Housing & Community Safety Select Committee (ceased to operate 03/06/2015) Minutes

Thursday, 5th December, 2013
Conference Room 2 Municipal Buildings, Stockton
Please note: all Minutes are subject to approval at the next Meeting

Attendance Details

Cllr Julia Cherrett(Chairman), Cllr Derrick Brown(Vice-Chairman), Cllr Carol Clark(Vice Cllr Wilburn), Cllr Michael Clark, Cllr Evaline Cunningham, Cllr Phillip Dennis, Cllr Robert Gibson, Cllr Mohammed Javed,
Roland Todd, Julie Nixon, Julie Higgins(DNS), Peter Mennear, Jenna McDonald, Sarah Whaley(LD)
In Attendance:
Janet Stubbs (Job Centre Plus)
Apologies for absence:
Cllr Tina Large, Cllr David Wilburn
Item Description Decision
AGREED that the minutes were signed by the chairman as a correct record.
AGREED that the minutes be approved.

AGREED that:

1. the information be noted

2. Information be requested and provided as detailed above

3. All Members be informed of the Council's intention to respond to the independent review of benefit sanctions.
AGREED that the information be noted.
2.30pm - 4.10pm


Members prepared their approach to the meeting.
The evacuation procedure was noted.
There were no declarations of interest.
Consideration was given to the minutes of the meeting held on 12th September 2013 for signature.
Consideration was given to the draft minutes of the meeting held on 17th October 2013.
The Committee was requested to consider the information provided from Job Centre Plus, Q2 performance information, and an update which was provided on the Discretionary Housing Payments Policy.

A representative from Job Centre Plus was in attendance to brief Members of key issues such as: understanding of the claimant commitment, operation of the sanctions regime, use of hardship funds and signposting to other support services, and support for vulnerable clients.

The main issues discussed were as follows:

Work Programme
- Members heard that the two primary contractors delivering the
Work Programme for Jobseekers in the region were Avanta and Ingeus. In the Tees valley Triage sub contract on behalf of Ingeus.

- The Committee was informed that there were objectives in place to get Jobseekers back into sustainable employment. Work programme providers would receive an initial attachment fee before receiving a job outcome fee and a sustainment fee after the jobseeker had completed a twenty six week period of employment. It was heard that the amount of funding the providers received depended on the category of the jobseeker and there were six different customer groups for example, JSA aged 18-24, JSA aged 25+. Employment & Support Allowance customers.

- Clients could be with a provider for up to two years, if however after this period there was no sustained employment available the client would return to Job Centre Plus.

- Members requested data highlighting how successful the current Work Programme had been, as previously ran programmes delivered by third sector organisations had hard evidence to suggest that out of every two placements one person gained full time employment. Members expressed that it was now difficult for third sector organisations to participate in the Work Programme due to the way funding was now allocated. Officers explained that in order for organisations to secure Work Programme contracts providing employment for Jobseekers via the Departments of Work and Pensions(DWP) they would first have to go through the Framework for Employment Related Support Services(ERSS) procurement Programme. There were currently eight providers shortlisted on the North East list.

- Members asked how the performance of each Workplace Programme provider was assessed. The Committee were informed that providers were assessed at a national level and the information could be viewed on the GOV.UK website.

- Questions were raised as to the viewpoint of local businesses and if they were aware of the Work Programme, and if so, did they have any views on this. In addition where local businesses were advertising posts it had been reported that many applications were being received and a high quantity of these did not meet the 'essential' requirements even though advice had been provided to the clients.

Benefit Sanctions
- The Committee was informed that benefit sanctions were imposed by an independent decision maker once a referral had been made by Job Centre Plus. There were three levels of sanctions ranging from low to high level. Non attendance at a pre-arranged interview could be considered low level with a possibility of the loss of up to four weeks Jobseekers Allowance(JSA). Non attendance at a subsequent appointment could be considered high level with the loss of up to thirteen weeks JSA. Sanctions would not be imposed if clients rang up prior to pre-arranged appointments and had a valid reason for not attending. Members heard that individuals were worked with prior to imposing sanctions with the hope to prevent payments being stopped. If sanctions were imposed hardship payments could be applied for. The Committee was made aware of the current independent review of the operation of benefit sanctions which had recently been announced by the Government.

- It was established that advisers at Job Centre Plus were responsible for referring clients for sanctions using clear guidelines, and when it was queried as to whether clients receive warnings, it was reported that clients were made fully aware of all expectations they must comply with whilst receiving JSA.

- Regarding training of advisors, the committee were advised that staff received comprehensive training prior to referring individuals into the decision process for sanctioning.

