Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 339)



Andrew Selous

  320. Minister, I would like to move on to some of the training aspects as far as the staff are concerned. I wonder if you could kindly expand on some of the issues in your memorandum which you were kind enough to give us. They were that advisers often did not have the full range of skills or enough time to identify and address clients' needs, nor the ability to undertake the appropriate discussions about work, nor indeed to refer clients to the relevant specialist provisions or to undertake case loading properly. It is a very large number of tasks that you are asking staff to do. I wonder if you could expand on how those staff are going to be skilled up sufficiently to take on those tasks?
  (Mr Brown) We most certainly did learn things from the ONE Pilots. Assessing somebody's benefit entitlement is a skilled job. It has to be done very carefully and it is absolutely clear that the clients are relying on that assessment for further decision making about what they should be looking for in the labour market, what impact it would have on their present income. I am very keen that we offer a first class service on both the benefit calculation and on the mentoring, the proactive work to help clients into work. This is all done realistically and things are properly explained to people. That means that people have to be properly trained to deliver the service. On the details of what training is offered, and what backup resources there are that people in the front line can call on for specialist calculations or specialist advice on particular job opportunities, and maybe the training that is required to get into the job, I would like to ask Leigh to set this out because it is more a management issue than a policy one.
  (Mr Lewis) Thank you. Just to say, I think we did inevitably learn some lessons from the ONE Pilots. We have learnt lessons about training, though it is worth saying that there is clear evidence from the evaluation that our customers welcomed the relationship with their personal advisers in ONE. That is a great improvement and they overwhelmingly thought that the service they received was good. We have in designing the Jobcentre Plus training taken account of lessons learnt. One was that we needed to put more context around the training so that our advisers had a better understanding of the overall intent of what we were trying to do. Every personal adviser in the Jobcentre Plus office has been through a three day programme which was called New Beginnings which did not happen in ONE and is a major investment, as you will appreciate. We place greater emphasis on ensuring that personal advisers understand the importance of customers themselves understanding the service, what it entails and what is available to them. We have provided more information for our advisers on handling sensitive issues and barriers. We have provided, for example, more information on carers, and that has been a very specific area where we have given more in-depth training to Jobcentre Plus advisers. We have worked with a whole range of organisations more closely than I think we did, such as the Mental Health Foundation, on some of the barriers that people with mental health difficulties can face. Particularly relevant to your point, we have given advisers more time, encouraged advisers to spend more time actually getting out and visiting those specialist organisations to whom they are able to refer people who are going to need additional and extra support. So we have in a pretty comprehensive way sought to make the training for personal advisers in Jobcentre Plus more comprehensive than it was in the ONE Pilot.

  321. I am very pleased to hear that. Can I just ask you one specific point. Thinking specifically of ES staff, I understand that the training for BA staff for one benefit can take 12 weeks sometimes, what are you doing specifically to get that benefit knowledge to ES staff who have to have that range of skills available?
  (Mr Lewis) One thing we have actually done is, in a sense, broken up the process. One of the lessons that I think we did learn from the ONE Pilots was that to expect an individual personal adviser to be able him or herself to be a complete expert on the entire range of benefit issues and the entire range of labour market issues was demanding a great deal of any one individual. We also knew that our customers wanted to believe that benefit issues were being dealt with before they in their minds comfortably turned to wanting to be able to talk about employment issues. Therefore a key difference, actually, in Jobcentre Plus is that when a customer comes in at the beginning of their claim, they first meet a benefit expert who has greater knowledge of the benefit side of the picture and who can begin to establish that the customer is claiming the right benefit, that they are bringing in the right information and so on. Then they meet a personal adviser and that adviser can spend more time dealing with those aspirations of that individual, their training needs, their labour market opportunities and so on, without that personal adviser themselves having to be expert in every conceivable benefit issue.

