Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)



  220. I am not entirely convinced that is true. Surely quite a lot of people who are making claims, particularly for the first time, might have expectations that the system is designed not only to give them what they are entitled to but to steer them towards work.
  (Ms Johnson) Our experience of talking in depth with clients was that they did not have an expectation about what the personal adviser interview was about, other than sorting out their benefit. In the very initial round of our research, we did have questions like, "Did you come away from the start-up and interview understanding what the next stage was all about?", and people on the whole had very little recollection about the wider purpose of that PA meeting being explained to them. There were exceptions but that variation was found across offices and across models, so it seemed to be down to individual staff making extra effort to explain to claimants what this new process was about, but it was not a rule.

  221. That is something which can be learnt and built in if one wants it?
  (Ms Johnson) Yes.

  222. When we went on the visit last week to look at the experience, we had a sense, which anecdotally has been known to me elsewhere, that once a client does seize upon the concept of a personal adviser, what can happen, assuming the relationship is all right, is that they then home in on that person as being someone who could be a support to them through the process, which actually does not really work. Did you get that or is that completely masked by people's lack of understanding of what was going on?
  (Ms Davies) Can you explain what you mean by "homing in on that person"?

  223. They would ring back asking to speak to Marilyn, or whoever, because they got hold of the concept of personal adviser and interpreted it as meaning something possibly more ambitious than the scheme was actually going to deliver, and liked the idea of that identified key person who could support them through the whole process.
  (Ms Davies) We have certainly found that in a number of instances, but it is not representative of the whole and we are talking about small numbers here. In general, across all the clients we interviewed, people did very much identify and like the idea of having a personal adviser as someone who they dealt with on a one-to-one basis, as it was often quoted. Where clients established a good rapport with their personal adviser within the initial meeting and they were generally work-motivated and they had plans either to go into training or education or develop their skills a little further, a whole host of things, then, yes, they would go back to their adviser on a regular basis. We certainly have seen in the interview and in the clients we have met, there is a core of people who are going back increasingly on a regular basis and will contact in some cases their personal adviser on a weekly basis.

  224. Is there a differentiation between client groups in that?
  (Ms Davies) There is, and it tends to be more work-focussed lone parents, who have an overall plan and strategy they want to follow, and they are getting support and confirmation from their personal adviser this is the right route to go down.
  (Professor Marsh) We have been studying lone parents going to work for a very long period of time—we have a ten year cohort, for example—and one thing we have learned is that they do not go to work until they are ready. Intervention, help and advice can help them get ready sooner but it is not something which happens overnight and it is not something which happens in 32 minutes.

  225. Sure.
  (Professor Marsh) One thing I found so difficult to understand is why those we have studied over a long period seem to put work aside, put it aside, put it aside, and then just go to work. It seems to happen so fast. So they reach a point when they just change their minds and they move a very long distance in a very short time, and in this research I think that is very difficult to capture. One thing I do hope is that the other research we have done over the years will also be added into the consideration of how you build on this initial work which has been done—and these certainly are early days for ONE—and to try to incorporate more clearly when you can identify when people would most benefit from help.

  226. Presumably what we have to capture on that is the extent to which people reach that cliff edge, if you like, of change because of information which helps them deal with risk-aversity, which is a huge issue, the confidence of knowing there is a benefits package which might be there, in-work benefits and so forth, and to what extent it is to do with overcoming the real barriers like child care, and this particular model did not enable us to draw an awful lot of that out.
  (Professor Marsh) In these early days in the first few months of the system everyone was feeling their way, including the people who were administering it. It would be very surprising to find that everybody was 100 per cent expert on this point. There will be a period of learning which will go on for two or three years.
  (Ms Johnson) On the point that Vicky was making about engaging with clients, and that lone parents at the moment were those who were most likely to sustain contact with personal advisers and the whole ONE process, that is not to say that others are not interested. What we have found is there is quite a lot of latent interest in engaging with the process and when we spoke to carers and widows as groups—which are groups not covered by the quantitative research—and we spoke to some people with health problems as well, there were people who expressed an intention and desire to go back for further help and advice in the future, but what we found is that that intention is not necessarily followed through in practice. In a way, that potential to engage with these people is then lost through some hold-up in the process.

