Select Committee on Work and Pensions First Report


The role of employers

48. In response to the Report of our predecessor Committees on the early stages of the ONE pilots, the Government advised that "the ONE service will build on the lessons learned from the joint BA[89] and ES[90], New Deal for Lone Parents and the New Deal for Disabled People, in developing links with employers and encouraging them to consider a wider range of job candidates."[91] In practice, ONE did not develop a distinctive approach to working with employers. This was partly due to the fact that it was existing Jobcentres, not ONE offices, which had the resources and the tradition of liaising with employers. There appeared to be a lack of liaison between ONE offices and Employment Service marketing teams who had the job of forging links with local employers.[92] Yet several of our witnesses made the point that working with employers, and being aware of their needs, could make a significant difference in finding people jobs.[93] We are therefore pleased to see that, within Jobcentre Plus, working with employers will be a central part of the new strategy, involving the use of local account managers for employers in Pathfinder offices, aimed at providing an individually tailored service at a local level.[94] In the Netherlands, we were impressed by the fact that individual Personal Advisers spent part of their time liaising directly with employers.[95] In Jobcentre Plus, it would appear that the dialogue will be through local account managers and local vacancy service managers. We recommend that Personal Advisers are encouraged to work closely with local account managers and local vacancy service managers in 'selling' clients to employers and vice versa.

Improving quality of service

49. The ONE pilots held out the prospect of a generally improved quality of service for all client groups. Not only would there be a single geographical point of contact, where clients could 'plug in' to Employment and Benefit Agency services, as well local authority Housing Benefit information, but each person would have a single Personal Adviser who could deal with all aspects of work and benefits. Above all, the service was intended to be 'client-focused', tailoring the help and assistance offered to the needs of the client, rather than giving a fixed, standard service. The evaluation research suggests that, in comparison with the control areas, ONE clients generally rated the advice and help they had received more highly; they were more likely to consider the advice they received very helpful; the advice made them feel more hopeful about the future; and they felt they were more likely to be treated as an individual.[96] However, although progress has been made, a truly integrated service has not yet been achieved. Major obstacles include the lack of integration of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit, and the lack of integration of IT systems. These are discussed in more detail below.

Quality of service to ethnic minority clients

50. The quantitative evaluation contained a substantial proportion of clients from ethnic minority groups. The findings suggest that in some respects these clients appeared to receive a poorer service than white clients[97]. Clients from ethnic minority groups were less likely to say they had attended a Personal Adviser meeting (lone parents and sick or disabled clients); less likely to have discussed in-work benefits (lone parents, who were also less likely to be aware of in-work benefits); and were less likely to mention a feature of ONE that they liked. However, sick or disabled clients with an ethnic background were more likely to have received information about jobs. Pakistani clients in particular appeared to have received a worse service. The authors of the research urged caution in interpreting the data, partly because the numbers were small and partly because clients from ethnic minority groups tended to be clustered in a small number of areas, where variations in the procedures adopted in these localities could have distorted the results. Nevertheless, the variations continued when the analysis was confined to the three benefit offices with high concentrations of ethnic minority clients.

51. A relevant example concerned the difficulties within the Call Centre pilot areas experienced by clients with poor English in making their benefit claims by telephone. Mr Craig Lane of Newport Citizens Advice Bureau told us that a significant proportion of the population in the area served by the Bureau had English as a second language. In his view, there were problems in accessing the ONE service by telephone where the ONE adviser did not speak the client's language. He observed that there was a telephone interpreting service 'Language Line,' but "the quality of communication in a three-way conversation is always vastly inferior."[98] On our visit to the Buckinghamshire ONE pilot - an area where there is a substantial ethnic minority population - user groups told us that it was important to have the appropriate language available immediately. There had been problems getting translators, especially for the initial call to the Call Centre. Clients had been encouraged to bring family or friends with them, as translators, for the Personal Adviser interviews, which some found distasteful and intrusive. Some clients had apparently been told that if they brought such an interpreter they could have an interview in a few days, but would have to wait a week or so otherwise. Often clients had to rely on the services of local charities to help.[99]