  322. I am pleased you have come back to the role of the personal adviser which takes me on to my next question. We understand again from your memorandum that you are keen to encourage the maximum possible contact between clients and their personal advisers. The evidence we have seen and the discussions we have had with personal advisers suggests that the time they have for case loading is in fact extremely limited. We heard only two weeks ago in High Wycombe from some personal advisers of the difficulties they have when their clients ring them of being able to get back to them and actually maintaining that personal relationship, which we understand is important. Is it not going to require considerable extra resources in terms of staff allocation and staff timing to get this real personal one to one relationship going between staff and clients?
  (Mr Brown) These are early days. We have rolled out the Jobcentre Plus format in 53 offices from the autumn up to Christmas and we have further roll outs planned. We will be able to make an assessment of how much time is needed. Clearly it will vary, frankly, between client and client. As we say in the memorandum we do want to provide a good proactive service, one that the client believes they can rely on and do so with certainty. I think it will vary with the client. If there are particular issues there, then frankly it will be for the head of the service, Leigh, and for the management to resolve. All the evidence we have, a little bit from the ONE Pilots but actually more so from the Action Areas for Jobs where there is a proactive approach and some flexibility to the individual advisers and outreach work, all of the evidence we have shows that if you stick with the person and help them through their job search and encourage them, you get a better result than just by saying "Here are the jobs, go and get one". It is probably better to ask Leigh on the point of detail because I do not want to be drawn into the management issues.

  323. In terms of time allocation the personal advisers we spoke to in High Wycombe two weeks ago were saying they had a half hour slot in their schedule to do it. How realistically, if someone rings back wanting further advice, are personal advisers going to be able to maintain that one to one relationship with that sort of time allocation in their weekly schedule?
  (Mr Lewis) I think it would be a brave Chief Executive of any organisation who came and said that they had all the resource they could ever conceivably want for any eventuality in any situation. What I am sure of is that we have some very, very substantial resources indeed for the task which we are being asked to undertake, both for the initial contacts with our customers where we have 20 minutes for the initial discussion with the financial assessor, 45-60 minutes for the initial discussion with a personal adviser and then we have available, to us and to our advisers, the existing major programmes, like the New Deal for Lone Parents, on to which our customers can go if they wish to follow through. I am not going to suggest that there will never be any case anywhere where an adviser faces some pressure over his or her time. What I am clear about—and I have run the Employment Service for over five years now—is I do not think we have ever had a time when there has been so much resource in the system which has enabled us to offer a comprehensive service to as many individuals as we have now in the Jobcentre Plus offices.

Mr Dismore

  324. I would like to pick up on some of the more detailed issues arising out of the explanation that you and Nick have given. My main concern is how it will happen on the ground both in general terms and in relation to disadvantaged groups. I would particularly like to ask about sick and disabled payments and particularly those who fail the personal capability assessment. The evidence that we got last week from the Department's researchers was that personal advisers do not feel equipped very well to approach the problems of those who failed the test. They have very little knowledge of the personal capability assessment. They do not feel equipped to advise the people in this position who often, not unnaturally, feel a bit aggrieved that they have been put in what to them is a bit of a dichotomy because, on the one hand, they do not feel fit to work and they have been put on a JSA type benefit but, on the other hand, they have been told they have to look for work but the person who is going to be advising them on the work is not really in a position to do that.
  (Mr Brown) You have put your finger on a very real issue. It is fair to say that those in a more general advisory capacity have found it difficult to work with the capacity assessment and those who have specialist knowledge believe that they can carry out the job without the capacity assessment. So it really is a question of making sure that people who are capable of giving specialist advice, if specialist advice is needed, are made full use of. I will ask Leigh to say something about the management issue which underpins that. The Government is determined to try to help the million people in that subset of three million people that are sick or disabled who say that they feel they could work if work was there or if they were able to, the Government is setting out to help them. We do not want people feeling that they are put to one side because of some disability or personal circumstance when they would like to work. We are setting out to help them into work. The figures show very clearly that it is a harder thing to do to help disadvantaged groups than it is to help mainstream clients, particularly those who have already been in work, and yet the whole purpose of the specialist New Deals is to do precisely that. Leigh, do you want to say something on the specialist help to people with special needs?
  (Mr Lewis) Yes. Just to say that I very much agree with Mr Dismore but it is not realistic to expect a personal adviser, however good and however well trained, to be able to cope personally with every conceivable disability problem that any individual may have. That is why it is important that there is access to a range of people with more specialist knowledge. There are two groups to whom the personal advisers can turn for support in those circumstances. The first is to the existing network of disability employment advisers who currently sit, as it is now, in the Employment Service but will sit in Jobcentre Plus. Secondly, through the New Deal for Disabled People, to a range of job broker organisations who are themselves specialist in many particular individual areas. I think the trick for us, the management challenge for us, is to ensure that our personal advisers do recognise the point where in a sense they need in a controlled and supportive way to refer an individual to an expert or an organisation who can give them more particular or more specialist help and support.

