Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 378)



  360. One of the things which certainly impressed me and others too in America was the way the personal adviser equivalents kept very much in touch with people when they were placed in work, whether it was the intermediate labour market or permanent employment, for some considerable time, sometimes up to a couple of years afterwards, to make sure they were getting support. If they were having problems with their job, for example childcare or whatever, they would step in to try to sort out those personal problems and to make sure that the job was sustainable. I thought that was a very impressive way that they kept in touch with people and helped them to do that. Is there anything Jobcentre Plus can do to replicate that sort of activity to make sure that we do continue to provide that support to the particularly disadvantaged groups like lone parents and others when they are able to find work, to make sure that they can sustain it?
  (Mr Lewis) Yes, there is more that we can do and there is some we already do. It is very much a part of the role of the personal advisers within the New Deals to stay in touch with the people they have been seeking to help after they go into employment. It is part of the function of the personal adviser to try, particularly in those early weeks, to stay in touch. We reinforced that this year in that our targeting system, which is what our managers are seeking to deliver, is giving extra credit where somebody not only leaves JSA for work but does not return within a given period. Personally, yes, I should like to go further and make this a more standard part of our operation, to do more in terms of staying in touch with individuals. Reality of course is important here. We place 25,000 people into jobs every single week and that is a very, very large number of people if we are going to try to follow them all up to see where they have gone to and what has happened. That is obviously a very, very large resource cost. This is a direction we are moving in and I should like us to move further down that road.
  (Mr Brown) The point about "vulnerable" is very well made.

  361. The point I was going to come back on in relation to that was that obviously it is more expensive if somebody has been able to find a potentially sustainable job and then ends up losing it because they have not had the support they need four or five months down the track. Supposing it is a lone parent, supposing they have a family crisis, the child is ill or something, they cannot handle that, the net result is that they lose the job. We know in America they phone up and make contact with their personal adviser and they help them overcome that particular problem so far as they can and that is very effective. The point I was going to come back to, and I very well understand what you are saying in terms of policy, was the practicalities of that, bearing in mind the workloads that the personal advisers are working under. How realistic is it to expect them to maintain contact with people in this way once they have do get beyond one or two weeks, bearing in mind that all the time there are new clients coming through the door on whom they will presumably be much more focussed?
  (Mr Lewis) The way that we work out the resourcing of our personal advisers does allow them, is designed to allow them, to spend a significant proportion of their time doing exactly and precisely the task which you want them to do. Probably many of my personal advisers, like many of my staff, would say it would be wonderful if we were able to give them even more time to do that.

  362. What proportion of time is allocated to that sort of work?
  (Mr Lewis) I cannot give you that off the cuff.

  363. Can you write to us with that?
  (Mr Lewis) Yes, I will.[7] We do try, in setting the average case loads for our personal advisers and in specifying what it is, the nature of the job, to build in that we do expect them to spend a proportion of their time following up people they have placed into jobs for precisely the reasons that you say.

  364. That certainly does not seem to coincide with the evidence we have had from the personal advisers themselves via their unions and from our visits round the various Jobcentre Plus sites. We shall wait to see what you put in writing. The other point I wanted to come back to was the other side of the coin. Quite rightly we do put the emphasis on sustainable jobs, but a lot of those do face very severe barriers to employment. Is there a risk that by putting all this emphasis on sustainable jobs we effectively lose the more hard-to-place people in the wash and do not recognise the fact that we have made progress towards their employability if not actually finding them a job.
  (Mr Brown) The services we are providing are intended to be comprehensive and intended to endure even if the labour market loosens.
  (Mr Lewis) It is a balance inevitably. I would not want to suggest either to the Committee that there is no value to someone who has been out of the labour market for a very long time going into a job even if regrettably they do not sustain it. At the very least that person has come to the point where employment became a reality for them again even if it was not sustained for a long time. Of course it is desirable, hugely desirable, if it is sustained. It may be that in some cases, for someone who has been out of the labour market for a very long time, it is going to take a couple of goes before they find a role they can sustain. This is a balance because there are risks on both sides of this line.

  365. The point I was making also was that there are some people who, even with help, are not actually going to get into a job in the near future. The fact that you are cleaning them up off drugs, you are helping them to get up in the morning and so forth, is in itself quite an achievement for those, yet that is not in any way reflected in the performance indicators of the way the Department is run.
  (Mr Brown) The performance indicators are very outcome focussed.