52. When pressed about the quality of service given to ethnic minority clients by his Department, the Minister responded by referring to six New Deal programmes aimed at tackling the disproportionate unemployment among certain ethnic groups.[100] This initiative is important, but has little to do with the quality of advice and assistance about benefits and work given to ethnic minority claimants by the Department's own staff within the Benefits Agency and Employment Service. We recommend that the Department for Work and Pensions commission further research to examine the quality of its own service delivery to ethnic minority clients compared to white clients.

Improving the assessment and delivery of benefits

53. One of the four core objectives of the ONE pilots was to improve the assessment and delivery of benefits, to ensure that clients receive an individual service that is efficient and tailored to their needs. Delivering an efficient and accurate benefits system is not only beneficial to recipients in itself; it also improves the general relationship between providers of the service and claimants. A good experience in getting benefits sorted out quickly and in an informed manner, lays a basis of trust between client and adviser which can assist in building fruitful discussions about work. It also reduces the scope for tension and argument in dealings at local offices. In contrast, poor benefits advice or a wrong decision can harm the chances of the Personal Adviser being able to work constructively with an individual.[101] Ms Lucy Birkinshaw from DIAL UK observed that a person who had found out from DIAL that they were entitled to Income Support, but had not been told this at their ONE interview and who had therefore lost money, was loath to go back to the Personal Adviser again because they felt they had been badly let down.[102]

Speed of processing

54. Ms Angela Eagle, Minister for Social Security at the time the ONE pilots were introduced, told our predecessor Committees: "we want to be able to assess people for their benefit entitlements much more rapidly and much more accurately." So far, there seems little evidence of improvement and some evidence of delays.[103] The quantitative research shows that in the pilot areas, for lone parents the average time between the claim and receipt of payment was 3.4 weeks compared with only 2.9 weeks in the control areas. For sick and disabled clients, the gap was 4 weeks on average in the pilot areas, compared to only 3.4 weeks in the control areas. For JSA clients, there was no difference, with the average time to process the claim being around 2.5 weeks.[104] The DWP admits that some pilot areas in both the Call Centre and PVS models struggled with processing Incapacity Benefit during the first six months of full participation, but the Department says that "performance in these areas has since recovered and improved."[105] The delivery evaluation noted that in some ONE areas, initial Personal Adviser meetings were being booked eight to ten days ahead of the Start-Up interview. Staff were embarrassed by the wait clients were expected to endure, which was longer than under previous arrangements because it was only after the Personal Adviser meeting that the claim could be processed.[106] Some of these delays may reflect the fact that the evaluations were being carried out in the months following full participation, when staff were coming to grips with a surge of new entrants into the system.

55. In summarising the research findings to date, the DWP noted: "Clients had a strong expectation that ONE would mean that their benefit claims were dealt with more speedily but this was not generally their experience. At present, there is no conclusive evidence that ONE had any impact on the time taken for staff to process benefit claims."[107] Advice agencies agreed that ONE had made little difference on delays: "it is no better and no worse than it was before."[108] It is disappointing that the ONE pilots have not succeeded in improving the time taken to process benefit claims. The Chief Executive of Jobcentre Plus assured us that it was an ambition to speed the benefit process. He was hoping that the use of benefit experts at the start of the process would help.[109] We are encouraged that Jobcentre Plus still has the ambition to seek to speed up the benefit claim process, through its use of benefits experts when clients first attend the office. We intend to monitor the progress of Jobcentre Plus in improving benefit clearance times.

