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"Wasters": press-ganged Incapacity Benefit advisers talk

16 November 2004

A report for the DWP on the new Pathways to Work pilot paints a picture of reluctant, fearful, badly trained, unpopular and ill-resourced staff dreading the introduction of targets and working in an environment which regularly breaches claimants' rights under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). Problems include Personal Advisors (PAs):

  • being 'pushed into' the job and treated with hostility by their colleagues;
  • considering some groups of clients to be 'wasters' and being afraid of clients with mental health conditions;
  • not understanding the very basics of their job, such as which forms to fill out, how to use specialist software or how to refer people on;
  • taking guesses about claimant's health conditions and feeling obliged to work with claimants they consider seriously ill;
  • having no private interview rooms for clients, or only inaccessible ones, in breach of the DDA.

The pilots
Pathways to Work is the DWP's flagship programme for moving incapacity benefit claimants into work. It has been talked up by the Prime Minister and ministers in recent weeks. Under pilots operating around the UK, claimants of a range of benefits including incapacity benefit, have to attend a series of six work-focused interviews and draw up an action plan of steps they are going to take to help them move into work. Failure to answer questions or take part in discussions can result in a fresh claim being refused or the reduction of existing benefits until the claimant is left with just 10p a week to live on.

As an incentive to move into work, claimants are eligible for up to £300 from a discretionary advisors fund and a Return to Work Credit of £40 a week for 52 weeks if they move into low paid work. There is also access to a Condition Management Programme offering a range of treatments from behavioural therapy to pain management.

"You're volunteering . . . and that's an order!"

Whilst government and many other agencies, such as the TUC and some national disability organisations, talk enthusiastically about the Pathways to Work pilot, a report for the DWP by the National Centre for Social Research 'Incapacity Benefit Reforms - early findings from qualitative research' paints a picture of a project already deeply flawed and with bigger problems to come.

From the outset there have been difficulties, beginning with a lack of experienced staff willing to work on the pilot. The report explains that "some staff described somewhat ironically having been 'told to volunteer'" while "less common were staff who described feeling 'pushed into the role' against their wishes". Given that there were only 18 personal advisers interviewed for the research, the use of the plural suggests that there were, at the very least, two staff pushed into the role plus at least three or four told to volunteer. This suggest that one third or more of the research subjects didn't want to work on the Pathways to Work pilot at all.

Yet these staff were hand-picked by their managers to take part in research interviews - raising questions about the level of dissatisfaction amongst the PAs the managers didn't want anyone talking to.

In addition, six of the eighteen taking part in the report had no previous experience of working as Personal Advisers. In part this is because the researchers wanted staff with a range of levels of experience. But the fact that any inexperienced staff, let alone such a large proportion, are involved in working with people with long-term health conditions is a real cause for concern. It is also further evidence that there are problems recruiting experienced staff onto the pilot.

This reluctance to join up may in part be explained by the evident hostility of other DWP staff towards the pilot workers. The report quotes one PA as complaining that staff in her office were saying: 'don't talk to the IB specialists, they're too good for us'.

Fine if you're Michael Parkinson
When it came to training the reluctant recruits, problems appear to have multiplied. Whilst PAs were enthusiastic about learning new interview skills, they received entirely inadequate training in virtually every other aspect of their job. The report quotes one staff member as saying:

'I thought we were going to learn the practicalities of the job: which forms you fill in and how to refer somebody.'

The reality, however, was that staff were forced to start dealing with clients without even knowing basic parts of their job, such as the right form to complete if someone wanted to claim a Return to Work Credit or take part in the Condition Management Programme. Astonishingly, only a small number of staff were confident that they knew how to refer people to New Deal Job Brokers or other basic schemes such as Work Preparation or WorkStep. The researchers quote one PA as saying:

'Because I didn't know what went on at a Job Broker, what kind of service they offered, I found I wasn't referring.'

Another admitted:

"I don't feel that I understand the Condition Management programme well enough to refer to it at the moment."

