to be handled in a transitional way and it is not being handled in a transitional way, it is all being done in a rush and too suddenly. Therefore people lack the confidence to take a huge leap from the system they are comfortable and familiar with to the one which they are fearful of. That is the essence of the problem really: it is a transitional problem, it is a change issue. Unfortunately it has perhaps not been handled as well as it might have been.

  78. That is very interesting. Given that it is a transitional arrangement, is it not the case that although screens are part of dealing with the very real problems of health and safety and that is something which is going to continue in Jobcentre Plus Pathfinder offices, it is only one lever in dealing with the problem of health and safety. There are also CCTV cameras, security guards and the way people are treated. If it is true, as you say, that people will be treated with greater dignity and the system will work more efficiently in this new system overall, that may help reduce the overall number of incidents. Precisely because it is a transitional arrangement are those not things which could be examined in the pilots and the Pathfinders rather than going out on strike at this stage?
  (Mr Churchard) I do not want to exaggerate the difference between the Union's position and the management position. It does not boil down to a great deal of difference in terms of protective provisions. We are very much welcoming the increased security, the upgraded numbers and the upgraded standard of service. We certainly welcome the CCTV cameras. But, it really does boil down to the change being made at a pace with which people feel comfortable. We certainly do not feel comfortable with making that sudden change. In terms of the pilots, one of the things we have been arguing for is that we should have a broader range of experiments in which some might be unscreened, some would have traditional type screens, some would have pop-up screens. We have been saying that if it is going to be a proper trial, let us give all the options a decent chance. All we have been offered is one experiment in one office in Brent and even that may now be in some doubt. We would have been more comfortable if there had been a greater range of options trialed and, perhaps as a result of that greater range of options being trialed, a more reliable outcome in which we could have had confidence. There is only one office which is having a different type of screen arrangement trialed, which is a disappointment to us.

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