  366. That is the point I am making.
  (Mr Brown) It is a perfectly fair point.

  367. You can have other outcomes which are moving people closer to the labour market for which no credit is given at all.
  (Mr Richardson) As a result of the consultation we conducted for the performance regime for Jobcentre Plus for the current year, we agreed with the help of the National Employment Panel to look at whether or not you could construct a target to cover what is known in the jargon as distance travelled, which covers exactly what you describe. So we are working on that with a wide number of stakeholders at the moment.
  (Mr Brown) In summary, the point is recognised. I do not want to announce today some adjustment of what we do.

Andrew Selous

  368. I want to move now to the complexity and the administrative burden which is placed on people delivering employment strategy on the ground. If I may quote one of the witnesses, Mr Hawkhead of Groundwork, he told us "at any one time, one of the people we employ to deliver projects on the ground is spending 30 per cent or more of their time simply filling in the forms ... That is bonkers". What is being done to ease this administrative workload? Do you agree that is, in Mr Hawkhead's words, "bonkers"? Are you making efforts to minimise form-filling, look at the complexities of programmes with multiple eligibility criteria, different operational rules and so on?
  (Mr Lewis) Of course this is a real issue. I think Tony Hawkhead also said that he found Jobcentre Plus one of the most open and innovative thinking bits of Government he had had to deal with. There is a balance here. I am the Accounting Officer responsible for very, very large amounts of public money and that public money has to be properly disbursed and accounted for and I am ultimately personally liable for ensuring that is so. Therefore we need to have some controls and balances and yes, some forms in the system to ensure that when we are paying out public money we pay it for the proper purposes and ensure that it is spent on what it is intended to be. That said, it has been a common complaint since the New Deals were introduced that there has been too much bureaucracy associated with them and too much of the time and effort of our providers, and indeed our own staff will make the same complaint, has had to go into the administration of those programmes rather than their delivery. We had several goes at this and as a result of this we have cut the bureaucracy and the form-filling back very substantially indeed, though not yet to the degree which all of our providers would want or all of our staff would want. Further down the line, one thing which will help is much more electronic transmission of information both ways, which will be coming, to get away from people having to fill in complex paper-based forms. This is a balance. My personal objective is to reduce the amount of administration to the absolute minimum, which is compatible with my being able to have the necessary degree of assurance that money is being spent for the purposes for which it is intended.

  369. We are absolutely with you on the accountability for public funds and that clearly is not at issue. The issue is the number of different schemes, the fact that many of them have different funding timescales and different eligibility criteria. Can you give the Committee any sort of commitment—I will not tie you down to specific numbers—that you are looking to reduce the sheer number of schemes and to make it easier to apply and deliver them?
  (Mr Lewis) Michael Richardson has already talked about some of the ways in which we are looking at this. What I certainly can say is that I am very much involved in those discussions which do take place and are taking place, about whether it is possible to reduce the degree of complexity which our staff and our providers have to cope with.

  370. I think Hackney has 21 different schemes, not just employment. That is a huge number.
  (Mr Brown) There are two separate issues. One is about the schemes and we have said as much as we can about that as a Department, though other Departments have their schemes as well and we do try to co-ordinate what we do across Government. There is a separate issue about funding streams. It is often said that a great deal of administrative work could be eased if there were one funding stream rather than a whole range of separate funders to whom application has to be made. I understand the force of the argument, but I would want to sound a note of caution about that. Often the extra funding streams which reinforce the sort of programmes that we want to see pushed forward are there for very specific reasons. Some of them are area focussed, like the objective 1 and objective 2 initiatives; others will be area based Government supported schemes; others will be able to draw on private sector or charitable funds in a way which directly supported Government schemes cannot. There is a range of issues there which warrant careful consideration. We will not be doing the people we want to help very much good if by consolidating the budgets we find that we have reduced the total amount of money available to the purposes for which we are trying to apply them.

  371. We understand from DTI officials that when new legislation is introduced affecting employment strategy there is an impact assessment. Is your Department consulted as part of that?
  (Mr Brown) I assume we are.
  (Mr Richardson) Yes, it is.

Miss Begg

  372. The theme of this morning, indeed the theme of much of this inquiry, has been a comment on the plethora of different initiatives. We have heard about a number of them this morning and also a plethora of different Government policies, not just within your own Department but also across Departments, which should all co-ordinate and deliver a co-ordinated employment strategy. We have heard from one witness, Bridget Rosewell, who said that there are places where co-ordination appears to be negative. You almost feel policies are working in different directions. What are the Department and Jobcentre Plus doing to make co-ordination less negative and much more effective?
  (Mr Brown) I hope that is not so. I certainly hope that is not a direct criticism of the Department itself. We try to be very positive in our approach to area-based initiatives which may very well not be a lead in and try to provide a good service, not just to the clients but also to the other group we are trying to help, the employers, by making sure that we send people who are work ready and suitable for the jobs on offer. In other words it is intended to be entirely constructive.

