HC Deb 24 July 1996 vol 282 cc555-8W
Mr. Sheerman

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what guidelines are issued to staff in Benefits Agency offices regarding the structure of interviews and range of questions asked of unemployed people. [36168]

Mr. Roger Evans

The administration of income support is a matter for Peter Mathison, the chief executive of the Benefits Agency. He will write to the hon. Member.

Letter from Peter Mathison to Mr. Barry Sheerman, dated 23 July 1996: The Secretary of State for Social Security has asked me to reply to your recent Parliamentary Question asking what guidelines are issued to staff in Benefits Agency (BA) offices regarding the structure of interviews and range of questions asked of unemployed people. The Code of Office Practice (COP) provides general advice on interviewing for BA staff. I have enclosed a copy of the relevant extracts for your information. There is no specific guidance on the structure of interviews or the range of questions to ask unemployed people. BA staff interview a wide range of customers including the unemployed. The nature of each interview depends on the customers individual circumstances. I hope this reply has been helpful. INTERVIEWING ADVICE Introduction

The following paragraphs contain advice on interviewing callers at the LO, employers and people in their own homes. Not all paragraphs are relevant in all situations. Try to adopt the following suggestions whenever you interview someone. A good interview is not simply a matter of being nice to the public. Your manner Being courteous Show that you value every person as a person. Call someone by their name if you know it. Never address someone by their surname only. In some localities it is customary to use a first name only. Judge whether this will be acceptable to the interviewee. Stand up when introduced. Shake hands, if it is expected. You may be visiting an employer, or meeting an old person who is accustomed to shaking hands at an introduction. Being sensitive

For most people, coming to the LO or receiving a home visit is an important event. They may be nervous, or noisy and talkative. Old people for instance are often flustered. Put them at ease. Be friendly but professional. Recognise that giving information about personal affairs can be an ordeal. Reassure them that information supplied to the Department is given in confidence and will be respected. Don't forget how uncertain you felt on your first day. Listening hard

It is not enough just to seem attentive. Listening requires constant mental effort. Checking personal prejudices

Do not let personal views colour your judgement and behaviour. In the course of your work you may find that you have been lied to or misled. This is a hazard you must learn to live with. Explaining and informing Give accurate information. If you sense the interviewee might not fully understand the issues, give explanations without waiting to be asked. Be objective. See all sides of an issue. Explain the issue leaflets. You may be asked for advice on matters outside the Department's work. Be as helpful as possible but do not give advice on legal and technical matters outside the Department's scope. Keep a list of useful organisations in the area. If you can't answer the query, suggest someone who might be able to, for example the CAB. For all other social security benefits except SB/IVB and UB encourage enquirers to claim benefit immediately if it seems possible that they may be entitled. They would not be adversely affected if they claimed benefit and this was disallowed but they may lose benefit if they delay claiming. Take care when advising about SB/IVB and UB. An unsuccessful claim establishes a period of interruption of employment (PIE) and can affect entitlement adversely for subsequent linked claims if the claimant has a deficient contribution record in the original relevant income tax year (RITY). Explain to an enquirer the relationship between tax and benefit years, and the linking rules. Give them the relevant leaflet and encourage them to decide when to make a claim. Point out that a claim cannot be withdrawn after the adjudication officer has given their decision. If a claimant decides to defer their claim to gain the advantage of a later RITY for which they have a better contribution record, tell them how they can submit credits only' claims in the meantime. Never tell people that they will be better off claiming benefits paid by other departments or organisations. If you think this may be the case, give the person all the relevant facts at your disposal. Suggest that they consult the other organisation before making up his mind. Forecasting Most people try to provide for their retirement. You may be: asked about the pension a person can expect when they retire. Perhaps the question may be linked to a contributions enquiry. This type of question is often difficult to answer precisely, yet the person needs the best information you can give. Always send a written reply. Use one of the DN/NP 322 letters whenever possible. Make it clear at the beginning of the letter that:

  1. (1) the information you have given is based on:
    1. (a) what you have been told about the person's circumstances; and
    2. (b) the law as it is at present; and
  2. (2) as both of these may change, the advice or information you have given may be outdated.
Apply these principles to all enquiries which involve forecasting. Interviewing points to remember When conducting an interview, remember the following "good practices":
  1. (1) Identify yourself, preferably by name. This will be especially reassuring to a blind person. Alternatively wear a lapel badge bearing your name or obtain a personal name plate.
  2. (2) Do not smoke in front of the person being interviewed.
  3. (3) Make certain that the interviewees cannot read anything about themselves from the official documents that are necessary for the interview. Do not leave CPs, GBUs or files with interviewees.
  4. (4) If you are asked to countersign a document certifying the identify of the person named on the form, sign only if you have sufficient knowledge. Otherwise, tell the caller to obtain the signature of a personal acquaintance.
  5. (5) Remember to look at the person you are talking to. If writing, look up occasionally. It shows your interest, that you're human and that the interview is more than just routine. It helps if you are asked for identity details at some future time and it also enables you to pick up signals about how the interviewee is feeling. They may be confused, 558 worried or angry. This will be missed if you do not look at them. This is the body language or 'non-verbal communication' and is an important aspect of interviewing skills.
  6. (6) Do not enter into political discussion or argument.
The interview

An interview is a directed, purposeful conversation. Follow the chart shown overleaf. If the person to be interviewed at the LO is accompanied, perhaps by a husband, wife, friend or relative, make the other person welcome. Be careful to address your questions to the claimant and to write down their answers. Do not ignore the other person. They may retaliate and impede the progress of the interview. If the claimant is accompanied by two or more people, see COP 1601–1750. If you call on someone in their home and they are not alone, check before you start the interview if they mind the third party being present. If they do, suggest moving to another room.

Forward to