Examination of Witnesses (Questions 161-179)
WEDNESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2001
161. May I welcome our guests from the Local
Government Association? We have Ms Gwyneth Taylor who is the Head
of Housing, Mr David Gary, who is Chief Revenue Officer from Taunton
and Ms Veronica de Heer who is the Benefits Manager of the Benefits
Team in Essex County Council. Welcome. I do apologise for keeping
you slightly late but we had a very instructive session with our
colleagues from the private sector. Gwyneth, maybe you could just
say a word about the LGA and what your take on this whole subject
is and perhaps introduce your two colleagues, for the record,
just to make it clear what they do.
(Ms Taylor) The LGA fully supports the
vision behind ONE and the single work-focused agenda. Our particular
perspective about ONE is having a single point of entry to the
benefits system and the better delivery of welfare benefit service.
I hope the team I have brought along today will reflect the different
constituencies within the local authority area, Taunton Dean being
an authority which manages housing benefits, and Essex social
services department having a particular interest in the welfare
rights angle and the welfare benefits issues. One of the key things
we have found and experienced with the ONE pilots is the fact
that there is a certain gap in understanding about the different
local authority constituencies and perceptions. That being said,
we think that we have learned many very positive things from ONE
which can be brought forward but there are also some other areas
we need to try to improve on. We have given you our submission
and we are very happy to speak in more detail about that.
162. Just for the record, Karen Buck is an honorary
Vice President of the LGA which is a non- pecuniary interest which
she declares for the avoidance of any doubt whatever. May I ask
to what extent local authorities felt involved in the process.
You are supposed to be equal partners, partnership is a big conceptual
emphasis in some of this change in culture. Would it be true to
say that your colleagues in the local authorities which took part
in these pilots did feel they were on an equal footing with the
other public service agencies?
(Ms Taylor) No. We brought this out in our 1999 submission.
We felt we were involved at a very late stage, after the initial
policy work had been done. That lack of involvement at the initial
outset has continued throughout the experience of the ONE pilot.
What we have found is that where it has worked and worked well,
it has worked well at a local level, where the various agencies
involved have got together and made it work despite the strategy
pushed on top. What we do feel is that consistently throughout
the process local authorities have always been a second rate partner,
they have always been considered after the major policy decisions.
It has been an issue about looking at the benefits and employment
advice service and only later on issues like housing benefit,
"Oh heavens! How does that fit in?", or, "How do
we deal with delivering welfare benefits rights to vulnerable
people". We think that is an area where a great deal of improvement
is needed, particularly at the top.
(Mr Gary) I have nothing really to add to that except
to say that it has happened again with Jobcentre Plus. We have
not been consulted and suddenly we find that housing benefit and
council tax benefit are not part of Jobcentre Plus.
163. How can we improve the communication. This
is an absolutely fundamental part of this process. If we cannot
get this right, it will not work.
(Mr Gary) I echo what Gwyneth has said. At local level
much of what has worked has worked because locally people have
made it work. It is at the national level that the impetus is
required to deal more with local authorities. We meet regularly
at the Somerset pilot and we have a very good liaison with our
Benefits Agency and Employment Service colleagues, but policy
comes from above as well as below. It is coming from above where
the diktats happen and we are out of it, we feel out of it.
164. Do you think it can be fixed? Do you think
it can be sorted in time for Jobcentre Plus to be as big a success
as you would like to see it.
(Mr Gary) If the will is there, yes, I do.
165. So we still have some work to do.
(Mr Gary) Yes.
166. I do not know whether it is the most recent
but certainly DSS research showed that fear and anxiety around
housing costs were the biggest barriers to getting people off
benefit and into work. So clearly housing benefit is of central
importance in all this. Your evidence was quite clear about the
lack of a single service. Could you start by saying a little bit
about what the practical implications of that are? What is it
that is not working, that is making both advice and claiming council
tax benefit and housing benefit difficult? To what extent are
the parallel verification framework and anti-fraud measures responsible
for it or adding to the problem?
(Ms Taylor) One of the big problems with
housing benefit is that it is probably the most complex of all
the welfare benefits to administer. As a result, it requires a
lot of additional information over and above your ordinary income
support/JSA cases. One of the essential elements of making ONE
work would be passporting, doing a certain number of checks at
the employment office and then passporting that on to the housing
benefit authority. It is absolutely essential that that is done
fully in order to make it work, otherwise the local authority
then has to go back to the applicant and even then has to get
additional information. A big factor has been staff training or
the lack of weight given to staff training in terms of the other
167. Are you talking about awareness level because
we are clearly not training everybody to understand it.
(Ms Taylor) Awareness and basically understanding
the differences between the different welfare benefits and why
it is that housing benefit authorities need certain other additional
information. There is a general lack of understanding. Verification
framework in itself just exacerbates that because apart from anything
else the verification framework criteria for local authorities
is different from the verification framework criteria for BA.
That is a significant problem because if it is BA or ES staff
doing the first checks they are going to be doing them in different
ways. There are all sorts of issues there. The other big thing
was IT and David has examples of the problems.
168. Is it possible to reconcile the verification
(Ms Taylor) We think it is; we think it is and we
are asking DWP to do that. I have to say that we have been urging
changes to the verification framework for two years, many of which
are now being introduced or are on their way to being introduced,
but it has taken a long time. I do think that there needs to be
a further significant look at verification framework anyway in
the light of the pensioner credit bill and other issues. What
we have said to DWP is that at the next stage of looking at verification
frameworks we want to look at rationalising those two schemes.