  325. You would accept the conclusions of the early research we have seen on the pilots that this is a problem and you are proposing to try and address it with the way you are going to change it for the Jobcentre Plus operation? The evidence from Alan Marsh was that only one in ten people in this situation had discussed their PCA at all with a personal adviser?
  (Mr Lewis) I think I would just echo what the Minister has said. I think it is one of the areas where we have learnt lessons from the ONE Pilots. I think one of the challenges for us in the ONE Pilots and in the New Deals has been to get that balance right between a personal adviser who is in one to one contact with that individual and who can provide access to the system, personal support, encouragement and counselling and yet cannot, inevitably, handle every single range of issues, every single problem that an individual may have.

  326. The other issue I want to raise is one that I nearly always end up raising with Ministers because it is something that I have been concerned about for some time increasingly as I have worked on DSS. It is the position of ethnic minority claimants and the evidence particularly in relation to Pakistani groups—and it can probably be read across depending on where the research is done—is that they are receiving a second class service. They are not getting a fair approach from the Jobcentre Pilots. What are you going to try and do? Do you accept that criticism? What are you going to try and do to deal with it?
  (Mr Brown) I accept that the evidence is overwhelming that ethnic minority groups are over-represented amongst the unemployed and under-represented in those who are in employment. Clearly there is an issue there to be addressed, and we are setting out to do so. We are piloting, as you may know, six New Deals specifically targeted at communities with high concentrations of ethnic minorities. I have had a look at this myself at ministerial level and the issues are not uniform for all ethnic minorities by any means with different features for different ethnic minority groups. There is always something in there that says that we are not succeeding in getting people into the labour market and that to be part of an ethnic minority is collectively to be disadvantaged, that has to be tackled. The New Deals are part of that strategy, whether that is enough on its own, I am pretty sure that it is not and that we as a Service, through the Jobcentre Plus, need to do more.

  327. That is not actually the question that I was asking.
  (Mr Brown) Go on.

  328. It is self-evidently the fact that people who are from ethnic communities tend to be disproportionately represented in the unemployment statistics.
  (Mr Brown) Yes but the underlying reasons are quite complex and varied.

  329. My concern is on the delivery of the service where research shows in particular—where it was done in areas where there was a concentration of the Pakistani community—that they are getting a disadvantaged, less effective, less efficient service compared with the indigenous white population. Now that is not the same question as saying that from one particular group—
  (Mr Brown) Do you mean the ONE Pilots?

