Benefits Advice

Oral Answers to Questions — Social Security – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th November 1997.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham 12:00 am, 17th November 1997

What steps she is taking to make benefit information and advice available (a) by telephone and (b) electronically. [14637]

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Local offices are trying to improve their telephone services. We have advice lines for family credit, for pensioners and for sick and disabled people and their carers. We want to modernise the social security system, so we shall explore all possible ways to use new information technology to improve the speed, accuracy and accessibility of benefit advice.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is she aware that the Conservative party lost the election of 1 May not simply because it consists of a bunch of sleazebags but because the Conservative Government were the architects of the dependency culture, which has left too many citizens in Britain without a sense of right and control over their own lives? If she tries to telephone some of the plethora of numbers that she has inherited, she will find that she will need a Ph.D in code breaking to understand them or get through. Will she consider setting up one 0800 freeline to cover all social security inquiries, and also consider a form of smartcard so that citizens, who have as much right in times of trouble to help from other citizens through the state benefit systems, have some control over their lives? We should break the dependency culture, which is the most wicked of all the wicked inheritances from the Conservative party.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Yes, I shall consider having a single benefit advice line. We need to modernise the delivery of services, and that means the right mix between telephone advice and face-to-face advice, and also advice that people can access without being face to face—through kiosks and computer software. One of the things that we shall also look at is how we can deliver information and benefits using new technology so that people do not have to go from pillar to post giving the same information five different times and then having to work out how all the different answers fit together. Modernisation of the delivery of social security is long overdue.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the most cost-effective ways of getting information to claimants is through citizens advice bureaux, where volunteers give advice in a very professional way? However, very often citizens advice bureaux have to struggle year on year for funds, both core funding and funds to run themselves. Is it not in the interests of central Government to provide further assistance to citizens advice bureaux?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Department of Social Security does not give grants to voluntary organisations. However, we are working in partnership with citizens advice bureaux on a pioneering project on how we can use new technology to share information between the Department and voluntary organisations. It is designed to ensure that those organisations that give advice to claimants have the most up-to-date information and can settle those claimants' queries. We believe that, whether such claimants turn up at a benefits office, citizens advice bureau or other advice centre, they are entitled to receive full, accurate advice promptly.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

We would all welcome the modernisation of the forms that people are required to fill in and we would welcome any kind of modernisation that means that people can get accurate information quickly. However, will my right hon. Friend remember that many of our constituents still have the old-fashioned idea that speaking face to face to a human being is infinitely preferable even to the best organised kiosk with a computer in it? It will be a long time before the people whom my right hon. Friend is talking about will be happy if they do not receive personal service.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

We want to ensure that everybody receives personal service, but the question is whether it is the right sort of service. We know that some people want face-to-face advice and information, and we are considering that option. Some people want to be able to talk to someone direct. Other people do not want to go into the benefits office or wait there to talk directly to someone because they would rather sort it out on the telephone. A third category wants neither to talk to anyone on the phone nor to see anyone face to face, but to access the system. The key to modernisation is a personalised service and flexibility. It is not a matter of considering the people about whom my hon. Friend or I am talking, but providing the right range of services so that people can receive the services that they want in order to get the advice that they need in a manner with which they feel most comfortable.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

Following on from the question of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), will the Secretary of State pay some attention to the variable quality of the personal advice given at different offices? I am sure that other hon. Members have had the same experience as me when constituents have complained that they have been to various offices several times and only on the fourth or fifth visit to a particular one have they been offered a constructive suggestion by someone which makes all the difference. Can we have some system whereby staff are encouraged to take a constructive attitude towards trying to help people? I am sure that many of them do so, but some do not.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point which relates to a number of different issues.

First, it is important that an understanding is established throughout the Benefits Agency that people are entitled to the highest quality of service and politeness, whatever the circumstances of their case. That is absolutely essential. Secondly, people should not get different information from different people. Some people may be on five benefits and if they have to go to five different places to get the necessary information, they are lost by the time they get to the fifth one and they cannot work out how it all fits together. Thirdly, it is important to check the quality of advice and to ensure that there is a proper complaints system. The previous Government established some sort of charter for people who used the benefit advice services, but I warrant that no hon. Member has heard of it because no emphasis was given either to ensure that people knew about it or to enforce it. The need to back good-quality advice with the right training is high on our agenda and we expect to see results shortly.