Mrs Humble

  227. To go back to Karen Buck's earlier question about the perception clients had of the personal adviser, I was surprised when you said that their expectation was not different under the new system from the old system because that is not what we have been told when we have been out visiting offices. We have been told, on the one hand, people who have never had an experience of the Benefits Agency personally have an image, and we were told that their image was that of the series Bread, sitting in front of the screen and shouting at this unhelpful person behind the screen, and that, on the other hand, for those who had an experience of the Benefits Agency, all too often it actually was that sort of experience. So both of them noticed something different when they walked in through the door in the new layout and then being treated with courtesy and sitting down in front of somebody and having this gentle chat with them. I am trying to reconcile what we were told by the personal advisers whom we met and what you are telling us. Can you try and bridge that gap? Have I misunderstood you?
  (Ms Davies) No, I do not think so. When we were talking about expectation, we were asking people what they were expecting before they went into the service, and you are very much right that new claimants, people who have had no prior experience of claiming benefits before, often had a lot of pre-conceptions about what to expect, they had heard horror stories all over the place, and often after they had got into the offices they were pleasantly surprised and it was better than they had expected. But the main thing is that they did not go in expecting to talk about work, they still expected to talk about benefits, and in some cases their experience changed their attitudes and when they came out they were more aware that work was an issue and an aspect of the service and services were there to support people, but their pre-conceptions of the system were very much more about the environment and what it was going to be like going in there and the questions they were going to get rather than the opportunity to talk about work. Does that mirror what you heard?

  228. One of the things we were told was that their initial phone back contact, asking them those sorts of questions and then also advising them what information to bring along to the personal adviser interview, helped them in their expectation, so they would have a clearer idea of what sort of questions would be asked of them, but you are saying that even that was still very much benefits-focussed rather than work-focussed?
  (Ms Davies) That was in the call centre model presumably?

  229. In one of your earlier replies you said that it applied across all the different models. Did it not? Are you talking about a different experience depending whether it was a call centre or a benefits model?
  (Ms Davies) You mean on a regular basis?

  230. Yes.
  (Ms Davies) At the initial start-up the call centres contacted people over the telephone and talked through their claim with them, and there is some discussion about what the purpose of the PA meeting was, but I think it is fair to say their expectations from the small amount of work we did were not any variations with other models. We are not necessarily very well placed to comment on that, Alan could do that a bit more. We could explain why there had been variation, had there been, but people still went to their meeting and, without listening into the conversation over the telephone, it is difficult to understand exactly why that message did not get through.
  (Professor Marsh) As you would expect, the JSA clients talked about work. The different balance was experienced by the lone parents and sick and disabled clients.

Miss Begg

  231. Can I pursue the different models, the telephone model and also the private and voluntary sector model and the basic model. What differences did you note between the different models? How significant were those differences? Did you find one model was more successful than another?
  (Professor Marsh) Based solely on the comments of clients, the private and voluntary sector model clients had the most negative things to say. They had fewer meetings, they received less help and advice, they had fewer discussions about child care and about finding work, they were told less about in-work benefits and discussed health problems less—and there was a correspondence, I believe, between the quantitative surveys we did and the qualitative work—whereas the call centre model came out on these dimensions better, particularly the JSA clients who said they were treated rather well. None of this added up to any decisive verdict in favour of one model or another, since again the differences were small.

  232. Can I move on to those who have gone through the personal capability assessment (PCA) and have been deemed to be fit for work. It is quite a sensitive area and it is at a difficult time. If they have failed the personal capability assessment and they are expected to have a trigger interview with the personal adviser, how successful do you think the personal advisers are at that stage in dealing with someone who probably thinks they should still be able to claim the disabled benefits, and are they able to focus on talking about work and their options?
  (Ms Davies) The short answer would be no, not very. As you rightly say, many of the clients who had gone through their PCA and had gone on to jobseekers allowance felt they should still be on incapacity benefit. They had that very much had that in the forefront of their mind, and that is what they wanted to talk to their personal advisers about. Often the personal advisers were not able to provide the information they needed, in order to answer why they had changed benefits and what was going to happen now, and they did not feel ready to discuss work with their personal adviser.

  233. Was the training of the personal advisers at fault or the fact, as I have found from my own life, that people feel very uncomfortable with the whole issue of sickness and disability and never quite know what to say, so the whole nature of what they expect to do is one which needs a great deal of sensitivity and needs somebody who actually understands and appreciates the disability and has a positive view of work? Is it as simple as that or are there more complex issues at stake?
  (Ms Davies) My opinion is that it is a mixture of the two. We cannot say from the research because we did not have the opportunity to talk to personal advisers, but I think there is a question there about personal advisers' confidence about addressing these issues with their clients and then whether they think it is appropriate to raise work themselves, but I should emphasise that is not something we specifically looked at in our research.
  (Professor Marsh) Something I find remarkable about all of this is how little has come through that smacks of resentment at being compelled to have this interview to account for yourself and be asked, "Did you find a job?" I was quite braced for a lot of that to come through particularly, if I may say so, from sick and disabled clients, many of whom are plainly sick and disabled and plainly would have a problem working, being called up within days and asked, "What are you doing about getting a job?". I would take encouragement from that that they are getting the tone right. I have discussed this in other public fora and said, you can imagine the catastrophic tone which you can adopt which would cause a great deal of resentment. Equally, many of us in this field of social equality have said, if only someone could say to people, even if they were newly claiming disability benefit, "Look, there maybe something we can do, we might be able to help", that is such a different tone, but it is the same interview.

