I want to make it clear at the outset that the centralisation of social fund operations in Tayside is part of an overall trend in the Department of Social Security to centralise services in order to generate efficiency. I am aware that the problem is not particular to Tayside, but may be occurring elsewhere.
The sale of Benefits Agency estates is resulting in a sharp reduction in the number of local offices—around a third are to be shut immediately. The Department will rely more on call centres and less on local offices to provide services. Area directorates are responsible for allocating service provision, so the degree of centralisation will vary across the country. I understand that there were plans in Wales a year and a half ago to centralise all the benefit services and close all the local offices; those plans, no doubt thankfully for the Welsh, were abandoned.
My particular concern this evening is the situation in Tayside, which affects my constituents among others. I recently received a letter from the Benefits Agency, Tayside district, informing me that, as of 2 March, community care grants and budgeting loans are dealt with by the Arbroath agency; funeral and maternity payments are dealt with by the Dundee agency; and crisis loans and reviews continue to be processed at Perth, Dundee and Arbroath as before.
I am concerned that the Tayside agency's decision to centralise the way in which it deals with benefits will be a backward step, in terms of both the service provided to claimants and the working conditions of staff.
The letter that I received announcing the changes proudly proclaimed that the agency had carried them out to
maximise efficiency by concentrating expertise in a given area".
It had apparently been done
at no expense to our mutual customer and with the intention of providing an improved customer service",
but, frankly, I do not see how moving the people dealing with claims further away from the claimants can be described as an "improved customer service". That is a case of, "Whatever I say means the exact opposite."
Increasingly remote decision making results in a detachment from local conditions, and builds unnecessary barriers between the agency and the people it is supposed to serve. In the past month, we have seen a stark example of the dangers of depending on computers and ignoring the human side to benefit entitlement.
Under the winter payments scheme, pensioners living alone were to receive £20, and each person living in a household with more than one pension was to get £10. That situation, while not strictly relevant to this debate, underlines the problems caused when we forget that the Benefits Agency deals not with a series of entries in a computer but with real people.
If a claim is straightforward, there will not be a problem. The form can be completed, handed in to the local office and sent off for processing. I do not know how many hon. Members have had personal dealings with the benefits system, but I am sure that they have all shared my experience in occasionally having to take up the cases of more than one constituent with the agency. That is not necessarily a criticism of the Benefits Agency, but a recognition that personal problems do not always fit the standard presumed in the forms that it produces. Nor are the forms always straightforward to complete.
A significant number of claimants will want—indeed. need—assistance with their applications. Take one of my constituents in Perth, who needed to speak directly to the person dealing with their claim for a community care grant or a budgeting loan. Instead of going to the local office, that would now involve at the very least a telephone call. Increasing dependence by the Benefits Agency on telephone contact favours the young, the educated and the articulate against the poor and the disadvantaged. Many claimants do not have telephones, and have to call from phone boxes armed with pockets full of change.
What about people who can at present in a face-to-face interview get more general advice by speaking to someone in the benefits office, who will, I hope, be sympathetic, knowledgeable and able to guide them in the correct direction? What about people who cannot afford to keep feeding money into a call box as they sit on hold, waiting for someone to find their files? If claimants are dissatisfied with how their claims are handled, they should have the opportunity to discuss it face to face with the person who decided it. In the case of community care grants or budgeting loans for someone in Perth, that would now mean a journey to Arbroath.
I am not talking about a small inconvenience. Someone from Crieff, the second biggest centre of population in my constituency, who wanted to sit down with the person dealing with their application, would in the past have had to come to Perth. That would have involved a bus journey and some expense and nuisance. Obviously, it would be better if there were an office in Crieff, but that is a piece of cake compared with the lengths that my constituent would now have to go to. On top of the 17 miles from Crieff to Perth, they would have to travel the extra 40-odd miles to Arbroath, a round trip of 120 miles.
Instead of one bus journey of 40 minutes on an hourly service, the trip involves changing at Perth, walking past the Perth Benefits Agency office to get from one bus stop to another, and spending 70 minutes on the bus to Arbroath. To catch the first bus from Perth to Arbroath, one has to leave Crieff at 7.5 am, hang about Perth bus station for 45 minutes, and arrive in Arbroath at 9.40 am. Allowing an hour to get the problem sorted out, one would then rush to catch the 10.47 am back to Perth for midday, and rush through the centre of Perth to catch the 12.11 pm to get back to Crieff for 12.50 pm.
That is six hours in all, assuming no traffic hold-ups and that the problem was sorted out in under an hour. More significantly, instead of a return fare of £4.40, it would cost a whopping £11.20. Telephone or travel, either way my constituents have to spend more money than ever before chasing up benefits at the time that they are in most financial need.
