Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380
WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY 2002
MP, MR LEIGH
380. This is the back of house stuff that you
were talking about.
(Mr Brown) Yes.
381. You also talked about a large programme
of re-investment and renewal and Mr Lewis talked about more resources
being around than at any other time during your five years in
charge. How are we getting on with IT? I take the view, and I
suspect some other members do also, if not all of them, that Jobcentre
Plus will not work unless the IT does.
(Mr Brown) Certainly Jobcentre Plus, the final version
of the service, is predicated on how you make these significant
changes in the information technology. It is a very large programme
that we are embarked upon. It will take us time to get where we
want to be but eventually we want computer to speak unto computer
and for the system to be holistic and to work right across the
Department's range of responsibilities. I know that the members
of the former Social Security Committee will know that that is
not the position now. Even now Benefits work in silos, they each
calculate it on their own discrete systems, and upgrading the
whole system and making certain that it all talks the same language
and is accessible through a range of security protocols to everyone
who needs to have access to it is a very large journey to set
out on. That is exactly what we are doing.
382. But we are only setting out on it now.
(Mr Brown) No.
(Mr Lewis) I should like to add something to that
because it is the case that some of our core benefit systems do
need replacement and that is under way now. It is not all about
tomorrow. We have made some huge investments in recent years which
are there now. Members of the Committee will have seen, for example,
in their own visits the new job point touch terminals which are
being rolled out now into not just every Jobcentre Plus office
but into almost every Jobcentre in the country and that by the
end of this financial year will be virtually complete. That is
a huge advance. It means that literally at the press of a button
somebody coming into a Jobcentre can find any of our 400,000 plus
jobs at any moment. We have got now as well, and have had for
a year or more, all of our jobs on the net. We have become the
most heavily visited Government web site in terms of people searching
for work on the net. We are about to introduce our national employer
direct service working through 11 call centres where employers
will be able to notify job vacancies through a single telephone
number nationwide in a much more efficient and effective way than
we do now. It is really great to say that we have been winning
some awards, national and international, for those new pieces
of major technological advance. It is not all about what is coming
in tomorrow. There is lots more to do but there has been some
really tremendous progress and I am very proud of it.
(Mr Brown) There is also the front of office technology
383. I know there always seem to be shifting
targets with IT but until you get to the stage where computer
shall speak unto computer, as you put it, have you any idea how
long it is going to be until we get that kind of integration?
We did hear evidence that the IT stuff was still not very good.
We also heard that it was good. That is what I picked up on a
visit from some of the staff.
(Mr Brown) There are some things in the front of office
where we have already made some changes and the equipment is new
and modern. It is not holistic throughout the service, I have
to say, and there are still investments that we need to make.
384. When are you going to make them, is the
(Mr Brown) With the front of office the programme
will be finished by something like the end of this year. The heavier
question of course is not about that but is about the way that
the information we have is held, not so much for the Employment
Service but for the benefits functions.
(Mr Lewis) There is a major programme in the DWP which
has a whole number of major initiatives attached to it. Some of
that is happening now and we are rolling out now what we call
which is the replacement of desk-top terminals throughout the
existing major public face arrangements. We do have plans over
a two to three year period for replacing what are called the legacy
systems, those core systems that contain the benefit claims of
millions of individuals. That is, as you can imagine, a very major
programme not just to introduce all of that massive change but
to make sure that we keep the existing systems running in the
meantime and the customers do not notice any deterioration in
the service to them. That programme is going ahead, there are
plans for it, the investment is there, and our staff will love
it if it is completed even sooner but it is undoubtedly under
385. Do you think Jobcentre Plus can work in
the intervening two to three years? You have talked about trying
to keep it going and introduce the new stuff, which is always
(Mr Brown) Yes is the answer to that, but it is hard
work and frankly this is an appropriate moment to pay tribute
to the people who are working for us who are committed to the
Jobcentre Plus model and who are doing the work both front of
house cheerfully and well and also providing the back-up support
which is not seen by the public but is also very important, and
with equipment that is frankly antiquated and which you are quite
right to urge us to replace. We have a programme for replacement.
