Select Committee on Work and Pensions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 8

Memorandum submitted by AdviceRights (OP 15)

SUMMARY

  1.  To consider the need for ONE offices to be placed in dedicated building, that the office is sign posted to make sure that claims go to correct office, that the offices are easily accessible and inviting to clients.

  2.  To consider contingency plans, staff training and secondment of staff with suitable knowledge of ONE system, where there is a sudden influx of claims in a ONE area, to ensure that the three day target time is met for Personal Adviser interview.

  3.  To consider putting in to place plans for emergency interviews or to "fast track" claims, where delay in interview taking place can cause hardship. Also that ONE team liaise with voluntary organisations in local areas, to assist claimants with completing claim forms where necessary.

  4.  To consider whether all of the benefits claims that presently come under ONE interview system need to be retained within this. For example, claimants off work through sickness and in receipt of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), claimants off work sick and claiming Incapacity Benefit during "own occupation " period, claimants of Invalid Care Allowance.

  5.  To consider whether the compulsory element of ONE interview for the relevant benefits is really necessary. Whether the compulsion element raises fears of claimants using ONE programme and whether this may deter some people from claiming benefits they are entitled to.

  6.  To consider the wording of present literature used to advertise and promote ONE, as this may mislead people who are normally employed for more than 16 hours per week and possibly cause delays in claims for benefit.

  7.  To consider whether by removing certain groups of claimants from the ONE interview process, whether this would improve the quality of interview with Personal Adviser, for those groups that would most need the ONE interview and for those groups that would feel they can gain from the interview.

SUBMISSION

  1.  We believe it is essential that the ONE programme should be run from a dedicated office, simply dealing with the ONE benefits and interviews. It should be made clear to claimants in advance where they have to send any paperwork/documents connected to their claim, for example sick notes, SSP1 forms.

  2.  Our reasons for this are as follows; In the beginning the ONE interviews were held in the Jobcentre in Nuneaton. However, claimants other than JSA claims were automatically sending paperwork/documents to the Social Security Office, as this was where they would expect their claim to be handled, as not signing on for benefit. This meant that paperwork was then being sent on to the Jobcentre before the claimant could have start-up interview, prior to personal adviser interview. Unfortunately documents got lost in transit, or indeed were left lying in the in-trays at Jobcentre without being actioned. This caused serious delays in interviews and claims being processed, this was especially so where claimants had sent in sick notes. We witnessed many cases where claimants went without benefit and indeed suffered hardship, for two weeks or more, one case being six weeks before claimant had interview and even then he was refused emergency interview.

  3.  Since the ONE programme in Nuneaton has been located in the Benefits Agency this problems appears to be over come. However, the fact that it has been located in the Benefits Agency can in itself cause further problems. Initially it was intended to locate ONE office in "shop front" premises to make it inviting and easy for claimants to visit, unfortunately this has not transpired. Many ONE claimants may only wish to make a claim for Housing/Council Tax Benefit, Bereavement Benefit, Invalid Care Allowance. Many of these people find a "stigma" attached to having to visit the Benefits Agency office to do this and are reluctant to visit this. A lot of thought needs to be given to this before programme goes national.

  4.  Having stated the above, we have also visited the ONE office in the Benefits Agency in Nuneaton. The impression was that this was well set out for the interviews and the interviews appeared to be done in a relaxing atmosphere. The office surroundings were inviting. The problems is getting people through the doors of the building initially due to their fears.

  5.  One of our main concerns is around the time that can lapse between the start-up and the personal adviser interview. The target is that the personal adviser interview should take place within three days of the start up interview, however it is our experience that it has often taken a lot longer than this, when certain situations have arisen. In Nuneaton, when the programme went compulsory in April 2000, some claimants waited two weeks or more for interviews again causing hardship in some cases. We have to say that when we raised the issue about these delays, we found some of the reasons given hard to accept. We were told that part of the problem was due to there being two Bank Holiday Mondays in succession, surely management were already aware of this and contingency plans could have been put in place. We were also informed that it was partly due to claimants sending claims to wrong office, as we stated earlier where else would claimants send their claims if not claiming JSA?

  6.  We feel there were other factors for this, some of which we raised with local Management prior to April 2000. One of these being that the benefit issues now being dealt with on top of JSA would mean a bigger influx of claimants and also far more complex benefit issues and indeed a wider variety of claimants. The other problem was how any sudden increase in number of claimants due to redundancies, lay offs etc would be handled. We believe that management did not act quickly enough in picking up these points and again contingency plans appeared to be poor. Although we would accept that part of the problem was staff recruitment at the time and lack of staff with the expertise to do the personal adviser interviews. This meant that staff were being seconded from other areas of work, which unfortunately meant there were delays in others areas, for example, processing of claims. One of the suggestions put forward by management was that the interview times with personal advisers would be shortened to overcome problems. This we felt was putting unfair pressure on personal advisers, given that they were now dealing with some very complex issues.