Information about all these matters is available to PAs, but only on disc, not on paper. PAs complain that because of poor software design there are too many screens to scroll through to find the information they need, so they remain ignorant.

Most alarming of all, the researchers found little awareness amongst staff that they could defer claimants' interviews where the claimant was too ill or had other difficulties which meant it would be difficult for them to attend or take part in the interview. Equally little was known by the PAs about their ability to waive the obligation to attend an interview if they considered there would be no point in the claimant doing so. This resulted in PAs reluctantly telling claimants about who were about to retire, about to give birth or with what PA's considered to be serious health conditions that they must attend a series of six interviews.

"Whirr, whirr, clunk . . . You're out!"
But it is in connection with a piece of software called the 'screening tool' that training seems to have been at its most abysmal, leaving PA's not knowing how to use it effectively and completely misunderstanding its purpose.

The PA's are expected to use the screening tool to deselect unsuitable candidates. Claimants screened out by the software do not have to take part in the series of five further interviews. However, PAs were only able to watch one demonstration of the software being used and had no opportunity to try it out for themselves before inflicting it on claimants. The ill-prepared PAs complain that the software is slow, with lots of long awkward pauses between typing in customers answers and the next screen appearing and that they have to try to hide what they're doing from the customer.

"It's slow . . . you're not wanting your customer to see what you're doing because you're not telling them that it's the screening tool, you just say 'I want to input some information'. Then you're waiting for it to go on to the next page."

"It feels awkward the way you have to turn it away from them."

Worse still, the PA's are expected to find the most accurate description of their customers health condition from the options provided, but without adequate training on how to do so.

"You can't always find the relevant health condition. You have to put something in, so you think, 'that's probably it, isn't it?', but we don't know because we're not doctors. We're putting something down and it might not be right. I don't know whether that's having an effect on whether they're being screened in or screened out."

PA's were also bemused by the fact that people with serious problems were being kept in the project by the screening tool, whilst many people they considered to have a real chance of finding work were being rejected from the pilot. They complained that:

"The ones you think aren't going to be screened in, are. And the ones you think should aren't."

In fact, PAs had entirely failed to understand the purpose of the screening tool. It is intended to identify people who are capable of finding work without assistance and reject them, so that resources can be concentrated on those who, in the view of the computer, most require support. It does not attempt to identify people who are too unwell or too reluctant to take part in the project.

As a result, some PAs were taking matters into their own hands by only conducting follow-up interviews by telephone with people they considered were inappropriately being kept on the pilot.

"Louder! They can't hear you at the back."
One issue raised by both claimants and PAs was the issue of privacy. Some PAs said they had access to private interview rooms, others had access to them but they were on the first or second floor and not accessible to people with mobility problems. Some PAs said they simply didn't have access to any private space "and reported having to conduct the WFIs [work-focused interviews] in the Jobcentre where the interviews could be overheard by other Jobcentre staff and customers."

It should be borne in mind at this point that claimants are under a legal duty to attend these interviews and to answer questions about any medical condition which puts them at a disadvantage in getting work. If they fail to do so they will suffer serious financial loss. That any such interviews are held in a public place, unless the claimant has the self-confidence to request otherwise, should be a source of deep shame to ministers. That some clients actually have no option but to discuss such issues as incontinence or serious mental health issues in public is not only entirely shameful but, in some cases, unquestionably unlawful.

The vast majority of claimants on the pilot scheme will be regarded as disabled for the purposes of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). Likewise, the DWP are service providers under the DDA and have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that their services are not unreasonably difficulty for disabled people to use. For some claimants it will undoubtedly be unreasonably difficult, and deeply humiliating, to use a service which requires them to discuss private health matters in public. Home visits and telephone interviews are reasonable adjustments which would prevent claimants having to discuss such issues in an open-plan office. As one claimant interviewed by the researchers put it:

"It took me long enough to run up the courage to talk to the doctor about depression. So I don't like describing it to everybody."

