Select Committee on Works and Pensions Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Local Government Association (OP 17)

BACKGROUND

  The Local Government Association (LGA) represents all local authorities in England and Wales and its members represent over 50 million people, employ more than two million staff and spend over £65 billion on local services. The Association has a vital interest in the housing benefit and council tax benefit scheme. Local authorities have a direct role in the administration of housing benefit and council tax benefit. They are also landlords to over three million tenants and the council tax charging authority, while their strategic role includes addressing local housing needs, providing money and welfare rights advice and promoting the social and economic well being of their communities.

SUMMARY

  1.  The LGA supports the broad vision of ONE, originally known as the Single Work-Focussed Gateway, and the intention to move towards Jobcentre Plus. A single point of entry to the benefits system, the delivery of better, more integrated public services and the provision of active advice and assistance on employment are all principles which we wholeheartedly support. Local authorities have an interest in these issues from a variety of perspectives, including the development of anti-poverty and social inclusion strategies, the provision of welfare rights advice and the promotion of the economic and social well being of their communities. However, this submission concentrates primarily on the experience of the housing benefit authorities involved in the ONE pilots although issues relating to more general benefits' advice are also raised.

  2.  Although the experience of the ONE pilots have not been without difficulties for the local authorities involved, nevertheless the LGA believes that the broad principles remain valid and that there are valuable lessons to be learned for the establishment of Jobcentre Plus. These are:

    —  Local authorities should be more actively involved in policy development as equal, not junior, partners;

    —  Practitioners on the ground, and in all services, should have a greater say in detailed operational issues rather than a top down approach by central government departments;

    —  Future changes or modifications must have a sufficient local authority lead in time to enable a policy review and full understanding of the proposals and implementation requirements;

    —  The local authority perspective should be considered in any evaluation;

    —  Financial reviews should be more thorough, should take into account all relevant costs and funding should be determined at an early stage;

    —  The amount of paperwork needs to be reduced;

    —  Staff training should be more consistent, be given a higher priority, be ongoing, rather than just at the start of the project, and training needs should be reviewed regularly;

    —  Communication and liaison between and within all the partner agencies need to be improved; and

    —  Authorities need to know early on whether or not their properties, particularly on estates, are likely to be used and what the financial and contractual arrangements are.

LESSONS FROM THE ONE PILOTS

  3.  The LGA has always supported the broad vision of ONE, originally known as the Single Work-Focussed Gateway. A single point of entry to the benefits system, the delivery of better, more integrated public services and the provision of active advice and assistance on employment are all principles which we wholeheartedly support. Local authorities have an interest in these issues from a variety of perspectives, including the development of anti-poverty and social inclusion strategies, the provision of welfare rights advice and the promotion of the economic and social well being of their communities. This submission concentrates primarily on the experience of the housing benefit authorities involved in the ONE pilots although issues relating to more general benefits' advice are also raised.

  4.  In May 1999 the LGA submitted evidence to the Education and Employment Committee (Employment Sub-Committee) on the Single Work-Focussed Gateway Pilots. The main points we made in that submission are just as applicable today as in 1999. While reiterating our key concerns we will not replicate the detail contained in that submission.

  5.  Local authorities have, for a number of years, been leaders in the field in developing a one-stop approach to public services and there have been many examples of good practice in this area. It has, therefore, been a disappointment that so little attempt was made to learn from councils' experience or to involve local authorities at an early stage in the development of the project. Local authorities were not engaged in either the planning process or the timetable until after the initiative had been announced at the 1998 Labour Party Conference when the key parameters of the pilots had already been set. Little thought had apparently been given by central government as to how best to achieve the engagement and involvement of local authorities, especially when taking into account the limited resources and heavy pressures placed on housing benefit departments.

  6.  Those authorities who were selected as pilots had very little time to prepare, especially at a time when numerous other changes were being made to the housing benefit scheme. This left them at a disadvantage compared with the Employment Service and Benefits Agency. The lack of funding was also a major issue for councils who are already very stretched by the significant under-resourcing by central government of housing benefit administration. The net effect was that, although the pilot authorities were enthusiastic about the concept, they were not able to be as fully involved in the development as they would have liked and the reality is that the projects were not a partnership of equals. We are also not convinced that the views of local authorities have been fully taken into account in the evaluation of the pilots.