  373. There is obviously a difficult co-ordination when you have Government agencies, main providers, some of which will be private sector, some of which will be voluntary sector. You have local authorities in there, you have the DTI, the Department for Education and Skills. Bringing all of those things together must mean that there may be gaps somewhere in any kind of strategy or that there will be blocks where the co-ordination is not perhaps good and not everybody will know everything which is going on everywhere else.
  (Mr Brown) That is very true of modern life, is it not? The fact that it is complex does not necessarily mean that it is right.
  (Mr Richardson) In the areas of deprivation the local strategic partnership concept is designed to try to tackle the problem you have described. They are encouraged in other areas, not just the ones covered by the neighbourhood renewal fund and there are similar arrangements in Scotland and Wales. That is an attempt to make sure that the key players, who are working initially on contiguous areas of policy which need mutual reinforcement of the sort I described earlier come together on a regular basis and try to make sure that the various streams of activity and indeed funding are working in the same direction and not pulling each other apart. It would be a bold person who pretended that was happening in a perfect fashion everywhere. Some partnerships have got off the ground faster and more effectively than others and it will take some time. There is clear evidence of the intent to try to do something about the problems you heard about. Without chapter and verse of where they appear to be operating in a negative sense, it is quite difficult to comment.
  (Mr Lewis) Of course there are still examples of where we collectively, all of those organisations, do not get our act together. I have not seen a time in my career where there has not been greater effort and determination to do so. One example where we are doing much, much better than ever we did is where we are reacting to major redundancy announcements. I know the Committee took evidence on our response to the Vauxhall shutdown in Luton. That is now widely replicated. There is a co-ordinated approach which brings together the key local players, the key local employer and the actors who can help to respond in a very joined-up way. It is getting seriously better. It is not always yet as good as it could be.

  374. One of the criticisms we heard is the one-size-fits all, the lack of the ability of local areas to have their own autonomy, to be able to draw down a pot of funding which they could decide how they would disburse or how they would deliver all of the strategy in the area. We heard from Mr Webster from Glasgow and he suggested that major cities could perhaps, if they were able to propose a thoroughly thought-through package of employment initiatives, be able to get the pot of money that they could then disburse. We heard that in France there is more local autonomy. Is that something which would be a workable proposal? Is it something you are looking into, that local areas could in fact have that kind of flexibility?
  (Mr Brown) I do not want to hold out false hope. If the intention is somehow to bid to the Department for a pot of money which could be spent flexibly, we do not have a pot of money which could be disbursed in that way.
  (Mr Lewis) I thought Glasgow might make its appearance this morning. There are an awful lot of examples in Glasgow of people doing precisely what you want. The partnership which was developed between Tesco, the local development company, ourselves, to recruit people for their new store in Springburn and St Rollox has resulted in 140 jobs going to long-term unemployed people and that has become a model for activity elsewhere. That is not something which we designed and developed as a model in some great headquarters building in London or Leeds or Sheffield. That has come out of local empowered managers working with their partners locally. That is becoming more and more the norm, but not yet exclusively so.

  375. Through all of this the relationships between all of the providers plus the various Government Departments are absolutely crucial. What mechanisms are in place to ensure that that kind of relationship is on a more formal footing? The evidence suggests that it tends to be a bit ad hoc. If they were on the train from Sheffield to London, then the various people could get together and chat through the various initiatives. We did not get a sense that there is actually something which is more—I am not talking about anything which is mechanistic—formal to ensure that these kinds of relationships are developed and people are able to work out the difficulties which may crop up from time to time.
  (Mr Brown) Of the 88 area based initiatives we are involved in something like 85 of them and the remaining ones are not sufficiently well advanced. That is right, is it not?
  (Mr Lewis) Yes. At local level it is increasingly the local strategic partnership which is the key to this, on which Jobcentre Plus is almost always now an absolutely key partner amongst the group locally which forms that partnership. Michael Richardson has described, and I to an extent have described, the relationship which exists at national level, but it is the local strategic partnership which is very much the key to this. It is not the only partnership locally, but it is becoming more and more important and we are in it.


  376. We have two or three questions about childcare to wind up with but that will mean I am going to have to leave aside some bits of technical questioning which we would really have liked to put to you. Maybe we could do that in writing.
  (Mr Brown) I am more than happy.