I am chary about giving timescales for two reasons.
386. There is always slippage.
(Mr Brown) No. We are being pretty hard-headed about
all this but there are still discussions with the Treasury that
have to come to a conclusion and there are also of course discussions
with our private sector partners and there is an element of commercial
confidentiality in all of that.
387. May I just re-visit a couple of areas that
you answered questions on previously? In answer to Andrew Selous
when he was talking about case loading and the length of time
that the personal assistants needed to spend with people, you
gave a very comprehensive answer about how you expect people to
work with clients, but then in answer to Karen and talking about
agreements with local authorities Leigh Lewis said that he expected
personal advisers to deal with issues that were not necessarily
to do with what was going on in the building but things outside,
namely, housing benefit, council tax benefit and so on. Given
that these personal advisers are going to be doing a complex job
in their initial interviews and then maintaining that ongoing
contact, do you seriously think that you have got the staffing
levels right? Have you got sufficient staff to do this very important
(Mr Brown) On the housing benefit question there are
two aspects to it. One is about the administration of housing
benefit which is the responsibility of the local authorities.
Ideally I would like us to be able to work far more closely with
local authorities than we do at the minute. I genuinely believe,
and it is the advice that has been put to me as a Minister as
well, that there would be change overload if we tried to somehow
alter the relationship between the Department and the local authorities
even in terms of exchanging information and so on while we are
trying to implement all these other changes as well. I found the
case persuasive, I have to say. On the calculation of the housing
benefit entitlement, that of course is something we have to take
an interest in, because we are trying to explain to a client the
difference in their real income, their post tax income, between
being on benefit and being in work. Of course housing benefit
is part of that calculation. We can do that bit of it in-house.
The adjustment of benefit is a calculation to help the client
with their decision making. I think we are slightly talking about
two separate issues.
388. My question is much more focussed on whether
or not you are going to have sufficient personal advisers to continue
to deliver that quality of service that is the starting point
that we are all at.
(Mr Brown) If the volume of work increases we will
have to get extra advisers. We cannot reduce the quality of the
service, if that is the question.
389. The personal advisers we met in the ONE
pilots seemed to be enjoying their job but we were also very much
aware that they were giving advice across a whole range, and clearly
you have listened to some of those observations by differentiating
the specific benefits adviser in the Jobcentre Plus pilot, but
there was a concern that with the roll-out of the service through
Jobcentre Plus there were going to be implications for staffing
to continue to maintain that high quality. Can you continue to
(Mr Brown) We are committed to maintaining the high
quality service and if that requires more people as demand goes
up then we will have to get more people. I really do believe that
(Mr Lewis) The point I was trying to make, and apologies
if I did not quite express it clearly enough, was not that in
that situation a personal adviser would somehow take over the
work of the local authority on housing benefit. It was more that
if somebody who has been dealing with that personal adviser comes
in and says, "I would really like to take this job. I am
having great difficulty working out from the local authority what
my housing benefit position would be", I would very much
hope and want the personal adviser not to say, "I am awfully
sorry; that is nothing to do with me", but to say, "I
will ring my colleague in the local authority so that we can sort
Mrs Humble: I understood that and in fact I
was hoping that that was what you meant because that surely was
the whole point of setting up the scheme, that there was the one
person who was going to look after your every need and be there
Mr Stewart: Just like an MP!
390. So I am pleased that you can reassure me
on that. Secondly, we had some answers on the extent of the new
training for the Jobcentre Plus staff. You were talking, Mr Lewis,
about making sure that the personal advisers would be looking
at an individual and looking at all their circumstances. Within
that training can you just reassure me that you are equipping
your staff with appropriate diagnostic tools to differentiate
between those people who are work ready, or should be work ready
with perhaps just a little advice, and those people who are not
and then making sure that they are dealing with them in the most
appropriate way possible?