  7.  One of the problems caused by the delay in interviews taking place was hardship this was causing some claimants and the refusal locally to make appointments for emergency interviews. Indeed the local office and the ONE policy office in Sheffield seemed to be at odds with this. When we raised this with ONE policy office, we received written assurance that personal advisers diaries were being managed so that emergency interviews could be arranged. However, even up to date, the local office refuse to book people in for emergency interviews, as it is stated that diaries cannot be managed in this way. We do have some sympathy with the advisers on this issue, however it needs to be resolved even if extra resources need to be found for this. At the moment if someone needs an urgent interview, they have to sit and wait for a slot to be found for them, or told to call at office at 9.30am and sit and wait in hope of interview if there is a cancellation. This can mean claimants sitting for several hours, which obviously causes frustration and indeed some claimants will walk out, causing them further problems.

  8.  In these cases of hardship, often a claimants only recourse is a claim for a crisis loan from the Social Fund. However, this is where the catch 22 problem kicks in . The Social Fund section will not consider a crisis loan application until either, in the case of JSA claim that the Jobseekers Agreement has been signed, or in other cases a claim for benefit has been made. However, neither of these things can be done until the personal adviser interview has been done (unless interview is waived). We believe that something needs to be put in place to fast track emergency cases.

  9.  We mentioned earlier about the problems of seconding staff to ONE Programme, where there was a sudden increase in number of interviews required for whatever reason. We were informed, and indeed we understand this point, that the problem with seconding staff from other areas during ONE pilot scheme, was that some staff was seconded from areas that did not have ONE pilot, they therefore did not have the expertise or knowledge of dealing with ONE interviews and clients. It was therefore difficult to bring in other staff to cut down waiting times, or on the other hand the standard of advice may be jeopardised. Whether this situation will be rectified when ONE goes national is difficult to say, but being that all staff in Jobcentres/Benefits Agencies are not going to be personal advisers, then some contingency plans will need to be put in place where there are areas of sudden influx of claimants, due to job losses etc.

  10.  We have had some concern about how staff giving advice on benefits through ONE, have received training, especially when there have been changes to benefit system. The personal advisers will be expected to have a wealth of knowledge in this area, on top of being expected to understand the other needs of some claimants. While we accept that any one can make a mistake and at sometime 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 particular benefit and therefore important advice is never given . An example of this is the "Welfare to work Beneficiary" and the 52 week linking rule for Incapacity Benefit, for qualifying claimants who start work but have to give up through illness with the 52 week linking period. We had a claimant who fell in to this category, and who we had passed on to ONE team prior to him starting work. He was not advised that he would be protected and when he had to finish work after six months, his full benefit was not reinstated. When this was taken up with ONE team, we were informed that the linking rule only applied to people on New Deal for people with disabilities and also that no one was aware of what "Welfare to work Beneficiary" was. We had to take this up further with ONE management, who agreed that training would have to be given in that area, however, considering how long these regulations had already been in place, it is of some concern that advisers were not already aware of this.

  11.  We note in the report forwarded to us, under minutes of evidence taken before the committee, at question 24[42], an answer by Mr Brown to question about determining length of interview by an adviser. He states that the adviser will determine the interview time as the client will have already have filled in their claim form. However, this is often not the case as many claimants are unable to fill out the forms themselves and often have no one to help them with this. We have always been assured that claimants with difficulty completing forms will have these filled in at the interview, or prior to this. Unfortunately this has not always been the case, with many claimants being told they must get forms filled in themselves. This also can cause conflict between voluntary sector advice agencies and ONE programme, as claimants are often referred on to us for forms to be filled out, without contacting us before hand. Sometimes this can be the same day as the interview and we are unable to help in some cases, due to other work commitments. There needs to be closer liaison between ONE and other agencies in these situations.

  12.  Obviously the most contentious part of the ONE programme, and indeed this may well apply to Jobcentre Plus, is the fact that claimants have to now attend an interview before benefit claim can be processed, unless interview is waived. Many claimants object to the fact that they have to be interviewed before they can have a benefit to which they believe they have entitlement by right. This is especially so when they see this as a work focussed interview, at a time when work may be the last thing on their mind, given their illness/disability, caring role, child care responsibilities or bereavement. We can understand a lot of these concerns and indeed we are against the compulsory element of ONE, if a system works well it does not need compulsion. Many other of course will see this differently, including many claimants, who will welcome the idea of being able to sit down with a named person, a voice that they can put a face to and will actually assist them in making claims for correct benefits, instead of being left in the dark as to what to claim, as has often been the case in the past. They will welcome the opportunity of being helped back into training or work in a friendly way. The advisers themselves must also feel a lot more job satisfaction in that they feel that they can make a genuine difference to peoples lives, rather than just processing claims, and that cannot be a bad thing. However, we share the views of a lot of claimants, and indeed the ONE advisers in a lot of cases, that there should be certain claimants who do not have to go through this route to obtain certain benefits.