Ms Buck

  377. In a sense it is childcare and co-ordination and flexibility coming together. One of the things the Americans are clearly good at—and there is a lot they are not—is the scope for the Employment Service to provide the whole financial package to get a child into day care. Even things like a special needs child, where they cut through the system and pay for a special classroom assistant to be there in the classroom so that the parent does not have to keep being brought out of work. That was really admirable. Whether it actually works in fact is a moot point, but it certainly is the talk. What worries me a little bit about the childcare provision at the moment is the relationship between the on-the-ground lived experience by real working parents and job seekers and childcare provision. It is a question which could apply to other areas as well: skills and training in particular. You say you are talking about monitoring childcare provision and whether it keeps pace but what are we monitoring?
  (Mr Richardson) We start from a very poor base in this country and one of the main reasons why the rate of employment of lone parents is as low as it is, although it has improved, is because of poor childcare facilities and in particular affordable childcare facilities. What the DfES-led national childcare strategy is attempting to do is to remedy that situation overall. It is tilted towards trying to remedy it in deprived areas first as part of the national picture. Our role is to try to ensure that the development of that strategy takes account of the actual needs of our clients and in particular in areas where there are high concentrations of lone parents. The availability and promotion of childcare places and data on what is available is the responsibility of the Early Years Partnerships in each local authority. They are the main hub of expertise with which we need to connect. We announced in the Budget the appointment of childcare co-ordinators in Jobcentre Plus who would be appointed and are being appointed in each district to hook up with the Early Years Partnerships. We also have an internet based site which links jobs with skills opportunities, access to childcare data through a clever window. What we are monitoring is the way in which childcare opportunities are being built up in areas where we want to get more lone parents into work commensurate with their needs.

  378. That is absolutely right and it is the right approach. I am at a slightly unfair advantage because I chair my Early Years Development Partnership and I am in one of the 88 authorities, so I know. What I do not think we are anything like doing, and that is why I am anxious to ask you to assure me that you will build on this, is if you go into a Jobcentre, admittedly six months ago as opposed to the new model, people who are looking for work will be given a piece of paper with some phone numbers on it. That is what they will be given. Nobody in the Jobcentre has the faintest idea—pre the new co-ordinators, so that may work—whether that person does not take up a job because of childcare. They have no idea. It is not monitored, not collected. The affordability dimension is not there at all. I am delighted you mentioned it, but it is not there so availability of places is there but affordability is not. Places get measured, but there is no sense at all that a full-time working parent will probably need three places. If they are working a full-time day, they will probably need somebody to take the child to school. If they have an under-five they will need a childcare place in the daytime. If they are working after three o'clock in the afternoon they will need another childcare place between three o'clock and five or six o'clock and then they need holiday care. Potentially four if you have an under-five. I do not think we are matching that at all, not even beginning to. I do not see how anybody is collecting the data. I have no sense whatsoever yet that the Employment Service is at the table with LSPs[8]. LSPs are being required to develop an employment strategy in the context of a childcare and other barrier strategy. I do not know whether you are asking them to. The policies are absolutely right and the money is clearly going to childcare strategies and there are more childcare places, but I get no sense at all that this is all being matched up on the ground. I am looking for the confidence that you are going to be sure that you know what is going on on the ground.
  (Mr Lewis) I am more optimistic than you. I think this bottle is half full. I think we are increasingly able to deliver some of the kinds of things you want, both through our personal advisers and because of our membership, though I think it is an increasingly strong membership, of those local strategic partnerships. The initiative which Michael Richardson mentioned, whereby we are going to have a childcare co-ordinator in every one of our 90 districts precisely to get a handle on this issue, is going to be a major step forward. You are absolutely right in elements of your analysis, but we recognise that and we have already made some serious progress and we are going to make more.

  Ms Buck: I am not being pessimistic about it. The policies are the right policies coming into place. I am just not convinced yet that we are getting the right measurements in place for you to know at strategic national level, whether the right mix for the individual person walking through the doors is being put in place to meet their needs across a multi-agency approach as is required. That is what we are looking for.

  Chairman: It will be a feature of our recommendations. That is a good place to end. My sense is that we hope to produce what will be a helpful report in that it will be robust and will make suggestions. There is no contention with the overall strategy; I am sure you will be pleased to hear that. We shall try to help in every way we can. I hope we shall be putting up some positive suggestions for your further consideration; we consider it an important part of our work to do that. The evidence session this morning has been very valuable in helping us to understand that. As usual, may we acknowledge the work your professionals do in the Department. They are always of great assistance to us. Your evidence this morning has reinforced that. Thank you for the written evidence as well as the appearance.

7   Please refer to the letter to the Chairman of the Committee from the Chief Executive of Jobcentre Plus (ES 17), Ev 174. Back

8   Local Strategic Partnerships. Back

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