(Mr Lewis) Yes, I can give you that assurance. I do
not want to suggest to the Committee that somehow every one of
our advisers can become totally expert in everything but yes,
drawing on experience, not just from ONE pilots but from the New
Deals where we have introduced something called the "client
progress kit", we are trying to equip our advisers with the
ability to be able to ascertain people's needs and the scale of
their development opportunities so that they can make better informed
choices and give better advice to people as to how they maintain
their missions forward.
391. Minister, you made reference in your opening
statement and explained why you have begun to roll out Jobcentre
Plus before ONE was finished. I am not sure exactly what your
plans are with regard to continuing the roll-out because you say
in your memorandum that you sent us that you have offered the
private and voluntary sector providers an extension to their contracts
of one year from April 2002, and you go on to say: "At the
end of such a contract period"which will be April
2003"we will have more concrete plans about how and
at what rate we will extend Jobcentre Plus across the country".
Can you clarify for us what your plans are for extension of Jobcentre
Plus in the future? My second question is this. We know that good
services do not come cheaply. Are you confident that the resources
will be made available for the development of Jobcentre Plus so
that you can provide the service that you would like to?
(Mr Brown) The Government is committed to the Jobcentre
Plus service delivery and that does not mean that we will not
evaluate the different pilots that we have under way and learn
lessons from them and draw them into the developing Jobcentre
Plus service because of course we will. If others have suggestions
or ideas that they want to contribute then of course we will listen
but it is our intention to roll out the Jobcentre Plus model at
the same high standard currently seen in the pilots right across
the country. I would like to be able to say to the Committee that
I can tell you how many years that is going to take and I can
tell you how much money is going to be applied to it, but those
discussions are currently the subject of the spending round bid
with the Treasury and it is not for me to put the outcome into
the public domain now. However, I can give the Committee an assurance
that there will be a significant further development of Jobcentre
Plus over this year and that there will be a rolling programme
to make sure that the whole of the country has Jobcentre Plus
centres and that the service is of the standard that we provide
now, if not enhanced.
392. Are you convinced, and I know that you
are not going to tell us exactly how well you are doing in the
spending round, that the will is there in the Government to put
the resources behind such an idea?
(Mr Brown) Yes. The Government is committed to Jobcentre
Plus and it will be rolled out and there will be a significant
further expansion of it this year.
393. Can I press you on that last question?
(Mr Brown) I am sorry I cannot quantify it. I have
seen the draft figures but you must not press me on it.
394. I perfectly well understand the position
you have taken. I can tell you on the roll-out that if it gets
elongated you might end up with certain parts of the country being
prejudiced because they do not get access to the service.
(Mr Brown) I want to avoid that.
395. I will settle for that. And you will do
your best, honest, guv? You were quite right, by way of conclusion,
to say that we do owe a debt to the staff because it was quite
clear to the Committee that, although there might be implementation
problems of various kinds and you want to engage with them in
a positive way and I hope our report does do that, you can certainly
see that the staff who are working in the new set-up are running
around with their heads a good deal higher psychologically (if
I can put it that way) than some of the hard worked staff who
we have seen in some of the Benefits Agency offices that we have
seen in the past. That is an important sign, is it not? Your visits
are like ours. You certainly come away convinced of the commitment
of the staff and the valuable work that they do, and we do not
often enough recognise that perhaps.
(Mr Brown) I am pleased that the Committee has experiences
have been the same as mine. I was genuinely impressed by what
396. You have helped us enormously this afternoon,
Minister. I know that these things take a lot of work at ministerial
level as well as at staff level. We are really very grateful for
that; it has been very helpful. I hope we will get a full Committee
report made available to the public before too long.
(Mr Brown) Thank you very much for the opportunity.
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