Examination of witnesses(Questions 180-196)|
WEDNESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2001
180. That is one way of doing it.
(Ms de Heer) Yes, it is one way of doing
181. Some of this was obviously the fact that
the pilots were set up quite quickly and there was quite a short
training period. It is quite important for us to work out whether
you think this is just something which is impossible for one person
to do or whether with better training it could have been done,
particularly now that the housing benefit and council tax benefit
side of it is being taken out of Jobcentre Plus for the future.
(Ms Taylor) We would say that it is possible
to train people to a standard where they can make informed decisions
about whether they need to pass somebody on to a specialist adviser
for certain particular things, but to do that the training has
to be at the heart of the programme and it was not. It was very
much a kind of rush job but it still was not integral to the whole
system. Staff turnover was also a major problem and you need to
build in a really intensive staff training programme that is within
the system, that is stable within the system, so that as you have
staff turnover you are constantly re-doing that training and not
just training once and that is it for the year and it is over
and done with. It is possible to reach an appropriate standard
but you must have that commitment. A lot of that is getting back
down to having appropriate resources put in initially, not to
be spent on logos and new claim forms which we cannot photocopy,
but training people on the questions which need to be asked and
what the answers will mean.
182. You would advocate a generalist adviser
combined with some specialist advisers. That implies you think
there are some types of claimants who are being badly advised
or under-advised at the moment. Are there some types of people
you are particularly worried about?
(Ms Taylor) We are particularly worried about the
most vulnerable client groups, people who might have mental health
problems, young people in particular, people with certain forms
of disability, all of those for whom a consideration should be
whether employment, or what sort of employment, is actually suitable
to that person. From our perspective, we are looking at more than
just this being about helping people in employment. Obviously
that is a critical factor, but it is also about ensuring that
they have access to the benefits that are relevant to their needs.
Those are the groups we are most concerned about.
183. It was the model in ONE to have the generalist
adviser. In Jobcentre Plus there is going to be a benefit financial
assessor who will see them at the beginning and then at the end
and that slightly separates this idea of having a generalist adviser.
Is that something which you approve of, or is that something you
are worried about?
(Ms Taylor) We do not have strong feelings either
way about that. We feel it is another option to look at.
(Ms de Heer) A ONE office in our area has just been
transformed into a Jobcentre Plus but it is early days yet to
see whether or not that is working in practice. It will be interesting
to see how it works and whether it does give an improvement in
service. To some extent through some of the partnership working
and communication which has gone on through ONE, there is now
more understanding and more liaison taking place which is positive.
We would hope that it would improve.
184. Housing benefit and council tax benefit
have come out of Jobcentre Plus for now. Do you think the benefits
advisers and the generalist advisers will still need to be trained
to understand those benefits, to be able to advise people properly?
(Ms Taylor) It is absolutely essential that they have
a better understanding of housing benefit because as we discussed
earlier, this is potentially one of the biggest worries for people
considering going into the employment market. If they are already
on housing benefit, how is it going to affect them? Changes are
being made to housing benefit to make that easier, but people
in Benefits Agency and Employment Service need to know what is
going on in housing benefit. They do not need to know all the
nitty-gritty detail, but they do need to have enough of an understanding
to be able to give broad advice to people.
185. That would be less than was required under
the model where housing benefit and council tax benefit were included.
(Ms Taylor) It would probably still have to be very
much the same, if they are going to give the appropriate form
of advice, which then comes back to the point, "Why have
it out in the first place?". If you are going to give the
right level of advice, you need to have a reasonably good understanding
of the system, in which case, you should be able to passport that
information onto the housing benefit authority.
186. I should like to ask a question about the
partnership working at the very front-line level. We found on
our visits and the evaluation says that there was sometimes some
friction between the local government side and the ONE pilots
and that seemed partly to be down to organisations having different
targets and to that extent slightly different objectives. Was
that an issue? What could be done? Your local government goals
and the Jobcentre Plus goals overlap on economic regeneration
on social services. What could be done to make partnership working
easier at the very front-line level?