- Job Centre Plus continued to work with those Jobseekers who were under sanction, however some people may have chosen not to continue with their claim

- Jobseekers who wanted to attend training of more than 16 hours a week were classed as being on full time provision. This meant that they may no longer be able to claim JSA. It was heard that anyone wanting to pursue training should have spoken to their adviser before they started to ensure that they were fully aware of any potential impact on their benefits.

- Members were informed that many people who claimed JSA also had mental health issues as well as those who claimed Employment and Support Allowance(ESA). Advisers would work with clients to support them back into work.

- Claimants could also be sanctioned if they were to drop out of a training course/programme or not meet another of their commitments without a valid reason.

- The Committee requested information relating to the identity of the independent decision maker as they were keen to establish how many sanctions had been imposed within the Stockton area to date. The Committee were informed that neither the identity nor contact details were known. The Committee stressed that this information must be available otherwise how would JCP staff know where to refer people to? The Scrutiny Officer was asked to obtain this information, if possible, and circulate to Members.

- Further questions were raised as to whether or not a claimant would be sanctioned if they did not turn up to a pre-arranged appointment due to having a job interview at that time. In response the committee were informed that individuals would not be penalised if they had to miss an appointment due to having a job interview.

- After hearing about the sanctioning process, members asked whether there was any evidence that the sanction regime was working. In response, the Committee were informed that the application of sanctions drove claimants' behaviour and was dependent on how the individual responded.

- Concerns were raised by Members in relation to imposing sanctions on individuals when there was a lack of job availability in the workplace.

- Each individual had the right to appeal a sanction.

Universal Credit

- It was highlighted that a Universal Credit(UC), progress update was available on the gov.uk website as of the 5th December 2013 detailing the next stage of delivery of UC concentrating on the continued safe and secure roll out of the reform. It was requested that the Scrutiny Officer circulate to Members the recent statement released in relation to the progress update of UC.

- Information and advice on how to manage money was available to all claimants as well as information on how they could improve their ICT skills.

Hardship Funds/Budgeting Loans/Other Support

- Interviews for Hardship Funds and Budgeting Loans were held on a one to one basis.

- Members asked what constituted hardship and how this was determined. The Committee were informed that criteria/guidance was followed which was available on the gov.uk website.

- Clients who had been sanctioned could apply for hardship funds if in genuine need.

The Committee agreed that more information on the Work Programme and the benefit sanction regime should be requested from the Department of Work and Pensions.

The Head of Housing presented Members with a quarter 2 monitoring of the outcomes / impact of Welfare reform following a review of our Discretionary Housing Payments(DHP) Policy and the Local Council Tax Support Scheme.

The main issues discussed were as follows:

- The Committee heard that in relation to performance indicators at least one years worth of data would be needed to show a true impact of Welfare Reform.

- Local and national studies were showing extremely high numbers of people in debt. Data for this Borough would be available at the next quarter and year end and was also expected to show major concern regards debt.

- It was identified that many people in debt were turning to the likes of pay day loan companies to pay for basics such as rent, and that people were trying to borrow their way out of destitution and were getting get themselves into more debt. Those that had jobs and used food banks were also struggling financially and concerns were raised that this looked likely to increase in the future.

- Members suggested that there was a real need for Credit Union to have high street-style in the Borough in order to raise their profile. The Scrutiny Officer informed the Committee that there was a future plan to look at Credit Unions in the New Year.

- Many people had been affected by the bedroom tax laws which came into place in 2013. Many people were happy to move into one bedroom houses however there are not enough one bedroom properties available. Although it had not been seen yet, issues surrounding underoccupancy and the possibility of a mass exodus from Registered Providers into poorer quality privately owned rented homes was expected.

- The Head of Housing informed the Committee that she was a member on the board of Stockton Welfare Advice Network(SWAN) which aimed to provide the right advice to people in need at the right time by linking numerous advice services together. This was a lottery funded scheme expected to run initially for two years. SWAN was still in its development stage and would take several months before the service would be up and running.

- In relation to DHP the Service Manager(Benefits), highlighted that the current policy remained workable but that more proactive work was required to encourage people who were struggling financially to make claims as it had been identified that not enough people who would qualify were coming forward. There was a pot of money available to help people which Registered Providers were aware of. Stockton Borough Council was working closely with Registered Providers putting packages together in the interim and preventative measures for the long term.

The Head of Housing agreed to call for information from all 56 Council Members regarding case studies to assist with the Council's response to the independent review of benefit sanctions.
The Scrutiny Officer informed Members that the next meeting of this Committee was 23rd January 2014 where the Committee would focus on debt and financial crisis support. It was also highlighted there were strong links to the review of Child Poverty which was being carried out by the Arts Leisure and Culrture Select(ALCS) Committee. Issues raised from both this Committee and ALCS would be considered when formulating recommendations to Cabinet
There was no chairs update.

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