  7.  The different cultures and decision-making processes between local authorities and the Employment and Benefit Agencies have not always been fully understood by our partners. At a lower level working relationships on the ground have on the whole been good and worked well. But in terms of policy development local authorities were originally excluded, although the LGA and the Council of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) established a national liaison group with the then Department of Social Security (DSS) and Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) and were given a place on the Project Board, which improved matters. However, in June 2000 when the LGA representative attended the Project Board he discovered to his surprise that this was the final meeting, the main purpose of which was to hand over responsibilities to the Joint Operational Team (JOT) Board of the Employment Service (ES) and the Benefits Agency (BA). No advance warning of this had been given to the local authority side although clearly it had been discussed and agreed between ES and BA. No papers had been sent in advance of the meeting. This was apparently common practice although, since the advent of ONEJOT, the administration and despatch of papers has greatly improved. Once again, however, the local authority perspective had been ignored in the major policy decision making.

  8.  The insecurity about funding to cover all of local authorities' costs has remained an issue, as have IT problems. Local authorities within the pilot areas have been told that the pilots will be extended with the view to transforming them into Jobcentre Plus at some stage. However, no discussion has taken place at local level about future funding or about the staff restructuring arrangements. Decisions have been made centrally with little consideration of the potentially adverse impact on the existing ONE pilots.

  9.  During the life of the pilots there have, of course, been operational problems. This is only to be expected when piloting new arrangements. However, a number of the difficulties are again related to the fact that local authorities are clearly perceived as secondary partners and issues that affect them are often only addressed as an afterthought. For example, the first attempt at an integrated claim form omitted 15 housing benefit questions. This kind of problem has continued into the piloting of Jobcentre Plus when, without any consultation with practitioners in the field, the National Housing Benefit form (NHB1) was changed. The main difficulty caused by this is that the colour of one of the forms is unsuitable for Document Image Processing, which an increasing number of local authorities use. It is this sort of trivial, but thoughtless, occurrence that causes considerable aggravation, undermines the effectiveness of joint working and could easily be avoided by better liaison arrangements.

  10.  As late as April this year the Employment Service was still refusing to consider integrating the two separate service level agreements (SLAs) that currently exist between BA and local authorities and between ES and local authorities. The local authority side had repeatedly suggested that merging the two SLAs would be a sensible development. However, in mid August the LGA was asked to agree to a joint SLA to be implemented in time for the Jobcentre Plus pilots in October, a timetable which by then was not feasible. This shows a lack of forward planning and inability to consult effectively.

  11.  The main issues that local authorities involved in the pilots were concerned about were:

    —  the additional paperwork;

    —  the inadequacy of the financial reviews after implementation;

    —  the lack of understanding within BA and ES of housing benefit and council tax benefit issues;

    —  the standard and variance in training of ONE staff;

    —  poor communications within ONE.

  12.  A particular concern has been the poor quality of benefits advice and the concentration on placing people into work at the expense of helping people to access those benefits to which they are entitled, not just in-work benefits. This probably reflects the terms of the contract between the private sector provider and DWP. The performance of ONE staff in helping applicants with the paperwork is inconsistent and haphazard. There have been cases of incorrect and incomplete advice, particularly in relation to disability benefits. ONE staff should be trained in how to deal with marginalised groups such as young people and those with mental health problems. An example of poor training and a general lack of understanding within ONE of the local authority perspective can be given in the following case study.