It is in relation to working with people with depression and other mental health conditions that staff have most fears, according to the researchers: "These fears sometimes related to concerns about the potential unpredictability of these customers' reactions to interventions, but other instances were expressed by staff who feared the consequences of their own lack of understanding of mental health issues." Staff were particularly worried about carrying out home visits to people with mental health conditions who had failed to attend an initial interview and complained that they hadn't been made aware that this was part of the job when they applied.

It is clear from the fears expressed that staff have had no effective mental health awareness training, in spite of the fact that people with mental health conditions make up a very considerable part of their caseload. Prejudices were openly expressed about other client groups too. As one staff member explained:

"You get the ones who have been on benefits for years and who are just playing the system. And you've got the youngsters who've gone from JSA to IB to JSA to IB, wasters, you've already tried JSA with them. You're never going to be able to do anything with them."

It is, without a doubt, hard to see how staff who begin with such deep seated prejudices and preconceptions are going to be able to do anything with their clients. Indeed, if you didn't know that they had been forced into it, you'd be left wondering why they took the job in the first place.

Sadly, even staff who seem keen to work with clients felt that, because of the screening tool they had little chance of achieving anything:

"It would be nice for you to work with the ones that are placeable sometimes, to get a placement you know. Because that makes you feel much better, 'I've achieved something'. . . You're only ever going to get the hard to help cases."

The fact that the interviews are compulsory was a cause for considerably more concern amongst staff and claimants than anyone listening to Maria Eagle, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, could guess. The minister told MPs on 8th November 2004 that "the compulsion element" of the Pathways pilot, "is supported by disability organisations countrywide". She went on to elucidate why it is for claimants own good that they are forced to attend six interviews, explaining:

". . . I am a great supporter of compulsion in respect of the work-focused interview . . . It is absolutely crucial that people who have often been away from the jobs market and Jobcentre Plus for very many years get to see what kind of help can be offered. Many of them are surprised at the supportive way in which our staff can take them forward."

Well perhaps, but there again, many of them aren't. The minister, perhaps, has not troubled to read her own department's report in which claimants, who have to pay their own travel costs to interviews, commented:

"My leg was particularly bad that day, I had to struggle to get to the bus, it [Jobcentre] is nine miles from where I live. And then I struggled to walk over to the place . . . They don't understand your problems"

"Some of them don't even look at you when they talk to you. They're looking down at a sheet or they're looking at their computer. They're not talking to you and there's no eye contact and it's just as if you're another number."

"My jobs still open and I just wonder why I have to go to the Jobcentre and answer these silly questions when I've got a job to go back to . . ."

"There doesn't seem to be any chance to take a little step [into work or training] to see how you do and then move on or, if it doesn't suit you, move back down. There's no inbetween, it's either you sit back and do nothing or you go straight out and do something."

In reality, one of the main suggestions for improvements by claimants was the removal of the mandatory element of the scheme, whilst all the PAs interviewed considered that there were 'tensions' between offering support and making attendance compulsory. Some PAs saw compulsion as being counter-productive and those with experience of voluntary schemes, such as the New Deal for Disabled People, considered that the voluntary nature of the schemes was part of the reason for their success.

Not everything in the report was bad news. In spite of the abysmal training and deeply despised software there were clearly some staff who felt that their role was potentially useful. Equally, there were some claimants who felt that the PAs could make a difference to their future. But amongst the clamour of voices raised in praise of the Pathways to Work pilot on the basis of very little evidence, we consider it important that the evidence that it has deep flaws should also be heard.

In addition, these interviews were conducted when very few claimants had received even two interviews and before any sanctions had been imposed on claimants who failed to attend interviews or failed to co-operate. They were also conducted at a time when no targets to get claimants off benefits were being imposed on staff, but PAs expressed a gloomy certainty that such targets would be introduced.

The reality then, is that as a properly resourced voluntary scheme, Pathways to Work would have real a real chance of improving the lives of some claimants. But as an under-funded, target driven, compulsory scheme it has the potential to cause deep distress, deteriorating health and deepening poverty for many seriously incapacitated people.

Once the pilots are finished, there seems little doubt which option the DWP will select.