  13.  We were surprised, as again so were some of the ONE staff, to find out after ONE was introduced, that people in work who went sick and were paid Statutory Sick Pay only from work, would be subject to a ONE interview if they claimed a ONE benefit. These people are still employed and are paid SSP in the same way as wages would be paid. Many of the people we see in this category object strongly to the interview and indeed some will say they will forgo a claim rather than go through this. This will be especially so if the claim is purely for help with Housing and/or Council Tax Benefit. We often have to talk people in to attending the interview, but we can understand their reluctance in doing so. We cannot see any justification for people being paid SSP only having to attend the interview for other benefit claims.

  14.  We find that a lot of self employed people, who when going sick will probably have to claim Incapacity Benefit from day one, also feel the same way. Many will say that it is the first time they have had to claim anything from the state and yet they have to have a work focussed interview before they can claim. Again many are in two minds about whether they should bother claiming. Certainly in one case we had to phone ONE team and arrange a time for the person to be seen, other wise he would not have lodged his claim.

  15.  While were always aware that claims for Incapacity Benefit would go through ONE programme, again a lot of people who are employed are unhappy with this. As a lot of these people will be switching from SSP, it is quite likely they have been sick for six months and are going to be subject to the Personal Capability Assessment. A lot of claimants get very upset about and confused about going through ONE interview at about same time, especially if they have mental health problems. This is even more confusing when they satisfy the Personal Capability Assessment, but still have to attend ONE interview to discuss possibilities of work, when indeed they have just been found incapable of work.

  16.  Probably an even more contentious group of claimants are those that wish to claim Invalid Care Allowance. The majority of people whom we see in this category cannot believe that they have to have an interview to claim this, especially when they are spending the most part of their time caring for somebody. Again we often have to cajole claimants to going to the interview so they can claim this benefit. This can be very difficult, when often the reason for claiming is purely to get the Carers Premium on Income Support, due to fact that there is an overlapping benefit already in payment. Some people who have had underlying entitlement to Invalid Care Allowance (ICA), due to claiming another contributory benefit, have to take up the entitlement to ICA when the other benefit stops for some reason. Although they already have entitlement, they are still expected to go through ONE system to get the benefit. Even allowing for the fact that earning level for cut off from ICA has increased, which may encourage those carers that are able to return to work to do so, we cannot see any justification for ICA claimants having to go through ONE system.

  17.  While of course those involved in ONE would argue that the interviews are done in a positive note and are sympathetic to peoples needs at the time, and we accept that this is the case, a lot of this is about the perception of the claimant . This is important in making ONE work and one of the reasons why we are against the compulsory element. We find that most claimants of benefits mentioned will know in their own minds when they are ready to look for work . They will be asking questions about what help they can get and often we will advise them about ONE and they are only to pleased to voluntarily attend an interview that helps them focus on work or training. We find this especially so with people on the sick, who wish to return to work but need some type of guarantee that if it goes wrong due to health problems, that they can return to benefits without problems. When things like the 52 week linking rules, protection through Disabled Persons Tax Credit and the fairly recent linking rules on mortgage interest, are explained to them, they are only to happy to go for ONE interview. It is when people feel they are being forced to go to an interview to discuss possibilities of work, when they don't feel work ready, that they become disillusioned.

  18.  We have raised our concern in the past about the literature that is put out to advertise ONE, as we feel that some of this is misleading and indeed may well put off some people from claiming in time for benefits, as they feel it is not relevant to them. So far we have not had any official reply to our comments on this, which we find disappointing. Most of the literature says; ONE service is available for anyone who; is aged 16 to 59; is not working, or works less than 16 hours a week on average and wants to claim a ONE benefit. We believe that people who are employed for more than 16 hours a week, but off work through sickness would take this as not applying to them. As a consequence they could lose out on benefit for not claiming in the proper manner and find it very difficult to get benefit backdated. When we raised this issue locally, we were informed it was unlikely that this would be changed, as it was all about "interpretation". However, we believe that all publicity should be clear and implicit in its meaning and should not be left to interpretation, which may result in a failure to claim or loss of benefit.

  19.  We have been asked to comment on peoples attitudes to having to undergo a work- focussed interview and also what they may get out of this. We have already touched on the feelings of certain groups of people, who feel both aggrieved and apprehensive about attending interviews that are work focussed, at a time that they are claiming a benefit that does not relate in any way to them being work ready . Again, as stated earlier we often have to convince claimants to go to the interview, which is something that as a voluntary organisation and impartial organisation, we do not like to do, especially as we oppose the compulsion element of ONE programme. As for what people get out of it, this will vary from individual to individual and from group to group. Again we have highlighted some people who would welcome interviews positively and indeed have felt they have got something out of this. However, there are others who have been very angry about having to go through this and indeed those who go through it and are just relieved that it is over and done with. There may be more value in considering whether certain claimants, for example those claiming SSP or Op, should be exempted from the interview. This would allow more quality time for other groups to whom the interview may be more appropriate.

Norman Hendry
Co-ordinator

20 October 2001


42   The ONE Service Pilots, Seventh Report of the Social Security Committee (with Employment Sub-committee), Session 1998-1999, HC 412. Back


 
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