Crisis Loans

56. As discussed above, extra pressure on the system can lead to delays in getting benefit. Moreover, not everyone awaiting their first payment of benefit has the resources to survive financially for the two weeks or so it can take before benefit arrives. In this situation, often a claimant's only recourse is a claim for a Crisis Loan. Crisis Loans designed to tide people over until their first benefit payment are known as 'alignment' payments. They accounted for 38 per cent of Crisis Loans last year.[110] When the Committee visited the Huddersfield Jobcentre Plus Pathfinder Office, we were told that anyone with a Social Fund application was sent to another office - an old Benefits Agency office - at a different site. This office had not been refurbished as a Jobcentre Plus office, and clients were dealt with behind screens. Referrals included people in need of an alignment payment - a group we consider should not be labelled 'high risk' and who should not be made to travel to another office to receive what is a fairly routine payment, where the bulk of applications are approved. In its response to the Social Security Select Committee's inquiry into the Social Fund in the last Parliament,[111] the Government told the Committee that Crisis Loan alignment payments would be handled as part of the normal claim taking process in Jobcentre Plus Pathfinder areas - either by telephone or face-to-face - and immediate payment facilties would be available when the client came in for an Adviser interview.[112] Upon further inquiry, it has now come to light that all Crisis Loans of any kind will only be handled in a 'screened environment'.[113] The Committee regrets the decision that all Crisis Loans applications, whatever the circumstances, will require applicants to be dealt with separately in a screened environment, often requiring clients to travel to a different office to receive payment. We are particularly concerned that this blanket rule will apply to applications for alignment payments, which are fairly routine payments and largely uncontroversial. We urge the Department to reconsider its position, and reinstate the original intention that alignment payments are dealt with as part of the normal claim taking process at Jobcentre Plus.

The quality of benefits information and advice

57. Advice agencies are not happy with the quality of benefits advice and information being given by ONE advisers. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux gave numerous examples of confusing or inaccurate advice, pointing out that "the consequences for clients in many cases are serious, resulting in considerable loss of income."[114] Advice Rights, an advice project operating within the Warwickshire ONE pilot, commented: "While we accept that anyone can make a mistake and that sometimes wrong advice can be given, what worries us is that this is not always down to an individual piece of advice, it is the case that advisers do not know about certain aspects of benefit and therefore important advice is never given."[115] The example given concerned relatively recent transitional protection rules designed to make it easier for Incapacity Benefit claimants to try working; complex but very important rules within the context of a work-focused service. Disability organisations in particular were concerned at the incompleteness of advice to people with disabilities, with eligibility for Disability Living Allowance not always identified.[116]

58. Insufficient attention was given within the ONE pilots to the thorough training of staff in benefits matters.[117] We have concluded that greater recognition should be given within Jobcentre Plus to the expertise needed in giving good and complete benefits advice. The introduction of benefits experts within Jobcentre Plus to assist Personal Advisers at the start of a claim is a positive move in the right direction. However, it would appear that the benefits experts will concentrate primarily on new claims, ensuring that forms are completed properly and that clients provide all necessary information at that stage. There will be no continuity of contact between client and benefits expert at the later stages of a claim.[118] This is potentially problematic, because, as in the illustration above, clients may need informed advice during the course of a claim.

59. Where a client has a mental health condition which deteriorates, an alert adviser might pick up the fact that he or she could be eligible for disability benefits. If a person is considering a return to work, they may need detailed tax credits and benefits advice to explore the different options - for example, the implications of doing voluntary work with expenses, part-time work, therapeutic work or taking a temporary job. Computer calculations do help; but they need to be accompanied by informed discussion. The benefit rules are also particularly complex for certain groups, for example, young people under the age of 18.[119] We recommend that:

  • due recognition should be given to the specialist skills and expertise of benefits advisers within Jobcentre Plus. Their expertise must be supported by regular, ongoing training to reinforce and update their knowledge, particularly of disability benefits and the complex rules surrounding the transition from benefits to work.
  • Jobcentre Plus benefit experts should be given a role, alongside Personal Advisers, in advising clients who are worried about the financial 'risk' of moving into work.