We are talking about people who may be among the poorest in our society, those whom the welfare system is supposed to help, but we are making it ever more difficult for them to speak to the people who take decisions that could significantly affect their lives. I do not understand how, by any stretch of the imagination, that could constitute an improved service for my constituents. I mean no offence to my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr. Welsh), who cannot be here tonight, or to the good people of Arbroath whom he represents, but why should my constituents be forced to trail all the way to Arbroath to get their benefits sorted out?
Again, with the benefits transferred to Dundee, I refuse to accept that the increased distances involved can in any way improve the service received by my constituents. With all the other things that people arranging a funeral have to cope with, do they really need the added hassle of a trip to Dundee? Surely we should look at ways of reducing rather than increasing the distances that expectant mothers have to travel to sort out their maternity payments.
As well as the effect on claimants, there is also an effect on staff, and I am concerned about the disruption and the inconvenience caused to staff by these changes. Perhaps from a long way away, the gap between a couple of dots on the map in Scotland may not look like an enormous distance, but the reality of transport infrastructure in areas such as mine and surrounding areas can make life very awkward for people working in the offices, as well as for claimants.
The union that represents the Benefits Agency staff is extremely concerned at the changes which are taking place. I am grateful to the Public and Commercial Services Union for its assistance in giving me the information for this debate tonight. I am keeping my speech as short as possible, because I want the Minister to address the issues and not simply repeat some of the clichés in the letter from the Benefits Agency.
So far as the staff are concerned, I can see how the decision could make some sense if it were looked at on a purely financial basis. However, as with the effect on claimants, we ought not to forget that we are dealing with real people and real responsibilities. A transfer to Arbroath for an employee of the Benefits Agency based in the office in Perth who specialises in community care and grants will affect all areas of his life, including child care arrangements and the travel costs involved in a transfer to an office which is some considerable distance from his home.
These changes in the operation of the Benefits Agency have raised genuine concerns about the future of those offices—such as the one that remains in Perth—which have not been identified as centres for any specific benefit. I have referred to the fact that one third of Benefits Agency offices are to be immediately shut. Will the Minister address those remaining offices which are now non-specialist centres? Will he give guarantees that, in future, a need to find more efficiency will not result in these non-specialist offices being closed, making life even more intolerable for my constituents? Effectively, if the Perth office goes, there will not be a Benefits Agency office in my constituency.
I can appreciate the desire to maximise efficiency within the Benefits Agency, but that drive to cut costs must never be at the expense of the service provided to claimants. I cannot remember this House taking a decision to change the ethos of public service to become a flawed parody of commercial values. Frankly, that is what seems to be happening.
I hope that the Minister will not simply repeat the nonsense about this being an "improved customer service." I hope that he will address the substantive problems raised by the reorganisation. At the very least, I hope that he will acknowledge that, instead of providing an improved customer service, closures disadvantage huge numbers of people.
The hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) has expressed concern about organisational changes in the Benefits Agency, particularly in terms of how she sees them affecting standards of service delivery in her constituency.
Let me begin by reassuring the hon. Lady that the Government are fully committed to achieving the highest standards of customer service. Indeed, we wasted no time after coming into office in defining and charting a new course for the delivery of social security services. In December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security launched the active modern service programme, which spells out clearly our aims for the quality of service that we want to see delivered.
The Benefits Agency constitutes the front line of service delivery for most of the Department's business. It will have a leading role to play in taking forward active modern service initiatives. However, active modern service is not simply about initiatives driven by the centre of the Department. It also sets out a framework within which local initiatives, innovation and efficiency improvements in quality and service delivery can thrive.
The Government have pledged to live within the spending plans that we inherited. Those plans require year-on-year improvements in administrative efficiency. The Benefits Agency, as the largest of all Whitehall agencies, has an administrative budget of almost £2.5 billion a year. It is incumbent on the Benefits Agency, therefore, to operate in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible, consistent with delivering requisite standards of customer service.
The Benefits Agency delivers its services mainly through its district offices. Each district office comprises several local offices. That is why, in this case, the main offices located at Dundee, Perth and Arbroath, as well as smaller offices at Blairgowrie, Forfar, Montrose and St. Andrews, all constitute a single district.
The grouping of individual offices into districts took place in 1991. Since then, some adjustments to the make-up of districts have taken place, but the creation of districts has enabled significant efficiency and customer service improvements to be achieved.
Those improvements have been made possible by the opportunities to rationalise operations and by taking advantage of improved telecommunications and information technology in Benefits Agency districts. For example, all offices in each district now have a single telecommunications network. Also, each office has access to the entire case load for the whole district. That means that a customer can call in person at any office in the district to make a claim or to seek advice on his or her individual benefits, or telephone a single number and speak to any member of staff at any office in the district, regarding their claim. That is the case throughout the country, including Perth.
Each year, the Benefits Agency takes steps to improve its efficiency and effectiveness. Last week, publication of its business plan for 1998–99 was announced in the House. Several of the efficiency improvements planned are based on evidence not only of a successful reduction in operating costs, but of improvements in standards of customer service.