(Mr Gary) I should like to see the ability to have
a bit of flexibility come into the system rather than the rigidity
of the regulation and format which come from central government.
May I give you a very good illustration on that? Somerset was
affected by foot-and-mouth disease earlier in the summer. We had
a guy who had a contract with the county to cut verges and keep
them clear. He could not because there were certain areas which
were restricted, so he did not get paid. He went to the Benefits
Agency through the ONE system who said he was still employed because
he had a contract, now, he could not claim housing benefit because
he had not gone through the ONE system. He went round in a circle
until one of usand I am not going to say who it wasdecided
we would take the regulations into our own hands and risk it because
the guy was going into rent arrears with the local authority.
He had a local authority house, so we would have been challenged
on that through our own audit systems as to why the guy was going
into rent arrears. What that required was the intervention of
a manager somewhere who had the wherewithal to say to hell with
this, but it would not come from the ONE side; they kept him in
that system. We had to bend it in order to get him out of that
particular hole. Everything has come out fine, thank goodness,
but there was nothing there which allowed that flexibility to
integrate the two requirements, that is he was going into rent
arrears and he was not getting any income but through no fault
of his own.
(Ms Taylor) In terms of better joint working, we are
strong proponents of secondments and that happens in quite a lot
of local authority and BA areas, where staff move between the
areas so they have a better understanding of each other's agendas
as well as the practicalities. Co-location does make a lot of
difference, if people are working together in offices, even if
you are working for different employers, because they are dealing
together on a day-to-day personal basis. A lot of those kinds
of departmental boundaries and jealousies can then get broken
down much more easily. It is when you have this "them"
and "us" and all in different places that it really
is not helped. It is not impossible to get round it and you do
have plenty of examples where you have good local liaison at local
level and that is because both sides are willing to put a lot
of that effort in. Generally they will be meeting very regularly,
probably on a weekly basis, so they can deal with issues and pick
up problems as they arise. Certainly the ability to have greater
discretion at the local level gives them a lot more interest and
initiative in making them want to work together better rather
than if it is all a very top-down mandate from above.
(Ms de Heer) Perhaps more requirement to talk properly
to each other. There are liaison meetings but it took quite a
long time with ONE for ONE to understand about two-tier authorities
and to take into account the needs of social services authorities
and the needs of social services' service users because they were
very much focused on housing benefit authorities. I would not
want that to get lost. There is a lot about working with vulnerable
clients and understanding and greater awareness of their needs
and if there were more communication with social services in a
meaningful way, some of the problems which were encountered by
those clients and expectations about work which are perhaps unrealistic
could be resolved more easily.
187. Is it more about communication and joint
working than about targets and the policies which have been put
(Ms Taylor) Yes. The targets and policies are not
necessarily in conflict. They have a different perspective. They
are not necessarily mutually exclusive, so it is possible for
us understand the Employment Service role is to get people into
work, to get them employed, and clearly we support that objective.
It is understanding that from our perspective there is a wider
interest as well.
188. It seems clear that the Department is going
to rely increasingly on call centre technology to deliver benefits.
Based on your experience so far, what lessons do you think need
to be learned?
(Mr Gary) I get two different messages.
One is that the call centre technology and the way in which we
deal with call centres is very much an on-trust method as against
the verification framework which is quite the opposite. You cannot
run a call centre and go completely electronic, if you are going
to require people to bring in original documents. I do not have
the answer to that. I wish I did. I understand the need for the
verification framework; I can also see the huge advantages we
have with the call centre technology, which could be a lot, lot
better if we did not have to go through this tortuous process
of the verification framework. That is one thing. It is not a
lesson, but it is one thing we need to look at. The other thing
is IT. If we are going to have one-stop-shops, let us have a one-stop-shop,
let us not then have to fill in yet another set of information
for the local authority and pass it down the line. That is essential.
It should only be a one-punch job.
(Ms Taylor) The other issue on call centre technology
is how you then deal with people who have difficulty with telephones.
Certainly you can end up with extremely lengthy conversations.
