Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 298 - 299)




  298. Ladies and gentlemen, can I call the Committee formally to order. Can I welcome the Minister, Mr Brown. Nick, thank you very much for appearing this afternoon. Can I say straight away that as usual the standard of support we have had from the Department by way of written submissions has been excellent. We would like you to make a special point of thanking those who have prepared them for us. You have brought Leigh Lewis who, of course, we know well from the last Parliament when we did a joint Committee and David Stanton from the Department. Maybe the best thing would be for you to make a short statement just to say how you think things are standing at the moment and introduce Leigh Lewis and David Stanton for the record. Then we will proceed with the questioning from there if we may.

  (Mr Brown) Thank you very much, Chairman. Can I begin by thanking you for the kind words that you have said about the support that officials have given this inquiry, I am grateful for that. As you know I am relatively new to this ministerial job. I have been in it for six months now and we are going over an area that has developed since 1997. Having said that, I do welcome the Committee's interest and inquiry, and not just into the ONE Pilot itself but the evolution of Government policy leading up to the launch of Jobcentre Plus which is, of course, the flagship policy which I have responsibility for. Leigh Lewis, as you know, is the Chief Executive of Jobcentre Plus and David Stanton is our Director of the Analytical Services Division in the new Department, the Department for Work and Pensions. I think it might help the Committee if I set both the pilot and Jobcentre Plus in its context. It is the policy of the Government to create an active welfare system, in other words to create opportunity and to help people to become self-sufficient and independent. It is our view that work is the best route out of social exclusion and poverty. It is a manifesto commitment. It is at the heart of the Government's policies, not just in the Department for Work and Pensions, but over at the Treasury it is one of the themes that shapes taxation policy. It is one of the themes which underpinned our policy on the Minimum Wage. We believe in an active labour market policy like the New Deal. It has to be underpinned, as I say, by policies which make work pay. Indeed, that is one of the key themes which emerged from the ONE Pilot, that people want to discuss the interplay between their wages and the benefits that they currently get as they consider work opportunities. As the Committee will be aware, we started in 1997 to change the culture and whole approach to benefits and employment. Indeed, one of the objectives of the ONE Pilot was to underpin this cultural change, to encourage people to look to work as the pathway out of poverty. Now, I think it is important to realise that ONE was a pilot, we learnt lessons from it. Not everything that the ONE Pilot told us came directly from the pilot itself but it was a real attempt at joining up the Benefits Service, at least the front of house Benefits Service, and the services offered by the old Employment Service, what was the Department of Employment. It had four key objectives. We wanted to put benefit recipients in touch with the labour market. We wanted to help more benefit recipients in to work in a proactive way, in other words work alongside them as mentors, as personal advisers, rather than merely show them what jobs were available and leave them to get on with it. We wanted to make sure that the service was tailored to the needs of the customers, the needs of our fellow citizens. We wanted to underpin this cultural change. We wanted people to look more to the world of work rather than a continuing dependence on benefits. Now there are a range of lessons that we have learnt from the ONE Pilot. I guess at the heart of the Committee's inquiry will be why did we move on to Jobcentre Plus when although we had the early evaluation of ONE there were still more lessons to learn? The answer to this—and I have discussed it carefully with the Secretary of State who remembers all this fairly well—is, it became clear pretty early on that it was this interplay between benefits and employment, taking a job, that was at the heart of many of our clients' enquiries. In other words, people were not very willing to consider work until they were absolutely certain as to what their benefit entitlement was and that they had been reassured as to what any change in their circumstances would mean for their income. There is nothing illogical in all of this but it really says to us loud and clear, and pretty early on—indeed it was underpinned by the formal studies which were undertaken a little bit later—that people want to know their financial position and worry about the move from benefits to work. Two other things became clear as well. We needed to focus on jobs, and the feeling was that the ONE Pilot was perhaps over-focussed on process, cultural change, but not actually focussed sufficiently on the need to move people, what is at the heart of this, the need to move people from benefits into work. We wanted programmes which were more work focussed. The third point which emerged pretty clearly and pretty early on was that although the front of house work, the link up with local authorities, with local groups and others with an interest in trying to tackle these issues, partly from the point of view of tackling social exclusion, although all of that was well done and valued, indeed valued by the people who took part as well as by the client groups, it was clear that we had a job to do to sort out the back of house issues as well. In other words, how the benefit was calculated, how the different systems talked to each other and the need to develop a unified service became clearer and clearer and clearer. It was those three themes essentially which underpinned the other experimental work which I know the Committee has taken an interest in. The Action for Jobs area with its outreach work and the flexibility that the officials have but also, of course, the creation of Jobcentre Plus, hence the move to Jobcentre Plus and the current roll out.

  299. Minister, that is an excellent and valuable opening statement. I hope your colleagues, Mr Lewis and Mr Stanton, will feel free to pitch in with any supplementaries to the questions which we are about to address to you. I should have said at the beginning—and this is being addressed to my colleagues as much as to anyone else—the Committee's proceedings this afternoon are being webcast so we all have to use the microphones properly otherwise you will not be heard in New Zealand or wherever it is people are watching on the internet. Can I start, and I do not want to spend a lot of time on this, we have heard in the course of the inquiry that there have been some consequences of the industrial dispute with PCS about the screens issue. We met that in a couple of our visits, it was pretty unavoidable. Certainly I have no intention of getting the Committee to take a view on what is a difficult industrial dispute. There was an incident on Friday which we have had some supplementary PCS evidence about. I do not know if you have had a chance to see it but I would not mind a reaction. Really it is a question that deals as much with trends rather than perhaps individual incidents because the case that PCS are making is that the incidents of violence are increasing. Obviously if that is the case that will be a matter of some concern because it could thwart the philosophy behind the change. Can you give us some reassurance that the industrial dispute is being dealt with and that you feel you are confident that the screen issue is not going to interfere with the possibility of developing the full potential of Jobcentre Plus?
  (Mr Brown) Can I make some general points and then I will ask Leigh Lewis as the Head of the Service to comment on the operational details. The policy is for Ministers but the operation is clearly for Leigh. There is a boundary there which I would not want to step over. I deeply regret the dispute between ourselves and the trade unionists who are, after all, our staff, our employees and when this is over will be working to deliver what is a brand new service with new equipment and substantial investment in premises. I am very enthusiastic about the changes we are making, about Jobcentre Plus. I know the Committee has visited, I think, one Jobcentre Plus site.

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