The hon. Lady specifically drew attention to the organisational changes to social fund work in Tayside district. The point at issue seems to be whether those changes have impacted adversely on customer services in the district. I have mentioned our wider strategy for delivering an active modern service. That aim cannot be achieved by preserving existing functions in existing locations when there is a clearly identified opportunity to improve the standards and quality of customer service, by reorganising the handling of the work load.
A more efficient and better-quality customer service is the motivation behind the centralisation, by application type, of social fund activities in Tayside. Were such centralisation plans to run counter to the aims of the active modern service programme, I would not countenance them. To ensure that those aims are met, I have laid down a series of criteria against which Benefits Agency managers must now test each proposal for change to service delivery. Those criteria require that such proposals should demonstrate, first, wider access to services by office interviews, post, telephone or home visits; secondly, improved quality of services, including handling, where possible, an integrated service at the point of contact; thirdly, a proper balance between the needs of staff and changing the policy of operational needs; and fourthly, improved efficiency in the handling of customer claims and inquiries.
I am satisfied that the centralisation of funeral and maternity payments at Dundee, and of community care grants and budgeting loans at Arbroath, satisfies those criteria.
Is the Minister effectively saying that there will be no requirement for people to make a round trip of more than 100 miles on any occasion, or is he saying that, if they have to do so, he considers that appropriate?
I have made it clear that the processing of claims has been centralised, but that access to information and advice can be obtained at any office, as integrated information on each case is available. That overcomes the fear that the hon. Lady has identified and highlighted in her press releases, about people having to travel to get that information. That is not the case.
As I was saying, rather than spreading staff across three locations and expecting them to deal with all types of applications, there is now a pool of expertise—which will continue to grow—in relevant subject areas in the locations where each part of the work is now based. Customers will benefit from the expertise of staff in dedicated processing centres. That will mean improved speed, accuracy and quality of decision making. I repeat that advice on all aspects of the benefits system may still be obtained from any one of the offices concerned.
My constituency borders that of my hon. Friend, and claimants from my constituency also deal with the Perth office. Is the Minister confident that, if claims for social fund payments are to be administered from Arbroath, my constituents who go to the Perth office will be met by staff members with sufficient competence to handle their inquiry? Our experience of initiatives such as the benefit integrity project, for example, suggests that not all Benefits Agency staff are trained to the requisite level and can deliver the quality of service to which I recognise the Minister aspires.
If your constituents' case files are held within the district of Tayside, the access that I have identified will be available to your constituents as well as to those of the hon. Member for Perth. I clearly cannot comment on the wider implications for your constituency—
The hon. Gentleman may wish to write to me about the part of his constituency that is not covered by Tayside district.
I have answered the question, and I must make progress.
As I have said, customers will benefit from the new arrangement, and queries on any particular claim or application can be dealt with locally. There will be no need whatever for any customer to travel further than the office nearest to him. Alternatively, a telephone call to any office will be sufficient for the customer to be put through to the person dealing with his or her case, regardless of where that person is located.
Social fund application forms will continue to be available from each office. Customers can then choose whether to hand them back to the office nearest to them or send them directly to the office nominated for that particular type of application for immediate processing. All three offices will still deal with crisis loan applications and reviews. All reviews, of whatever type, will continue to be conducted by personal interview at each of the three main offices or, where necessary, by home visit.
Funeral and maternity payment claim forms are available from all offices and can be handed or sent back to any one office. Specialist adjudication and processing of those claims— which amount to a comparatively low number—will then be undertaken at Dundee and decisions notified accordingly. I can therefore reassure the hon. Member for Perth that there will be no diminution whatever of customer service as a result of the changes—in fact, quite the contrary.
The changes have not been introduced on a whim: they are consistent with a tried and tested approach to improving social fund service delivery across the country. Some 111 districts out of a total of 129 have organised their social fund operations in this, or a similar, way. However, I recognise from what I have been told about the handling of particular changes that more should have been done to consult relevant Members of Parliament—including the hon. Lady—and other interested parties. Notwithstanding the fact that none of the local welfare agencies has expressed concern about the changes, I regret that appropriate consultation was not carried out and that the hon. Lady did not have a proper opportunity to make her representations before the changes took place. I hope that she will be reassured to know that I have instructed Benefits Agency officials to undertake the fullest possible consultation before any similar organisational changes affecting service delivery take place in future.
I can also reassure the hon. Lady that, contrary to what she said, no members of staff have had to transfer from one office to another, although three people have moved offices at their own request. Staff levels in each of the importing offices were already sufficient to cope with the net changes in work load. Where the changes have resulted in fewer staff being required on social fund work, those reductions are being dealt with through redeployment to other duties or through natural wastage.
I reiterate the Government's commitment to high-quality standards of social security service delivery and confirm, once again, that the changes in Tayside have been designed with exactly that aim in mind. The changes will not, as the hon. Lady suggested, reduce standards of customer service. Instead, they will bring about real improvements in how the social fund is administered in Tayside district and in the quality of customer service that her constituents will receive.