This is particularly difficult for older people, people with hearing
problems, people with English as a second language. Although this
is not directly related to ONE, certainly the introduction of
pension credit in 2003 will have a big potential impact on the
way that is likely to go. What that means for local authorities
is we will probably need to be more interventionist in dealing
with people who might fall through the possible net because there
is not likely to be anybody else out there. With the call centre
technology being moved more and more towards centralist districts,
so not necessarily in a lot of locations, somebody has to deal
with those people who have difficulty with that kind of technology.
189. What would be your overall view on the
performance of the PVS pilots compared with the other models?
(Ms Taylor) We have not had much of a report back.
190. It has made that much of an impact, has
(Ms Taylor) Yes; we have not had much
191. Even though as the LGA you do represent
all authorities. The fact that it has not been fed back to you
is quite interesting.
(Ms Taylor) Such reports as we have had
have indicated that there have been more difficulties but generally
in a lot of the fairly basic setting up and agreeing processes,
issues like that which are really to do with processes rather
than fundamental to the policy objective.
192. Given that reply, you will probably have
difficulty answering my next question which is to ask whether
you have comments on the particular PVS models in the different
areas run by the different companies concerned?
(Ms Taylor) No, we have not; we have not done any
kind of analysis of those particular models.
193. Do you feel that innovation has been brought
to the process by the PVS pilots? Have new ways of doing things
been brought to the party?
(Ms Taylor) No, we have not received messages about
the innovative approach of the PVS models.
194. As representatives of local authorities
there is a responsibility to ensure there is a uniform national
standard in terms of payment of benefits across the country. How
do you see the flexibility in innovation that the PVS pilots are
meant to encourage in this area fitting within those consistent
national frameworks which are being aimed at?
(Ms Taylor) You can have local innovation in the way
you deliver services and the way you put things together even
within a fairly strict national framework. The example David gave
is one, and certainly another would be in rural areas if ONE were
able to implement the crisis fund. There are certain areas which
you can tailor to the needs of the locality which will probably
change and there needs to be enough flexibility within the system
to allow the agencies to make those kind of decisions. There is
an element of discretion which could be introduced.
(Mr Gary) Innovation is not totally the province of
the private sector. We like to think that we can innovate as well.
We do very small things because of the money available to us.
For example, we have set up a telephone system from rural areas
into the ONE system which allows people without telephones or
who would find it difficult otherwise to get into the Taunton
centre, to communicate from outside. It is only a small thing
but it does show a little bit of innovation. To be able to do
that locally is an excellent thing because you are tailoring your
own needs to suit your own requirement.
195. What do you think we should say to the
Minister when we see him about this early in the new year? Is
there a message we should send to him? Is there a message you
would like to send to him?
(Ms Taylor) The message is that there
are some really good ideas and good opportunities, but that the
initiative needs to be properly resourced, it needs to take into
account fully all the various perspectives of the partner agencies,
there needs to be a strong commitment to proper consultation and
involvement and to adequate staff training. IT is critical and
it is not just about providing the right quality and the right
level of IT, but having an understanding of the degree and nature
of software changes which can take a very long time and can be
very expensive to develop. For our particular perspective for
housing benefit authorities, especially those who may have contracted
out, that is a major issue. Certainly any changes to schemes which
require software developments must have appropriate lead-in times.
The other thing is just a greater understanding and awareness
of the local authority sectors, particularly the two-tier authorities
and the fact that it is not just housing benefit, it is welfare
rights and other issues. If all those things are taken into account,
then we still think there is huge potential here for improving
access to services and to welfare benefits for people of employment
196. So you are still pretty optimistic about
getting an outcome here which is positive.
(Ms Taylor) We always live in hope. We are a very
Chairman: That is very valuable. Thank you very
much indeed. I know it takes a lot of time putting together the
submissions and your appearance here with your colleagues has
been very valuable. This is an important report for us, so we
are extremely grateful to you for your help in enabling us to
produce what I hope will be something which will push the process
on and get some of these problems resolved. Thank you very much
for your appearance.