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.