  234. Did the ONE pilots solve the problem I found? In Aberdeen we have Pathfinder, and we previously did not. One of my constituents was deemed to be capable of work under the personal capability assessment, the Benefits Agency deemed her capable of work, and when she went along to the Employment Service they said, "you are really not ready for work, there is nothing we can offer you". She went backwards and forwards. Does the ONE system actually solve that problem or is it still happening, is it still a problem?
  (Ms Davies) There is certainly a decision taken regarding the extent to which personal advisers can meaningfully and actively discuss work with different clients. I think that is a decision that is taken on an individual basis with each individual client, regardless of whether they are lone parents. In this case, where we have sick and disabled clients, PAs do take each case individually and determine it from that. The important thing to emphasise is that clients made it clear to us that, while personal advisers would shape and structure the interview, the clients very much were able to take a lead in what they were willing to discuss. In some instances clients suggested that superficial questions were asked, if you like, but more detailed questions were not necessarily raised and because they were not asked the client themselves did not willingly offer the information. You have this gap, if you like, which is not being bridged.

  235. One of the biggest criticisms of the "all work test" was that it was all or nothing and that is why the personal capability assessment was introduced. I still get a sense in the conventional system it is still all or nothing: you are either ready to work or not ready to work. Does the ONE pilot appreciate that people with disabilities might be able to do some work, but not full-time work? It is quite a shift in attitude; it is not a case of you cannot work or you can work—people can be quite disabled, very disabled and still be able to do some work. Does the new system, this system, allow them to be able to balance that and work that out?
  (Ms Davies) I think we have a variety of evidence that supports both arguments, so again there is no clear picture. We have people claiming sickness and disability benefit, and they may have made a repeat claim, and they considered before they went into their personal adviser meeting work was not an option for them, and through discussions with their personal adviser and by exploring different routes, such as part-time and different types of work, the personal adviser has changed that person's attitude to think that work is an option and it could be an option in the medium term. You have that in one instance. In other cases we have clients who, as you say, feel work is an option, would like to discuss it but for whatever reason their personal adviser did not explore it with them and they went away thinking it is a missed opportunity.
  (Ms Johnson) Clearly from what Vicky Davies is saying there is the potential within ONE to help people in that situation better than has possibly been the case previously.

  236. It depends on the personal adviser.
  (Ms Johnson) It depends very much on the personal adviser whether they want to raise the subject of work. From our wider experience of work, it is almost as though the personal adviser is being overly sensitive to the person with a health problem or a disability and feeling they do not want to work and they are overly sympathetic, rather than saying, there are things that you can do and approaching the subject in a slightly different way.

  237. This question is to Professor Marsh. Your survey included a substantial proportion of clients from ethnic minority groups, what did your research find regarding the quality of the service they received?
  (Professor Marsh) On some reports they received the worst service. Fewer of them attended the personal adviser meeting, fewer of them discussed work benefits, fewer had things they mentioned they liked about the service. Those of Pakistani origin seemed to get, in many respects, the larger difference, but overall, again, these differences were small. You will see in the Report that we did have a scare at one point, if I can put it that way. It did appear from the first order comparisons that there was something about the ONE service that prevented people from ethnic minorities getting jobs. This would, of course, have been the first negative finding that ONE could find, and it was a very important one, and the difference was large. We did an additional amount of research and discovered, as I think you would expect, it had something to do with the areas in which these people lived and the kind of ethnic minority groups they were and what was happening in the control areas. There is an appendix on that which I hope carefully explains why that difference is there. It is worth drawing attention to it.

  238. Do you think there is a case for further research into the Department for Work and Pensions treatment of ethnic minority groups?
  (Professor Marsh) This data provides a rich source of data research. Many of the notes I have made in this meeting point to things we can look at, even in this analysis of the second tranche of Cohort Two. One in ten of these huge flow samples are ethnic minority, for example. I may have started on what sounded to be a negative note but you do not see these resources at the public service on this scale very often. These flow samples, these huge numbers of people flowing through the system at the same time, having the same experience at the same time, looking at the difference in the process, it is a wonderful opportunity, it is one of the best research opportunities of this kind we have had. It will give you an enormous amount of original information.
  (Ms Johnson) In terms of considering the needs of ethnic minorities, it is further worth noting that we too sought to establish whether the experiences and outcomes of people from ethnic minority groups were any different from those in other client groups. We were not able to draw any meaningful conclusions from our work on account of the diversity within our ethnic minority sample, there were so many different sub groups numbers were not large enough to have rigorous evidence to draw conclusions. That is a further point for consideration.


  239. Does the work that your Review did, qualitative or quantitative, give you any sense that there were increases in crisis loan applications in any of the pilot areas you were looking at? Social fund crisis loans, the work you did did not give you any sense that there would be an increase in those?
  (Ms Davies) Not in that respect, no, although we did have a number of clients who reported back to us they had asked for crisis loans and the personal advisers' knowledge about how to go about claiming for one tends to be lacking.

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