  13.  The applicant was a 16 year old care leaver who, in July, had left local authority care and moved into independent, supported accommodation at a mother and baby unit while still within her relevant education period. Advised by the local authority to claim Income Support she was told by ONE she could not claim whilst in education. Returning to ONE, this time accompanied by a social worker, she was again turned away and told not to return until the education terminal date (ETD) of September. A postal claim was then made but not assessed and held on file to be processed after the ETD. The local authority requested that the claim be processed and a decision letter issued so that the applicant could put in an appeal. The local authority was told that it was a Secretary of State decision that there were no appeal rights. The local authority then made a written appeal to BA and eventually the claim was processed and backdated to when the applicant had first made contact with ONE. This process took two months, during which time the local authority had to support the applicant. As the applicant is now on benefit the local authority cannot reclaim the money and so an unnecessary burden has been placed on social services' limited budget.

  14.  A key problem is the limited understanding within ONE staff of housing benefit and council tax benefit issues. This is not particularly surprising since housing benefit is one of the most complex to administer of all the welfare benefits. However, the development of Jobcentre Plus still seems to largely ignore the interface with housing benefit despite the fact that it is a crucial element in the transition to work for many people. The lack of engagement with housing benefit authorities has also led, in the past, to poor or inadequate advice by housing benefit officers about extended payments of housing benefit. The introduction of the new tax credit system in 2003, which will be administered by Inland Revenue, will add a further degree of complexity. It is therefore essential that more attention is given to staff training and support.

  15.  The lack of co-terminosity between local authority boundaries and between ONE pilot areas was also a problem. Authorities, in effect, had to administer two types of system, one for those within the pilot areas and one for those outside the pilots. As well being administratively complex this also created perceptions of unfairness for customers.

  16.  Other practical difficulties include issues of data protection and sharing information plus the fact that housing benefit claims are required to be in writing and the verification framework demands signatures, neither of which fit well with the concept of call centre technology. Differences in the forms of verification framework used by BA and local authority staff is an additional complicating factor. In a response to a recent DWP consultation on proposed changes to the local authority verification framework the LGA argues for rationalisation of the two systems to be the next priority.

  17.  In terms of national roll out the position of local authorities that have contracted out their housing benefit service is an issue, because of the danger that they will be exposed to expensive claims from the contractor for work that was not included in the original specification. During the pilots there was a problem in contracted out authorities as the contractors were only involved at third hand in the project development, which created operational difficulties. The inability of contractors to determine applications was also a slowing factor. However, DWP has recently announced its intention to amend the regulations to enable contractors to make determinations in future. It is anticipated that this will be implemented by the middle of next year.

  18.  The LGA would have preferred more local authority and BA staff to have been appointed to ONE in order to facilitate the sharing of expertise and knowledge. In practice, most jobs went to existing members of the Employment Service and, in any event, there was only limited interest from local authority practitioners. In terms of Jobcentre Plus a greater degree of local flexibility is needed that will enable the partner organisations to concentrate not just on employment aspects but to also provide a link to broader issues such as regeneration and social inclusion strategies.

  19.  The involvement of the private sector in ONE has not been particularly successful. There have been considerable difficulties with the contractual arrangements between local authorities and the private sector, especially where local authority premises have been used and clarification is needed as to which department has the legal liability. Yet before the advent of ONE there were a number of innovative approaches to improving close working between local authorities, the BA and ES which have not been built upon. In Jobcentre Plus it is important that a requirement is placed upon the contractor to liaise with all relevant agencies, including the local authority and voluntary sectors, and to provide a customer service to them. There also must be a clear understanding of accountability—rather than ES, BA and the contractor all passing responsibility on to each other when things go wrong. This should be built into the service contract.

  20.  A particular issue that will need resolving is how men aged 60-65 will relate to Jobcentre Plus. Once the retirement age is equalised at age 65 this issue will become more acute. A strategy is needed on how to treat applicants whose future employment potential is time limited.

  21.  Young people face additional barriers to the benefit system and the bureaucracy involved may result in them failing to claim and failing to engage with Careers/Connexions. There needs to be a fast track system and sharing of information about vacancies so that young jobseekers do not have to go to Jobcentres unnecessarily.

  22.  ONE should have the delegated power to deal with Social Fund applications. The lack of such a power at local level causes particular problems with Crisis Loan applications in rural areas.

Gwyneth Taylor

Head of Housing

November 2001


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 5 February 2002