  330. Yes. Is the finding of that research accepted that they have been getting, on either a subjective or an objective view, a lesser service? If that criticism is not accepted, why not; and if it is accepted, how are you going to address that in the Jobcentre Plus?
  (Mr Brown) I would like David to deal with the statistical point. Is that a fair conclusion to draw from the analysis of the ONE Pilots, the analysis that has been done so far? More generally is there an issue there? Yes, there most certainly is. Yes, it does have to be addressed. I think the New Deals that we have just launched are going to be playing an important part in trying to tease out what the issues actually are. Since they are focussed on communities with very high proportions of ethnic minorities from different ethnic minority communities I think we will learn a great deal from them. I suspect, looking at the figures and trying to delve beneath them, we will not like some of the things we discover. David, would you like to comment?
  (Mr Stanton) If you look at the pilot and the control area data, comparing white with ethnic minority outcomes for employment, then it is true in both pilot and control that ethnic minorities fair worse. It is true, also, that the figures perversely suggest that there may have been some advantage in Manchester where there was a special drive at a control area to increase work placement rates for ethnic minorities.
  (Mr Brown) We had better make it clear that was outside the ONE Pilot, that was a special drive.
  (Mr Stanton) That was a control area where the ONE service was not being delivered.
  (Mr Brown) Something else was happening.
  (Mr Stanton) A local initiative was taking place which gave the impression that the control area was better but that was just one initiative. That was in a way encouraging, you can do something that works. Then we had the data analysed to check whether there was a specific ONE effect, and the question you are raising about the higher Pakistani element in one of the ONE Pilots is allowed for. We found no evidence that ethnic minorities were disadvantaged in the ONE Pilot area compared with the control.

  331. You dispute the Alan Marsh client survey?
  (Mr Stanton) What I think Alan Marsh was saying—but it is probably for him not me to say—was that though we tried to match control area with pilot area as much as we could (we looked at issues like ethnicity when we were doing it) one of the pilot areas had a higher Pakistani ethnicity. We know that in the labour market the ethnic groups that are most disadvantaged are Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and that gives that result. Once you allow for that in the statistical analysis there is no evidence that ONE itself disadvantaged people. In a pilot where there was a higher Pakistani element, the Pakistani element came out untouched by the ONE Pilot.

  332. The conclusion Alan Marsh was drawing was based on particular client interviews, for example, as well as statistical analysis. The evidence he came up with was that people from Pakistani communities—and as far as I can recall the evidence we had last week—were less likely to get proper interviews with the personal advisers, for example, to discuss their position effectively as a proportion.
  (Mr Stanton) Within that pilot, I would have to look at that and give you a note.

  333. Yes. What I am concerned about is—
  (Mr Stanton) On the employment placement, there is no ONE effect against an ethnic minority of whatever group. On access to interviews, I would like to go back on that.

  334. My concern is that you seem to be challenging evidence from the researchers we heard last week which was quite firm in the view in relation to this trend. They talked about the trend generally of there being a degree of disadvantage for ethnic community groups. But particularly high or substantially disadvantaged were Pakistani groups, and that is what I am particularly concerned about. My next question is, what are you going to try and do about it to try and address that? Nick said there are going to be six pilot areas.
  (Mr Brown) Yes.

  335. Presumably you have a reason for saying that so you cannot necessarily disagree with the hypothesis I am putting to you?
  (Mr Brown) No, I am not. I am not sufficiently qualified to answer the rather more technical point about the way in which the people have been selected for interviews matches up. More generally, I take an interest in the topic and have had a very fine presentation on what the Department already knows, and it worries me. I certainly think that we have to do a lot more if we are going to bear down on social exclusion in all its forms and that includes tackling minority groups that are disadvantaged in the labour market. The evidence is overwhelming that they are disadvantaged.

  336. My concern is that they are already disadvantaged but the service they are getting is from the process—
  (Mr Brown) It must be pretty obvious that it is not our intention that they should be. There are issues there to address and the point of having six carefully focused New Deals in those parts of the country where the ethnic minority populations are most prominent is precisely to learn lessons to tackle these problems and to try to make an impact on the problem itself.

  337. So what sort of research is going on in the pilot studies that you mentioned to try and get to the bottom of how you can re-jig the service that they are getting?
  (Mr Brown) These have only just been launched. We are inviting bids now. I have not received the advice yet from officials who are going to evaluate the bids. These are the new New Deals, but I think it is a very important area.

Ms Buck

  338. I am intrigued. You have now said somewhat darkly and mysteriously twice, "You might not like what we find".
  (Mr Brown) I think people are disadvantaged in the labour market by colour and that there is still discrimination out there.

Mr Dismore

  339. But we are not arguing about that.
  (Mr Brown) I know, but it is quite difficult to prove.

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