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.