Benefit Offices (Computers)

Oral Answers to Questions — Social Services – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th June 1988.

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Photo of Mr Barry Field Mr Barry Field , Isle of Wight 12:00 am, 14th June 1988

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Services how many computers have been installed in benefit offices in the period for which complete records are available.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

We have installed more than 3,000 micro-computers in the Department's local offices so far, and at least one computer in each of the Department of Employment's unemployment benefit offices. Within the next 12 months we will start linking all local offices to mainframe computers, providing a fully-computerised service for pensions and income support.

Photo of Mr Barry Field Mr Barry Field , Isle of Wight

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary that the Opposition continually claim a monopoly for caring and sharing, but that they totally failed to modernise the system? Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is the largest computerisation programme in Europe?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

In common with my hon. Friend I certainly wish that we had made an earlier start, but progress is now extremely good. I believe that the result will be a great success in the quality of service to claimants. I confirm that it is the largest civil programme outside the United States.

Photo of Mr Max Madden Mr Max Madden , Bradford West

Will the programme also gain the reputation as an even bigger administrative shambles than that over which the Home Office presides at Lunar house? Is it not a fact that £8 million has been spent on this computer system, but that, even today, the DHSS is unable to place in the Library information for the first month or, indeed, the second month of the operation of the social fund? When will the DHSS get its act together, answer questions on these matters, and get the information to the Library, which it has been promising for the past three months?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

The hon. Gentleman and I have corresponded about this matter. Within the next day or so I hope to place in the Library the social fund data for May. Today is 14 June. I do not believe that a two-week delay in producing the data for May is untoward.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

Will the computerisation programme benefit my constituents who receive benefit?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

I am convinced that it will provide a quicker and more accurate service. It will mean that in due course claimants will be able to go to a local office and discuss all their benefits. They will be able to call at any office in the country and obtain information about their claiming position. Those are all great advances.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy , Ross and Cromarty and Skye

When installing the new system, has the Department taken account of the warning expressed several years ago in evidence to a Special Committee of the House that if the configuration involved in the computer system was not of a certain type any subsequent Administration would be unable to adapt the system—for example, for the purpose of merging or integrating tax and benefits? Can the Minister assure us that this computer system will leave open that practical possibility, in case a subsequent Administration wish to pursue such a policy?

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate

We have certainly pursued the issue of equipment with a view to making it highly compatible. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured about those points.