The relationship between ONE pilots and local authorities

60. Local authorities were intended to be equal partners in ONE, alongside the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency. "The involvement of local authorities is key to the success of ONE," the Government said at the time the pilots were introduced.[120] But from the start, local authorities complained that the partnership did not give them an equal say. The Local Government Association (LGA) commented: "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."[121] While the LGA said that working relationships on the ground had on the whole been good and worked well, they complained that the local authority perspective was ignored when major policy decisions were taken. In contrast, the delivery evaluation found that although the partnership worked well within the pilot management groups set up in each pilot area, with partners understanding each other's constraints and framework of operations, there was less harmony on the ground: "there was a widespread feeling that not all partner organisations were equally committed to the ONE vision. Respondents in over half the pilots reported liaison and communication problems with local authorities."[122] In essence, the partnership did not work. Local authorities were an 'add-on' to an initiative being driven by central government and, particularly in relation to Housing Benefit, there were practical difficulties preventing an integrated approach. It is therefore not surprising that local authorities will have no direct involvement in Jobcentre Plus - a decision which the Minister blamed on "overload of change".[123] Local authorities commented that even this decision had been made without consultating them.

89   Benefits Agency Back

90   Employment Service  Back

91   The ONE Service Pilots: The Government's response to the Sixth Report of the Education and Employment Committee and the Seventh Report of the Social Security Committee of Session 1998-99, HC 855. Back

92   DWP In House Report No 84, p. 98-99. Back

93   See Q. 244, Q. 273, and Ev 9. Back

94   See DWP memorandum Ev 101, para 27 and DWP document Jobcentre Plus Pathfinder Service Delivery Vision, see Back

95   See section 1 of Netherlands visit note, Appendix 16. Back

96   Research Report No 156, paras 2.11, 3.11 and 4.11. Back

97   See DWP Research Report No 156, page 15. Back

98   Q. 44. Back

99   See Appendix 15. Back

100   Q. 326. Back

101   See DWP Research Report No 154, para 7.1: "Participants' first contact with ONE often determined the extent to which they were likely to seek assistance from the service in the future. When their benefits were dealt with quickly and efficiently, this was appreciated by the participants, as it allowed them to refocus on other concerns, including finding work. Where they were not, participants often associated this with ONE." Back

102   Q. 34. Back

103   DWP Research Report No 156, paras 2.6, 3.6, 4.6. Back

104   DWP Research Report No 156, paras 2.5, 3.5, and 4.5. Back

105   See Ev 133. Back

106   DWP In House Report No 84, p. 71. Back

107   Ev 120, para 60. Back

108   DIAL UK, Q. 31. Back

109   Q. 343. Back

110   Annual Report by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the Social Fund 2000/2001, Cm 5238, Annex 9. Back

111   Report on the Social Fund, Reply by the Government to the Third Report of the Social Security Committee, Session 2000-01, July 2001, Cm 5237 Back

112   Ibid, para 46. Back

113   Further communication from DWP.  Back

114   NACAB, Ev. p .3 Back

115   Appendix 8, para 10. Back

116   See NACAB, Ev 2, para 12; Mencap Ev 12; DIAL UK Ev 16, para 2.5. Back

117   See DWP In-House Report No 84, page 27 and 29. The report says that ONE advisers had just three weeks training on benefits. When asked what additional knowledge staff needed to be able to carry out their job effectively, it was predominantly the need for additional benefits training which staff cited as their most immediate training need. ONE advisers in the Leeds pilot told us they had received only two weeks basic benefits training - see Appendix 14. Back

118   Q. 346. Back

119   See Local Government Association, Ev 72. Back

120   The ONE Service Pilots: The Government's Response to the Sixth Report of the Education and Employment Committee and the Seventh Report of the Social Security Committee of Session 1998-99, HC 855, page xii. Back

121   Ev 71, para 5. Back

122   DWP In House Report No 84. Back

123   Q. 351. Back

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