Changes need to be built on

Gary Vaux considers how the changes to departments will affect
social care.

So, it’s goodbye to the Department of Social Security – to be
replaced by the Department for Work and Pensions. What practical
difference will this make for social welfare staff?

The changes could be far-reaching, not only in practical terms,
such as local liaison and involvement but also in our ability to be
involved in the setting of priorities for the new department.

In concrete terms, it means bringing together into a single
department most of the previous Department of Social Security with
parts of the previous Departments for Education and Employment,
including the employment service.

The employment service ran the JobCentres and the DSS controlled
the Benefits Agency. Like their parent departments, these bodies
will also be disappearing.

The new department (already affectionately known as DWaP) will
be responsible for setting up two new service delivery
organisations. These are JobCentre Plus, which will deliver benefit
and employment services to people of working age, and the pension
service, which will deal with all aspects of all claims from
pensioners – except, rather bizarrely, attendance allowance.

Although JobCentre Plus (JC+ in DWaP speak) will begin in 50
pilot areas in October 2001, eventually all local and national
Benefit Agency offices will be transformed into either JC+ or
pension service outlets.

The most obvious impact is the bringing together of employment
and benefit services under one roof. This could lead to some
welcome developments and reduced bureaucracy, but there will also
be a temptation for the old employment service to be paramount.
When references to social security and benefits have been removed
from the name of the department, there is a risk that benefit
delivery will take second place.

Set alongside the forthcoming benefit rules that will compel
people to attend work-focused interviews when applying for benefits
such as invalid care allowance or incapacity benefit, the message
is clear. It will be vital, at local and national level, that the
push to get people into work does not over-ride the fundamental
right to a high-quality benefits service. “Work for those that can”
must not over-ride”security for those that can’t”, to rephrase the
JC+ mantra.

The new department and service agencies offer real possibilities
for local authorities, such as:

– Involving JC+ with your local strategic plans in combating
poverty and social exclusion.

– Involving JC+ in a more integrated way with employ-ment advice
and support services for disabled people.

– Getting the pensions service to co-operate in local benefit
take-up campaigns.

The Benefits Agency does not have a good track record on these
matters. At present, for example, the participation of the Benefits
Agency in joint investment plans on Welfare To Work is at best
patchy, even where the employment service is involved. The Benefits
Agency’s co-operation over benefit take-up is, if anything, even
worse. Although at national level, the (former) DSS was belatedly
recognising that take-up campaigns needed active local support, the
message has certainly not got to all local BA offices. Only last
month, I heard of a Benefits Agency office in the north of England
who asked local councils to postpone telling housing benefit
claimants about possible income support eligibility, because the
offices were “too busy” to handle fresh claims. This is the type of
attitude that we must hope that the new services will overcome.

Despite the name change, the signs look promising. At a national
level, there seems to be a willingness to at least discuss how the
new services should co-operate with local government and the
voluntary sector. What remains to be seen is how far this change of
attitude is carried through at local level.

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