(Mr Gary) This goes right the way back to when we
started the work-focused gateway or ONE. We were very disappointed
that the IT systems dealt with the DSS/Benefits Agency requirement
but were not talking to the local authority IT. We wanted to volunteer
to have a system in Taunton, along with the Somerset Benefits
Agency where we did not go to paper at all, we did not want to
go to paper and we saw ways of doing that. That was stopped from
the top because of concerns about firewalls and our ability to
interact with the Benefits Agency systems. I believe that could
have been got over had the will been there to do it. I felt it
was a great shame that we had to go to a paper system when we
had the opportunity to develop the Government's own policy of
more e-government and less paper. Why punch in twice? I could
not understand that. Sorry, I get a little bit emotional about
Chairman: You are allowed to get emotional.
169. Tell us a little bit about the impact on
the claimants of that. Has it had an impact on claimants either
in terms of delay/hardship or in terms of in any way affecting
the ability of people to take up work?
(Ms Taylor) The area we should be most
concerned about in impact on claimants is sensitivity of dealing
with claimants, particularly those who may have special needs
or need special advice. There are all sorts of anomalies about
people between 60 and 65 which need resolving about whether or
not you should be advising people to go down the employment route
if they are of that age group or if they have mental health problems.
In particular we have had quite a lot of difficulties with young
(Ms de Heer) The examples are not specifically to
do with housing costs but are more to do with young people being
passed between authorities, between the ONE office and social
services department and incorrectly, so that the social services
office ended up in fact paying out for a young person when they
should have been getting benefit in the first place. That was
later redressed but the money paid out by the social services
department could not be recouped. We have a few incidents like
that, but I do not know the volume of it.
170. Is it right to exclude housing benefit
and council tax benefit from Jobcentre Plus?
(Mr Gary) I do not believe it is right and my authority's
view as well is that it is not right. With the best will in the
world all the work we have done to try to make everything a seamless
service for both our claimants and job seekers will go out of
the window because there is nothing keeping us together.
171. So the impetus will be lost.
(Mr Gary) The impetus will be lost. We are all saying
no it will not, but with the best will in the world, we know what
happens when people live apart.
172. Would I be right in saying that what you
are saying is that with leadership from the top, with investment
in training, with some commitment to overcome problems such as
the one you quote in your memorandum of a form with the wrong
colour for the image processing, with an attempt to overcome some
of those problems, it should be possible to make some real progress
on this and get it integrated.
(Ms Taylor) We feel that there was a lot of progress
at the local level which it would be a great shame to lose. This
has not been a complete success, or as complete a success as we
want, but in any experiment you are going to have successes and
failures. In terms of having the potential to deliver a much better
service, not just in helping people access employment, but also
in helping people access the benefits to which they are entitled,
from the claimant's point of view the single way of approaching
that must be a much better route than being passed from pillar
to post. Even if it only went to the point where you passported
people on for more specialist advice where that was necessary,
it would help. To make that work it is essential that you have
the staff trained up to make those kinds of decisions and that
you have the resources in place to do it.
173. The decision not to include it is because
it has been a bit of a dog's breakfast.
(Ms Taylor) Yes, or very complicated. Housing benefit
is very complicated.
174. Too complicated, so we won't do it.
(Ms Taylor) Yes, it is very complicated, which is
why we got it.
175. We know that. That is a different issue.
Co-terminosity between Jobcentre Plus areas and local authorities
would have helped.
(Ms Taylor) Hugely.
176. But will not have a chance to help effectively.
(Ms Taylor) Yes.
177. Or would it still be helpful?
(Ms Taylor) Co-terminosity would still be very helpful,
yes. You have ONE pilots who are having to run two housing benefit
systems. That is a significant problem for us and the areas were
decided prior to any consideration of the housing benefit aspects.
178. In terms of you being the delivery agencies
and setting aside all the various critiques and problems you have
identified so far, you feel as the ones at the sharp end that
this should be given a chance to be an essential part of Jobcentre
(Ms Taylor) Yes; very much so.
(Mr Gary) Yes; very much.
179. I want to ask some questions about the
role of personal advisers. We have just had the private companies
involved in ONE saying that they thought one of the things they
brought to the pilot was better training for their advisers. You
do not agree in your evidence with that. Could you talk us through
your concerns with the quality of training and quality of advice
which was given?
(Mr Gary) I cannot, because I am not
in a pilot which has a private sector involvement. I can only
talk about the personal advisers on the call centre which is where
we are piloting. I would reflect what the LGA has been saying,
which is that I do query whether that individual exists who can
give advice on the whole of the social security system. I really
do query that. From that viewpoint, we were left wondering how
they were going to cope with housing benefit on that side of things
and that has proved to be a weakness. That was largely because
of the local authority input not being there at the very front
end of the system.
(Ms de Heer) Our concern from the start was about
personal advisers having all round benefit knowledge and also
enough knowledge about the local services available in the areas
which the lack of co-terminosity does not help. I have heard anecdotally
of instances in other areas, not in the area where I work, where
somebody was given a raft of claim forms and told to go away and
fill them in because they were not sure which ones they were entitled
to but they would sort it out when they brought them back completed.